Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Rock & Rap Confidential No. 232--Sly Stone, Janelle Monae, Donna Summer, Bruce Sudano, Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen, Patty Griffin, Lou Reed, Brandy Clark, De La Tierra, Buika, Nina Dioz, 50 Bands to take the KISS Hall of Fame spot and More!


No. 232

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WHY KISS AIN’T ON OUR LIST... Dave Marsh writes: In the fall of 1973, recently arrived in New York City and besotted by the extraordinary shows I’d seen by the New York Dolls in Queens and downtown Manhattan, I decided I wanted to investigate who the city’s best bands other than the Dolls might be. This wound up being a story that ran first in Newsday, the Long  Island daily where I had the pop music beat; then Creem, which I was no longer editing but still writing for; and finally the British weekly, Melody Maker.

            The article, which may have been headlined Great White Rock in its first appearance, boasted that there were currently a dozen “excellent” rock acts in the New York City area, and talked about eight of those I had seen. In order of appearance they were: The Dynomiters, Harlots of 42nd Street, Kiss, Luger, Elliott Murphy’s Aqua Show, New York Central, Queen Elizabeth featuring Wayne County and Teenage Lust. (I can’t remember why I didn’t mention the Miamis. I loved the Miamis—on stage anyway, like so many of these bands, that group was never captured right on tape.) 

             Coming up with a punk icon (Wayne County), one of the key New York singer-songwriters of the period whose career has lasted forty years (Elliott Murphy), and a huge pop success in the space of 2,500 words isn’t bad. But history—helped along by Wikipedia which at least three people have tried to amend for accuracy, all rejected by the mysterian Wikiprocess—remembers none of this. If it did, the Kiss Army might salute me rather than flooding my website with what amounts to “nyah, nyah, nyah,” now that Kiss is finally going to get into the Hall of Fame. 

             Because that article was the first mention of Kiss in the press, and it was not hostile. In its entirety it reads:

            “This group looks as if it just stepped out of the underground movie Pink Flamingos, leading me to believe that I was right all along in thinking that the glitter craze was an ugliness contest.

“But Kiss's music sounds as if it is the most thought-out, controlled sound around, and the stage show is just as professional. And, they say, Eddie Kramer (of Led Zeppelin and Electric Ladyland) wants to produce them. Heavy metal meets El Topo.”

OK, I called them ugly. Why the fuck did you think they added the face paint? Other than that, it’s at least a kind of backhanded praise. It’s honest, too. I didn’t like Kiss, but I recognized what they had going for them (though I wish I had mentioned manager Bill Aucoin, a great market manipulator who’s been cheated out of almost all credit thanks to the megalomania infesting that band’s camp.)

Musically, I was done with them before I ever turned the first album over to the second side. Kiss had an extraordinary aptitude for adopting every cliché in hard rock history, and a complete absence of any ability to create so much as a hint of a new one. (I suppose maybe they were the model for Motley Crue?) The most interesting of their studio albums is Destroyer, and it’s not all that interesting, except as an example of the highly professional output of producer Bob Ezrin and guitarist Dick Wagner during the mid-‘70s. On their own, they were not clever at coming up with riffs, the beats are as repetitious as punk but without the energy,  and their most interesting lyric is “Beth” which is nothing more than third-rate Bob Seger blended with second-rate Billy Joel, or maybe “Detroit Rock City” which is a clumsy J. Geils swipe...and so forth except for the disco album, I guess.

            But they have the best make-up in the Hall. Until Insane Clown Posse is inducted, at least.

            I realize this paints Kiss as more mediocre than incompetent, but....well, if the only qualification is having made a record at least 25 years before the ballots got mailed out, they are qualified, and perhaps I shall be fortunate enough not to live to see the advent of Justin Bieber and One Day in the Hall's once formidable list of inductees.  

            And yeah, Kiss inspired a lot of kids to want to be in bands. So did half a dozen girls (and boys!) in every high school graduating class.

            All that mediocrity was harmless enough until the boastful bassist decided to turn it into a propaganda machine for the only two things he’s ever loved: Gene Simmons and money. Sex Money Kiss, his book on how to become a rich success, offers a stupendous (or maybe I mean stupefying) blend of preposterous career advice, dangerously over-simplified and inaccurate economic information and advice, and an account of human intercourse—by which I don’t mean just sex--that verifies emotional stagnation at the age of maybe fourteen. You could figure the same stuff out in maybe fifteen minutes of watching his dumb-ass TV show.  (Yes, this means I passed on reading the other two. Pointless repetition is one of the worst things about Kiss.)

            Alas, Simmons also has politics, of a sort, though I’d sure he would deny anything of the kind because that might alienate part of the audience—although since he views the rest of the species as essentially a chain of ATMs, maybe not. He is basically a cheerleader for capitalism and spreading the U.S. system abroad in ways that make Bono look like John Maynard Keynes.

            Then there are his sexual politics, which amount to “Bend over, meat” and I mean that literally. It is true that Simmons imagines all other human beings (except his sainted mama and perhaps his kids) as inherently inferior to himself, but he has a particular  contempt for women. I stopped being amused by this along about the time that he began to boast about his Polaroid collection. The misogynist misanthropy  reaches a pinnacle in his 2008 book, Ladies of the Night: A Historical and Personal Perspective on the Oldest Profession in the World.

            It seems odd that he didn’t write the book he’s best qualified for on this topic, which would be a history of pimping.  Because if Simmons isn’t an evangelist he is certainly a peddler, and he practices the hard sell and the emotional con. Kiss didn’t have fans, it had an Army because they were the biggest band of their era. The truth is, Kiss never sold more than 2 million copies of a studio album although that was precisely the time when the Bee Gees and Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and a bunch of others began to sell 10 million (and more). One reason Kiss’s audience is early teenagers-- though these days that is true more often emotionally than chronologically, of course—is that only someone stuck there would be so militantly gullible.

            Why shouldn’t Kiss be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Because they have added not the slightest musical value to rock, which is why they were not especially huge record sellers. And because, so far, in one way or another, the Hall has avoided honoring the music at its most mercantile and shallow.

            But above all because there are so many worthy candidates who are not in the Hall of Fame. At the snail ‘s pace at which the Hall parcels out induction, many of the artists in the list below will be dead before they are even on the ballot. In Kiss’s own genre and time, by which I mean 1970s hard rock, almost every fan of it as a whole (as opposed to the Kiss Army) would agree that at least Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Judas Priest and Motorhead are not just more deserving, but far, far better choices. Not every one of these fifty artists, who operated at more or less the same time as Kiss, are going to end up in the Hall of Fame nor should they. But they’re all better than Kiss.

Alice in Chains
Bad Brains
Bad Company
Black Oak Arkansas
Black Crowes
Blue Oyster Cult
Body Count
Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Canned Heat
Cheap Trick
The Commodores
Deep Purple
Def Leppard
J. Geils Band
Humble Pie
Iron Maiden
The James Gang
Rick James 
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Judas Priest
Living Colour
Molly Hatchet
Mother’s Finest
Mott the Hoople
New York Dolls
Ted Nugent / Amboy Dukes
Ohio Players
Procol Harum
The Scorpions
Social Distortion
Twisted Sister
Ten Years After
Thin Lizzy
The Time
White Zombie

(This list was compiled by RRC, not Dave Marsh alone.)


THE VICTORY TOUR…. “I need to know/If the world says it’s time to go/Tell me, will you break out?”

This refrain, which calls out from the frenzied forward bounce of Janelle Monae’s “Dance Apocalyptic,” is the kind of lyrical element that worms its way into the back of your head and pans its way from ear to ear throughout the day. That’s because it’s important. The song’s video shows Monae with her hair down, risking an entirely new look, some mix of Nona Hendryx and Aaliyah, playing guitar, breaking out into the night with a post-apocalyptic biker gang.

Though the most musically ambitious pop star of the past twenty years obviously foresees a moment when everything will change, her new album, Electric Lady (Bad Boy), is about how to survive the world prior to that moment. That’s why another line that lingers in the head is from the stately ballad “Victory”—“To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.”

Monae’s a strategic thinker but one who takes time with the details. She built her base with Atlanta’s Wondaland Arts Society, an alliance of artists building on and consciously expanding the existing collectivity of Southern rap’s Dungeon Family, and that Southern rap collective is well represented here by Ray Murray (Organized Noize), Cee-Lo Green (Goodie Mob) and Monae’s early champions, OutKast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Many of us first saw her open up for the white alternative act Of Montreal, and we watched her win over that indie crowd with a perfectly honed rock and roll tent revival. Then she toured with Bruno Mars, her vision making the tour more double bill than headliner and opener. This tour also allowed Monae to reach tweenyboppers and show established fans she could expand to an auditorium mainstage without losing her intensity. Since then, she has opened for Katy Perry, Prince and Stevie Wonder—fusing every strain of popular American music (Charlie Chaplin to Jimi Hendrix, for starters) into rock show crescendos marked by charismatic fits (Monae shaken by the spirit on the stage floor) and the five foot tall rocker’s exuberant crowd surfing. To feel the uplift of Monae’s live show is to give in to the ecstatic vision that once got a lot of rock and roll records burned.

Growing up in a neighborhood held together by three churches, Monae no doubt knows that great lesson from Isaiah, “Without a vision, the people perish.” While critics scratch their heads over the sci-fi concept of her body of work, Monae moves forward with confidence that her fans get the idea of mass liberation and subordinate the trivia to bigger concerns—the bad ass struts of her duets with Prince and Solange on, respectively, “Givin ‘Em What They Love” and “Electric Lady,” the funky, simmering build of her duet with Miguel on “Primetime,” and the soulful shimmy of “Q.U.E.E.N.,” her collaboration with Erykah Baduh .

