Divine Horsemen, Hot Rise of an Ice Cream Phoenix. This Los Angeles group, fronted by singers Chris Desjardins (aka Chris D.) and Julie Christensen, were one of the aggregations at the frontline of the rock barricade in the 1980s. Wherever they played, it was guaranteed there would be sonic overload and a jacked-up audience ready to march to the moon in their love for the band. Time has a way of scrambling bands, but also sometimes coalesces to bring them back. It’s been 33 years since Divine Horsemen recorded new music and in a flash it becomes clear these songs were worth waiting for. There is something stripped-down and at the same incredibly involved in the band’s sound, like it was written on a romantic holiday and then recorded in a maximum security prison. Everything is for real, but also slightly imaginary. It’s hard to walk that fine line, and not many artists ever accomplish it, but Divine Horsemen sound like that’s exactly what they were born to do. These 13 songs (of course there’s 13: it’s the Divine Horsemen) pop and punch all over the place, and the ones that Desjardins or Christiensen didn’t have a hand in writing are knocked-out covers of songs by Patti Smith, (ready for this?) Jefferson Airplane and a few others. Needless to say, Divine Horsemen adapt them to their own original mojo. It seems a little time warpish that it took so many years for this pivotal band to make it back to dry land and record this album, but in the New Abnormal order, all things are possible and nothing needs to make sense. What it is is what it is. It’s a wondrous event to see a band set free, and even more wonderful to listen to the results. Play it loud.
GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor, Try It…You Might Like It! Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers were the band that kicked blues guru Bruce Iglauer into starting Alligator Records 50 years ago. It was the label’s first release, and the trio that lit the fuse for all that followed. A few years ago the group GA-20 started raising sand around the blues landscape, and got Iglauer’s attention. But they were already signed to Colemine Records in Ohio. When the fiery trio recorded their new album, a stone cold homage to that first Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers album, Iglauer felt like Alligator should throw down and help promote it as a way to celebrate the little ol’ threesome that blasted off Iglauer’s company a half-century ago. Voila: TRY IT…YOU MIGHT LIKE IT is here. And what a blast it is. Matt Stubbs’ and Pat Faherty’s incendiary guitars joined by Tom Carman’s volcanic drums make a mighty boogie sound, never slowing down to get too introspective. Instead, the trio start songs on 10 and then shoot directly to 12, not worrying about much besides forward momentum and a lust for the amplitude of what they’re playing. Faherty’s vocals are a perfect fit for such musical mayhem, and fulfills with certitude that everything the band needs to blow back their audience is in what they’re playing. This is barroom blues stripped to its essence, just like Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers played all those years ago. Luckily, it is also no copycat crime. Instead, it’s a sound that never disappears, and is always up for the challenge of making the floor tilt underneath the music and the ceiling feel like it could give in at any moment. In other words, blues to use. Wear it out.
Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan, Standing on the Doorway. It goes without saying that if an artist wants to do an album of songs all written by another artist, Bob Dylan is likely the most obvious choice. Dylan has enough songs to fill a record store (if there is one to be found), and so many are wide open to outside interpretation. Luckily, Chrissie Hynde not only has the perfect voice for the Dylan covers routine, but also the vision to choose some off-road song candidates to keep things interesting. As the totally striking front person for The Pretenders, she created her own path into rock & roll, and never backed down. Hynde rocked as hard as anyone, and wrote songs that have lasted over 40 years. Sound familiar? Except Bob Dylan has almost 20 years on her in the songwriting department, so he was an obvious candidate for Chrissie Hynde to mine. The opening track, “In the Summertime” sets the perfect tone for discovery, keeping everything on an even keel as the music finds its groove and what might at first seem like a stretch becomes a totally natural blending of voice and song. From there, the next eight songs create an irresistible melange of the majesty of Bob Dylan’s songs and Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. It veers into the magic zone time and again, and offers such a joyous feeling of what this songbook has offered the world these years. It is also immediately obvious there won’t be another, and by bringing Dylan’s songs to life in a brand new style Hynde has hit the spot where greatness lives. Love minus zero!
I See Hawks in L.A., On Your Way. There were the Byrds, then the Flying Burritos and a few other notable music excursions emanating from Los Angeles in the 1960s into the ’70s that really paved the road for those who followed in that Southern California realm, but no other band has found the thread like I See Hawks in L.A. Their sound might be embedded in the Hollywood Freeway, but underneath it’s really torqued by the Mojave Desert. There is something just hallucinatory enough on new songs like “Might’ve Been Me,” “Know Just What to Do” and, really, everything on this ear-opening new album that it feels like a new day of music is rising. Band members Rob Waller and brothers Paul and Anthony Lacques formed the group going on 20 years ago, of course on a desert trek, and haven’t looked back. Now featuring Paul Marshall and Victoria Jacobs as the rhythm section, there is really no one like them, still, as they mix in visions and musical veracity into a style which opens a door full of surprises right below the surface. As each album has become more and more assured, I See Hawks in L.A. has now hit that point where they’ve cut the cord on influences and are spinning out in an orbit all their own. The quartet is all breathing as one, and the clear night sky full of stars is the limit. Listen and hear not only what has come before, but what is also right around the next bend. See the Hawks.
