By Bill Bentley
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways. “Today tomorrow and yesterday too / the flowers are dying like all things do…” Bob Dylan has done hoodooed the hoodoo man on his heart-splitting new album, which begins with the aforementioned words, and lets it be known he sees the end and doesn’t flinch. Of course, Dylan has always been like that: unafraid to confront the bottom line reality that not everything lasts, and life can be as fleeting in the night as a stranger’s smile or a lonesome scream. In so many ways, the Minnesota man dipped deeply early into the barebones existentialism of Beat writers like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and powered his songs with what he found there. Over a sixty-year career matched by no one, Bob Dylan has been like the train conductor for American music. And one of his greatest accomplishments of all those decades of originality is just how knocked-out loaded with greatness this new album is. The songs often seem beyond mere music, rotating instead out in the world of cosmic creation. Besides the fact there is nothing like this music is that it is instantly stunning, like the listener is receiving intravenous injections of history mixed with fantasy. The final result is a gasping sense of wonder played by his ESP-driven band, churning from the sentimental joy of “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” to the head-spinning awe of the 17-minute tour de force “Murder Most Foul,” which takes the assassination of President John F. Kennedy into uncharted territory. As always with Bob Dylan, the true prize is not in any answers given, but rather how the questions become even more dazzling. Goodbye Jimmy Reed.
Michael McDermott, What in the World… The world surely belongs to those who chase the fire to the end of the line, and just when it seems they’re ready to go up in flames find a way to a new life. Rock & roll is full of those tales, and while they’re not unique each and every one holds a beating heart with life left to give. Michael McDermott had it all 30 years ago, but like all good stories a harsh reality set in and the bottle cracked his life apart. With hard work and commitment McDermott put the bottle down and now is making the music of his life. He has learned lessons many never have to know about, and is singling like his life is at stake. Which it could very well be. Michael McDermott has a middle American toughness crossed with a soul survivor’s sensitivity so whatever he sings feels like a passionate plea for understanding and another chance. There is simply no way to listen to songs like “Blue Eyed Barmaid,” “Die With Me” and “Positively Central Park” and not feel the faithful tug of foreverness. This is a man who has fought his way back from the last stop on the subway and now lives doing his best to follow the footsteps along the road of Happy Destiny. There are no givens in this life, but there is surely the chance at redemption and the promise of a new beginning which is born daily. Music is the ultimate inspiration, it often seems, as well as the permanent teacher. When those two unbelievable qualities come together as one is when everything becomes possible, even among the impossibilities we stumble across. Michael McDermott sounds like this more than most, and it would be a most foolish move indeed not to pay attention and see where he can take us. Keep coming back.
Daryl Mosley, The Secret of Life. There was a time when country music was stripped down to the core, and the music conveyed such a powerful sense of humanity that it was impossible to ignore. There wasn’t an army of twanging Telecaster guitars or enough crashing cymbals to call in a SWAT team, let alone a level of echo to turn the world inside out. Now, better than just about anyone alive, Daryl Mosley refocuses those elemental truths that country excels at and has made a timeless album which sounds like it will live forever. The blend of acoustic guitars, mandolins, dobro, fiddle and harmony vocals lets the songs soar, and paint a picture of how life was once, and still might be in the small towns of America. And while many of them feel like a fantasy in what modern society has become, originals like “In a Country Town,” “A Few Years Ago” and “The Deal” offer a hope that there is still a chance the ideals inside these songs can stay alive. Daryl Mosley is easily one of the most inspired modern singer-songwriters in whatever genre you want to put him, and sings with a blessing that might just come from another world. But no matter what his background or beliefs, Mosley is the real thing whose music could lead the way to an inspired way of life. The secret survives.
MARK Olson & INGUNN Ringvold, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. Albums that use unique capitalizations are often intriguing, asking what’s wrong wtih the regular rules? For Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold, it feels like they’ve headed off into the desert to get away from the obvious and want to have fun making up new ones. Their intriguing music is clearly an attempt to blend all their illustrious past endeavors, whether it was Olson’s history in the Jayhawks and the Original Harmony Creek Dippers with Victoria Williams, or Ringvold’s Norwegian roots and her study of the Armenian Qanon with master musician Arax. Added together it’s like a perfect blend of here and there. The easeful way their music crosses America’s musical roots and Norway’s more ethereal sounds is like a merger of the stars. Their voices each offer a different style of singing, but like so many musical marriages it’s all in the results, and what this album accomplishes is an American and Scandavian celebration of differences. That the songs have such a genesis in the California desert infuses the music with the feel of endless starry nights and a certain mystery of the beyond. There is no way it could have been conceived on city streets. The pair have gone deeper off-road than they have ever ventured before, and each song feels like they’ve discovered a new path. Albums like this are an adventure in new destinations. This time Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold have found that place within themselves that allows everything to be born at the right time. Accept their invitation.
