By Bill Bentley
Matt Andersen, Halfway Home by Morning. Sounding like it was recorded in a soulful sweat lodge, this is music meant to twist the heart into unique shapes and remind the world that love is a many-splendored thing. Canadian Matt Andersen has a voice that never fails to make the spirit shudder, and writes songs of such depth that he could have been part of the early crew at Muscle Shoals in the mid 1960s. This is an album to be savored for its simplicity as well as its ability to blow the world apart, reminding everyone that music is meant to supply a passion for those who seek salvation when they listen. Andersen’s gifts live right next door to church, and surely have a place with anyone who hopes to get to the hallelujah land while their feet are still planted on the ground. He’s got a band of righteous rockers who also know what’s going on at the dark end of the street, and when he needs them calls in the McCrary Sisters for a knockout backing vocals punch. On a side trip, if Bonnie Raitt doesn’t cover Andersen and Amy Helm’s “Something to Lose,” well, the planet will be missing a lick. Just when it looks like humanity might be heading into the darkness, HALFWAY HOME BY MORNING is here to set the course right and move men and women back into the light. Follow this leader.
Bhi Bhiman, Peace of Mind. Rock & roll is close to 70 years old, give or take an originator or two, and it’s not easy anymore to do something so singular that it stands out as original. But that’s exactly what Bhi Bhiman accomplishes on this nine-song album. Even more, he goes the heady route of doing everything himself: writes the songs (except a devastating cover of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money”), plays all the instruments, sings the songs (except for one backing vocal) and produces the whole set alone. Not an easy feat to bring all the way home, and only a few artists–Paul McCartney and Skip Spence come to mind–have handled that solo feat with permanent poise. Bhiman clearly has no fear. His songs zip from aggro power (don’t forget: his early band in the 2000s was called Hippie Grenade) to melodic distinction. Their subjects range from the mess of the modern world and possible reasons for it to love-ridden odes that even suggest possible solutions. Bhi Bhiman’s parents are Sri Lankan, but he was raised in St. Louis, which is about as Middle America as you can find, a perfect place for someone with rock tendencies to develop. Now, he has found a place to make a stand and who knows, find peace of mind. Or not. This music is more a call to arms by someone who clearly wants to enter the debate of how the United States and the world moves forward. PEACE OF MIND begins and ends with “Beyond the Border.” With today’s headlines blaring the news, that’s ground zero for the future. Follow this man.
Murali Coryell, Made in Texas. Time to blow down the doors with a rippin’ and runnin’ take on Texas music and then some. Murali Coryell has been drilling for oil in central Texas’ music fields for a few years, and he most definitely hits a gusher this go-round. Enlisting drummer Ernie Durawa, straight out of San Antonio, was a wise call, and along the way they’re joined by bassist Speedy Sparks, keyboard guru Augie Meyers and a host of other Lone Star Staters. Opening with “Herman Wright,” which also features father Larry Coryell on guitar sets fire to the album. From there the songs twist and turn and include Doug Sahm’s “I Got it Bad,” Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson’s “Woman Don’t Lie,” Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool,” Paul Oscher’s “Satan’s Woman,” Meyers’ “All I Ever Needed” and, yes, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” along with five Murali Coryell originals. Everything feels like it was inspired by an outdoor dance floor with a Texas sky full of stars, which means the music burns and yearns and always shoots for the moon. Coryell is a deeply soulful singer along with being one of the finest electric guitarists playing anywhere. Mostly blues-based, he’s also capable of reaching out into the cosmos when needed, always zeroing in on emotional bell-ringers to show his stuff. All the way down to artist Kerry Awn’s album cover painting, this music feels like a total celebration of everything Texas has to offer, and a sound that runs from El Paso to Port Arthur, Wichita Falls to Laredo and wherever musical freedom reigns supreme. Bluebonnets and beyond.
