Rory Block, A Woman's Soul. Who better to perform a whole album of Bessie Smith songs than this woman who, well, has definitely been around the musical block? In a new series spotlighting female blues singers, Rory Block starts at the beginning with ten songs originally recorded by Smith. It couldn't have been easy for the early blues singer who started recording over 90 years ago. Of course, a good portion of Bessie Smith's songs started in the bedroom, and the lady definitely wasn't shy about what was on her mind. Good for her, because she opened a lot of doors for those who came after to be themselves and go for the gusto. Later singers like Janis Joplin, Jo Ann Kelly, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, and others went to school on all that one of their early heroes had accomplished. Rory Block has been true blues all her years as well. Her voice is so evocative of these songs it's easy to imagine the woman as one of the second-generation originators. These are sensuous stripped-down creations, with Block playing all the instruments, which include hat boxes, plastic storage bins, wooden spoons and whatever else gets the job done. There are no hotsy-totsy arrangements or electronic manipulations. It's one musician and their deep blues, with the courage to express every feeling there is. Blues or lose.
Eric Clapton, Genius Amplified: Life in 12 Bars. The real question is does the world need another Eric Clapton compilation? The answer this time around is, thankfully, yes. This two-disc soundtrack to the recent Clapton documentary strays off-road enough to keep all but the oversaturated interested, starting with his strong early influences Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. Without those two giants, there probably would be no Eric Clapton to revere all these years. There are also songs with the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (but, alas, no "Have You Heard") and his other bands from the first half of the Englishman's career. He even got to license The Beatles "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." An unexpected highlight is Slow Hand's burning guitar on Aretha Franklin's "Good To Me As I Am to You." Too bad there wasn't a full-on duets album done by this pair during that era. It would have been chill bump city for sure. The second disc starts with a soulful turn on Delaney & Bonnie's "Comin' Home," and then it's off into solo recordings, both live and studio, ending with the permanently poignant "Tears In Heaven." Throughout is overabundant evidence of the rightful reputation of one of the most emotional guitarists of the modern world, someone who has always found the skills of survival in his guitars. It's likely not easy being called God while only in your twenties, but Eric Clapton has always followed his musical trail wherever it leads, fueled by the blues but never stopping there. Turn it up.
Flow. Thirty years ago New Age was almost a cult music for those seeking the silence. Fairly or not, it was way off the map for those born into rock & roll. Flash forward, though, and there is much to love about a music that soothes rather than scorches. Both styles can be scintillating once the stereotypes are beaten into dust. Flow is a quartet comprised of Will Ackerman, Fiona Joy, Lawrence Blatt, and Jeff Oster. They include guitars, keyboards, vocals, and brass. There is a supple groove that propels each song, provided by Ackerman and Blatt's guitar and Oster's trumpet and flugelhorn. Joy is a singer and pianist who absolutely lives up to her last name, and when she sings the skies open with her sound. Best of all are the quartet's intricate originals, whether they're in the foreground or the background. This is music that can be played anytime and anywhere, and always thrills. Ackerman, also known for founding Windham Hill Records, is someone to keep an ear on. He's been breaking traditions his whole musical life, and shows no sign of stopping now. Of course, there are a half-dozen guests joining in, but in the end it's Flow that delivers the spirit. Feel and heal.
Kinky Friedman, Circus of Life. When Austin resident Richard Friedman decided to throw his cowboy hat into the ring before the redneck rock renegades banded together, who knew it would actually work. With the new first name Kinky, Friedman was a man ahead of his time. He thrived on making audiences uncomfortable with songs like "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," and naming his band The Texas Jewboys. All part of the act, except come to find out Friedman could write truly touching songs like "Sold American" and "Rapid City, South Dakota." Flash forward 45 years and here we have the man's first album of new songs in over 30 years, and it's as strong as anything the Kinkster has ever recorded. It's like he's become a wizened philosopher of life, one that sees the world from the dispossessed side of the street. He may rock a big cigar and talk trash like nobody's business, but deep down this is a Texan who wears his heart on his sleeve and has made the second-best album in his life, amplifying the legend Kinky Friedman created all those years ago. But this time he's for real. Mazel tov ya'll.
