Son Volt, Honky Tonk. During Uncle Tupelo's audacious run helping establish Americana as a viable genre, Jay Farrar suddenly called it quits and split to form Son Volt. His followers thought it was the beginning of something brand new and adventurous. And it was. The years rolled by, though, and each album became a little less required listening until the past few releases all blended together. That's not to diminish Farrar's musical talent or his evocative voice. Those never flagged. The good news is that on Honky Tonk it's like he's been revitalized to the max. It could be because he's realized what he does best is take the inspired strains of folk, country and rock and weave them into something that doesn't sound like anything but Son Volt. Even better, Jay Farrar never falls prey to trying to be a country and western veteran, aping the best of Bakersfield or Nashville or Austin or anywhere else. He is way too defined in his own vision for that. Instead, he digs way down and looks to country music's origins for a deep-seated place to call home. His voice is the very best it's ever been, swirling mystery and regret and downright celestial overtones to create a modern run at everything you can learn and lose in the honky tonks of the body, spirit and mind. So whether it's pushing a partner around the dance floor, trying to beat the finish line at last call or just finding the keys for the car to slide the back roads home, this is music for all that and so much more. Bottom's up.
My Bloody Valentine, MBV. What do they say? "Time flies when you're unconscious." Or something like that. For the band My Bloody Valentine, it's only been 22 years since their last album, the untoppable Loveless, and in the past two decades the band, unswervingly led by Kevin Shields, has done as little as they've wanted. Shields built his own studio so he could endlessly invent as many sonic landscapes as he likes, and if some of those eventually find their way into song, well, so much the better. But what's the rush? In their off time the record business has imploded and then struggled to find its way out of the ashes. To that end, My Bloody Valentine is selling their album totally by mail order and even at that there's no guarantee it will be available for long. The big question, of course, is was it worth the wait? Yes and no, because the band will never beat Loveless. It's just not going to happen. Still, there is a gorgeous core at the center of their new music, something that a lot of bands get close to but no one really equals. It could be because Kevin Shields only plays by his own rules, or maybe he really is touched by a not-so-quiet genius. Either way, for fans of My Bloody Valentine 2013 will go down as the year the silence ended. Don't forget — at this rate the next release should be 2035. Right on time for the end of the world.
Otis Redding, Lonely & Blue. There can be endless arguments on who is the best soul singer of all time, and like they say, different pokes for different folks. But at the top of anyone's list Otis Redding has to have a secure spot. The way the down home man approached a song, like he was going to tear into it and wrestle it to the ground no matter how hard the battle, hasn't really been equaled since his untimely death in 1967. Today Redding's greatness still stands in stark relief to all that came after him. No one ever achieved the same heart-stopping beauty that he did, no matter how hard they tried. The hit parade was littered with busloads of singers, many admirable and able to achieve their own sense of greatness, but Otis Redding will always be in a world by himself. This unrelenting reissue was never an album at all, but by the brilliance of compilation producer David Gorman it comes to life, as surely as if it had first appeared on the record racks in the '60s. The dozen songs zero in on Redding's devastating ability to take on heartbreak and loneliness like he was born into it, shredding the songs with an expressive voice as sharp as a knife. A few, like "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)," "Gone Again" and ""These Arms of Mine," should come with suicide prevention lines stenciled onto the album jacket. They're that overwhelming. Down to the instantly distressed album cover, an outline of a vinyl disc worn through the cardboard, Lonely & Blue lives up to its title. The music takes a listener's soul, rips it into tiny pieces and then miraculously puts it back together through the sheer power of love. The Big O rules again.