By Bill Bentley
Will Birch, Cruel to be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe. English rock & roll always seemed to try harder than its American equivalents in trying to make its mark on history. Maybe that’s because the Brits were shooting from the other side of the ocean and had to aim harder to hit their mark. Think Beatles and Rolling Stones, and how devilishly devoted they were to bring it all home. Which they both did–in spades. For the second generation of U.K. kingmakers, look no further than Nick Lowe to find the heart and soul of rock & roll. Whether he was behind the board as record producer or out front on bodacious bass and vocal largesse, England has produced no artist finer. This thoroughly researched and wonderfully written biography of Lowe is an inspiring tumble through musical legend that never fails to awe. There is just something irresistible about the way Nick Lowe strolled through the rock garden with ultimate elegance and unending groove which can’t be beat. Even better, he knows why he did it that way, and it all makes perfect sense. Still. All the twists and turns, lessons lost and lessons learned are here to be discovered and remembered. Read and believe.
Marc Broussard, A Lullaby Collection SOS III. For all-time soul singers who are always exploring new areas looking for songs, Marc Broussard stands tall. Even for him, though, it’s a new stretch to enter the world of lullabies seeking inspiration. Luckily for him, the Lousiaian man hits pay dirt immediately, since songs like “Danny Boy,” “Sweet Baby James,” and “What a Wonderful World” are really one-size-fits-all when it comes to universal appeal. Underneath these explorations is where Broussard’s magnanimous spirit enters the picture, since he’s clearly seeking to impart basic humanistic values with this music, a way of sharing the world which allows everyone to participate. The SOS (Save Our Soul) series has always been about seeking the light and spreading the spirit, and this time Marc Broussard has stretched the limits slightly to include children of all ages. After all, calling “Moon River” a lullaby might at first seem wishful thinking, but in the hands of this singer that’s what the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” classic becomes. This man has been a singer’s singer since his own childhood, a son of Cajun country royalty through his father’s band The Boogie Kings, and never one to back down from a challenge. Along with the related book, a portion of sales proceeds will be donated to Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This is an album where the heart meets the highway and travelers can take a journey to joyous generosity. Yeah you right.
Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water. No one is able to capture how eternity sounds quite like Joe Henry. He writes songs that feel as if they are etched in stone, each word counting for something and feeling like they will be here forever. There is absolutely nothing temporary about Henry’s songs. They all delve into the deepest recesses of what it is to be alive, and strike chords which sometimes feel like they’ve never been hit before. Which is to say that songs like “Famine Walk,” “Orson Welles,” and, really, all the others hold revelations which have been waiting to be discovered. There is even a good chance that “In Time for Tomorrow” possesses the very key to human existence itself. On his new album there is a sense of such poignant urgency it is like jubilation has seeped inside Henry’s guitar and is knocking to be let out. There is sunshine and glory right next to despair and severity, just as in life, and this is the man with the key to open the door and let it all come rushing out to surround us with wonder. There isn’t anyone in today’s music who is able to enter these rooms quite like Joe Henry does. It is an extraordinary thing to behold and it would be extremely foolish not to go there immediately and stay as long as possible. 2019’s very best.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers, On Va Continuer!/Asteur. Doubling up with a full-tilt documentary and crushing new album ain’t for commercial chickens, but then the Lost Bayou Ramblers have been doing it there for 20 years, cruising the bayous, singing in their native French and making sure they stay rock-solid sure of their Cajun roots crossed with give-no-quarter traditions. The documentary was directed by Bruno Doria and produced by Lizzie Guitreau, and highlights the writing and recording of their recent album KALENDA and the touring that followed. It shows a working band up close and personal, all the way to receiving a Grammy Award in 2018 for Best Regional Roots Music album. What really stands out about the Lost Bayou Ramblers is their undying commitment to the Sportsman’s Paradise culture, whether it’s the music, the food, the dancing or just the day-to-day living. In a world that’s becoming more and more homogenized, this group makes sure they honor their history proudly wherever they perform. Formed by Andre and Louis Michot, the Ramblers have used their prodigious roots to also include include outside styles for new adventures. The way the film and album echo each other provides a 360-degree look at Southern life in a modern world, and points the way forward with an inescapable excitement. Bon ton roulet.
Handsome Dick Manitoba, Born in the Bronx. Rock & roll has been mainly made by urban heroes, especially in New York. In the 1950s it was Dion, Lou Reed in the 1960s and Handsome Dick Manitoba in the 1970s. Manitoba actually started his rise to infamy as a roadie friend for The Dictators, but quickly found his way to the front-and-center microphone to become the punk band’s lead singer. Forty-five years later he’s still in the middle of the action on his first solo album that is all kicks and no tricks. Piloted by studio veteran Jon Tiven, these are songs that smell like the Lower East Side in the ’70s, and have the attitude of someone not known to back down from a fight but is always up for a dare. There is something so central to New York in all the songs that it feels like the howlin’ album should be bought with subway tokens, and have a coupon for Gray’s Papaya hot dogs inside. As for Manitoba, he is a full-throated singer who may not have gone to music school but definitely graduated magna cum lordy all over his pants. This guy isn’t fooling around, nor are his backing players, who sound like they might be fueled by pharma-fresh Dexamyl and endless rock & roll dreams. Take the A-train.