Carlo Ditta, Hungry for Love. When the summer gets sizzling in New Orleans’ French Quarter, anything can happen. The rootie toots on Decatur might start doing the Funky Penguin in front of Coop’s Place, or the not-so mellow fellows in the Golden Lantern on Royal could jump up on the bar and knock out a hot version of the Sideways Pony. And, yes, over in Jackson Square a brass band may break into “Cissy Strut” and show everyone what their mamas gave them. That’s just for starters. Carlo Ditta understands the Crescent City as well as anyone alive, whether it’s the deep down voodoo of the Ninth Ward or the more above ground shenanigans up Magazine Street way. Even better, Ditta can translate all that craziness right into his songs, including back-popping originals or sure-handed covers. This is someone who’s going to find the levee and burn it down no matter what. It’s all irreverent and right on at the same time, just like the city that care forgot itself, where there is no substitute for feeling and funkiness. His second album is a sultry lagniappe, and includes the John Fred & the Playboys perennial “Agnes English,” the back-o-town delight “Pass the Hatchet” and even a bulls-eye take on “The House of the Rising Sun.” Everything is played and sung with an inner expression of absolute emotion that can’t be duplicated. And when the drummer is nicknamed “Thunderfoot,” Jerry Jumonville and Andrew Bernard are blowing tenor and the legendary Freddy Staehle (drum king on Dr. John’s all-timer GUMBO album) plays the rain stick and tinker bells on a song, everything is everything. Mos’ scocious mania.
Rickie Lee Jones, Kicks. Sometimes an album arrives and it stops time, like there is nothing else that matters for that moment. It is usually a complete surprise, so the power of it is totally unexpected. This time out Rickie Lee Jones has recorded eleven cover songs, and best of all has made some decidedly surprising choices. Therein lies the beauty, because on first glance it might seem strange for this musical treasure to be singing songs first done by America, Skeeter Davis, Dean Martin, Steve Miller and others. Looking at Jones creativity, though, it makes perfect sense to seek out such left-field choices, because Rickie Lee Jones has made a career of overturning the apple cart and traveling her own road. It’s been that way from the start. Think of when her first album arrived: it was like someone had thrown open the door and let a brand new breeze in. Supported by some of New Orleans’ finest players, along with other imports, these sessions sound like they were a knocked-out joy of unending upness. They arrive right on time, because if ever America needed to share something like the classic “Nagasaki” or Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun,” it is now. Albums like this can reset the cultural clock with their gracious spirit. While it once was sung that kicks just keep getting harder to find, in 2019 start right here. Open all night.
Eleni Mandell, Wake Up Again. This Los Angeles native has made nine solo albums, but none like her latest. There is such an air of accomplishment on this tenth release, Eleni Mandel sounds positively reborn. It might be part of that assurance is because CIRCUMSTANCE was inspired by songwriter classes taught by Mandell in Los Angeles area women’s prisons. There is no getting around the power of that. For nearly two years the singer-songwriter participated in a program co-founded by former MC5 member Wayne Kramer and Billy Bragg. It put Eleni Mandell in a lot of different situations, and most definitely brought forth a palpable feeling of strength and insight. Her voice displays such different shades of soulful beauty it’s like she has embarked on a trip to another side of her musical world. Producer Sheldon Gomberg helps meld her backing trio in a subtle but intriguing approach to the songs, creating an air of quiet graciousness and ethereal emotions in support of Mandell’s singing. Some of the songs were written while she was teaching and participating in the writing assignments with the women in prison. And if that doesn’t get the mojo working, then it’s likely nothing will. “Be Together,” “Box in a Box,” “What’s Your Handle (Radio Wave), “Ghost of a Girl” and seven more songs come together in an album like no other, whether by Eleni Mandell or anyone else.
Ralph Molina, Love & Inspiration. Crazy Horse has always been a band that could take off for the moon on a moment’s notice. They are able to do it on their own, and surely do it playing with Neil Young. It’s one of their more enduring attributes. A single chord, a howling lyric or even the slightest whim, and the Horse is off and running. So imagine the wondrous surprise when Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina’s astounding new solo album enters the realm like a breathtaking sunset that very often sounds like a cross between ballads by Brian Wilson and Neil Young. It really is an accomplishment that never falters, through winsome songs like “You Wear an Angel’s Wings,” “Wonderland” and “Follow That Star.” Molina is a great singer. That’s all there is to it. Most likely those that have been near him for decades know this, but for those on hand mostly for Crazy Horse shows, it’s the kind of feeling that can knock a listener over with a feather. Naturally, he wrote all the songs himself with only a few assists, and they aim high, right up to heaven. Best of all, they get there every time. There isn’t likely to be another release this year that is such a glorious gift, and one that is more unexpected. Crazy Horse is now back in the race with Neil Young, and there is no doubt those shows will be mind-blowing on every level. But here’s hoping Ralph Molina can peel off for a night or two and perform this album in its entirety. It is music of the spheres that also belongs down here on earth. Love and inspiration.
