Blind Boys of Alabama, Atom Bomb. As the new century started almost 17 years ago, one of America’s most venerable gospel groups turned a page in their playbook. The Blind Boys of Alabama signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and took off for new territory. Atom Bomb was the last of four records done there, and in so many ways is the most nuclear of them all. Producer John Chelew keenly zeroes in on the Blind Boys’ strengths and then messed with the borders to bring up the groove level. The results are, well, atomic. Utility players like Los Lobos’ guitarist David Hidalgo and blues harp king Charlie Musselwhite lay on a new level of spirit to an already red-zone righteousness, and give the singers a whole new ethos to share. And moving versions of Bill Withers’ “Demons,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Eric Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord” take the album right over the top. It’s like everyone had just been waiting for the Blind Boys of Alabama to help the circle remain unbroken. Plus there are instrumental versions of seven of these songs added to the end of the album that are guaranteed to get any party on the planet abundantly started. Say amen immediately.
Dawes, We’re All Gonna Die. The usual route for a band working their way to the top of the rock world is to play it safe and accentuate all the known quantities of their sound. To do things different not only gives their record label apoplexy, but can make a serious dent in their rising sales. In this case, though, Dawes owns their own label and have enough of an inquisitive streak to throw caution to the wind and head off-road. Uber producer Blake Mills is more than happy to assist in this wandering, and help Dawes discover their deepest self. Opening song “One of Us” plants the flag for diversity from note one, and the quartet never looks back. The willingness to gamble on the new is what marks bands in it for the long haul, so consider the test passed by these SoCal contenders. Singer-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith has always had a bit of diffidence in his winning style, so it should be no surprise what he’s going for now. The melancholic moodiness is a natural for him, and actually sounds like he’s found his center. It’s also true this band is just getting started, even four albums in, and possesses a future all their own. They love L.A.
The Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope. At its very best, music is all about surprises. Either a known artist takes a leap into the deep end, or a new group appears on the brainscreen and brings it all the way home. The latter is The Flat Five. Very likely they’ve been together a minute, but their recent album is such a resounding rush it makes the world feel brand new. The quintet begins with a folksy take on rock & roll blended with just enough jazzy jump to keep things interesting, and then amps it up with imaginative arrangements, intriguing lyrics, and a flat-out quirkiness to make it irresistible. Female singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor deserve world-wide fame asap, while male members Alex Hall, Scott Ligon, and Casey McDonough are right there with them. Chris Ligon, though not a group guy, wrote all the songs, which points to something seriously stunning in his abilities and background. There’s a certain enigma to all this that raises the curiosity quotient through the roof, and puts the outfit on the short list of bands to immediately hunt down and profess endless devotion to. Without doubt The Flat Five makes the world go ‘round.
Jim Kweskin & Geoff Muldaur, Penny’s Farm. There are only a handful of people who molded the early folk scene in America at the start of the ‘60s. And surely one is Jim Kweskin. His first Boston bunch, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, is seen as a precursor to so much that came later, and even though Kweskin never became a household name, those in the know know exactly what he contributed. One of his compadres back then was singer-guitarist Geoff Muldaur, so this right-on reunion of the two feels like a soulful get-together of like-minded musicians. They revisit 15 songs that trace the history of American music, without ever getting stuffy or stagnant. Many of the songs are almost 90 years old, while some, like Bobby Charles’ wistful “Tennessee Blues,” are reaching the relatively young age of only 50. What’s so mind-boggling about this album is just how modern everything sounds, no matter where the song might have started. That’s the trick of folk music: it’s the timeless expression of real folks. Add in the Zimbabwe favorite from Kweskin’s early repertoire “Gwabi, Gwabi,” and (have to mention) the Bentley Boys’ “Down on Penny’s Farm,” and the album is as fine a primer on all that is great about folk, no matter what period it originated or is recorded in today, as could be imagined. Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur are American musical heroes whose names and music should be acknowledged and enjoyed at every turn, and Penny’s Farm is a fine sign of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Yesterday and today.
Daniel Lanois / Rocco Deluca, Goodbye to Language. A church in a suitcase is what musical provocateur Daniel Lanois calls his steel guitar. And boy does Lanois love it. On this breathtaking new album of instrumentals he’s recorded with Rocco Deluca, the duo head for the ethereal zone of sounds where layers build, lead lines take flight and the final destination can be anyone’s guess. The only thing listeners need to be sure of is no matter where that place is, it will be one of endless sonic fascination. Many people know Daniel Lanois as a producer (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, the Neville Brothers, and more), and others are monstro fans of his albums like Acadie, For the Beauty of Wynona, and Belladonna. Either way, the Canadian has always been at the forefront of pushing music into the future. Goodbye to Language is a beautiful extension of that quest, and one that should be listened to morning, noon, and night for a constant reminder that sometimes words really do get in the way, and by sometimes saying goodbye to them is a first step on the never-ending road to freedom. In the liner notes Daniel Lanois writes, “The music of our slide guitars with a little help from studio explosions holds in it (I hope) what I love about art, its capacity to pull an emotion from a listener.” True that always.
