Steve Azar & the Kings Men, Down at the Liquor Store. You can take the man out of Mississippi, but you sure can't take the Mississippi out of the man. Steve Azar relocated to area code 615 for several years, and found definite success in Music City. But enough was enough, so Azar went home to the Magnolia state. He even wrote a song about his hometown of Greenville. Thank goodness for that, too, because Azar is one of most astute and moving voices to come out of the Delta in the past 20 years. For his homecoming, he enlisted many of B.B. King's band members from the Kings Men, along with Nashville vet David Briggs on keyboards, and recorded it in Indianola's Club Ebony, a place King often called home. The results are so right-on that it feels like the South really is going to do it again. Azar has the dirt-deep Mississippi feel, and while he's capable of sophisticated swinging he never gets too fancy. Instead, he digs down all the way and zeroes in on what he calls "Delta Soul." For those who've missed former heroes like Delaney Bramlett and Jim Ford, fret no more. Steve Azar is bringing it all back home, and has even made the full-length documentary Something in the Water to show how he did it. Alive and certified.
Zeshan B, Vetted. Sometimes heavenly voices arrive from unexpected places. But nothing can prepare a listener for Zeshan B. Born in Chicago to immigrant Indian Muslim parents, the young singer gravitated quickly and gracefully to the soul side of the street, thanks to his father's deep love of African-American music. Still, his collection of original and soul classics is like a hammer blow to the heart. Whether it's covers of George Perkins' "Cryin' in the Streets" or William Bell's "You Don't Miss Your Water," Mr. B brings a vastness of feeling to these quintessential American expressions of feeling. Maybe it's the other-worldly voice that propels Zeshan B to pull down such celestial vibrations, or it could be there is a common currency of the oppressed that invests itself in everything he touches. Wisely, producer Lester Snell took the singer to Memphis to make sure the grooves got delivered with plenty of authentic passion. In the end, though, this is Zeehan B's show all the way, and a more stunning surprise is unlikely to appear this year. Say hallelujah somebody.
The Cash Box Kings, Royal Mint. Whenever a band hits that sweet spot when everything comes together—the guitars, the bass, the drums, the singer, the Zeitgeist—it's like the earth's molecules coalesce into something so much greater than their individual parts. Mountains get moved and hearts get grooved. That's what happens with the new album by The Cash Box Kings. They've always played their rip-roaring take on Chicago blues and beyond with unmitigated power, but with these new songs it's like they've become the band they were always meant to be but something more. Singer Oscar Wilson is a near-barrel of a man, someone whose voice burrows into the innards of his audience and helps them let loose with a room full of feeling. And harp-playing songwriter Joe Nosek is right there with him, blowing his face off and supplying new songs like "Blues for Chi-Raq" and "If You Got a Jealous Woman Facebook Ain't Your Friend." Nosek knows how to modernize an age-old tradition and make it boogaloo and shing-a-ling. No band worth their salt on the dance floor can go without fleet-fingered versions of songs by Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, Clifton Chenier, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, and Amos Milburn, so The Cash Box Kings raid the jukebox and offer up all those with testifying treachery. This is a band for the ages, aided by the electric guitarisms of Billy Flynn and Joel Patterson, mixing up history and wall-shaking histrionics for a wondrous ride on the wild side. Take no prisoners.
Paul Kelly, Life is Fine. For 30 years, Australian Paul Kelly has appeared to be an acquired taste. He's flirted with large popularity, but usually retreats to an avidly devoted but not-so-big cult following. At this stage it's impossible to predict the future, but if any new album by Kelly is going to kick things up a notch it would be this one. Recorded live in the studio with everything set on stun, this is the artist at his very best. There's flat-out rock & roll, more inwardly-aimed songs and everything in-between, including female singers Vika and Linda Bull. Without doubt, he's captured the energy he's always been known for, reeling with a positivity that is contagious. He's made a career of confounding expectations, proving his willingness to strike out in different directions at will. It has always served him well, too, letting him stay on the playing field long past the time many of his early colleagues have disappeared. It might be Paul Kelly's tough-as-nails character, or it might be that he knows that by continuing only good things can happen. It's the way of the modern troubadour, and so far it's worked for the Australian. Album ender "Life is Fine" could easily be Kelly's theme song, written to show his strongest beliefs. Except it's actually a poem by Langston Hughes. The way it sounds like it came from Paul Kelly's pen says it all. Life is fine.
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet. Sisters are doing it for themselves. That's a wizened saying that applies now truer than ever. Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer are meant to have made this album together. Their father put them through the ultimate wringer when he murdered their mother in front of them, and then killed himself. Whatever the psychic aftermath, both Lynne and Moorer became singers of endless empathy and an aptitude for delivering songs like, well, their lives depended on it. For their debut duo album, they trolled the catalogues of songwriters like The Killers, the Louvin Brothers, Bob Dylan, Jessi Colter, Townes Van Zandt, Jason Isbell, Merle Haggard, Nick Cave, and Kurt Cobain, choosing the ones that often end up feeling like an open wound. By adding their own original "Is It Too Much" as the last song, they prove to be the equal of anyone and end the album with a searing sign-off. Both women can sing anything, and to hear them join voices is like an amazing statement of purpose, one that likely didn't come lightly to them. Produced by Teddy Thompson and featuring many of the best musicians in America, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have gone for the once-in-a-lifetime brass ring, and pulled the sky down to earth. Hearing is believing.
