Bentley’s Bandstand: July 2023
By Bill Bentley
Paul Carrack & The SWR Big Band, Don’t Wait Too Long. There have been years when swinging singer and keyboard monster Paul Carrack had the go-to knack to be where the hits happened. After his early years in British band Ace, followed by tenures at the microphone with Squeeze and Mike + the Mechanics it sounded like the man couldn’t lose. And, in fact, he can’t because Carrack’s newest release with the SWR Big Band is so knocked-out and deep that no matter what happens it will go down as one of the finest blue-eyed soul albums of this century. Of course, a lot of that is thanks to the 100% bulls-eye of the song selection. Some of the great compositions of the past 80 years are included on the album, ranging from 1929’s “I’ll Always Be in Love with You” to 2004’s “Don’t Wait Too Long.” The ears that compiled this song list, most likely Carrack and his pals, should get a medal right away. Some of the finest rhythm & blues-infused gems shine in the studio like rare jewels of the universe. Add to that the singer’s dead-on ability to take these classics and bring them flying into the modern sphere with a supercharged power behind them. Even with all that muscular background, though, it is Paul Carrack’s voice that has to rise to the supreme occasion and bring the songs home, which is exactly what he does. In fact, he out sings even his own vaunted past achievements and delivers a hot plate so wondrous that it feels like the world is going to last forever just so music like this can thrive. Not only that, it is a modern miracle how one of the very best songs on the disc is 2003’s stunner, “The Only Thing Missing is You,” written by Larry Duane Addison from a mere decade ago. That’s real modernity. Now that the world is opening up again and shined-shoes and pressed-slacks are making their way to the sidewalks and nightclubs, let Paul Carrack lead the parade down Soul Street and ring the bell that it’s time to get it and hit it once more. Time is now.
Charlie Faye & the Fanimals. Not only is Charlie Faye’s new album soulfully suitable for all ages, it is also such a life-affirming affair of fun and frolic that it is completely irresistible no matter what shape your musical stomach is in. Maybe that’s because Faye herself has such an exciting and winsome take on music of all stripes and colors that everything she touches turns to excitement. The woman, based in Austin, Texas’ crazy swirl of sonic levity and flat-out wildness, takes her original songs on a topsy-turvy ride through the history of soul and rock & roll and comes out the other side of being full-on fun. In 2019 when Faye became a mother, it became evident that music in the home was going to become a staple, especially after the restrictions of 2020’s pandemic became a reality. Those different times called for a new paradigm suited for the new way of living, and to Faye she saw an opportunity to use all the styles she’d been playing her life and twist and turn them into something both she and her youngster could press the groove button on and go. Working with musical friends like Sara Hickman, Joe McDermott, Suzanna Choffel, Bill Demain and others, the Fanimals took on a power of their own, creating a sound so in tune with the modern world while always remembering where the influences began that before too long, the sound appealed to everyone. She also realized that so much how people respond begins with the beat, so Faye called in the big drum-gunner Pete Thomas, a 45 year-vet with none other than Elvis Costello’s band, along with featuring Thomas’ co-write on the original track “Cooke Tree.” How’s that for smart thinking? And even though CHARLIE FAYE & THE FANIMALS might be aimed at a young audience, in reality the whole affair is suitable for everyone. All ages allowed.
Eliza Gilkyson, Home. Here is someone who has been recording the kind of songs that tend to last forever. There is something so permanent and passionate in Eliza Gilkyson’s music that it always feels like it’s going to last for always. The very first track on the album, “True North,” is like a statement of purpose that runs through HOME. There are big questions to be considered in life and these ten songs, all but the last written by Gilkyson, are almost a travel guide for the heart to gain guidance on where and how to go. The singer’s voice is so celestial and strong that it always gives comfort to the vagaries of life, especially in a time of such upheaval and change. But that’s always been the troubadour’s mandate: to tell us where they’ve been, what it is like there, and how they’ve gotten home. The sound of the songs definitely fills that spirit with such authenticity, and gives Eliza Gilkyson’s music a sense of purpose that is the essence of who she is. Co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Don Richmond takes an exacting role in making sure the sound of everything on the album is of one full piece, and with guests like Robert Earl Keen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tony Gilkyson, Van Dyke Parks and many others the wonderful end result carries such a fullness that it feels like a highlight of Gilkyson’s long career. Something is happening on this album, and it is as close to magic and music gets. The snippets from her father songwriter Terry Gilkyson’s work are also included, played by the Southwest’s Western dance band The Rifters, and a further history to the proceedings. The closing track, Karla Bonoff’s original “Home,” is a fitting end to the kind of album that lives forever. Home sweet home.
