Robert Ellis. There are lot of petrochemical refineries near Houston, which might explain some of the often-idiosyncratic music born there. Among the modern trailblazers, Robert Ellis is leading the charge. His voice has a quirky stroke which makes it completely unforgettable, and even though he's been chosen as an artist to click these past few years, it still hasn't quite happened. Still, this recent self-titled album comes the closest. It's a pretty stunning assault on modern rock Americana-style (which is a term nearing the end of its shelf life, which is probably why there's a recently-started support group called Americana Anonymous that's gathering force daily). Ellis' real strength, besides his affecting voice, is the razor-edged songs he writes. They sound like they were born from someone doing time in the Sugarland P-farm outside Houston. These are desperate tales from a desperate soul, and there is no mistaking the currency of despair that sparks their origins. Hell, Ellis could give Chris Isaak at his most forlorn a run for his money in that area. Doubters are directed to the second song, "How I Love You." In the end, Robert Ellis has made the best album of his life, and even if the adoring hordes haven't completely found their way to it, that still could happen. This Southern man is in Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen territory, which doesn't come around every day. It's only a matter of time before the secret gets out.
Extreme Heat, Year Before the War. History is a beautiful thing, maybe because it makes it feel like life has a purposeful trajectory. Take Extreme Heat. Forty years ago in the burning-up bars and bandstands in Austin, a crazy mixed-up funk band called Steam Heat stood as a party of one in a city more caring of country cliques and blues bands. It didn't faze the Heat at all: they just kept jamming and building an audience among the dazed and confused. A few left turns and detours later, that group is now called Extreme Heat and totally live up to their name. A handful of the members come from the first incarnation, and the others more than live up to that reputation. Singer Bruce Spelman wasn't the first singer in Steam Heat, but he definitely brought a professional groove to the songs that moved them up a notch. Keyboardist Neil Pederson, guitarist Mike Barnes, and a few others have their veteran stripes, and make sure the funk still stays front and center, while their sophisticated song chops remain in fine working order. Having guest singers Christopher Cross and Lissa Hattersley of Greezy Wheels fame drop by is just one more joyous treat. Extreme Heat, no matter what they've been called, were always a few dance steps ahead of their time, and nothing has changed. The nine-man band is still leading their own parade right down Congress Avenue to the riverside.
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate. Here's a British artist who has been on the edge of a major breakthrough for a few years. He has an utterly unique vibe and one of the great modern voices. But something about Michael Kiwanuka remains slightly restrained. Maybe he's just not ready to blast through the barriers that surround him. On his new album, produced by Danger Mouse, Inflo, and Paul Butler, Kiwanuka gets closer. His music remains out there in the ether zone, but at the same time there is such an undercurrent of soul it becomes almost hypnotic. It doesn't hurt that the opening song, "Cold Little Heart," is over 10 minutes long, or the instrumentation throughout sounds like it was dreamed up in a hallucinogenic haze. It could be that's exactly what Michael Kiwanuka needs to cross into the end zone. He's the kind of an artist that is only one song away from stardom, and from all indications on what's accomplished here it could happen. But maybe next time hire a different art director so the album booklet doesn't look like it was designed in a funeral home. This is one man who needs to let some sunshine in, even if just for an afternoon. Once that happens it'll be time for the top of the world express.
Marley's Ghost, The Woodstock Sessions. Producer Larry Campbell has such a deft touch that everybody he works with walks away better. Marley's Ghost has made several albums, but on this one it all comes together full-force. Maybe that's because they went to Levon Helm's studio to record, and enlisted Campbell to run point. Or maybe it was just the band's time to gather their strengths together in a way that they've always strived for but have now accomplished. Dan Wheetman, Jon Wilcox, Mike Phelan, Ed Littlefield Jr., Jerry Fletcher and Bob Nichols know a thing or two about American music, and aren't shy about sharing it. For 30 years they've dedicated themselves to living and learning and then passing it on. With the help of all the unseen vibrations still bouncing around Helm's barn, Marley's Ghost garnered them all. When choosing songs, the band wandered the folk and bluegrass field and found some keepers like "Ain't that Trouble in Mind," "The Unconstant Lover," "In the Pines," and others, added them to the original "Oh Sweet Wind" written by Wheetman and Campbell along with a few surprises. The set list itself is an inspiration. The revelation, though, is just how strong and unswerving Marley's Ghost stays centered on doing American music proud. It's a love affair set to sound, and every time it comes around we're all the better for it. Believe.
Bo Ramsey, Wildwood Calling. There are moments when music seems to come from somewhere deep in the earth. It is of such substance and spirituality it's like it's been here forever. It doesn't happen very often, and as the world hurtles forward the odds seem stacked against it happening forever. When it does, though, it's time to take a deep breath and let those sounds seep in deep. Bo Ramsey lives in Iowa City, and has been playing a long time. Long enough to know what matters. He recently found an aging Harmony electric guitar in a stand sitting atop an amplifier at Willie's American Guitars in St. Paul and knew it was calling to him. Ramsey bought it, went back to his kitchen in Iowa, and recorded this album there over two inspired days. He had a simpatico backing trio to help create something that will now live forever. Maybe call it Blue Age music, since it is an instrumental style that lifts lives up, showing a place where the dark clouds part and the endless land and blue skies become one. These lucky 13 tracks show the way to that new day.
