Pieta Brown, Paradise Outlaw. Is there a way to capture true musical transcendence in words? If so, let it happen for Pieta Brown, one of America's treasures, someone who is still moving towards finding a fitting audience. Fortunately, Brown's new album, co-produced by stealth partner Bo Ramsey, is the kind of creation where no explanation is needed. These captivating songs say it all. She recorded them at Bon Iver's studio in Wisconsin, and the group's Justin Vernon sings on two. There is a timelessness to the sound that conjures distant sunsets, well-won love and the sheer awesomeness of staying alive.
Let it be said that Pieta Brown has stepped up and found an indescribable zone of wholeness. There is nothing like her voice today, someone who connects ancient blues with the cosmos at a supreme time, without sounding like anyone else. The song "Do You Know," written and sung with Amos Lee, will someday be a beloved classic, sung in grade schools and at graduations, weddings, anniversaries and funerals. It is absolutely perfect for all. And "Flowers of Love" is right behind it befitting all occasions of human emotion. This album opens the door to forever, and that's Ms. Brown to you.
Gary Clark Jr. Live. Guitar players come and go, especially those who are blues-based and aiming for the other side of the tracks. But once every decade or so, one shows up who is only interested in taking their guitar to a higher place. By that, it means they are searching for what their instrument can teach them—about life, love, hope and, yes, even death. And everything in between. It's no accident that Austin is home to Gary Clark Jr. There is a an aura of musical adventurousness that lives in that soulful city which helps open the door to players trying to find their own way. Stevie Ray Vaughan was from Dallas, but it wasn't until he headed south for Austin that he found something inside which let him go all the way.
Clark is only 30, but in guitar years he's way beyond age. The young man is headed out towards the stratosphere, and after his first major label album he decided to push down on the pedal and release this live double album. Good for him he did, because the songs his audiences love so much are here, and the singer-guitarist gets to play them all just how he wants. Gary Clark Jr. combines down home blues, uptown soul, rock and roll and everything else in a style that is fast becoming all his own. He projects a passionate light when he's playing which says the Texan is in it for the long haul, and over the course of the next 50 years all things are possible. It may still seem like the beginning for him, but he's already 15 years deep in exploring the music that has become his life. The thrills continue.
Electric Butter: A Big Band Tribute to Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield. Just when it seems all the tribute albums have been made that ever need to get made, something from left field arrives that is so righteous and right on that the music makes perfect sense. That's what lead singer and harp player Rob Paparozzi has created here, along with the Ed Palermo Big Band. They've taken the music of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Michael Bloomfield's Electric Flag aggregation, and barnstormed it all into utter bliss. Butterfield and Bloomfield first collaborated together, and the results were beyond explosive. That band rewrote all the rules for what young white and black musicians could do to urban blues, and set off a generation or two of fans down the rode of cultural exploration. And when they split apart, each of the Chicago natives somehow found a way to explode on their own.
Enter Paparozzi, an absolute devotee of this music. With Palermo's band, and special guests guitarists Steve Cropper and Jimmy Vivino, original Butterfield keyboardist Mark Naftalin and Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks, they take songs like "Killing Floor," "Walkin' Blues," "Another Country" and "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" to the moon and back. The fellows can play, and aren't above putting the heavy hurt on the music. There's been nothing quite like this in far too long, and just when it seemed like there wouldn't be any more, along come some clearly plugged-in people to churn the butter into a burning froth, and then plug the entire proceeds into the wall for a scintillating electric mess. Never let it be said an essential tribute album doesn't change everything.
Jerry Giddens & Killeen Foundry, Damn It Abby! From Los Angeles to New Orleans lies the tale of Jerry Giddens. He was a prime mover on the West Coast in the early '80s, hammering out a durable rock identity in the rough and tumble L.A. clubs. But enough became enough and off to Louisiana he went, becoming a college professor and digging into the Crescent City. He continued to record albums and perform live, and today sounds like he's put all the pieces of the whole puzzle together. Maybe it just takes a decade or so to hit center, but Giddens has now found it.
