Here’s a look at the latest crop of albums I find noteworthy, including several from artists you’ve probably never heard of.
Various artists, Highway Prayer, A Tribute to Adam Carroll. Most tribute albums tip a hat to a widely acclaimed veteran performer but this one argues that a little-known artist deserves fame. That argument is persuasive, to put it mildly. Adam Carroll—who happens to be yet another musician from Austin, Texas—writes some of the most evocative and well-honed songs I’ve heard in ages, and these uniformly fine performances, mostly by Carroll fans who are as obscure as he is, do them justice. The great James McMurtry, perhaps the best-known contributor, opens the set with a terrific “Screen Door,” which subtly limns the thoughts of a man who’s “lookin’ out the screen door where your face comes in the light.” The program continues with such memorable sketches of moments and characters as “Hi-Fi Love,” “Girl with the Dirty Hair,” “Rain,” and Lil’ Runaway”; it ends with “My Only Good Shirt,” a charming bonus track from Carroll himself. If Highway Prayer doesn’t wind up on your list of the year’s three or four best folk albums, it’s probably because you haven’t heard it.
Smoke Wagon Blues Band, Cigar Store. After listening to this album, you won’t be surprised to learn that the seven-man Smoke Wagon Blues Band has been in business for 20 years or has a large following on its Canadian home turf; on the contrary, you may wonder why its fan base hasn’t expanded much to the States. That may change with Cigar Store. A few perfunctory tracks notwithstanding, the blues-based set shines, thanks especially to Corey Lueck’s harmonica playing and soulful vocals and Gordon Aeichele’s sax. The excellent program, which draws on R&B, jazz, and rock, features a dozen songs written or co-written by band members, plus a funky reading of “Mean Old Lady” by the late Canadian blues artist Richard Newell (aka King Biscuit Boy). Highlights include “I Can’t Change,” a beautifully sung sax-spiced ballad, and the New Orleans-influenced “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” which sounds redolent of Dr. John in his prime.
The Mavericks, All Night Live, Volume 1. The mighty Mavericks are back, this time with a 78-minute, 16-track concert collection recorded last year in Austin, Texas. The core band of four musicians, joined on the road by another four, deliver their trademark blend of alt-country, Latin/Cuban rhythms, and rock and roll. The energy never flags on the party-ready program, which favors upbeat material and includes such favorites as the irresistibly bouncy, accordion-spiced “All Over Again,” a bring-down-the-house reading of “As Long as There’s Lovin’ Tonight,” and a brassy “Dance in the Moonlight.” There’s also a cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” that offers the album’s best showcase for Raul Malo’s tenor and should explain to any doubters why he merits comparisons to the likes of Roy Orbison. Two quibbles: I wish the mix had made the band just a tad more front-and-center and the crowd noise a little less intrusive—the CD sounds to me as if it were recorded from the sixth row, not from the stage. Also, many of my favorites from the band’s large catalog aren’t on the album, which emphasizes recent material, but I note that the title includes “Volume 1,” which suggests that my complaint may soon be addressed. Be that as it may, this is a fine album from a superlative and trail-blazing band.
Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms, Innocent Road. In this album’s cover photo, the cowboy-hat-wearing Klauder looks like a cross between Hank Williams and Bob Wills, and the image proves indicative of the retro country music within. Klauder and his musical partner Reeb Willms, who seems to have been influenced by such traditional country singers as Kitty Wells, deliver a live-in-the-studio-sounding set that features their acoustic guitars and vocals, his virtuoso mandolin work, and fine accompaniment on most tracks by upright bass, drums, pedal steel, and fiddle. Klauder originals like “Been on the Rocks,” “Last Time I Saw You,” “You’re the One,” “New Shoes,” and “Just a Little” fit right in alongside covers of tracks by luminaries like Buck Owens (“There Goes My Love”) and George Jones (“I’d Jump the Mississippi”). The CD’s cheap cardboard packaging is among the worst I’ve seen but everything else about the record is first class.
Tony Hadley, The Christmas Album. Playing this CD put me in the mood to see the tree go up and the snow come down. Originally issued last year in the U.K. and available stateside only as an import, this well-produced collection has been expanded from 15 to 18 tracks for worldwide release. Tom Hadley, the lead singer for the hit-making 1980s New Romantic band Spandau Ballet, delivers some spirited performances on this atmospheric package, which features backup by a large band and more than half a dozen pop/rock versions of standards like “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (a duet with Kim Wilde), and “Jingle Bells” as well as rock-era hits like “I Believe in Father Christmas” (from Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Greg Lake) and Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph.” But the best cuts are four relatively unknown contemporary Christmas-themed love songs that would fit well alongside Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” (which Hadley doesn’t cover): “I Don’t Want to Spend One More Christmas without You,” Chris Rea’s “Driving Home for Christmas,” “Lonely This Christmas,” and “Stay Another Day.” This is the epitome of mainstream pop, but strong melodies and Hadley’s vocals make much of it work for me.