Art of Time Ensemble, Ain’t Got Long. One of the world’s great gifts is when a new album lands out of nowhere. It’s hard to tell where it came from, but listening to it becomes a revelation. Who are these people? Why are they so amazing? And where o’ where have they been hiding? In the case of Art of Time Ensemble, it turns out they’ve recorded five previous albums and have been based in Canada all these years. On their latest long-player, a whole contingent of guest singers that include Madeleine Peyroux, Gregory Hoskins, Jessica Mitchell, and Sarah Slean have joined Art of Time Ensemble and gathered up some of the great songs of the past century, from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” to Jane Siberrry’s “Calling All Angels,” along with others by Joni Mitchell, Irving Berlin, Paul Simon, Lou Reed and more. The way the songs have been recast by artistic director Andrew Burashko and arranger Jonathan Goldsmith is nothing short of a visitation. The interplay between instruments is completely unique, and so much new ground is revealed it often feels like a new vision has arrived. Near the end of the album, when vocalist Gregory Hoskins refashions Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli’s “After Mardi Gras,” the world feels like it’s taken on a new glow, one that will last forever. Music becomes the healing force of the universe, and humans are allowed to ascend to a place in the cosmos. Trips leave hourly.
T Bear, Fresh Bear Tracks. There is such a deep spirit that runs all through T Bear’s new album that it feels like a hallelujah get-down. Maybe that’s because T Bear has been MIA on the recording front for several decades. He was busy living, but he just couldn’t find his way into a studio. When his wife Nina Fox grew ill, she encouraged him to put on his work boots, get back on the piano and start writing songs. FRESH BEAR TRACKS is a major league reaffirmation not only to Fox’s inspiration, who died in 2019, but also to all those who know that the time is now to make a move. T Bear and producer Tony Braunagel had no trouble filling a recording studio full of incredible musicians, from Stephen Stills, Walter Trout and Mike Finnigan to Benmont Tench, Johnny Lee Schell and Hutch Hutchinson and beyond. All those bases were covered. And T Bear’s original songs feel like they were born in a deep well of feeling, that place where people are called to go when the going gets crispy. That songs like “River of Resurrection,” “Love To Be Lonely,” “Wonderland,” a funkified cover of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” and all the others come through with such force is a testament to T Bear and all his co-writers. They did not ever settle for less. And on “Nina’s Song,” a stunning tribute to his departed wife at the end of the album, everything comes full circle. Such a life.
Roger Brown, Five Dollars in Change. This is a man who sounds like he’s not too worried about getting his boots shined or his pants pressed. These songs Roger Brown has written now sound like he’s lived in them long enough to know this musical view is one that listeners will either love or not like at all. He’s coming from inside himself, and there’s no other way to hear it. It’s not far from the place that another true Texan outsider Billy Joe Shaver used to inhabit,and in the end it did okay for him. In his day job, Brown writes songs for everyone from George Strait to Johnny Mathis, but that’s the straight gig. On his own, this is someone who is writing the songs for himself on his new album FIVE DOLLARS IN CHANGE. The Lone Star stater was born in Ft. Worth and grew up in Menard, which left him up to his own devices to figure out what direction he was going. To pay the piper he chose the successful songwriter path. Now to pay himself back for all that time he labored for others, he’s written eight songs that speak to him. Brown now will be letting others decide if they want to buy in. Sometimes there’s no other choice than to leave everything else behind. These are deep down songs, ones that push and pull in different directions but always end up at the finish line, polished just enough for others to hear what reality sounds like. But not too much to glow in the dark. Freedom is a precious thing, and Roger Brown has turned what freedom sounds like into this gracious album. It would be a shame to miss them because they’re not on the sales charts. Instead, they’ll be lurking around the back door of the local bar, knowing there’s no way to get in the front. That’s okay for Brown. He’s already done the front door enough to know he’s not missing anything. The alley calls.
