By Bill Bentley
So many new albums released in 2019 undoubtedly prove that music is not only alive and well, but continues to make the world twirl ’round and keep listeners twangin’ at full speed. The first half of the year’s favorites included Matt Andersen/HALFWAY HOME BY MORNING, Gary Clark Jr./THIS LAND, William Harries Graham/JAKES, Durand Jones & the Indications/AMERICAN LOVE CALL, Rickie Lee Jones/KICKS, John Kilzer/SCARS, Jimmie Vaughan/BABY, PLEASE COME HOME, The Wild Reeds/CHEERS, Mavis Staples/WE GET BY and Yola/WALK THROUGH FIRE. The favorite album reissue was Grateful Dead/AXOMOXA, and the single “Orphans” by Michael McDermott. And the second half of the year is equally inspired, a guarantee that no matter what music will always lead us forward and take us home. May the circle remain unbroken. Roky Erickson R.I.P.
Joseph Arthur, Come Back World. There is something so fearless about Joseph Arthur’s unrelenting creativity that it often inspires awe just to see where he’s going. On this album it was instantly clear Arthur continues to walk the tightrope in honor of his searing songs, and has no intention of coming down. Though tossed by the challenges of life, this certified rock & roll troubadour carries the torch for what the pioneers started in the early 1950s and the true believers continually strive to move forward today. There aren’t enough people like Arthur, but when they raise their hands and ask to be heard it is a joyous day in the neighborhood, no matter who they are. If there was justice in the land Joseph Arthur would be asked to perform the national anthem at the next Presidential inauguration, and as he is wont to do, paint along while he sings to create the event’s official Forever postage stamp. The spirits of Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Otis Redding would be looking over his shoulder and cheering Arthur on. Let freedom rock.
Pieta Brown, Freeway. If there is a permanent blooming flower in America’s musical landscape, it has to be Pieta Brown. Her voice projects such an otherworldly glow that it feels like it might have originated in her very own universe. Then the singer shares it through telepathic transmissions to her devoted fans. On her latest album, Brown is traveling a slightly different road, one all of her own making, painted with a private hue of personal beauty. It arrives full-grown, floating down from above to take hold in a garden all her own. There is no one who has been able to bring to life music quite like this, which sometimes makes it seem like the essence of these songs is passed hand-to-hand by those in the know. The way Pieta Brown has stayed the course and always grows stronger is a testament to what it means to be an artist, and how there is always hope a day will come when the masses tune in to find out what this woman is all about. Freeway of love.
Joe Henry, The Gospel According to Water. When the shoe dropped not long ago and non pareil singer-songwriter Joe Henry discovered he had cancer, he did the most courageous thing anyone can do: seek out the high road and stay the course. Fortunately, he is winning that battle and in the process has made the album of his life. There is something so strong about the sound of this music in how it conjures up eternity as only a handful of musicians can. It is matched by a laser-sharp eye for emotion backed by intellect that sends shivers down the spine. Like this refrain on “Orson Welles”: “If you supply the terms of my surrender / then I’ll supply the war.” So true. All the songs are full of fantastical flashes that seem inspired by the pondering of the beyond. Then there’s “In Time for Tomorrow,” that has at its revelatory center such a presence of light and grace it lives as a prayer said in times of joy and grief. Which often arrives at exactly the same time in the walk of life. Water for all.
Brittany Howard, Jaime. It takes a big-time belief in yourself to walk away from a mighty gang like the Alabama Shakes and head out for new territory on your own. Still, it’s no surprise that’s exactly what singer Brittany Howard did this year. She hit the jangling jackpot with a solo album that will reverberate in the cosmos for years as a lesson in how beauty works. With several unsettling songs and a sound only hers, Howard’s stamp on every note hits home like the new sound of America as seen and heard through the eyes and ears of a national treasure. Named for her deceased sister, there was no way Howard was going to miss the sweet spot on her solo debut. The stakes were too high, both in family love and professional risk. And even while both those are evident, what really comes through is a unique woman that was willing to gamble it all in order to go where she’d never been. When it’s all on the line is when the mettle really meets the road. Cruise or lose.
