Pieta Brown, Postcards. If 2018 is going to hopefully bring an avalanche of justice, when wrongs are righted and things that got broken are put back together, then Pieta Brown should surely take a belated victory lap for an album so strong and seductive it cannot be overlooked. There is good reason artists like Mark Knopfler, Mason Jennings, Carrie Rodriguez, David Lindley, Calexico, David Mansfield and others sign up early to play on her albums, and all stand in awe of the passionate powers Pieta Brown possesses. She weaves sounds and words into intriguing patterns that feel like they've always been on this good earth, and point to a promising world of wonder.
Father John Misty, Pure Comedy. Finally, someone steps up who isn't afraid of hallucinations and other psychic havoc, and is willing to use those vibrations as linchpins in their music. Sometimes modern life seems a little glued down, where every single idea is expressed immediately in such a torrent of sharing that nothing is left to the imagination. It makes for the music expressed in our times to feel like it's heading toward the safer side of the street. The doors of perception need to get blown open now and then just to show what's possible. Father John Misty is doing just that, right down to his pseudonym and outré approach, and exhibits no signs of ever turning back. Long may he stun.
Garland Jeffreys, 14 Steps to Harlem. For those who started their musical careers in the '60s, the ranks are rapidly thinning out of those still possessing the needed fire to light life up. Put Garland Jeffreys at the front of that subway car, someone who feels and sounds like his inner world is bursting with exciting things to share, ranging from the trembling to the troubling. It's always been obvious Jeffreys' mixed-race background handed him a key to several kingdoms, and he's explored them all ably. On this album, he takes the express train to the end of the line and back, sharing a musical ride not to miss. For someone who's been in the trenches for 50 years to continue to feel completely contemporary is nothing short of miraculous. And miracles happen.
Jimmer, God Like the Sun. Long-shot players all deserve our admiration. The ability to keep pushing even past tough odds is an attribute to be honored. Jimmer is an artist who will not be stopped, and this second album zeroes in on emotional entanglements, challenging existence decisions and all kinds of other human bedevilments. His song, "You Can Count On Me," performed with Syd Straw, says it all. There was a time 30 years ago when Jimmer led a next pick-to-click band the Rave-Ups. But they didn't end up raving, and he went south. The way the singer-songwriter has come back is astonishing, just like his music. What a thrill.
Diana Krall, Turn Up the Quiet. There are moments in modern life of such extremities and emotional despair that only true jazz can soothe them. The sound, the notes, the emotions, the sheer humanity of the music is like an anodyne for the aggressive assault the outside world projects. Diana Krall has such a sheer artistic appeal in her singing and piano abilities it's like an outer beast is being quieted. These are permanent songs, ones that stand the test of time and hold up life to a finer light. Krall's voice invades the lyrics and makes them her own, almost like they've never been sung, and offers her hand to a better land. On this album at this time, Diana Krall and producer Tommy LiPuma (R.I.P.) grabbed the moon and hung it anew once again. Sometimes the loudest thing in a room can be the beating of a human heart.
Scott Nolan, Silverhill. Anytime a singer-songwriter of super impressive talents makes their way to the Admiral Bean Studio in Loxley, Alabama and unleashes such a quietly powerful avalanche of songs, notice should be taken. Scott Nolan is no newcomer, but this album feels like a decidedly massive debut. There are songs here that can stop time, all recorded over a two-day period when the crickets were cricking and the Willie Sugarcapps band was leaning into a Southern style of playing that cannot be denied. The album closer, written with Hayes Carll, says it all: "With no plans worth making / all the good dreams were taken / when you leave this world / you leave alone."
North Mississippi Allstars, Prayer for Peace. There aren't any other outfits that mix the down in the bottom Mississippi blues with more supercharged rock sonics than the North Mississippi Allstars. That's because Allstars Luther and Cody Dickinson were raised right there next door to kingpins like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, so during their youth there wasn't any division between them and the Delta grown-ups. The two were in the juke joints and outdoor barbecues swinging from the same rafters. They take those early lessons and amp up a few notches, without ever losing sight of reality and what makes those blues so eternally vital. Their latest collection feels like an amalgamation of all they've learned, and all they hope to continue learning, coated in the warm glow of Southern love.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, So It Is. Hot'cha mama: this is one start-to-finish audio blast that will put some bodacious jiggle in the wiggle and glide in the stride. Seriously, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have tuned their twanger dead-on to the present. While they incorporate the incredibly indispensable jazz past of New Orleans, this is music so much about today that it saturates the soul and makes life feel like an unending adventure to groove to. The smell of the French Quarter seeps out of these songs, as does the second-line shing-a-ling worthy of any Crescent City parade. The horns, the drums, the keyboards, the bass: every single note serves the master of music and points the way to an imminent take-off.
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins. If anyone deserves an award for going above and beyond the call of duty in rock & roll, it would have to be Chuck Prophet. One of his early credits, of course, was Green on Red, easily one of the best bands of the early '80s who for some reason never quite got their due. Prophet has gone on to live up to his last name, making a string of albums that literally define how good modern rock & roll can be. And the gorgeous ballad on this release, "Open Up Your Heart," is a chill-bumping classic that is an instant romantic treasure, and should be sung in schools right after the pledge of allegiance. Seriously. Kids need to learn how love really works.
Shinyribs, I Got Your Medicine. God bless the Gourds, but now that front man Shinyribs is out on his own, life in America has taken on a new shine. He brings such a strength and soul to everything he writes and sings that it's like a one-man wrecking crew has arrived to save the musical day. There is no doubt Shinyribs has the medicine needed to turn modern life into something a little more inspired and interesting. Do not miss the chance to find how here just how he does it, with a horn section that opens up the sky to endless imaginings, a voice that combines the grit with the gracious and a high-stepping groove that careens from uptown to downtown without ever scuffing the shoes. No one else on the planet has what Shinyribs has, and he's ready to share it with the whole wide universe.
Best Reissue: Dion, The Kickin' Child. Imagine an album recorded in 1965, produced by the same man who was working then with Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, the Velvet Underground and others leading the charge in creating a new world for rock & roll to conquer. When teen throb Dion started to walk away from his youthful pursuits and head for a more expanded view of consciousness with producer Tom Wilson, the brain trust at Columbia Records didn't quite take that particular trip with him. So after a couple of singles they shelved Dion's recordings and tried to steer him back to the Top 40. Finally, the fruits of the Dion/Wilson sessions see the light of day, and they were worth waiting for. Who knew?
Best Song: Ariel Pink, "Another Weekend." If, let's say, producer Lee Hazelwood had stumbled on singer Ariel Pink down at LaCita on the darker side of Hill Street, then been slightly dosed with an elixir of unknown origin, maybe this song would have been the audio result. It's got the sunshine seeping out of the verses, and then stretches into slight absurdity on the choruses, only to come back full circle and head for the Sunset Strip and bring it all back home. There is such a swirl of freewheeling influences in Ariel Pink's latest concoction it's impossible to resist, so why bother trying? L.A. is still the future of America, and this is the young musician to lead the parade right down the middle of Main Street head held high.
Bill Bentley © 2017
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: THE PEOPLE'S PICTURES will be published by Smithsonian Books, available October 2017.
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