The Cobras, Caught Live at the Continental. This Austin-based band helped kick off the blues bash the city became known for starting in the early 1970s, and stayed red-hot for over 10 years. The line-up changed (it once included Stevie Ray Vaughan) but their mission remained the same: fill the dance floor and blow listeners’ minds at the same time. With the cosmically-imbued, absolutely irrefutable and sadly recently departed Denny Freeman on lead guitar and Smokin’ Joe Sublett on tenor sax, The Cobras were always ready to strike. This album, recorded live at the Continental in Austin in 1981, is like taking a spaceship and landing back in the middle of a twist-off of epic proportions. The band has their sound turned to “stun” and there are several songs that completely fly off the planet. Freeman’s guitar in particular on Lonesome Sundown’s “Learn to Treat Me Better,” James Brown’s I’ll Go Crazy” and throughout really, is enough to color the world red-hot. Singer “Junior” Medlow Williams has the soul spirit down cold, whether he’s singing Bobby “Blue” Bland or O.V. Wright classics. There is simply no stopping The Cobras. Austin 90-year-old bluesman Gray Ghost once commented, “I ain’t afraid of nothin’ but a snake.” With these Cobras sonically slithering around, you can hear exactly what he was talking about. Watch your step.
Steve Cropper, Fire it Up. Without a single doubt, Steve Cropper is one of the most valued guitarists in the history of American music. His session work and songwriting at Memphis’ Stax Studio in the 1960s rocketed him to the top of the class then, and with the band Booker T.& the MGs, he’s never looked down. Cropper has made several solo records starting back in that seminal decade, and here in 2021 he keeps on pushing. FIRE IT UP, created with able co-producer Jon Tiven, continues that winning streak right into the future. There is something so irresistibly invigorating about Cropper’s guitar playing on these 13 songs that it makes the modern landscape much more inviting. With singer Roger C. Reale, Tiven on bass guitar, saxophone, keyboards, harmonica and backing vocals, along with drummer Nioshi Jackson (aided by seven popping guest drummers on various tracks), this is a Memphis music lovers’ dream. The sound never strays too far from the original Stax home on McLemore Avenue, and fortunately the hot air of a Southern summer exudes on every song. Even with in-person band sessions limited due to the COVID crisis, plenty of humanity was cosmically shared throughout the recording– including two songs with Young Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere on keyboards–because there is no way to record soul music without it. What burns throughout FIRE IT UP is a small cadre of modern musicians who know exactly what the music should sound like, and fortunately they’ve played enough of it to ensure that’s exactly what gets captured on the final result. From start to finish this is an album that feels like the players are having as much fun as the listeners surely will. What a winner.
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. Put away the dictionary; lock up the history books. Valerie June has crafted a record that appears as much like a new Road to Life guide as an amalgamation of songs. No kidding. There is an arch to her new songs that are obviously fueled by a philosophical breakthrough of semi-cosmic proportions. With a unique voice like June’s, there is no reason to stick to the regular road. It wouldn’t take her there anyway. She has busted loose, ready now to pull down a sound from the ethereal side and find out if a musical artist can help turn hearts around. No kidding. She even calls in the Mother of Memphis Soul Carla Thomas to help her spread the word. On “Africa Proverb,” this wisdom is offered: “Only a fool tests the depths of the water with both feet.” Leading into “Call Me A Fool,” it feels like a homecoming of sorts as two women of very different times join into one. That’s the air of intoxicating incantation that is being called forth on all of THE MOON AND STARS: PRESCRIPTIONS FOR DREAMERS. It appears Valerie June has grown uninterested in writing songs like they’re being pulled out of a box, and instead has opened herself to the universe and invited in the spirits. In a way it’s no surprise, because this woman has always been different. She tuned in her own psychic radio station at the start and is receiving messages from sources no one else can get. Good. That’s where the solutions will be coming from, and this is a woman who will be delivering some of them. Feel and heal.
Ted Russell Kamp, Solitaire. Like so many others who whittled their world into a smaller circle when the pandemic hit, Ted Russell Kamp learned to let the music speak for itself. His newer songs were suited for a more stripped-down setting, letting the intensity build from the inside rather than those playing on the outside. Which means on SOLITAIRE, the man has made one of the best albums of his life. The album begins with “My Girl Now,” among the very finest songs Kamp has ever recorded. There is such an air of expansive love on it that it feels like a shot to the heart. Also on the album, “You Can Go To Hell, I’m Going to Texas,” will likely end up a Number 1 country hit for the likes of George Strait someday. Written with Elizabeth Elkins and Vaness Olivarez, it’s a Lone Star natural with all the pride that the big state offers. And that’s the beauty of Kamp’s new release: it can go from emotional micro to rocking macro in a heartbeat. It’s like Kamp knew the style of recording in different studios with a lot of his players was going to diffuse some of the scope of what was played, but he wasn’t going to let it sap any of the strength from the music. Being a record producer for others allowed him the smarts to get what he needed from his players, and make sure it suited the feel of the song. No problem there. This is one of the best albums of a still-getting-started year, and it’s always one that grows closer every time it’s played. On the two songs Ted Russell Kamp wrote alone, “Solitaire” and “The Spark,” is a vision of greatness that’s been there from the singer-songwriter’s start, 13 albums ago. When he’s not playing bass in Shooter Jennings’ band or producing albums for others, Ted Russell Kamp has made his everlasting mark on his own. Solitaire or else.
Parker Millsap, Be Here Instead. Even if this is Parker Millsap’s fifth album, it feels like the first. Maybe that’s because it’s just so incredibly great that you wish he had been starting out here. Then he would have blown every mind on the block and been hailed as the finest new face in modern music. In fact, this collection feels like the most recent album Paul McCartney should have made, because it’s got a lot of the former Beatles’ strength, but without any of the sidesteps. Between the rock, the folk, the semi-country and the plain old amazingness, Parker Millsap has it all covered. His singing is so down-the-middle pure that he could have been a child prodigy with those pipes. Growing up in Oklahoma he no doubt heard his share of country music, but the way he uses the elemental parts of that sound into crafting gloriously open rock & roll is the promise of America put in song. It takes an endlessly inventive imagination to get to this place still relatively young in what will hopefully be a long career. The way Parker Millsap can ignore the conventional boundaries of music, and instead be unafraid to express whatever he needs to express completely in his own way is exactly what marks the man as a major force. Who knows if the world will ever embrace him, but the way he has developed says that popularity is not the race he’s running. Instead he’s on his own. Oklahoma all day.
Maria Muldaur, Let’s Get Happy Together. Considering that singer Maria Muldaur goes all the way back to Boston’s Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the early 1960s, she still sounds like she has every ounce of joy in her heart that she had at the start. And to take advantage of that excitement, Muldaur has found the absolutely perfect sidekicks to tread effervescently into the future, with none other than Tuba Skinny. For those not in the know, the latter name is of a New Orleans aggregation of eight musicians who have taken over the Crescent City with such a joyous noise it’s starting to feel like they’re on a nationwide mission to spread happiness wherever they’re heard. With coronet, tuba, trombone, 6-string banjo, clarinet, guitars and washboard this mighty crew has it all going on. And to match their sound Muldaur and band have taken a deep dive into some seriously righteous singers from the 1920s and onward, including Lil Hardin Armstrong, Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon (an early gender bender who could entertain as both man and woman), Ivy Anderson, Valaida Snow, The Boswell Sisters, Dorothy Lamour (!), Annette Henshaw and Sweet Pea Spivey. How’s that for an conglomerate of outstanding inspirations? What Muldaur and Tuba Skinny do together is a non-stop cavalcade of downright delight. There is no other way to explain it. It’s the perfect parade of sound into a new age, one where smiles replace dollar signs and it’s a known fact that the future is full of super surprises. The New Abnormal.
