Pieta Brown, Freeway. There aren’t any other singers like Pieta Brown. She has a sensuous way of blending the sound of air with music notes that result in magic. It’s as if the clock stops and life’s fascinating mysteries are frozen on the edge of a falling leaf. Her voice is evocative of a time when one had to sound only like themselves to be heard. Brown has been making music long enough to have gotten down to its essence, never content to settle for anything less than the truth. It’s impossible to take in the entirety of the woman’s world with one album, but the latest encapsulates everything Pieta Brown is capable of–and then some. Her way of arranging instruments is like Japanese brush painting: each stroke counts for a thousand movements and the final effect is beyond mere words. Then there’s the subtlety of the instrumentalists involved: they key in on atmospherics with such surety it’s almost like they are part of the vocals. Even Mark Knopfler’s guitar on “The Hard Way” becomes one with everything else. There are moments in modern music when it’s possible to discover who is pointing the way forward, someone who has arrived at that golden place where the future joins the present. That’s the freeway Pieta Brown is on. They say it’s not about the destination but rather the journey there. This is that journey. Go with her.
The Mike Duke Project, …Took a While. To hear what a one-man wrecking crew sounds like, look no further than Mike Duke. He’s been on the front lines of American music for so long it’s almost a miracle the world doesn’t know his name. Huey Lewis & the News manager Bob Brown discovered Duke when a cassette recording found its way to him in 1981, and it took one listen for Brown to realize Duke had the true blue goods. Believe it or not, this Mobile, Alabama native has never had his own album released until now, so it’s time to bang the gong and celebrate such down home delightfulness and the kind of soul music that barely exists anymore. He’s got a voice as big as a Peterbilt diesel rig, the kind of songwriting smarts that mark divine inspiration and he can play the piano like he was born inside one. It’s almost criminal Mike Duke hasn’t been spotlighted before. After he spent most of the 1990s as Delbert McClinton’s keyboard player, Duke ended up in Nashville for several years before moving on to Northern California and becoming the band ringleader at Brown’s Rancho Nicasio nightclub in Marin County. Some of the album’s recordings are brand new and others date back to the early ’80s (there’s even one from 1977), but their origin doesn’t really matter because music this captivating is always timeless. It’s almost like a fairy tale this album took as long as it did to see daylight, but the upside is that the world has never needed songs this heartfelt as much as it does today. They will put an extra beat in the heart, some glide in the stride and an undeniable glow in all they touch. It might be a cliche to say no one sings like this now, but it would still be true. Worth the wait.
Brittany Howard, Jaime. The Alabama Shakes hit America like a ton of soulful bricks with a Southern rock & roll attack that could not be stopped. Part of their appeal was the surprise that such a treacherous band could be hiding in plain sight, and the other part was the sheer overwhelmingness of singer-songwriter Brittany Howard. An unexpected star, to be sure, but star she was. It was only a matter of time until the solo route reared its head for her. That time has come, and what a revelation it is. Howard is an experimenter at heart, as she takes it all the way into uncharted territory on these eleven new songs. And she ain’t worried about nothin’, as she sings on “He Loves Me.” This album is a leap of faith, leaving behind the rock-solid surety of the Shakes’ sound and success with something that comes from throwing the windows open and knocking down the doors. Brittany Howard is a singer who uses modernity to highlight the past, and gives no quarter no matter which direction she’s heading. Listening to her as she mines for greatness in her library of sound is as enthralling an escapade as rock & roll gets in our brave new world. Leave it to her to break down these barriers. As long as artists like Howard hold our hands and take us where we haven’t been before, there is no way to lose. Rock & roll has always been based on salvation, a way to forget fear and find freedom. Let it ring.
Jimbo Pap, It Can Always Get Worse. There was a period in Los Angeles during the 1980s when bands were swarming the streets, genres were being cross-cultivated like crazy and life looked like it was going to be one long ride on the endless highway to infamy. Punk, new wave, power pop, roots rock, cowpunk, whatever: it appeared the parade never ended. Of course things quieted down as they always do, but from those early beginnings great music endures. And one of the more recent bands has blended some of their superlative forebears’ sounds into a modern breakthrough. Jimbo Pap takes their name from three band members: Jim Bowers, Bo Brannen and Pap Shirock, and delves into forlorn country music and folkish finery with the utmost flair, with dashes of desert rock and various other spices thrown in for kicks. They perfectly capture the dilemma of living in a city where success remains just out of reach for most of its seekers, but the glittering lights are so bright there is no way not to chase them. Like every professional pursuit, self-delusion remains a prime ingredient, but it really does feel like Jimbo Pap has a chance to move through the ranks quicker than most. Their’s has a purity of purpose that eludes so many other combos, and a sophistication in its rootsiness which gives a glimpse of what lies ahead. And anyone who can mix songs by the Louvin Brothers and Bobby Darin into their originals without stretching credibility an inch deserves deep devotion. Pap and snap.
Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls, the D-Vine Spirituals Recordings. There are days when it definitely feels like God’s coming home in the morning. The sun is shining, the streets are quiet and a glorious gospel song comes wafting through the breeze bringing a mountain of soul to all within earshot. That’s what it’s like when this spirit-stirring reissue of the music of Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls is heard. King is straight outta Grenada, Mississippi and eventually found her way to Memphis via Chicago. When she got into the jam-and-packed Tempo studio in Memphis and let it all loose, there was no doubt the Holy Ghost was in the room. These recordings for the D-Vine label burn with a quiet intensity that the best gospel singers possess. Elizabeth King is an all-timer that too few believers have heard. That’s okay, but it’s like the Word says: Everything is always right on time. And now is that time for songs like “I Heard the Voice” and “Waiting on the Lord” to be heard by anyone who ever got a shiver when life started to spin towards the danger zone, and an almighty hand was placed on their shoulder to turn them in the direction of the light. Captain Jesus doesn’t miss a chance to help those who need help, and Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls are among the mighty messengers who did their duty in the 1970s when they threw down for the Lord. And that’s enough.
Daniel Lanois, Original Soundtrack: The Music of Red Dead Redemption II. In reality, this release isn’t quite a new Daniel Lanois album but it may as well be. Lanois supervised all the music for the massively popular video game’s second incarnation, and his personal sonic stamp is on all the songs. And what a stamp it is. After album opener “Unshaken,” sung by D’Angelo, “Moonlight” comes through like an ethereal glimpse at perfection. Then there’s “That’s the Way It Is,” an ode to harmonic bliss that dips into Buddhism and other uplifting paths to find a way forward. And while “Mountain Finale” heads off into a cosmic aggroville, the music comes back to earth with Rocco DeLuca’s “Crash of Worlds” and Willie Nelson’s “Cruel World.” From there it’s more Lanois, Rhiannon Giddens and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who twist and turn like spirited explorers traveling a dusty road to redemption. With an artist as personally unique as Daniel Lanois, this is a soundtrack to a movie (video game?) that doesn’t have to be seen (played?) to be thrilled by. Rather it’s a collection of songs that are to be immersed in, and provide a temporary reality in a time that begs for brightness and buoyancy. The clock is ticking and there is no time to waste. Red not dead.
The Muffs, No Holiday. Kim Shattuck was always a singer who took a stand and did not back down. In The Muffs, she gave no quarter and laughed at detractors the same as she did at the devoted. The young woman lived in a time of her own, and her recent death is as sad as it is a surprise. Someone like Shattuck was meant to live forever, never looking down as she pushed the rock & roll dream into a joyous territory of her own invention. Listening to these 18 songs now is like being invited to the most intimate party imaginable as Shattuck sings them as if she is sitting in the same room. That’s because the woman was a shining example of a person of the people, and wrote songs that were instantly understandable to the high and the low in all of us. There is a wide range of the old and new here, and joined together it is their most powerful of collections. Shattuck, bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Roy McDonald have always been the kind of band that were born to stay together, sharing a singleness of spirit like all the great aggregations before them. They knew what it meant to be a real rock & roll band, and never missed a beat in remaining true to that honor. While Kim Shattuck is now off on her permanent holiday, it is those still on planet earth who will always honor her memory and hear her singing from the freeways. Rock In Peace.
Doug Seegers, A Story I Got to Tell. There are moments when recorded music takes on a whole different dimension, evoking the challenge of what life sometimes becomes. Those moments when an overwhelming emotional tsunami threatens to overwhelm everything else and wash it all away. Doug Seegers has a way of creating that feeling like it’s as easy to him as walking down a railroad track alone. There really isn’t anyone like him today, because he has long lived the life he sings about. Homeless in Nashville and singing in front of a Salvation Army before he made his first album a few years ago, Seegers is no quitter. He continues to write songs that feel like a kick to the heart, but go on to offer such monstrous moments of hope there is nothing to do but bow the head and say a prayer of gracious gratitude. Of course, his new album was made for a Scandinavian record label since it’s probably a little too real for today’s Nashville. That’s okay, because someone overseas had the great good sense to hire producer Joe Henry and his soulful session players this time around and let them have at it. The result is what should be required listening for Americans, both to re-up their goodness quotient and battle the powers that be who threaten to divide the nation, once again, into the haves and have-nots. Doug Seegers will have none of it, and instead paints portraits of light that can save us all, and his cover of Johnny Rivers’ hit “Poor Side of Town” guarantees goosebumps. Bless Seegers always.