Jimmy McDonough, Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green. Let's be honest: Al Green might be the last best soul singer. There have been others who succeeded Brother Al, but none have really entered the ultra zone of absolute devastation in their effect on a willing audience. Even if his mightiest years only lasted for some of the 1970s, there just isn't anyone else who can scorch the earth with such beautiful songs. Finally, there is a book that explains exactly why Al Green is so great, and also pulls back the curtain to show all the nitty-gritty that makes the man who he is. It's often not a pretty sight, and some of the information calls for an immediate shower. How many biographers can make that claim, though, and still make it impossible to stop reading? Author Jimmy McDonough is no slouch himself when it comes to laying it on the line. His Neil Young and Tammy Wynette tomes pulled no punches and never backed down. For Green, however, there are genuine mental meanderings that call into question his stability. Which, of course, doesn't really matter when stacked up against all the breathtaking music the artist has created. Like is often said, if you want to have a dance you've got to pay the band, never mind that Al Green doesn't seem too keen on paying anyone but himself. Even better, the book doesn't stop with the man whose name is on the cover. McDonough goes to the center of ground control at Hi Records, producer Willie Mitchell and all the musicians, girlfriends, police officers, and hairdressers who stumble into this endless drama. Nothing is off limits, right up to the current crowd and cronies at Reverend Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle church outside Memphis. This thrilling biography not only takes you to the river, it'll wash you in the water as well. Lord have mercy.
Shannon McNally, Black Irish. She may have been born and raised on Long Island, but the South has always been where she's aimed her music. Now residing in the North Mississippi hill country's Holly Springs, Shannon McNally is all the way free. It's abundantly obvious starting with the first song "You Made Me Feel For You" on her hypnotic new release, written by album producer Rodney Crowell. There is something so right about this music, a perfect mix of originals and covers, it's like it was supposed to take her whole life to get here. The second track, Stevie Wonder's "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It," blasts everything straight through the roof with a blue-eyed soul attack very few are capable of these days. This woman isn't messing around. The next three McNally co-writes prove she can compose with the best of them, which leads right into Guy and Susanna Clark's "Black Haired Boy," which has to be a perfect homage to Townes Van Zandt. Only halfway into the album, it's like a stellar presence has entered the atmosphere. The next half features songs by J.J. Cale, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Robertson, and Pops Staples, each and every one a dead-on winner for Shannon McNally to make her own. Other musicians have known for 20 years this is an artist who should be in the first tier of singer-songwriters of any gender, and she has finally made the album to put her there. Now's the time.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. Starting a life in music young has its advantages, and Lukas Nelson is living proof. He had joined his father Willie's band at 13, starting to record music after forming his own group in 2008. Things moved forward fast and by 2015 Nelson and Promise of the Real had a new frontman for several tours: Neil Young. Which is all well and good, but what matters most is that on his new self-titled album, Nelson and his bandmates have made the kind of album that announces the arrival of a major new artist. He's taken all the influences of a life on the road and distilled them into a unique blend of uptown and downtown, country and city, righteous and regal. For those who haven't heard Lukas Nelson, songs like "Set Me Down On a Cloud," "Find Yourself," and "If I Started Over" will realign their reality. And then there's "Just Outside of Austin," which instantly becomes a heart-tugging anthem for the second fastest-growing city in the United States. Even for Nelson's many followers, there wasn't any way to be prepared for what he accomplishes on this album. Always an impassioned guitar player, he has now become an undeniably inspired songwriter and singer. He's got a flowing soul living in the body of a young man, someone who’s clearly ready to leave his bootprints on the same path as the greats who've come before him. Think of him as a Texas-Hawaii hybrid who thinks big and plays bigger, and just happens to have made what could well be the best album of the year. Hook ‘em Horns.
Elvis Presley, A Boy from Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings. To get to ground zero, sometimes some serious exploration needs to go down. Leave it to the master sleuths at Sony Legacy to somehow gather the most comprehensive collection of early Elvis Presley recordings ever amassed for this three-CD collection. It surely will be the high-water mark for this period of Presleycana. The set starts with the four songs the young Memphian paid for himself to record at the Memphis Recording Service before signing with Sun Records, and then goes on to include for the first time every known Sun master recording and outtake. It almost leaves the listener speechless just to think on it. If any single rock & roll artist deserves this kind of devotion, it is Elvis Presley. While no one will ever solve the riddle of who actually invented rock & roll, there can be little argument it was Presley who blew the ship out of the water to spread its freedom-shrieking sound around the world. So it's only fitting that every studio recording including outtakes, live performances and, yes, even radio recordings be pulled together in one big jumping and joyous package. Add in a 120-page book featuring rare photos and memorabilia, a detailed calendar along with various essays and it starts to feel like this is the be-all and end-all of Elvis Presley excavations. Until the next time. Yes, once this journey is started and as long as humans have ears it's likely there will be future box sets that pay tribute to the King of Rock & Roll. That's alright (Mama).
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding. Rock & roll can be a mysterious beast. It encompasses so many sounds and styles, there is no way to understand it all. Better to find the strain that makes the cosmos ring and follow it to the end of the earth. The War on Drugs is a semi-modern band that feels like they've found their own path to a new planet. Bandleader Andrew Granduciel began the group ten years ago in Philadelphia, and over the course of four albums has figured out a way to push the parameters of rock bands into a new and dreamy destination, one that lets him rewrite whatever rules he's hoping to break, and draw in colors that sound like they haven't been used before. If there is a person in 2017 that is capable of breaking down barriers in their own quiet and committed way, it is Granduciel. For now, The War on Drugs has made the move to a major record label and relocated to the West Coast. Hopefully they'll be able to make those changes with their inner gyroscope intact, because at this rate this is a sextet that sounds capable of accomplishing anything they choose to do. When the chains are broken and gravity no longer rules the day, all good things are possible. Expect the unexpected.