Fred Neil, 38 MacDougal. Tape detectives will not be denied. Here are eight songs recorded at the New York apartment of John Sebastian and Peter Childs in 1965. Really. Someone had an Ampex 2-track reel-to-reel tape rig handy and, voila, instant album 56 years later. Luckily, Fred Neil is still such a semi-mysterious artist of
major proportions that the album becomes a touchstone for a time that will not come again. His songs here like “Little Bit of Rain,” “Country Boy” and “Travelin’ Shoes” are a study in beauty. And even if he’ll always be better known for his original “Everybody’s Talkin’,” that’s okay because he was always about so much more. He was in on the ground floor of the Greenwich Village folk explosion in the early ’60s, and soon moved to Woodstock. When he ended up in Florida Neil had found some peace of mind. His versions of the traditional songs “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and especially “Blind Man Standin’ by the Road and Cryin'” are completely chilling on this homemade tape. There was such a seeming hole of loneliness in Fred Neil’s life it became obvious it would follow him around forever. His years in Florida and later Oregon let him find a life beyond the spotlights, thankfully, but in so many ways it always seemed like the musician had disappeared. Such strong collections like this show he really was one of the originators of an American musical style starting back then in New York, but always put the music above fame. Even in another Fred Neil classic, “Other Side of This Life,” you could
hear him trying to get out. Searching for dolphins.
Howard Paar, Top Rankin’. Not many novels are able to capture the knocked-out essence of the music scene in Los Angeles 40 years ago, but Howard Paar’s searing second book does all that and so much more. Set as the ’80s are just getting started, the switchblade setting of a new nightclub, dedicated to ska no less, in the slightly-seedy environs of Silverlake then is enough to make the reader lock their doors and windows. And that it’s all based on Paar’s real-life past as the owner of the ON Klub makes it all the more eerie. Lead character James Dual has jumped in way over his head, and all around Hollywood and beyond things are starting to catch up to him. Drugs, murder, record company chicanery, overdoses, the LAPD: once this lively broiler gets started there is no turning back. In a world once ruled by writers Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker and others, Paar has
established himself now as one of those to beat. The way he weaves the streets of Los Angeles into a colliding series of near-misses and dead-on collisions feels like it’s a high-speed run at the future, just as it’s getting started. Howard Paar’s uncanny ability to put his characters in the line of fire but also be blessed with an ability to keep going captures what the early 1980s really were: one of the luckiest eras of them all. Pretty soon the debts were getting called in and the music business had figured out that if they were really going to hit the jackpot they would have to boil the fun out of the game and get rid of some of the guessing. But this book gloriously captures what the craziness was about then. It’s all captured in TOP RANKIN’ and in a way that won’t soon be forgotten. Turn it up.
Grace Pettis, Working Woman. This is a woman who has covered a lot of territory, from folk festivals to rockathons, coffee houses to auditoriums, and she does not look back. Coming from a musical family likely taught her that the one imperative in that profession is to please yourself. In the end, that’s the whole gig. Which is what Pettis has been doing through various bands, shows, affiliations and whatever else comes her way. She can take on a rock song and sing it to the moon, and turn around and zero in on one person and change their world. When her song “Landon” was first released, it became an anthem for all those who’ve been taken down by life. And it had an explosive edge which said things were really getting started for Grace Pettis. This revealing album is where she ended up. It’s got the feeling of such overwhelming self-examination that there is no way but to sign on for the full-tilt ride. There are going to be no shortcuts as the singer-songwriter starts searching for the kind of emotional breakthrough that the very best artists seek. Produced by Mary Bragg, someone not unfamiliar with that kind of musical smarts, Pettis has found the perfect place to make her sonic stand. These are songs that are going to be around a long time, and if the way that the woman has grown over the past ten years is any indication, there is a good chance that she is ready for a real liftoff into the next realm of public presence. Landon is listening.
