Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2021
By Bill Bentley
Brandi Carlile, In These Silent Days. When a world-class singer comes along, it’s not that hard to hear it. There is a power in their voice that never goes over the line, but demands every square inch of attention to all those within earshot. Brandi Carlile has been that kind of vocalist for awhile, but on her new album she takes such firm control of the cosmos when she launches into a song that it is nothing short of magical. The opening track on her stunning new set defines reality from the very first note. She has always had that ability, but this latest release is so confident of what she is capable of that it becomes a ride to the mountaintop without stopping. The saving grace of this accomplishment is how down to earth everything remains. Producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings keep the histrionics out of the studio and allow humanity to rule the day in a way that won’t soon be forgotten. Even when the second song, “You and Me on the Rock,” uses Joni Mitchell vibrations to turn up the drama, everything remains within Brandi Carlile’s own truth. Not always an easy task, but accomplished in technicolor here. One of the ways it is so apparent that IN THESE SILENT DAYS will live forever is how such majesty can remain in the everyday realm. Many albums forget that music is a human endeavor, and not one for studio machinations. And make no mistake: this is a singer’s album, and lights such a fire inside the spirit that sometimes the only reaction is a shuddering wonder for what has been done. Even the one track that drifts into the overdone department, almost like the lancing of a boil, “Broken Horses” pulls back before any damage is done. In the end, Brandi Carlile has created a collection that will no doubt live forever, and be talked about for that long as well. A singing soul.
Clifford/Wright, For All the Money in the World. It’s not always easy being the drummer in one of the biggest rock bands of all-time. Doug “Cosmo” Clifford filled that position in Creedence Clearwater Revival and once the Bay Area band pulled the plug on CCR, Clifford found himself producing records for others (including a great Doug Sahm album titled GROOVER’S PARADISE), and recording aggregations he put together himself. Clifford/Wright is one of those collections, and features Steve Wright, bassist in the Greg Kihn Band, who wrote all the songs here, and vocalist Keith England. Unfortunately the rock & roll world wasn’t that intereted in the music and the tapes gathered dust in Clifford’s own Cosmo’s Vault. But it’s 2021 and who knows what will catch the ear of the public, so the Clifford/Wright album is finally going to see the light. It’s a rock-solid collection of songs, and while it’s really not anything that hasn’t been heard before it’s still an album that deserves to be heard. In fact, it probably would have had a better chance at grabbing attention if it had come out when it was first recorded. But sometimes in music those aren’t choices up to the players. With guitarists Joe Satriani, Greg Douglass and Jimmy Lyon, each with solid Bay Area band pedigrees and other veterans onboard Doug Clifford crafted a quiet stab at finding life after Creedence. Which means anything can happen and there’s no reason to stop trying now. This is the first release by Clifford’s new enterprise called Cliffsong Records, and as he’s shown over the past 40-plus years on his own, he is not someone to be stopped. Cosmo rides again.
John Coltrane, Another Side. In so many ways, saxophonist John Coltrane has ended up in a class by himself. The sonic places he took the tenor horn are still reverberating strongly in the jazz world, and his continual album releases over a half-century after his death are always astounding. This intriguing collection features Coltrane as a sideman on other artists’ recordings, but in reality there is no way John Coltrane was ever someone who wasn’t smack dab in the middle of all the musical action. The bandleaders on these burning tracks include Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Red Garland, Miles Davis and others, and as the 11 songs play the whole tingling import of American jazz takes over our total consciousness. It is the sound of a nation really coming into its own as songs like “Tenor Madness,” “Soultrane” and “Epistrophy” rev up and take the listener away. Who knows if the first fans thought all those years ago they were hearing the very future of music being
created right inside their ears. John Coltrane likely did, and it inspired him to push even harder into his brave new world. Blow your horn.
Charley Crockett, Music City USA. When someone like Charley Crockett shows up on the musical landscape, the first question is often, “Where in the world did this person come from?” That’s how good he is. That Crockett is originally from Texas is not really a surprise. There are dozens of great country singers in the Lone Star state that often go unnoticed. A native of San Benito, also home of the legendary Freddie Fender, Crockett is also a distant relative of Davy Crockett. That’s strong bona fides. Raised mostly in Dallas with summers in the French Quarter of New Orleans, this is one musical gumbo man. Crockett’s voice is one that tears at the heartstrings almost without effort, and with original songs like “The World Just Broke My Heart” and “Lies and Regret,” he’s definitely playing with a full deck. Luckily, he also knows never to overplay that hand with slicked-up sounds or overwrought lyrics. These songs sound like they could have been written in divorce court waiting for a case to be called. There is pathos galore strung all through them, with never a shred of foolishness to be found. And while it will forever be a mystery why a Nashville major label doesn’t have the guts to tap Charley Crockett on the shoulder and invite him into Music Row, in some ways that’s a good thing because it lets the artist do whatever he wants to do with no marketing whizes getting involved. This is real-deal country music, shot through with a blues feeling, and there are enough shivers on these 16 songs to keep the heart beating for years to come. And right at the end, when Crockett covers Henson Cargill’s 1967 country smash “Skip a Rope,” well, the world stops while the song addresses verbal spousal abuse, tax evasion and racism. The true trifecta.
