The Arcs, Yours, Dreamily. This audacious album starts with the admonition: "Good morning children. Welcome to school." A mighty fine tip too, because the music this offshoot band of Black Keys' Dan Auerbach makes is like a lounge band on a cruise ship to Pluto. They twist and turn into sonic pretzels, but never get lost in the movement. Instead, there is an underlying wealth of out-there grooves and inside moves played in a way the Arcs feel like the future, tingling like a mixture of Nyquil and Naugahyde. There isn't anyone that quite sounds like this aggregation right now, which means the chance for discovery is there for the taking. Producers Auerbach and Leon Michels have hit on the mother lode, and one reason is probably the freedom of not having to worry about where this release goes. Just the fact that it exists is reward enough. The secret weapon is what a stone cold gas the 13 songs are, and how they're anything but a jam. They feel like the creation of a fevered crew that knows just what gold they've struck. When it's time to round up all the animals and set to sea, this is surely the Arc to be on.
Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers, Loved Wild Lost. San Francisco certainly has a long pedigree for illuminative rock & roll bands, maybe starting with the Beau Brummels and continuing right on through to, well, Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers. If there is one outfit there now that the light is shining on the brightest, it would be Bluhm and band. Her previous releases had a more rhythm & blues groove than her latest, but considering that the new one was recorded in the idyllic burg of Bolinas near the Pacific, maybe that's to be expected. The best way to describe the winning and warmth of the appeal of Nicki Bluhm would be to say if Linda Ronstadt was still singing, this is what it might be like. Consider that a high compliment, because there aren't many better singers than this woman. She reaches for the parts of songs that hit the deepest in us, and while her voice can be achingly beautiful, it is never just that. The lady always goes all the way.
Gary Clark Jr., The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. Every decade or so a guitar phenom breaks through the barrier to totally up the ante of what's possible. It takes more than playing ability and stage presence. It takes total there-ness. And that's exactly what Gary Clark Jr. has always had to set him apart from the herd. Coming out of Austin, at first it seemed like the stakes were higher because there were so many forbears to live up to. Clark didn't pay attention to that. Instead, he leaned into his electric Epiphone guitar and played. For his life. All of that comes home on his new studio album. He made it on his own time and his own place, and it shows. He's not trying to be anyone but himself, and fortunately that's more than enough. Whether it's the double-barrel blues blast of "Grinder," sweeping songs of belief like "The Healing," or the Curtis Mayfield-inspired beauty of "Star," Gary Clark Jr. has staked out his own turf forever. What a relief not waiting for the next Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or whoever. Even if that were possible, which it's not, it would be a repeat. This 30-something all-timer is much too focused on finding his own vision and voice, setting off into the cosmos and then bringing it all down to earth. Sonny Boy Slim has done just that like no one before him, and that's what matters most. When his guitar spirals upward and then crashes back down, the music really is a thing of beauty and truth. Gary Clark Jr. has hit the zone.
Anderson East, Delilah. Alabama is starting to feel like a new groover's paradise. So many artists are coming from there now, not to mention all those making the pilgrimage to record at the Muscle Shoals mecca, that it sure sounds like the South is going to do it again. Of all those newbies, one of the strongest is singer-songwriter Anderson East, straight out of Athens, Alabama. His vocals are inspired by the House of (Otis) Redding, but never as imitation. Instead, East grasps the raw power of soul and turns it into what a youngish person can create. It is a stripped-down take on all that ails the human heart, whether it's lost love or an inability to figure out what the modern world demands. Anderson East expresses so much emotional weight that he could be from any era. At this stage, it's all about what he's lived and learned. A song like "Devil in Me" is scary good, one of those instant classics that could exist forever, continually covered and rediscovered. And there are a handful of others songs on East's first full-length debut that mark him as a man to watch. When the band kicks in, the horns step out and the rhythm section sounds like a Peterbilt barreling down Highway 49, life takes on a whole new glow. It's what rhythm & blues first promised close to 70 years ago, and has been delivering ever since. Praise be to people like Anderson East for keeping the faith—and the burning flame—alive.
