Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames, New Multitudes. There's something about the lyrics of Woody Guthrie that acts like a magnet on other songwriters. Wilco and Billy Bragg invaded the archives on Mermaid Avenue to stunning effect, and now this quartet of artists makes their run at it. Through the estate's largesse Farrar, Johnson, Parker, and Yames (aka Jim James) have recorded a mind-blowing range of music starting with the lyrics in Guthrie's notebooks. Many of those come from the troubadour's time in Los Angeles, whether it was in the wilds of Topanga Canyon or the depths of skid row. What's most striking is how cohesive the whole album is, no matter what the inspiration.
It helps that all four singers are each so individualistic. Some are heavy, others float, and then some walk right down the middle. When they're blending together it becomes a downright super group, perish the thought, but they easily pull it off. And when the guitars get unleashed and cranked up to twelve the whole affair sails right off the edge of the world. It's hard to say if the group has been saving up that kind of kinetic vibration for this special project, but no matter where it comes from they'd be crazy to let it stop here.
For someone who pretty much walked the world alone, speaking his big and small truths and hopefully pointing mankind towards a saner place, Woody Guthrie has cast an incredibly strong shadow. If he'd never done anything more than inspire Bob Zimmerman to become Bob Dylan, that would be enough. Luckily, Guthrie also showed songwriters to look around themselves and turn that into musical truth. New Multitudes continues down that endless skyway.
Neville Skelly, Poet & the Dreamer. Riddle this: how in the world did it turn out that England has so many of the great singers? Compared to the United States, the whole U.K. isn't really that big. But over and over again, the most amazing vocalists show up from that magical land. Can you spell Adele? Now here comes Neville Skelly, with a voice that can cure the ill and flat-out ignite the well. Who is this man?
Poet & the Dreamer is Skelly's second album, but it's the one that really buries itself inside the heart and reveals the wonder of the man's soul. What's immediately impressive is that the singer's own songs are equal—and often better—than his covers of Dion, Jackson Frank, Woody Guthrie (there's that name again), and Phil Ochs. Then there's "Eleanor Rigby," but nobody beats a Beatle, unless it's Stevie Wonder now and then. Neville Skelly has created an enticing fusion of country and soul that speaks to a wisdom beyond his years, and an undeniable ability to make the face flush and blood rush, like a musical alchemy.
There's a very good chance this album won't get released in the U.S., so it's an investment to order the import from Amazon. Still, if names like Joe South, Charlie Rich, Tim Hardin, Nick Lowe, and, okay, Richard Hawley ring your bell—that is to say the darkness is a place where you sometimes discover the light—Skelly is a name to remember. He has a way of working with a haunting pedal steel guitar and the hushed propulsion of brushes on a snare drum which feels like someone taking a nap in the graveyard. Surrounded by beautiful flowers, of course. These are big sky songs and who knows when they'll come our way again. For now, Neville Skelly is saving the day.
T.S. Bonniwell, Close. Enlightenment can be a bitch. Just ask Sean Bonniwell. As the leader of the Music Machine, he hit the top in the mid-'60s with the smash single "Talk, Talk," and also got close again with a few follow-ups. The band was considered one of the prime lights in the decade's garage band-punk explosion, and Bonniwell wore his sinister aura well, right down to the black glove on one hand. They lived in that shadowy world between the British Invasion and the San Francisco sound, and probably paid the price for it.
Flash forward to the end of the '60s and Bonniwell sounds like he found the golden road to unlimited devotion, somewhere up high with the seagulls and endless sunshine. For this solo album, he used his first two initials, probably hoping to throw the fans expecting the snarl of the Music Machine off the trail. He and producer Vic Briggs, from Eric Burdon's second incarnation of the Animals, rounded up L.A.'s primo players and set about fashioning an inner journey to the middle of the universe. Literally. Credit must be given too, because for what they were trying the songs got mighty close.
The question becomes are songs like "Where Am I to Go," "Who Remembers," and "But Not with My Heart" something that pass the test of time? That probably depends on what shape you psyche is in. Sean Bonniwell sounds like he got right up to the abyss in 1968 and through whatever means available decided to pull back and seek the truth. The fact that his quest now looks like career suicide is something for the history books. Just let it be said the musician was able to finally re-release the album, with the mix he'd finished before getting ill. Bonniwell died in December 2011, knowing Close was coming out again. For that, he also likely knew he was finally going home.