Tara Jeffery, Peachy Keen. Once every year or so an album arrives with a touch of outer space about it. There is something slightly intangible so not all the mathematics line up just right. That’s Tara Jeffery’s PEACHY KEEN release. For a time after arrival it seemed like the name Peachy Keen was the artist’s name. Tara Jeffery, which turns out to be the legal moniker, was written in light letters on the artwork and blended into the background. But once those minor details are straightened out, the music still sounds like it’s been made by someone named, uh, Peachy Keen. It’s the perfect way of understanding what’s going on with astounding songs like “Swimming,” “Stranger Danger” and “Shiny Broken.” They all feel like they have been born in a slightly alternative universe, and once their vision takes hold there is a whole new way to look at the world. The jazz inflections that run through the music keep everything on a somewhat hingefree level, like jazz players are out on a fun holiday, and Jeffery’s voice jumps right into the groove-inspired sonics. Producer Mark Hallman also plays all the instruments and provides vocals as well, and keeps the sound so focused that PEACHY KEEN’s seven songs really do become a whole different offering, like a trip to a brand new land. On the final song, “50 Behind,” guitarist supreme Robben Ford even throws in to make sure no musical stone is left unturned. If it’s been a bit since a totally original feel has invaded the brain, Tara Jeffery has just the thing to fix that. Peachy keen indeed.
Nils Lofgren, Mountains. If there is a rock & roller who surely deserves the spotlight, it’s Nils Lofgren. The two bands he is a longtime member of–Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band — don’t just let anyone join their ranks. And then there’s an overwhelming roll-call of incredible solo albums that Lofgren has amassed that have not been heralded in a more equitable way. The man’s first solo release, 1975’s self-titled set on A&M Records and produced by David Briggs, will always stand as one of the very best rock albums of any decade, with an incredible original song list where every single track remains an all-timer. The fact that it never even broke into the Top 100 then still feels like a Communist conspiracy. Nils Lofgren’s latest release, MOUNTAINS, is right back at the top of the musical, well, mountain. A set of all original songs, except for Bruce Springsteen’s “Back in Your Arms,” this is a musician who continues to grow right into his 70s without blinking. The way he puts his songs together feels like a minor miracle: each is totally unforgettable and full of grace and power simultaneously. The ballads have a way of making the soul clinch up with a sense of the eternal, adding to the thought that Nils Lofgren really is one of the great living rockers. Maybe he’s just a bit outshined by those he performs with, but hopefully MOUNTAINS will change that some because there aren’t going to be many better rock records released this year. Add guest vocalists Neil Young, David Crosby, Ringo Starr and Cindy Mizelle, along with the drop-dead gorgeous “Only Your Smile” with jazz bass legend Ron Carter, and once again Lofgren shows why other musicians put him on the list of the all-time greats. Listen and hear.
Lukas Nelson + POTR, Sticks and Stones. Some artists are destined to go where they’re going to go. That’s Lukas Nelson. He’s been playing music since childhood, privy to father Willie Nelson’s artistry and legacy, and has never stopped pushing forward where the sounds in his head and heart push him. Best of all, he’s always followed his own path, and with the band Promise of the Real they’ve all entered that space where everything they do is theirs. And that is nowhere more true than STICKS AND STONES. This is a set of songs that sound like a breakthrough, going someplace where the influences become secondary and everything that Nelson writes and he and the band sing and play are taking off for a place they haven’t been. It’s a heartrushing mix of rock, country and other styles that come together to be something new. Nelson’s vocals alone announce a young man who knows where he’s going and what he wants to do. And Promise of the Real are a band of new originality, like they opened a door onto a no-looking-back future. All the signs have been there for Lukas Nelson for the past decade, from when he first started recording really. He clearly had it in his genes to become his own person, and like most musicians it can take a minute to get there. But the way he has gotten there has been with courage and an unrelenting drive. There was no way he wasn’t going to find his place in modern music. That went without saying. One listen to songs like “Ladder of Love,” “Icarus,” “All Four Winds” and “The View” on this release convey a surety of purpose and ability that is a smile-inducer of major proportions. STICKS AND STONES might break your bones, but it will also most definitely blow your mind. Time is now.
