The Barr Brothers
It happens ever year: the albums pour in and some stack up at the far end of the desk. It doesn’t mean they’re any less deserving of attention, but it’s like singer Wilbert “Let’s Work Together” Harrison used to say: “Sometimes it just be that way.” So this week and next, ten recent releases and two reissues will get the Bandstand glare as we try to spread the word on good music that came out in 2011 before we all call it a year. Happy listening!
The Barr Brothers. Possibly the best debut of the year, the Barr Brothers’ sneak attack started in Canada and is steadily gathering momentum in the States. Good reason too, as the trio—two brothers with Sarah Page on harp and hammered dulcimer (why not?)—twist mountain music into all kinds of irresistible forms. Their voices blend into magic, and they’re unafraid to take the band’s music wherever it needs to go. Gorgeous.
Beth McKee, Next to Nowhere. This lady is a true daughter of the South and sings like an angel with a day pass from women’s detention. Beth McKee knows how to soar upward and break hearts without breaking a sweat. A refugee from country band Evangeline, this set of stellar originals arrives full born and ready for business, showing that there are wondrous discoveries still lurking in the land of magnolias and mint juleps. If you feel you’re healed.
Booka and the Flaming Geckos, The Not So Meaningful Songs in the Life of Jeremy Fink. This intriguing soundtrack is a quiet marvel, and also a good stretch. Not all the music is in the movie, but who’s counting? The sounds of folk, bluegrass, some Civil War-inspired songs and, yes, even a taste of Acid Western captured with utter cool by Booka Michel and his Geckos feels like an accidental discovery of something quite cosmic. Happy accidents abound.
Brad Mehldau & Kevin Hays, Modern Music. Complicated pianistics like this can sound like scurrying ants on speed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Brad Mehldau is one of the great players alive, and with Kevin Hays on dueling keyboard the sky’s the limit. Composer-arranger Patrick Zimmerli adds to the festivity as they mix original pieces with the work of Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. It’s hipster heaven, no doubt, and the way they pull it off leaves the ears reeling and heart feeling full. Hammer time.
The Habit, Lincoln Has Won. Some bands are hard to pin down—thank goodness. It’s like the great definition of folk music being music played by folks, maybe Americana should best be described as music played by Americans? Either way the Habit are rising heroes of that movement, a group capable of scraping up against hard surfaces but walking away wound-free. Imagine the Brooklyn-based band moving around the territory under cover of darkness but always bringing the light. City or country, penthouse or basement, the Habit very well could end up being addictive. Shout out loud.
The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time. It’s a fairly big deal when the original Jayhawks threw in together this year, and from the lustrous sound of the reformation it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Frontmen Gary Louris and Mark Olson belong together: there is no other way to put it. They take the cold winters of their Minneapolis home and pour a little sunshine on the ice cubes, making the melancholia go down smooth and easy. Mmmm.
The JB’s & Fred Wesley, The Lost Album featuring Watermelon Man. James Brown’s badass band could do no wrong right into the mid-‘70s. How Soul Brother Number One later ended up on the wrong end of the law is another story altogether, but Lordy did he hit the mighty groove long and hard. Fred Wesley played trombone in the JBs, and recorded an album in 1972 that somehow got scuttled. This is it, and employs big-time jazzers like Randy and Michael Brecker, Ron Carter and Steve Gadd among many. It’s a much more mellow affair than expected, but still manages to kick up some sand. And though the trombone sometimes sounds like trumpet with a case of major gas, Wesley never loses his thing. Swing now or forever hold your peace.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Want More. Young bands like the Uptown Sound are worth their weight in soul. They’ve learned their lessons well from the masters, but aren’t slavishly devoted to worshipping at the retro altar. Consider that JC Brooks and band take on Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” without missing a beat, right next to dance floor boogalooing worthy of the Bar-Kays at their best. It shows they know how to shake things up at the same time they’re intent on getting down. Check your spinach now.
Maria Muldaur, Steady Love. When she started singing with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band over 45 years ago, it’s a good bet Maria Muldaur had an inkling where she was going. Some people can tell. Today, she’s found a warm musical home in New Orleans, gathering some classic songs along with newer originals to drop a few jaws with her eternal vocal power. Some of the Crescent City’s finest musicians throw down deep in the studio, and the spirits come out to add just the right juju. It might be past midnight at the Oasis, but the city that care forgot remembers a best friend. Yeah you right.
Andy Statman, Old Brooklyn. It’s a sure bet that Brooklyn isn’t located in the Blue Ridge mountains, but Andy Statman has always been a musician about breaking boundaries. He’s played mandolin with almost everyone, and still has plenty of pluck on this knocked-out gathering of young and old. Headliners Ricky Skaggs and Bela Fleck tear up songs everything from “My Hollywood Girls” to “Shabbos Nigun,” proving music is a state of mind more than a particular place, and the key to it all is an upbeat attitude and down home flair. Shalom, ya’ll.
Charles ‘Packy’ Axton, Late Late Party 1965-1967. Memphis music is like an enigma that never ends. Right about the time it seems the story has been told, a nerve-tingling collection comes forward and turns the world upside down again. ‘Packy’ Axton was the son of Stax Records co-founder Estelle Axton, a full-on fun seeker who crossed the color line early and never stopped. He also knew how to blow a horn, luckily for him. Recording a host of hometown singles, often with a racially-mixed crew starting with the Mar-Key’s monstro smash “Last Night,” Axton had a zigzagging career that never really got started. When he died in 1974 at 33 years old, the victim of severe over-sporting, the good times were over but thankfully his spirited music lives on. Hallelujah.
The Left Banke, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina. Even without the two hit singles in this album’s title, the Left Banke would likely have caused a stir in the ‘60s. They melded choral pop orchestrations and teenaged angst, and did it with striking voices and precise playing. No one else really sounded like them, then or now, and though the original group splintered fairly fast, they managed to record the worthy successor album, Too, that also was recently reissued. One of rock’s great footnotes now gets a second chance to shine bright, and what’s most striking is how far afield they wandered. Congratulations.