Arthur Alexander. There are certain albums that can take on the glow of a hallowed time, one that offered eternal promise and endless passion. They arrived quietly, and often left the world the same way. Alabama rhythm & blues pioneer Arthur Alexander's self-titled 1972 album on Warner Bros. Records is surely all that and more. Early '60s hits like "You Better Move On" and "Anna" helped ignite the nascent British Invasion, but unfortunately Alexander's own career went quiet by the time the '70s started. His strong but vulnerable voice got overwhelmed by soul kingpins like James Brown and Wilson Pickett, and for a while it looked like the singer's mighty talents had been stilled. Fortunately the label knew greatness when they heard it, and in 1971 producer Tommy Cogbill jumped into a Nashville studio filled with Memphis musicians and opened the door to the momentous. Arthur Alexander's singing carried an infinite appeal, the ability to move to an inner core of the spirit. The mixture of originals and dead-on covers felt like something auspicious had been created, and the label went all out to share it with the world. Only the world wasn't listening, so songs like "It Hurts to Want It so Bad," "Rainbow Road," "Love's Where Life Begins," and "In the Middle of It All" stayed undiscovered on one of the very best releases of the '70s. Hopefully this righteous reissue, including six bonus tracks, can make things right. Arthur Alexander moved on in 1993, but his music lives forever. Listen and believe.
Rose Cousins, Natural Conclusion. The Canadians come through again, with help from their American friends. Singer-songwriter Rose Cousins was born and raised on Prince Edward Island, and lives now in Nova Scotia. She has received many accolades in her homeland including the Juno Award, and is one of the most evocative and charged artists to come from the North country in at least a decade. For her new album, recorded in Toronto, uber-producer Joe Henry took the wheel and brought his hand-picked band with him. There is no finer team in the world, and their gifts are spread through these dozen songs like a shimmering rain of stardust. The sound alone of Cousins' album is something to behold. Add on songs like "Chosen," "Lock and Key," and "Coda," and the result is breathtaking. It's a direct line from Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, k.d. lang, Daniel Lanois to Cousins. She is in that realm of individual uniqueness, and while Cousins hasn't made their impact yet, this could be the music to do it. Her voice is sensuous and sturdy at the same time, a force not to be forgotten. There are only a handful of artists now who can conceive and deliver this kind of complete creation. Rose Cousins is at that crest of amazingness. Do not miss.
Dan Hicks, I Scare Myself. There really hasn't been another musician like Dan Hicks. He started with the folk-derived Charlatans in the maelstrom of 1965 San Francisco, veered into his own Hot Licks three years later, and spent the next 38 years proudly being unique. His popularity sometimes wavered, but he never was anything less than his very best. Sadly, Hicks' death last year ended that long run of originality and outright musical wonderment, but luckily he wrote this autobiography before he moved on. And what a book it is: totally honest, full of hard-hitting insights about his life of (literally) ups and downs, and the whirling scene all around him. It’s such a wizened first-hand view of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture it's impossible to resist. With the able hands of writer Kristine McKenna to make sure Hicks' story sings like it must, hopefully fans of all styles will read and learn just what he meant and how it happened. With a foreword by Elvis Costello and afterword by producer Tommy LiPuma, this is a book that is easily the equal of the Dan Hicks' music. He's still here.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound. Sometimes getting the boot from a popular band is the best thing for a musician. Stock must be taken and digging down deep is the only way forward. When Jason Isbell was shown the tour bus door a decade ago by the Drive-By Truckers, it was likely a painful exit for him. He didn't stand around moping, though. Instead he started recording a series of solo albums that now culminates in one of the best sets of this decade. Newfound sobriety probably didn't hurt Isbell's abilities during these sessions, but still it feels like there's been an overall quantum leap both lyrically and musically. He has entered the zone when a writer gets to go 3-D in how they view their own life and the lives of others, finding ways to express themselves that become universal. Some of these new songs tap into the ultra-zone of eternal emotions, ones that embrace both new life and the ultimate end. It's as simple as that. They glow with the knowledge truth is being spoken, and for willing listeners the world can turn even if only incrementally. Exhibit Number One is the chorus of "If We Were Vampires": "It's knowing that this can't go on forever / likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / maybe we'll get forty years together, but one day I'll be gone / or one day you'll be gone." Shock and ya'll.
Jim Lauderdale, London Southern. When so-called cowpunk moved into the Los Angeles rock scene in the mid-'80s, there were a few singers then who stuck with the cow side of the street and let the punk crew have their own fun. Jim Lauderdale was among the former and, along with Dwight Yoakam, became a shining star of that blooming movement. He wrote timeless songs, sang them with undeniable feeling and let the cow chips fall where they may. Now, over 30 years later, he's made a successful career sticking to real country music with his own releases and all the hits he's written for others. There's always room for growth, though, so Lauderdale wisely went to London recently with a new hybrid in mind: take some of the finest players there, set them loose on a dozen of his new songs and watch something different be born. The singer's voice strikes at the very heart of the matter, and is never less than transcendent. With production by veteran U.K. drummer Bobby Irwin (aka Robert Trehern, R.I.P.) and Neil Brockbank, there's a wondrous whirl to these sessions, like everyone knew they'd journeyed to a place no one had been before and all was possible. Bangers and grits.