The Lemon Twigs, Do Hollywood. Brother bands. What makes them so stupendously cool? The Everly Brothers, Kinks, Beach Boys, Allman Brothers, AC/DC, Bee Gees, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Del Fuegos, Louvin Brothers, Replacements, Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars, Stooges, Van Halen, Great Society, Sims Twins, Rank & File, True Believers, Valentinos, Paley Brothers, The Blasters: the list goes on and on. For modern brother acts, add the Lemon Twigs immediately to that crowd. Long Islanders Brian and Michael D’Addario are closing in on savant territory. They assemble so many intriguing influences out of thin air that it’s a bit mind-boggling. While their abilities haven’t totally gelled, it’s a slam dunk that it’s only a matter of time before it happens. They pull from Harry Nilsson, Todd Rundgren and, naturally, the Beatles and Big Star, and because of their young age it might be they don’t even know they’re doing it. Even when they edge towards the indulgent, there is always a natural awesomeness to what their debut album does that it will be looked back on someday as a prophetic beginning. The D’Addarios get some assists on these ten songs, but in the end it’s really just them playing and singing everything. Get ready for years of Lemon Twigs music, and a no doubt exciting ride to the top. Brother power pair.
Muddy Magnolias, Broken People. Take two young women, one from Brooklyn, New York and the other from Beaumont, Texas, mix them together in Nashville, Tennessee and Muddy Magnolias is what happens. Jessy Wilson and Kallie North met two years ago in Music City and it was singing at first sight. They are able to mix modern soul with more Texas-fueled rootsiness in a way that hasn’t been heard before. It’s a blend of funk and twang that hits hard on the first song, “Broken People,” and never lets up until the end on “Leave It to the Sky” when John Legend jumps in on vocals. Even if the album sounds like it’s tailored to scream to the top of the charts, it’s a real scream and never pre-fabbed to nail all the needed elements of a hit’s checklist. Producer Rick Beato is the perfect choice to steer through the minefield of over-amped production in a way that doesn’t lose control in showcasing Wilson and North’s singular voices. Even when producer Butch Walker steps in on “Devil’s Teeth,” there’s a certain restraint to keep the song from racing off the cliff. In the end, though, the overwhelming strength of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North’s singing is what Muddy Magnolias is all about, and for that there is no mistaking a rousing greatness. It doesn’t come around that often, but when it does the wide-open sky is the limit. Bet on it.
Marc Myers, Anatomy of a Song. What a dream book proposal: pick 45 different songs and then interview those closest to their creation. Born with his column in the Wall Street Journal, Marc Myers took that idea even further and published one of the most informative music books in a long time. Starting with Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952, there are enough inside tales to mesmerize fanatics and semi-fanatics who remain enthralled by rock & roll and all its eras. The arc can’t be beat: from Price to the Isley Brothers, Janis Joplin, Dion, the Doors, the Young Rascals, the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards’ recollections of recording “Street Fighting Man” are priceless), right on through to Elvis Costello, Cyndi Lauper, and R.E.M. The amount of details unearthed in the interviews feels like eavesdropping on two longtime friends talking about old times. One of the winning elements is that the chapters are short, and leave the reader fulfilled but still wanting just a little more. It’s kind of like the original 45s that are being celebrated: the best things in life don’t overstay their welcome. Still, in a recent story Myers recalls having an interview set with Lou Reed for the book, only to find out he was too sick to talk. Two days later Reed died. Hopefully, though, Anatomy of a Hit: The Encore is on the horizon. More, more, more!
Julie Rhodes, Bound to Meet the Devil. There is no better sign that modern music is alive and well than when a newcomer steps up and runs the table. That is what Julie Rhodes does on her debut album. She may be from New England, but has immersed herself so solidly in the music of the South that it feels like Alabama dirt is sprinkled all over the songs. Her voice has a power that speaks of long summer days in hundred-degree heat, and moon-filled walks through the woods after midnight. It’s also a winning streak when so many sturdy hands pitch in for the recording sessions. Among those throwing in here are Muscle Shoals legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham, Nickle Creek’s Sara Watkins and everybody’s go-to steel player Greg Leisz. The players sound like they’ve just been told they had one day to live and better come up with something eternal to be remembered by. No problem. To cast a perfect spell on the tapes, Grammy Award-winner Sheldon Gomberg did the mixing honors. He passed with flying colors, but it’s always the music that has to do the talking, and Julie Rhodes and assembled aggregation take no prisoners. She could hold her own on a stage with Irma Thomas, and hit a few chillbumps with Etta James if she was still on the planet. Lastly, anyone unafraid to cover Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face” proves a fearlessness beyond reproach, and offers a hand to the believing land. Start the journey.
Dale Watson, Under the Influence. It’s a great thing to be real. Which is exactly what Dale Watson is. He grew up near Pasadena, Texas, home of beaucoup oil refineries and some of the nastiest air in the nation. And Gilley’s nightclub, home of the mechanical bull and a lot of other Texas hoo-hah. Watson had the country music bug, so naturally ended up in Austin making a name for himself over the past few decades. Under the Influence is a very smart move. It collects songs first recorded by country beacons like Conway Twitty, Lefty Frizell, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and other stalwarts. Luckily, Watson doesn’t stick to the obvious choices, and gets inventive all over the place. His voice is so well-suited for “Lonely Blue Boy,” “You’re Humbuggin’ Me,” and others it feels like he’s the one who first brought them here. Just to make sure there’s a little mystery to the set-list, the singer also grabs Doug Sahm’s “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and Roy Head’s “Most Wanted Woman in Town” to show he knows where the nuggets are buried. This is country music for those who don’t want to be Americanaed to death, and even though Dale Watson calls it Ameripolitan, a bit of a mouthful, it’s more like the style of sound that fueled a million bar fights out in Pasadena, when the oil workers would get off the job on Friday with an extra ten dollars in their pocket to burn and something to prove among their buddies at the neighborhood bar’s dance floor. This extremely winning album’s closing song, a swaggering take on “Long Black Veil,” is where Dale Watson really shows what he’s made of. It’s no accident this release is co-sponsored by Lone Star beer. Set ‘em up.
Bill Bentley © 2016
Bill Bentley is the head of A & R at Concord records. He was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun.