Paul Thorn, What the Hell Is Goin' On?. When the stars align and an artist finds a bagful of songs, a band burning to play them, and, most importantly, something deep down within just begging to come out, well, that's when great albums get made. And make no mistake — that's just what Tupelo, Mississippi-born and bred Paul Thorn has done. He's turned his song radar up all the way, and pulled in some real keepers, written by everyone from Lindsay Buckingham to Wild Bill and Martha Jo Emerson. Each one fits Thorn like a wetsuit, and gives him the freedom to create a free-range joy.
It takes a bit of a visionary ear to hear Buckingham's "Don't Let Me Down Again" as a Dixie-fried rocker, but that's what Paul Thorn does. His completely chooglin' band cranks up the beat to 12 while Thorn sings with a captivating mix of Cali-Southern soul. He's easily one of the best vocalists prowling the bar circuit today, and with any justice this album might move him up a notch. Even known for his originals—he's been called the "Mark Twain of Americana"—it's a refreshing jolt of inspiration to take this trip on the covers highway. Best of all, the song choices include surprises like Free's "Walk In My Shadow," Foy Vance's "Shed a Little Light," and album closer "Take My Love with You" by Eli "Paperboy" Reed. Big ground gets covered here all the way around.
The album's title song by Elvin Bishop, "What the Hell Is Goin' On," stands like a beacon among all the other highlights. Bishop is the original guitarist in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and a card-carrying member of great Americans who really helped spark the whole blues-rock revolution in the '60s. He throws in some sizzling guitar with Thorn and turns a rockin' track into a new classic. Like all of us want, it'd sure be nice to know just what the hell is going on, but until that day comes music likes this helps everyone keep on pushing.
Chelle Rose, Ghost of Brower Holler. Straight outta beneath the Mason-Dixon line, Chelle Rose is the kind of singer who can spit fire and honey back to back, sometimes in the same song. Her Southern drawl is so thick you couldn't stir it with a stick, and makes someone like Dolly Parton sound like Bella Abzug. She writes about love lost and love rescued, lives that spin out of control but often enough come back, and a way of life that is so real not even reality shows can touch it. This is her first album since a 2000 debut release, and while there are reasons for the dozen-year lapse like raising a family, it was only a matter of time before Rose returned. Quite simply, she had to. As she explains, "I tried to quit music, but it wouldn't quit me."
On "Caney Fork Tennessee," "Weepin' Willow on the Hill" and "Shady Grove Gonna Blow," there is a ferocious spirit flooding the music, and Chelle Rose sounds like she is holding on for dear life, trying to explain what fills her heart and brings her happiness, as well as what hurts the most. There aren't many singers riding the highway right now that feel more authentic. This isn't something for show; this woman is hanging on to the life raft and putting her stake in the ground. She believes.
Musically, if you throw together some Rolling Stones, Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, and possibly a dash of Steve Earle, that mixture comes close to what Rose does. Produced by former Austin bad boy Ray Wylie Hubbard, there is not a false note on the album. They even bring in gospel greats the McCrary Sisters for some higher ground vocals and show the difference between Saturday night and Sunday morning is only a few hours, sometimes not even long enough for a change of clothes depending on where the night gets spent. Chelle Rose knows all about those dark nights and bright mornings, and how things can get twisted around into an emotional pretzel. The way this woman straightens it out is no doubt a work in progress, and hopefully one that is just getting started—again.
Donovan, The Essential Donovan. The United Kingdom crowd — they deserve the credit for being true excavators of great American music. Look what the Rolling Stones, Them, Animals, the Pretty Things and a few other early British Invasion bands did for blues from the United States. They were on crusades to get Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and so many other seminal greats heard, and actually accomplished it. Same, to a smaller extent, with folk. Look at Scotsman Donovan, and the drubbing he took in the Bob Dylan film Don't Look Back. He was a young man who loved the passionate protest songs from Americans and decided to dedicate himself to the music. Little did he know what he'd run into.
To Donovan's eternal credit, after his first splash with "Catch the Wind" and a cover of Buffy St. Marie's "Universal Soldier," he quickly jumped into the psychedelic pool and plugged in the fun meter on "Sunshine Superman," "The Trip," "Season of the Witch," and "Mellow Yellow." Probably much to his amazement, he actually had huge hit singles with some of his songs and set himself in the direction of a self-realization that still continues. This 36-song collection is a thrilling look inside the mind of one of the most eclectic artists from across the ocean.
To try and pick a handful of highlights from The Essential Donovan is not an easy trick, but a list would have to include "Wear Your Love Like Heaven," "There Is a Mountain," "Bababajagal (Love Is Hot)," "Hurdy Gurdy Man," and "Young Girl Blues." The styles range far and wide, and it's interesting to hear how someone like the Allman Brothers Band wove "There Is a Mountain" into their electrifying jams, and the Jeff Beck Group backs Donovan on "Bababajagal." There was a lot of back-and-forth happening in rock then, and when the dust settled in the '70s Donovan was still right there. The only question regarding this fascinating set is where o' where is "The Fat Angel"? Maybe he really did fly Jefferson Airplane right into the inviting cosmos, never to return. But Donovan is still here, and that's what counts.