The Sensational Barnes Brothers, Nobody’s Fault But My Own. It’s sometimes said that everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. And on the other side: if you want to have a dance you gotta pay the band. Either way, whenever music hits the spiritual zone and big words like God and Jesus enter the lexicon, look out. Because what can start out as salvation can sometimes end up as shuck. Be assured there is no shucking going on with The Sensational Barnes Brothers, because Chris and Courtney Barnes are all real, right down to the bone. The two sing like angels who are able to walk this scruffy earth and still keep their eye on the prize, finding a way to connect to the Almighty without making a Broadway production out of it. Their band stays lean and mean while they apply the vocal syrup over all the songs, mixing beauty and the beats like the true believers they are. Say amen, somebody.
Warren Storm, Taking the World, By Storm. When it comes to swamp pop, there aren’t many real-deal practitioners left. Who knows: maybe it’s the constant edible infusion of crawfish and Tabasco sauce, or could be Dixie beer and moonshine diets that took their mortal toll on dedicated purveyors. But over the years, way too many singers checked out early and often. Luckily one of the original swampers, Mr. Warren Storm, is not about to give up the Holy Ghost anytime soon. 82-years-young, he is still singing for the ages and capable of working a backroom dance floor harder than anyone alive, and is no stranger to wailing his way around the drum kit. The man’s new collection, lovingly produced by soul queen singer and author Yvette Landry, is like a flashback and flash forward–all at once. John Fogerty stops by at the start to duet on his inspiring classic “Long as I Can See the Light,” and the album just keeps choogling from there. Warren Storm classics like “Mama, Mama, Mama” and “Prisoner’s Song” snuggle up close to bayou perennials like “Raining in My Heart” and “Mathilda” for a true Louisiana song boil, one with no closing hours and nothing but a rollicking take on all good things that make the world go ’round. Hey la bas.
Various Artists, Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits. How in the world does any singer take on a Tom Waits song and come out the other side as a winner? It’s an age-old musical question, and every answer is a timeless take on beating the odds. It can be done, but extreme care should be taken because Waits, when all is said and sung, has always been in a world by himself. It’s immediately clear from the first song that this collection of a dozen songs done by an intriguing collection of women is in a class by itself. Most interesting is that it’s both the songs and the singers that ride to the plateau of greatness. While some of the artists are well-known, there are also an equal number not so obvious, and the way each creates a breathtaking creation is one of this century’s musical high points. While it’s impossible to list the best results because each one is equally fine, what this album really does is show without doubt that Tom Waits lives in a party of one when it comes to creating music that not only stops time, it also turns the human soul inside out so it is impossible not to gasp at the sheer beauty of being alive and privy to all that allows. Waits’ originals are able to cut to the nub just how gracious the human experience is, and whether the view is from the top or the bottom really doesn’t matter. It’s discovering the inescapable quiver that comes from zillions of molecules colliding around the world in a way that assures total uniqueness in the way it’s all filtered through the human heart. In the end, there is no way to adequately explain how Tom Waits has been able to find his way through the mystery of life and arrive at his own universe. All that is needed to be known is that he has, and when he extends a hand to take his followers there it would be an act of insanity not to go with him, and all these women who join that permanent parade. Bang the drum.
Various Artists, Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records 58th Anniversary Complete Singles Collection. Talk about a bonanza of drop-dead singing and backyard boogaloo: this four-disc sets collects all the singles released by Rampart Records to celebrate the East Los Angeles label’s 58th anniversary. And what a glorious anniversary it is. Between 1961 and 1977, producer-manager Eddie Davis helped create such a stunning overview of Southern California sounds that it feels like an entire universe of music is offered, ranging from semi-famous groups like Cannibal & the Headhunters to unexpected discoveries like The Blendells. What is most amazing is how such a multi-jeweled roster escaped almost unnoticed outside its own neighborhood. Produced by Hector A. Gonzalez and Michael Minky, these 79 tracks are a hallelujah avalanche of musical bliss, and with revelatory essays by Luis J. Rodriguez and the late soul wizard Don Waller, it feels like required listening for anyone who wants to know what made East L.A. the home of so much vital American music. Then and now.
Billy Vera, Rip It Up: The Specialty Records Story. The history of modern popular music the past 70-plus years is really the story of small record labels, often fueled by one person’s blinding vision and unstoppable belief. That is surely the truth for Art Rupe and his Specialty Records. Whether Rupe was recording gospel greats the Soul Stirrers, suave bluesman Percy Mayfield or any of his mind-blowing New Orleans artists like Little Richard, this is one outfit that always got the job done. Whether by hook or by crook, it was up to shops like Specialty to follow their heart and never take no for an answer. Billy Vera is like a hellhound on Art Rupe’s trail as he follows all the crazy quilt patterns that were part of the everyday story of the little label that could. It’s an inspirational tale, really, played out by visionaries who often had to walk the dark end of the street to stay in business. No one got out with their hands totally clean, but when the end result is songs like “Tutti Frutti,” “The Things that I Used to Do” and “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” well, those long ends absolutely justify the funky means. Once the majors started gobbling up the minors, it was all over but the screaming, but oh what a ride it was. Vera tells the story of Specialty Records like he was put on the planet to do it. Womp bam boom.
Song of the Month
Nick Waterhouse, “Thoughts & Act.” Neo-soul singer Nick Waterhouse has been threatening to break out for several years, becoming someone who has his own style and power. For the most part, however, he’s been staying within a somewhat-stylized retro style of semi-rockabilly and ultra swing that has built a sonic wall he hasn’t been able to quite climb over. On this song from his most recentl album, the singer shows a whole new ability to come up with a song that feels brand new. “Thoughts & Act” is an individualistic delight, sultry and mysterious and all the things that Nick Waterhouse’s vocal ability has promised from the beginning. He’s not that far from being the SoCal answer to Chris Isaak’s NoCal delights, and this song makes a good case that it’s only a matter of time before the man comes all the way into his own. Call Russ Titelman.