The Americans, I'll Be Yours. If a band has the audacity to name themselves The Americans, they better be strong enough to back it up. No problem here. The only question to be answered is how a group can be this good and not known by all. Patrick Ferris, Zac Sokolow, and Jake Faulkner have been ripping and running the highways of the USA for several years, gathering fans one at a time and planting their flag in the ground of greatness. It really should be their turn for a victory lap, and hopefully this new album leads to that. Ferris is a hero waiting to happen. He writes songs that reflect beatnik bliss crossed with eternal hope in a way that very few can match right now, then sings those songs with his hair on fire. He is a true son of this great nation, one that aims for the stars and strives to take everyone with him. Guitarist Zac Sokolow sounds like his lineage traces from the kudzu jungles of Mississippi transplanted to the streets of Santa Monica, grappling with that dichotomy with the wise eyes of an inspired alchemist. Bassist Jake Faulkner, whether working the stand-up or the electric, knows it's his notes that glue this sonic spaceship together, while drummer Tim Carr escapes the tyranny of the snare drum to make sure percussion never needs a capital P. Of course, there are horns, strings and the Secret Sisters sprinkled throughout, making an album that should be taught in American culture classes as well as sold from the backseat of a downtown-bound bus. Producer Hal Willner throws in on three songs for extra voltage, waving The Americans' flag even higher. You'll be theirs.
Anthony DeCurtis, Lou Reed: A Life. It is often said there were any number of Lou Reeds living inside the man, and leave it to biographer supreme Anthony DeCurtis to capture them all. Observing Reed's multi-pronged life was like looking into a kaleidoscope, turning the lens while discovering an endless refraction of his reality. Starting young, the New Yorker set out on a course of adventure and accomplishment, writing songs that actually rewrote what was possible in rock & roll, and just when it seemed like he'd landed on solid footing, off Reed would go in another direction completely. No other rocker did it better and for longer, really, than Lou Reed. From one of rock's greatest romantic songs ("Pale Blue Eyes) to the only drug song that ever mattered ("Heroin") is a profound range of creativity, and one not easily explained. LOU REED: A LIFE is like walking into his world and living there. All the information about the ups and downs and all-arounds the artist survived is here, but along with it is an unerring eye on the music Reed created, which is the real point of any music biography. No doubt this was no easy task and has thrown most writers who have tried before. Luckily, Anthony DeCurtis knew Lou Reed, and is able to tell the entire story of a life not likely to be seen again. Now, both the music and the man can live forever. Sha la la.
Paula Frazer and Tarnation, What Is and Was. How to describe the indescribable? Paula Frazer's voice comes from an ethereal dimension that most humans never find. It's otherworldly and down-to-earth simultaneously, and can likely cause spells and cure illnesses equally. As leader of San Francisco's Tarnation aggregation off and on for several decades, Frazer has followed her own path up and down that city's streets and right out into the mysterious woods of Marin. Signing up as a Paula Frazer fan promises untold surprises, even while her music stays as stable as a heartbeat in the dark. Think of a small wood cabin isolated from everything, and then suddenly a human call warms the heart and saves the day. This pristine new album opens up brand new levels for Frazer and Tarnation, weaving in pure poetry with the third dimension. Beyond the beyond.
Chris Hillman, Bidin' My Time. Sometimes a dream comes true, like when Tom Petty wanted to produce an album with Chris Hillman, using compadres from the past like fellow Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, along with most of Petty's band the Heartbreakers and honorary Mudcrutcher Herb Pedersen. For songs Hillman's cast a wide net, including "Bells of Rhymney," "She Don't Care about Time," "New Old John Robertson," and "Here She Comes Again" from the Byrds' playbook, the Everly Brothers' "Walk Right Back" and a handful of new Hillman originals. The level of musicianship from every single player on the album is jaw-dropping: the kind of Nashville sounds that got the town nicknamed Music City in the first place. Hillman has always been a secret weapon of whatever band he's in, and even if he didn't grab the biggest spotlight it was likely out of his own reluctance more than anything else. Here he shows he can stand next to anyone. The last song, Petty's "Wildflowers" is an unintentional tear-busting coda to the life of a newly fallen rock & roll warrior. An American boy.
Flamin' Groovies, Fantastic Plastic. Even if it takes 38 years for two like-spirited Swingalis to reunite, who's counting when the results are so righteous. Flamin' Groovies' Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson helped mint the blueprint for '70s rock. They had a hat-trick of adventurous albums that decade, starting with SHAKE SOME ACTION in 1976, that put them squarely sitting between San Francisco and CBGB's. Even if the cash registers didn't shake off the counter at least the band had a massive impact on all that followed. If being infamous isn't exactly a career goal, at least there are those that followed their call with all their might. It's the way Flamin' Groovies meld equal parts virtuosity with vivacity that cements their legend in the streets and stages of the nation, and lets them mix cover songs with timeless originals. Choosing classics from the set lists of the Beau Brummels and NRBQ to fly right along originals like "Crazy Macy" and "What the Hell's Going On" takes nerve, which has always been the Groovies' ace in the hole. For a band that flew the San Francisco freak flag high, even if they came after the mind-blowing hullabaloo of the Haight-Ashbury years, it makes perfect sense to return 50 years after the Summer of Love, just in time to raise some sand and remind Flamin' Groovies' fans of all ages and persuasions that it's never too late to rock. Shake this action.