Stephen Kalinich, Scrambled Eggs. And now for something completely different. Really. Stephen Kalinich has been a spoken-word artist around Los Angeles for over 50 years, wandering into different genres and generations like a true original. He's written songs with the Beach Boys ("Be Still," "Little Bird," and others), Dennis Wilson's solo efforts, P.F. Sloan, and others. He never wavers in his quest to explain the impossible. Kalinich's recent efforts have been recordings with noted producer Jon Tiven that bring him right into the fire of rock & roll. This new album (using Paul McCartney's working title for his song "Yesterday") goes a long way into bringing the longtime Los Angeleno into the limelight. Kalinich will always be a true poet, but the way his words now segue into rock & roll is immediately striking. Guest singers like the Pixies' Black Francis, Bekka Bramlett, Tara Holloway, and Ellis Hooks help him make that journey, and turn the album into a wild affair. And then there are Dylan LeBlanc's contributions. The young Louisiana contender is all in for his appearances on "Wishes Do Not Get Me There" and "Drop Some Kindness," both serious contenders in finally getting LeBlanc the notoriety he has earned. Still, through it all, Stephen Kalinich seems to have found a real key to opening new doors. He was there at the start of the Los Angeles zeitgeist in the mid-‘60s, and has never lost his way. There were years in the wilderness, but unflinching courage has always been the man's guiding light. Now in his 70s, this one-of-a-kind original is ready for the Big Whatever. Sign up early and join the crusade for taking his listeners into the future of peace and passion. Now's the time.
Kathy and the Kilowatts, Premonition of Love. Since moving to Austin 50 years ago with her family, Kathy Murray joined up with the blues crew there on day one. Drawn to local players then like Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Vaughan, Denny Freeman, and Bill Campbell, it wasn't long before Murray got a guitar and jumped in. The wonder of her quest is that she has remained with a low-down sound that takes aim at the center of the heart and stays there. She's won various awards in past years, but never takes her eye off the blues. Murray sings like her life depends on it, and keeps influences like Otis Rush, Magic Sam, and Freddie King up close and personal while carving out her own style. Guitarist and co-producer Bill "Monster" Jones keeps the axe fires burning way hot, and matches Murray's vocals with an always-bluesy edge. Wonder of wonders, Kathy Murray's songs grasp a modernity that's often lacking in the blues today without ever trying too hard to be current. They capture a woman's modern world that makes it obvious what the singer has gone through. No small feat in current life. As always, the blues is there to turn sadness into gladness as best as possible, and Kathy and Kilowatts turn that trick with soul and salvation. These could be the songs to turn a bigger spotlight on Ms. Murray, with plenty of Kilowatts to make them bad and nationwide. Blues to use.
Sam Llanas, Return of the Goya Part 1. While Sam Llanas will always be part of BoDeans' legend, he's now clearly established himself as a musician who has built his very own world. He has no fear of flying into new territory and using his prodigious talents to make them his own. On this new release, the man from Waukesha, Wisconsin rolls in some major country influences into his heartland America sound, and the results are astounding. Hank Williams was his earliest musical influence, and the way Llanas can blend that element into his always-original songs sounds like something that was meant to be. The singer's strength has always been a moving mix of strength and vulnerability, and the ability to build those emotions into one coherent voice. He can make songs like "Follow Your Heart," "Little Song," and "Long Way Home" feel like they've been with us forever, which is no easy feat in today's topsy-turvy world of rock & roll. Sam Llanas brings it all back home with an individualistic style that will forever sound like no one but himself. In so many ways it feels like this could be Sam Llanas' time again. He has been one of the most passionate rockers of the past 35 years, someone who is just one song away from finding his way to national attention. Those songs are on this album, and there's a good chance Llanas won't be denied now. An American treasure.
Nick Lowe, Tokyo Bay. God bless Nick Lowe and all who sail with him. For 50 years he's been recording music that not only stands every test of time, but is often at the forefront of moving rock & roll forward. This century he's concentrated on a quiet sound, one full of real eloquence and emotional fervor. To say he's always been one of the best singer-songwriters of his era is an understatement. This new mini-set of two 7" vinyl singles is a return to a little more rollicking style, one Lowe helped invent with his earliest endeavors. Backed by the hyper-kinetic Los Straitjackets, the devoted legions of Nick Lowe followers should be ready to rock. The Englishman's two originals here, "Crying Inside" and "Tokyo Bay," allow him to return to a mild-but-potent bashing, full of lyrics that have marked him as a musical marksman from the start. There is something about the way he combines words and melodies that is so seamless it almost feels like alchemy. And the two covers, the Bee Gees "Heartbreaker" and Sir Cliff Richard's "Travelin' Light," illustrate Nick Lowe's super-sonic talent as a song-spotter, one that continues the streak with flying colors. It's time to ring the bell and bang the gong to celebrate Mr. Lowe is rockin' again. It's clear that it's in him and it's got to come out. The Basher's back.