PK Mayo, Simple Search for Truth. How is it earthly possible to find new truths in the blues, no matter how ancient or modern it’s played. It’s like a puzzle without a solution, but there are those who still find a way to make that music of reality come alive. PK Mayo is one of them. Born in the Minnesota mining town of Eveleth, Mayo got on the guitar train early and has stayed there, focusing on blues as the bedrock foundation while he puts his own muscular spin on it. Luckily, the guitarist knows where to take the sound from there, and when he goes spiraling off on solos they always go to a new place. Still, the core of what PK Mayo is really all about on his new release is songwriting. No matter where the guitar goes, it has to go on the strength of the songs or it can end up like someone practicing. And Mayo’s music always has a deluxe destination. Whether it’s “Levee of Lies,” “Truth,” “Road of Love” or “Solace,” this new release is obviously one where everything waited until the songs were truly ready. Then Mayo and co-producer Christopher Furst took a stellar trio into Studio 65 in Ham Lake, Minnesota and recorded the album the musician has likely been waiting his whole life to make. In many ways it’s obvious the search for the truth can take awhile, but once it’s found it’s found for good. Extra Mayo please.
John Milward and Portraits by Margie Greve, Americanaland: Where Country & Western Met Rock & Roll. Author John Milward has carved out a huge slice of American music witih his endlessly fascinating new book. Taking on country & western and rock & roll and how it morphed into so-called Americana, these days at least, is no walk in the park. The style has grown exponentially the past thirty years as the media has grasped the immenseness of it all. Starting as a musical movement of several dozen bands, it’s become more of a place to herd all the rock groups that used to wander around without a place to put them, or rather a label to call them. But now, Americana is really open for business. Milward’s book, though, takes the more thoughtful approach and really lasers in during its seventeen chapters on the most pivotal of all those assigned to this basket. Which is a smart way to tailor a book, because it allows the author a chance to be totally creative about how he writes about the music and where it came from, and all the supercharged people who made it what it is. It’s by far the most intriguing book yet to take on what happened to all the subgroups like rock & roll, folk, blues, soul and bluegrass (for starters), but even more importantly how they all got there. The is plenty of history too included in these pages to go all the way to the beginning with people like Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams right into Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and adddress them for their absolute importance on what was to one day get tagged Americana. The chain of inspiration and influence becomes clear in John Milward’s astute and always entertaining chapters, like a tsumani building towards crashing onshore, and often feels as thrilling as the music itself. Which is no easy task when the artists included are Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy and others. Covering a topic so immense could have gone off on wild goose chases galore if it weren’t for Milward’s precise handling of where the book was going. Even the Notes and Bibliograpy sections are worth their weight in vinyl for following the trail of all this information in a way that feels like a real holiday. Music, action, mayhem, miracles: that’s what Americana really is and John Milward knows it. And an extra special delight are Margie Greve’s 27 black-and-white illustrations of everyone from early influencers like the Carter Family to today’s contemporary hotshots like Jason Isbell, showing that this road goes on forever and in some ways might be just getting started. Americana for all.
Willie Nile, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Though he was raised in Buffalo, New York, the super-moving singer-songwriter Willie Nile has always felt like he is a son of the streets of Manhattan. Maybe that’s because he moved there in the early 1970s and made the metropolis his home all the way. Nile’s songs capture the looniness and loneliness like few other artists can, and the way he has stayed true to that course for almost 50 years and 20 albums gives him total squatting rights on being a New Yorker. It is also beyond dispute that his new release, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, stands as one of his very best creations. It’s got the 360-degree angle Nile’s best songs always capture, and his voice has taken on a time-tested resonance that only the greats ever achieve. To hear songs today like “Sanctuary,” “The Justice Bell,” “I Will Stand” and “The Way of the Heart” is to know that a true believer still walks among us. There is such a knowing sound of long-range empathy in Willie Niles’ voice there can be no doubt the man has seen down the line and understands that life is a long road, but not an endless one. There will surely be a recokning for all, and this is someone whose songs have a way of capturing what that may be like. It is no small accomplishment by any stretch, and Niles’ longtime fans live for his albums to keep them on the bright side of the road. May it go on forever. The Willie way.
