By Bill Bentley
Joe Ely, Love in the Midst of Mayhem. Is it possible after 50 years to make the very best album of a long and illustrious career? If you’re Joe Ely it absolutely is. With this new release, recorded in the long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of Texas’ favorite sons comes through with songs of such feeling and fervor that it’s impossible not to shake the head in wonder. Ely went through boxes of old tapes, thumb drives sitting idle in a drawer and anything else song-wise he could find that might have resonance now, and then recorded at home and over computer and phone lines with various musicians to deliver something that is stunning. From “Soon All Your Troubles Be Gone” to “Glare of Glory” is a study of love like very few others have achieved. Ely has always been at his core a renegade poet, looking at words like colors to be used in a painting. Add to that an ability to tear up audiences from dance halls to Carnegie Hall with equal velocity and it is no wonder the man has found himself at the top of a glorious line of Lone Star musical heroes. The way the West Texas wonder keeps pushing at the borders, looking for the next great song or gorgeous guitar hook makes him a permanent beacon in all he does. Listening to LOVE IN THE MIDST OF MAYHEM is to hear why music will always be our guiding light, and Joe Ely is the man beaming that light the brightest. Let it shine.
Steve Forbert, Early Morning Rain. When a singer does an entire album of cover songs, it’s like rummaging through their closet to see what’s there. The songs selected are an intriguing clue to who they really are. Steve Forbert was one of the very best in the Class of 1977, when rock critics were throwing around the tag “New Bob Dylan.” Luckily Forbert made some massively popular albums then and got past all that foolishness. He has stayed pretty much on course all these years, and now offers ten of his hand-picked favorites. And what a batch it is, wandering from Elton John, Grateful Dead, The Kinks, Charlie Walker and Richard Thompson to, of course, Bob Dylan. Forbert’s voice is still a natural treasure, a blend of Mississippi innocence and big city inspiration. He has always had that X-factor when he sings: a bit hard to pinpoint why he is so great, but he surely is. Steve Forbert’s versions of these songs feels like a warm blanket of familiarity and surprise, reassuring that all these years of chasing the flame of music is time well spent. When it seems like we’re rounding third for home plate, this is surely the music that will get us there with clear eyes and a good heart. Thanks Mister Forbert.
Robert Francis, Amaretto. For years, this Los Angeles singer-songwriter seemed like he was just one song away from breaking through and becoming someone who lives in the same rarefied air as Jackson Browne. Robert Francis has everything: voice, vision, emotions, everything. He’s gotten close to bringing all those strengths home before, but there was also a bit of wanderlust about his career that threw things sideways. On AMARETTO, it sounds like Francis has come full circle and gathered all his strengths to create the songs that can make the mark he’s always been capable of. “How Long Has It Been,” written for his late father, is such a breakthrough that hopefully the world will notice. Most of the new songs were recorded after a move to Nashville a few years ago. But he is at heart a Southern California soul, somehow capturing the sunshine as well as the darkness there, often at the same time, so Francis came home to finish the music. Joined on the new album by Ry Cooder, Marty Stuart and Terry Adams, this is an artist who has come into his own all the way. He’s been able to strip away a lot of the artifice that gets in the way of modern music, and add such a deep level of feeling there is simply no way not to be noticed. Proceed directly to “Other Side of Heaven” for a sneak peak into eternity. All are welcome.
Eliza Gilkyson, 2020. Here is an album for a new America. Hell, might as well make that a new world. There is such a dedicated commitment within every song it all takes on a beautiful profoundness that turns passion into reality. And it just might be Eliza Gilkyson is the only person on the planet who could have made this music. Every song feels like it is informed by our overwhelming global challenge right now, and all the social changes that need to be made. Maybe that’s because Gilkyson has been fighting for fairness her whole life. She is someone whose activism has become a large part of who she is, at the same time her music has evolved into such a beatific understanding of humanity it becomes breathless listening to her sing. Perfectly produced by son Cisco Ryder Gilliland and featuring a studio full of incredibly potent musicians, there are many moments on these 10 songs that it’s like Eliza Gilkyson had a clairvoyant look into the future when she wrote and recorded it. Her voice goes directly to the strength that’s going to be needed to rebuild everything that’s been attacked. With two prescient cover songs–Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”–it feels like the circle is perfectly unbroken. Prediction number one: this is the album that will finally win Eliza Gilkyson a Grammy Award. She’s been nominated before, but 2020 sounds like her year. Maybe that’s why she chose that number as her album title. The woman knows.