Anderson East, Maybe We Never Die. There are artists who seem they are destined for a breakthrough. The
innate inner power which comes out in their music cannot be denied. Anderson East has had that mojo going for him now for five albums. He is a blue-eyed soul brother who expands the basics of that style into something bigger. Coming out of Alabama, part of East was born into the realm, but there is no denying that he’s done the work to become something even more. And while his new album has some of his best songs, it still is missing an immediate and undeniable connection which will gain the attention that East himself has earned. It’s hard
to say what is missing, because it all feels so close. Part of the problem might be that East and gang are trying too hard. Swinging for the fences isn’t always the best thing for such personal songs. Anderson East’s voice is such a natural instrument, maybe it should be given the center of the room and allowed to soar, instead of being surrounded by so many sounds all vying for attention. This man can really sing, and it will someday be a stone cold wonder to hear him in a way where it all comes out. It feels so close but yet so far to really come face to face with the greatness that Anderson East has within him. But the smart money will be betting for it all to happen someday. Less is more.
Pi Jacobs, Live from Memphis. Now we’re talking. It’s a real jolt when an album arrives that stretches what a record release can be. Pi Jacobs went onto Ditty TV’s Memphis stage with a band and a microphone and recorded eight riveting original songs and, interspersed among those songs from a separate podcast told the stories that went into the life that shaped them. When it was all sung and done, she wove the two together in a way that feels like a TV show recorded in the listener’s own living room. To say it’s all mesmerizing is an understatement. Maybe that’s because Jacobs is immediately such a realistic presence, totally open with the way she shares her past. Add to that a songwriting gift like few other younger artists have now, and it adds up to a dramatic trip across the country as the singer grows up right in front of the microphone. There is a sense around much of the music being made today by the new brigade of singer-songwrtiers that it’s time to let it all out in the open, and tell exactly how life has been for them as the 2000s are really rolling. It can be a hardscrabble experience for so many of society’s younger members as a lot of the tentpoles society was counting on to endure have either bent or been broken altogether. In a way, it’s every person for themselves, especially in the world of music where record labels themselves are a shell of their former selves and live touring ground down to nothing 18 months ago. That lives the imagination as a whole new canvas to work with. Luckily, people like Pi Jacobs aren’t complaining. Instead they’re making art at whatever is at their disposal, and morphing what could have been a negative into a brand new positive to shine on the world they’ve been given. Listen to the album’s last track “Good Things,” and know that is the way forward. On the road.
Taylor Rae, Mad Twenties. One of the blood-rushing joys of modern music is when a reasonably new singer-songwriter steps up out of the blue with a head-turning album which announces a major arrival. Taylor Rae, originally from Santa Cruz, California but now calling Austin, Texas home does just that on these 12 songs. Her voice is an undefinable mix of strength and vulnerability, and on songs like “Fixer Upper,” “Letting You Go” and “Forgiveness,” it’s quickly apparent that a major talent has entered the room. Her ability to make herself known is instantaneous, and as she weaves a tale of life and love in her twenties a true luminous presence comes to life right before the listener. It is like listening to someone at the start of a journey, and know that as it progresses it will continue to expand and excite. There is no doubt that a free spirit is involved, and as the world awakes to new artists in the time of the Recovering (not Roaring) 20s, so much is up for grabs that it will undoubtedly be a real trip watching how it all plays out. Live music is inching its way back onto stages around America, and there is an obvious thirst for the connection to other souls that has always been at the heart of why humans listen to each other sing and play. Watch for Taylor Rae to find an important place in the New Abnormal as she turns on her lovelight and lets it shine. Wait and see.
Various Arists, I’ll Be Your Mirror. This intriguing and often mind-blowing tribute to the Velvet Underground & Nico album first released in March 1967 is an interesting and often outstanding example of revisiting the past with an eye on the future. The Velvet Underground’s debut release remains not only one of the great rock records of all-time, and even more so was a blueprint both of where rock was going, but equally important where the world was going too. It blew open the doors of personal freedom and offered a call for psychic exploration and lifestyle invention. The songs’ subject matter swirled through drug addiction, homosexuality, sado-masochism and points beyond. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and guest vocalist Nico had no fear of anything, and paid the price when the mass public then turned a deaf ear to their awe-inspiring accomplishments. Even with Andy Warhol’s seal of approval, the Velvets couldn’t bust down the commercial blockade built against them. When Cher commented, “The only thing this music will replace is suicide,” the gloves came off. It was the public’s loss, because in a matter of years the whole youth brigade looked and sounded like the Velvet Underground. Now, Michael Stipe, Courtney Barnett, St. Vincent, Kurt Vile and other devoted souls are paying their profound respect to the band and their early songs, showing how time sometimes takes care of everything. Tribute albums are usually a hit and miss revelation, but considering how 100% essential these songs have remained, to hear them now in new clothes is a thrill-inducing experience and exhibit how somehow this band of Sixties heroes has won the war. Velvet Underground forever.
