Here’s a look at some of the CDs that have caught my ear lately:
10,000 Maniacs, Playing Favorites. This album, which preserves a 2014 concert in 10,000 Maniacs’ hometown of Jamestown, New York, lives up to its title with performances of the group’s best-known material. Highlights of the 14-track program include “What’s the Matter Here?,” “Like the Weather,” “Hey Jack Kerouac,” and “These Are Days.” Also here are Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” and Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” both of which the band have previously covered in the studio.
Though the concert and album celebrate the folk-rock group’s 35th anniversary, they have not dominated the record charts for anywhere near that long. Most of the material on Playing Favorites originated during a ten-year period that ended in 1993, when vocalist Natalie Merchant—who wrote or co-wrote most of these songs—bailed out. But violin and viola player Mary Ramsey, who replaced her as lead singer and sounds a lot like her, does a fine job here; and the rest of the band, who are augmented by a pair of saxophonists and a trombone player, kick up a storm on this set, which often tilts more toward rock than folk.
David Mallett, Celebration. Maine-based David Mallett has seen his lilting folk songs interpreted by such well-known artists as Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Pete Seeger, and Alison Krauss, but you’re missing half the fun if all you’ve heard from him are the covers. His vocals are a treat—deep and evocative, with just enough gravel to suggest world-weariness and to remind me of the late, great John Stewart. Mallett hits all the right notes on this 17th album, which addresses topics ranging from the state of the American dream (the title cut and “Two Sides to Every Story”) to romantic love (“Ring for You”). Backup vocalists include the singer’s sons and daughter, as well as Noel Paul Stookey (the “Paul” in Peter, Paul & Mary), who produced Mallett’s first LP.
Coty Hogue, Flight. This folk-rooted third album, which reminds me of the work of Canada’s wonderful Lynn Miles and also a bit of early Joni Mitchell, is good enough to make me wonder why Hogue isn’t a household name. Her mesmerizing vocals convey emotion and conviction, and the backup, which features violin, viola, and mandolin, is top-notch. So is the program, which includes masterful, moody originals like “Heartbeats” and “Lullaby” plus effusive covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Lucinda Williams’s “Are You Down.”
Be, You. The CD cover says this is the work of a group called Be, but when you import the album into iTunes, it lists the artist as the Chicago-based David Hawkins. In fact, this is officially a Be album, but the iTunes label is perhaps more accurate, given that Hawkins wrote all the songs, provided all the vocals, played guitar and piano, and produced and engineered the record. Be that as it may (no pun intended), this latest CD from whomever is well worth your time. Mournful cello and violin punctuate songs like “Sweet Moonlight” and “Come Back,” which are as delicate and engaging as the gentle side of Velvet Underground or anything from Nick Drake. I’m also reminded of the dreamy ballads on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. The album—which features instrumentalist and singer Ken Stringfellow (the Posies, R.E.M., Big Star)—has a homespun quality that adds to its charm.
The Tibbs, Takin’ Over. This debut album’s title is fitting because the Tibbs appear to be takin’ over where Amy Winehouse left off on her mission to revisit the classic soul and Motown era. The group, which hails from Holland, features a terrific brass section and a versatile lead singer named Elsa Bekman, who combines Winehouse’s passion with hints of Janis Joplin and the pop styling of Katrina and the Waves’ Katrina Leskanich. The Tibbs shine on rocking originals like “Get Back Tuesday” and the soulful “Armada.” And don’t miss their infectious cover of ? and the Mysterians’ 1966 garage-rock hit, “96 Tears.”
Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat, Live at the Kessler. Suhler is probably best known as George Thorogood’s lead guitarist for the past 17 years, but he has been playing with his own band even longer. His blues-inflected rock songs and the group’s polished interplay pay big dividends on this live set, which was recorded before what sounds like an adoring audience in Dallas, their home base. The program incorporates readings of 13 songs that have appeared on the outfit’s studio albums plus two new ones, “Doin’ the Best I Can,” which features great boogie-woogie piano, and “Reverie,” a plaintive instrumental. Other standouts include the funky, accordion-spiced “Deja Blue,” and “Scattergun,” whose guitar work would fit right in on an Allman Brothers jam.
Cascade Crescendo, Caught in the Rain. If you’re looking for alt-country, country-rock, or some other hybrid, look elsewhere, because Portland, Oregon’s Cascade Crescendo don’t seem particularly interested in mergers. Their sound is contemporary but even on a cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm,” they don’t stray all that far from the sort of traditional territory that folks like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson called home. This debut serves up more than enough fine harmony vocals and lightning-fast banjo and mandolin work to suggest they have what it takes to make a name for themselves.