On “Q.U.E.E.N.,” as elsewhere, she name-checks her hometown, crying, “I’m trying to free Kansas City.”  This sentiment is echoed later in “Ghetto Woman,” Monae’s funky, driven tribute to her mother, a woman—representative of so many—she fears is misunderstood by the world because “all you ever needed was someone to free your mind.” “Free your mind” here becomes something more than thinking big, it’s about the need for others to share in the burden, it’s about a community that believes a new world is possible.
After that, “Victory” serves as the album’s peak, Monae’s voice having never ridden a more beautiful melody, never sounded more relaxed, never more confident in the “mustard seed” she knows will one day move mountains. The near-perfect final third of the record caresses the dawning of a new day coming—most viscerally on the classic rock of “Sally Ride.” On the 80’s-flavored world-pop expanse of “What an Experience” she refers to her lover as “a good red wine” (yes, you can hear the UB40 in the mix), making a sacrament for artist and audience, holding tight to the moment, building toward the future.—D.A.


 FEET DON’T FAIL ME NOW… When I was in Navy boot camp, we spent most of our time marching. Marching to chow, marching to the rifle range, marching out to the big concrete grinder to continue marching as we practiced for our graduation parade. One of the recruits in our company, a kid from LA named Johnny Baiseri, was chosen to march us when the drill instructor wasn’t around. Johnny was half Mexican, half Arab, and he taught us how to march to commands given in Spanish and Arabic. We got really good at it and we loved to do it when we’d pass by some high-ranking brass. We were doing what we were told yet we felt totally defiant. The brass could sense it but what could they say?

We also had a couple of guys in the company who had been on competitive drill teams in high school. They taught us to think of marching as a dance. Make your foot hit the ground with a bounce. Put joy in your step. Move that rifle from side to side like a woman on the dance floor.

So there we were, eighty guys out on the grinder. Johnny carried a ceremonial sword that  he would raise before we began to move. Then he would bring it down like a conductor cuing the orchestra. Off we went as one, making music however we could. We would turn on a dime—right angles, oblique angles, 180s--singing in English (“Your mother was born on your left….go right!”), Spanish, and Arabic, stopping with a satisfying final doubletime one-two with the feet. We were completely regimented yet felt totally free.

            We were hardly Sly and the Family Stone, but they heard the same drummer we did. On the previously unissued instrumental “Wide World of Color” from the new boxed set Higher (Sony Legacy), the tune is driven by stately bass lines and parade ground drums, the horns darting in and out to keep everything in line, just as Johnny Baiseri did with us. Rehearsed til the band was as tight as a hairpin turn, Sly and the Family Stone were completely regimented yet felt totally free.

The fact that the pinnacle of what my boot camp company could create was the equivalent of a mere dab of paint on the Family Stone canvas shouldn’t obscure what we had in common—the need to make sound into feeling no matter what.—L.B.


 DANCE TO THE MUSIC…. In the industrial Midwest where I come from, the civil rights movement led to integration in the workplace and, in many cases, the neighborhood.  Black and white worked together, we lived next door to each other, we listened to a lot of the same music. But we didn’t socialize. We didn’t party together.

            This was partly due to the residue of American history, going back to the seventeenth century when the master class had to pass laws to keep slaves and white indentured servants apart. It was solidified by the backlash against the civil rights movement, most shockingly reflected in segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace’s campaigns for President. Wallace received a high percentage of the Midwestern blue collar vote in 1964, 1968, and 1972. It seemed then that racial division at the heart of America was permanent and intractable. Would things ever change?

This separation began in the early years of American history. In the seventeenth century, white indentured servants and black slaves had grown so close that the master class felt threatened. So they passed laws to keep white and black people apart. This taboo  was strengthened by the, as reflected in the George Wallace campaigns for president in 1964, 1968 and 1972. Wallace received a high percentage of the Midwestern blue collar each time he ran, the result of white backlash against the civil rights movement. It seemed then that racial division at the heart of America was intractable. Would things ever change?

            Enter disco. The history of disco is always told through the prism of club life in New York City. That’s accurate, but incomplete. At its peak, disco was so popular that it leapt across all boundaries. In Rust Belt factory towns, it seemed that every club and every bar had a mirror ball and a lighted dance floor. The channels of daily life that still kept us separate overflowed and we came together. To dance. To party. The racial tension that was never far from the surface in the mills and factories released itself on weekend nights as human nature asserted itself and broke the shackles of history. We moved through a haze of music, light, and smoke and became one. It was fucking beautiful.

            On Sunday morning segregation reasserted itself. We might as well have been living in South Africa—church congregations were black or they were white, no exceptions.  But we were too hung over to think about it. On Monday we were back at work and the competition to climb the ladder to better jobs resumed. So did the friction that accompanied it. Until the next weekend.

For this process to continue, it needed a star to follow, not just disco’s one-hit wonders (who in the hell was Crown Heights Affair?). It fell to Donna Summer to pump up the volume. She really was the Queen of Disco. She urged us to dance, not with the rote patter of some TV host, but like a doctor who has the cure to your disease. Try it, you’ll like it. And since the dominant dance, the Hustle, was almost as simple as the Twist, everyone did it. Her songs spoke to our needs and our longings from some mutual place deep inside and we responded.

Donna Summer drew us toward her by flaunting sex but also because she understood our world of work.  There was “Working the Midnight Shift” (“My body carries on / But I’m dying inside”), “She Works Hard for the Money” (“Just tips for pay”), even “Bad Girls.”

            In its classic form, disco eventually faded (though it never disappeared), but Donna Summer didn’t. She went on to make excellent music that explored rock, pop, and even reggae. Meanwhile, her disco hits lingered in the corners of our collective consciousness, marking time until someone came along and figured out what to do with them.

            That someone turned out to be two people: Dahlia Ambach Caplan and Randall Poster. They’re the producers of Love to Love You Donna (Verve), a remix album of Donna Summer’s hits. It works because a diverse crew of remixers digs into the songs and comes up with often startling reimaginations. It works because the originals are so catchy and well-structured that they can take wandering paths and still sound something like themselves.

There’s Masters At Work’s version of  “Last Dance,” which is mostly subtle changes as it doubles the length while using a live band and some additional drum programming, allowing Andrew Synowiec’s guitar the freedom to guide us through the mix. On the other hand, in Afrojack’s take on “I Feel Love,” the robots have taken over, big and noisy and destructive like some futuristic heavy metal, wreaking havoc until Donna enters slyly to imply that it’s all a dream and everything will be alright. The cherry on top is “La Dolce Vita,” a new song by Summer and longtime producer Giorgio Moroder. It moves along subtly like the demure slice of Europop it is until you get to the hook, which is as big and sweet and dense as a wedding cake.

            Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder helped to popularize electronic dance music over thirty years ago, so it’s tempting to say that Love to Love You Donna brings them up to date. But that would imply that the music ever went out of date. Listening to these remarkable remixes caused me to revisit the originals once again and that confirmed for me that they are timeless. They have no expiration date. Love to love you baby.—L.B.


LAST  DANCE... Millions of us loved Donna Summer, and the more you knew her, the more likely it was that you’d be a fan of her, as well as her music. No one knew her better than Bruce Sudano, her husband. He shares that knowledge with Angels on a Carousel, his first solo album since her death. Not the facts--you can look those up. Angels gets to the heart. It’s a remarkable record, filled with loss and heartbreak, but at the same time, steeped in faith and memories of the greatest happiness. On “That’s What It’s All About,” he reduces the truth he’s telling to a single line: “Live every moment, love all you can.” In his voice, it doesn’t sound like a cliché, it sounds like a testimonial.

Sudano is a rock’n’roll–maybe more pertinently, rock and soul--guy, heavily indebted to post-doo wop harmony (Brooklyn Dreams was his group), but also a terrific guitarist and songwriter, all in ample evidence on Angels. (At his best, he’s sometimes a kinder, gentler Joe Walsh, sometimes Dion born ten years later.) And this is not only the work of a very able veteran, it’s a concept album, about the life and death of a particularly fortunate couple who even so can’t escape tragedy.

             Sudano’s lyrics are suspended between joy that blossomed out of four decades of romance and agony over those final months when the beautiful couple was brutally torn apart by cancer. I’ve spent a career hearing sad stories, and twenty years listening to people talk about losing their loved ones. There’s not anything new here, I suppose, but there never is. All that separates the one from the other is the details and the power with which they’re expressed. I also have spent a lifetime, as we all have, hearing about other people’s great loves (particularly on “All Those Years Ago”). Same deal. Sudano nails both.

            Angels on a Carousel operates as a spiral, moving from a macrocosmic view to a question that boils down to...”Why?” Sudano doesn’t bluff—there is no answer. But everything on his album says that is far less important than living every moment, loving all you can. Nobody will ever make a greater Donna Summer tribute album.—D.M.


High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)—While this album is pieced together largely from songs that Bruce has had for years, it’s still pretty hard to miss the themes inherent in the way he’s organized the tracks. What you get is a journey from darkness to light, is the simplest way to explain it.  Much of it sounds very much like the albums he’s made in the last ten years. Much of it also refers back to albums he made forty years ago . Could it be happenstance that the question at the heart of “Born to Run”—‘I want to know if love is real”—reappears here in “This is Your Sword,” which is about a battle for some kind of more enlightened humanity. (You say it comes from the Vatican, I say it comes from solidarity with the oppressed—voila! We’re both right.)

            But the real purpose of High Hopes, it ought to be obvious to everyone with ears, is to showcase his collaborations with Tom Morello. Tom renews “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and on the other six tracks where he appears, he explodes and, yes, rages as he hasn’t since his band broke up. Mostly Morello is the solo guitar, the featured instrumentalist, but it’s more than that. Morello is a voice from an entirely different rock generation—itself not all that young—and sparks fly on E Street as a result.
            Which perhaps answers the question “Will you still need me?” from “When I’m 64.”—D.M.


SOMEONE TOLD MY STORY…. In a chapter that explores the reasons behind Johnny Cash’s successful 90s revival when Merle Haggard couldn’t even get his records released, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind author David Cantwell compares the two old friends—“The Man in Black is always edging toward symbol and myth….[He] starts down-to-earth but soars….The Hag looks to fly, but remains earthbound in the end. He’s life-sized, circumscribed, life as it is, a realist—and like a character out of Crane or Dreiser, the Hag is most often not part of something bigger than himself so much as swept away by forces beyond his control.”

