Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color. Bless whoever threw all the goofer dust into the fried grits, because on their sophomore album it sure sounds like the Alabama Shakes set their chickens free. There is such a wild freedom of expression that no way will anyone ever mistake this rootsy band again as more of the Southern same. They’ve headed off into the outer limits, and not a moment too soon. A front person like Brittany Howard was never going to totally behave anyway. You don’t look like she does and agree to color within the lines.
Instead, they bonded with producer Blake Mills (it is rumored this was the fifth attempt to record the album, some with a different producer) and tore up the rule book. Then the group took each song and ripped and rocked it apart, only to assemble again with brand new sounds and colors. The music is miracle-like in its spontaneous shimmer, and such a rare exception that at first it feels like a brand new band. But it’s not. The Alabama Shakes have upset the apple cart—hell, they’ve blown it apart—and it’s a happy day in the neighborhood for those who truly love music. Clearly it’s the best album of the year so far. Hooray.
Tony Bennett & Bill Evans, The Complete Recordings. Take two people at the very top of their game, in this case Tony Bennett on vocals and Bill Evans on piano, and put them in a room with great microphones and let the magic happen. That’s the very definition of jazz. In 1975, Bennett and Evans made two albums together like that, and this four-LP, 180-gram vinyl box set also includes alternate takes and bonus tracks, along with a collectible photograph of the two and a deluxe 12-page booklet featuring rare images and extensive liner notes.
Of course, it all starts with the music, and the way the pair perform songs like “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Young and Foolish” and other classics is timeless in a way that won’t be heard again. Evans was the kind of pianist who comes along once in a lifetime, able to improvise like very few others have accomplished. Tony Bennett is also unique in the way he was able to have hit recordings at the same time extending the very vocabulary of vocal jazz. Their work together on these two sessions adds up to a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear musical titans at play in a field of their own choosing. There was no other agenda during these dates than to make the music soar. Mission accomplished.
Houndmouth, Little Neon Limelight. Now that the universe is available for downloading, and it often feels like the cat is so far out of the bag it ain’t ever going back in, it takes a certain attack by a rock band to find traction. But big-time traction Houndmouth has found, and the way they’ve done it is by playing songs that stick to the bones and not asking for favors. Rolling out of Indiana, the group has a frontier spirit in their music which immediately takes them to the third level, the one where timelessness lives and beckons fans to sign on for life.
Maybe that’s why esteemed UK label Rough Trade snapped them up a few years ago, and has trusted Houndmouth to proceed at their own pace. With Little Neon Limelight the quartet strolls into Mumford & Sons territory in terms of making true believers of those who look to music to spread a light. What a revelation, too, for this offering of gospel-like inspiration made by guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. The doors have been opened and there is no going back. Houndmouth has taken the reins to reign supreme. Yes to that.
Bill Kreutzmann with Benjy Eisen, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams and Drugs with the Grateful Dead. Isn’t it great when a book tells it all in the subtitle? Admitting that Bill Kreutzmann will give equal space to the drugs along with the drums and dreams captures in a nutshell what made the Grateful Dead such a precious commodity all those years: they told the truth and didn’t try to hide anything. And that’s just what drummer Kreutzmann does, from page one.
He joined the band on their very first gig and stayed with the Dead all the way to the end when Jerry Garcia died. Kreutzmann saw it all, and does his best now to tell what that was. The beauty of his tale is that he doesn’t try to make himself anything other than what he was — a musician who signed on for the full-tilt boogie and never pulled his punches. The Grateful Dead made some of the best music ever played, and experimented with their own psyches to the extent that there were times when it looked like they were all going right over the edge. But they didn’t, or, more accurately, some of them didn’t. Bill Kreutzmann survived and is able now to take us to the center of that incredible trip down the golden road to unlimited devotion. Read it loud.
Charles Lloyd, Wild Man Dance. For saxophonists who stretched the boundaries of jazz, Charles Lloyd should be honored. During the mid-‘60s he waded into the San Francisco rock scene and exposed an open-minded audience new to jazz to the power of America’s great musical art form. Lloyd did it with grace and beauty, and altered consciousness in a way that sometimes happens only once in a lifetime. There was a period when he withdrew from playing to find his own inner peace, and thankfully did just that. His return was big news in jazz circles, and continues with such rare achievement that his fans still stand in awe.
Wild Man Dance was recorded at 2013’s Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, and has to be heard to be believed. Charles Lloyd’s trio is tuned in to the music of the spheres, and the addition of a lyra and cimbalom shows how the saxophonist continues to seek new experiences. Still, it’s the human sound of the musician’s tenor saxophone that leads the quest for bliss, and totally delivers. There aren’t many veterans of jazz’s past who are still alive, much less playing at such an elevated level. For that, let us says thanks for Charles Lloyd, then, now and forever. Majesty has never sounded better.