Various Artists, Sacred Soul of North Carolina. There is great gospel music to be found all over America. It takes a spelunker’s drive and a collector’s obsession to first find the sounds and then record them for release. Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson has no fear of the unknown, and thrives on coming up with compilations that not only blow the mind but heal the spirit. How about this for a line-up of modern gospel: Dedicated Men of Zion, The Glorifying Vines Sister, Johnny Ray Daniels, Big James Barrett & the Golden Jubilees, Faith & Harmony, Big Walt & the Fabulous Jordanairs, The Johnsonairs, Bishop Albert Harrison & the Gospel Tones, Little Willie & the Fantastic Spiritualaires, Marvin Earl “Blind Butch” Cox and Melody Harper. And if that roll-call of artists sounds like a handful, well it is. But that’s the beauty of this album: it careens around the entire state of North Carolina, finding treasures at every turn and putting them together in a way which really does turn the studio spotlight on the whole spectrum of gospel music in the state. Each group journeyed to downtown Fountain, North Carolina to work their magic in the studio. And luckily, all the sessions were held before the real grip of COVID-19 put the brakes on recording sessions in the state in 2020. Every song recorded takes on an extra velocity in light of all that has happened in the past 20 months, offering a sense of eternal hope but even more an example of true humanity as artists banded together and held on until better days will appear. Sometimes when the modern record business starts to feel like it is spinning out in an era of self-involved solipsism, it can be a wonder to hear someone like Johnny Ray Daniels’ “Someone to Lay My Head” or Melody Harper’s “Amazing Grace” and realize a whole other world exists right on the other side of the front pages. This is music that so many stake their life on, and to hear them all testifying to everything they believe in, recorded over only an eight day period, is to hear what may just be the future of the world. Surely the sanctity and strength it takes to stay true to a music meant to keep the spirit alive is to know where the light burns brightest. When Willie Earl Daniels, leader of Little Willie & the Fantastic Spiritualaires, passed away from COVID-19 following their recording sessions the true test of faith was called upon to get his fellow singers through the hardest of times. The group is still together, a study in fortitude and an exact example of how gospel music remains righteous. Say amen someday.
Carolyn Wonderland, Tempting Fate. Carolyn Wonderland is, well, a true wonder. While she’s steeped in the
blues and can play and sing it all night long, at her center she is a musician who travels through all kinds of categories. There are no limits to what she can do. Album producer Dave Alvin recognized that fact from a long way away and has helped the native Houstonian dig down deep and make an album for the ages. Between her powerful vocals and always whipass guitar playing, this woman is totally ready for her time in the spotlight. Wonderland’s original songs here like “Fragile Peace and Certain War” and “Crack in the Wall” show what an astounding songwriter she is now, and her ability to take originals by John Mayall, who she played lead guitar with for three years (“The Laws Must Change”), Billy Joe Shaver (“Honey Bee”), Bob Dylan (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”) and a Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter classic (“Loser”), and then totally pull them into her own world is the mark of an all-timer. And having Jimmie Dale Gilmore do a vocal duet with Wonderland on the Dylan original is like the ultimate lagniappe on the set. This is the woman who got married in Austin on Doug Sahm Hill with the ceremony performed by one-time Monkee Michael Nesmith, so it’s clear she isn’t fooling around. In music and so many other things, it is often obvious that everything happens in the right moment, even when it’s been a long time coming. And, hopefully, that will be true for Carolyn Wonderland now. TEMPTING FATE has the songs, the performances, the everything. Fate has arrived.
Reissue of the Month
Various Artists, Can I Be a Witness. Stax Records ruled the world for soul music in the second half of the 1960s. The Memphis company had Booker T. & the MGs as the house band, likely the greatest of all time, and an artist roster that felt like it was the Mount Rushmore of the record business. It was so strong it looked like Stax would live forever. Except, of course, nothing does, and as the company turned the corner into the ’70s things began to lose some of the luster. Still, this pulsating album lineup of 20 songs, many previously unreleased, shows how the percolating crew on McLemore Avenue did their very best to keep the fires burning throughout that decade, until the banks and the business shut that sucker down. Little Milton, Eddie Floyd, The Rance Allen Group, Jean Knight and others went to work and made sure they were putting their hearts on the line when the red recording light on the studio wall went on and they had to deliver. And even though there are no mind-bending revelations among these songs, there is enough grit and greatness to rewrite some of the history books that Stax didn’t make it past its ’60s glory. To hear artists like R.B. Hudmon on “How Can I Be a Witness,” The Temprees on “Three’s a Crowd” and Jean Knight on “Helping Man” is to know that hearts were beating hard and musicians were kicking strong day after day and night after night in the former movie theatre turned recording room that was Stax. There was never a company like it, and as the English label Kent Records keeps reminding us with their stellar reissue program, it is never too late to board the soul train that was this monumental label and ride it to the end of the line. Glory is waiting.
Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2021
Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2021
Bentley’s Bandstand: October 2021