For summertime inspiration and release, here are some of the good ones from the first half of the year.
Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock (Kill Rock Stars)
On their fourth album, Olympia, Washington’s Sleater-Kinney have moved to a new level of maturity. The guitars still crackle and burn and the grrrl power critique remains acute, but the trio’s lyrics and arrangements are now more complex and brooding. The favored candidate for rock album of the year.
Tom Waits, Mule Variations (Epitaph)
Inhabiting another set of American mutants and outcasts, Waits again guides us into the seedy, disaffected world of the defiantly discontent. As on all his records, the characters here are at odds with anything resembling success and respectability. As usual, their lives come to us through a mélange of weird clanking percussion, abrasive avant-roots noise, and Waits’s gravelly, gutter slob sing-talk. The difference this time comes from a twisted blend of ancient country blues that mix well with Waits’s heart-on-the-sleeve compassion.
Latin Playboys, Dose (Atlantic)
Cesar Rosas, Soul Disguise (Rykodisc)
The Latin Playboys serve as an outlet for the more experimental muse of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louis Perez. Joined by producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake, they run the various strains of East LA Americana through a distortion blender that churns out a dissonant, druggy hallucination of urban damage. It’s a perfect match of sound and vision–slow pulsing, tense, scary, sad, dry humored, and every once in a while, hopeful.
Cesar Rosas has always supplied the blues muscle of Los Lobos. No surprise then that his solo effort is packed with gritty uptempo R & B. But with the room to stretch, Rosas also delves into Tex-Mex, western swing, and bar room soul. A raw, rocking display of Rosas’s under appreciated talent.
The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA)
A Philadelphia grown hip-hop band known for supporting smart and tough street rhymes with funky soul grooves played on real instruments, The Roots have at last made an album that measures up to the power of their live shows. Tagging their record after Chinua Achebe’s novel about English colonialism in Nigeria, the group balances hard-core anger with a little sister soul assistance from Erykah Badu and Zap Mama.
Wilco, Summer Teeth (Reprise)
Thankfully Wilco have had the good sense to break from the mold of No Depression country before it becomes old hat. On their last album, Being There (1996), Beatles, Stones, and punk influences slipped in smoothly with country-rock inspirations (Gram Parsons, the Carter Family, the Byrds) to reveal a bold vision stretching the neat niche of alternative country. Summer Teeth takes things further with a polished and stunning blend of studio layered guitars, keyboards, drums, and effects that wash singer-writer Jeff Tweedy’s plaintive love songs in a dazzling array of colors and moods. The lyrics standing alone might suggest the fatalism and despair of the traditional mountain ballad, but the delicate warmth of the sound gives Summer Teeth a message of resilient hope.
Beth Orton, Central Reservation (Deconstruction/Arista)
With her stirring 1997 debut, Trailer Park, England’s Beth Orton created an odd weave of trancy acoustic balladry, tape and drum loops that labeled her a techno-folkie. Minus the studio gadgetry, as she is on this year’s follow-up, Orton is a more transparent throwback to dark-themed singer-writers like Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. Like these kindred spirits, Orton casts a spell that will not easily lift.
Van Morrison, Back On Top (Pointblank)
Although the title of his recent album is a bit overblown, Van Morrison is in good form on the R & B tinged Back On Top. Despite a few lapses into generic Van and some unnecessary gripes about the tough lot of "the artist," Morrison manages a couple of new masterpieces and a generally solid program of blues and ballads. He plays more harmonica than usual, sings with true conviction about the mystery and wonder of life and love, and wraps it all in tasteful arrangements accented with shimmering soul horns and strings.
Beausoleil, Cajunization (Rhino)
Though Beausoleil have long spiked their version of the Cajun tradition with assorted impurities from the world of rock and pop, their music never strays too far from its old time heritage. On Cajunization deep-rooted Louisiana sounds flow together with elegant blues and country dance tunes to set up a warm evening of dance floor wooing and cooing.
Mongo Santamaria, Skin On Skin: The Mongo Santamaria Anthology (1958-1995) (Rhino)
The great Cuban born percussionist Mongo Santamaria joined with Perez Prado and Tito Puente more than 50 years ago to introduce U.S. audiences to the rhythmic and melodic powers of Latin jazz and dance music. Later in the 1960s, his fusion of jazz, funk, soul, and Latin exploded to a brief period of crossover popularity. Skin On Skin, a 2-CD overview of Mongo’s distinctive career, brings his exciting, multifaceted sound back for fresh appreciation. Imagine, Coltrane turned his "Afro-Blue" into a modern jazz classic and "Watermelon Man" busted the Billboard Top Ten, while his many pulsating rumbas and covers of James Brown and Stevie Wonder fueled a multicultural bicoastal boogie.
Greg Brown, One Night (Red House)
This "long lost recording" catches the Iowa based singer-songwriter live on a great night in 1982. Amazing that this guy has been consistently good for so long. Even way back in those younger days, his writing, singing, and playing was all grown up. Humane, an appreciative eye for life’s many beauties, and a sharp blade to cut away the bull.
Mandy Barnett, I’ve Got A Right To Cry (Sire)
Although a lot of country singers pay lip service to the greatness of Patsy Cline, few choose work in her cosmopolitan style, and fewer still have the vocal tools to evoke the grace of her velvet smooth heartbreak. At 23, however, Mandy Barnett has the audacity and chops to call back Cline’s memory without giving into role play. Country torch of the rare school.
