Joe Ely, Panhandler Rambler. Sometimes there is nothing left to do but let the mind boggle. Joe Ely was recently recognized by the Texas Legislature as the Official 2016 Texas State Musician, and the only question left is what took them so long? For 45 years Ely has been spinning out songs and tales of Texas with very, very few equals, and at the same time rewriting the rule book for how you're allowed to do that. His road may have been serpentine, but the man always got where he was going with his head held high. He mixed every style of Lone Star music into one big burrito, and then deep-fried it with one of the great road bands of all time before turning around and going digibilly before anyone else. Today finds Joe Ely at his unbeatable best, writing songs that express what it means to be a Texan and a troubadour until the end, defining all the sights and sounds he found along the journey. There isn't another Texan right now who has that scope, and can veer from twisted rockers to heart-stabbing weepers with Ely's easeful excellence. To end the album with a song so deep and true as "You Saved Me" says it all about him and what has always fueled him: the next surprise, the next stage, the next song, the next sunset. The Panhandle Rambler has taken Texas to the world, and it's a much better place for it.
Lowell Levinger, Get Together: Banana Recalls the Youngbloods Classics. Maybe the Youngbloods never quite got to the top rung during the '60s and early '70s, but for those who loved folk-inspired rock & roll sung by a master like Jesse Colin Young, the band was a unique wonder. Guitarist Lowell Levinger, always known then as Banana, had a playful spirit and unerring technique, something that he proudly continues right up to today. What a great idea to gather an album full of Youngbloods classic, add a healthy dose of guest artists, and essentially remake a classic era. Among those joining in are Ry Cooder, Peter Stampfel, Duke Robillard and David Grisman with a vocal assist from Young himself, on songs like "Grizzly Bear," "Darkness Darkness," "On Francis Drake" and, yes, the counterculture anthem "Get Together." What makes Levinger's album so strong is that all the music might be rooted in the past, but it sounds as new as today. Maybe that's because some styles are just destined to remain timeless, and Banana is such a smoothie in directing the players that the album ends up being a new breed extravaganza of American treasures. Add in a priceless collection of '60s posters, beautiful photos, and even two pages of Michael Hurley illustrations and the collection starts to feel like a long-lost family album of long lost memories. Banana fana mo!
Pugwash, Play This Intimately (as if among friends). How is it that some artists lurk in the wings but never quite cross the line into our consciousness? As superlative as they may be, nothing—not even name recognition—for years and years. Everyone has groups like this that live in their darkness, but boy when they break through it's spectacular. Pugwash was a personal unknown. Didn't have a clue about them, but then their singer performed last year at a tribute concert for the Beatles’ “White Album” and literally stole the show. Thomas Walsh had size on everyone there, but he also had an inner glow that just could not be let go. On their first studio album in four years, Walsh and the rest of Pugwash sound like they've been storing up every great feeling and fanciful brainwaves, just waiting to unleash it all on a (sometimes) unsuspecting public. Recorded at the Kinks' Konk Studio and engineered and mixed by Beatles reissues engineer Guy Massey, the album hits like an instant classic. The ethereal vibes never get too spacey, but there is definitely something in the air for this Irish bunch. If ELO lost all their royalties and had to live in a van, they might just sound a bit like Pugwash. And be happy to do it.
The Revivalists, Men Amongst Mountains. New Orleans strikes again. Just when it seems like the Crescent City has topped itself with the longest list of captivating musicians and bands imaginable, another one comes along that takes the king cake home. Today that would be the Revivalists, a serious septet that defies all description except to say they are undoubtedly one of the best American bands alive. Starting with a singer that always reaches for the sky, David Shaw is someone to believe in. The way he mixes blue-eyed soul and rock & roll is something you're born with and not really learnable, and then hopefully it grows into greatness. Shaw has reached that elevated point. Still, the odds then of finding a group to equal that reach is long odds indeed, but that's where Big Easy fate comes in. The Revivalists found it, maybe lurking in the French Quarter around Decatur and Barracks, or possibly uptown near Audubon Park. The muscular aggregation is capable of playing anything, and doing it in a way that never shows off but always delivers liftoff. They recorded these massive tracks mostly in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and you can almost feel the crickets crackling and, who knows, alligators ogling nearby. For a Southern band that is already assembled and capable of creative captivation and downright delights, look no further. The Revivalists have arrived.
Whitney Rose, Heartbreaker of the Year. What's up with Canada? How do so many artists from there tap so directly into the heart of American music, especially Nashville-bound sounds? Whitney Rose sings like she's got Tennessee in her blood. Instead, she got hooked on the music in her grandparents' bar on Prince Edward Island, and has chased it ever since. She also must have learned to go for your dreams, because she got the Mavericks' Raul Malo to produce this new album, and in addition to writing eight new stone cold country-pop evergreens, Rose also covers the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and Hank Williams' "There's a Tear in My Beer." That kind of wide-range swing takes guts. The singer's not-so-secret weapon is a voice for the ages. Rose sings like she's ready to soar through the sky, touching down whenever the heartache-of-the-day becomes too heavy or the social climate goes poof. There aren't many other songwriters hitting such a high bar today, not to mention Rose's voice having an aura of Nashville's golden days. If Patsy Cline was alive, she'd be sitting in the control room smiling and trying to figure out which one of the young lady's songs she was going to record.
