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The Beatles. Always known as "The White Album," The Beatles 1968 double-disc set stopped a lot of listeners in their tracks when it was first released. It was different, partly because it was twice as long as their other releases, but more because they'd cut loose from the confines of their previous constructs on how to make an album, and partly because LSD was no longer a stranger in their intake regimen. For the set's 50th anniversary this fall, Apple Records has released a series of varying configurations the album is available in, ranging from six CDs and a Blu-Ray disc box set to other smaller offerings. It's such an extensive project it wouldn't be surprising to see a super-duper set personally delivered by drummer Ringo Starr, complete with a Keurig cappuccino machine and a pair of custom-made Beats headphones. The label is not fooling around. The original release a half-century ago showed the British quartet stretching their creative wings to glorious expression, from brilliant songs like "Dear Prudence" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" to the more experimental fare of "Revolution 1" and "Revolution 9." At the time it felt like the world had cracked open a notch and all bets were off for the future of The Beatles, and, hell, the whole world. In a way, the album feels like this is where the foursome ran away from home and started their own circus. The 3-CD set includes a disc titled "Esher Demos," which were early recordings of the songs made at Harrison's house there. It's an astonishing and intriguing look inside the Beatles' songwriting process, and because of their stripped-down sound becomes an immediately illustrious artifact of a band that will never be topped. The Poppermost reign.
Fiona Boyes, Voodoo in the Shadows. The blues comes in all shapes and sizes, which ensures it remains the music of the people. Australian musician Fiona Boyes has dedicated her life to the music, and that intensity can be heard in everything she sings and plays. Her guitar work puts her in the top class for modern blues people, especially the way the sound seems to sing coming out of her instrument. Boyes never gets hung up trying to be anything other than what she is: someone who uses the music to try and make the world a little bit better place to be. Exorcising the sad spirits is what the blues has always been about, and the way this woman goes about it marks her as someone who understands this, and then goes about her business making sure her music does exactly that. This new collection of songs is like a wild ride through Mississippi, New Orleans, Texas, up to Chicago and then all the way over to California. There is never any question that what is being heard is the real thing, whether it's from downtown or down under doesn't matter. It's the connection of feelings between people that completes the blues circuit, and makes the results so powerful. It's all here.
Charles Bradley, Black Velvet. Brown-eyed soul singers haven't been in that high of demand since the 1970s, and those who have broken through did so with hard work and an unstoppable desire to express the gritty urban sound in their lives. None did so more emotionally than Charles Bradley. When he died last year, it did feel like an era was saying goodbye to one of its last heroes, and with the recent loss of Daptone Records label mate Sharon Jones the writing was on the wall. This collection of singles and unreleased recordings gives a center to Bradley's deep-down vocals backed superbly by the Menahan Street Band. There is nothing fancy about a human being baring their life for the world to hear, which is exactly what Charles Bradley has done the past decade, finally getting the spotlight after years of riding the back roads and trying. It's like America finally woke up and realized what they had in their own backyard, and invited the singer to show them how he did it. This album ranges from down-and-dirty ballads that sound like Bradley's world is near the end, to surprises like a moving version of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," leaving no doubt of Bradley's breathing heart of soul. To say there won't be anymore is too sad to contemplate, but surely they will be few and far between. Say amen somebody.
Lone Justice, The Western Tapes '83. In the early 1980s, there was an explosion of music in the 30-odd nightclubs cooking from the beach towns of Southern California to East L.A. And on any given night, the bands setting bandstands on fire felt like history was being made. In one such spot, the Cathay de Grande, a funky dark basement beneath an aging Chinese restaurant became a home for wayward musicians to find their talent. Located just behind the Hollywood Palladium glamour palace, any night of the week featured outfits from Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs to the Flesheaters, with special guests like Tom Waits, Doug Sahm, Joe Ely, Los Lobos, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble to Joe "King" Carrasco taking over the room. Teenaged singer Maria McKee (sometimes with brother Bryan McLean from L.A.'s legendary band Love), became an honorary Rhythm Pig on Blue Mondays, always nailing the audience with her treacherous version of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" and other gems. McKee soon started a duo with singer-guitarist Ryan Hedgecock. The pair morphed into Lone Justice, and these early recordings, produced by future Lone Justice bassist Marvin Etzioni, show some of the powerful promise of the early band, and pointed to the full future that awaited right around the corner. Songs like "Don't Toss Us Away" and "How Lonesome Life has Been" capture a brand new quartet shining bright in a field of diamonds. Future albums for Geffen Records and tours opening for U2 were up ahead, but these eight early songs are an emotional glimpse of a budding musical romance. Love conquers all.