Donnie Fritts, Oh My Goodness. Southern soul from the 1960s is really church music, only preached on the street. There is nothing that can beat the sound of those songs, played in a pulsing nightclub full of lit-up patrons ready to groove way past when the train leaves the station. No matter who was singing or what record label they were on, the chances for lift-off were a given. Some of the patron saints from that crowd didn't always get the headline attention, but provided playing gifts and songwriting skills way beyond the call of duty. Color Donnie Fritts in that crowd, via the amazing Muscle Shoals axis. He was on hundreds of recording sessions and wrote songs that went so deep that air had to be piped in. Praise the God of song, but somehow Fritts has done it again with this new offering. To say it's a classic is one of the understatements of modern life. Produced with a sparse but utter beauty by John Paul White and Ben Tanner, this is something that stops time. Donnie Fritts has always had the goods, but never captured much beyond an insider's appreciation from the public. These are songs that should change that. To hear something as powerful in 2015 as "The Oldest Baby in the World" or "Temporarily Forever Mine" is like walking into a beautiful dream and having life make total sense again. In many ways, it is a dream that was way past dreaming, but hallelujah here it comes again. Finding gifts like this brings back the joyous freedom of soul music in its prime, and also gives hope there will be such days again. Donnie Fritts is a treasure, and what he is sharing now is proud proof that miracles still happen.
Billy Gibbons, Perfectamundo. For 46 years, ZZ Top has burned down the hard road highway. They've done it with pure musical strength and endless soul power. And the person leading that particular parade all these years has been Houstonian Billy Gibbons. Now it sounds like is his time to shine out front on his own, and he doesn't waste a trick or a lick. With an album that is full of surprises and even a few circus spills, Gibbons goes nuclear on all kinds of music. From bayou blues (Slim Harpo) to Chicago street (Jimmy Reed), and even a mess of Cubano kicks. Wouldn't you know it all works like a hidden charm, and feels like one big holiday fantastico? Maybe that's because Billy Gibbons has one of the biggest and most playful hearts in rock & roll. He has always taken his music extremely seriously, without putting himself on a pedestal. But he gets the job done with Texas class and plenty of sass, never oblivious to what cool visuals can do to up the velocity. Then, just when it seems like nothing else can shoot his rocket any higher, Gibbons turns on the boosters (don't forget he comes from the home of NASA), and all hell breaks loose. One listen to the hip-busting cover of Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" makes that more than abundantly clear. The true beauty of a solo debut this strong, but so long in the making, is that it sounds worth every second. Vamos al git down all over town.
The Gold Magnolias, Sail On Slamdog. Mix Texas and Mississippi moves and what comes out is the Gold Magnolias' irresistible music. For a youngish band to sound this ready for prime time now isn't a surprise when all their experience is added together. They've criss-crossed the country several times, called Brooklyn home long enough to learn it, earn it, and write a song about it ("Brooklyn Streets"). Singers Evan Felts and Hudson Mueller are blue-eyed soul brothers who've found a new vocal language to nail modernity. They bring the funk too, with bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Jeffory Barton burning underneath and letting saxophone player Ryan Anselmi peg all the Southern bona fides to the wall with a blistering tenor sound. Still, without songs like "Boom Boom," "Brothers in Need," and "Don't Give Up," the 'Mags might have stayed a club band, good for blasting a dance floor to smithereens but not a whole lot else. Now, with a studio full of talent and worthy songs, they are a group that can stand next to anyone and take the big prize out the front door. It's always a revelation to discover someone on the edge of busting loose, and that's exactly what the Gold Magnolias are set to do. Hold on tight.
Rickie Lee Jones, The Other Side of Desire. Count on Rickie Lee Jones to always burn. Soft or quiet, fast or slow, the woman's soul has such a depth of feeling that everything she does actually means something. Thirty-five years into a singular career that has very few equals, Jones reaches down deep and makes one of the very finest albums of her life. Maybe it's because she moved to New Orleans and found a huge load of inspiration in the city's streets and stratosphere. It's not that far a stroll from "Chuck E's in Love" to her new "Jimmy Choos." In fact, the latter might be one of the very finest tracks Jones has recorded since the former, filled with an infectious love of life and all its foibles. No one does that better than this lady. The lucky 13 new songs are all wide open with love, and make the discovery of each one a wondrous surprise. Think of someone who might have been locked inside a house with heavy shades for several years. All of a sudden they're cruising down St. Charles in the middle of the Crescent City, with the big oak trees and huge old houses, jumping on and off the 100-year-old streetcar all the way to the Maple Leaf Bar uptown on Oak Street. Once there, the Rebirth Brass Band has set everyone free, and Rickie Lee Jones, umbrella in hand, is leading the parade around the dance floor. This is an album for the ages, and very few better ones will be heard this year. Everything is on it, but most of all it's one person's poetic soul exploding into the stars. Such a night—and sight.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. Scrape off the frou-frou that weighs down so much modern music, then take away all the studio trickination threatening to drown true feeling, and in a perfect world what would still endure would be Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. That could be because Rateliff's voice is certified working-class soul. There is nothing extraneous or overdeveloped with the way the big man sings. He just closes his eyes and lets it fly. When he's deep in a song, a lasting one like originals "Howling at Nothing," "Wasting Time," or "S.O.B.," this is a singer who always gets the job done. He cuts across stylistic lines like someone using a baseball bat on a fly. That is to say with ultimate ease. He comes out the other side full of illuminating light and joyous jubilation. Ecstatic music like this erases the big dark clouds that blow hard through life, and in their place spreads a sky full of sunshine and unlimited possibilities. It is rhythm & blues-based, surely, but knows way better than to be shackled by a sound from the past. Instead, it kicks down doors, dropkicks expectations across the dance floor and offers a way to the other side of the river. Nathaniel Rateliff is not a newcomer, but he does sound reborn and rejuvenated, utterly imbued with the spirit in the sky to take his followers to the other side. And the song "I'll Be Waiting" is no empty promise. He'll be there. Rateliff is for real. Take his hand and dance to the promised land.
