Bang! The Bert Berns Story. Sometimes a music documentary appears that is so illuminating, so inspiring and so downright intriguing that time stops. Part of that here is due to the itchy-twitchy feeling that while songwriter-producer Bert Berns' name is semi-legendary, it's sometimes hard to pin down exactly why. And then, as the film unspools, an overwhelming rush of awe takes over at just how great he was and how much the man accomplished before dying in 1967 at only 38 years old. How could it be? Enamored early by Latin music and then moving into the New York rhythm & blues world with songs like the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" and Garnett Mims & the Enchanters' "Cry Baby," Berns was one of those people who got so deep inside the sound it looked like he'd helped invent it. And in a way he did: by the time he got to the U.K. to work with Van Morrison's early band Them in 1965, his fate for greatness was sealed. Morrison's solo smash "Brown-Eyed Girl" rocketed to the top of the charts two years later, and Bert Berns' ambitions went right with it. He started his own label Bang Records (taking the first letter from the first names of himself and Atlantic Records kingpins Ahmet and Neshui Ertegen and Jerry (Gerald) Wexler. Of course the plot sickens quickly with financial chicanery, Mob involvement (!) and ultimately stone-cold betrayal. It probably broke Berns' heart and hastened his death, but not before a few more chart-cracking songs like the McCoy's "Hang on Sloopy" and the Strangeloves' "I Want Candy" sealed an unrivaled reputation. The film, directed by son Brett Berns and Bob Sarles, is based on Joel Selvin's thrilling book Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns, which is a must-read for anyone interested in how the music really gets made and the promises too often broken. Only in America.
Selwyn Birchwood, Pick Your Poison. Hot-shot blues guitarists used to be falling out of the trees on every corner. Those days have slowed down a notch, but among the upcoming players who hold plenty of promise now, Floridian Selwyn Birchwood is a name to remember. He was mentored by neighbor Sonny Rhodes, an electric lap steel guitarist of all things, who imparted his wide wisdom to a young Birchwood when he first took him on the road. Luckily the lessons stuck, and now Birchwood is busting loose all over the place. Even if he hasn't completely found his own sound yet, it's possible to hear in Selwyn Birchwood's playing that those days aren't that far off. His attack on the big red Gibson guitar is vicious: he knows how to circle the song just long enough before going in for the kill. Even better, he stays away from the show-off school of bluesmen, those who throw out a million riffs a song but in the end wind up saying very little. Instead, this player picks his notes carefully and nails them into the song so they stay there. Birchwood also possesses the kind of emotive blues voice to go right along with his guitaristics, and if he's not quite all the way there yet, those days are clearly coming. For now put Selwyn Birchwood in the Place position, coming around the first turn with all systems firing. Blues or lose.
Benjamin Booker, Witness. This wildly gifted young musician might have been born in Virginia and raised in Florida, but when he moved to New Orleans after college he stumbled into the all-night mambo that set him free. Who knows? He might have even adopted his new last name in honor of the Crescent City's permanent piano wizard James Booker. Either way, Benjamin Booker is destined for greatness and takes a giant step towards it with this supremely agitated sophomore release. The wild-eyed guitar solos and endless boogie of the band is still there, but there's a new sophistication to some of the songs, a stylistic surge that says this is a young man who has his eye on the sparrow and ain't backing down. The duet with Mavis Staples, "Witness," is a shivering example of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and immediately moves Booker to the front of the class. All the other swirling and twirling sonic excursions on songs like "The Slow Drag Under" and "Truth Is Heavy" are sure to catch adventurous ears, and give this bright new light plenty of encouragement to continue his explorations in greatness. Find the levee.
Don Bryant, Don't Give Up on Love. Real soul music won't ever die. There will always be a need for singers to bear witness in front of the true believers, moving them to lift their eyes to the sky and dream of a brand new day, even when the night threatens to drag them down to the bottom. Don Bryant knows all about ups and downs. He started singing in Memphis' Carnegie Church of Christ. Bryant was all of five years old then. But singing got inside his spirit and has never let go. When he hopped aboard bandleader and later producer Willie Mitchell's soul train, it was a non-stop ride to musical history. Don Bryant wrote plenty of hits, including some for wife Ann Peebles including the "I Can't Stand the Rain" mega-smash, and also took a run at the charts with his own records. Some got close to breaking loose, and some didn't. The Memphis man never quit, though, and he's returned with as good a soul record as can be made in this century. Drummer Howard "Bulldog" Grimes and organist Reverend Charles Hodges represent the glory days of the Hi Records studio band, and there are plenty of other vets on hand to make sure the tracks have that back alley realness of Bluff City's best recordings. There are a handful of new originals by Bryant and co-producer Scott Bomar, the new heartbreaking "First You Cry" by David Egan and Bruce Fleet, and a brave new take on O.V. Wright's devastating "A Nickel and a Nail" classic. Recorded with love and happiness, this is a modern celebration of Southern jubilation, delivered from the heart. Right on time.