Robinson & Rohe, Into the Night. Sometimes there is a need to turn to sounds that allow the mind and soul to escape the normal bounds of reality, and take off for less physical vistas of the soul. Jean Roche and Liam Robinson are experts at exploring those territories, unafraid to go where others don’t often venture. The duo’s second album, INTO THE NIGHT, was born at the very start of the pandemic in February 2020, and finally finished in July 2021. Over the process of the 10 songs, including a reprise of the arresting title track at the end of the album, this devastating duo wraps their sound into a unique excursion of sounds both new and old. The way they’re able to invoke both the past and the future, often at the very same time, puts them in a very small class of modern players who understand just how inspiration can be delivered in various ways. On songs like the gorgeous title track, “Ways Down the Road,” “Follow” and others, it’s like the pair has opened the history book of music and is able to use whatever styles fit their fancy on a certain song and make them almost brand new, but still attached to the past. It is an uncanny area that not too many modern artists dare venture into. The way that Rohe and Robinson blend their vocals can only come from many years of performing together, and also an almost ESP ability with each other to know what the other is thinking and doing. And even though much of the music was recorded in 2019, everything sounds so brand new that it may as well have been done yesterday. That’s because the songwriting is visionary, and comes from a place deep inside these two artists in a way that makes it all seem timeless. From an incredible range of influences and abilities INTO THE NIGHT arrives like a look into the future, from a pair of singer-songwriters who have traveled a border-free life of accomplishment. A heavenly pair.
Chris Stamey, …The Great Escape. North Carolina’s finest has returned with what just might be the best album of his solo career. There is such an overshadowing of deep thoughts and even deeper life events all through …THE GREAT ESCAPE that a tinge of wanting to check on Stamey’s emotional condition comes to the fore. Then there are breakthroughs on certain songs that make it sound like the musician just might make it through after all. This style could be tagged Baroque & Roll on several songs, which would be an extreme compliment. And, of course, there’s a mesmerizing cover of Alex Chilton and Tom Hoen’s “She Might Look My Way,” produced by ZZ Top-etc. auteur Terry Manning that shows a whole other side of Chris Stamey’s abilities. Taken all together, the man has made what will easily be one of the best albums this year. It is so personal that it feels like the listener could be stalking Stamey through a long nostalgic walk through his former New York City life forty years ago, watching someone process a past that isn’t coming back but still feels beautiful anyway. The sound of the 1980s has also returned in a truly glorious way, never to be forgotten, with band names like the dBs, the Sneakers and so many others echoing everywhere. To make sure the street creed has remained in Chris Stamey’s life, he includes the bonus track “The One and Only (Van Dyke Parks) in reverend reference to a true artist of the first wave of individualism in the blown-open 1960s. Let it roll.
Various Artists, If You Gotta Go-Go, Go-Go Now: A Tribute to the Go-Gos. Hollywood heroes The Go-Gos are the kind of band that, once loved, live forever. Maybe that’s because there’s never been an all-female aggregation that had such an overwhelming impact on popular culture. Beginning their nationwide crusade at the start of the 1980s, it was like band was on a march to show the world how women can rock. They did it themselves, without tricks, and didn’t take any grief from anyone. They wrote their songs and didn’t ask for favors. When their popularity started to explode in 1982 there was really no stopping them. Songs like “Vacation,” “We Got the Beat” “Our Lips are Sealed,” “Can’t Stop the World” and so many others now live as a soundtrack to a time of wonderfulness that seemed like the culture was turning a new page. Singer Belinda Carlisle was walking on California sunshine and the kick-ass Go-Gos walked right with her. This 24-song tribute album mines their song catalog like an expert expedition of musical grooviness, with every song on the set a highlight. Really. Music this superfine can only be played one way: great. Highlights include Josie Cotton, Natalie Sweet, Paul Collins & Marci Marks and so many other tingling moments that it’s the kind of set that doesn’t matter where it starts. It’s going to groove. Turn on now.
