While 2020 hasn’t really turned on the musical heat yet, have no fear because there is a handful of releases from the latter months of last year to ensure no one is going asleep at the wheel anytime soon. From every style comes a boisterous ability to make sure nothing slows down. Music will always be the healing force of the universe, and no matter what shape your stomach is in there are plenty of chills and thrills among the ten albums below that graced our audio space last year. So if the holiday gift cards haven’t already hit maximum just yet, make a happy choice from something below and join the hallelujah chorus celebrating that we’re all still here and ready to go. Accept no substitutes.
The Cactus Blossoms, Easy Way. When brothers sing together, something different happens. The genetic code gets melded together and the sound of siblings’ voices become as one–only different. Page Burkum and Jack Torrey may have changed a last name to appear separate, but make no mistake. This is a band based in the bloodline strength of artists like the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. Their sonic blend is beyond mere words: they sound like each was meant to soar with the other. And if it all stopped there, this album would be a stunner. But with the songs Burkum and Torrey wrote with their bandmates, and an absolutely mesmerizing instrumental attack, the Cactus Blossoms make music that feels ordained. For some reason, the group’s following stays not quite as voluminous as it should. But’s all a matter of time that the popularity barrier gets broken and mega-fans come rushing in. The Cactus Blossoms are a one-in-a-thousand aggregation that feels like they are meant to make a difference. Step onboard their devoted train now and say you knew about them back when. Easy to fall.
Leonard Cohen, Thanks for the dance. There will never be anyone even in the same universe as Leonard Cohen. He first walked onstage fully formed and utterly unique, and kept on a trajectory of greatness that has now lasted well past his death. Son Adam Cohen found a trove of unfinished tapes, and joined with other collaborators to write music that gives birth to this hypnotic new album of Leonard Cohen songs. Like all the top of the line musical artists of the past 70 years, there is something about Cohen that demands attention. This is about as far from background music that ever existed, and what’s even more astonishing is how the Canadian brought it so vividly to life in person. His laser attention to lyrical perfection was always almost Shakespearean, and to be in his presence could feel like climbing Mt. Everest to find a new view. Once there, the big questions of life could resolve themselves in a single line, and any lingering worries were suddenly not so worrisome. Which is to say that like all great art, the mere fact of not knowing becomes an answer in itself. So ring the bell and bang the gong because Leonard Cohen is still here. And always will be.
George Coleman, The Quartet. There are times when only jazz can spotlight the basic excitement of life and provide a soundtrack for what sometimes remains the elusive inspiration of beauty. No attempt is needed to try and describe the feeling, because there is simply no way words could ever explain the warmth and rush of how jazz is able to take over the soul. Tenor saxophonist George Coleman, a young 84-years-old, is someone who knows this pursuit inside-out. Beginning his career in the rough and tumble of Memphis nightclubs and soon enough the thriving clubs of New York, there aren’t many jazz giants from that era he hasn’t played with, from Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Lee Morgan on through to Chet Baker Herbie Hanock and beyond. Coleman’s nimble and always profound ability to send massive sonic waves in blues-drenched improvisations right into modern jazz has been a wild ride from his beginnings. This present quartet is into a 20-year run, and includes early Memphis compadre Harold Mabern on piano, who goes back to their high school days, along with bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. The mix of edgy standards and two George Coleman originals provides everything jazz has promised–and more. The way the music takes off from the start of every song, promising an energetic enjoyment rarely duplicated by other sounds, is a permanent wonder of the modern world, and is able to head for the heart every time. Start right here.
Nicholas David, Yesterday’s Gone.Ten years ago there was a semi-ouetre looking musician on The Voice television singathon who really seemed liked he landed from a different planet than the rest of the contestants. He sang soul music with such deep feeling that the spotlight got brighter when it shined on him, and he didn’t need all the frou-frou that usually surrounded most of the others trying to grab the brass ring. Nicholas David knocked back the conventions and let it rip. Naturally he didn’t win, though he was a finalist, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing his quest to light a warm fire in the world. David’s new album finally plugs him into the cosmos he’s always been meant to conquer, and is such a glowing collection of feelings and music that it feels like a real event has arrived. The Minneapolis man travels in the style of singers who are able to transcend normal barriers and move everything to a higher plane. Every song hits the eternity button and moves day-to-day reality up several notches. He’s really that good. Producer Samantha Fish convened a crew of the Crescent City’s heaviest hitters and turned the heat up to boil. What they’ve all accomplished sounds like the album that can get everyone through anything, surely music that will come in handy all through 2020 and beyond. It’s like the man said in Robert Downey Senior’s film opus Greaser’s Palace: “If you feel you’re healed.” Time is now.
Richard Hawley, Further. Here’s a tip that might seem a bit strange, but so be it. On first listenings of Richard Hawley’s gorgeous new album, start with song three, “My Little Treasures.” It’s a way to ease into what this super-talented Englishman does, as the first two songs start things off on a bit of an overjolt. Or maybe just start at the beginning and go with the flow and see how that works. Either way, Hawley’s eighth solo release is one that will surely live long and proud. Previously a founding member of Longpigs followed by a short stint in Pulp, the musician struck out on his own and has built a sound of British pop filtered through blue-eyed soul and a style not that far from Nick Lowe’s latest beauties. Which would include that British sense of elegant beauty laced with unending romantic rumblings, and that’s as big a compliment that could be made today. Through it all, Hawley’s voice is full of yearning strength and late night low-light rendezvouses. This is someone who knows exactly who he is and is ready for whatever comes his way. A new treasure.
