Bentley’s Bandstand: Favorite Albums 2022
By Bill Bentley
Nicki Bluhm, Avondale Drive. This is a singer who has been making headway surely over the last decade, in bands with other artists and then fronting Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. Now that she has gone on her own and then moved to Nashville from San Francisco it seems like the world has opened up in brand new ways. Her songs have taken on an extra dimension, and even Bluhm’s singing voice seems to have found a striking new place to come from. Maybe it’s just one of those times when someone really sees how life works, and finds the right place in the middle of it all. And there is a newfound strength to do it. Nicki Bluhm really does appear like she found a road to take her someplace new, and isn’t concerned too much on where that might be. Confidence is the key to it all, and this is a singer-songwriter who has topped a new crest on her journey there. Listen and love.
Vieux Farka Toure et Khruangbin, Ali. The very best music has a translucent way of time travel, where different cultures can blend into each other to make something completely new. When Houston trio Khruangbin recorded with Mali guitarist and vocalist–and son of Ali Farka Toure–Vieux Farka Toure, there was a meeting of the mind and heart that only comes when all defenses are down and only the reality of exploration reigns supreme. Vieux Farka Toure, once described as “the Hendrix of the Sahara,” is actually his own person all the way. He exerts such a force of discovery in his playing that there can be no question originality is on display. The sound of Africa’s endlessly expansive vistas come alive through his guitar, and when he sings there is no doubt that the timeless soul of Africa has arrived. Khruangbin at this point are almost beyond description. Though birthed in one of the most diverse cities on the planet, Laura Lee Ochoa, Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr. and Mark Speer are committed to sounding only like themselves. And to work with such an esteemed African artist on ALI must have seemed like a gift from above. The grandest gift of all here is to play in honor of Ali Farka Toure’s massive legacy. It is not unlike coming across an undeniable king of sound and then taken under his wing and asked to fly. An unlimited adventure.
Daniel Lanois, Player, Piano. When it’s time to turn off the news, lower the lights in the room and head for that contemplative place where serenity might just reside, PLAYER, PIANO is the only soundtrack to bring it all together. Daniel Lanois is a musician who has found himself in some of the most exalted places of the modern world, but he always keeps his focus on what is needed now to put the world in its proper place. Not one of stardom and excesses, but rather to find the moments where the inner twanger is totally in line with the outer universe. It’s an almost impossible task to achieve, but if anyone gets close it is this Canadian. However he found the skill set he now has it’s beyond explanation, and it can be heard on every album the man has made. This latest one, which is 13 instrumentals that capture the music of the spheres, comes at exactly the right time as the world wobbles and humanity hurts. Leave it to Lanois to extend himself into the space of search and offer a distinct light to the next destination. Sometimes the best learning is offered in the slightest of touch, but is able to hit the deepest spots within us all. Lift-off now.
Charles Lloyd, Trios: Chapel. When Charles Lloyd unpacks his tenor saxophone from its well-worn case, it is a time for celebration. That is because there is no doubt at all that the music he will be making with that horn will be something meant to last forever inside our spirits. While it is definitely there to also invoke enjoyment, have no doubt that the notes the musician plays and how he puts them together have an eternal side to them that cannot go unnoticed. Maybe that’s because the Memphis-born man was hipped to the endlessness of time at a young age in the city of so much music, and zeroed in on its essence early. By the time Charles Lloyd got to San Francisco and the counterculture explosion in the mid-1960s he had signed up as a soldier of the spirit for life. Heavenly for listeners, his march has never ended. With guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Tom Morgan on these mind-expanding songs, the three players sync into each other immediately, and build, chase and luxuriate in all they perform live at a chapel in San Antonio. The acoustics of the room lend itself to the cosmic waves of the performance, and Lloyd himself seems to have made a particular pursuit here of the universal truth found in his saxophone. It is like he is speaking to the heavens and allowing all to listen in. On this day, the world listened and smiled. Be here now.
