Calexico, The Thread That Keeps Us. Talk about an over-sized salad bowl full of sounds and songs. Tucson's Calexico are the American masters of how to mix and match instruments, influences, and downright inspiration to come up with something totally all their own. Main man guitarist, vocalist, percussionist, and keyboards player Joey Burns joins with drummer-percussionist John Convertino and ten other musicians to concoct a masterful album of Arizonaroma righteousness. The 15 songs (including three instrumentals) are each of their own orbit, all of one piece but even more importantly each of their own creation. It's near-astonishing how far out Calexico can go, but always is able to be tethered to their distinctive home base. It's a place where America and Mexico combine in a way that's neither one or the other separately. Instead, Tuscon is Tuscon, and the music that comes from there owes its allegiance mostly to itself. It's the reason why Calexico perseveres, year after year, like a spaceship of its own planet, discovering plenty of distinctive terrains but always moving on a further quest. It's a band that has always been impossible to pin down, which is exactly why every one of their releases holds a slew of surprises and assorted delights. Listening to "The Town & Miss Lorraine" and the following song "Flores y Tamales" is a 360-degree dance to America's sonic riches, one that delivers awe and answers simultaneously why the United States will continue to stand. The band's name itself is a mash-up of epic proportions, one they deliver on daily. Pledge the allegiance.
Country Joe & the Fish, The Wave of Electrical Sound. When talking about rock's Big Four in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in 1967, it usually comes down to Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. There were at least a dozen other outfits that glowed almost as equally, but those four got a lot of the national ears and ink during the Summer of Love. Still, over the Bay Bridge in Berkeley, Country Joe & the Fish were out-hallucinating nearly all of them, and coming up with a visionary sound that remains untopped. Both "Electric Music for the Mind and Body" and "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die" are collections that always cause reverberations for the lysergically-experienced as well as less psychedelicized pioneers, and it's no wonder this far-out box set has been unleashed on the world. Containing the mono and stereo mixes of both albums on four 180-gram vinyl discs, listeners can almost feel the fog laying on top of the city and hear the jingle-jangle of Haight Street around the world. Hypnotic songs like "Bass Strings," "Grace," "Janis," and "Who Am I" resound with auditory hallucinations no matter where they're heard, and the band (Country Joe McDonald, Barry Melton, David Cohen, Bruce Barthol, and Chicken Hirsch) all play the infinite marvels of Fish music like the explorers they were. Besides the endlessly groovy greatness of their recordings, there are extras galore in the box set: rare artwork, the Fish Game, a Fish Fan Club Book and Fish Calendar, along with a 24-page booklet. Last but definitely not least, there is also a 30-minute DVD documentary titled "How We Stopped the War," directed by David Peoples featuring Country Joe & the Fish on their way to an anti-Vietnam War rally. The mighty collection, limited to 2,000 copies, is produced to perfection by Alec Palao and Bill Belmont, and not a sugar cube too soon. Gimme an A.
Anderson East, Encore. Blue-eyed soul brothers are here to stay. That's been obvious since the '50s when rhythm & blues first swept through the land, and Caucasian singers from the South were right there with their African-American brothers and sisters to keep the lights burning. There have been dozens and dozens since then, and standing at the top of the mountain now is Alabaman Anderson East. He has such a gritty gyroscope ruling his world there's no way to hear him any other way. Luckily, he's not hindered by that association. Rather he's imbued with a power that artists like Otis Redding, O.V. Wright, and Otis Clay used to throw down at every turn. East has made a dent in spreading his abilities, but he's still searching for a breakthrough so the masses will hear what he's got to offer. His sophomore album gets close to hitting that mark, with songs like "Surrender" and "King for a Day" pumping plenty of prime blood-pressure inducing ingredients into the atmosphere. Anderson is the real-deal protege of an American treasure trove of musical bliss, whether it's revved all the way up or broken all the way down. Listen to him struggle with life's big ups and downs and hear what a true believer can accomplish. Get East bound.
Jeffrey Gaines, Alright. Some musicians seem to stay in the shadows for a few years, leading to questions about how their music is progressing. Jeffrey Gaines is one of those artists. With an auspicious debut in 1992, it really did look like the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania young man was on the fast-track to the spotlight. He had a unique way of mixing soul and rock, one that set him apart from so many other bands in the early '90s. Other releases followed, including a hit single of Gaines' version of Peter Gabriel's classic "In Your Eyes." Now, after a 15-year recording absence, Alright breaks down the door of silence with such strength and ease it's almost stunning. One reason for the power of songs like "Feel Alright," "Frowned Upon," and "Thick and Thin" is the irresistible studio crew of producer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Price, Val McCallum, Pete Thomas, and Davey Faragher. These fellows can flat-out play, and slide into Gaines' songs with such soulful ease it feels like they've been together forever. Jeffrey Gaines himself has aged with grace and greatness, and carries the weight of being a true musical contender with solid swagger. He never overplays his hand, but always brings every song home like a long-lost friend with a message to share. This is an album to find, feel, and share. Gaines comes home.