Starting the album with Jelly Roll Morton's "Pretty Baby" sets the course just fine. From there it's a careening ride uptown, downtown and all around town. Jerry Giddens has an explorer's sense of sound, able to bring forth the silence of the French Quarter at dawn, Audubon Park at dusk and the Bywater at high noon. He's got a reporter's eye and a poet's ear, and right now no one is tapped into the source way down yonder quite like Giddens. Doubters are directed to the rawness of "St. James Infirmary," which is like a short reflection on Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Today's pioneering comeback ethos in New Orleans is written all over this album's songs. It might still be a work in progress, but forward remains the word of choice. Sure 'nuff.
Willie Jones, Fire in My Soul. Searching for some new soul a-go-go with no questions asked? Try on Willie Jones for size. He's been singing around Detroit since the mid-'50s, but believe it or not, this is his debut solo album. Those early records with the Royal Jokers remain legendary with collectors, but for this modern assault on the charts producer Jon Tiven threw the net wide, enlisting writers and players like Procol Harum's Keith Reid, Beach Boys collaborator Stephen John Kalinich, the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere, MG Steve Cropper, Black Francis, Cheetah Chrome and Bettye LaVette, who Jones first encouraged to sing 50 years ago.
It's not easy capturing the breathtaking freedom of real rhythm and blues in today's digital domain, but that's just what Jones, Tiven and all involved do now. It's almost like a fluke of nature how right on the money the songs, the singing and the playing are on songs like "The Road from Rags to Riches," "Janie, Turn it Over," "Troubled World" and "A Fool Can Always Break Your Heart." Time warps are a wonder to behold, especially when they also appear to be totally modern. Sometimes it's best not to play your hand too soon, and in waiting this long to step forward on his own, Willie Jones shows he's got the touch and timing of a master. Listen and serve.
Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither. For those who follow who the great artists turn to for new songs, Chris Smither is no stranger. He first became known when Bonnie Raitt covered his "Love Me Like a Man" over 40 years ago, and it's been like that ever since. Looking at the singers on this collection offers permanent proof of Smither's bona fides: Dave Alvin, Loudon Wainwright III, Mary Gauthier, Jorma Kaukonen, Peter Case, Patty Larkin and others. As fine as they all are, there are some swinging surprises like Paul Cebar's bayoudelic "No Love Today," Heather Maloney's "Call Yourself" and Eilen Jewell's "Can't Shake These Blues."
Every single song here reflects luminously on Chris Smither's irresistible blend of folk, blues and that mesmerizing mojo of the originality which marks all the greats. From Boston to New Orleans and all worldwide points, let it be said that Smither has explored their essence and distilled it into a unique offering. This isn't so much a tribute album as it is a celebration of one man's quest to discover and share life's secrets through song. Mission accomplished.
Barbara Lynn, The Complete Atlantic Recordings. How many rhythm and blues guitar-playing women were there in the mid-'60s? Especially one who had hit singles? Not many, and none better than Barbara Lynn. "You'll Lose a Good Thing" still rings true. It is the kind of song that feels like it's carved in stone. Lynn's crying time voice also has an edge of strength that conveys the toughness of the streets, and when you're from Beaumont, Texas, that's saying something. She could purr, wail and everything in between, and that was before she strapped on her electric guitar.
These 25 recordings for Atlantic Records feel like a primer in gritty soul music. Many were recorded in Mississippi and have the sultry gait the area is famous for. And then there's "I'll Suffer," where Barbara Lynn turns on the tears and takes it all the way home. The Rolling Stones recorded her "Oh! Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')" hit on their third album, and that band definitely knew a good thing R&B-wise when they heard it. The extra cool news is that Ms. Lynn is still out there, tearing it up on the bandstand in her early 70s. Light in the Attic Records is releasing a primo vinyl album this month from her Atlantic days, another fine example of too much is never enough. Don't mess with Texas.
