Van Morrison, Keep Me Singing. The race has now been run for Album of the Year, and the winner is declared, even if a bit early. Van Morrison shows that when he's really on, when his songs match the magic of his voice, there is no one even close. Finally, those qualities lovingly line up for one of the Irishman's best album's in 40 years. It is immediately apparent in the first song, "Let It Rhyme," that something very, very special is happening here, and that Van the Man has come to bring his music all the way home once again. That means no fancy footwork, no overdone production and, best of all, no overt axe to grind with the music business or the world. This is someone who knows who he is and what he's done, and decides to be and do exactly that in the best way he can. When Morrison heads off for the shores of Caledonia, he really doesn't need anyone else. His voice fills the world while his heart supplies the warmth, so by album's end that journey is complete. Not to miss is his tip of the soul to early hero Bobby "Blue" Bland on his 1960's hit "Share Your Love With Me," written by the always dynamic Al "TNT" Braggs." When a singer covers Bland, it can only mean they know they are on their A-game, or there would be no point to even try. Fall has risen.
David Halley, A Month of Somedays. Insiders in American music know full well who David Halley is. He's written enough unforgettable songs and played the kind of guitar that stars across the board continue to seek him out. But what even some insiders don't know is what perfect albums Halley has always recorded. On his latest, wisely produced by Will Sexton, he outdoes even himself. In a blindfold test, contestants might guess Tom Petty on some selections, and Alejandro Escovedo on others. All would be wrong, because every one of these ten tunes is all David Halley. He can mine the depths of despair in ways that make Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club sound like Debbie Gibson, and then zero in on the center of the heart like only Townes Van Zandt and very few others ever got to. On "A Love Severe," "Pale Flowers" and "Ain't Gonna Make You Mine," get ready for a rollercoaster of love and loss. What is so indelible about David Halley is no matter how tough the going gets, there is always room for hope. He is hard-wired to provide that dangling miracle at the end of a broken day and empty sky. So get ready to be taken on a breathtaking ride of bumps and downs, but hold on. Good is coming.
Gregory Porter, Take Me to the Alley. There is no reason to label Gregory Porter a jazz singer or a rhythm & blues singer. Just leave it that he's a singer's singer and get ready to hear one of the finest artists alive right now. His voice is so warm and expressive it's like he's standing close by performing a solo show for a party of one. This new album is that good. Porter has plenty of soul-seared lyrics and exactly the right style of accompaniment to mark him as someone to move to the top of whatever ranks he finds himself in. He's from Sacramento but made his way to Brooklyn to become a chef and soon start his true singing career. Thank goodness, because New York is really where someone like him belongs. There is a strong dose of melancholia in the man's music, one that is creatively cultivated by moving around Manhattan and the other boroughs. And when "Take Me to the Alley" comes on, it's all over but the crying. This could easily be the song of the year; when Gregory Porter sings the chorus, "Take me to the alley, take me to the afflicted ones, take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their way," true greatness has entered the room and listeners will realize they've found a zone of ethereal eternity. Accept no substitutes.
Tamara Saviano, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark. This is the mesmerizing story of the singer-songwriter and ultimate Texan. Luckily, it's also the tale of Guy's lifelong romance with wife Susana Clark and close friendship with fellow Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. The reason for that is there is clearly no way to tell Clark's history without deeply weaving in that of the other two. Which is a very good thing. Clark himself embodied the somewhat reserved but always renegade spirit of the best Lone Star artists, along with the intricacy of the mostly on-again love affair with his wife, and how it both bedeviled and inspired him. Part of that friction might have been just how close she was with Van Zandt. Whatever the input of all that drama, the end result for the songwriters was some of the best originals ever penned by anyone. Tamara Saviano goes so deep into their stories that she becomes like a family member, interviewing the Clarks over a period of many years, and drawing richly on Van Zandt's infamous legend. She is able to paint him as the intricate human being he always was. In all those aspects, it is the one of the very best musical biographies in many years. Unfortunately, by book's end the trio have all departed for the next world, and history is left to give them their due in Texas' illustrious firmament. Bluebonnets for all.
Lissa Hattersley & Trip Trio, Twenty. There are likely countless musical treasures hidden around America, performing in local clubs, touted by weekly newspapers and championed by small public access radio stations. It doesn't always add up to world domination, but then again, maybe that's a good thing? Too much is actually sometimes too much. Lissa Hattersley ruled Austin in the '70s with the band Greezy Wheels, trekked to New York to work at the Lone Star Café when it was in its first home on Fifth Avenue and then returned to Texas to stay. The good news is that she's gotten better and better as a singer and writer so that now the world is hers for the asking. With her backing trio Hattersley has not only come to the rescue of those jonesing for Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, she is also contributing an uptown groove to down home Austin, and doing it with a jazz pizzazz that is irresistible. The first three songs on her new EP are originals: "The Butter," "Swim," and "I Got Happy," which stand tall next to anything ever recorded in Austin, and deserve national attention immediately. Guitarist Mike Barnes, best known for his decades in soul funkateers Extreme Heat, hits all the notes just right the first time. Which means with Lissa Hattersley this is in an outfit not to miss. Add on scintillating covers "Moonchild Blues" and "Life in the Modern World" and you have the perfect Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas/Hanukkah present. For all occasions.
