Richard Hawley, Standing at the Sky's Edge. The English can be obsessed with music like no one else. It gets inside their bones, maybe because they need it to keep warm against the chill and provide some sunshine to all those gray days. Or possibly life there just needs something to spice up the sauce and bring a little chaos to the predictable. But going back to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, those young men were on fire to make a noise, much like Richard Hawley is today. On his seventh solo album he seems to have all the engines revved up to maximum throttle and is ready to blast off into the skies. It's a wonder to hear and maybe this time around his mighty racket will make it across the Atlantic Ocean.
Standing at the Sky's Edge feels like those musical moments when everything becomes clear for the artist, like they've seen through the curtain and know now what's behind it. They're able to write songs, sing them and play their instruments with all the filters off as they allow the clarity of belief to push open the door. There are bone-rattling moments on songs like "She Brings the Sunlight" and "Leave Your Body Behind You," just as there are extreme elements of introspection on "Seek It" and "Don't Stare at the Sun." The way the two sides fit together doesn't happen often, so hear it while you can.
There is no way to know how all the various influences found their way onto this album. Hawley's previous band Longpigs hint at some, and surely his short stint in Pulp gives clues to others. What really matters is that over a decade of his own explorations, he never lost the thread. Instead, he kept going deeper and deeper until the egg opened up. This is a man who is now clearly aligned with the cosmos and won't take maybe for an answer. Richard Hawley is here.
Billy Boy Arnold, Sings Big Bill Broonzy. When Chicago exploded as an urban blues mecca beginning in the '40s and right on through the '60s, Billy Boy Arnold is someone who might have never quite made it to the highest plateau like, say, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but for anyone who truly loves the feeling that a blues song can bring to those with their souls wide open, Arnold has the goods. His voice is rich with warmth but also had an extra bite, while his harmonica playing, though never flashy, always got the job done. He even had hit singles like "I Wish You Would" and "Ain't Got You" to set the fires burning as he was coming up the ranks.
One of Arnold's harmonica heroes was John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, and he also got to meet early pioneer Big Bill Broonzy. Broonzy was one of the first bluesmen to break into a national presence, and also had a huge influence on early English artists like Eric Clapton and John Mayall. Billy Boy Arnold recently decided it was time to turn the spotlight back on Broonzy, and has recorded 15 of his classics like "Sweet Honey Bee," "Cell No. 13 Blues" and "It Was Just a Dream" to pay loving respect to a prized mentor. Luckily, this isn't an attempt to recapture the past, but rather a valued effort to create a future for these blues. Arnold's fellow players keep it simple, down and dirty and right on the razor's edge. They even add a washboard to keep the percussive sound to a quiet pulse, and never step over the line. This is how blues is meant to be played.
There aren't many blues people from the music's greatest period still alive, much less as vital as Billy Boy Arnold. He's a man who has seen a whole genre almost completely disappear from right under his feet in Chicago, but never complained or quit. Instead he started singing better, blowing harp harder and continued to play the blues as he knows them. As has been said before, the blues is something you either love or don't like at all, and for this grand man it really is a whole life. By taking on the music of Big Bill Broonzy, Billy Boy Arnold shows what he's made of. He also shines a light on someone who set him on his life's course so many years ago. If that ain't true love, then grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man. Put it in the alley.
Various Artists, Country Funk 1969-1975. Like so many musical styles, it's impossible to absolutely define what country funk really is, so it becomes one of those wonderful things where you know it when you hear it. The drums sound like they were marinated in a big old tub of mayonnaise and are still dripping with the ooze from it. The bass strings could easily have been made out of Spanish moss hanging from Mississippi trees, and as for the guitars, well, just say they're being played by people who have worked at gas stations, bus depots and all-night diners. They know what real is.
The artists on this ingenuous collection are down home troubadors all, like Dale Hawkins, Bobby Gentry, Tony Joe White, Dennis the Fox (you read that right) and Bobby Charles. Just to keep things from becoming too predictable, there's also soul men Johnny "the Tan Canary" Adams, Johnny "Ton Ton Macoute" Jenkins and Bobby "Splish Splash" Darin. Say what? Yes, that Bobby Darin takes a crack at becoming a certified funkateer on a song he wrote that drips with humidity and high-crackling heart. What is so beautiful about these 16 songs is how different they can be from each other, showing that country funk is more a state of mind than a given style. That's what makes it all work.
Even for those who were wide awake during these years, there are plenty of surprises to be found on the album, which is the whole point of what makes a compilation strong. Who can really recall Gritz's "Bayou Country" or Cherokee's "Funky Business," not to mention Gray Fox's "Hawg & Frog" or John Randolph Marr's "Hello L.A. Bye Bye Birmingham"? The Deep South was saturated with singers who were all ready to show off what their mama gave them and have a go at the record business, which usually meant one or two singles and back to punching a clock. For those on Country Funk that made it to the big time, they helped change music for the better and prove not everyone had to come out of England to show off their roots. Some of these good old boys and girls—and soul brothers too—had the gris gris in 'em and it just had to come out.