                Though that may sound like a description of weakness, it’s every bit as much key to Haggard’s strengths. Who else could so well capture the pride warring with fear in Dustbowl immigrants in “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “California Cottonfields,” so that listeners could believe he was telling his own story? Who else could have listeners also believing (at least for three minutes time) all those convict songs he sang, including serving “life without parole” in “Mama Tried,” that guy serving a life sentence doing hard wage labor on “Working Man’s Blues” as well as that upright citizen who salutes the college dean in “Okie from Muskogee”? 

Only a visionary artist with “an All-American working class attitude… as hopeful as it is defensive” would go into the studio and record an inter-racial love story, “Irma Jackson,” on the heels of recording “Okie from Muskogee.” The character in that song wants to shout down the “mighty wall” that stands between white and black, but, out of fear, out of a sense of pragmatism, he doesn’t. For similar reasons, Haggard himself buried that single for two years, and, instead, put out the hard-hat anthem, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” That move might be called a sell-out, or it might be called riding a rough wave. What matters at least as much is, after he finally put out Ms. Jackson, this is the same artist who could turn what may be the saddest Christmas song ever, 1973’s “If We Make It Through December,” into the strongest crossover hit of his career.

                In 274 pages of vivid, graceful storytelling, RRC’s good friend David Cantwell grapples with the key complexities of one of the most important musicians in American history, a man who embodies (and has repeatedly paid homage to) the tradition that ties together Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell while laying the foundations for country sensibilities that have all but shoved his brand of realism off popular radio. In so doing, Cantwell gets at the musical and political contradictions at the heart of America.

            Above all, what makes this work is the intimacy with which Cantwell captures this music—complicating our understanding of the Bakersfield sound, sharply defining the different strengths that made Bonnie Owens, Leona Williams, George Jones and Willie Nelson particularly important collaborators at various points in Haggard’s career, and capturing the experience of the songs themselves, vividly showing, for instance, why “Kern River” may well be the scariest record to take place at that all-important American setting, the river’s edge, and why “Sing Me Back Home” says volumes about the death penalty, almost none of them explicitly in the lyric. By not sacrificing the music for the ideas or the ideas for the music, Cantwell argues why the voices we most need to hear, the voices Haggard’s spent a lifetime breathing life into, are those using every tool at their disposal to navigate the roughest currents of a world changing like never before.—D.A.


THIS MONTH’S DOWNLOADING PROSPECTS….12 Stories, Brandy Clark (Slate Creek)--“We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto ‘cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow,” Clark sings, opening her debut with a sympathetic song about a life of limits and no clear way out. Using restrained—but notably simmering—country arrangements, Clark’s debut stacks up the details of everyday blues in exquisite detail, telling you exactly why, for instance, a mom smokes a joint in her kitchen after finishing her “to-do” list on “Get High.” As with great blues, the pain tends to be cut with humor, turning the murderous rocker “Stripes”—“the only thing saving your life is I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes”—into something like fun. And there are shimmers of hope here, too, like the woman on “Hungover” who puts her life together while her husband is sleeping one off or moments at the brink of something new, “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven,” “The Day She Got Divorced,” and “Just Like Him.”

De La Tierra (Roadrunner)--Metal guitarists from Brazil’s Sepultura and Argentina’s A.N.I.M.A.L. join forces with the bass player from Argentinean ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and the drummer from Mexico’s Mana for an uncompromising and aggressive set all sung in Spanish or Portuguese. You don’t need to speak either to be hooked by the melody of “Somos Uno” or to feel the sadness channeled by anger in “Maldita Historia” or to be flung past Jupiter by the escape velocity of “Cosmonauta Quechua.”

 La Noche Mas Larga, Buika (Warner Music)—Buika, 40ish, is from Spain’s Balearic Islands where she was born to African parents (she now lives in Miami). Singing with what has been accurately called a “broken sensuality,” she combines Latin music, jazz, and flamenco. On this, her seventh album, Buika sings in Spanish (her own songs and a hemisphere’s worth of others), French (Jacques Brel), and  English (Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away”). She collaborates with guitarist Pat Metheny on the lovely “No Lo Se” and throughout with producer/arranger Ivan “Melon” Lewis, who is also a pianist who knows how to use subtlety to generate power. It comes together best on “Siboney,” a nearly century-old song by Ernesto Lecuona which describes the homesickness the composer feels being away from his native Cuba. It manages to combine the sadness of being far away with the sweet undertow of memory.

Indestructible, Nina Dioz (Nueva Nation)--If you doubt the vitality of today’s hip hop, check out this Monterrey rapper’s hard hitting lyrics, slamming rhythms and lush, vivid soundscapes. On the single “Lo Quiero Matar,” Dioz plunges headlong into the brutality of domestic violence, while on “La Cumbia Prohibida,” she and sister rapper Li Saumet re-ignite the revolutionary fun in girl power, and on “2 Cool 4 School,” Dioz distills rock and roll high school fantasies to their essence, sweetly singing how she wants those around her to hear her vibrations and feel her voice in the air. Indestructible can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/ninadioz, but she’ll send you CDs of any and all of her work at ninadiozonline@gmail.com.

Strictly Business, EPMD (Priority)—The Long Island duo’s 1988 debut remains fresh and powerful—massive funk and album rock samples, primitive drum machines, vocal flows that are both arrogant and laid back, and above all an intense musicality. Classic tracks just roll out one after the other: “Strictly Business,” “I’m Housin’ (covered to good effect a generation later by Rage Against the Machine), “You Gots to Chill,” “It’s My Thing.” Plus five bonus tracks, remixes and dub versions, all worthy.

Trouble, Natalia Kills (Interscope)--“Maybe I just fight because I don’t know where I belong,” Natalia Cappuccini sings on the haunting ballad, “Devils Don’t Fly,” and that seems about right. That inability to fit in also seems crucial to her distinct appeal as a bad girl of pop who actually feels dangerous, say, the way Madonna once did. On the in-your-face techno rocker “Problem” as well as the reflection on domestic agony, “Saturday Night,” she manages to craft empowering sing-a-longs out of the messiest of realities.

Mystic Power, Alpha Blondy (VP)—The veteran African reggae star fleshes out a basic sound with biting rock guitar (Blondy was once the singer in a rock band), simple synths, several guest vocalists and everything from harmonica to violin. The result is a soundtrack for his wide ranging political canvas, which condemns French colonialism on the one hand (“France a Fric,” which means “France has money”) to anti-immigrant nationalism in his native Ivory Coast (“Danger Ivoirite”). There’s a French language cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” (“J’ai Tue le Commissaire”) and the countryish “Reconciliation,” which has the dual meaning of healing after the Ivory Coast civil war and the end to Alpha Blondy’s beef with fellow reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, who is featured on the track. Best of all may be “Hope,” a collaboration with Jamaica’s Beenie Man which combines their very different styles to great effect.

“I Can’t Remember to Forget You” Shakira (featuring Rihanna) (RCA)--The ska rhythm on the verses certainly points up the Latin American connections between these Colombian and Barbadian singers, but this dazzling pop song also drives home their connection as rock vocalists. The chorus’s hard driving guitar and drums allow Shakira to press the song’s angst, while Rihanna adds to the tension by keeping her cool and absolutely selling the outlaw line, “I’d rob and I’d kill to keep him with me/I’d do anything for that boy.” And if the line between art and life seems disturbingly blurry there, the strength of these two women’s interplay is every bit as reassuring.

The River & The Thread, Rosanne Cash (Blue Note)--Cash’s resonant vocals perfectly suit these reflections on the singer’s Southern roots. Standouts include the crackling rocker “Modern Blue,” the brooding “The Long Way Home,” the haunted “Night School” and a gorgeous cover of Jesse Winchester's “Biloxi.”

Mercy, Jon Cowherd (Blue Note/ArtistShare)—Cowherd, who has worked with everyone from Iggy Pop to Cassandra Wilson, has been the keyboardist in the Brian Blade Fellowship since its inception in 1997, so the easy empathy here between him and drummer Blade comes as no surprise. As both a writer and a player, Cowherd takes his time, winding around, back and forth, sometimes repeating in a circle, seldom giving an obvious big emotional payoff. Instead he invites the listener to join him in the sheer delight of the feelings the piano can evoke in the hands of someone who can play anything but who chooses always to play that just right thing. Boiling away underneath is Brian Blade who, like major influence Art Blakey, is capable of sharp turns and loud attacks while never losing sight of his duty to support the whole. Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist John Pattatucci get in where they fit in, which is just where they should be.

Bad Self Portraits, Lake Street Dive (Signature Sounds)—They first attracted attention with a YouTube video of a jazzy, retro performance of “I Want You Back” on a Boston sidewalk. Their Motown roots actually go back a little bit further than that, seeming to stop dead center on “You Can’t Hurry Love.” With just guitar, (acoustic) bass, and drums they strip that classic sound down but then keep building it back up, mostly by adding interesting vocal embellishments around the singing of Rachael Price. Her strong, brassy voice is at home in rock and jazz (she’s also sung with the likes of Joshua Redman). Like early Motown it’s all about love, but here it’s songs about romance in the context of living in your parents basement or chasing a local lounge singer or trying to justify what may (or may not) be morally justifiable. Here and there LSD hints at experimentation, so maybe their next album will flow from Motown’s Norman Whitfield psychedelic period.


PATTY CAKE….Silver Bell was buried in the new corporate regime,” Patty Griffin writes in the liner notes for her latest album. “Thirteen years and some days after its recording it is being released commercially for the first time with brand new mixes from the legendary Glyn Johns, who has managed to rescue large portions of it from the trends of its day and, for me, has breathed some new life into the time capsule known as Silver Bell.

            The first track on the album, “Little God,” seems to be about the very music industry whose financial high jinks led to this magnificent work being shelved in 2000. “Good morning, little God,” Griffin sings, “I see you’ve come for me again / With a noose between your teeth / You are not my friend.”

            The over-production on the original version of the album which Glyn Johns has now stripped off? “You tell me to throw the fight / Go and place your little bet.”

