Bobby Blue Bland
Bobby Blue Bland, Live & Righteous 1992. When it comes to soul singers, Bobby Bland wrote the book, did the binding himself, and delivered it to the stores. In short, there is no finer singer in that world who ever lived. Bland’s first seven albums for Duke Records stand as the Bible for singers, and continue to set the standard almost 60 years later. A new album recorded in 1992 might at first sound like a risk, but fortunately Bobby Bland’s voice still has the emotional trigger which has set hearts asunder longer than most of the world has been alive.
Many of his finest songs are included, and that special heat wrapped in sweetness is all over them. “Share Your Love with Me,” “Soon as the Weather Breaks,” “Ain’t That Loving You,” “That’s the Way Love Is” and “I Pity the Fool” come back like a heartwarming tsunami, flooding the contours of the soul like a long-lost best friend. During the 1960s, one of the very best live shows in the world was Bobby Bland with the Joe Scott Orchestra. In so many ways, they have never been equaled. Lucky for all, Live & Righteous lives up to its title, and reminds us that when everything is said and sung, Bobby Blue Bland will forever wear the crown.
Nicholas David, Make Hope.This blue-eyed soul singer came in third place on The Voice a few years ago, but don’t hold that against him. It was a small miracle he got that far, considering just how real the man is. Nicholas David lives in Minneapolis, and is in a long line of singers who grew up listening to rhythm and blues and succeeded in transferring that style into something new of their own making. His voice has a way-down warmth that marks him immediately as someone to take seriously.
He approaches his songs as testimonials to peace, love and, yes, understanding, whether they come from a totally personal view or expanded into a worldwide scope. In the end, it’s all the same: love is love, and Nicholas David has never strayed from that path. Wherever he goes, it is always a singular vision of a better world that lights the way. On these six songs, it feels like the singer has gone all the way to his center and found a new musical strength to share. Shine on.
The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. If there is ever a questionnaire to be filled out asking how folk-rock made the transition gracefully to 2015, let the Decemberists be the answer. For musicians who seemingly know every folk riff in the dictionary, the band also refuses to be pigeonholed into one small box. They’ve knocked down those boundaries with such an overwhelming ease it’s no wonder they’re now the Great White Hope in that world.
Like in so many outfits, the key to their kingdom is the singer, and in this case Colin Meloy has it all covered. His voice has volumes of nuance, but never loses the basic power in how he can deliver a song. In fact, their recent hit single “Make You Better” could have easily been sung by Country Joe McDonald in 1968, and that’s really saying something since McDonald was one of the unsung heroes of Bay Area psychedelia back then. His spirit, though he’s still alive, lives again in the Decemberists. It doesn’t stop there, thankfully, and Meloy’s bandmates blend into such an integral piece that it’s absolutely seamless. There has to be a sense of musical ESP, because they ebb and flow with the beauty of big waves and small ripples. What might be the best band in America right now just got better. What a beautiful world.
Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow Is My Turn. First the Carolina Chocolate Drops and then the New Basement Tapes — talk about a pedigree. The funny thing about both those impressive parts of her resume is Rhiannon Giddens is just now finding her way on her own, and it arrives right on time. This is the kind of album that will reverberate for the rest of her life, that moment when she stepped off the cliff and found out she could fly. Recording songs by Geeshie Wiley, Dolly Parton, Jacques Wolfe, Hank Cochran, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elizabeth Cotton and, yes, Charles Anzavour, along with her own “Angel City” and several traditional classics, allows Giddens the broadest of palettes, and she sure takes advantage of every inch.
Her voice is its own wonder, tough when it needs to be and then sweet in all the right places. She can go anywhere with it, and on this album it’s like Rhiannon Giddens took out a big map of America and started exploring. Producer T Bone Burnett no doubt prodded her search, and the places the singer ended up are a heartwarming reflection of our shared musical life. Whether it’s Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind,” Cochran’s “She’s Got You” or Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree,” this album is the announcement of a major new presence in American music. For everyone.
J.D. McPherson, Let the Good Times Roll. It might be too early to pick an album of the year, but have no doubt J.D. McPherson’s sophomore effort will be in that number. This Oklahoma wunderkid might sound like he’s starting off in rockabilly land, but first impressions can be deceiving. What McPherson really has going on is a momentous grasp of all the great ingredients of Southern rock and roll, and then the guts to throw them into a slightly psychedelicized sound until everything is churned into a big, bad frolicking mess.
There is no way any of these songs are going to stay in the speed limit, and the singer and his wild-eyed musicians have a way of turning up the heat like few other rootsy types do these days. Props need to also go to producer Mark Neill, who was involved in some of the early Black Keys' success, and Neill’s bedrock belief that the best music is that which the people playing it feel the best about. J.D. McPherson will be around for years to come, and maybe even make better albums than this, but it’s hard to imagine that right now. Songs like “Bossy,” “Head Over Heels” and the double-hanky ballad “Bridgebuilder” will fry anyone’s tomatoes, and lead the way down the golden road of unlimited devotion forever. J.D. McPherson has arrived.
Father John Misty , I Love You, Honeybear. It’s usually best to keep an eye on the drummer in a band. The next thing you know, they’re up front, grabbing the microphone, writing the songs, and going for the gold. When you’re Father John Misty, though, that’s a very good thing. With the Fleet Foxes, Misty did a great job drumming. He really did. But he had poetry in him, along with a lot of other things, and when he decided to fly solo he really decided to fly solo. But anyone who calls himself Father John will never be content supplying the flamacues and press rolls forever, and sure enough, Misty split the Foxes three years ago and never looked back. He knows his way around the outer edges of rock. Nor is he afraid to grab an orchestra and throw it on a track, and play up an ironic assault to the max (check out “Bored in the USA”), or even better, zero in on paranoia beyond all hope (see “Chateau Lobby #4: in C for Two Virgins”).