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens. Listening to saxophonist Charles Lloyd is like hearing the beating heart of humankind. The Memphian has a way of playing his horn that immediately references the celestial, and always extends a hand of hope to those who hear music as a sonic savior. His new album is stunning, to be subdued about it, and offers a journey like no other. For starters there is the ESP-driven rhythm section of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. Add the cosmic Bill Frisell on guitar and Greg Leisz on gorgeous pedal steel and dobro and this is a quintet for the ages. Lloyd immediately recalls the otherworldly on opening song "Defiant," and when singer Lucinda Williams enters on the second selection "Dust," it's like a vision of the beyond is present. Her stirring vocals, always unique to herself, become woven into the band's soul. The magical has become manifest, as the music of the spheres is joyously present and never wavers. Williams' immediate classic "We've Come Too Far to Turn Around" arrives like a courageous call to perseverance in troubled times, one that Lloyd first lived through during his days playing with B.B. King, Bobby Bland and others in a 1950s segregated South. Charles Lloyd was one of the first jazz musicians to regularly play San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium during the '60s, immediately becoming a beacon of sound for the city's psychedelicized counterculture. Clearly he has always been someone who seeks the further and isn't about to start looking back now. In Lucinda Williams, Charles Lloyd has found a perfect partner. Tune in today.
Jennifer Warnes, Another Time, Another Place. This is a singer who has followed her best instincts, recording albums that always have surprises lurking within. Now, at this point in her life, Jennifer Warnes offers her biggest and best surprise of all, collecting nine songs, co-writing one with Michael Smotherman and finding the deepest sound of her life. "Just Breathe," written by Eddie Vedder, might not seem on its surface a song for Warnes. Forget that, because with this vibrant version it sounds like Vedder wrote it for her. After that come songs composed by John Legend, Mickey Newbury (his "So Sad" a heart tugging masterpiece), Ray Bonneville, Mark Knopfler, and others that define what makes music absolutely irreplaceable in modern life. Warnes' voice lives in the center core of everything she records, finding a place that feels like a perfect home. There is such a richness and warmth in all she accomplishes that the album takes on a gracious glow, like this is a gift of the highest order. Jennifer Warnes has had a lifetime of musical highlights, but now appears to have saved the best for now. She and co-producer Roscoe Beck have the intuitive instincts to know exactly what is needed, and never make the mistake of adding one note more. On the back of the album booklet Warnes' mother Barbara looks gratefully at the camera in 1929, like she knows that someday she'll have a daughter who makes the world more meaningful for us all. Bless their hearts.
Song of the Month: Jimmer and Syd, "So Long Blue." Keeping a list of the all-time rock ballads that can bring a listener to their knees is a good way to stay excited about music. There's the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," the Rolling Stones’ "Wild Horses," Elvis Costello's "Alison," now Jimmer Podrasky and Syd Straw's new "So Long Blue." Jimmer has made a series of unforgettable albums the past few years, and his new six-song EP "Shoulder to Cry On" is right up there with all of them. This song, co-written by Jimmer with Brian Whelan, can stop time. It sounds like a couple has broken up, and he's got some papers to sign to officially end it all. The music and lyrics combine into a heart-breaking ode to what's been lost, and how it seems like there is no way to turn back the clock. Acceptance is the only way out, as the first chorus says, "Morning comes dressed in black / so long blue." Jimmer and Straw's voices combine into an emotional wrecking ball, quietly delivering a knockout punch of good things that often seem to get destroyed along the way. With any justice, it should take its place with all the other rock ballads that turn desolation into a hopeful deliverance, a way out of being destroyed. The good news for now is that the other five new songs the pair has recorded together are equally fine. Jimmer is a man who has stared down a dark road before, but always turns back towards the light. It now feels like he's never going back. So long blue.