John Doe, The Westerner. In the very early '80s was there a better band than X? For those near Los Angeles, the quartet ruled the planet. It was hard to hear anyone even within shouting distance. John Doe and Exene Cervenka were the lead singers, but the total power of the four was also dependent on guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake. This was a no-frills foursome. They ruled because every song took flight, and the members never looked back. They just flew. Once X splintered, John Doe fashioned a most-successful solo career that includes music and movies, as well he should. So it's even more invigorating to hear such an incredible solo album by Doe these days, something the equal of anything he's ever recorded. There's such a winsome mix of cowboy music, flat-out rock & roll and even Hispanic undercurrents that it's as if John Doe has created a brand new personal style. From "Adult Books" to "Rising Sun" is closing in on four decades, but really it's all of one piece. Chan Marshall and Debbie Harry contribute guest vocals, Cervenka throws in songwriting help and a studio full of compadres cover all the instrumental bases, but in the end this John Doe is going all the way on his own. Like no other.
Brian Eno, The Ship. Question: Are we not men? Answer: We are Eno. If there is anyone who grabbed hold of the future well in advance of it actually being here, it's musical provocateur Brian Eno. Coming out of an artistic training, Eno has always been fearless in his approach to composing and recording. There are no rules now, and if there ever were any they would be long past dead. Instead, the Englishman uses sound as colors on a canvas as much as notes on a tape, or now in a computer file. The result remains breathtaking, even after all these years. Brian Eno embraced ambient before most people even knew what that word meant. To watch him develop his own unique style the past 40 years has been one of the true musical joys of modern life. With his latest album, Eno remains fervently in the forefront, including ending the album with a hypnotic version of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Set Free," on which Brian Eno, literally, sounds set free. Just as we all should be.
The Mike Eldred Trio, Baptist Town. If you're going to go digging for roots, it's best to bring the big shovel and a very strong back. That's what Mike Eldred has, after a trip to Greenwood, Mississippi and the neighboring Baptist Town, where bluesman Robert Johnson drew his last breath in 1938. It also set Eldred on a quest that led to recording at Sun Records with his trio John Bazz on bass and Jerry Angel on drums. It imbued his music with the Magnolia State feeling that helped create American blues and, later, rock & roll. Eldred is a relentless singer, someone who will stop at nothing until he gets it right. It runs so strong through these songs that is unstoppable, capturing the often cruel world of poverty that fills the lives of so many Mississippians. He brought guests Robert Cray, David Hidalgo, and John Mayer onboard to play on the songs, without ever losing sight that this music had to serve the legacy of those who lived and died around Greenwood and Baptist Town, as well as those who put spirit to sound all those years ago at Memphis' Sun Studio. And maybe just to show that in true rock & roll fashion anything goes, the Mike Eldred Trio tears into the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love," putting a heaping helping of magical sledgehammer mojo on it. Album ender "You're Always There" is a chillbumper of the highest order, as the Emmanuel Church Inspiration Choir steps in to make sure everyone knows God is in the house and all will be well. It feels like Howlin' Wolf is standing in the corner and almost smiling.
Michael Fracasso, Here Come the Savages. It's easy to tell when a singer-songwriter is an all-timer, and it's where their own songs can sit right next to those by Brian Wilson's and hold their own. Michael Fracasso, a Texas-based artist via Steubenville, Ohio, has earned the right to be seen in that aura. As gorgeous as his version of "Caroline No" is, and it is flat-out show-stopping beautiful, Fracasso's own "Open," "Boy in a Bubble," or "Blind Man on a Bicycle" are right up there as well. He also brings home songs by Johnny Thunders, the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, Willie Cobb and Ray Davies, showing astute musical judgment through and through. But it's in the songs Michael Fracasso wrote this time out that his essence feels moved up several notches, above his other eight solo albums and duets with Patty Griffin and Lucinda Williams, among many. Fracasso has found a new light and is doing everything he can to spread it around. Let it shine forever.
Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue. While true-blue roadhouses might be going the way of the pay phone, that doesn't mean all the backbone-popping music made there has to go away. In fact, it's needed now more than ever, when television awards shows look like some Martian-inspired invasion of misguided hipsters, and the real low-down sound of Excello, Chess, Specialty, and other record labels is an endangered species. Leave it to the Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue to take up the charge to keep things humming. Guitarists Anson Funderburgh and Little Charlie Baty are joined by harp player/vocalist Mark Hummel, drummer Wes Starr, and bassist R.W. Grigsby to grab hold of that golden sound and shake it up for all it's worth. The blasting band covers Billy Boy Arnold, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Lee Allen and others, then throw in some juiced-up originals to salt down the dance floor and ensure everyone's hot to bop. Sometimes it's just good to know that music like this is still there, guaranteeing a world full of fire for those that live for the warmth of the blues. Accept no substitutes.
Michael McDermott, Willow Springs. The passage of the years has a distinct way of adding layers to a songwriter's gifts. There are enough bumps and chumps that become part of their career that it's a wonder any of them short of mega-success manage to keep on pushing. Michael McDermott was cruising toward the top in the early 1990s. His song "A Wall I Must Climb" was, well, climbing the charts. His label Giant Records had him picked as their new priority artist, and all systems seemed go. Reality has a cruel way of putting the brakes on even the worthiest of humans, and the singer-songwriter's follow-up albums never quite got the lift-off needed. That didn't stop McDermott from recording and touring, and today he has recorded the kind of collection that sounds like it will live forever. For those jonesing for acoustic Bruce Springsteen-like classics at the Boss's very best, start right here. There is a depth of life that runs through songs like "These Last Few Days," "Half-Empty Kinda Guy," and "What Dreams May Come" that is so rarely heard now it's like they've disappeared. And then there's the title track: "Willow Springs" is a song of such force that it establishes its originator in a rarified air all his own: "Maybe I'm a lion or maybe just a lamb / for so long trying still can't understand / it seems so simple like seven silver sailing swans / maybe it was you all along." Do not miss Michael McDermott today.
Them, The Complete Them 1964-1967. Has there ever been a better singer than Van Morrison? Someone who can go inside a song, take listeners with them, and then have his complete way with them. By the time it's all over, both parties are likely to end up in the promised land. Them was the Irish-based band that Morrison started in the early '60s. What's unique about Them is that except for Morrison himself, none of the other members are really known. They're all soulful players and back up the singer admirably, but Them was never about anything other than Van the Man. This three-disc collection pretty much corrals everything the aggregation recorded, including demos, alternate takes, and television show appearances. Each and every song points to the utter greatness of Van Morrison. One listen to one song and the writing on the wall is in permanent ink: this young artist will someday go all the way. His mix of blues, jazz, folk, and rock is mesmerizing. It's like he's beaming in from his own planet, whether on "One Two Brown Eyes," "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," or Them's lone smash "Gloria." Compared to the other new groups of the time, whether it's the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, or Yardbirds, the Irishman cuts hardest to the core. When Them ended, no doubt in a swirl of acrimony, Van Morrison went straight to the success of "Brown-Eyed Girl" and beyond, until today when he's still in a perfect party of one for singers who have harnessed the cosmos and put it into song. Long may he run.