Matt Berninger, Serpentine Prison. The National has been a major league band for 20 years, even before they were popular, and lead singer Matt Berninger has proven himself over and over to be one of the most moving interpreters alive of modern songs. Yet his first solo album goes to a place not many people can get to now: somewhere so full of quiet but crushing force that it’s capable of near-religious effect. Maybe it’s the way Berninger uses his prodigious abilities in such an intensely understated manner, somewhat hypnotic and always heartfelt. There aren’t many singers left with his magical sensibility. Van Morrison can still go there on occasion, but few others. Producer Booker T Jones’ telepathic knowledge how to steer the singer into that zone makes it seem the two are possibly brothers, joined in some joyous dance of the spirit on these ten songs that was meant to happen. The musicians involved also travel to that gorgeous place, performing with such perfect resolve it sounds like they’ve been playing together forever. The album has the ability to become like a seance of the soul, and on songs like “Loved So Little,” “Take Me Out of Town” and “Silver Springs” with special guest Gail Ann Dorsey, a tapestry of music is woven so well that the outer world becomes superfluous. There isn’t much like it in 2020, but gratefully it has arrived just in time. Recordings like this take a joining of the minds and hearts to make the songs take off into the ozone like they do, and it’s a good bet that’s exactly where Berninger and Jones are aiming them. They have hit the bullseye, and hopefully will return again someday. Among the album photos is one of a young man with dark glasses, his hands resting on the top of his head. Could that be a very young Bob Dylan, smiling in approval? One of the great qualities of Matt Berninger is he leaves room for the mysteries that make life meaningful. Here is another.
Elvis Costello, Hey Clockface. In the mid-1970s so much seemed up for grabs. The United States had gone through the ugliness of purging its President, and while there was hope for a new day coming what really came through was that the country was broken and busted. Enter artists like Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and all the others who got lumped into the New Wave and/or punk cattle call. Their music sent out shivers of hope that things would change. Or something. All these years later, Elvis Costello still seems as a prime purveyor of seeking the new. He’s taken off in a dozen different directions over the years, all of them with a sense of passion and purpose. HEY CLOCKFACE is like a Certs breath mint: it’s two albums in one. Some of the sessions were done in New York with top of the line players there, including guitarist Bill Frisell. Others were held in Paris, and included the Le Quintette Saint Germaine. Of course, Costello himself did his vocals and guitar in Helsinki. Why not? Each aggregation brings endless imagination to the songs, making this one of the Englishman’s very finest efforts. Songs like “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have” and “We Are All Cowards” give ample evidence of one of the most imaginative minds in rock & roll. Ever. The music runs from angular twisters to melodic new classics, from track to track. It’s like Elvis Costello creates these new pathways forward in his music, and then barrels down the road at 100 miles an hour to see where they’ll take him. After 31 albums, it’s not like every destination hits a jackpot, but when it does, look out. And that’s exactly what happens here. There are very few people still twanging at such a high level from that first avalanche of rock & roll creativity 45 years ago, and there can be no doubt that Costello has no intention of slowing down. Why should he? It’s obvious which of those in the highest ranks of modern music are in it to surprise themselves, and not repeat what they’ve done to retain rankings on some inconsequential chart. They make this music because they want to see if they can outdo what they’ve already done, or at least keep their blood pressure high. When it’s time to plug into the future and find out who from the past is ready to take us there, this is the person to seek. Elvis Costello knows.
