Michael Doucet, Lacher Prise. Beausoleil’s Michael Doucet is surely one of the high priests of Cajun music, and has been for a very long time. On his latest go-round of the rollicking music he loves so much, Doucet throws caution out the back door and lets the good times completely roll. His new solo album takes a wide-range view of the sounds and styles he’s embraced all these years, and with the band Lacher Price kicks everything into high gear from note one. They headed to the sacred ground of the Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana and stretched things out considerably, calling it Southwest Louisiana music. The way the group mixes songs like Boozoo Chavis’ “Lula Lula Don’t You Go to Bingo,” with Bobby Charles’ “He’s Got All the Whiskey,” is such a joy of spirited endeavor that it could be bottled and sold to adults only. These are musical moments that rip the curtains off the windows and kick down all the walls, with everyone throwing themselves into the fervor of finding the essence of what makes music bring such redemption. There comes a time when truly seasoned players don’t have to think anymore. Rather, they are able to walk tall and just start playing, knowing that the spirit in the sky will visit them in good time, take their hand and lead them straight to the promised land. Hey la bas.
Gil Scott-Heron, We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven. In 2010 the stellar Gil Scott-Heron, who had seemingly disappeared from the cultural stage in a life of dissipation and drug addiction, had a glorious return with his album I’M NEW AGAIN. The artist who had spent the 1970s defining new parameters for African-American music made a stand which said he wasn’t through. Unfortunately, he was through shortly after. Now Makaya McCraven has taken that pivotal album and created a whole new world of musical tracks to extend the call of Heron’s original recordings. McCraven ushers the songs through a thrilling soundscape of challenging declarations. Songs like “Where Did the Night Go” and “New York is Killing Me” feel like a life has been resurrected and set free. Gil Scott-Heron is once again right in front of us, pushing listeners into rethinking how they feel music. This is an album that needs to be heard by anyone who was once shown the light by Heron’s original vision. Makaya McCraven deconstructs and reconstructs what was a mesmerizing album, and makes it brand new. And when Brook Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” takes the spotlight near the end, well, realize that the heart knows no deeper recesses. The finish line has been reached. We’re new again.
Hot Club of Los Angeles, Cinema Swing. The West side of Los Angeles might not be the first location to come to mind when gypsy jazz is mentioned, but the Cinema Bar there is home to a unique band dedicated to just that. Hot Club of Los Angeles has called the Cinema home on Monday nights for almost a decade, and a stellar crowd of musicians gathers to make sure the music stays swinging. A whole spread of instrumentals and vocals sung in French, Roma and Russian are often featured, bringing in an eclectic crowd of music heads and players alike. Led by band members Carl Byron and Paul Eckman and recorded by drummer Jim Doyle, these dozen selections are able to create a totally different world than what lies outside the club’s door on Sepulveda Boulevard and bumped up next to the permanently crowded 405 Freeway. This is a strain of jazz that injects whatever’s played with a buoyant effervescence that is ultimately irresistible, and invokes the guiding light of Django Reinhardt with such loving vibrations that there is no way not to be swayed into romantic jubilation. This is a modern assessment of a timeless sound, one born of love and created with care. Then and now.
Khruangbin and Leon Bridges, Texas Sun. Sometimes a collaboration feels like someone opened all the doors and a brisk new wind blows in. Khruangbin, a Thai word that loosely means “flying engine,” is a Houston trio that has zigged and zagged through different world music styles like a small tornado which will not stop. The three musicians are fearless in their explorations, and just when it seems like they’ve mastered a style they’ll jump genres and start anew. When the group threw in with Fort Worth serious soul man Leon Bridges, they found a perfect new match. Bridges is a singer who can slip into any style as long as it’s one based on deep feelings. With Khruangbin it’s like he’s climbed aboard their train, but at the same time keeps his distinctive groove burning at full heat. This is music that can’t quite be defined, but never fails to light a fire. It’s airy, beat-strong and always ready to start a sensuous party. And though this release is only four songs, it’s so full of the spirit it fills life with an unbeatable atmosphere, a living modern-day celebration of expressive nirvana. It supplies glide to the stride and smiles to the miles. Made in Texas.
Carla Olson, Have Harmony, Will Travel 2. A rock solid follow-up to 2013’s original HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL, this 11-song collection of knocked-out recordings mixes previously recorded along with brand new duets sung by Carla Olson and friends. And it surpasses even the original album. Participants include the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, Herman’s Hermits’ Peter Noone, Percy Sledge, Mare Winningham, Gene Clark and six others in a wide-swinging set of known and not-so-known classics, and by the end it feels like such a barn-busting affair that a third volume is immediately called for. Carla Olson needs no introduction. From 1970s spiky Austin bands to Los Angeles’ perennials the Textones, on to a dozen solo albums she’s become the city’s musical designated hitter, someone who can sing, play guitar, write songs and produce others as if she was born to do it all. Which she clear was. What’s obvious from this new filled-to-the-brim collection is that vocal duets are something that hold a special space in her heart. Olson zeros in on a natural greatness, sharing microphones with others so that her cohorts rise to the occasion right along with her, and it feels like the recording sessions should go on forever. Harmony or else.