Peter Lewis, Just Like Jack. Of all the great contenders among rock & roll bands, Moby Grape might just be at the top of that long list. And right in the middle of the Grape was Peter Lewis. He wrote a handful of their best songs, including "Sitting by the Window," "Fall on You," "He," "I Am Not Willing," and "What's to Choose." Lewis' voice defied description—it was a blend of pure beauty and hard-won wisdom. His bloodlines were impeccable: his mother was Academy Award-winning actress Loretta Young. But the best news of all is that Peter Lewis has continued making music now for over 50 years, and his new recordings are right there among his most stellar. He fell in with some central Texans a decade ago, including drummer Freddie Steady Krc (who co-produced this new album with Lewis), Cam King, and Layton DePenning. They've taken ten songs, including "Sailing" co-written with fellow Moby Grape legend Skip Spence, and made a modern-day equivalent of a genre-busting '60s masterpiece. There's nothing retro about this music. Lewis is too individual an artist to get stuck staring in the rear-view mirror. Instead, he reaches down into the strongest parts of his art, places where things like courage, belief, and vision live, and comes out with something that deserves to be heard. The album’s title song refers to another bohemian who wandered his own path and never looked back: Jack Kerouac. On the roads. Joe Medwick, Memphis to Montreal. In what has to be the album surprise of the summer, all-around soul man Joe Medwick put a call out to some of the funkiest musicians on the planet, wrote seven new keeper songs, then bumped them up next to six classics and proceeded to set it all on fire. Really. Who knew a man who had been a record retail whiz, valued writer, and overall scene stealer had so much musical beauty bottled up inside him? Musicians Mike Finnigan, Johnny Lee Schell, Hutch Hutchinson, Joe Sublett, Albert Lee, Gary Mallaber, Garth Hudson, John Inmon, David Jackson, Tony Braunagel, Jennifer Candos, Carmine Sardo, Joel Savoy, Gia Ciambotti, and Lynne Coulter don't show up for just any session. Most of the tracks were recorded at Studio City, California's Ultratone Studios, but they just as easily could have been done at Stax, Muscle Shoals or, hell, Levon Helm's Woodstock digs. Medwick's vocals are a timeless meditation on how music is meant to enter the body and mind, then spread warmth and fullness throughout through the sharing of a joyous glow. It's stunning just how strong this album is. Which, of course, begs the questions why the man from Watertown, New York and all points America took so long to share such strengths? Like most other things he's done, Joe Medwick knows when the right time of the night time is, and never makes his move too soon. Bless his heart.
Willie Nile, Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan.For someone who was thick in the middle of "the New Dylan" foolishness that invaded Greenwich Village during the 1970s, Willie Nile always kept his head held high and got on with showing his own uniqueness. At times, it probably wasn't that easy. But the Buffalo, New York native had so much to offer there was never a chance Nile would stop, even though the business side of music made him walk away from it for a decade. When he returned in the '90s he had both barrels blazing, and it's been that way ever since. It would be hard to find an artist of his era with the fires still burning this strong. It's no surprise that Willie Nile collected these ten primo Dylan originals and pretty much makes them his own. From "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to "Abandoned Love" this is a thrilling ride through one man's songbook and another man's present power. In the process, Bob Dylan's music comes alive in a way that hasn't been heard recently, and Willie Nile stands centerstage right there with him, a meeting of masters who need to be heard now more than ever. Don't look back.
Oumou Sangaré, Mogoya. Like much of African music, the first thing that hits home is the rhythm. There is such a surge of irresistible movement which can't be denied, there’s no choice but to give in and let go. Straight out of Malian Wassoulou, Oumou Sangaré jumps into the deep end of what is surely one of the best world music albums of the past few years. For those without a map, Wassoulou is an historic region south of the Niger River, and this living musical treasure has established herself over the past few years as a singer-songwriter who brings the sound into the modern era without sacrificing the roots of where she began. Here's just a few of the song titles here: "Ingratitude," "Suicide," "Womanizer," and "Bad Millet Grains." Of course, these are the English translations. Sangaré's voice has such a sweeping power to it, never letting up as it twists and turns, that by album's end it's like a trance-induced journey has ended with the only recourse being to start all over again. As for the album's title, it means “People Today.” All day long.
The Secret Sisters, You Don't Own Me Anymore. A few years ago Alabama's Secret Sisters were teed up to take off. Their first album was a semi-stunning set of country covers, and on the way to the sophomore release the green light was turned on bright. The sisters were opening for Levon Helm, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Ray LaMontagne to wild acclaim. But between label and managerial confusement Laura and Lydia Rogers got T-Boned, and believe it or not they were soon cleaning people's houses and declaring bankruptcy. Their blast-off was put on serious hold. But being committed Southern women, there was no stopping them. Returning with this new release, the old axiom is likely to be true: the third time's the charm. How could it not be? The Rogers' singing is otherworldly and, just as promising, their original songs are as strong as their singing. That's saying something. Granted, they've got the genetic code of being siblings to explain some of their overwhelming strengths, but putting that aside it's a known fact these two are just flat-out singing country angels. And with these songs and Brandi Carlisle's co-producing strengths, the kingdom of musical heaven is most definitely entered. They have written what sound like brand new classics with "Tennessee River Down Below," "Mississippi," "To All the Girls Who Cry," cover Paul Simon's "Kathy's Song," and generally put a stake in the ground marking they are here to stay. Head their way.
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.