Sonny Green, Found! One Soul Singer. He’s been hiding in plain sight for over 50 years on the Los Angeles soul scene, a man who can sing circles around just about anyone, but believe it or not has never made an album of his own. Until now. This is the kind of recording that can blow the mind apart. Sonny Green is like a working man’s Bobby “Blue” Bland, someone who knows how to drill down into a song and then use his gritty voice to push the whole thing into the outer limits. Born in Monroe, Louisiana, Green worked his way out to Los Angeles and in the late 1960s recorded a series of scintillating singles that raised some action but didn’t really get him past the front door. The great thing is that Sonny Green stuck to it, becoming a regular on the Southern California chitlin circuit and rounding up enough fans to stay above water. It’s not an easy life, but this man has been devoted to it so long it’s like second-nature to perform as if he’s on top of the world. Finally, with the assistance of the Little Village Foundation, Green has commandeered a recording studio with the kind of musicians on anyone’s A-list and brought the whole thing home. Whether it’s songs from the playbooks of Bland, Little Milton, Syl Johnson, Ted Taylor and, yes, Willie Nelson or more recent offerings, this soul singer makes them his own in the flash of an ear. He then heads off instantly to the promised land. Producer Kid Andersen knows the secret to getting this kind of music right is to keep things tight, and use tension as the secret weapon. Then, when it’s time to let the eagle fly, turn the singer loose. Which is exactly what Sonny Green excels at. His voice flies like an eagle on demand, and proves that soul music will surely live forever as long as he has anything to say about it. Burn, baby, burn.
Chris Hillman, Time Between: My Life As A Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond. In 1965 the Byrds split open the American rock scene like a two-ton hammer. Their soaring version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” started a fire in the States that hasn’t stopped yet. Of course, the band’s frontline of Gene Clark, Jim/Roger McGuinn and David Crosby got all the attention, but it turns out bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman helped light the fuse both musically and spiritually. Hillman was a total musician, going back to his days performing bluegrass in San Diego as a teenager. And post-Byrds, he has lived an illustrious career in the Flying Burrito Brothers, Desert Rose Band and more. This autobiography is a wow-inducing memoir of life inside that incredible musical ride, and shows not only how it happened, but also why. Chris Hillman was born to play music is the most direct answer to any questions about his achievements, and the way he tells his own story is like an American fairy tale of sonic delights. Even when the train jumps the tracks, like it did in the almost-glory days of the Flying Burrito Brothers with challenged frontman Gram Parsons hitting the skids, Hillman is able to take the long view and stay on the good foot pushing forward. He may have started his high-profile life as the bassist in the Byrds, but he has always been so much more. It’s no wonder Tom Petty wanted to produce Hillman’s 2017 solo album, one of the last things Petty did before his early departure. This ably-written and undeniably fascinating tale of a still-running musical wonder is not to be missed. There will most likely be no more Chris Hillmans, but the good news is there’s still so much still to discover and delight in this supremely talented early Byrd’s life and times. Turn, turn, turn.
Casey James, If You Don’t Know By Now. It’s not uncommon for blues-based artists to get stuck in a rut. The live music world some call home isn’t really looking for revolutionary sounds, and in the sweat-drenched clubs where the musicans play it’s best not to shoot too high above the dancefloor. But Casey James is different. Yes he was a finalist on “American Idol,” but don’t hold that against him. On his new album, James has found a way to make a giant leap forward, crafting songs that still aim for the monkey nerve at the same time they seem something higher. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that James has passed with flying colors. His new music has the X-factor only the greats get to, and there is no doubt this young man is going there. His night-drenched voice speaks the truth, whether he’s shaking up the dance floor or putting his deeper perceptions to the test. It’s all one pursuit, really, and that’s self-expression. The way the third-dimensional ballads sit right next to raucous rockers shows Casey James has his mind on straight by looking at the future. There are places his music can take him that not every blues brother can get to, but it takes keeping an eye on staying real and remaining on the high road. In a lot of ways, growing this kind of music to the next level takes clear eyes and a strong heart, because there are a lot of temptations to keep it in the same place. James has no intention of that. With Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge and a knocked-out studio of first-call musicians, IF YOU DON’T KNOW BY NOW is the kind of album that takes the corners fast and keeps on going. The two-part final song, “Faith,” brings it all home in an eight-minute thriller. Having learned the time-tested Southern lesson of never over-staying your welcome Casey James and crew call it a day and take off for the next town. They’ll be back.