Heather Anne Lomax, All This Time. The roots of rock & roll inevitably lead back to rebellion. In the early 1950s there was just a little too much buttoned-down Eisenhower ambience coursing through the country, and it was time for the rebels to bust free every way they could, and one of them was rock & roll music. Luckily there are plenty of people still ready to bust free and one of them is singer-songwriter Heather Anne Lomax. Prior to now she was a singer known as Michael-Ann, until she found out her birth family was part of the Lomax music clan, and she grabbed a new name. Her music runs right into early Elvis Presley inspiration, along with a slew of other Southern troublemakers. Which works great, because that is the road Lomax walks down the middle of. Her voice is full of sassy insinuation and not-so-subtle seductions, and never too far from the blues. Still, the real strength of Heather Anne Lomax is her ability to walk into the woods, looking for the mystery that fuels all great rock & roll, and bring it back alive and then find a way to plaster it on songs like “Prison Cell,” “Heart Don’t Lie” and “Six Foot Under.” This is a woman who probably saw the nonsense of behaving like others expected, and lit out on her own to discover a way to express the feelings flying around her head. That she’s done it so well and stayed out of being locked up is a testament to artistic determination. Heather Anne Lomax isn’t asking for any favors, but she surely expects plenty of attention. All this time.
Willie Nile, New York at Night. Leave today’s rock & roll to the fearless, those who sound like they prefer working without a net and aren’t afraid to risk it all on a great song. There is no more time for the frivolous. Willie Nile has always had a fine-honed gambler’s edge in his music. Moving from Buffalo to Manhattan in the early 1970s gave him a chance to find the footprints of the city’s masters like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, and then discover a way to explore himself beyond them. By his first solo album in 1980 the stage was set for all hell to break loose. And that’s exactly what happened. He made a quick name for himself as one of the chosen new, and has been living that dream ever since. He’s incapable of making an album less than great, and these songs dedicated to his hometown of the past 50 years roar like a subway train blasting from Harlem down to Battery Park. It’s a bit like a sonic city tour that tears at New York’s seams with rock songs jacked to the max. Big Apple bites.
Ben Sidran, The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma. The world is full of biographies about fascinating musical figures, but none quite like this new one on super producer Tommy LiPuma. The constant allure of the story is LiPuma’s life itself: it began with childhood physical challenges that marked him for life, but he became so musically rich and personally strong that he’s almost unequaled in the world he thrived in all those years. And on the flip side a big part of this irresistible tale is musician Ben Sidran’s writing. He knows exactly what made LiPuma’s life tick, from the largest achievements to the most subtle details, and has the ability to paint the picture Tommy LiPuma’s fascinating life deserves. With the Cleveland native working on everything from early mega-hits like The Sandpiper’s “Guantanamera” to later chartbusters with George Benson and Diana Krall, it’s a ride like few others achieved. Along the way he also shared his talents with greats like Miles Davis, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson, and the scenarios he remembers show how things really work once records start being made. There was nothing Tommy LiPuma couldn’t do, and even when things didn’t quite pan out, like his early Blue Thumb and Horizon record label adventures, it wasn’t for lack of dreaming. Much of this book might seem like inside baseball, but the facts are so real and righteous every chapter reads like you’re peeking in on history in a game of World Series-size artistic proportions. There’s a reason the artists Tommy LiPuma produced remember him with such love and respect. The short man might have walked with a limp, but in the end became one of the giants of the music business who ran with the very best–when the business was still all about the music. And when that era ended, the legendary record man for 50 years took a classy stride out the studio door with his head held high. A page burner.