Semi-Twang, Kenosha. Of all the great American bands blasting away from sea to shining sea, Semi-Twang holds the high card for being the one which should have listeners burning a trail to their door and the sales chart chiseling their name in the top slot. Hyperbole? Most likely, but that’s the beauty of rock & roll: excitement should be encouraged at all costs, and truth is in the ear of the beholder. There are no rule books in that reality. Bandleader John Sieger found his first toehold in Milwaukee’s great musical onslaught of the early 1980s in an outfit with Paul Cebar tagged the R&B Cadets. From there Semi-Twang’s formation was just a short hop away, and it looked like the doors of success were creaking open. The Twang’s debut album was released by Warner Bros. Records in 1988, but couldn’t find daylight to save its life. From there it’s been decades of zigging and zagging but Sieger and his crew of brother Mike Sieger, Mike Hoffman, Bob Jennings and Bob Schneider have never given up. KENOSHA arrives like a mind-bending distillation of demented determination and delirious delight. Without being too overbearing, it’s as if there’s a secret force lurking in Milwaukee now that holds the power to solve the world’s ills if only all would listen. Songs like “Things Are Going South,” “I Broke the First Commandment, “Chalet on the Alley” and “Short Order Girl” are capable are repainting the sky and causing listeners to catch their breath. In other words, they need to be heard to remind everyone that being alive is worth the uphill battle and righteous rewards await everyone just outside the corner bar when its ten-degrees, closing time and an after hours party is within walking distance. There is nothing semi- about the music of Semi-Twang. Hear it now.
Sturgill Simpson, Sound & Fury. This is the album that could really determine who is with Sturgill Simpson for the long haul. While he started as a tough-as-nails country singer who clearly had bigger aspirations, he now lays down a marker to prove he’s got the goods to head off into the stratosphere. The music has some sort of tie-in with a Japanese animation film, which is all okie-doke, but for those who just want to hear songs from a modern music master, it will be telling who is down for the new sound. They are tough, powerful, unrelenting and actually completely captivating, even if they don’t light up the jukebox at the Broken Spoke or Poodie’s Roadhouse down Austin way. This is a man ready to roll out a good dose of vengeance on songs like “A Good Look” and “Mercury in Retrograde,” not unlike ZZ Top pushed through a shredder, and good luck to those who don’t get out of the way. Sturgill Simpson came onto the scene with a healthy distrust of how things get done on Nashville’s Music Row, and managed to climb whatever hurdles were thrown his way while ascending to a rather unique stardom. Now that he’s made it to the mountaintop, more power to him for not looking down. Who knows what’s next for Simpson? Whatever it is, it might be a good idea to buckle up the seatbelts and have a hazmat suit handy just in case the man really pulls the pin. No going back.
Wilco, Ode to Joy. It’s a long way from one of Wilco’s first songs, “I Must Be High,” to today, when instant classics like “Bright Leaves” and “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” highlight their new album ODE TO JOY. But in a way, that’s in a perfect line with Jeff Tweedy’s development as an artist. Coming out of Uncle Tupelo known primarily as their bass player, there are very few musicians who grew so quickly and so completely into their own progressive person. That’s exactly what Tweedy has done since 1994 onward to today, when every song on the band’s mesmerizing new release shows someone at the very top of their originality. Not only that, but Wilco themselves have consistently been one of the most creative rock bands anywhere, always dipping into a deep well of musicality that surprises even those used to their dexterity. The joy of being a certified Wilcoite is listening to how they veer into vibrant new avenues of expression, sometimes subtle and others fairly outre, pulling off left turns into what a modern rock band can be. It is always a passionate pursuit that remains their very own, anchored by Tweedy’s incandescent vocals that are anchored by the rough and tumble psychological edge of his growing up in public. And while it hasn’t always been an easy ride for him, there is a courageous strength at Tweedy’s core that inspires his followers’ true devotion, and spurs him on to higher and higher achievements. At this stage of Wilco’s history, 25 years into an astonishing adventure, the blue sky remains the limit and in so many ways it still feels like the fireworks have just begun. Ode to everything.
Song of the Month:
Mustangs of the West, “Keep on Tryin’.” There is a band in Southern California which made a fine name for themselves a few decades ago and then went away. Naturally, now that they’re back with all barrels blazing, it’s only fitting the first single from their upcoming album is a gorgeous cover of Poco’s “Keep on Tryin’,” written by The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit. It takes a brave belief in yourself to tread into those waters, but Mustangs have never been short on that. Singer Suzanna Spring has a heaven-sent voice that once it finds a fitting song absolutely soars. Lead guitarist and dobro player Sherry Rayn Barnett is able to play circles around anything she connects with, and fiddler Aubrey Richmond is right there with her. Drummer Suzanne Morissette and bassist Holly Montgomery push everything forward perfectly, and when The Mustangs’ four-part harmony begins to blend in, all bets are off. This is the perfect example of a contemporary band finding a classic song and then adding a brand new glow to what was already great. Mustangs run free.