Various Artists, Soul Explosion. A half century since its original release, Stax Records’ SOUL EXPLOSION gets to explode all over again. Thinking of all the crazy changes in the world during those 50 years, it’s also mind-boggling to think how things aren’t really that different. The nation is torn in two–granted for different divisional reasons–and the world is winking at war with newfound lust. There just may be another Vietnam staring the United States in the face. What is different, though, is how soul music has morphed completely and the sounds that once ruled the day in 1969 are but a blip on today’s radar compared to how hip-hop has taken over. Spirit-stirring singers like Johnny Taylor, Jimmy Hughes, Eddie Floyd and Carla Thomas were riding high in ’69, leading all races toward a promised land that felt just around the bend. To hear Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and Thomas’ “Book of Love” is to know just how significant the emotion of love could rule the world. There’s also some major surprises spread over these two vinyl discs, and an overall abundance of joy and gyration which made life then feel like good things were coming and as long as the power of faith held strong all things were possible. The Staple Singers’ “Long Walk to D.C.” held strong that social action could save the day, something that still rings loud in the United States, and hope was the fuel that drove the engine. Stax Records, a record label surely built on hope, supplied so much of the soundtrack for that walk. Ring them bells.
The Duke Robillard Band, Ear Worms. Not many guitarists get to do exactly what they want, but Duke Robbilard started his musical journey by founding Roomful of Blues, and then eventually continuing with his own aggregation. He’s also toured with Tom Waits and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, among dozens, and recorded with everyone from Bob Dylan to Ruth Brown. This time around Robillard rounds up thirteen tunes, a half-dozen guest vocalists and some of the best songs ever written. It’s like a zigging and zagging history of modern music, and includes permanently great songs like Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can,” Arthur Alexander’s “Everyday I Have to Cry Some” and even the obscure but always mind-blowing “Living with the Animals,” written and recorded by Powell St. John when he was a member of San Francisco’s Mother Earth. There is such a mood of celebration that pulses through the whole album that really is irresistible. Duke Robillard is a joyous guitarist, never one to get caught up in any single bag. He knows when to drop the music into the deep-fry, let it get good and greasy and then whip it out to share with listeners. Not one to be a slave to imitation, instead the man makes sure originality rules the road. One listen to the Neville Brothers’ “Yellow Moon” is enough to convince even the most hardcore purist. Music, whether it’s Beethoven or Link Wray, aims for the same center of passion within and either moves the needle or not. EAR WORMS is just that: recordings that won’t soon be forgotten, even when they can’t be remembered. Untangle that when life gets slow. Until then, turn it up and let it loose. Worms R Us.
Mavis Staples, We Get By. The reigning queen of get-down gospel can be none other than Mavis Staples. Coming from her legendary family band The Staple Singers opened the doors for her more than 60 years ago, but much of what she’s accomplished since then is all her own. When she started making solo albums in the 1960s, the world knew a master had moved into the house. Staples’ voice can roar from robust righteousness to a sensuous beauty, often in one song. The past few years have been especially rewarding for the mighty woman from Chicago: working with Ry Cooder, M. Ward and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has given her access to a lot of different arenas, and let her share an unstoppable message of love and hope that becomes more necessary every day. Mavis Staples’ new album was produced by Ben Harper, who also wrote the songs, and is about as soul-lifting as can be imagined. It is a moving display of how spiritual music is so directly connected to the street, and the divisions that sometimes divide the two can disappear in a downbeat. The open heart that connects with what all these songs offer is heaven sent, proving that Mavis Staples now walks in her own footsteps, the same ones she’s been making since the singer was a teenager toiling in the fields of the Lord. The rapturous rewards of all those miles of her efforts is heard in every note here, and offers a shining example of a life well-spent. Mavis gets by.