Slaid Cleaves, Ghost on the Car Radio. For someone born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Maine, naming his first band the Magic Rats, it's intriguing how swiftly and naturally singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves fit into the firmament in Austin in the early '90s when he moved there. He's made a series of albums that firmly puts him in the tradition of Guy Clark and other Texas troubadours so he's probably street legal there by now, and this new album, his first in four years, could well be Cleaves' best. Now in his fifties, the artist has nothing left to prove except just how outstanding he really is. His personal stories of struggle and discovery unfold through these twelve songs with a master storyteller's ability to detail a life in only a few verses and chorus. Characters come alive with the twist and turn of a life well-lived, and the wisdoms learned are so searing it feels like a knife has been pulled. It's not always pretty but it is always true, which is the most a song can ever be. Slaid Cleaves can be mentioned in the same breath now with other living heroes like John Prine and Pat McLaughlin, and with producer Scrappy Jud Newcomb's unerring assistance has delivered all that and more on an album that will now live forever. The signal's on.
Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm. For a modern day soul singer, Robert Cray has covered the waterfront. He started out barnstorming bars in the Pacific Northwest, and then had a few mega-hits in the '80s that served him well in setting up a long-running career. The singer's voice is deep and always right on. He doesn't get fancy, but instead lets the notes come to him, wrapping his warmth around songs that talk about real life hurt and happiness. For his new album, the man heads to Memphis' Royal Studios, and enlists some of the renowned players there that worked on Hi Records' all-star righteous roster of Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, and others. The Hi Rhythm sound is one that starts in the neighborhoods of an inner city, where aging Cadillacs and Buick 225s line the streets. It's bottom heavy and full of subtle power, a music that inspires hope at the same time it captures the trials and tribulations of being without. Robert Cray has grown into a person who can pull the weight and set his musical abilities free. At a time when horn-driven bands are all the rage, music like this is a fitting reminder that sometimes a seasoned veteran can help show the way it's really done. Wear it out.
A.J. Croce, Just Like Medicine. It's not always easy being the child of a famous musician. It's a lot to live up to and not always easy to make a new way. Jim Croce was a '70s phenomenon, and his early death caught everyone short. Son A.J. Croce has made a series of albums that all found a good audience, but this new album feels like it's the one to bring him home. Produced by soul legend Dan Penn, from the first downbeat on "Gotta Get Out of My Head" there's an immediate feeling of release. It's like the perfect assemblage of players has found their way into the Nashville studio, including guitarist Colin Linden and Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, and a collection of songs were written that casts Croce in his own aura. "The Heart That Makes Me Whole," written with Leon Russell, and "The Other Side of Love," a Dan Penn collaboration, makes it clear this is serious business, and Croce is going all the way to make sure it works. He even finds an unrecorded song his father wrote, "Name of the Game," to show the circle will remain unbroken. A.J. Croce's voice is one that can wander around hills and valleys and still remain his own. He has entered that area where artists exist in a party of one. Croce is there.
Grateful Dead, Smiling on a Cloudy Day. As we close in on the end of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, it's an opportune time to consider the standard bearers of all things Haight-Ashbury and beyond. That would be the Grateful Dead, the San Francisco band that applied their acid-fueled visions of music and life with such an all-enveloping skew they changed the world. The Dead really did. This superlative ten-song set culled from their first three studio albums recorded in the '60s, along with the single version of "Dark Star," is a mind-bending ride on the helix of hallucinatory joy. While other Bay Area bands tapped into the astral plane, none went as far out or stayed there longer. Beginning appropriately with "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)," these odes to eternal light still beam with a beatific shimmer unmatched by any others, pointing the way to an understanding of reality still being explored. As the counterculture splintered and threatened to implode on itself, the Grateful Dead kept on truckin' right up to the edge of wherever it looked like it ended, and then pushed right on through to the other side. Seekers be advised the doors of perception are open 24/7 and this music is the soundtrack for that journey. Cowboy Neal driving.
King James & the Special Men, Act Like You Know. Horn bands are everywhere these days. It seems like saxophone players, trumpeters, and trombonists are turning up on bandstands everywhere. Which, in itself, is a good thing: musicians get to work and the air is alive with notes born of breath. No problem there. What matters most, though, is what the band does with all that activity. King James & the Special Men have taken over several New Orleans nightspots in the past few years, hot-to-trot places like BJ's Lounge, Sidney's Saloon, and the Saturn bar, turning them into dens of freedom-seeking fans to revel in the wild delight in the City that Care Forgot. Led by singer-guitarist Jimmy Horn, this nine-man aggregation holds back nothing, invoking the spirits of past music kings like Professor Longhair, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino, Jessie Hill, and Huey "Piano" Smith, but wisely never falling victim to the terminal disease of musical retro-itis. Instead, the band swoops into the excitement of French Quarter excursions from dusk to dawn, followed by high noon streetcar rides up St. Charles Avenue and, yes, hangover relief in Audubon Park. It's a full-time job, and King James & the Special Men are up for the task. This is music played for fun and played for keeps. All night long.