Various Artists, Muddy Waters 100. If Muddy Waters had lived to be 100 this year, could there be any doubt he'd still be burning? If ever a bluesman deserved to be added to Mount Rushmore, it is Waters. He changed everything, first with blues by electrifying it to the max and then in influencing rock & roll like no one has before or since. He literally plugged everything into a socket and fried minds young and old. This cool compilation of some of Waters' most scintillating songs is filled with righteous players and plenty of guest stars. John Primer handles most of the vocals, and is joined by guitarists Derek Trucks, Bob Margolin, Johnny Winter, Keb Mo, and Gary Clark, Jr. All kinds of harmonica players and other instrumentalists throw in, including some ultra-modern drum loops, along with Shemekia Copeland on the Waters' theme song "Got My Mojo Working." In the end, it's by capturing the massive blues spirit of Muddy Waters that makes all the songs shine so bright. It's as if the Mississippi man is in the room when the sessions took place, shouting and carrying on to get the musicians to go for the monkey nerve. Squarely hit, Waters can rest assured his inspirational presence will be forever felt.
Various Artists, Groove & Grind Rare Soul '63-'73. If it feels like the holidays are coming early this year, look no further than this four-disc box set of some of the deepest soul singles ever tracked to wax. Almost all of them are making their CD debut, which will save soul seekers thousands of hours in crate diving, as well as financial ruin and the orthopedic damage caused by bending over said crates. As it is, the CDs are divided into the following soul categories: Urban, Group, Southern, and Funky. Truer words were never spoken. Box set producer extraordinaire James Austin outdoes even himself in really going for the gusto: these are 45s that largely existed for only a moment, maybe climbing a regional chart here and there before dropping off the edge of the earth into infinity. Here are a few obscure names to prove that point: Little Charles & the Sidewinders, the C.O.D.'s, Mad Dog & the Pups, Buddy Grubbs, and the Flint Emeralds. If these names are a mystery, fear not. The good news is that each and every one of these 112 songs will light a fire somewhere inside, while the 127-page booklet will zap the intellect. For these ten years in America's musical future, as soul music was helping to tear down the walls of segregation, groove enthusiasts were filling the record stores and dance floors to show their hip-shaking approval and heart-busting love.
Wilco, Star Wars. A truly stupendous album can often seem like a psychological profile examination, because how a listener reacts has a lot to do with pent-up hopes, broken dreams, flights of fancy and anything else that pushes reality all the way off the table. Wilco has become the king of the psychofilers, and with this short but completely devastating new release take testing to the outer limit. It doesn't hurt to start things off with a song worthy of Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's more frothy explorations. It's called, what else, "EKG." For those that get past such a riotous start, the other ten songs wander near and far. Some, like "Random Name Generator," is of such power it could easily be the best song released this year. It's like the Replacements collide with a subway train at rush hour, getting dragged down the tracks for a few frightening miles. Other songs like "You Satellite" could almost be outtakes from a lost Velvet Underground masterpiece. It wouldn't be a Wilco album without a plateful of lyrics that at first sound nonsensical but slowly unfold into revelations. "Pickled Ginger" anyone? Fearless bandleader Jeff Tweedy jumped off into outer space a long time ago and by now is so comfortable out there it's like he has brought Earth to himself. That's what real artists do. At the end of the album when he sings, "Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone / carried in the shadows / everyone wastes my time / I sleep underneath a picture that I keep of you next to me / I realize we're magnetized," it's obvious he knows exactly what he's talking about. True love, for him and us, demands no less.
Lizz Wright, Freedom & Surrender. Jazz vocalists are often pigeonholed into certain boundaries, but Lizz Wright has spent her musical life busting free of those constraints. Originally from Georgia and the daughter of a minister, Wright never saw the need to be only one kind of singer. Thankfully, her audience agreed. Her first album in five years is a gorgeous testament to self-belief, as Wright explores freely wherever her voice takes her. Her original songs are the kind that live in the inner world of deep reflection, and show why she has found her own place in jazz. It's not that far to Nick Drake's "River Man," and the way Lizz Wright shapes it into her own song sounds like an instant classic. Drake would surely be thrilled to hear one of his best-known originals find a brand new brooding life. Then there's "Somewhere Down the Mystic," that sounds like the singer's new theme song. It includes all the elements that make this woman so irresistible: drama, light, darkness and release. It also shows why one of her albums is such a gift: the music wanders on its own volition, never paying attention to what is expected of Wright, but rather it becomes its own being. By the time she gets to the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," it feels like Wright has taken the song to church and turned it into a spiritual. It's a good bet Lizz Wright's audience has been waiting for her, knowing that when she reappeared all would be well and new trails would be explored, which is exactly what has happened. Wright on.