Tubby Hayes Quartet, Grits, Beans and Greens: The Lost Fontana Studio Session 1969. Nothing like a musical mystery to throw some gasoline on the fire. Granted, Americans didn’t really automatically tune into the British jazz scene in the 1960s, but still, that’s no excuse someone so inspired and able as the late London saxophonist Tubby Hayes received so little attention outside his homeland. Likely there were a lot of the common stumbles his compatriots in the United States encountered–like drugs, alcohol, drugs and alcohol–but it would seem Hayes’ flat-out artistry could have somehow broken through across the Atlantic. But it never really happened. Add to that the fact one of finest recorded accomplishments got lost in the morass of his record company vaults and it’s starting to feel like a not-so-funny Monty Python skit is afoot. Fortunately all is better now, as this release of Tubby Hayes’ 1969 lost sessions is ready for listening. It comes in a variety of formats, from a burning 5-song single album to a 12-CD box set. Nobody ever accused Hayes of being reticent when it came to blowing his horn. Which is a long way of saying it’s never too late to honor Hayes’ musical creations, and revel in the cosmic sound of a saxophonist who knew exactly where the music of the spheres was located. Go there soon.
Etta Jones, A Soulful Sunday: Live at the Left Bank featuring the Cedar Walton Trio. Wow! When a buried treasure like this album suddenly surfaces, it feels just like the sun has burst through a week of rain. Vocalist Etta Jones had a mesmerizing way of mixing jazz and blues that in the end her singing became all her own. Clearly a fan of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, Jones found her own road early after working with big bands and smaller groups. Her hit single “Don’t Go to Strangers” in 1960 made her name permanently. Jones voice could have a semi-sharp edge, but then purr in the clinches to bring love alive. In 1972 Jones flew into Baltimore for an afternoon engagement for the Left Bank Jazz Society at the Famous Ballroom, with pianist Cedar Walton, along with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Billy Higgins. Now there’s a real jazz trio. That this live recording disappeared for 47 years but has finally surfaced is like a jazz miracle. Etta Jones is at the very top of her talents here, with the nine songs a great cross-section of the old and new, from “Blow Top Blues” to “This Girl’s in Love with You.” She takes each one inside her heart and gives it a powerful depth that most singers just can’t get to. By the end of the evening, when Ms. Jones moves into her signature song “Don’t Go to Strangers,” all is well in the world. And, finally, everyone can hear why she belongs in the highest order of jazz singers. Like all Reel to Real Recordings releases, the liner notes include essays and interviews that bring the music to life even more, giving a glorious peak into musical history that continues to this day. Soulful Sunday indeed.
Barbara Stephan, Come on Over to Me. Soul music can cast a long shadow, and the current quest is to find a way to step out of that shadow and find a new place to land. Singer Barbara Stephan has walked a wandering road to get to where she is now, and the good news is it sounds like she’s arrived home. Her voice is full of such character that she can exist alongside Memphis and Motown heroes without falling into the retro penalty box. Maybe that’s because Stephan’s voice doesn’t sound like anyone else. She is able to add just enough moody modern elements to her sound that songs like “Laughing in the Dark,” “Wild Voices” and “Willow” are a peek into soul music’s future. Helping her achieve such a feat is a band with plenty of punch and percussive savvy, highlighted by a three-piece horn section that knows exactly where to throw down and bring Barbara Stephan to the front ranks of keeping an American musical treasure alive. To hear where the future of soul music is going, find out where this woman is right now. Come on over.
Various Artists, If You’re Going to the City: A Tribute to Mose Allison. Mississippian Mose Allison really needs no introduction. He wrote some of the best songs known to man, and had such a drolly effective vocal and piano style that he was always in a party of one. This fifteen-song tribute album is like a Who’s Who of cooldom, an unmistakably righteous spotlight of why Allison could look anyone in the eye. With songs like “My Mind is on Vacation,” “Everybody’s Crying Mercy,” “Parchman Farm” and “Ever Since the World Ended” in the man’s canon, well, there are no problems that can’t be solved with a song. Participating artists are all over the place, which is the real way to see how wonderfully talented Mose Allison was. When Iggy Pop and Bonnie Raitt can stroll side-by-side it’s apparent an unbendable grooviness is present. While tribute albums can be dicey endeavors, this one rolls down the track at full-speed, leaning into the curves and busting through the fog straight on. There is so much joy fueling all the songs it’s completely contagious. Surely Mose Allison is smiling ear-to-ear somewhere knowing all album sales proceeds will go the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. Fearlessness straight ahead.
Wild Rabbit Salad, Trouble in Town. Maybe there should be a state statute in Texas that anyone who records there must do at least one Townes Van Zandt song. Why not? Van Zandt might just be the best songwriter ever to call the Lone Star state home, with dozens of classics that will live forever, and every album would be improved by including one. The Houston-based duo Wild Rabbit Salad does that idea one better, as they’ve done two Van Zandt songs on their fourth album. The first, “Tecumseh Valley,” is such a conveyor of impossible-to-avoid sadness that a handkerchief should be included in the booklet. Bucky Goldberg and Marietta Goldberg fit together like grits and gravy, and zero in on backwoods wailing crossed with urban beauty. They’ve been singing together a long time, reading each other’s minds and knowing how to get a party started. But the pair also knows where hurt and pain live in modern life, and aren’t afraid to wrap their voices around it to make life better. As the world spins in unpredictable ways, music like this can be an anchor to the challenges that confront those with the courage to take them on. Start a fire.