            The kind of record company executive who would impose his “vision” upon an artist is familiar to us all, either through direct experience or from movies ranging from Wayne’s World to Dreamgirls. And very familiar to Patty Griffin, who sings: “Shake, little God / Shake your little fists / All the strippers think you’re odd / But you leave the biggest tips.”

            The music sets the mood with electric guitar lines that slither like a snake and are at times absolutely creepy. Griffin gets the last laugh when she spits out an epitaph for the music industry, a death letter that would have made sense to some in 2000 but is rightly regarded as just plain common sense today:

They say time is running out
And you don’t know what to do
And I hear them talk about
Another place to live without you

The music on Silver Bell (A&M) shifts back and forth from country to surging rock & roll to piano-driven ballads, with even a few hints of electronica. The rock can get almost punkish, yet at other times the guitar solos sound like something Chet Atkins might have played if he’d grown up in the desert. In turn, those electric solos find their acoustic equivalent elsewhere with the gentle breathing of accordion or banjo.

What makes this diverse stew a singular meal is Patty Griffin’s voice. It can be breathy or sharp, judgmental or forgiving, but ultimately it is embracing: “What do you wish you were? / Do you wish you were the light of every star? / Nobody knows but, maybe that’s just what you are.” She pulls you in so that you are seeing and feeling your world through her eyes and her world through your eyes. In that process, the last thing you’re concerned with is the specific nature of the soundtrack.

            Griffin works quickly. Her lines and even her words are short (on “Fragile,” 79% of the words have only one syllable). She makes, say, John Fogerty songs seem over-written and downright wordy. But although this leaves space for listeners to inject their own thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to chew on. “Fragile” concludes with this:

Underneath the waves
Sits your sweet and drowning daughter
Too strong for this world
And too fragile for the water

            The title track is about a motel, but only in the sense that Psycho is a movie about motels. To wit:

The wallpaper is
A color called sea foam
Pull down the shades a little and you’ve
Got yourself a prison cell

Patty Griffin can take individual words or even syllables and give them a life of their own, playing them like an instrumentalist, putting them in harmony or conflict with each other as if they were notes. She delivers the line “Something as simple as boys and girls” on “Mother of God” in a way that’s not only achingly beautiful on its own but so that it seems to contain the entire history of male/female relations. Which it probably does. Pushing further, she sometimes talks in tongues, spraying wordless vocals against the music to express not religious ecstasy but  pain or depth beyond the reach of any lyric.

            Ironically, now that the songs on Silver Bell have been stripped down they are actually much richer, so much so that a review, a poem, a short story, or even a novel could be written about each and every one of them. Now that they have made their collective escape from music industry purgatory, maybe that will happen. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.—L.B.


LINGER ON…. I was kind of an intermittent Lou Reed fan. There were things I loved and things that scared me half to death that I couldn’t love or resist, and things that I thought were just silly, and there was Metal Machine Music, which was a hoax even if Lou got taken in by it himself. But he gave me four Velvet Underground albums, each to my adult ear sounding better than the last, and culminating in Loaded, which for me was a life-changing experience.

            It was the solo albums I felt more hot and cold about. Lou’s singing reached its peak on the last two Velvets albums--he sounds more fluent, the edge is more implicit and still sharper. The songs probably got better as time wore on, since he was a great writer when he got anywhere near a good idea. Later on, with Robert Quine, he made his purest music ever, simply as sound. The singing wasn’t as good as earlier, the songs were not always his best, but the tracks were so good, you could take them by themselves.

            He was way beyond bold. Who else would do a bohemian doo-wop tribute album and climax it with a cynical six and a half minute autobiography?  We remember Loaded for “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” but in its own way, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin,” the extended ballad that closes the album, is just as good, musically and lyrically. He went for it, and though he could annoy the fuck out of interviewers, I was smart enough never to interview him so I could just listen and ignore the stuff I didn’t like so much and eat up the ones that hit me.  The Blue Mask is somebody’s tour de force, whether Reed’s or Robert Quine’s or both. Quine had more heart than any other musician in Manhattan in that early ‘80s period, tacking in from Miles Davis, triangulated by Mick Ronson and Steve Hunter/Dick Wagner.

            Most of all Lou had a way of expressing heart, that elusive hoodlum desideratum of youth in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the greaser rock era, when to be stand up was the whole game. And throughout his work, whenever it came time to call his own bluff, tell his own story with the wounds and all, and the victories that came from the wounds, he triumphed. That is the Lou Reed of “Street Hassle,” “Coney Island Baby,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He could be Dr. Sardonicus in rock regalia, the rest of the time he could be superciliously hip, he could even be tender on the final two Velvets albums with “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Candy Says” and “Beginning to See the Light.”

I absolutely believe he meant it when he said, “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” And it’s pretty notorious that I’m hard to convince.

            With Loaded’s perfectly matched pair, “Sweet Jane” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Reed upped the stakes for everyone. People had been writing songs about rock’n’roll and why it mattered and wouldn’t die and maybe made people invincible (Lou: “It’s an obscure power that can change your life.”) for 15 years. The Showmen’s “It Will Stand” might have been the first and it had the usual message. But those two songs of Reed’s were about something more: I will stand.

            I still remember the first time I heard them, in the old Creem magazine offices on Cass Avenue in inner city Detroit. We got the mail early there. Thursday or Tuesday or whatever day we got 'em, the major label packages would take  a while to listen through--you might get four or five in a package, which was huge then. And so it was about three o’clock, maybe four when I got around to playing Loaded. The opener, "Who Loves the Sun," seemed an unlikely but not inappropriate sequel to “Pale Blue Eyes,” maybe a weird attempt to do the Beach Boys in S&M drag. Sounded real good.

And then those two songs came on and it was just...you felt flattened by 'em, really. When the song hits the emotional breaking point on "Sweet Jane"--"But anyone who had a heart / He wouldn't turn around and break it"--you’d have dived into the storm for Lou Reed at that moment. It was so fucking perfect, especially that ragged harmony, so much my own truth, so much what I had sought and such a miracle to find. And then "Rock ‘n’ Roll," which was, I still think, part two of the same song in a lot of ways. Much more a surface song, but then again--starting at five years old and not believing what you’re hearing, it was exactly right.

            So I turn around about the third time I'm playing the tracks back to back, top volume on those floor speakers in the huge square cabinets we had and there stands Johnny B, Mitch Ryder's great drummer and one of my mentors in how to listen and what to listen to. Mitch’s band rehearsed upstairs and Johnny’s doing one of his B things, his jaw dropping and his fingers poppin'. And then the rest of the band comes in and we are all standing there with our brains in tatters.

            Six months later, I'm sitting at a table at the Waldorf, some room where Mitch is doing a debut party for his Detroit album, and they hit "Rock 'n' Roll," which they’d worked up about a day after first hearing it. We were sitting right up front, and Lou leans over from across the table next to us and says, "That's what that song was supposed to sound like."

I didn’t really agree with him even though I was thrilled he loved Mitch’s version. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is one of those tunes where the first time you hear it, if it's your truth, you bond with it like being put on mama's chest right after they cut the cord.

So I will never miss Lou Reed, he will be with me until I can no longer hear that gorgeous guitar intro and then “Standin’ on the corner....” all the way through to “and it’s all right now / Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby,” babbling off into semi-coherence. 

            There are very few artists who can map the universe of your own heart, after all.

            So linger on, Lou,  linger on.—D.M.   

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Folk Alliance Calling, "Na Na Na Nananana Na Na"

There was a moment watching Vancouver raised singer-songwriter Jenny Ritter's set when I felt, "This is it." This is what the folk alliance is about; this is what music is about, and this is what much of my strange life has been about....

It was a gorgeous set. Ritter's back up, three members of the Victoria, British Columbia band Fish & Bird along with a Boston stand-up bassist recruited days before, all crowded in front of a window revealing one of the most beautiful views possible of the KC night skyline. They faced several rows of strangers caught up in Ritter's searching lilt which soared high over this fine band's jumping, splashing and improbably rich and layered watercolors. Ritter's mix of memoir and magic took me back to earlier that evening, Kim Richey's yearning set, which included great moments like the heartbreaking "Don't Let Me Down Easy" but particularly the haunting memories rooted in a late night walk she talked of before singing "London Town."

And that collapsing of time and geographical and personal distance told me I was going to respond as musickers--even those who don't play a damn thing that makes music--will do. And though I promised myself I wouldn't (I have a big deadline looming for months yet) I knew I'd be writing about this whole business, one way or another.

After all, as it all but has to be in American music, call and response was the order of the weekend. I arrived Friday night to Amy Speace's duet with John Fullbright, "The Sea and the Shore," which was its own kind of call and response. But another came soon after, Speace saying, "What an honor to play on the same stage as Graham Nash (who had given a keynote interview to Joel Rafael earlier in the conference)! That lit a fire under my ass! Make music that matters!" she said before launching into her harrowing war story, "Weight of the World."

That was a great night, served particularly well by musicians I closely associate with one of my favorite live venues in the world, Oklahoma City's The Blue Door. Jimmy LaFave found that way he has of turning an all-too-familiar song into something I feel I've never heard before, even when I have....particularly noteworthy was his closing cover of Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." I turned to my friend, CJ, and said, "I just want to hand Jimmy songs and ask him, how would you do that?" He reinvents the best--things others might be afraid to touch, for good reason.

John Fullbright has made each of the half dozen times I've seen him something distinctive and new, and he did that again--surprisingly with an ad hoc band that helped him make the most of his vamp-filled cover of "Ain't Nobody's Business," as well as some of my favorite new songs, for which I'll make up titles--"Going Home," "When You're Here," "What's So Bad About Happy." And, yes, he did the great "Gawd Above" (penned with Kevin Welch's son, Dustin) as well as "Jericho," both reminding me why I won't ever see another quite like him, at this moment, in this lifetime.