Chuck Prophet, The Land That Time Forgot. There are certain albums that definitely delineate modern times, and no one recently has done that better than Chuck Prophet on these dozen songs. By now, Prophet’s name is good as gold in singer-songwriter circles, and each of his albums proves why. But there is something so striking on new love songs like “Paying My Respects to the Train,” “Wiilie and Nilli” “Love Doesn’t Come from the Barrel of a Gun,” “Meet Me at the Roundabout” and “Waving Goodbye” that Prophet lives up to his last name with a new zest. He sounds mesmerized by the times we are living in. As always, Chuck Prophet has the vision to tap into it and turn all that into songs which capture completely America in 2020 in a way that is a million miles past mere Americana music. These are big slices of real life, sometimes from the daylight and other times from the dark. There can be no doubt all are born in reality and have been paid for by early morning doubts and late night delusions. Prophet has come a long way from his heady Los Angeles days in Green on Red in the 1980s, but he’s always been a long distance musician, someone who could probably not stop even if he wanted. Like John Lee Hooker once sang: “It’s in him and it’s gots to come out.” San Francisco’s treat.
Evelyn Rubio, Crossing Borders. Sometimes the best way forward is to take a whole group of influences and throw them together to see what shakes out. Evelyn Rubio decided the time for that was now. Coming out of the barrios of Mexico City, she has always been a chance-taker. There is no way Rubio would have gotten this far without that fearlessness. For her new album, she swerves from blues, rock, Latin and even country to show a musician who is ready for everything. Assembling several different backing bands, producer Larry Fulcher and Rubio sound like they’ve found their ultimate groove. Whether it’s the Phantom Blues band, two original members of Spirit or Etta James’ longtime guitarist Josh Sklar, every song feels as if it’s all coming from right inside Evelyn Rubio’s soul. She’s had a serpentine journey through the blues boulevards of Houston, into Austin and beyond, but the underlying goal has been to find what moves her the deepest and then take that excitement to the audience. And of course it doesn’t hurt that Rubio is no stranger to the saxophone. As America blends into a true cross-section of nationalities, this is music that shows just how exciting it can be when those influences all come together in a style that seems to explode right from the start. Just so that point is not missed, three of the album’s songs are also performed in Spanish, proving once and for all that music has no color or language. It is an equal opportunity unifier and will not be denied. Do not forget.
John Sieger, Modern Folk Volume II. If there is an unsung hero in American music right now it just might be John Sieger. Not only has Sieger been at the head of the line in Milwaukee for several decades, the fact that he just keeps getting better and better is a cause for rejoyce. Sieger’s past group affiliations include the R&B Cadets and Semi-Twang, which by themselves would put him the stratosphere, but he continues recording albums that connect the earth with the cosmos in ways that cannot be predicated. His voice is a study in emotional grace, one that touches all the places inside us that need touching. He works with musicians he’s known his whole life, which means they do not need words to communicate. Instead, it’s quick looks and a body language that speaks wonders between the players. For his second Modern Folk collection, John Sieger goes into the end zone with songs that will live way beyond all of us, and spread a spirited understanding of this funny little trek called life. There is no need to worry about mortality. Instead there is an inherent happiness in hearing songs like “After the Fall,” “If You’re Gonna Sing,” “Never Borrow Trouble” and “The Pleasure of Your Company.” Sieger shows us that walking down a familiar sidewalk and grabbing melodies from thin air is a holy pursuit, and then carving words into the music takes things right into an eternal quest for permanence. The best definition of folk music known to man is that it is music that folks make, and all that can be added to such wisdom is “true that.” Folk a go-go.