Delbert McClinton, Outdated Emotion. For over 60 years Texan Delbert McClinton has been singing the sounds of American music from the South, often wrapped in different packages. From early rock & roll to rhythm & blues, a swerve into country and then on to what really became his very own style. McClinton can do all those things because he has a voice inspired by eternity, where he is able to mix everything up from the human condition and turn it into an irresistible mix of heartache and happiness. It is the true mark of greatness, and at the end of the day there really aren’t that many people who can achieve it. It is said Delbert McClinton’s touring days are over, but if this recent album is any indication the reigning singing king of the Lone Star state is still hitting the long ball clean out of the park. He can tackle the songbooks of anyone who ever lived, and does it with such pure-dee feeling that the ends of the toes turn up with glee. There won’t be another who did as much for taking rock & roll all the way to the river ever again. It’s time to name a state highway after him, and then give McClinton the key to the front door of the Capitol building in Austin and let him live there if he likes, with Franklin’s barbecue on speed-dial. Go Delbert go.
Tommy McLain, I Ran Down Every Dream. How many 82-year-olds get to grab a new dream and ride it like the Sunset Limited across the great southern United States, hanging on for dear life. That is exactly what Louisiana man Tommy McLain has done this year, and if it has overtones of the miraculous, well, it is. McLain’s earlier roots were in Pelican State musical madmen like the Vel-Tones and the Boogie Kings, and to say they terrorized the honky tonks all over Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and, hell, throw in Florida is putting it mildly. A lot of ripping and running and rhythm & blues was to be had. Now, with some massive fans like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Augie Myers, Van Dyke Parks and maybe most of all producer C.D. Adcock, all bets are off like nobody’s business. All are righteously ready for action. Most of all, Tommy McLain is ready to sing like his ‘gator boots depended on it. I RAN DOWN EVERY DREAM is what used to be called “an event release” like doesn’t happen much anymore. Maybe that’s because there are so few artists who can pull such a thing off. McLain, however, was not only born on the bayou, he was born with a microphone in his hand. There won’t be more heart-tugging vocals sung this year, and the way the band is perfectly attuned to just the right amount of soulfulness in every song borders on the other worldly. It’s time to get it and hit it with the boogiest one of all: King Tommy McClain.
Angel Olsen, Big Time. There is nothing in popular music quite like when an artist who has been on an ascending trail for several years makes an album that just bursts through the sky and announces: This Is It! That is exactly what happened for Angel Olsen and BIG TIME. In the musical circles of so-called movers and shakers, Olsen has been the go-to singer now for several albums. Many know that she has been right on the cusp of reaching the hosannah line. Olsen’s voice is a surety of modern country-soul, if such a genre actually exists. But either way the woman is able to zero in on the most illustrative emotions of the human heart, and then find a way to share what those feel like and look like. It is actually a near-impossible task to pull off, but when it happens it is lights out for reality and hello the grandness of the human imagination. Topping all that, it is totally obvious when it does come true. The stars twinkle a little faster and the world shakes a little harder. Which means those who are experiencing this rush of feelings from the songs on BIG TIME are in a party of the possessed–and they know it. The singer’s voice wraps itself so seductively around eerily downhome songs like “All the Good Times” and “Chasing the Sun” that it often feels like the earth has stopped moving and every human has turned into beings trying to find out who they really are. It’s a mother of an accomplishment, that’s for sure. Produced by Olsen and Jonathan Wilson, this is music for the emotional apocalypse everyone is living through today, whether we know it or not. The good news, though, is all these original Angel Olsen songs also signal there is hope ahead. Guided, of course, by love. The rainbow sign.
