Marcia Ball, Shine Bright.
This woman must have a fountain of youth flowing through her backyard, because after a half-century of ripping and running up and down the highways of America and beyond, Marcia Ball sounds more full of fire than ever. Maybe that's because she's discovered such a seemingly endless well of righteous songs to write, or possibly she really does receive anti-aging antidotes from singing her heart out night after night and pounding the piano like the world's best calisthenics. After the early career highlight of helping invent cosmic country in Austin in the early '70s with her groundbreaking band Freda & the Firedogs, Ball struck out on her own and quickly found out she could do whatever she wanted. And since her first solo album released 40 years ago, that's exactly what the Texas-born and Louisiana-raised woman has done. To hear her now is to experience an artist at the very epitome of their powers. With producer Steve Berlin pitching in, Marcia Ball is able to turn to a variety of styles like she invented them all. Roadhouse rock, raunchy rhythm & blues and even Ernie K-Doe and Ray Charles bounce off each other for one non-stop swing at bliss. Then there's her heart-busting ballad written with Kimmie Rhodes titled "World Full of Love," which begins the last third of the album like a time-stopping answer to all that ails humankind. Finally, in a wave to the home folk and a classy tip of the microphone to the late songwriter Jesse Winchester, everyone involved barrels into the accordion-fueled "Take a Little Louisiana" for a high-kicking exit from the stage. Yeah you right.
The Claudettes, Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium!
When it's time to turn the amps up to 12, close-mic the snare drum, and let the singer off the leash, the Claudettes are ready to step up and do the deed. They're got firepower to spare, a bushel of original songs written by Brian Berkowitz that can be detonated at will, and in lead singer Berit Ulseth someone that sounds like they've been waiting their whole life to front this band. There is simply no way to lose. Coming from Chicago, which isn't nicknamed the Big Shoulder for nothing, the Claudettes don't tiptoe up to their music and massage it into place. Rather they pull the pin and watch it explode. On this new album producer Mark Neill pushed the quartet into the red zone and then strapped them in there. Neill, no stranger to sonic mayhem, took the band to a place not often visited these days by rock & rollers. No mercy is given, nor should there be. These are a dozen songs played for keeps, from "Don't Stay with Me" to "Utterly Absurd," and are guaranteed to turn everything from a gymnasium for juveniles to a geriatrics ward into a hothouse of delirious delight. Wear it out.
John Coltrane, Blue Train.
There is a handful of artists who exist in a different world. Their music not only changed the way people hear, but it also invokes a spirit of otherworldliness that inspires humans to reach higher. There isn't any way to explain that effect; it just is. John Coltrane is in that handful. His saxophone became an instrument of inclusiveness that bonded followers together in a fervent collection, and exists way beyond his early death in 1967. All of the musician's albums reverberate as strongly now as the day they were made, and Blue Train is surely one of them. Recorded in 1958 just as Coltrane's aura was beginning to spread throughout the jazz world, it included four originals and Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned." The inner power of the playing and the committed cohesiveness of the band turned heads in circles on its release. There was a freeness to the music that signaled the coming decade of cultural changes in a way that seems uncanny now. It was as if John Coltrane knew what lay ahead, and he used his horn to point and light the way. He may have been riding on a blue train, but it was one fueled by such an overwhelming strength that it included all the colors of the human rainbow and more. To hear this new reissue of the album on 180-gram vinyl is to be in the presence of music that moved the world in a new direction, and promised to take listeners to a better place. All aboard—again.
Joachim Cooder, Fuchsia Machu Picchu.