Van Morrison, The Prophet Speaks. Considering this is Van Morrison's sixth album in the last three years, either he knows something about the future that we don't, or he's just been hit with a strong case of being in his swinging 70s and doesn't want to waste another moment. It's another strong Morrison effort, with a glad bag mix of blues and soul standards like "Dimples," "Laughin' and Clownin,'" and "I Love the Life I Live" with originals that still speak to the man's greatness. The singer is again working with organist Joey DeFrancesco, a more modern answer to Morrison's many years with keyboardist Georgie Fame, and while nothing on the album totally catches fire, it comes close enough to count. His "Spirit Will Provide" has the Irishman approaching Caledonia in fine form, acknowledging that another world continues to call. And any set that starts with an Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson song—in this case the total kicks of "Gonna Send You Back to Where I Got You From"—knows which side of the street to do their business on. Van Morrison has earned the right to sing whatever he wants, and as long as he keeps recording music like this he will be in the front line of all-timers.
Graham Parker, Cloud Symbols. From the rock & roll Class of '76, Graham Parker came roaring out of the starting gate in London with a head full of anger and a heart full of expression. Of all those in that class, it seemed like Parker had the most immediate indelible explosion of energy in his music and would not take no for an answer. Backed by the irresistible band the Rumour and a blasting horn section, this was music for those still in mourning for Stax Records. From songs like "Heat Treatment" and "Howlin' Wind," Graham Parker had the syncopated beat and high-kicking sass completely knocked and rocked. Flash forward forty-plus years and the singer-songwriter is still in his element. The rhythms may have slowed down a notch, and there isn't as much inner venom in the songs, but the voice is all the way there and the original feeling of urgency and insight stays sewn deep into Parker's pocket. His blue-eyed soul, always all his own, proves a love of music that hasn't given way to anything else. There's even a Rumour in the band: the one and only guitarist Martin Belmont, along with a full horn section. Whether it's dance-floor anthems or gut-tugging ballads, Graham Parker still knows how to sing a song so it stays sung. Count him in.
Dennis Quaid & the Sharks, Out of the Box. Lets face it: it takes nerve for a movie star to record an album. Immediately, there are suspicions about someone crossing over from the big screen to the record store of being authentic. Dennis Quaid sounds like he was born to do it, though. He's Houston-fried from the git-go, which means he comes by his roots naturally, and likely envisioned the bandstand to be his original path to glory from a very young age. Add to that he writes most of his own songs, which means this album is no busman's holiday. Songwriting ain't for sissies, that's for sure. Not to mention Quaid covers two Doors songs, and one each by Larry Williams and Van Morrison. Putting yourself up to comparisons like that means you can't flinch in the clinch. Still, in the end it's always about the final results and there is no other way to say it except that Dennis Quaid rocks. Hard. Aided by co-producer Jamie James, leader of former L.A. kingpins the Kingbees, the stripped-down sound of the songs themselves ensures there is no sleight-of-hand Hollywood shenanigans going on. Quaid has been singing and playing music his entire life, and as frontman with the Sharks for the past 18 years. That's reality. And this is their debut album, so he's no short-term rock dabbler. There is no doubt he'd be doing this even if he'd never taken that California trip, likely in some low-down dive on the edge of the Heights in Houston. Whether anyone was listening or not. That's the secret of rock & roll: once it takes hold it never let's go. Listen up now.
Jon Scott, Tom Petty and Me. In American rock & roll history, there really aren't that many artists who form a band and work all the way to the top and stay there for over 40 years. And there's even less that keep getting better and better as time goes on. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are in that very exclusive club, and when it ended with Petty's death in 2017, no one has come close to taking over the spot. Record industry whiz Jon Scott had a lot to do with Petty's first popularity, and this unique look at how it all happened should thrill those in and outside the music business. It shows how one person--in this case ABC Records radio promotion executive Scott--found a band that almost everyone else had overlooked and committed himself to changing that. Never taking no for an answer. Given six weeks to do so, Scott came through with such force that almost single-handedly he launched Tom Petty on the path to musical infamy. That was 1977, and all the years after that Jon Scott stayed close to the artist. His memory of those experiences is an education in how serendipity succeeds. If the good and not-so-good times of the record industry ever intrigued, this is the right place to start for how it works and, sadly, sometimes doesn't work. Even better, it's a heart-warming study of a rock & roll star who lived up to the image of all those whose lives he so deeply touched. A win-win.