Brian Setzer, Gotta Have the Rumble. Mr. Stray Cat himself’s new album lays on the sizzle and style thick from note one. It’s like if a surfboard and a hot rod had a baby and they named it Brian Setzer. Back at the beginning of the 1980s–not to mention MTV too–Setzer and band blasted through the clutter and staked out a solid turf in rockabilly land. They pretty much owned the new iteration of that most American style, straight out of Massapequa. It’s all in the upstroke and the downbeat anyway, and the Cats proved they could play that boogie better than just about anyone. Flash forward 40-odd years and believe it or not, Brian Setzer’s guitararama songs sound like he’s been practicing this whole time, just ready to drop Gretsch bombs all over those who listen, and make sure the blood pressure spikes too. GOTTA HAVE THE RUMBLE is not for the timid, and on songs like ‘”Smash Up on Highway One,” “The Cat With 9 Wives” and, yes, “Rockabilly Banjo,” there is no room for equivocation. This is a sound that redlines more often than not, and when it’s not on that side of the equation is most likely going there soon enough. Mr. Setzer didn’t get to the top of rockabilly ridge without knowing exactly what the music calls for. The musician has been there and done that. And he’s going to do it again, except this time with a zeroed-in aim which cannot miss. Twang what am.
Rich Shea, Love & Desperation. This may be one of the many pandemic platters–recorded in different places by the musicians onboard–but it’s got the moves to sound like it was done in one boiling hot studio out in the middle of California. Rick Shea has long been one of the no-kidding singers who roam the Golden State, finding a spot in local nightspots and then turning on the sauce. His audience expects song from the hard side of the tracks, not dressed up too pretty but with just enough sizzling Telecaster guitar leads and a rhythm section that sounds like it could handle itself at the drop of an insult in an alley fight where the police never come. Whether it’s on “Blues Stop Knockin’ at My Door,” “(Down at the Bar at) Gypsy Sally’s” or “The World’s Gone Crazy,” Shea knows just how to build the dramatic tension so the song explodes exactly where it’s supposed to, and listeners dive all in to see where the next one goes. It’s a talent honed on a small stage with a semi-tolerable PA system, one that sounds just good enough so the singer doesn’t kick in the speakers and go home. This is no ode to paying your dues. Rather it’s actually paying your dues. There are probably not many marketing meets at Tres Pescadores Records, or at least not like the ones on Music Row’s label monoliths in Nashville. No problem, because Shea has everything he needs covered by the hard work he’s put in over the decades and the love of writing and performing that courses through these dozen songs as surely as the blood in his and the band’s veins. So pull up a hard-backed chair and turn the volume as loud as the neighbors will stand: Rick Shea has landed and he’s ready to go. No dress code.
Connie Smith, The Cry of the Heart. Every decade or so an album comes along that goes all the way. Everything about it is there: the songs, the vocals, the playing, everything. And sometimes, when the stars align just right and the world seems like it has opened a space for it to enter, the album finds a place on top of a pedestal. Like it really belongs there, and people need to hear it because it is so tried and so true. That is Connie Smith’s THE CRY OF THE HEART. The woman has been singing and having hits since the mid-1960s, woven into the very fabric of Nashville when it really did earn its name as Music City. And to hear Ms. Smith today is to be instantly overwhelmed how large not only her legend is, but even more what she can still do with a great song. It is breathtaking, really, like time doesn’t exist and the magic we look for in music is something that will always be there, even if it often feels just out of grasp in today’s world. Connie Smith has lived every emotion she sings about on these 11 top-class songs, and can make the listener feel as if they have lived them too. Which is really the whole reason to listen to music: to follow those footsteps into a world of eternity, the place that music exists in as well and has the ability to take willing souls there. At the end, when she turns to Merle Haggard’s “Jesus Take a Hand,” there are no words to describe the power of this album, there really isn’t. Just listen to it, really listen. And open up the heart to what Connie Smith is sharing, which is the music of the spheres as it touches earth. And this woman is the one who is bringing it here. Make no mistake.
Paul Thorn, Never Too Late to Call. It probably comes as no surprise to Paul Thorn’s avidly committed followers, but this time ’round the man has quietly made the best album of the year. Just bluesy enough to curl the toes, these new songs strike a direct hit on the heart, showing how the Wisconsin-born and Mississippi-raised artist has developed into someone who can express the deepest feelings of love and pain in a way that few others are capable of today. He sings with such an assured passion he instantly conveys the truth of the ages, whether it’s pretty or not. A song can begin on semi-certain terrain, and by the second verse has gone so far inside the soul it feels like truths are being told for the first time. It all borders on the beautifully uncanny, even when Thorn is cutting up on tracks like “Apple Pie Moonshine” and “You Mess Around and Get a Buzz.” Considering that the singer-songwriter was once a professional boxer, the plot thickens into an American musical epic that really does need to be heard. The title song “Never Too Late to Call,” a chillbumper of the first order, is dedicated to Thorn’s recently deceased sister, someone who sounds like they battled the kind of challenges which sometimes are unwinnable while she shared an open soul with her brother as long as she could. He named his record label Perpetual Obscurity, but after all what’s in a name? Hearing is believing.
