Eden Brent, Jigsaw Heart. There are times in an artist's life where they're in exactly the right place at the right time. It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but when it does the music they make takes flight. This Mississippi woman, who mixes blues, jazz and a lot of other styles into one soul-warming sound, traveled to Nashville to record her new album, and let the magic take over from there. She ventured into what used to be RCA Records Studio A, now owned by Ben Folds, where some of the best songs in the world were once recorded, and went for it.
From beat-up hearts to jaunty downtown struts, Eden Brent sounds fearless in laying it all out. Starting at a well-earned blues foundation, Brent also jumps into music by the enigmatic Jimmy Phillips, Joan Armatrading, Walter Hyatt and others. Eden Brent has been making music for awhile, but the stars aligned for her this time with producer Colin Linden in Music City. The Delta and New Orleans are always just over her shoulder, but the road ahead sounds wide open. All aboard.
The Brothers and Sisters, Dylan's Gospel. An album like this might have first been envisioned in an altered state of bliss, one where ideas are written out in letters by the clouds and seem like the most enticing thing in the world. Producer guru Lou Adler came up with the idea in 1969 between jobs at Columbia and A&M Records, and was flying high with all kinds of successes. And, after all, who wouldn't want to hear ten Bob Dylan songs with a decidedly spiritual bent, sung by some of Los Angeles' finest Afro-American singers?
Everyone from Merry Clayton and Clydie King to Joseph Green and Chester Pipkin take on "I Shall Be Released," "Chimes of Freedom" and others, blending into a beautiful chorus of heavenly voices in the name of the greatest songwriter of the time. Luckily, the end results justify the leap, even if the album underperformed mightily when it was first released. That's the wonder of reissues, though, and leave it to Light in the Attic Records to come to the rescue with this primo package. Even the head-scratcher inclusion of "Lay Lady Lay" on a spiritual album works. Leave it to Bob Dylan.
Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky. When he's full-on, there is probably no better singer-songwriter working out of Nashville today. Rodney Crowell has always brought the "x" factor to his music, adding a third dimension to the gritty affair called life, and never turning an eye from the hard truths discovered in that gaze. He's been doing this long enough to know his strengths, and Tarpaper Sky ranks right up there with the best albums he's made. There is no way to miss with songs like "The Long Journey Home," "I Wouldn't Be Me Without You" and "Oh What a Beautiful World."
And then there's "God I'm Missing You," which he co-wrote with Mary Karr and was sung by Lucinda Williams on the Crowell-Karr collaborative album Kin. Once again, this song is simply devastating, not meant to be listened to in a precarious state lest serious consequences can ensue, with lines like "Are you gone forever / Are you gone for good / Or have I gone crazy / Wishing you would / Come around the next corner / Step off of that train / Your old black umbrella / Face half in the rain / God I'm missing you..." It stops time. It is always a cause for reflective celebration when Rodney Crowell shares new music, and once again he raises the bar and shines a light. The Houston Kid strikes again.
Luther Dickinson, Rock 'n Roll Blues. In the Southern world, down north Mississippi way, traditions are all. Truths and secrets get handed down generation to generation, and can be the greatest gift given to those who receive them. None of this comes lightly, and often those traditions can be a heavy burden. But when they're musical, the things that are taught hold the keys to a spirit kingdom and way of life, really, and show how to go forward. Luther Dickinson's father Jim Dickinson was one of the great shamans of the music of the South, and taught his son well. There has been a succession of bands for Luther Dickinson, some like DDT with heavy punk strains, and others like the current North Mississippi All Stars which includes brother Cody Dickinson, a trio that explodes with blues and rock proclivities, and lead guitar gigs with the Black Crowes and Phil Lesh's group.
With this solo album, though, Dickinson ups the ante and zeroes in on a reflective ethos, which results in a personal liberation. It feels like he's unlocked a new door and stepped right into a huge field of powerful possibilities. All grown up, Dickinson strolls into the role once inhabited by his father, which is as it should be, and shows he's ready to go anywhere. Weaving all the incredible music he's been exposed to in a so far very well-spent life, these ten songs are primer for the past and the future, and fulfill a promise that started the day Luther Dickinson was born. Sweet, stunning and straight out of the Mississippi soil the man loves so much.
Hollis Brown, Gets Loaded. Is there a way to improve on perfection? Probably not, but there is such a courageous joy on the Hollis Brown band's recording of the entire Velvet Underground Loaded album that it takes on a spirited life of its own. When the VU's last studio set appeared in the fall of 1970, it actually felt like the door was finally going to open for that ultimate cult band's future. Except for one small problem: the band had lost their frontman-songwriter Lou Reed the previous August, and for all intents their days were done. It still didn't make songs like "Sweet Jane," "Who Loves the Sun," "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" and the seven others anything less than life-changing.
Hollis Brown is a Southern rock quartet that grasps just how inspiring the VU album remains, and takes it all the way to the end of the line. Even better, they totally reverse the running order of the original album, making those with Loaded seared in their DNA discover the new release with slightly fresh ears. They should be given a musical medal for their efforts, too, and a chance to be heard by the millions of Americans who missed these seminal songs the first time around. When Jenny starts shakin' to that fine, fine music in "Rock and Roll," it feels like the earth is going to burst open in blinding light, and everything will be all right. Again.
Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home. For starters, the artwork for this wild and wooly album is a real winner. It's the old logo from Chess Records, one that hasn't been seen gracing a cover in way too long. As well it should this time out, because the mash-up of guitarist Wilko Johnson from pub rock royalty Dr. Feelgood and the Who's vocalist Roger Daltrey is easily the surprise of the year. Johnson has a seriously rugged form of cancer, and his imminent demise has been predicted for awhile. To lift the spirits and help the cause, Daltrey growls in on low down vocals like he's never sung, and it's absolutely the perfect match. In a blindfold test, it would be near impossible to even name the singer as Roger Daltrey. The man gets down.
Johnson is one of those English musical heroes known to a smaller cult than he should be, and in Dr. Feelgood raised all kinds of hell and likely had the time of his life. Fortunately he's lived long enough to write these treacherous new songs, assemble a bad-ass band including harp man supreme Steve Weston, and convince Daltrey to stop twirling the microphone on that endless cord and get in the gutter. Even on Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window," the mighty men on the bandstand nail the song to the wall. Music like this doesn't happen very often, and there's no way to predict if it will happen again. For now, it's time to use it or lose it and let the good times flow.
Ray LaMontagne, Supernova. It's a long way from a cottage in Maine, where Ray LaMontagne, working in a shoe factory, was first inspired to become a musician when he heard a Stephen Stills album on the radio. He's made a career of staying close to the land while never being afraid to veer into the cosmos when necessary. On Supernova, he races right into Electric Prunes territory on album opener "Lavender," and then calms down immediately on "Airwaves." The thrill of the new songs, and they are thrilling in a variety of ways, is just how eclectic everything is.
Producer-guitarist Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame delivers again, proving he's got as much going on in his head as he does his hands, and wisely takes LaMontagne on a sonic journey new to him. And even if longtime fans might be a little confused at some of the ports of call, no matter because the final destination is the kind of album that will live forever. Even when the music heads for a slight Allman Brothers attack as on "She's the One," be assured there's a way back. It's all just the sound of Ray LaMontagne getting his groove on and exploring the universe. By the time he gets to "Ojai," all is well in the world and order is restored. No fears.
Huey "Piano" Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues by John Wirt. The history of music in New Orleans during the second half of the 20th century can be read as almost a crime novel. Mostly uneducated musicians signed contracts that basically gave away all their rights to outside publishers and record label owners who no doubt knew the dark side of the street. One of the very finest of the Crescent City artists is Huey "Piano" Smith. He had huge hit records with his singers the Clowns, not to mention writing songs like "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and "Sea Cruise." Of course, when he throttled down on his career he was almost flat broke. For awhile he worked security at the KB stores, among other pursuits, and eventually started an attempt to win back ownership of his legacy.
John Wirt's book is an invaluable study of both Smith's music and all other things New Orleans during that era, as well as the later admirable legal struggles. What is so fascinating is how all those incredible recordings came to be, the endless line of colorful characters who made it happen, and then the blatant thievery by those who were supposed to be looking out for the musicians. Very few in New Orleans escaped those pitfalls, and it's a shameful history of how it happened. Wirt's got the goods to tell the true facts, and has written a book for music lovers and those who study the business of music alike. Required reading.
The Strypes, Snapshot. Every decade or so a young band dives into the early roots of rock and roll and electric blues and sticks the plug into the wall socket, cranks up the volume and throws caution to the wind. The Rolling Stones, Them, the Animals, the Pretty Things and, to a slightly more subdued extent, the Beatles did it in the early '60s, some of the punky new wavers did it in the mid-'70s and so on. Now the Strypes, straight out of Ireland, are doing it again. Doing a damn fine job of it, too. They mine the treasures of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Nick Lowe(!) with welcome abandon, and it's eye-opening just how jolting this music can still be.
Even with the criticism that they're fourth generation by now in their assault on the Chess Records catalogue, none of that matters when the drums begin bashing, guitars start slashing and harmonicas start harping. This foursome has the heart and soul it takes to turn things around and let us listen to some of the most elemental rock and roll played now with new fervor. They really are that good, and while their original songs haven't elevated them to the level of those that brung them, they're getting close. Singer Ross Farrelly is a contender, and the threesome behind him are right there too. Music like this lives or dies live, and it will be a revelation what the Emerald Isle's new crop of rock hooligans do onstage. For now, buckle up the seat belts — all systems are go.
Neil Young, A Letter Home. The Loner will always be a man of surprises. For this collection of songs, it's time to pull out the checklist saved just for Neil Young. 1. Interesting, almost ancient sound? Check. 2. An array of cover songs, ranging from writers Gordon Lightfoot, Bert Jansch and Phil Ochs to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tim Hardin? Check. 3. A mysterious vibe to the proceedings, starting with the original sessions being done in an antique recording booth at Jack White's Nashville studio? Check. 4. A sudden release, with little fanfare but an irresistible edge? Check.
Nobody knows how to rustle interest like Young, and of course the reason it always works is because he delivers. Not every album hits all the way home, but there is always something there. That's the way he rolls—and rocks. A Letter Home begins with a heartfelt message spoken by the Canadian, and then takes off on a stunning journey through others' songbooks, one that goes into places only Neil Young knows. Like always, there are enough twists and turns to keep listeners guessing, but that's always been half the fun of following Young. His recent shows are some of the best concerts ever, allowing a man who often felt like he had an ancient wisdom hidden within to finally age into being that person. It gives his music an overwhelming burnish of emotional depth, and lets him go wherever in hell he wants to. Long may he—and we—run.