The Staple Singers, Unlock Your Mind. Any way that matters, The Staple Singers are the First Family of Gospel. Father Roebuck “Pops” Staples and daughters Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne had seen many glorious days during a decades-long career, but by the time they headed to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record this album for Warner Bros. Records in 1978, the hit record charts had gotten used to living largely without them. Producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett wanted to change that, and called in the A-list session players and some illustrious songwriters to help. And it worked, kind of. The album had that deep-in-the-ground Southern soul feel, and everyone’s vocals brought back the punch of the Staples’ very first hits. There’s even a monster-groove take on Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” like a nod to Memphis’ role in the evolution of modern rhythm & blues. But the real stunner of this new reissue is Paul Kelly’s original “God Can,” a list of the Lord’s ultimate abilities and the perfect song for the Staples to prove their devotion to all that is sacred. Pops Staples’ recitation is right off the pulpit, while his daughters soar in their own divine sonics. There would be more Staple Singers albums, and of course Mavis Staples walks at the front of the spiritual class to this very day, but UNLOCK YOUR MIND remains the release that put the irresistible aggregation back on the map in the late 1970s. Praise to all.
Ted Templeman As Told To Greg Renoff, A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music. There are record producers and then there are record producers. Ted Templeman has had such a stellar career in that role he’s nearly originated his own niche. It didn’t hurt that Templeman achieved a bit of 1960’s notoriety in his band Harper’s Bizarre, before landing a $50-a-week job as a tape listener at Warner Bros. Records. The way Templeman handled that slide from stardom graciously marked him as the real thing, and once he got into the studio with acts like the Doobie Brothers the roller coaster ride began. Soon there were productions with Van Morrison, Little Feat and Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band before the golden door opened and Van Halen sauntered in. Of course, it wasn’t that easy. Finding the best new bands usually meant hearing a promise that others had missed, which Ted Templeman excelled at from his earliest days in A&R. The way he is able to explain how his life in the music business evolved, and the way he could make records that went on to sell tens of millions of copies hasn’t been told before with this kind of detail and description. Of course, there were misses too, but that’s part of the process. And Ted Templeman never dodges the bullet when it comes to mistakes made and opportunities missed, which makes him almost alone in humility among this crowd. Running alongside all his A&R and production highlights are all the twists and turns of working at Warner Bros. Records, the Cadillac of the record labels, and some of the colorful characters that roamed the company’s Burbank headquarters. For a look behind the curtain of why this music continues to mean so much, this is the book to start with. Ask Van Halen.
VickiKristinaBarcelona, Pawn Shop Radio. It is completely possible that if God really exists the deity is masquerading as Tom Waits. There is something so overwhelmingly unique about Waits and his music that it puts him in a completely different sphere. Does any other artist sound like him? Not really. Look like him? Not a chance. Extend his quirky aura into the world? Forget it. So when a group decides to do a whole album of Tom Waits music, they’re taking a chance of falling seriously short of their inspiration. Luckily this three-woman combo makes sure to never mimic the master. Instead they add their own dash of quirk and beauty to Waits’ songs like “Tango Till They’re Sore,” “Jersey Girl” and “Innocent When You Dream” so comparisons to the originals aren’t applicable. The women really do make the songs their own. For that alone the stage is set for some high-flying soulfulness. And just for the record, the trio’s name is a slight reworking of the Woody Allen film title “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Why not? Woody Allen and Tom Waits each created their own universe, and once they did decided to stay there. Now if Waits would just make a new album. The upside-down that world has turned turned into today is often a ball of confusion, and sometimes seems like we’re out on the ledge alone. Perfect for Tom Waits. We need the man who created his own universe to give us a sign that someday we’re going to look back on life as it is now and understand not all was lost. Cold cold ground.
Song of the Month
Jenny Reynolds, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” There are songs that will surely live forever. Their words and music supply such staggering feelings that it is inconceivable to live without them. Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is surely one of those songs. In fact, it might just be the very best of them all. When Williams first sang it, it felt like the world was going to end, and the sooner the better. That kind of loneliness should befall no one. Now Austin-based singer Jenny Reynolds discovers yet another depth to Williams’ classic, one that offers just enough hope inside the words to find forgiveness for such forlorness. Instead, an inner beauty in the falling stars and purple sky lends a hand to offer hope and the idea of another chance at love. Maybe. What is so transformative by this version among the hundreds of others is that Jenny Reynolds sings it like it’s never been sung before, almost like she wrote it. And her entire new album ANY KIND OF ANGEL is one not to miss. More next month.