Various Artists, Feel Like Going Home: The Songs of Charlie Rich. Sun Records maven Sam Phillips once said that the only artist he put on the same pedestal as Howlin' Wolf was Charlie Rich. No kidding. It is immediately apparent why Phillips felt that way by listening to Rich's incredibly, well, rich catalogue of recordings, from early hits like "Lonely Weekends" to the last songs like "Pictures and Paintings." His voice had a luxuriant luster crossed with a deeply felt weight. So why a tribute album, when no one can really top Charlie Rich? Hopefully it's to garner new attention for the original's utter awesomeness, and turn the big spotlight his way. Luckily, all the participants on this 13-song collection rise to the occasion and make the Memphis man feel like he's in the room again. Highlights include Jim Lauderdale's "Lonely Weekends," which almost sounds like it could have been an outtake by the Animals in 1965. The Malpass Brothers were mentored by Merle Haggard for several years, and it shows. Their "Caught in the Middle" mixes Rich with the Everly Brothers for a gorgeous surprise. Susan Marshall hits the dark end of the street on "Time and Again," which wasn't written by Charlie Rich but captures his blue-tinged vibe in spades. By the end of the album, on the overwhelming "Feel Like Going Home" by Kevin Connolly, it's king tears time thinking of all the world lost when Charlie Rich left the building for good. The only missing link would be a vibrating version of "Dance of Love," which when Rich played it live at the very first Willie Nelson 4th of July picnic in 1973, the sunny blue skies turned a glorious chartreuse and the few trees that ringed the 50,000-plus audience began dancing down to their roots. Volume II anyone?
Nick Waterhouse, Never Twice. On his third album, Southern California's finest Nick Waterhouse digs down into the earth and comes up with a modern rhythm & blues classic. He has always tilled the soil with the intent of a true soul man, and this time everything comes together like firecrackers as Waterhouse takes off for the stratosphere from note one. "It's Time" is the kind of flag-waver meant to open an album, where nothing is left to chance and the music gets the party started. From there the songs take a thrilling twist-and-turn all the way to the dance floor and, who knows, possibly the bedroom. The man's secret strength is that he never tries to be something he's not, but also isn't afraid to go for the gusto and get close enough to the gutter to get a little dirt on him. Plus, and it's a big one, Nick Waterhouse's years spent in San Francisco add exactly the right element of sophistication to what he does: Friday night on Fillmore Street right on into North Beach isn't far away. There are enough highlights here, including a co-written duet with Leon Bridges, that this could unlock all the doors for Waterhouse. With raging saxophones, righteous backup vocalists and sacred Hammond organs, put this album in the must-have category and then roll up the rug and wear something that can go directly into the dumpster when the night is over. Get-down dead ahead.
Bob Weir, Blue Mountain. Polish off the Grammy in 2017 for Best Folk Album, because Bob Weir sounds like a slam dunk. The young buck of the Grateful Dead for all those years has turned into an extremely eloquent elder statesman. He now teams with youngish band the National and aims his talents at songs inspired by a teenaged summer spent cowpoking in Wyoming. Weir has arrived at a place that at first might seem a twisted turn, but is really more like a home away from home. Recording mostly originals written with Josh Ritter, today's head of the Dead now pours on the feeling time and again, bringing to life an American era that so often feels long gone. What's so illuminative about this music is just how close it feels to the Grateful Dead's ethos, minus the acid. On that band's perennials like "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'," and "Me and My Uncle," Bob Weir was always standing on the outside of American normalcy, kicking away on what had become the middle-class trap. Now that's he returned there in such fine form, he is able to shape a new persona for himself that is brightly shaded by his past, with nary a false note. For those seeking a snapshot into an America quickly disappearing from our national consciousness, the man who named his first solo album "Ace" rides bravely to the rescue. What a trip.
Dwight Yoakam, Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars.... Sometimes this man's many strengths add up to such an undeniable whole that it's easy to forget what an incredible singer he has always been. Take away all the musical muscle, formidable front and just flat-out excitement, and there will always be the voice. Going back to Dwight Yoakam's first EP, released on the tiny Oak Records label in 1985, it was stunningly there in those first half-dozen songs. Everything that would soon break like a tsunami wave over country music was in those early grooves. With his latest effort, the voice comes back like a Peterbilt truck barreling down through the Grapevine at midnight, blowing everyone off I-5 with its emotional wonder. Some might call this a bluegrass album because of its attack and instrumentation, but at heart it's a Dwight Yoakam record and all else be damned. He takes 11 of his songs, bears down on their essence, and then lets it fly. Recorded mostly in Nashville, there's such a powerful purity to it that in the end the world opens up to brand new possibilities. If that wasn't enough, Yoakam puts his best creative mind to Prince's "Purple Rain" for an album closer that won't soon be forgotten. Even with banjos, fiddles, acoustic guitars, and stand-up bass recasting the song as a heartbreaking hoedown, surely Prince Rogers Nelson is smiling somewhere knowing his children are in good hands. Doves will cry.