Jeff Tweedy, Warm. This musician has made a lot of stellar albums, with Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and on his own. But Jeff Tweedy's latest might very well be the best one yet. It is so deeply personal and totally affecting that it's like staring at a visionary sunset that changes shapes and colors as the night comes on. Songs like "Bombs above," "How hard it is for a desert to die," "Having been is no way to be," and all the others feel like a revelation is taking place in public. The fact that Tweedy does all the singing and playing, except for assists from sons Spencer and Sammy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and singer Ava Brennan, shows how far into his own core the man has gone. From inside the songs it feels like Tweedy has made himself whole, battling the distractions and demons back into their cave. The music sounds like he has discovered something fascinating in the past few years about life and love, and now wants to share it with the world. In his own completely personal way. A sense of breakthrough is everywhere, and Jeff Tweedy is the one leading the parade. This is an album of sharing and caring, from a musician who had to fight his way to that place where he can accomplish both. Head held high.
Various Artists, Stax '68: A Memphis Story. The story of Stax Records is one of American music's most wondrous tales, but of course behind the curtain things weren't always what they seemed. The company lost their number one singer, the unequaled Otis Redding, in an airplane crash right before the start of 1968, and soon their entire recording catalogue was spirited away by Atlantic Records because of a tricky contract clause. 1968 was when Stax had to face their own naked lunch and start over, amidst all the cultural challenges of the year that included the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in their own city of Memphis, followed by Robert Kennedy's murder in Los Angeles. This stupendous five-disc collection is a mind-blowing history of that year at Stax, showing the amazing breadth of all the label's new releases. It features a group of women and men bearing down and working with endless courage to try and succeed again. Considering that artists like Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, Albert King, the Staple Singers and so many more came through with flying colors now seems like a near-miracle. Even those that quickly disappeared, like Lindell Hill, the Village Sound and many others, did their best to help Stax Records continue into the 1970s. A moving opening essay by Andria Lisle and Robert Gordon followed by Steve Greenberg's fascinating history of the label's 1968 history itself offer a eye-opening view of an inspirational story in modern music. It was a time when a city not only helped give birth to a while new soul genre, but struggled right along with the music to try and stay on a positive path to survival. Wrap it up.
Songs of the Season: Mustangs of the West, "Everybody Wants Peace on Earth." Sometimes a song comes along during the holidays that totally captures the spirit of what is necessary. At a time when division seems to be the catch-phrase of the time, Mustangs of the West take a hard turn right into a joyous affirmation of what we all probably secretly want, but even more important, what we all absolutely need. It starts with reaching out to others, even if it seems daunting, and taking the first step to share peace and passion. A simple thought, but often so hard to accomplish. Written by band members Sherry Rayn Barnett, Holly Montgomery and Suzanna Spring, everyone in Mustangs of the West pitches in mightily for what could very well become a holiday classic that works year-round. Blending perfect harmonies and soaring leads, these are voices that are meant to sing together. If someone asks what the most inspired gift would be this season, send them directly to this song. All proceeds go to the Alliance for Children's Rights. Right on time.
Boo Ray & Elizabeth Cook, "All Strung Out Like Christmas Lights." Think of those holiday seasons when the bills aren't getting paid, the bar has closed and there's not much to look forward to except the twinkling lights on a neighbor's yard. And then factor in a heavy dose of love and lust, some searing Charles Brown Christmas songs on the radio and the delusional hope that Santa Claus might be sliding down the chimney any second with the keys to a 1966 Cadillac de Ville in the driveway, one that starts and stops on command. That's the good news, and it is a feeling amply conveyed by Boo Ray and Elizabeth Cook on this rockin' new semi-Christmas nugget. Recorded in Nashville on the wrong side of the tracks, both singers lean into the song like they're auditioning to get out in jail in time to hit the merry merry at their local tavern before it closes on Christmas Eve. The 45 (yes, it's on 7-inch blue vinyl) is a love letter from down south where the brethren don't pull their punches about cranking up the good cheer and singing Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run" at midnight Mass, finally putting the X in Xmas. Merry Christmas baby.
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