Dion, Kickin' Child. Out of nowhere one of the best reissues of this century appears like a hallucinatory apparition of grooviness. When Dion recorded this album in 1965, he had already had a string of heart-busting hits like "Teenager in Love" and "Runaround Sue." But the times they were a-changin' and the Bronx rock & roll idol was changing with them. He partnered-up in the studio with uber producer Tom Wilson, the very same man who had worked with Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan on "Like a Rolling Stone," and soon the Velvet Underground with Nico. The two took off into the ozone, and the songs Dion and Wilson recorded then would surely move the sound forward and offer opportunities that could only be dreamed about. Dion saw it as his big leap into musical maturity, honing a folk-rock sound that also featured his one-in-a-million voice. The green lights at Columbia Records were getting ready to start flashing and a couple of singles were sent out. Sadly, they were met with little excitement and then everything ground to a halt. Soon enough the intended album was put on the shelf for good, where it has sat all these years. Dion himself went on to more great recordings as well as some years in and out of favor. Still, he never quit trying. Flash forward and lo and behold here comes what is immediately recognizable as a buried treasure, one that sounds surprisingly modern for being over 50 years old. There is such a hopeful edge to these tracks, filled with the fervor and flair the mid-'60s was so full of. Today, Dion is still making some of the best music of his life and this fine, fine album from the past belongs up there with it. The Wanderer abides.
The Dustbowl Revival. Way out west in Venice, California, the Pacific Ocean is a constant presence. Even when it's too far away to see, it's always there. Pounding waves hit the beach with a percussive force, and the smell of the salt water makes sure the funk is always felt. In the morning the haze hangs around until noon, at least, and makes everything move slow. The Dustbowl Revival, a full-blooded 8-piece swinging bohemian gang of a band, are based in Venice and have soaked up all the distinctive attributes of that area, filtered them into their gumbo of jump blues, swing, bluegrass, gospel, jug band, and even ska sounds in a way that puts them at the mountaintop of Americana music right now. In fact, the aggregation has flown right past any specific genre directly into their very own style. Singer Liz Beebe and guitarist-vocalist Z. Lupetin have an unrelenting dynamic between them that's like firecrackers popping off right in the hand. The other Dustbowl Revival fine fellows put the hammer down at will, and turn a bandstand into a come-together call to arms. Luckily producer Ted Hutt, one of the original Flogging Mollys, knows exactly how to bottle the band's prodigious energy into a recorded slice of history, without losing an ounce of oomph. In a right-on idea to show the struttin' side of the bunch, blues groover Keb Mo' steps up on "Honey I Love You" to bring the West Coast cred full circle. No matter which way it's sliced, life with the Dustbowl Revival is an unrelenting ride to the the sweet and raucous side of town. Get on board.
Diana Krall, Turn Up the Quiet. It feels like the right time for a straight-up jazz album by one of the modern world's greatest singers, and the best way to make that happen seems obvious. First hire super producer Tommy LiPuma (R.I.P.), someone who made so many required listening albums it's staggering. Check. Then make sure engineer Al Schmitt records it all. Check. Next pick eleven songs that fit perfectly with Diana Krall's essence, and make sure her own always-moving piano accompaniment is right there with her. Check. Last, but not least on the list, is surround her with musicians who know what it means to support the singer, players like bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Russell Malone. Check. Put all together, this is one of Krall's most emotional albums, one that feels like it is pouring out of her very center. Never one to show off, the singer lets a quiet power do her bidding, always to devastating effect. Writers like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Mercer bump up next to others not quite as well known for a song list that is directly on the mark, one that fits so snugly with Krall that shivers are never far away. In a world that often feels like it is beyond understanding, music like this can be a soul-saver. Listen to gems like "Isn't It Romantic," "Night and Day" and "No Moon at All," and salvation, even if it's temporary, is there for the taking. This is timeless music perfect for the times. Apply as needed.
North Mississippi Allstars, Prayer for Peace. There aren't many bands that can wrap their arms and songs around the past and the present in a way that sounds like they've discovered a new road into the future. But that's the North Mississippi Allstars today, where they've arrived at a place the band has always been pointed towards. Luther and Cody Dickinson have royal musical bloodlines, and have been putting in their 10,000 hours since they were old enough to touch the strings and the sticks. But they've discovered something brand new on a blistering mix of originals and righteous co-writes and covers with Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, along with two absolutely chilling versions of Mississippi Fred McDowell classics. The way 2017 sonics collide with music inspired by the shadows of the looming Magnolia State kudzu sculptures feels like the band has traveled to a brand new planet in a rocket-powered Peterbilt 18-wheeler that will not be stopped. There's no other way to describe it. This is musical history being made for the inner soul and the juke joint combined, and there's no one else who can do it today. Highway 49's calling.
David Olney, Don't Try to Fight It. Here's someone who is a man of many talents: singer-songwriter, actor, poet, radio host, and most likely he knows how to change a clutch. In the end, if David Olney had to put only one occupation on his application to heaven he'd probably list "musician." He's got a most intense way with words and music, one that lets him zero in on an emotion and then laser it into the human heart itself. Think John Hiatt but someone who uses a ball peen hammer instead of a fountain pen to craft his sound. This artist isn't taking any chances with anyone within earshot missing the intent of his purpose. There are shades of blues, country, and rock that run deeply through songs like "If They Ever Let Me Out," "Crack in the Wall" and "Big Top (Tornado)," but the deft way David Olney sews it all together there is never any chance to get hung up on the seams—because there aren't any. This is a modern sound imbued with the somewhat disturbing angst that has become the everyday song in the air of America, but it also is one that offers a slightly twisted hand to those seeking solace. When the train looks like it's getting ready to jump the track, it's always best to have a conductor who can sing. Pin a medal on Olney post-haste and let him lead the willing to the other side. Chugging not bugging.