Utah Phillips & Ani Difranco, Fellow Workers (Righteous Babe)
Like the 1996 collaboration, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, Fellow Workers places the hobo tales, labor history, and anti-capitalist preaching of Phillips in front of some loose Difranco inspired sound. Surprisingly, it’s a strategy for cross generational appeal that works. Phillips is a grand storyteller mixing biting, irreverent barbs with compassion, tragedy, protest, and vision. Difranco’s grooves and melodies do their job of greasing the path to the life and times of Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood, and Haymarket.
Steve Earle And The Del McCoury Band, The Mountain (E-Squared)
Since he completed a prison term a few years back, Steve Earle has produced a series of good to brilliant albums capturing the meanest and darkest realities of America’s class system. Casting his stories in various guises of folk, country, and rock, he has emerged as the most outspoken and socially conscious voice of the roots music movement. On this year’s The Mountain, Earle teams up with arguably the best bluegrass band in the country to knock-off some hard-driving tradition based tunes echoing the working class woes of the century’s first half. The McCoury Band plays the high lonesome tight and true and Earle’s writing and singing is bad to the bone.
The Robert Cray Band, Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc)
Robert Cray has always had one foot in the blues and one foot in soul. But on Take Your Shoes Off, Cray wades deep in the waters of sweet soul, infusing gospel heat and desperate romantic yearning into some beautiful singing that harkens the sound’s golden age in the 1960s. Cray’s guitar is here constrained to short lines and accents. Arrangements hold the tension tight. The show here is all from the heart.
Duke Ellington, The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1927-1973 (RCA)
This limited edition 24-CD box set is way too costly and comprehensive for most folks, but there are enough die-hard jazz fanatics out there to pay the freight on this monumental 100th birthday salute to America’s greatest composer. Most of Ellington’s finest work is here, the Cotton Club period breakthroughs, the masterpieces of the Jimmy Blanton-Ben Webster years, great live recordings, the sacred concerts, and the extraordinary gems (The Far East Suite, And His Mother Called Him Bill) of his last years.
Novices and those on a tight budget can sample a few of the "hits" from the box on the single disc collection Best Of The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. Those wanting a slightly bigger taste of some of Ellington’s finest should track down the 2-CD collection, Beyond Category: The Musical Genius Of Duke Ellington (Smithsonian/BMG). Essential discs on labels other than RCA include Ellington At Newport (Columbia), Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia), The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic), Money Jungle (Blue Note), The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (Fantasy), Latin American Suite (Fantasy), and Second Sacred Concert (Prestige). For a detailed biography and critical reflections on the music see John Edward Hasse’s Beyond Category: The Life And Genius of Duke Ellington (Da Capo).
Ani Difranco, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up, Up (Righteous Babe)
Like Dylan so many years ago, Difranco moves too fast and free to meet fixed expectations of who she should be. Flying off toward realms of funk and backed by a full band, she’s certainly bound for new glory. But as the rhythms bump and grind, Difranco still down has serious social critique. The homeless, racism, industrial flight, and romance wars all get protested through singing and lyrics that are both searing and tender. That news combined with explosive musical power delivers a ride aptly described in the album’s title.
Koerner, Ray & Glover, (Lots More) Blues, Rags And Hollers (Red House)
The Return Of Koerner, Ray & Glover (Red House)
Bill Morrissey, Songs Of Mississippi John Hurt (Philo)
During the early 1960s folk boom, there were a lot of white middle class kids grappling for the authenticity of the country blues. "Spider" John Koerner, Dave "Sneaker" Ray, and Tony "Little Sun" Glover found their version of it by being irreverent enough to fuse their experience with the canon of song dug up by people like John Lomax and Harry Smith. The recent Red House reissues of Koerner, Ray, and Glover’s Elektra recordings show the wit, soul, and licks they brought to tradition, giving a wonderful whiff of a time when music wasn’t smothered by money. Folk and blues nuts will recognize the titles ("Black Betty," "John Hardy," "Fannin Street," "Statsboro Blues"), but the excitement and personality the trio bring to familiar tunes makes them new in a way that opens to their timeless appeal.
Singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey is another one who knows folk doesn’t hang without a distinctive voice. His many Philo albums convey the grim late 20th century realities of working class New England through quiet, tightly drawn narratives. The late great Mississippi John Hurt did much the same for rural black America and on his latest, Morrissey honors the connection. Covering Hurt tunes and picking with Hurt-styled elegance, Morrissey shines light on a blues legacy that stands apart from the rawer sounds of the Delta. But like Koerner, Ray, and Glover, he does it by injecting more than a little of himself into the mix. A bittersweet late night gem.
Jimmy Lafave, Trail (Bohemia Beat)
An Austin, Texas best kept secret, Jimmy Lafave is one of the most expressive roots singers of our time. With a raspy falsetto and sensitive nuanced phrasing, Lafave transforms all manner of rock, blues, and country into the most sublime soul music. Although a fine left-populist songwriter as well, Lafave’s own material has often been overshadowed by his stunning interpretations of Dylan. Trail collects 31 live and previously unreleased Lafave tracks that will hopefully remedy the neglect. Placing his originals alongside some of the best of Springsteen, Guthrie, and Dylan, Lafave proves his voice, as a writer-performer, ranks with the best.
Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrar (Nonesuch)
Those who fell in love with 1997′s Ry Cooder convened Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch) will flip again for the newly released follow-up, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. The cast includes many of the stars from the first album (most notably pianist Ruben Gonzalez), but the spotlight this time is on 72-year-old Havana bolero/son singer Ibrahim Ferrer. After years of singing with the legendary Benny More, Ferrer went into semi-retirement when his style went out of fashion. His comeback began when he received a call to join the first Buena Vista sessions. As Cooder says, "In Cuba the music flows like a river." And that’s a perfect metaphor for Ferrer’s gorgeous, straight-from-the-heart vocalizing, as well as the radiant grace of the ensemble working in his support.