Maia Sharp, Mercy Rising. Even if it’s impossible to figure out exactly why, there are certain artists who suddenly appear that capture the moment. Maia Sharp has been recording for over 20 years, and writing songs probably longer than that, but the new MERCY RISING is a brand new surprise. She is an intriguing cross between the cosmic and the street-wise, a Los Angeleno who moved to Nashville two years ago to raise the songwriting stakes. It worked in aces, because not only are new songs like “Whatever We Are,” “You’ll Know Who Knows You” and “Nice Girl” some of the best of this century, it feels like here is someone who has found their absolute center. It’s undeniable that Sharp has a laser-driven ability to describe the inner and outer desires and detours that continually make modern life a puzzle, but she can also capture the elusiveness of romance like a natural novelist. Her songs tell stories that haven’t been told, and she sings with such a no-nonsense beauty that every track has those moments when it feels like the world has been explained in a way never heard. Right now, there is no one better at this than Maia Sharp, so here’s hoping she stays in Nashville for the foreseeable future and fills the air with wonder. Mercy for all.
James Holvay, Sweet Soul Song. The Shingaling? Without a doubt. The Tip? No problem. The Sideways Pony? For sure. The Lowlife? All night long. The Funky Penguin? Why not? These are just a few of the dances the grooveadelic new songs by James Holvay can inspire, and that’s only for starters. It doesn’t hurt that James Holvay wrote “Kind of a Drag” for the Buckinghams back in the 1960s, and got the stamp of approval forever from various soulsters on the scene then. SWEET SOUL SONG is an EP that contains six dance floor-stompers so strong and sweet that it’s hard to believe it’s not still 1966. Holway is a natural-born singer and hasn’t lost a bit of all that he had the past 50-plus years. Deeply inspired by titans like Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, Gene Chandler and Major Lance, this is a time machine trip that cannot be topped. It’s like the songs pour off the compact disc with such sweetness and light, all the trials and tribulations of the previous five-plus decades are but a smudge in the rearview mirror. Everybody has been reborn with a glide in their stride and it’s time to shake a tail feather and celebrate life. The only question now is where’s the full album? Do The Dog!
Song of the Month
Yola, “Diamond Studded Shoes” What’s needed today is a song exactly like Yola’s new single. It starts as a laid-back country-fried shuffle but soon hits right between the eyes with a message that things have turned upside down in the world, and as the English woman straight out of Bristol sings, “It ain’t gonna turn out right.” But like life itself, sometimes there’s no other alternative than to bet against the obvious and do everything possible to turn the inevitable around. It’s been the history of the planet so far. Everytime it seems like the game is up and it’s clear that desolation row is straight ahead, here come the miracles. That’s the feel of Yola’s absolutely bodacious declaration of reality that it’s time to boogie while we can, and let the rough side drag. In a way, it’s been her life story from unknown singer to budding superstar, and if this jubilee-driven song portends an album of equal prowess, there will be no problem at all. Yola has conquered.
Reissue of the Month
Will Porter, Tick Tock Tick. Originally released in 2016, Will Porter’s second album revisited the magic of the first with New Orleans producer/arranger paar excellence Wardell Quezergue. In fact, this album is so mos’ scocious that Porter decided to finally release it in the United States for the first time, which should make music-loving Americans mighty happy. Both Dr. John and Betty Lavette drop by for some funkadelic vocal duets, and other groovin’ guests include the Meters’ guitarist Leo Noncentelli and vocal wizards the Womack Brothers. Still, this is all Will Porter‘s extravaganza, and he shines like a full moon with added gris-gris throughout. His vocals are deep in the cut, as they say, and four originals join songs by Ike Turner, Dr. John, Bob Dylan and a few others for a song list from heaven. Porter is a soul-savvy singer, never overplaying his pipes, but always going for the righteous resonance of someone who’s been around. And, of course, Quezergue, who was on the floor and behind the board for classics like “Mr. Big Stuff,” “Groove Me,” “Barefootin’,” “Chapel of Love” and others, has few equals. The fact that he’s moved on now only makes the collection even more special. So many of the New Orleans titans have left the building that albums like this become more blessed by the day, so get it while you can. Yeah you right.