Spontaneous jams are, of course, call and response at its most elemental, and a huge part of the giddy fun of the alliance. Danish guitarist Jens Lysdal did a wonderful job enhancing Michael Fracasso's set seemingly learning the songs as he went--Fracasso's soaring voice stinging with the threat of "Back to Oklahoma" or making concrete the hard edges of the beautiful "Saint Monday." Everywhere I looked, I seemed to see Mark Smeltzer carrying one of his many instruments or Kasey Rausch with her guitar or Erin McGrane and Jeff Freeling (known together best for their act Victor and Penny) just off of or about to jump into a set. Not a full conference participant, I missed almost all of the local sets, but I fortunately caught a little of the wonderful Victor & Penny before I had to get myself downstairs for a woman I've wanted to see for several years now, Hamilton, Ontario's Ariana Gillis.

When I got to her showcase, I was a little worried she was in a large empty banquet room tucked away from most of the traffic....people would not stumble upon her.

By the time she started, though, the place was 3/4 full, and the house filled a little more. Those who were there were enraptured.

I've known she's something special for a while now, but live I found myself more than a little in awe of her power, her electricity. She's so unassuming, in one respect, girlish and playful, but she's a giant on stage because she uses all of that creative energy to go absolutely wherever she wants to go. She's as close to fearless as I can imagine--the way her whole being seems to twist and turn and jump and dance around each line, and her sound....exquisite.

She and her crack band--David Gillis on guitar and Ben Rollo on drums--got 7 songs off in a half hour set, without ever seeming rushed (in fact, she kept asking if she was out of time, finding she had plenty left). She played a song I didn't recognize at first--"Too Much" or "Feeling of Empty" maybe--which nevertheless served as a defining statement for her abandon.

Then she played a dynamic and color-filled set of "Jeremy Woodstock" (about a man's conversation with his disembodied heart); "Cannonball Sam," getting the crowd to cry out for her to save him before delivering the righteously happy ending....; "Simon Brooke," one of her finest sing-a-longs; another quiet simmer I hadn't heard, maybe called "Camouflage Back"; and a screamer about a murderous pyromaniac, "Dynamite Ferryweather." She ended with "Sam Starr."

I found myself thinking about how deep "Sam Starr" strikes me. For those who don't know it, it's a giddy and mischievous song about two corpses who strike up a relationship in a graveyard. My own heart scare as well as the recent loss of a trio of best friends made "Sam Starr" a favorite the moment I heard it. With a blatantly absurd vision of death, it speaks very deeply to me about my own need to make something out of that pain. It makes wonders for me, every time, and ignites my imagination to further the response.

I caught a little of a beautiful set by Howard Iceberg, who was accompanied by Betse Ellis. Ellis then received more than one standing ovation for her following set--leading the house in Ozark folk song sing-a-longs, talking of Pete and Mike Seeger and their influence on her, but also paying tribute to Joe Strummer.

And talk about making something old new again! Though I've heard her wickedly smart and moving hillbilly take on the Clash's "Straight to Hell" a number of times, she made every second count. At times, you had to remind yourself to breathe.

In some sense, my night ended just across the Niagara from Gillis's home, with Buffalo, New York raised rocker, Willie Nile. He played the most political set I saw from anyone, opening with the powerful "Seeds Of Revolution," and following with the social justice minded anthems "Holy War" and "The Innocent Ones" as well as, for a man who happily admits his life was saved by rock and roll, the musical anthems "House of a 1000 Guitars" and his most recent title track "American Ride." He paid tribute to Levon Helm and Jeff Buckley in the set, but he dedicated his song, "One Guitar" to Pete Seeger, getting the house to sing a long to a wordless refrain, voicing the sound of a guitar--"na, na, na, na,na,na,na, na, na"....

In that half-play, half-dare refrain, the original call for so many of us--a defiant cry for freedom. Every word I write wants to be an amen and an onward.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Live to See the Morning Come--Chuck Berry's Birthday and the Del Lords in St. Louis

Born in 1963, I'm just finishing my 50th year. That's a big number. There's no way to call yourself a young man once you've been here half a century. Last night, a dear friend asked me to say three things about this birthday, and I struggled to come up with anything else except that...I can no longer deny my age.

But my second one was "I'm glad I'm still here." I almost left 7 years ago, had a close call, had some last thoughts. In some ways I was happier with myself then than I've often been since. It's been a tough time. Aside from a list of heroes I don't want to count, I've lost a number of important friends over those 7 years, including 7 extraordinary women--most to illness but some by their own hand. It's made me wonder why I outlived them, or whether I should have.

But, of course, there are many more reasons I'm glad I'm here. I got to be in my oldest daughter's wedding this year, and I saw her baby boy in a sonogram at the first of this month. My wife and I adopted a daughter three years ago, and we're all blessed to have her in our lives. I've got great friends....That was the third thing, how thankful I am for the loved ones in my life.

Two of them took me to St. Louis Friday, October 18th, to see the Del Lords, a band I first heard when I was 21, on a cassette I played on a drive home from a record buying trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma. If my buddy Terry and I wanted anything good that wasn't going to be at Walmart, we had to drive the 50 miles to Tulsa. That trip was the best. We came home with Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive and the Del Lords' Frontier Days, two records that changed both of our lives.

Despite having recorded that first album with Springfield, Missouri producer Lou Whitney, the Del Lords were a New York band, and the closest I ever knew of them coming to anyplace I lived was St. Louis in the 80s. I never saw them in that first decade they were together. They had to get back together after 22 years, record what I think is my favorite of their albums, The Elvis Club, and play last Friday night in the shadow of the Lemp Brewery. On top of that, my buddy Billy Chin, Del Lords fan extraordinaire, had to be paying close attention to the tour and nab tickets for me and another of our close friends or I probably wouldn't have seen them this time.

When I think of hearing the encore Friday, The Del Lords' drummer Frank Funaro singing "I Play the Drums," I remember how lucky I felt to finally have that catharsis live. I had similar out-of-body-by-being-fully-in-it experiences hearing the one-two punch of the Del Lords' great cover of "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" followed by "Get Tough," the righteous, high energy assault that introduced their first album. As lead singer Scott Kempner gritted his teeth and railed against all the world does to harden our hearts, every muscle in my body wound tight, and I kicked at the floor. The years between 21 and 50 collapsed. If anything, I only know those emotions better now than I did when I used to shout along with those lyrics all those years ago.

But it's not just about connecting with your 21-year-old self again....Here's why you stick around, if you have a choice in the matter...

The band followed "Get Tough" with what may be my favorite song off the new album, "Me and the Lord Blues." It's a blues, for sure, a song about the ability to dream your way through a shit life if only when you go to sleep at night. But the song's bigger than that sounds. The sound is free form, almost psychedelic, and its explosive rolls of guitar and drum Friday night transcended what is already some amazing studio work on the recorded version.

Eric Ambel's quiet, careful delivery picked up on the liberating (against all odds, including those lyrical) tone from a song he'd sung earlier, "Flying." When he asserted, "I hear freedom/I smell justice," he defined what bound him to Kempner and what continues to bind this audience to this great band. The Del Lords make rock and roll for true believers, and that vision almost 30 years down the road is even more powerful than it ever could have been in our youth. It has so many new miles of depth and substance.

Of course, the whole night had been a tribute to those many ties that keep pulling us back together. The great Bottle Rockets frontman/guitarist Brian Henneman led the crack ensemble Diesel Island (that night featuring wonderful lead guitar work from Mark Spencer of the Blood Oranges and Son Volt) through a series of gorgeous covers, including Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" and the Band's "The Weight."

At the end of the night, the Del Lords had Henneman come back out to join them. Before playing Berry's bittersweet "Johnny B. Goode" sequel "Bye Bye Johnny," Kempner called out, "To Chuck Berry on his birthday! Without him, none of us would be here!"

Truer words were never said.

The fact that a band like the Del Lords is here with us?

One damn fine reason to be glad you're alive.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

RRC 231: The Best of Our Summer Downloads

No. 231

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        Every time we set out to concoct one of our musical surveys, each of us is always knocked out by how much wonderful music is out there and how many different kinds of music make the grade. When our picks come together, with an absolute minimum of overlap (and not by assignment), the impression is deepened and reinforced.

        Dave Marsh writes: Bang Bang Boom Boom, Beth Hart (Provogue)—Beth Hart plays out the Janis Joplin role with important variations: She overcame her self-destructive habits, she writes, and while she had a hit years ago (“L.A. Song,” itself pretty great) she’s never been put on a pedestal. Hart growls as deep as Judy Henske and she could match Janis shriek for shriek (and knows when to turn it on, and when not to), but that tremble is all her own. 

If Hart really resembles anybody it might be Etta James, not because they sound alike but because they’ve both been through the worst and let it show without reveling in the muck or pretending that just surviving adds up to all that much.  “You say you ain’t sick / but every little bit of the living hurts,” she tells a loved one before offering to carry the weight. “There in Your Heart” could be sung from God to human, no-saint to a trapped sinner, mother to child, lover to ex.  Anybody to anybody.

Bang Bang Boom Boom is one of the best records of 2013, a powerhouse, astringent,  blues-drenched account of lives at the edge—not so much of the edge of death as of disappearance, offering an assortment of glimpses from the maw of all the wrong kinds of work and love. It’s not like there’s no sense of fun here (not with lines like “I found me a better man / He butters my pan better than you can”) but the exuberant moments are earned, not contrived. In a time when almost no one makes albums that are complete, deliberate,  cohesive statements: Bang Bang Boom Boom
            On the bonus track, she does a rendition of Etta’s “I’d Rather Go Blind,”a task that I ordinarily wouldn't wish on any singer I loved, especially alongside Jeff Beck at his best. Hart turns on the power gradually, creating a slow burn where a lesser singer would flame out after a chorus. She does it with the same clarity of vision that drives the rest of the album. Beck's guitar solo feels like an ovation for the depth she's touched. Or maybe I'm projecting.
Elements of Life (Fania/Codigo Music)—Once again Louie Vega--the most prolific music remixer in history, one half of Masters at Work, nephew and musical descendant of legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe—has assembled a large crew of musicians to help him realize his fantastical vision of dance music without boundaries, a world without categories. The highlights of disc one include “Children of the World,” which strips away the mawkishness of every charity appeal you’ve ever heard; “Sodade,” an invitation to enjoy the beautiful side of our Afro-Atlantic history; and the warm breeze of “Harlem River Drive,” which uses sonic sheen to melt your heart. Disc two begins with “EOL Soulfrito” and within a minute you’re lost down the rabbit hole of a “suite”  that is a journey through, but not at all a linear history of, salsa, disco, house music, and Vega’s own blend of them all. Ruben Blades parachutes in at one point and then around the 21-minute mark Cheo Feliciano appears to lead a remake of his classic “Anacoana” and the race is on to the finish. “EOL Soulfrito” totals 34 minutes but it has not one moment’s bloat—it lifts you into a realm where time has no meaning. In some sense, it may be Louie Vega’s current take on the long twelve inch remixes of a certain era, but it is light years beyond that. An astounding achievement.