Van Morrison, Roll with the Punches. It's usually a high-wire act falling in love with a new Van Morrison album. The voice is there: a subtly strong mixture of the mystical and the man. At this stage, there's nothing like it, and might never be again. Guest singers Chris Farlowe, Paul Jones, and Georgie Fame come off as minor if mildly pleasing distractions. Morrison's band is always topnotch, even if they don't bring down the roof like the Caledonia Soul Orchestra of the early '70s. No one has done that since. But with Jeff Beck stoking the guitar fires, things start burning immediately. Then there are the songs: blues standards woven in with new originals, with few surprises except one or two tracks raising their hand for posterity. Here, it's mainly the Morrison composition "Transformation." Considering his other songs "Roll with the Punches," "Fame,' "Too Much Trouble," and "Ordinary People" mainly deal with life and career disappointments, "Transformation" shines like a green emerald on a wondrous mountaintop. It is Van Morrison seeking a higher world and eventually reaching it. When that happens, time stops. Another revelation is the new version of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Automobile Blues." It's the street-fighter Irishman singing with a lustiness cruising towards the boiling point. Free idea: a whole album of Van the Man singing Hopkins songs with Jimmie Vaughan on guitar, done at the still-active Gold Star studio in Houston where Hopkins started recording 70 years ago. Interplanetary lift-off guaranteed.
Joan Osborne, Songs of Bob Dylan. It must be a dream project to choose an artist so personally important that doing a whole album of their songs becomes a must. Of course, Bob Dylan has had this done for his music many times, none particularly memorable. That said, Joan Osborne comes close to busting out of that rut and one of the main reasons is she isn't afraid to go off-road in choosing the songs, including "Tryin' to Get to Heaven," "Spanish Harlem Incident," "Dark Eyes," and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." Osborne directs her distinctive voice headfirst into the lyrics, turning things around enough to make the words her own. She's got a naturally funky band behind her, and only took four days to do the sessions, all on a 1-inch 16-track Tascam machine. No studio trickinations allowed. Plus, who better to make the concept work? This is someone who stepped into Jerry Garcia's singing shoes in the remnants of the Grateful Dead and didn't flinch an inch, proving confidence crossed with talent wins every time. Listening to Joan Osborne, a singer who got her early start singing in a New York bar called Dan Lynch's that allowed dogs and all kinds of human crispy critters to become regulars, is to hear the real sound of our nation's soul come ricocheting out of the past and veer right into the future. It's a glorious sound and must not be missed. Ring them bells.
Songhoy Blues, Resistance. To experience the inventors of Heavy Mali music tear loose into a contemporary masterpiece of bravery is to know there are still musicians in the world who are willing to risk it all to save their land. Songhoy Blues started out in Timbuktu, zeroing in on a new form of blues, one that expresses their African roots and at the same time blends in plenty of outside guitar gyrations. It was an original sound, and world music lovers immediately took note. There was something different under the sweltering sun, and the quartet's playing was ferocious. They sounded like a lit powder keg, and once they discovered their true groove there would be no turning back. RESISTANCE sounds just like it should: young men pushing at the walls that have been built to stop them and their people, and delivering a message not out of choice so much as out of survival. It's enough to cause wonder when an American band will feel the same fervor and throw down in a similar fashion. Hear the future of blues today, and hope it never goes away. Now's the time.
Various Artists, Swampland Jewels. This collection of Louisiana musical mayhem is a fais do-mofo from the git-go. Of course, a collection of real deal jewels from Goldband Records straight out of Lake Charles would have to be. Boozoo Chavis put the bump in zydeco all the way at the beginning in the '50s with "Paper in My Shoe," an evocative stomp for all those who ever had the hole in the soles. From there the rollercoaster ride begins, and right through Sidney Brown's "Pee Pee Pancho," Cleveland Crochet's "Sugar Bee," until Jon Bonsall's "Pauve Hobo," Cajun music has never sounded so raw and real. Eddie Shuler's record label was home to so many unforgettable flings at accordion nirvana, it's hard to believe it all came out of a tiny studio not much bigger than a roadhouse dive's bathroom. It was all in the soul of those who stepped in front of the microphones and shared their hardcore humanity and unflinching ability to live the lives they were dealt, and still keep their eyes on the stars above. And if any hotdog younger bands out there are looking for a song to modernize right into the ozone, Al Ferrier's "Yard Dog" is ready for the taking. Toe-curlin' time.