Doug Seegers, Going Down to the River. Leave it to a breathtaking surprise to color the world in new ways. Doug Seegers has been way up and way down, and to him it sounds like life is just fine either way. He's lived in his car, played in the streets, raised a family and, wonder of wonders, become a star in another country. Seegers has done it all with the kind of songs that sound like they were written at the dark end of the street, and lived out on the edge where there are no guarantees and it often looks like there is no way back from the end of the road. Doug Seegers is downright heavy, but he never feels like lead. Inside, his songs turn the weight of the world into the lightness of feathers, and allow him to sail with the wind where no one can touch him. He also just happens to have recorded one of the best singles of this century, "Angie's Song," and if there is even a smear of justice left in the record business it will become a standard, much like the music of Adele, Sam Smith and others have done recently. The chances of that might be the equal to the oil business becoming a charitable organization, but hope really does spring eternal.
For Seegers, he's already soared light years from his past when he was singing on the streets of Austin as Duke the Drifter, or sitting in front of the Goodwill in Nashville at 54th Street and Charlotte on Saturdays for 18 years. There are miracles left to be found, and one of them is surely this album. A Swedish filmmaker found Doug Seegers at a Music City food pantry, and once they'd journeyed to Sweden everything changed. The 62-year-old American discovered a treasure inside his own heart, and shared it all on these dozen spirit-infused songs. The words say it all: "Let me be the one with his eye on His faith / because he knows God can fix anything / let me be the one who shares His love and His grace / making a joyful noise when he sings..." If that doesn't move the emotional needle into the red, proceed directly to the most recent Justin Bieber release and do not pass go. But don't forget the name: Doug Seegers. He'll be waiting at the returns window when the truth sets in.
Barbara Barnes Sims, The Next Elvis. Imagine looking for a new job in 1957 Memphis, right after Elvis Presley exploded out of the city's Sun Records to literally change the world. Then take that a step further and realize the job is at that very same Sun Records, right alongside leader Sam Phillips and next to upcoming stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich. That's exactly what Barbara Barnes did after growing up in Corinth, Mississippi and finishing college and several impermanent positions elsewhere. She walked into 706 Union Street in Memphis into the hotbed of rock and roll, and what she saw and what she heard could only happen once.
The book she's written about her three years there is being in the right place at the right time, but also knowing that's the case. She got all the way inside the company, writing album notes, helping design promotional materials, leading the charge with sales and distribution and also getting to know all the musicians. Her writer's eye for detail is extraordinary, and thankfully her memory intact. After leaving Sun Records in 1960, Barnes moved to Louisiana to teach college English the next 35 years. But the soul of Sun and Sam Phillips stayed with her so she could share that journey now. Hail, hail rock and roll.
Lee Ann Womack, The Way I'm Livin'. There comes a time in the life of most artists when account must be taken, and the journey home be followed. No matter the mountains scaled or the seas crossed, the musical center inside a singer's soul is where everything eventually leads. Lee Ann Womack is no stranger to the topmost of the country charts with platinum single and album sales. Still, when it's time to move, it's time to move, which is what the woman does on a new album that feels so true every single note and feeling rings loud and clear. That could be because Womack looked all around and found the only freedom there can ever be, and that is the kind you find within yourself.
Picking personal songs because they opened the locks, and certain musicians because they also possessed the keys, this is an album that likely comes only once or twice in a lifetime. That's how real it is. Lee Ann Womack can sing anything, but with songs like Mindy Smith's "All His Saints," Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend," Bruce Robison's "Nightwind" or Kenny Price's "Tomorrow Night in Baltimore," it's like the stars aligned and Womack's voice reaches out to reside there. When there are questions galore about the future of country music, and how so many devoted fans feel lost in the ozone of the rock confections of so many current stars, Lee Ann Womack offers a path of lights to a stronger and more permanent place. It is right off the crowded interstate down a country road of her own making with plenty of bumps right next to beautiful vistas, and it will be there forever. That's this wondrous woman's promise.