When surprises this sublime fall out of the sky, there is no other response than to shake the head in wonder and say "thank you." Joachim Cooder has been playing music his entire life, becoming a percussion master in the process. Almost a decade ago, the Southern Californian made an album of collaborations titled Love On a Real Train that pointed to assured future greatness. That greatness has arrived on his first real solo album. These seven songs have a cosmic-edged center to them that takes all of Cooder's many adventures, wraps everything in a big bow, and delivers them like a really early holiday present. Songs like "Elevated Boy," "Everyone Sleeps in the Light," and "Gaviota Drive" are, simply, stunning. There is a playfulness that goes way beyond anything else being recorded today, and Cooder's vocals are always irresistible. Fellow musicians like father Ry Cooder, wife Juliette Commagere, and brother-in-law Robert Francis make sure all sounds are covered, turning the event into a family affair. This is music that feels like it's being beamed in from a friendly place beyond this mortal plane, full of secret messages that just might solve the planet's most pressing problems. Ending with a striking cover of Doc Boggs' "Country Blues," this is one sonic circle that shall remain unbroken. Say hallelujah somebody.
God's Children, Music is the Answer: The Complete Collection.
East Los Angeles is its own world. Trends come and go with unstoppable power for those who live there, but often aren't noticed outside the area. Thee Midniters were an East L.A. institution that did get heard far and wide, until the band split apart and turned into legends. Two of their singers, Little Willie G. and Lil' Ray, threw in together with Lydia Amescua as God's Children and grabbed the counterculture by its fringe and set out to conquer the world. Unfortunately, as timeless as these original recordings are, the world wasn't quite ready for a Latino hippie band, not that the Children didn't give it their all. They performed original songs with all the zest of the anointed, using the Wrecking Crew session musicians and other hand-picked players. Vocally, God's Children was a celestial celebration. Any of the three lead singers could have carried their own outfit, and that's exactly what each of the trio did when the final split occurred. For now, though, this 14-song collection turns a most deserved light on one of the most powerfully divine aggregations to ever shine a light on East Los Angeles. Even if the masses didn't catch their spirit then, there is always a second-time around for true believers. Listen and learn.
Betty LaVette, Things Have Changed.
It takes a musical warrior to take on recording an album of all Bob Dylan songs. It's not that the songs themselves aren't doable, but the possibility that anything new can be added to them is the challenge. Dylan has always inhabited his music so completely there's not a lot of room for anyone else to add much new. Soul singer Betty LaVette is someone who is used to facing down the difficult. In fact, she's made a career of it. Starting in the 1960s, LaVette quickly got used to long shots, as her life ran roughshod over the norms of American music. Through a series of questionable record deals and thuggish associates, the woman had to fight her own battles and never quit trying. For this album, she and producer Steve Jordan waded into the Bob Dylan catalog without fear, and the singer unleashed her powerhouse of a voice like she was born to do this. Selections from all years of Dylan originals are chosen (from "Mama, You Been on My Mind" to "Political World"), but the constant to the music is that Betty LaVette turns her laser attention to supplying devastating emotion no matter what she's singing. It's almost a feat of nature to listen as she comes close to making her choices sound like she owns them, and always has. Not to mention the surprises she uncovers from the deepest corner of Bob Dylan's writing, reminding us now and forever that true art is eternal, just as this album surely is. Genius doesn't change.
Paul Thorn, Don't Let the Devil Ride.
Gospel music lies at the bedrock of Southern sounds as surely as drumbeats and soaring vocals, and when it was time for Paul Thorn to take that heavenly ride, it feels like this is what he was born to do. Raised in Tupelo, Mississippi and the son of a preacher man, Thorn's fire-and-brimstone rock & roll has been his calling card since he gave up a boxing career. The man approaches his songs like someone equally able to handle rattlesnakes and a love ballad: he gets in the middle of it all and finds a life-saving force there. For this album of spirituals, Thorn went to three shrines to capture the magic: Memphis' Sam Phillips Recording Studio, Muscle Shoals' Fame Studios, and Preservation Hall in New Orleans. The result is a collection of Afro-American history with earth-stirring songs ranging from Blind Joe Taggart's "The Half Has Never Been Told" to O.V. Wright's "Don't Let the Devil Ride." As all the emotions build to a fevered pitch and Paul Thorn fights for his soul's salvation, the Holy Ghost gets right in the room to take his people home. Helping the singer find his way are the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, and the Preservation Hall Horns, not to mention a studio full of crack musicians. Paul Thorn has made an album for the ages, one that crosses to the other side with wings and prayers. Ride with him.
Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet, Ladilikan.
Someone turned on the stun gun when these ten songs were recorded in Switzerland. And without further ado, it is suggested to proceed directly to number five, a chillbumper cover of Mahilia Jackson's "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away" that parts the clouds and drops a rope ladder down to make the climb up to heaven. Mali's Trio Da Kali is fronted by singer Hawa "Kasse Mady" Diabate, and her vocals throughout are a revelation for Westerners. Balafon (xylophone) player Lassana Diabate and bass ngoni (lute) player Mamadou Kouyate join the non-pareil Kronos Quartet to create a musical environment that rarely comes together, and immediately sounds like they were born to be joined. This is clearly music of the spheres, something that speaks to the deepest essence of what it means to be alive. It penetrates past any resistance to unfamiliar sounds with such graceful surety that it quickly becomes like a second skin, proving that music is the universal language that difference races and nationalities all long for. Once Hawa Diabate offers her voice to songs like "Kanimba," "Eh Va Ye," and "Lila Bambo," the Kronos Quartet wraps their unequaled ability to elevate everything they touch into the stratosphere and the xylophone and lute bring it all home. There can be no contention that lift-off has occured. In a world that threatens to divide itself into oblivion, this is exactly the music that has the magical mojo to turn things in the direction of peace, love and understanding. Nick Lowe's right.
Various Artists, Memphis Rent Party.
As an album that is meant to knock down the door and blow out a few windows, a better one than this could not be imagined. It starts a little left of Saturn, with fugitive (and convicted felon) Jerry McGill's Nyquilized take on Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting for a Train," and then gets quickly thrown into higher gear as Luther Dickinson and Sharde Thomas tear apart "Chevrolet." After that all bets are off, as the songs careen wildly all over Bluff City. Live living room recordings previously unreleased stack up next to recordings from a goat picnic celebration. It doesn't matter who's at the wheel, whether it's Furry Lewis, Alex Chilton, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Mose Vinson, because this is a sonic travelogue that just won't stop. It should come as no surprise that the collection stands as a soundtrack to writer extraordinaire Robert Gordon's new book MEMPHIS RENT PARTY, because that tome is as great a reflection of the mind-blowing machinations of the city's history and musical shenanigans as can be imagined. So the next time the rent comes due and the coins in the money jar are a little light, throw this album on, roll up the rugs, and invite every so-called friend on the contact list over for a night of hooting and hollering. Not only will the landlord get paid, but there's a chance souls will be saved and tomorrow will look like a brand new day. Feel and heal.
Reggie Young, Forever Young.
There are guitar players and then there are guitar players. For anyone reading recording credits the past 60 years, Reggie Young is a name written in stone. After early sessions like Eddie Bond's "Rockin' Daddy" in 1956, Reggie Young made history on some of popular music's most indelible songs, whether it's James Carr's "Dark End of the Street," the Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby," Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," Dobie Gray's "Drift Away," or almost any musician who ever stepped into a studio and created something that will live forever. Through it all Young has been the musician who can be counted on to create exactly what’s needed—and then some. He did it without raising his hand or hustling his way into a press photo, because the man has always been a musician first. Other players would show a million-mile smile when Reggie Young walked into the room with his guitar. They knew something memorable was about to happen. And it did, over and over and over. Now the guitar man gets to take his own victory lap with a quietly chill-bumping album of instrumentals that shows, for those who want to listen, what playing music is really all about. With longtime compadres like pianist Clayton Ivey, bassist David Hood, horn players Jim Horn and Charles Rose, drummer Chad Cromwell, and a few other seasoned vets, Young takes seven original songs and offers an instant all-time lesson in soulful beauty, something that can be listened to with joy as long as electricity exists. Start right here.
Bill Bentley © 2018
Bill Bentley was the music writer and typesetter for the original Austin Sun. His book SMITHSONIAN ROCK & ROLL: THE PEOPLE'S PICTURES was published by Smithsonian Books, October 2017.
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