Michael Kiwanuka, Kiwanuka. In a world where endless music is instantaneously available, those who take advantage of all that access will sow the future’s course. Michael Kiwanuka, though a British artist, could really be from anywhere on Earth. He starts with American soul music influences and feeds them into a sonic Mixmaster to come out with as individualistic a sound as any today. Producers Danger Mouse and Inflo are right there with the musician as he builds track after track for instantly appealing and always near-indescribable sound. But it doesn’t stop there. He can go celestial in a nano-second and then return home to deliver bottom-fed gritty truths. He is someone who mines the high and the low, inverting each when needed while always on the lookout for a style that has not been heard. On his third album Michael Kiwanuka takes the giant leap he’s been hinting at, and travels on an astral plane right into the cosmos. A wild ride.
Van Morrison, Three Chords & the Truth. Any new Van Morrison album comes wrapped in question marks: will the Irish soul slugger enter the room in a state of discontent that colors the world dark and unrelenting, or will the great spirit in the sky invade his state of mind and open up the door for the holy ghost’s arrival. These days, after over a half-century of laying down his musical marker like no other artist, there seems to be an even split in Morrison’s outlook, which also includes a wide-open joyousness that can leave listeners semi-speechless. It’s like he has arrived at the gracious place where gratitude is at the door and the songs that arrive deliver such a knock-out punch there is nothing to do but stand beside that blessing. His voice is a wonder of the world, twisting and turning and inventing its own logic. Van Morrison has earned every inch of inventiveness he allows himself, and on “March Winds in February,” “In Search of Grace” and “If We Wait for Mountains,” there is such delivery and, yes, delight that the only response can be unending loyalty to someone who has accompanied us on wherever this life is leading, never leaving anyone alone. “Up on Broadway.”
Doug Seegers, A Story I Got to Tell. When the favored horses don’t win, the weather turns cold and warmth cannot be found, look to Doug Seegers to hold his head high and keep walking the golden path. Seegers was once down so long no doubt it looked like up to him, and when he got discovered singing on the street in Nashville a few years ago, he’d earned a leg-up and so much more. A breathtaking album and national notoriety rolled his way, and–as all good things usually do–things slowed down. But they never totally stopped. The singer-songwriter is too good for that. On this new album released in Europe and so lovingly produced by maestro Joe Henry, Seegers delivers a handful of blood-rushing songs along with the cover of the year: a smart-eyed and heartfelt rendition of Lou Adler and Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town.” Doug Seegers knows of what he sings too, and doesn’t let a dry eye leave the house by the time the song is over. When goodness in the heart of man can seem in short supply, seek this album out and know that relief is right around the corner and the soul lives forever. Do not despair.
Various Artists, Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits. With jaw-dropping beauty wrapped around hallucinatory incantations, these songs of Tom Waits are given not so much a makeover but a loving new expression. It is such a sense of deep discovery listening to some of the Californian’s most iconic originals as sung by artists like Aimee Mann, Corinne Bailey Rae, Rosanne Cash, The Wild Reeds and eight others, that each one is revealed as a newborn classic. Waits is the kind of songwriter whose work always feel timeless. He writes from inside a solitary vision that there is never any chance of becoming mundane. It’s like he demands new ears to hear each original creation. Luckily, this smartly-produced album by Warren Zanes captures that aura–which is essentially Tom Waits’ trademark–and Zanes also explains it all in his mesmerizing liner notes. It’s always been clear there is no one else who even gets close to what Waits excels at, but all these singers are able to tap into that uniqueness and make the songs sound like they were written for them. That is forever.
Wilco, Ode to Joy. For those hoping to find a permanent place to call musical home, Wilco keeps the fires burning and the love lights on. Over twenty years in, leader Jeff Tweedy long ago punched his permanent ticket in forming a group of never-ending originality. No matter which way Tweedy takes Wilco, there is a trusted ethos at its center which has never been broken. Albums come and go, and each and every one has the Wilco guarantee: great music lurks within. Their latest is in the very top echelon of a growing catalogue, not so much for the risks the new songs take but rather for the gorgeousness at their core. Each one feels like Tweedy has found himself more than ever, and is at peace by what lives there. At the same time, he and his highly-talented bandmates are stretching their parameters in subtle ways that ensure the Wilco journey remains brand new. In the end, that’s the highest mark of an all-time aggregation: zeroing in on what can be left out while allowing timelessness to rule the roost. Hall of Famers.
Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Colorado. When Neil Young writes an album’s worth of songs and heads for the hills, it can become apparent these are songs for Crazy Horse to play. In this album’s case, it’s the mountains of Colorado where the air was rare and the energy unstoppable. Who knows where it all comes from, but when this band is in their element something happens that is unexplainable. Ralph Molina’s drums become transfixing, like a force of nature, and when joined with Billy Talbot’s chest-blasting bass there is no doubt this is the rhythm section of the spheres. Now joined by Nils Lofgren on guitar, piano and, yes, tap-dancing, Crazy Horse hits their peak performance level from note one. That leaves Neil Young and his aging leather satchel full of new songs and unleashing them as only he and this band can. There are numerous moments here where Young and the Horse are obviously the best rock & roll band standing, a revelatory example of why these songs will never die. Everything played is backed by the belief this is music that matters, right here and right now, and for those who live to be plugged into the cosmos through the sound nothing further is needed. Saddle up now.
Jude Johnstone, “My Heart Belongs to You.” Whatever it may be, love rules the day. It’s what holds the molecules together, even if that can never be proved, and extends a hand. When certain songs come alive and that love is called to the fore, that is when everything starts to spin a little faster and being alive actually makes sense. Even if only for a moment. Singer-songwriter Jude Johnstone has always had the hotline number when it comes to love songs that hammer the heart into submission, leaving no question what we’re all here for. “My Heart Belongs to You” is her latest treasure, written with Neilson Hubbard and Ben Glover, and a song so directed at the center of the universe it becomes hard to think of living without it. It is a song built on eternal hope while cleansed by king tears, and like all the big questions is one that cannot be answered. It is enough to listen to time stand still and know nothing more need be known. Bonnie Raitt’s next.
Lamont Dozier with Scott B. Bomar, How Sweet It is: A Songwriter’s Reflections on Music, Motown, and the Mystery of the Muse. With surely one of the longer titles on the bookshelves, Lamont Dozier’s unbeatable story of life inside Motown Records’ Hitsville USA studio and beyond is one of such eye-opening clarity it’s like peaking in on the very birth of modern popular music. Dozier, often with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, wrote so many of the label’s most enduring hits that it’s no wonder his name is still whispered with awe in songwriting circles. Following how it all started answers many questions from then, but even better, also about how such timeless music gets created. For a book whose first sentence is, “I know you’re in there, motherfucker,” it can also be said no stories are spared in showing where Lamont Dozier started and how he got to the top and pretty much stayed there. Detroit was a city of limited dreams for most creative-types, but there was always an air that for those with a strong enough belief in their own talents room would be found to express themselves. So many musicians and songwriters walked their way from the dark streets to the top of the pop charts it’s no accident Motor City is a co-star in this tale. After writing 100 Top 10 singles, Lamont Dozier still walks tall. His latest album, REIMAGINATION, is included in the deluxe edition of his autobiography, and is exactly what the title implies: 13 new versions of some of the best songs ever written, by the man who helped write them. A heat wave.
Gene Clark, No Other. Los Angeles often takes no prisoners. For one of the most pivotal musicians in the vaunted 1960s scene of Laurel Canyon and beyond, Gene Clark somehow came untethered from his anchor as the frontman for the Byrds. He became instead a walking target for the music business to ignore, no matter how superlative his music stayed. It was almost like he’d broken the rules by departing a super-successful band, and was being taught the price that decision demanded. Still, it appeared Clark didn’t really care and just kept moving to the ring of his own drummer and price be damned. When it came time to record this 1974 solo album the magical forces of music converged and Gene Clark’s growing shadow sounded ready to come back into the light. But it didn’t happen. Songs like “Life’s Greatest Fool” and “The True One” were unheard prophesies of a darkening future and the singer was sent to the back of the auditorium to watch as so many others stole his thunder. Unfair, to be sure, but Gene Clark had mocked the star-making machinery and a lesson must be learned. That the man never really recovered doesn’t take away from the fact his face belongs on the side of Mt. Wilson with a few other L.A. luminaries, and this album, now brilliantly reissued by 4AD Records, should remain required listening for at least another century. No other indeed.