Pam Tillis, Looking for a Feeling. You can hear it a mile away: singer Pam Tillis has the hoodoo in her heart. It’s not like she’s been hanging out with ghosts, but there is a feeling of some serious mojo mania in how she approaches these new songs. The woman is by no means a Nashville newcomer, and being the daughter of superstar Mel Tillis likely opened a few doors before Ms. Tillis decided to kick them down for herself. The result is a new album of decided depth, and a gathering of songs that hint at something just beyond the present. That’s because Pam Tillis has gotten outside the lines on songs like “Better Friends,” Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Dark Turn of Mind,” “The Scheme of Things” and “Burning Star.” She mixes in Muscle Shoals and Memphis stylings with Music City overtones, and the result is, well, unforgettable. This is a collection so real and so affecting that Tillis sounds like she’s singing for her life. It is a time of turning for a woman who has spent a lifetime looking for a way to push everything forward. In 2020 that’s exactly what Pam Tillis has accomplished: a no nonsense achievement of razor-sharp edges and endless engagement. East Nashville’s finest.
Various Artists, Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987. With Pina Colada beats, Old Spice melodies and a whole slew of late ’70s punctuations, these vivacious 18 songs are a vivid flashback of how soul music pivoted towards the future beginning in the mid-’70s. Disco had extended its tentacles into almost all things R&B, sometimes in intriguing ways that these songs more than soulfully capture. The city of Memphis was reeling from the demise of Stax Records by then and an overall urban malaise that was hard to escape. But they don’t call it Bluff City for nothing, so artists like O.T. Skyes, Captain Fantastic & Starr Fleet, J-Phakta and Libra pulled their own thing together and recorded scattershot singles to take a run at fun and fame. It’s the sound of a city pulling itself together in a show of inner strength. That none really hit the commercial bullseye is beside the point. Popular music is a long shot pursuit no matter what side of the corporate fence you’re coming from. What counts is the inner belief that the music matters, and demands a roll of the dice. Like the sign there said on the front of a motorcycle clubhouse a few blocks from Beale Street: “Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.” There is belief, there is beauty, there is bodaciousness and most of all there are big beating hearts in every one of these songs. And that, in the end, is what truly matters. McLemore Avenue lives.
Watermelon Slim, Traveling Man. Williams Homans III didn’t set out young to be a blues musician. He came from old Boston money, and during his young years in Asheville, North Carolina the five-year-old got a massive dose of John Lee Hooker songs from the family maid. A big flashing light bulb went off in Homans’ head and he knew the blues highway would someday be his home. Homans had some twists and turns, including several years in Vietnam, but in the end the blues won out and once the young musician turned himself into Watermelon Slim he knew he’d hit his own monkey nerve. The man has made a beautiful mess of an album, as this new live affair is stripped down just to Watermelon Slim’s bottleneck guitar and vocals. He’s got king snakes crawling in his voice and a skewed perspective of looking at the world through a half-empty whiskey bottle. Recorded at two Oklahoma nightclubs, both shows are a tour de force of what someone can do with the blues if he’s got the proper propeller in his heart and an ability to dig down into the dirt of his own life for inspiration. No problem there for Watermelon Slim. He’s been a walking wonder his whole life, with a sandpaper voice and a rascalish rake, and whether he’s gut-busting through his own songs or blues classics by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and others doesn’t matter. It’s all one big smoldering mass of one man’s soul held up to the world. Watermelon Slim, cruising through his 70th year of life, is heading for the dark end of the street and looking for companions to go with him. Get onboard now.
Song of the Month
Important Trash, “Fancy You.” Sometimes a song has just so much of itself it sounds like it comes from its very own world. Which is a fine thing. Singer-songwriter Mary Parker definitely exists in a time of her own, and on this song from an upcoming album has taken on herself producing and performing everything on it. No problem, because that helps give “Fancy You” such a strong and solitary vision. Perhaps Parker was a pop music fan in her youth, or possibly she lived on the classical side of the podium. Either way she has fashioned a mini-masterpiece on “Fancy You,” which sounds like it could have fallen out of David Lynch’s secret stash of favorite singles. There is an air of otherness in Parker’s vocal, breathy but still grounded to the earth. And the instrumental arrangement and performance floats through air with hypnotic precision. There hasn’t been a song like this in awhile. Because whatever world we’re all going to in the future we will need new music like “Fancy You” to take us there. This is it.