Such Hot Blood, Airborne Toxic Event (Island)—Based on the quality of ATE’s songs and singing, of their instrumental virtuosity and its cohesion into a readily identifiable sound, the electric insurgency that multiples the power of the songs’ antiwar, pro-kid ideology, their willingness to tackle big dark stuff (like death, a preoccupation here, not for the first time) and the brightest lights they can find (like, uh, life and that’s all the time) , they’re one of the great contemporary rock bands. Like all the rest, though, they’ve made do with a largish cult. But if you don’t know about Airborne Toxic Event and nevertheless once upon a time expected the best rock to be driven by intelligence as well as flash, complexity and simplicity at the same time, to mix a sense of triumph and defeat into a bittersweet damned delight, you probably need to get hold of this. It’ll get hold of you quick enough after that. It might even return some of the youthful energy you’ve been missing. 
Apocalypse, Thundercat (Brainfeeder)—The son and brother of renowned jazz drummers, Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) is known for his chops on bass and has toured with the likes of Suicidal Tendencies and Stanley Clarke and worked with rapper Earl Sweatshirt. But there’s little showing off here. The focus is on his near-falsetto vocals as beats and keyboards work and prod the edges to concoct a sweet center (“Can you hear the sound of infinity?”). Only “Oh Sheit It’s X”—a hedonistic club jam that a time machine could make into a teenage Prince fronting Return to Forever—is musically catchy in the traditional sense but Thundercat’s music is all heart and soul, not esoteric homework. The spirit of magic and loss stemming from the death last year at age 22 of prime collaborator Austin Peralta hovers throughout, fully emerging in the final track, a beautiful tribute to friendship: “A Message For Austin/Praise the Lord/Enter the Void.”

Darkly Sparkly, Tiny Horse (tinyhorsemusic.com)--One of Kansas City’s biggest voices—that of the one-of-a-kind organizer, bandleader and encyclopedia of other women’s voices, Abigail Henderson—has been ravaged by a five-year fight with cancer. Still, Henderson uses her new voice to make some of the most beautiful music of her career. The quiet struggles in these generally spare, delicate tracks haunt but push for new ground. “I’m no ghost,” Henderson cries early on. By the rocker “Wind & Rain,” she’s left no doubt.

The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters, Gil Scott-Heron (BGP, UK)—Gil Scott-Heron did almost as much to invent post-Sly black rock as George Clinton and at least as much to force the emergence of rap and hip-hop as the Last Poets. He was the closest popular music came to reflecting the Black Arts Movement, and these tracks are probably the most coherent expression of the jazz-rock aesthetic ever made. (Maybe that last is only because Miles Davis didn’t sing, but... well, Miles didn’t.) His energy is wild but not just furious. His abiding respect for John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, black poets and the people of the ghetto is abundant here, as is his insistence on calling the white supremacist culture on its bullshit. All this is beautifully expressed over three discs that include his first version of  “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Pieces of a Man,” “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” and the ever-relevant “No Knock.” The alternate version of his first album, Free Will, feels a bit like padding. But “Artificialness,” the single he made with Pretty Purdie and the Playboys, is revelatory.

Everyman, Laura Tsaggaris (Overtime)--The flexing muscle of the title track answers blind power with burning guitar and a list of demands, advising, “Don’t make me call you out . . . . we’re here to help you if we can.” That mix of personal and political is typical of this D.C.-based songwriter’s work, alongside a notion that love demands an ongoing fight. Such contradictions allow the edgy confession “I Am Not In Control” to shine like a punchy summer single, horns heralding new possibility. On the rocking centerpiece, "Ask For It," Tsaggaris chides, “Ain’t no good reason why people should read your mind,” before calling her listeners to come on up and stake their claim.

Bionic Metal, Mic Crenshaw (Globalfam.org)—“Who’s this black man doing rock & roll?” asks veteran Portland rapper Mic Crenshaw. He’s the guy who takes the likes of Billy Squire and Bachman Turner Overdrive and crams it into tracks until it mutates into a perfect bed for his skilled flow at the mic while adding his own engaging pop sensibility in order to help him convey blistering revolutionary manifestos with a love of family and fun, especially riding Harleys. “Free my mind, let it ride.” Check out the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M16-XjuVXNA.

American Kid, Patty Griffin (New West)—It’s framed as a meditation on the loss of her father, and several songs do touch on his life and passing, especially “Go Where You Want to Go” and  “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone”--and particularly boisterously on  “Irish Boy.” But as a whole, American Kid speaks to the issues that have always animated Griffin: Racism in the harrowing “Ohio,” about a runaway slave; human brutality on “Wild Old Dog,” possibly the saddest song she or anyone else ever came up with; the agony of romantic error, on “That Kind of Lonely,” an exhausted commentary on the kind of party you definitely don’t want to wind up at: “Everyone in this room wanted to be somewhere else.” So yeah, Robert Plant sings on a few songs, but that ain’t the point. He’s there because Patty Griffin is one of our great musical treasures, as writer and singer. That’s why you should be there, too.

Vives en Mi, La Maquinaria Nortena (Azteca)--This Chihuahua-style (hard driving sax with that accordion) norteno band keeps the beats strong and the rhythms at a gallop (with lots of drum fills, splashes of cymbal and flashes of guitar and accordion), even on what you might call the slow songs. And though the themes stick close to broken hearts, the whole wide world of causes feels quietly understated throughout, nowhere more poignantly than the album centerpiece, “Ya Nada Paso.”

Trials and Tribulations, Ace Hood (Cash Money)--Three days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Florida rapper Ace Hood’s new album declares “God bless Trayvon Martin/I’m in my hoodie/Another innocent young brother who met a bully” while linking that crime to a whole list of ways “the government [tries] to disguise truth”—from the real reasons for Section 8, food stamps, drop outs and unemployment to the unresolved meanings of Emmett Till’s murder and Martin Luther King’s dreams. Subtly rich layers of sound stay focused on a lean, muscular delivery, emphasizing Hood’s lyric spitting as a class conscious war with the system. That said, Hood also makes this album extraordinarily intimate—returning often to the loss of his daughter, Lyric, and his dreams for his surviving daughter, Sailor, and paying loving tribute to his mother (and mothers everywhere) with Betty Wright’s testifying response all but stealing the show. That moment alone all but compensates for, early on, one of the ugliest bits of misogyny ever dropped by Lil’ Wayne.

Above, Mad Season (Columbia Legacy Deluxe Edition)—Legendary grunge group featuring Mike McCready, Layne Staley, John “Baker” Saunders and Barrett Martin. You could make a case that Staley, one of the greatest hard rock singers, never sounded better than he does here, a gorgeous last gasp from the depths of his self-inflicted doom. McCready is McCready, already the inviolate rock’n’roller at the heart of Pearl Jam, and Martin helped put the groove in grunge with Screaming Trees. Bassist John “Baker” Saunders, almost forty years old when the others were still in their 20s, a bassist good enough for Hubert Sumlin’s band, held it all together. Above, their only studio album, gave them a hit single in “River of Deceit.” What this deluxe edition has to offer is something else: Mad Season live at the Moore, a Seattle theater, not just on video but also on disc. There are moments here that blow the roof off your expectations, no matter how high they might be, particularly Staley’s “I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier,” far better than what they caught in the studio for the John Lennon tribute album. The music is grunge basking in its moment of glory and pulling itself apart at the same time. This is some of the greatest music made in the ‘90s.

Small Town Talk, Shannon McNally (Sacred Sumac Music)--McNally, unofficial current queen of the New Orleans scene, made this album as a tribute to the songs and style of the greater writer-performer Bobby Charles, and she covers almost all his important work, minus “See You Later Alligator.” It wasn’t intended as an elegy, but try convincing yourself of that when you hear “I Must Be in a Good Place Now,” the finale and a love song at all sorts of levels. Other gems include the title track, “Love in the Worst Degree,” “Street People” and “Homemade Songs.” This is a three-fold triumph—for McNally, Charles and the arranger, Dr. John. And just like that, Shannon McNally finally has an album as good as her live performances.

The Truth About Love, Pink (RCA)--This album fights for love, while acknowledging—in its rollicking title track—“It can turn you into a son-of-a-bitch, man.” Though messy and complex, the wide variety of problems tackled here pale next to the anti-suicide cry,” The Great Escape,” co-writer Dan Wilson’s piano all but making it an answer record to “Streets of Fire.” Reasons to live come up front with the opening rocker, “Are We All We Are,” which delivers an expansive, energized and rowdy sense of community (followed, appropriately enough, by the anthem “Blow Me”).

Cosy Moments, Kinski (Kill Rock Stars)—Years ago when we first encountered Kinski they were opening for Tool and they not only didn’t have vocals but their only words to the audience were “Don’t worry, Tool will be out soon.” No hurry. Their blasted, fuzzed-out, stop and start instrumentals were a worthy set up. Now on their sixth album, they’ve mutated into a song-oriented band with effectively murky vocals while retaining their furious energy—it’s just contained in a smaller cage. The striking cover photo by Matthew Porter serves as an apt metaphor—a muscle car in full flight above the pavement but about to crash.

Unapologetic, Rihanna (Def Jam)--Club-bumping songs like “Fresh Off the Runway,” “Numb” and “Pour It Up” eradicate the distinctions between star-making machinery and any other capitalist hustle, setting up a series of gorgeous but disturbing ballads—most pointedly the cry for direction on “What Now?” and the inability to flip the script on disaster in “Love Without Tragedy/Mother Mary.”