Janiva Magness, Love Is an Army. Some humans just have the force inside them. Likely there are rational explanations for their unbendable essence, or maybe not. Maybe it's a gift from the outer zone that somehow finds its way inside them. Singer Janiva Magness has that force. Her life story explains some of its origination, but the X-factor also has to be added to the mix. It's all the way there. Magness' voice has a way of instilling belief. When she sings, often the incredible songs she co-writes, it can be so invigorating that every little thing in life feels possible, no matter the heartache that's come before. The clouds open up and the sky offers new answers in a way that becomes almost visual. Title song "Love is an Army" is the perfect example of one that is so much more than just music. It’s an anthem of what is possible in this world, things that are unexplainable except in their presence right in front of us. And all the other songs here carry that same buoyant weight. Any album with Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica gets an instant seal of approval, while singer Delbert McClinton's appearance on the chilling "What Could I Do" is worth the price of admission alone. Not to mention it's one of the best ballads in years. Janiva Magness arrives to take an entire army of fans old and new all the way home. Call her name.
David K. Matthews, The Fantasy Vocal Sessions, Vol. 1 Standards. Keyboard whiz David K. Matthews played with soul queen Etta James for almost 20 years, and likely absorbed everything he needed to know about how to get to the funkiest side of the street the fastest, and then stay there. Along with other life lessons that Matthews must still be shaking his head about. On his own, the musician decided to spread his wings and play all kinds of styles, and enlist some stellar guest stars to help light the way. Singers like Steve Miller, Maria Muldaur, Kenny Washington, and Renata Simon each sound superb, and on jazz standards like "Lover Man," "Lush Life," and others, this impeccable band shows David K. Matthews knows his way around all kinds of playing. It's little wonder the sound of the album is so warm and winning: it was recorded at Fantasy Studio in Berkeley, California, home to the legends of jazz for decades. While this may not be an album that becomes the talk of the town, it is intimately listenable for those times when straight-ahead songs fill the bill like nothing else, and only the best players are being counted on to deliver them. Thank Mr. Matthews for putting his money where his keyboard is and going for the gusto. "Blue Skies" forever.
John McCutcheon, Ghost Light. How could this be John McCutcheon's 39th album? It seems like an amazing feat in his celebrated 45-year career, but when your earliest lights went on for Woody Guthrie's songs, there's no reason to stop now. He even added lyrics to Guthrie's "When My Fight for Life is Over" here just to pay homage to the early instigator. Don't forget: this is an artist who can zig and zag from being a hammer dulcimer virtuoso to earning a Grammy nomination for children's music. There is nothing off limits in the wide, wide folk world of John McCutcheon. Storytelling is what’s at the center of this musician's life, though, and like some of his previous releases, the singer-songwriter has a refined way of telling those stories like they've never been told before. He has a feel for mystery that makes each song an unfolding experience, ones that feature no wasted notes or unnecessary additions. Instead, McCutcheon's originals hang in suspended time, pulling listeners in while they also expand everything around them. There's a heartfelt shimmer to every aspect of humanity he is able to explore, whether it's on "Me and Jesus," "Big Day," "The Machine," or "Story of Abe." Considering this new album had an accidental start and came in a whiplash flash, it will always be a hallmark of an Appalachian-centered American treasure. Ghosts for all.
Ron Nagle, Introducing the Many Moods of Ron Nagle. Is it too early in 2018 to call out the album of the year? Who knows what other musical achievements are waiting down the road the next 11 months? But no matter what they may be, there is nothing that can top Introducing the Many Moods of Ron Nagle. For a man who already has a devoted cult of fans from his 1970 Warner Bros. opus Bad Rice, Nagle has run for the shadows too long. It's time he took a turn in the sunlight and proved to the world his musical gifts are for now and for all time. Arranged and mostly written by Ron Nagle and the Scott Matthews, this is music that is absolutely breathtaking in its ability to take listeners to a different world. For newcomers, it will surely bring up the mystery of why San Francisco's finest is not a household name. For the already devoted, it should generate squeals of tingling glee and glorious dancing in the street. There is nothing off-limits mood-wise on these lucky 13 songs, and with unforgettable covers of the Miracles' "Fading Away" and Blue Nile's "Family Life" it appears to be a surety this is finally Ron Nagle's time to shine. Seriously. He helped kickstart the whole San Francisco rock scene in 1965 with his band Mystery Trend, and even after getting sidetracked with a super successful career as a fine arts ceramicist and college professor/department head at Mills College in Oakland, the music of the spheres has always been this man's natural home. Nagle is exploring the inner and outer reaches again, and there should be no deterring him now. Next stop: Mars.
lynn taylor and the BarFlies, Staggered. It doesn't happen often enough, but there are times when an album is released and it instantly becomes a new friend. It's music that is appropriate for all moments, a trusty sidekick to what the world has in store for its inhabitants. And on an album like this, there is often one song that rises to the top and takes a valued place in everyday life. On Lynn Taylor's latest collection, "If You're Gone" is that song. There is something so incredibly warm and understanding in the words and music that it's hard to imagine living life now without it. It's the only song on Staggered that Taylor wrote with Will Logsdon, and points to a quiet passion and ultimate empathy only a handful of artists are capable of sharing. It turns out Taylor lost his wife in 2016 after her long struggle with cancer, and you can literally feel a human touch of goodness and openness coming from "If You're Gone." The last song "Crumble Away" completes that circle. It shows the truth that music can offer solace to all sorrows, and very often provide a path forward. On so many of the other tracks, the BarFlies and producer Dave Coleman amp up the sonic courage and rock in a way they haven't done before on record. This is a back-alley rock band that isn't afraid of going toe-to-toe with anyone, and their ferociousness arrives right on time to help Lynn Taylor make a stand for permanence. Take their hand.