Laraaji, Moon Piano. As the world continues to revolve, it becomes more and more apparent it needs the music of Laraaji. He is someone who started life in one direction after attending Howard University and then made a wide left turn and took off in another. His first pursuit was as an actor and stand-up comedian in New York durng the 1970s. Naturally, with a raging imagination, Laraaji started performing with an electrified zither in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park. It was a time of wide-open opportunities, with the world a stage that had not been buttoned down. As cosmic luck would have it, the ever-inventive Brian Eno saw Laraaji there and the pair was soon collaborating, including on the groundbreaking album AMBIENT 3: DAY OF RADIANCE. Laraaji pulled out his hammered dulcimer and 36-string open-tuned zither for that, and made a bit of history with Eno. From there the musician has been on a course in independence, recording, performing and becoming a beacon of the new world order. MOON PIANO, a 2018 recording that fortunately is now being released on vinyl, is such a necessary breath of rareified air that here’s hoping the man plays the Presidential Inauguration this January. It is a revelatory exercise in personal growth to enter the world of Laraaji songs like “Stillness,” “Bathed in a Glow” and “Pentatonic Smile,” and discover a place where sounds meld into higher powers. Recorded live at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, the live session ended up including the noises made at a church being used as well noises from the nearby street. Which means life is captured in all its glory, allowing listeners to lift their minds into the dance which surrounds us all. Don’t pass by.
Luba Mason, Triangle. Singers who live in the jazz world are always challenged. Partly because the tradition has been so defined over the decades that it’s hard to find a new spot to stand. And then there’s always the idea of coming up with a new slant to such a time-honored pursuit. Luba Mason has taken the charge to find new ground, and come through with flying colors. Starting with a song selection that includes the Beatles, Paul Simon, Thelonious Monk, Antonio Carlos Jobim and others, Mason has set the bar way up high for what she needs to achive. Doubling down with her band–a stripped-down unit of Joe Locke (vibraphone), James Genus (bass) and Samuel Torres (percussion) that comes through in superlative fashion–it’s such a winsome combination that this album feels brand new in every fashion. The biggest reason is that Luba Mason is a completely compelling singer. She is always on alert for ways to use dramatic flourishes in her vocals, just enough to give them a new sparkle. Producer Renato Neto, who was a member of Prince’s New Power Generation band for many years, is the perfect person to take Mason’s ideas and help realize them with a stripped-down trio. While the vibraphone can seem like a somewhat limited lead instrument over an entire album, Joe Locke is such an inspired player that he never falls prey to repetition and instead comes through with an individualistic style which always works. Recording live at the acclaimed Power Station studio in New York, it’s clear Luba Mason and band mesmerized their live audience, and in the process helped extend her idea of Mixtura music another step forward. This is someone who is fearless in what she’s willing to attempt, and with husband Ruben Blades they’ve become the perfect pair of artists taking risks and building a new path forward with music, drama and the beyond. Don’t stop now.
Johnny Nicholas, Mistaken Identity. Here’s a working man’s musician, someone who started on the East Coast, then made his way west before dipping down to Texas and staying there, eventually opening his own place called the Hill Top Cafe outside Austin. All along the way, Johnny Nicholas knew exactly how to lay his soul into a song, arrange the instruments around him to funkify the atmosphere without trying too hard, and swing like a penguin piñata at a children’s birthday party. He’s played with a handful of prime-time blues musicians, along with Asleep at the Wheel and other roots music luminaries, but it’s in Nicholas’ own albums that the truest beauty really comes through. His new album is a stunner, a non-stop amalgam of everything he’s learned set to a low-down groove and easy moves. It’s like it took him a few years to step out front and grab the spotlight he’s long deserved, and he’s not taking a chance of losing his slot. The man’s originals shine next to anyone’s, and the way he delivers a gumbofied delight on songs like “She Stole My Mojo” and “Mule and the Devil” is no fluke. This is someone who’s gone to school on every great artist he’s ever shared a stage with, and walked away knowing more than when he first met them. But that’s not all. Johnny Nicholas also has a deeply seared streak down inside him that lets him get in touch with the eternal, something that’s in short supply right now. Listen to “Guadalupe’s Prayer” for absolute evidence. The sole cover on the album is the late Stephen Bruton’s “River Runs Deep,” which ends the release on such a wondrous note that there is really nothing left to say except “Amen.” It’s the perfect closer for an amazing tour of one man’s quest to deliver the goods. Color Johnny Nicholas complete: he’s really done it this time. Sparks and flames.
Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche, I Can Still Hear You. The music world was awash with greatness in the mid-1970s. It really was. It seemed like every week another new artist would land centerstage and create wonder right away. The Roches were a big part of that invasion, and in all the years after Terre, Maggie and Suzzy Roche carried on their inspired tradition. Now Suzzy Roche, with daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche (her father is Loudon Wainwright III) combine for 10 songs so compelling and courageous that time almost stops. In fact, it was the recording sessions that stopped, two weeks into this album’s production, after COVID-19 hit. The women continued recording though, with musicians in various locales as the world seemed to spin into a new darkness. Loss and turmoil led the way, but what the Roches discovered was an inner fire that helped them use music to forge a new path. “I Can Still Hear You,” “Ruins,” “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)” and “I Think I Am a Soul” begin the album with a shudder-inducing rush of power, like everyone involved has been taken over by a common desire to reach for eternity. The vocals blend with such shivering uniqueness that once again it is proven that no one sings together like those bonded by bloodlines. All of a sudden it doesn’t feel like it was 45 years ago that Suzzy Roche first appeared with her sisters, fresh off the swirling streets of Greenwich Village ready to conquer the world. It is a lesson in how the cosmos works to hear this music now: everything changes but the continuity of the inner self keeps moving forward with purpose and passion. There is no other way and, as always, whatever Roches are singing together or apart are ready to take us there with them. Of course, the last song here has to be “Bein’ Green.” What starts in childhood lasts forever. Sesame Street lives.
Reverend John Wilkins, Trouble. When rhythm & blues and gospel go out on a date, anything can happen. Reverend John Wilkins is a preacher who knows how to take a song and make it as big as the world. He’s got a rock-solid voice that can reach to the church rafters or send a gravitational pull all the way to the bar in the back of a nightclub, depending on where he’s holding court. Whether it’s “You Can’t Hurry God” or the Eddie Floyd classic “Found Love” doesn’t really matter. This music is all about taking over the human spirit and filling it full of feeling. It doesn’t hurt that Wilkin’s father’s song, “Prodigal Son,” was immortalized by the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s, but what’s most important is how the son took his family’s bloodlines and went to town on his own. This new collection is really an unrepentant call for glory, where the good Reverend realized it was time for him to show exactly what he was capable of. Recorded in Memphis at Royal Studios, where the Hi Records gang of producer Willie Mitchell and singers Al Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright and so many other greats did much of their unequaled soulin’, Reverend Wilkins matches those magnificent efforts–and then some. His voice is an instant companion, one that knows how to soothe, excite and, yes, save, and while it is a painful twist of fate that Reverend John Wilkins passed away shortly after this new album was released, there can be no doubt that it is a fitting memorial to a man who always carried himself tall and sang like he was on a mission from God. Because, really, that’s exactly what he was. Surrounded by the voices of daughters Tangela, Joyce and Twana, the right Reverend has arrived at a time when so much of the world needs solace, and as Wilkins’ lights the way forward with such a sure sense of strength all that needs to be done is to listen. Say amen today.
Song of the Month
Skylar Gudasz, “Play Nice.” This North Carolina singer-songwriter has been theatening to bust loose for awhile now, and this song just might be the one to make it happen. With a slightly more punched-up beat and definitely tougher attitude than past recordings, “Play Nice” is an irresistible look at a woman taking a deep dive thinking about her past and how some adjustments need to be made in the romantic department. Which is exactly what Skylar Gudasz does, decked out in blue denim overalls and some committed glide in her stride in the song’s video. In fact, it almost feels like director Alfred Hitchcock might have been lurking behind the camera, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Either way, this is one of the finest singers alive right now, and one that knows strength is often shown the most in what is not revealed. Better to keep listeners guessing and then when it’s time zero in for the kill. Nice as guillotines.