Liz Vice, There's a Light. Surely many ways exist to approach the light. The real question is whether it can be found. Portland, Oregon-based singer Liz Vice might not have ever intended to be a gospel singer, but there is no doubt she is someone with an inner strength that needs to be shared. On this riveting album of inspiration and belief, she brings such a power to songs of the spirit that it is impossible to turn away. That said, this is such a universal emotion that believers and non-believers alike can bask in Vice's glow. She has a voice for the ages, one that comes along very rarely, but when it does it needs to be embraced. There is true transcendence in what this woman is doing, and goes to the very center of what it means to be a human being. No matter what part of the road to glory a listener is traveling, there is eternal shelter to be found in songs like "Entrance" and "Enclosed by You." When it comes time to step into the next world, here's hoping this album is the music that will be heard. Say amen somebody.
Wilco, Star Wars. A truly stupendous album, even one on a bit of the down-low, 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 push reality all the way off the table. Wilco has become the king of the profilers, 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 is easily one of the best songs released this year. It's like the Replacements colliding with a subway train at rush hour, and then 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 the ozone a long time ago and by now is so comfortable 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 into 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 apparent he knows exactly what he's talking about. True love, for him and us, demands no less.
Song: Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, and Kris Kristofferson, "April 5th." Sometimes one song is able to totally take over. From first hearing it elevates itself to its very own spot, one untouched by less enthralling worldly concerns. "April 5th" does that instantly. Recorded seven years ago by these three, it really does exist outside time. It is gorgeous, haunting, unique and uplifting, all the things that make music such a saving grace. Roseanne Cash starts the song, and immediately takes it to a zone of its own. When Elvis Costello sings the first chorus, he goes high and ethereal, bringing forth yet another new persona. Then Kris Kristofferson weighs in with a heavyosity that cannot be matched. The lyrics pretty much sum up everything we can hope to discover about life and eternity, and point the way to that higher plane which continually wavers just beyond our grasp. Near the end, Kristofferson throws in an answer line to "I can't think / it's getting hard to do" by repeating "It's gettin' hard to do," and time stops. Really. While the planet is spinning around so fast it's often hard to breathe, a song like "April 5th" offers a lifeline of love and understanding, and okay, maybe just a dash of peace as well. For that we can share thanks and count our lucky stars.
Reissue: Dr. John, The Atco/Atlantic Singles 1968-1974. For those in pursuit of the finest possible health insurance available, it's always best to start with Dr. Johnacare. It will not only cure whatever illnesses might be applicable, but it also is guaranteed to put a glide in the stride and offer more smiles per mile than any other program. This absolutely knocked-out collection of all the good doctor's singles released by Atlantic Records between 1968-74 is about as mos' scocious as music gets, and listened to back-to-back can be too much fun for one heart to bear. By the time the second song "Mama Roux" kicks in, it's clear that no breaks will be given. This is a Big Easy ride up Canal Street all the way to the end of the line. There has never been another musician on the same planet as Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack, and there's no reason for another to appear now. He's got the gig completely covered. Needless to say, partway through the collection on, say, "Loop Garoo" or "I Been Hoodood," there is a definite level of frivolity unleashed so the wheels seem to come off life itself and the party parades right out the back door, into the street and on to the neutral ground outside. This is music for every occasion, and some that haven't been invented yet. Bask in Brother Gene Sculatti's scintillating liner notes, then find the levee and burn it down pronto.