All those attributes are what sets Father John Misty apart right now, really in a party of one, and promise exciting possibilities for the future. Then there’s the artwork. This album had so many extras stuffed in the vinyl copies they dug into the disc itself, rendering it unplayable. The CD version bulges a bit too, but the inner sleeve pop-up characters, fold-out poster and extra booklet titled "Exercises for Listening" are worth it. On the latter, each song gets its own list of things to do to enhance the experience of hearing this music. Next up, no doubt, is a tent revival show that travels town to town to spread the word of Father John Misty and his undying love for Honeybear. Awwww.
Art Pepper, Neon Art Volumes 1 & 2. This is the alto saxophonist who most typifies the jazz lifestyle, one that goes all the way over the edge in searching out experiences and thrills, finally ending up in prison and psychiatric institutions. But more power to Art Pepper for going all the way. No one will ever take it further, that’s for sure. This series of live recordings are from 1981, and show Pepper to be in full power of one of the most heartbreaking saxophone tones of all time, and a man who could improvise around anything. Luckily, on both these sets the band is through-the-roof bodacious, and totally in tune with Pepper’s music.
Volume 1 is from a Seattle club and features two Pepper originals. It feels like the sax man has found home, and stretches out among friends. Volume 2 was recorded in three Japanese locations, and includes an almost-15 minute “Over the Rainbow” that would have the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man dancing cheek-to-cheek, and Dorothy turning cartwheels down the Yellow Brick Road. Throw in some intriguing and brutally honest liner notes by widow Laurie Pepper from her book Why I Stuck with a Junkie Jazzman, and this music feels like it was being created right before your eyes and ears. Seriously.
Screen Door Porch, Modern Settler. Very often you can judge a band by their covers, and for Screen Door Porch look no further than their new album’s great takes on “Poor Elijah/Tribute to Johnson,” written by Delaney Bramlett, Jim Ford and Leon Russell, and Bobby Charles’ “Street People.” The former is a full-on church raver that brings down the spirit in all its glory, while the latter is a loving look at those who line our country’s lanes, hoping to find a bit of the high life while they still can. It goes to show that this Wyoming-based group knows a great song when they hear one, and also know how to make it their own.
The band began as the duo of Seadar Rose and Aaron Davis, specializing in a down home goodtime vibe, inspired by the grand landscape and history of their Jackson Hole digs. Looking around all that surrounded them, it wasn’t hard to hit the jackpot. For Modern Settler, the pair became a quartet and actually added multi-instrumentalist Ben Winship to the aggregation, insuring that the music grew into exactly what was needed. After years in Austin, once they got back to their beloved Jackson Hole it all came together. They’ve transformed roots music into something much larger, and even if doesn’t immediately take off, give it a minute. Pretty soon sonic hypnosis has set in and Screen Door Porch seem like the only place to live. The album ender, “She Speaks Through Me,” could have come from 100 years ago, and still captures tomorrow like few others can. Porch monkeys of the world, unite.
Various Artists, Signature Sounds 20th Anniversary Collection: Rarities from the Second Decade. In the music business, there is nothing better than small record labels that believe so much in what they do that they’ll risk financial ruin and personal hardship to stand behind their releases. It has to be that way. Otherwise, the alternative is to become a plastic robot programmed to pursue money above art and be willing to sell out your personal values to chase the illusion of success. Later for that. Signature Sounds is a record label that for over 20 years has stood straight up for everything they’ve signed. Like a lot of stories like this, dreams do come true, and in this case it’s last year’s success of their band Lake Street Dive. That Boston band lit up the sales charts, and their album was named by Rolling Stone magazine as “2014’s Best New Band,” never mind the group had been around for several years.
For Signature, there is always an abundance of sounds that makes the company special, including those recorded by Eileen Jewell, Chris Smither, Joy Kills Sorrows, and a dozen others. Most fall within the bigger umbrella of folk, but it’s folk jacked-up in all the right places, and covers such a sweeping range there is no way to pin it all down, nor is there a need to. These kinds of anniversary compilations are the perfect way to look back and look forward at the same time, and Signature Sounds has so much to be proud of, and maybe most of all is that their vision lives on. Congratulations to all.
Jerry Williams, Gone. When is a 1979 album not really a reissue? How about when the artist goes over the line with his label and as a result has his new album pulled from the distributor’s shelves right before it’s to be sent to the record stores. That’s exactly what happened to Jerry Williams’ disc in 1979, and it’s been sitting in limbo ever since — until now, when it sounds as heartbreakingly awesome as it did way back then. Williams was a wild man from Texas who’d been in Little Richard’s band in 1965 when he was 16, sharing guitar duties with Jimmy James (aka Jimi Hendrix), and then made three albums that barely saw the light of day. When he got signed by Warner Bros. in ’78, Rolling Stones engineer Chris Kimsey asked to produce and the rest is history, sort of.
These ten songs sound as powerful and fresh now as they did 36 years ago, and it’s no accident that during the ‘80s Williams became the go-to songwriter for Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, and a bandstand full of others. Maybe it’s because songs like “Givin’ It Up For Your Love” and “Easy on Yourself” combine the power of deep soul with rock and roll’s edgier outer limits. Or maybe it’s because no one has the richness of heart and muscularity of playing like Jerry Williams did. During their crazy days of running together, Clapton once described Williams as “looking like Jack Nicholson and singing like Stevie Wonder.” And that’s just the start. Finally, the album that totally captured the majesty of the man who tagged himself His Jerrness is unleashed on the public, and music lovers everywhere can find out what they’ve been missing all these years. Williams might have died in 2005, leaving a mighty hole in the musical landscape of unknown heroes, but now the Lone (Star) Ranger rides again.