Keep It Down, Lorenzo Wolff (lorenzowolff.com)--God helps those who hype the sons of RRC, but it’s easy when the work is this good. A bass player by rep, Wolff’s guileless vocal style suits these intimate portraits of characters struggling to speak truths others would rather not hear. The doo wop-accented tale of date rape, “Big Clumsy Hands,” and the secret life lived in the all-but-whispered “Quietly” take the intimacy to its most vulnerable places. The rocking album closer, “I-95”, fights for what “matters to me” no matter how the world wants to damp that down. As on so many fine records, that closing fight adds another level of meaning to the album opener, “A-Sides,” a Jersey Shore rocker that insists, “Turn it up a little bit louder, turn it up, turn it up, TURN IT UP!”

Southeastern, Jason Isbell (Southeastern Records)--By the time you hit the fight with cancer in “Elephant,” it’s clear that this quieter, more overtly introspective outing by Isbell packs a punch as forceful as anything he’s done. So the big sound and vision of the rocker that follows, “Flying Over Water,” comes as a welcome shift but no surprise. The epic tale, “Live Oak,” and the utterly contemporary murder ballad, “Yvette,” offer fresh horizons for one of our most visionary (and still young) songwriters.

Echoes of Indiana Avenue, Wes Montgomery (Resonance)—Indiana Avenue was the street in segregated 1950s Indianapolis where a flourishing jazz scene launched the careers of the three Montgomery brothers, Freddie Hubbard, and J.J. Johnson. These never before heard recordings, half of them live in an Indiana Street club, predate guitarist Wes Montgomery’s previously known recording career.  Includes a duet version of Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight,” where Montgomery goes deep to find new echoes of beauty in that chestnut while organist Melvin Rhyne pushes him before taking his own sublime solo. The CD concludes with “After Hours Blues,” which reveals a raw and raucous side to Montgomery’s playing.

13 Live, Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians (Blind Pig)—Jimmy Vivino, best known as Conan O’Brien’s bandleader and arranger, actually has served a variety of artists, (Johnny Copeland, Johnny Johnson, the Fab Faux, Al Kooper and the Rock Bottom Remainders), as guitarist, keyboardist and even drummer.  He’s a superb player but what makes him one is as much heart as chops. 13 Live,  his solo album debut, proves the point. He and his group (Catherine Russell sings lead on about half the tracks) dig into blues, soul and rock classics: “Soulful Dress,” “From A Buick Six,” “Shape I’m In,” “Fast Life Boogie.” This isn’t a TV band, it’s the real Vivino, the one who’s played with all sorts of fine bands and singers ever since he was a teenager. Defining the core of it is Jimmy’s liner note essay, a cross-cultural personal music history that ends by explaining  that the Black Italian he has most in mind is his son.

Regardless, Thea Gilmore (Fulfill [UK])—This is the sound of Thea stretching, adding to her folk and rock based songs with occasional strings and modern studio flourishes. Certainly, real credit is due to arranger Pete Whitfield (Plan B) and Danish producers The Supplier.  But the music’s center is the intensity that Gilmore brings to her lyrics and singing, the no-bullshit attitude and her utter confidence that what she can do with her voice and imagination will bring her and us through the riskiest passages.  “Something to Sing About” and “Love Came Looking for Me” are hit singles everywhere on a better planet than this one.

One True Vine, Mavis Staples (ANTI)—Her second solo album in collaboration with Jeff Tweedy returns Mavis for the first time in a long time to what’s essentially gospel territory. She may be the finest traditional gospel voice we have left—depending on how Aretha’s feeling this minute—and Tweedy has, surprisingly, come up with a batch of totally appropriate songs, especially the beautiful “Jesus Wept.” They also bring it back home with a few older gospel tunes, notably “I Woke Up This Morning with Jesus on My Mind” and “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today.”

Same Trailer Different Park, Kacey Musgraves (Mercury)--“Same hurt in every heart,” Musgraves acknowledges just before the chorus of her single “Merry Go ‘Round,” a haunting portrait of “country” living all the more powerful because the piano and banjo arrangement keeps things light while the singer delivers unpleasant truths. At the slightly louder musical extreme here, the nicotine-fueled, blues rocking, work anthem, “Blowing Smoke” celebrates a sense of unity (and a sense of humor) in the face of everyone “out here going broke.” When she rallies a chorus to shout, “We all say that we’ll quit someday/When our nerves ain’t shot/And our hands don’t shake,” there’s power in those voices and that vision. Near the end, another sing-a-long, “Follow Your Arrow,” says that someday might just turn out to be real.

What’s In Between, Pedaljets (Electric Moth Records)--“I’m gonna change this to a dream that never dies/I’m gonna punch that fucker right between the eyes,” goes the refrain of the propulsive opener. What follows sounds more than a little like the Stooges and the Beatles hashing out all the obstacles to landing that punch—the many misdirections of the catchy, yet pleading, “Conversations”; the heart’s confusion on the stately, “Goodbye to All of That”; the loss of direction in “Measurement”; and the allure of well-intentioned fantasies in the haunting “Some Kind of One.” Through all the fears and doubts, the will to fight remains the key, giving this veteran Kansas City rock and roll band its hardest rocking, most lush, eloquent and unifying statement yet. 

This Beautiful Game, Sean Sennet (SSNA001)--Almost certainly the best album ever made by  a working music journalist. Sennett’s album with the band Crush 76 scored a couple of hits with “The Sun King” and “Sometimes Angels,” back in ’98 and ’99. This Beautiful Game, Sennett’s third album, is understated classic rock, not daring but brimming with energy and love. Sennett is a very good music journalist  (see the website of his owned and operated magazine, Time Off) but he’s at least as good at writing songs. He fills songs like “Sometimes (The World Kicks at Your Seams)” and “There’s a Girl at the Cinema Who Looks Like Beth Orton” with subtle insights and wry reflections, and “The Thing That Gets Me Down is the Boredom” uses garage rock accents to beat back the ennui. (No U.S. release, but all three of Sennett’s albums are available at iTunes, etc. So is his 2011 book, Off the Record: 25 Years of Music Street Press, edited with Simon Groth.)

Carpe Diem, Karyn White (Lightyear)--When Karyn White’s L.A. Reid and Babyface-produced debut arrived, there was really nothing like it. Her first R&B #1, “The Way You Love Me,” brought a disarming playfulness to a hot dance floor, while her second #1, “Superwoman,” managed to deliver a “Purple Rain”-sized and remarkably grown up demand for understanding.  In her six year run (which also found her working extensively with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), White’s sinewy alto proved to be among the most versatile in the business, and eighteen years later, her sound’s even richer. Compared to those old records, Carpe Diem is lean and sparely arranged, foregrounding that voice. But the opening call for unity, “Sista Sista,” makes it clear White’s picking up where she left off conceptually, and the summer single of a title track defines the confidence and energy needed to get the job done. The ballads seem to have gained the most with the passing years, nowhere better illustrated than on the grief-stricken prayer of a ballad, “My Heart Cries.”

Brighter Days: JJ Grey & Mofro Live (MVDvisual)—DVD of a 2011 Atlanta live show surrounded by a loving travelogue of Grey’s north Florida roots—“Where the swamp meets the ocean meets the country.” He’s got an attitude about being dismissed as a “DirtFloorCracker” but sympathizes with the haters who haven’t yet received the information he’s putting out. Like on “Country Ghetto,” where Grey sings: “Love touches us all yes we’re black and we’re white/Out here in the cut living side by side/So never mind what you’ve seen and just forget what you’ve heard/Another ignorant redneck? Just some Hollywood words.” Or on “Lochloosa,” a slice of country environmentalism that serves as a sequel to Ronnie Van Zant’s “All I Could Is Write About It,” only this time the perpetrators have a name: Disney. Grey can sing as well as shout and his Memphis-style horn band sounds much like the food, the waterways, the love and hate that the songs reflect.

The Wetter the Better / Left Coast Live, Wet Willie (BGO)—Wet Willie stands as a clear number four in the Southern rock pantheon which ain’t bad when you’re sitting behind only Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, and the Allman Brothers. And, despite the prominence of front man Jimmy Hall, it was a band as evidenced by the fact that guitarist Ricky Hirsch and keyboardist Mike Duke did most of the writing. Wetter is a near classic from 1974 that is more concise than most other Southern bands of the era because it feels the gravitational pull of Stax and gospel. Left Coast Live is a 1977 LA show that mostly covers Wetter (sometimes improving it) while adding covers of Jimmy Reed and Little Milton and topping it off with the group’s lone Top 10 hit, “Keep On Smilin’.”

How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat, Amy Speace (1-2-3-4-Go!)—The flat-out undeniable masterpiece here is “The Sea and the Shore,” a duet with John Fullbright that pulls out new stuff from both of them. It’s a dialogue, fitting for a song that captures some of Speace’s theatrical roots, which blend surprisingly easily with her Americana base (best represented here by “The Fortunate Ones,” already recorded by one of the great song-finders, Judy Collins).  These songs definitely tell tales, but the unmistakable message of these eleven artful entanglements is just how daring, confident, ambitious and beautiful Amy Speace’s songs have been.

Bona Fide, Chris Thomas King (21st Century Blues—download only)—Traditional blues from “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to “The Wind Cries Mary” with originals and a Dust Bowl ballad in between. Brilliantly put together by King, once a young turk among blues guitarists, now a one man band and record label.

The Elvis Club, The Del Lords (Megaforce)--In 1984, this band’s opening salvos featured a two-fisted reworking of Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” followed by the bitter bravado of “Get Tough.” If anything, the band’s first studio album in over two decades does just as much heavy lifting, but the struggles tend to feel more personal. Rockers like “When the Drugs Kick In,” “Chicks, Man!” and “You Can Make a Mistake One Time” contemplate levels of personal dissolution made all the more real with age. Tender moments, like Scott Kempner’s “All of My Life,” and “Letter (Unmailed),” carry a seasoned grace. As a whole, this extraordinary album benefits from Eric Ambel’s deep crunching production, nowhere pushed to greater limits than the working class fever dreams of “Me and the Lord Blues.”  