Various Artists, R&B in D.C.:1940-1960. The uncontested mothership of rhythm & blues in Chocolate City has landed. Blessed with 472 audio tracks on 16 CDs, along with a 352-page hardcover book, the box set has the weight of the infrastructure bill now shuffling through the Senate. But instead it’s an absolutely groovacious look at all the musical accomplishments which went down in Washington, D.C. for those 20 years when the big burg was on fire for Black music. Jay Bruce, noted music researcher and radio host, left no nook unturned in his quest to finally put all the pieces together, often from the newspapers read by those Washingtonians who lived for this music, and now assembled into one glorious mass for our audio delight. Everything is so exciting, so comprehensive and so, well, complete about this Bear Family Records release that it’s impossible to really convey the achievement simply with the printed word. Instead, this is an historical highlight for not only one city, but really the United States as a whole. There are a lot of intersections with other artists and entrepreneurs around America that convey how the music came to be, against long odds sometimes, and why the research and memories shared by all those who contributed to assembling the collection should be given a spiritual standing ovation immediately. To live with this music today is to understand true beauty, and bask in the sun of the human beings who made it happen. The still-living singers, players, producers, record label vets, and even a hustler or two should gather on the steps of the nation’s Capitol soon and take a bow, driving out the evil spirits of the January 6 attack on the building. The wonderful R&B sounds of Washington, D.C. have come home. The bill passes.
Jimmie Vaughan, The Jimmie Vaughan Story. Sliding out the massive booklet and five CDs that are inside what looks like a 1950s primo Fender guitar amp, time doesn’t necessarily stop but it sure feels timeless. Maybe that’s because Jimmie Vaughan’s guitar playing has always seemed like it is being pulled in from another world, one where the blues thrives in heated beauty and the planet stops spinning for a minute while the sounds from Vaughan’s white Fender Stratocaster paint another reality. One where music rules the air and humans have finally figured out we’re all in this together. That’s how total a presence Vaughan has been on the music circuit for over the past 50 years, starting in Dallas and then moving on to Austin, and later spreading everywhere there are ears to hear. The songs collected on these compact discs capture his whole life, from the earliest bands like the Chessmen all the way to the thrilling solo albums the man has been releasing the past decade, and of course including him performing with the University of Texas Longhorn Band one of his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan’s signature classics “Texas Flood.” Why not? Naturally, there are plenty of recordings by Vaughan’s unforgettable band the Fabulous Thunderbirds, various collaborations featured in one place for the very first time, and enough wow moments from the audio surprises that it feels like the holiday season has moved in year-round. The jaw-dropping gallery of photos is out of the ultra zone there are so many visual knock-outs. Then there’s Jimmie Vaughan’s life story in his own words: it’s one of inspiration, investigation, inclusion and, then, finally, how to live through the impossible and find sunlight on the other side. When it comes time to go the limit in listening to someone who has made a true difference in the musical soundscape, this is the story not to miss. Jimmie Lawrence Vaughan.
Elder Jack Ward, Already Made. When it comes to gospel music, there’s not much middle-line hugging. It’s either on one side or the other that the line gets drawn, and at the end of the day it’s all a matter of belief. If the choice is to jump in with God, get on that gospel train to the heavenly side of the street and then let life go where it may, that’s all good for those who believe gospel songs are here to heal us all. If it works, turn it up. Elder Jack Ward is a believer of the first order, and is ready to open his arms to all who want to join him. The man has been doing it long enough to know what’s what and has a voice that can call home the spirit and then some. Backed by the Sacred Soul Sound Section, featuring the moving guitar of Will Sexton, and the Elder Jack Ward Company Singers, Ward knows how to get things done. Just for inspirational insurance they bring in gospel singer extraordinaire Elizabeth King on the opening song and sure enough Ms. King brings the heat with her. Everything on this jumping and thumping album comes down on the right side of the Lord, rest assured of that, and allows full-on believers and the merely curious to take a stroll around heaven all day. By the end, listening to the final chords of “I Feel Better When I Prayed,” all bets are settled on whether Elder Jack Ward and his crew has taken care of business, and the only answer can be, “Amen to that.” Say hallelujah somebody.