Robert Kraft Trio, North Bishop Avenue. An undeniably great voice doesn't show up that often, especially one that possesses such a rarely-heard inherent beauty, someone whose sound doesn't overwhelm but instead offers a quiet invitation to discover its charm and power. Robert Kraft is that kind of singer. He never shows off with bellowing pipes or sidetracking screams. Instead, the Dallas-bred Texan gathers the wildly-varying influences of what he heard in the Oak Cliff and Deep Ellum neighborhoods of his younger days, and filters them through churning inner feelings to arrive at that golden land of inspiration. The stripped-down instrumentation behind Kraft offers the perfect accompaniment: restrained and directly to the point. It sounds like they turned down the studio lights, maybe lit a candle or two and jumped into the deep end. It doesn't happen that often in the current musical landscape, and almost never works this well. Like all unforgettable releases (even if this one is only seven songs), there is a cover song that meshes so well with everything else it feels like it was chosen with a jeweler's eye. Leon "The Blind Balladeer" Payne's "You've Got a Place in My Heart" comes near the end of this collection, and offers a sonic glow so strong it will last forever. Lone star reveries.
Milligan-Vaughan Project. Singer Malford Milligan has been a fixture on the Austin music scene for over 20 years. His first high-visibility band was Storyville, which included Stevie Ray Vaughan's rhythm section Double Trouble with guitarists David Holt and David Grissom. Guitarist Tyrone Vaughan has also been in a number of bands, and with father Jimmie and uncle Stevie Ray Vaughan he has a direct connection to a blistering blues bloodline. By joining together, Milligan and Vaughan raise expectations for hair-raising results. They get close, too. There's a barroom nitty gritty to all these songs that could only come from a city where a funky soul is waiting right around every corner. Malford Milligan gets in the gutter with a vocal style that conjures a swaggering strut down the dark end of the street, while Tyrone Vaughan pours on the string heat with a red-hot guitar. The songs they choose to cover are vivid tells on how they see themselves: Buddy Guy's "Leave My Girl Alone," Les McCann's hit "Compared to What," Reverend James Cleveland's "Two Wings," and "Palace of the King," written by Donald "Duck" Dunn, Leon Russell, and Don Nix. That hat-trick of songs, and how the Milligan-Vaughan Project delivers them, shows their deep roots. It's not easy to take the blues into the modern world, but if anyone can do it it’s these two. With longtime compadre David Grissom in the producer's seat, lift-off is guaranteed. Now's the time.
Stanton Moore, With You in Mind: The Songs of Allen Toussaint. If any city worships the drum, it's New Orleans. From the very first African slaves imported to Congo Square there, the drum was brought with them. The direct lineage of players starting with Earl Palmer in the late '40s with Roy Brown, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, to Charles "Hungry" Williams, Johnny Boudreaux, Leo Morris (aka Idris Muhammad), Smokey Johnson, Zigaboo Modeliste, Johnny Vidacovich, and now Stanton Moore, it's become like a long line of all-stars. Moore, moonlighting on this album from his regular gig in Galactic, has hit upon a grooveacious idea. Take ten songs by the late Crescent City music maestro Allen Toussaint, add special guests like Cyril Neville, Trombone Shorty, Nicholas Payton, Maceo Parker, and others, then find the levee and totally burn it down. It's a can't-miss concept. Stanton Moore's drumming is a delight just by itself, and with bassist James Singleton and pianist David Torkanowsky, they are the perfect trio to allow all the players to burn brightly. Imagine being set free on the corner of Rampart and Dumaine and come upon a street parade with this bunch: ain't no need to think about heaven because it's come right down here to earth. Yeah you right.
Jimmy Reed, Mr. Luck: The Complete Vee-Jay Singles. Shout-whamalama! The Big Boss Man of the blues is back in town on a knocked-out three-disc collection of every single he released on Vee-Jay Records. Jimmy Reed's career there started with "High and Lonesome" in 1953 and ran through "When Girls Do It" in 1965. In those dozen years he created a canon that has yet to be equaled for pure-blown unique genius. Reed wrote, played guitar and harmonica, and sang with such a startling force that there was never any question who was the boss. No one else came close to Jimmy Reed for bringing blues to the masses. The artist had hit records on both white and Africa-American radio stations at a time when the races were still a thousand miles apart. The key to Reed’s success was that no one else sounded like him, and the way he put it all together was absolutely irresistible. The slurred words, the wheezing drawn-out harmonica solos, the low-down poetics of everything he wrote: Jimmy Reed ruled the world, and influenced mightily so many future rock & roll stars he should have a statue in front of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This box set is mandatory listening for anyone who claims to love music, and establishes a standard for what one person can create and accomplish. Monkey nerves rejoice.
Single of the Month
The Mustangs, "T-Shirt from California." For those with memories of the '80s still intact, The Mustangs will invoke major flashbacks of a band that seemed like they had it all. Yes, they were all women, and yes they played country music, even if it was rocked up around the edges. Sherry Rayn Barnett (electric guitar, vocals), Suzanna Spring (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), and Holly Montgomery (bass, vocals) return with their illustrious outfit, now joined by Suzanne Morissette Cruz (drums, vocals) and Aubrey Richmond (fiddle, vocals) to deliver one of the most moving singles of the year. "T-Shirt from California" is a near tear-jerker about a love affair headed for the rocks, with no way out that doesn't involve heartbreak and unhappiness. The Mustangs always had a way with songs like this. Spring has such an evocative voice and the way the other band members back her up, it is still a source of amazement they didn't hit the toppermost of the country poppermost 30 years ago. The good news is the five females are here to give the ride on the musical merry-go-round another twirl, and if there is any justice left in the music business they will take that trip all the way. This is as classic a heart-tugging Southern California song as anything heard since, well, the Eagles were trying to check out of the Hotel California. Welcome back Mustangs.