This week's column celebrates the second anniversary of Bentley's Bandstand. It's still amazing to see how much moving music is being released, in all different kinds of categories. As the record business continues to shift and splinter, it seems like musicians themselves are becoming more and more dedicated to finding a way to share their sounds. The releases featured in this column raised their hand as being among the best of a year now half over. With a stack of at least 25 promising albums already released in 2013 still waiting to be reviewed, no doubt some worthy candidates have been overlooked. The lesson learned after 50 years of buying long-players: great music has a way of being found eventually. The list below features the ten collections that would not stop invading the head and heart. In, of course, alphabetical order.
Bell Gardens, Full Sundown Assembly. How a Los Angeles band that continues to reside almost completely off the grid can stir up such overwhelming emotions is a Southern California mystery. Sometimes Bell Gardens sounds like they're the illegitimate child of early Pink Floyd, and others come across as art students that Brian Wilson lets live in his pool house. But it doesn't really matter who they are, because the band always discovers a way to pull down the stars from the sky and plant them in their speakers. Celestial seasonings.
Bombino, Nomad. The next time the urge hits for music from another continent, Omara "Bombino" Moctar will be there waiting. He takes his African roots and runs them through Fender amplifiers and guitars to create songs that speak of a different world. Even better, they are grounded in the rhythms of the earth in a way that feels like something permanently familiar, no matter where they're from. The way the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach throws in as producer shows the Ohioan knows a thing or two about the outré side of life, and helps Bombino cast his magical net even wider. Electrical travel.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. Some rockers need to be allowed to live alone. They shouldn't be included on popular charts or judged by others, having fashioned a style which exists outside the lines. Think Tom Waits. Take that, throw in the individualistic element of being Australian and the definitional attitude becomes broader. Nick Cave has been breaking the rules practically before there were rules to break, beginning with his early band the Birthday Party. He likely knew the normal road would lead to ruin so he headed for the hills and liked the view. What's wildest of all is how Cave keeps getting better, never worried about the past and always pointed to the future. Levitational levity.
Dawes, Stories Don't End. Of all the great young American bands, none is greater than Dawes. They come from the fertile land of folk-rock inspiration, blue-eyed soul singing and overwhelming L.A. desire. It doesn't hurt that singer-songwriter-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith is a triple-threat like hasn't been heard in years, or that drummer-vocalist brother Griffin Goldsmith plays as good as he sings. The glue that holds them together is Goldsmith's emotional songs, which capture the promise of '60s Laurel Canyon crossed with today's free-floating urban angst like those two disparate strains were meant to wed and have children. For a band that often sounds too good to be true, the big blue sky is the limit. Truly Dawesome.
The Warren Hood Band. Austin may have peaked 30 years ago as home to American rock which pushed the limits just enough but still got away with it. With Warren Hood finally making his recording debut from that area, it might be time for a quick reevaluation. Hood was a child prodigy fiddle player in his early teens, and for the past ten years has honed his roots chops and songwriting skills before making his first release. Good for him, because he arrives fully formed and up to whatever task he wants to take. Hood not only sounds like he's been doing this his whole life, which is almost true, but also has a vision about where he's going. Singer Emily Gimble takes the lead on three songs, turning the Warren Hood Band's frontline into real double trouble and assuring the bluebonnet plague has been held at bay. Lone stars.
Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God. When the curtains part to show the other side of this life, expect My Morning Jacket's Jim James to be supplying the soundtrack. Few others in music today have such direct access to another dimension, and James takes every advantage of that experience to paint the sky in an explosion of colors. Everything about this Southern man points to a street preacher with a voice of gold gathering his flock for a journey to the spirit's center, invoking American majesty and quivering waves of freedom that has never been so uplifting. Kentucky reign.
Caitlin Rose, The Stand-In. It's a breathtaking moment when a star is born, even when it hasn't happened quite yet. Caitlin Rose is ready for her close-up and it's only a matter of time before it happens. Her days in the band Save Macauly hinted at what she could become, but didn't go all the way. She sure does now. With a studio full of willing souls and a basketful of great songs, Rose's second solo album puts her name on the big scoreboard. Luckily, she has learned the difference between ringing realism and going into the red zone, and knows perfectly how to take it right up to that line. Listen now, and be prepared for what lies ahead. A Rose.
Boz Scaggs, Memphis. Some singers can sing anything, and the best ones can sing anything and make it sound like it's all theirs. Boz Scaggs falls into that latter category, and from his earliest folk singer days through a tenure in the Steve Miller Band all the way to popular solo stardom, the man has never faltered. Some styles have been more successful than others, but Scaggs is never less than stellar. Going to Memphis and grabbing the groove that propelled artists like Al Green, Otis Clay and others was a very wise move. What makes it work is that real soul music has always been dead center for this singer, and hearing him really let it take over sounds like someone who has finally found their way home. Long distance information.
Semi-Twang, The Why and the What For. The sense of discovery, when it hits hard, can never be forgotten. In the late '80s Semi-Twang sprang straight out of Wisconsin, fully formed and ready for the spotlight. Leader John Sieger stepped right up like the world had been waiting for him, and Semi-Twang roared appropriately right behind. Twenty-five years later, and everyone involved has only gotten better. The group sounds as strong as the Rolling Stones on a good night, taking over a corner bar and dishing out a dozen songs for the ages. There might not be the requisite glory yet, but it's only rock and roll—and they love it. Milwaukee's finest.
Shinyribs, Gulf Coast Museum. Let's say the Gourds are a favorite group, someone who owns the sandbox they play in and aren't really looking to worry about too much. Then let's say that besides The Band and one or two other precious aggregations there hasn't been another one like them. Bandleader Kevin Russell, being someone who likely sees things in the dark and listens to a radio station broadcasting from his brain, likes to stretch the limits and to that end he becomes Shinyribs. What he creates for his own personal museum are songs from the ozone, no doubt written in a fever, and played when the scorecard has already been turned in. Always open.
Song: "If You Need Some (Come and Get Some)," Christian McNeill & Sea Monsters. Can it ever be possible to capture the highest of the highs: those moments when the lights go down and a band comes out that splits the world in two? Every second of every song tilts the floor and before the evening is over the artists and audience have turned completely upside down, defying gravity and mortality and every other sign of crushing reality. That's exactly what Christian McNeill & Sea Monsters do on this song — they evoke those moments when Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Mink DeVille and others stopped time and killed fear dead. Sing along.