Herlin Riley, New Direction. Great drummers are the lifeblood of New Orleans. The beat is where everything begins in the Crescent City, and through a lineage that goes back centuries it's the beat that keeps things grooving. Surely no one knows this better than Herlin Riley. He's got a musical ancestry that gives him an immediate edge for his work on the drum throne, and throughout this new album he expands on his years of experience to become a band leader of the first order. The fact that he wrote all but two of these songs also proves Riley is a composer who can put his new works next to anyone's. Wisely, the drummer has chosen some bodacious youngbloods to fill the slots in his new band, which lets songs like "The Big Banana," "Connection to Congo Square," and "Hiccup Smooth" positively smoke. "Harlem Shuffle," written by pianist Emmet Cohen, is a rhythm & blues romp that kicks up in all the right places and lets the horns amble around 125th Street uptown looking and sounding good. "Tootie Ma," the last track, is a second-line strut straight out of the Lower 9th Ward, and it's easy to visualize the Wild Tchoupitoulas led by Chief Jolly laying claim to the neutral ground on a Mardi Gras day. With Herlin Riley beating on anything within reach for all he's worth, happiness is everywhere. Give that drummer some immediately.
The Silver Lake Chorus, Remixes. What would it sound like if a 27-member choral group gave their recordings to various remixers and turned then loose. If the recent Silver Lake Chorus album is any indication, it would sound close to heaven on earth, especially on a few key tracks where eternity doesn't seem like a questionable concept at all. Begin with the song "Easy to Die" (speaking of eternity), written by Aimee Mann and Paul Bryan and remixed by Hammock. It's such a serene lamentation on the hereafter that it makes the other side of life something to look forward to. Often music can do that: go to the last place anyone would want to dwell, and make it majestic. Other songs written by Bon Iver, Flaming Lips, the Bird and the Bee and others fall right in line with the whole remix concept, as repurposed by Carmen Rizzo, Blade Foley, David Tom, and others. Hopefully the whole crew will take over the stage of Disney Hall someday soon, set the GPS on the moon, and head for outer space, kind of like Vangelis with a little more verve and celestial visions. Once out there orbiting around Earth, things could become perfectly clear and the Silver Lake Chorus would be the first singers to populate the lunar landscape. Make that one small step for man, one giant lyric for mankind. A person can dream, right?
Various Artists, Loma: A Soul Music Love Affair. Spread over four vinyl discs of soul bliss, Loma Records was a label founded by Warner Bros. in 1964. It was originally envisioned as recording singles aimed primarily at the rhythm & blues market. It wasn't long before Loma's chiefs were walking wildly into various genres, but usually stayed focused on black buyers. Over this quartet of lovingly-compiled albums, produced for reissue with exquisite care by Alec Palao, it's a continual revelation of just how knocked-out Loma really was. It never even got close to attaining the clout of Motown or Stax, but in its own way it sure had the cred. There are highlights galore featured here by artists like Bob & Earl, Ike & Tina Turner, the Olympics, Baby Lloyd, Lorraine Ellison (!), J.J. Jackson, the Invincibles, Bobby Freeman, Little Jerry Williams, the Marvellos, Linda Jones, Carl Hall, and the Mighty Hannibal. That's just for starters, too. It's a little perplexing now why so many of these 45s didn't hit big, because each and every one has "smash" written all over them. It could be that parent company Warner Bros. just didn't have the muscle in the black market to bring home the chitlins, or maybe the sound of the songs themselves was often a bit too sophisticated. Either way, when the plug got pulled on Loma in 1968, many music fans didn't even notice. Thanks now to Light in the Attic Records, this collection turns the spotlight on a label that really could have and should have been. This time, the second time around might just be the best.
The Wild Reeds, Best Wishes. Los Angeles' finest are proving what all their fans have always known: there is no better band in the City of Angels right now and it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world finds out. The Wild Reeds started innocently enough: three young woman singing their hearts out backed by a righteously restrained rhythm section. Sharon Silva, Kinsey Lee, and Mackenzie DeWolfe Howe took to local clubs and then hit America's highways to extend their abilities. A debut album two years ago got some attention, but it's this new three-song EP that is really knocking down doors. Beginning with Silva's "Everything Looks Better (In Hindsight)," the song is a totally intriguing wake-up call to greatness. What starts quietly stays that way just long enough to plant the hook before it explodes. The Wild Reeds sound like they know what they've got, and it wasn't a surprise when NPR recently asked them to perform one of the network's vaunted Tiny Desk Concerts. The second song, Lee's "What I Had in Mind," is a haunting look at love and learning that won't easily be forgotten. Howe's "Love Made a Fool" is an eye-opening rootsy lament about everything that can go wrong when the heart gets taken for a ride down the wrong road of love, complete with her twangin' Telecaster guitar lines and the group's irresistible harmonies. Find out now: these Wild Reeds are growing long and strong.