Lucinda Williams, Stories from a Rock N Roll Heart. There really hasn’t been a singer-songwriter like Lucinda Williams before, and it’s a better-than-even bet there won’t be one after. For starters, her deep immersion in the South growing up gave Williams a slant on life that has stayed at her core since childhood. And she was raised up around books, her father being an English professor at various colleges, including one in Mexico City. But maybe even more than those influences was Williams’ total hell-bent decision to become someone who dedicated her life completely to music. She began singing in the streets as a teenager, and then became part of the Smithsonian’s record label lineup. That’s not easy when you’re still so young. After that it’s been a life in and out of the trenches for the artist, but her ability to keep moving and growing never ceases to astound. Even after a stroke a few years ago the woman is making some of the best recordings of her life, including STORIES FROM A ROCK N ROLL HEART. There is such a sense of powerful belief inside songs like “Let’s Get the Band Together,” “Stolen Moments,” “This is Not My Town” and “Never Gonna Fade Away,” you can feel the overwhelming presence of fortitude burning in the songs. There is no doubt Lucinda Williams is still on a musical mission from above, and she’s obsessed with moving straight ahead on the glory train to greatness. Showing, really, she remains someone with one of the biggest rock & roll hearts anywhere. The last lyric on her astonishing new album, “I’m never gonna fade away,” sounds more true in 2023 than ever. Hallelujah on that.
Song of the Month
“Lay a Little Grace on Me”
In the darker hours when only a truly soul-changing song will help, Joe Ely’s “Lay a Little Grace on Me” will erase all doubts and show even the most lost the way to a better day. In many ways, it’s a prayer set to the music of an acoustic guitar, but there is so much feeling in the words and Ely’s voice that the scope is expanded into a worldly sphere. Like so many of us, this Texan has faced strong challenges the past few years and digs down into the music for a helping hand. Releasing this song now shows Ely will always be a brother on the road to goodness, and someone who finds grace wherever he can. Feel and heal.
Reissue of the Month
Streets of This Town: Revisited.
Mississippian Steve Forbert was in a class of his own in the 1970s when he burst through the crowd of singer-songwriters in the “Next Dylan” brigade. In truth, Forbert wasn’t anything like Bob Dylan. Not really. The fact that he had sophisticated lyrics and an unforgettable voice might have explained the tag, but not for long. His first several albums explored folk music with a wise stare and soulful edge in his voice, but he wasn’t writing semi-sociological songs or even relying on the sound of others to forge his own. Steve Forbert always only sounded like himself. STREET OF THIS TOWN, produced by E Street member Gary Tallent, is notable for a host of reasons, mainly its amazingly heartfelt songs on Forbert’s delivery, but also because it was hung up in legal limbo for several years in the early 1980s. The musician left CBS Records, he was slapped with some legal mumbo jumbo that kept him from putting any release on another label, so he had to sit out a time when it would have been perfect for the new music to be heard. But it really didn’t happen and time had appeared to move on without him in the mid-1980s. STREETS OF THIS TOWN got deserted for Steve Forbert. This new release, available now for the first time in 28 years, sounds like a brand new day for the Mississippi man. It’s amazing just how contemporary songs like “Don’t Tell Me (I Know),” “On the Streets of This Town,” “Perfect Stranger” and “Search Your Heart” arrive now. And the previously unreleased bonus track “They’re Out to Break Us” is now the perfect end to a collection that still stands as one of the best of the 1980s. The good news is that Steve Forbert is still out there ripping and running on the American highways and recording music that just may matter more now than ever. An American classic.
Book of the Month
How to Produce a Record: A Player’s Philosophy for Making a Great Recording
Needless to say, author Pete Anderson knows exactly of what he speaks. He’s been playing music his whole life, beginning in his hometown Detroit and starting with the astounding success of Anderson’s production of Dwight Yoakam’s first 11 releases has shown the world of music exactly what he’s got up his long-sleeved shirt. He’s also helmed the studio for artists like Michelle Shocked, Roy Orbison, Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores, Darden Smith, Flaco Jimenez and many more, along with a handful of his own solo releases. Now Anderson’s written a straight-up low-down look at not only all he’s done, but much more importantly how he does it. This is not a history book so much as it’s a worker’s manual of the real nitty-gritty of recording, mixing and mastering music. There is no frou-frou, either, in the telling of the tale. And even if it might be slightly in the weeds for the layperson, there is a lot of learn and totally appreciate in the logistics of what’s going on, way before the recording light in the studio goes red. Pete Anderson has written an all-in explanation of not only how to record music, but the ways to raise the odds of it sounding the very best it kind. And that, as they say in the studio, is a keeper. Turn it up.
Bentley’s Bandstand: July 2023