Annie Up, Pistol Annies (Sony Nashville/RCA); Like A Rose, Ashley Monroe (Warner Brothers)—LA Times critic Ann Powers recently gave well-deserved credit to Miranda Lambert for the wave of women currently reminding Nashville that country has a glorious history of speaking everyday peoples’ truths. This idea is turned into a Jerry Lee Lewis-hard anthem with the Annies’ (featuring Lambert and Monroe) “Hush Hush.” Other highlights on this strong second record include the tenderly detailed ballad “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty At All” and the lonesome meditation “Girls Like Us.” Like A Rose pulls the most achingly sweet voice out of the Annies and allows her to reveal herself as much more than a pretty dress—as she sings on “Used,” “I’ve got some buttons missing and there are a couple of stains and places where the fabric has been torn.” Standouts include the raucous plea for her boyfriend to try “Weed Instead of Roses” and the slower honky tonk of “Two Weeks Late.”

Suga Top, Poogie Bell Band (Moosicus)—The latest (and best) in a series of fine solo albums by Marcus Miller’s former drummer begins with “Greasy Chicken Scratch,” a place where the sound of nasty keyboards and guitars meld until they become one with the feeling of getting a pork chop sandwich stuck in your teeth. That echoes faintly even in the gentle, elegant “Without You” featuring vocalist Mey and the pure pop single feel of “Candy Bar.” Elsewhere, it’s covers of Erykah Badu, Jaco Pastorius, and Patrice Rushen, straightahead horn jazz, a piano trio, and the experimentation Bell learned from his former boss. As a drummer, Poogie calls attention to himself without showing off. As a composer, we’ve got to admit it’s getting better, getting better every day.

Sports, Huey Lewis & the News (Capitol)—Sweets for my sweet, genial almost to a fault, record-making as craft instead of contradiction. No wonder it sold ten million copies. Wouldn’t have meant much if the songs weren’t so good but there’s more to it. Not just Chris Hayes’s guitar shredding on “I Need a New Drug” or the cover of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” but, lurking there in the middle of the record, the harrowing tale of the wounded warrior, “Walking on a Thin Line.” It starts out slowly, almost aimlessly, before exploding in your head like the AK-47 round it’s meant to be. “Don’t you know me I’m the boy next door/The one you find so easy to ignore/Is that what I was fighting for?” snarls Lewis, his persona as a suburban golfer actually upping the ante.

Little Blue Soldier, Cher UK (Such a Wussy)--Austin-based Mike McCoy has helmed this uncompromising experiment in garage pop since the early 90s, with dozens of band members playing key roles. The infectious horn, guitar and bass-driven title track rejects Blue-minded groupthink as surely as Red. The surf party, “Peace, Love and Fun in the Sun,” rejects mindlessness as an escape, while the dragster instrumental “Reagan Versus NoLa” ends with thanks to Mr. Morning in America for new levels of American denial. “Denny’s After Closing” is a fumbling heartache of a ballad dedicated to loved ones just barely hanging on, featuring beautifully understated fiddle by the Wilders’ Betse Ellis.

SLY Reimagined, Global Noize (Zoho Roots)—Keyboardist Jason Miles’s group Global Noize takes classic Sly and reboots it in an attempt to use its visions to heal the world. Aided by a cast of dozens, including Roberta Flack, Nona Hendryx, and original Sly drummer Greg Errico, GN lets Sly’s intense focus on the core of a song wander, almost jazzlike at times, without ever losing the groove or the transformative spirit of tunes now almost a half century old yet seemingly ripped from today’s headlines about Turkey or Egypt (“Stand!”). DJ Logic’s turntables and Miles’s synths give a 21st century sensibility but what really makes this feel up to date is that the music is presented as if it’s brand new and it allows you to find your own way to its messages, so powerful that two of them are presented in multiple versions: “It’s A Family Affair” and “The Same Thing” (The same thing that makes you laugh/Could make you cry/And the same food you eat to live/Can make you die).

The Messenger, Johnny Marr (Sire/Ada)—Rock’s most underrated guitarist (he’s been smoking since the beginning, with the Smiths) is also a great songwriter. These tunes and performances reflect his always audible base in the glam rock of Marc Bolan, as well as his staunchly Labour (and not New Labour, either) politics. A tough little genius.

Blades of Grass, Dirty Streets (Alive/Naturalsound)—Two steps from the blues, Mississippi power trio strains against the limits of their chops, occasionally touching the hem of the garment of their idol Jeff Beck. And they notice what’s going on outside the window of the train they’re on—“Living in a world of underpaid teachers/Congressmen are getting’ rich/Sitting in the bleachers” while we’re just “waitin’ on a leader.” It all peaks on “Try Harder,” when singer/guitarist Justin Roland snarls over a high-stepping riff about a society which pushes you into poverty and then tells you to “try harder.” Blades of Grass is raw realism, yet it  also throws off sparks of psychedelia without a hint of self-consciousness, one of many signs of a young band growing up before our eyes.

Sly & Robbie Present Stepper Takes the Taxi (MVDaudio)—The approach on this instrumental CD is always playful, inviting, wordlessly invoking the spirit of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” or Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”  Gulliame “Stepper” Briard is a French saxophonist/keyboardist who was given access to classic and new recorded riddims produced by Sly and Robbie over which he and several Jamaicans create an airy top over a funky bottom. Often (“Frenchman in Kingston,” “Matera Lounge”) there is the feel of a French café where, for unknown reasons, a world class reggae band is playing. Mixed by Briard’s fellow Frenchman, Fabwise, who keeps what could have been lightweight and flimsy into something razor sharp and, in its own way, compelling.

Lifer, Ricky Byrd (KAYOS)—Brilliant Blackheart, the guitar voice that blew up the set in response to Joan Jett’s vocal, turns in his first solo record. What was he waiting for? A set of songs good enough to make it worthwhile, and he found them. They add up to a cycle of songs about New York rock band life from the ‘70s to now, from the risky “Let’s Get Gone” to the now-I-get-it “Married Man.” It’s also a paean to the heyday of glam, when Byrd’s sensibility was formed at Max’s Kansas City and Bowery dives long before CBGB’s.  At his core, he’s still the same guy but now he knows a lot of secrets. But you gotta pay your dues...which is why, I suppose, “Turnstile ‘01” ends the album with a confessional tale told on a slowed down subway car.

Aztec Jazz, Tom Russell with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble (Frontera Music)—Russell’s gotten as much out of his most recent trip to Norway as Little Stevie got out of his. Backed by guitarist Thad Beckman and a 31 piece horn orchestra, Russell explores “Juarez,” a city he loves that has been demolished by war as certainly as Baghdad, the lures and injustices of “Nina Simone,” busking at “St. Olav’s Gate” in Oslo, the contradictions of the ‘60s or was that the ‘70s in “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam.” And last, there’s “Jai Alai,” about the price people pay to make a living while others are blind to their great gracefulness.  The best work of his career.

The Gospel Truth/Soul Hits/McCanna, Les McCann (BGO)—Three-fer that finds pianist McCann, who achieved fame with the classic “Compared to What,” exploring the bounds of the piano trio. Disc one is traditional church music remade for the nightclub, disc two is soul jazz hits of a half century ago, and disc three is mostly McCann originals. In each case, there is some help (guitar, percussion) but the essence is the trio and it’s a revelation to hear everything from hymns to Jimmy Smith to Broadway show tunes extruded through the soulful, energetic hands of Les McCann.

Guided Tour, The New Gary Burton Quartet (Mack Avenue)—The master vibraphonist just turned seventy and you might expect him to play on the cool side, a place where his instrument is traditionally comfortable. Not at all—this music seethes and erupts, pushed forward by the drumming of Antonio Sanchez.  Keeping Burton young is guitarist Julian Lage, a prodigy (an Academy Award-nominated documentary about him was made when he was eight years old) who joined the group at seventeen and now, eight years later, shows not just the chops you might expect but a soulful inventiveness that many never achieve. Highlights include “Remembering Tano,” inflected with Burton’s love of tango and “Jane Fonda Called Again,” a rave-up given extra spice by Scott Colley’s understated bass solo.

Lip Lock, Eve (From the Rib/Red)--Over a decade after her last full-length release, Eve returns with an athletic, often Caribbean-hook-laden set of fight songs. Though stylistically harder and faster than her elder sisters, her expressive rhyme style hearkens back to the playfulness of Salt’N’Pepa, allowing her to move naturally from the untempered boast “She Bad Bad” to the arm over the shoulder coaching of “Make It Out This Town.” Her duet with Missy Elliott, “Wanna Be,” becomes an anthem of self-empowerment, and Snoop Dogg’s guesting on “Mama in the Kitchen”—“whippin’, we flippin’”—cheers her dance floor gumbo as hard work well worth the wait.

The Ides, Me Like Bees (Loveway Records)--The first full-length release from these Joplin, Missouri rockers prominently features the band’s tornado-relief single, “Naked Trees,” a surprisingly delicate contemplation of what just happened and what do we do now. The answer is the rest of the record, a rambunctious and adventurous fight for community in a world of individual nightmares. Hooks abound, but, for a starting point, it’s hard to beat the heavy hitting, “Joseph Jones,” a meditation on the homeless as vanguard of a better world.

Songs from the Barn, Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools (Leroy)—Southside Johnny has found his best collaborator since Miami Steve Van Zandt in keyboardist and writing partner Jeff Kazee. This album was recorded at Levon Helm’s barn—thus the title. If it’s a roots record, it’s a version of roots much like that of Levon, too, including a “Mexican Waltz,” covers of Dylan (“Tom Thumb’s Blues” arranged around string bass, barroom piano and harmonica), and of mighty New Orleans soulman Chris Kenner and foundational rock and roller Bo Diddley, and finally, a Stephen Foster song. The highpoint, “Winter in Yellow Knife,” is about a suicidal low point, the kind of contradiction that animates all the great blues-based artists. A very different version of one of the most underrated vocalists  still hanging in there.

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