Shelby Lynne, I Can’t Imagine. This album is lucky 13 for singer Shelby Lynne, someone who defies every convention and still finds a way to thrive. It is also her finest. There is a sureness to her songs and singing that comes with a self-realization that there is nothing else to accomplish except the very best you can do. Lynne has reached that point in her career where she can break the rear view mirror once and for all and surge ahead into a land of greatness.
Recording in a studio in Dockside, Louisiana, her sound now sounds relaxed and responsive to some of the challenges that fueled her before, but she is in control of shaping everything into an irresistible whole. There aren’t many singers in this crowd now, those who fill every song with an awe-inspiring depth of soul. These are things that really can’t be learned. Instead they must be lived. Live it all Shelby Lynne does, starting with “Paper Van Gogh” and going all the way to the title song “I Can’t Imagine.” It’s all there: every fear, every tear and, yes, every cheer, haunting, happy and every emotion in between. In the end, Lynne wins her own race to the finish line.
Beth McKee, Sugarcane Revival. When it comes to women singers in the South right now, it would be hard to beat Beth McKee. She’s been running the Mississippi-New Orleans highway long enough to know all the right stops and starts, and where the musical mojo is buried. McKee also isn’t afraid to wade into the swamps to find the heart and soul of that sound.
On Sugarcane Revival, she’s performed the admirable feat of squeezing out sparks all along this journey, and also roping in enough uptown grooves to make an album that can appeal to everyone — kind of like if Laura Nyro had been roommates with Carole King and Bonnie Raitt on Decatur Street in the French Quarter during the ‘70s. These are songs that matter, and show just how resilient a spirit Beth McKee has. Not only that, but she wrote every one of them, sometimes with help but often alone. There isn’t anyone else in her league at present, and she gives bright hope the South really will do it again.
Augie Meyers and His Valley Vatos, The Real Tex-Mex. Though Augie Meyers will forever be known as the Vox organist who gave the signature sound to the Sir Douglas Quintet’s big hits, in reality he has always been his own man. Meyers has had a series of bands, dozens of albums and session work with people like Bob Dylan. In some ways, Myers sounds like he’s now found the ultimate groove on The Real Tex-Mex.
Joined by wild-eyed compadres His Valley Vatos, they take to the border of Texas and Mexico with a relentless fervor, throwing in accordions, two-step waltzes and anything else capable of being jacked to the max. Augie Meyers also wisely collects past songs like “Michoacan,” “Dinero,” “Guacamole” and “Velma from Selma” to give them a new spin around the dancefloor, and invokes a past glory in the Texas Tornados to show just what a huge part of that band’s sound he was. When it comes to Texas music, no matter what style or velocity, put Mr. Meyers at the very top of the list, right where he’s always been.
Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth by Day. Tribute albums have entered the no-fly zone for most artists now, but as they say there’s always an exception to the rule. Singer extraordinaire Cassandra Wilson has a clear love for Billie Holiday, and in honor of one of her heroes she’s recorded a dozen songs associated with Lady Day in a way that definitely defies convention. Wilson has taken Holiday’s heartbeat, so to speak, and added it to new versions of songs like “Billie’s Blues,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Strange Fruit” in a way that’s never been done.
It doesn’t hurt she’s united with Nick Cave’s producer Nick Launay and some of the Bad Seeds, because that throws wide open the possibilities of pure imagination. The singer’s voice tiptoes through the cemetery, but never falls into a grave. Instead, Cassandra Wilson turns the haunting history of one of jazz’s finest singers and celebrates all what once was, as well as what can still be. It’s a wonder to behold, and in the end breathtaking in its beauty. Say amen someday.
Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart. Nashville often goes in circles, and if you want to stay away from getting caught in the spin cycle the best thing to do is stay out of Nashville. Which is exactly why Dwight Yoakam now stands as the best artist in country music — he’s never fallen prey to the bright lights of Music City. He stays centered in California and listens to his own heart. And luckily that’s led him to creating his very finest album 30 years after he started recording in 1985 with an EP on Oak Records.
Second Hand Heart is sizzling in its scope and the songs’ abilities to nail exactly what makes country music an undeniable force in listeners’ lives. It sounds like Yoakam is singing in your ear, telling you about the hopes and dreams—as wells the fears and failures—of someone who has never quit pushing forward. There is just enough rock and roll in the music to make it sound like firecrackers going off in your brain pan, and the right kind of guitars so every lick is made for forever. A tip of the Stetson to one of the best friends country music ever had. Long may he twang.