Live Forever, A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver. There is no way to describe singer-songwriter par excellence Billy Joe Shaver in mere words. There just isn’t. Shaver’s ability to capture the meaning of life at its core and then write lyrics which express it was always an amazing ability. He came out of the rough and tumble life of the bar scene of central Texas, and there were surely moments where it looked like he wouldn’t make it much beyond there. But this is someone who would flat-out never give up, and once Waylon Jennings recorded an album of Billy Joe Shaver songs, all bets were off. Shaver’s own albums became worn-out staples on Nashville’s finest shelves, and gradually more of his songs found their way onto the playlists of the greats. Still, the man himself makes records just as fine as all those who tried. And even if his own recordings rarely found the top of the country charts, those in the know always knew who had the real goods. This mind-blowing tribute set shows once and for all just how unbelievably stellar he is. Whether it’s Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell, Miranda Lambert, George Strait, Margo Price or any of the other 7 artists here is a toss-up on stealing the show. Because all of them do, one after the other. Tribute albums are tricky business, and to have one that is as powerful at the end as it is at the beginning is really saying something. Just like Billy Joe Shaver always did. A diamond today.
Shinyribs, Late Night TV Gold. Think of Shinyribs the singer as someone who controls his own television network, and programs shows that not only hit his inner heart right on the money, but also expand his mind into a stratosphere of his own making. The singer is capable of just about anything, and while he had his early infamy in Austin’s favorite sons the Gourds, Shinyribs eventually had to tear the fences that had started to build around the band and wander out into the great big unknown. On his own, his trail has been zigging and zagging all over creation, and the albums he makes are wonders to behold. This latest release finds the man outdoing even himself, slicing and dicing musical styles like a sushi chef on the top of Mt. Everest. There is no accounting for good taste, to be sure, but in Shinyribs’ case it’s all in the ear of the beholder: himself. There are a plethora of pluperfect styles ranging across these dozen songs, and not a dull moment to be found anywhere on the album. It’s a solid joy to the ears morning, noon and night and no matter what shape the stomach is in is guaranteed to rattle the neurons and excite the pheromones of all involved. Fun starts here.
Angela Strehli, Ace of Blues. On the road through life, twists and turns are a given. Where the adventure starts is rarely where it ends. But with singer Angela Strehli, it’s pretty much always been about the blues. She got bit bigtime watching Chicago blues on the South Side there in the mid-1960s, and by the time the Lubbock native had made it to Austin a few years later, her passion was complete. The next 50 years have been a glorious journey through the blues, and now to make as full an album as ACE OF BLUES is a surely crowning moment. Strehli’s voice has become such a moving source of soulful strength, it’s like hearing a gift from beyond. Blues singers either have that mojo in them or they don’t, and this woman has been full-up with it forever. But now it really brings everything to a completion. This album is full of some of the finest blues songs ever written by the kingpins of America’s musical bones. Add on Dorothy Love Coates’ gospel gem “I Wouldn’t Mind Dying” and Angela Strehli’s original “SRV,” in loving memory of her longtime Texas friend Stevie Ray Vaughan and the collection feels like a momentous moment of blues. Ace of life.
Song of the Year
Rain Perry, “Melody & Jack.” When a song comes out of nowhere and seems to take over life, there can be no doubt that greatness has arrived and cannot ever be forgotten. Like Rain Perry’s “Melody & Jack.” It invokes such a time and place that celestial travel kicks in, and off the human mind goes to a different world. Perry’s infinitely moving vocal captures those moments when life feels perfect for a fleeting second, and all questions and answers are apparent. But then, once again, real life returns and with it come the swelling contours of the human heart and the inevitable sorrows that find their way inside it. There is nothing like a great song to make these feelings come alive for however long they last. And even when they recede and seem gone, they live inside us forever, able to return at the oddest moments to make this short journey through time we all have something with meaning, something special. “Melody & Jack” is a song to listen to over and over forever. It inspires the best side of us to make a permanent vow to seek and spread goodness, and to remember that all is never lost, even when it cannot be found. And that is everything: then, now and forever. Melody and Jack.
Bentley’s Bandstand: Favorite Albums 2022