Nathaniel Rateliff, And It’s Still Alright. Bang the gong and beat the drum, because a set of ten songs this overwhelming only comes along every decade or so. Maybe. Born of dismay and despair, this is also music that takes flight because of that very thing. Nathaniel Rateliff was flying high after years of toil in the music trenches: hit songs, sold-out shows and a pink cloud future. Then the darker side of reality hit with divorce and the suicide of friend and record producer Richard Swift. The bright scarlets turned to deep blues and life got shaky. But Rateliff did what so many great singer-songwriters do when darkness descends: he picked up a guitar and wrote songs that helped him find the path to new promise. Any other action was simply not an option. These new songs are so strong they tiptoe right up to being too much to feel, and then wrap their warmth around you. Luckily, the light comes through right on time, in the lyrics and the melodies like true deliverance. It is something that timeless music conjures up against all odds. There are too few modern artists who can dig deep enough to find this kind of salvation, and then are able to fashion it into a sonic window to share with the world. There is so much that hasn’t been heard before in these ten songs it feels like Nathaniel Rateliff has found the secret code to save us all. Son-ofa-bitch.
The Secret Sisters, Saturn Return. Without doubt the Secret Sisters aren’t going to remain anywhere near secret any longer. Laura and Lydia Rogers have been steadily finding fans for several years, with each album gaining ground among those who cherish American music. Their voices join with such undeniable strength that it feels like holy ground when they sing together. The pair’s new album leaps right out from the first song with newfound power and a striking resolve. Produced by Brandi Carlile (and recorded at her home studio in Maple Valley, Washington) Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth, these new songs have grown wings and taken off. “Late Bloomer” is a theme song with such an inner resolve that it sets the theme for all that follows. These sisters aren’t fooling around as they aim for new greatness, and each song gains in import as the album unfolds. No one sounds like siblings who sing together, and the Rogers add to the line of all those who’ve come before, and add to the promise of all that will follow. “Hand Over My Heart” is such an uncompromising beauty and is arriving right on time, and “Healer in the Sky” is a musical prayer that sounds like it will be sung forever now. The Secret Sisters have been touched, and are now spreading their touch to us. Feel for real.
Will Sexton, Don’t Walk the Darkness. Evolution has always been in high demand, and for Will Sexton his masterful new album is a natural progression born from physical and emotional rebirth. Following a stroke in 2009, Sexton had to relearn a whole host of abilities, including playing guitar, which sent him down a new path that included a move from Austin to Memphis inspired by wife and frequent collaborator singer-songwriter Amy LaVere. Sexton discovered a new way of looking at music. DON’T WALK THE DARKNESS is like a declaration of greatness, the kind of album that not only stakes out new ground but actually establishes an expanded vision. Working with New Orleans’ kingpin live band the Iguanas, Will Sexton’s new songs sound like they fall straight out of a wide-open soul. He began performing while still in grade school, and by now has played about every kind of roots music imaginable. Fortunately, Sexton is still able to fashion a style that is eternally inventive. He has boiled down all the elements and hit the jackpot on an irresistible attack of everything great about American music. Included is “Don’t Take it From Me,” co-written with Waylon Jennings in 2001, and “Only Forever” from the early 1990s. They fit seamlessly with such a naturally joyous array of new originals that this album immediately comes to be one of those releases that is a constant companion, right next to some of Sexton’s early inspirations like Doug Sahm, Joe Ely and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The final track, “Fall in Straight View,” is a gorgeous ode to inspiration and the way that life has a way of adding up into its own glory, one that often arrives in spite of all that might stand against it. Be here now.
Hank Williams, Pictures from Life’s Other Side: The Man and His Music in Rare Photos and Recordings. The arist who is the most inspired country music star of all time deserves a book like this. One that explores some of his earliest years of his ascending ride. Williams was a mega star of WSM’s Grande Ole Opry, and began hosting his own radio show there in 1951. Sometimes he had to record the shows in other locations, and when they were aired they soon disappeared, only to be rediscovered when being taken to the trash bins. This invaluable collection includes all 144 tracks of those radio show transcription discs, first sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour Company. This is American musical history at its apex. And the photos themselves are a mind-blowing look at Hank Williams in all sides of his life, from life on and off the road, and are the most complete reflection of the man who built the church where so much of later country music worships. There has never been a Hank Williams book like this, one that opens up a way of seeing the artist in some ways for the very first time, and also hears him as he works his magic on his own radio show every weekday. The legendary artist died on New Year’s Day in 1953 when he was only 29 years old. But every day his influence grows stronger, and this book beautifully shows why. See the light.
ZZ Top, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas. What were the odds of three teenaged Texans, one from Houston and two from Dallas, finding each other in 1969 and deciding to start a blues-rock powerhouse that would last now over half a century, and change the modern musical landscape in the process? But that’s exactly what Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard did all those years ago, and when the trio went to their very first show at a Knights of Columbus Hall outside Houston and played to a party of one, it might have been hard to predict the thrilling road that lay ahead. But what a journey it’s been, and this jam-packed documentary not only captures the excitement all along the way, but also explains how so many twists and turns happened. The world wasn’t exactly holding its breath for ZZ Top’s music at the start. Some only heard an amped-up boogie band, but for those with discerning ears something else was happening. There were three fertile minds throwing in all kinds of arcane influences, boiling it into their blues-infused sound and pushing it past the max. Of course, it wasn’t always a smooth excursion, but in many ways the challenges made ZZ Top even more mega. It gave them grit and forced the band to bear down deep into their musical roots to find the magical mojo which has always inspired them. When the millions of fans signed on, it just gave them the juice to hit the afterburners and head for outer space. Watch them up close and personal as they built this rocket ship with some pivotal help from people like original manager Bill Ham, along with a special performance at Gruene Hall in central Texas, and the real story of rock & roll comes alive right before the eyes. Haw, haw, haw.