It’s more than ironic that no sooner does this album appear then Sam Llanas, one of the BoDean’s two stalwarts (along with Kurt Neumann), announces his departure. While the duo has never really repeated their early chart success -- or had a hit single that comes close to the heights hit by “Closer To Free” – they’ve remained as vibrant as ever, as Indigo Dreams, their latest effort easily and eagerly attests. The band’s blue collar origins still reside close to the surface, evidenced by the poignant “Paved in Gold”… and that unpretentious attitude is echoed in “Sad Eyes,” a teenage tale that name checks several songs that served as soundtracks to their youth. How these riveting rockers will fare with the loss of one of the band’s prime movers remains to be seen, but for now, Indigo Dreams remains a testament to their teamwork and tenacity.
No sooner does Sam Llanas announce that he’s left the BoDeans, then he releases a new solo album as if to prove the point. Clearly though, this isn’t any slapdash effort made simply to establish his independence; rather, 4 A.M. is worthy of inclusion alongside the best work of his career, and in some respects, it even bests his recent work with the BoDeans. That’s obvious at the outset with the sweet, south of the border sound of “Oh, Cella” which establishes the fact that Llanas’ softly swaying vocals are a strength unto themselves. Likewise, his songwriting skills have never been better; while the album’s sole cover – Jules Shear’s “All Through the Night” – sets a high bar, Llanas originals like “Fare Thee Well,” “The Only One” and “Cherry O” are clearly its equal, a fact quickly affirmed by each entry’s instant embrace. Simply stated, 4 A.M. is an exceptional album, and its title notwithstanding, a timeless set of songs as well.
Note of Hope
Although any celebration of Woody Guthrie, America’s forever folk laureate, would imply interpretations of his well-known music, Note of Hope offers something different. Much like the fabled Mermaid Avenue sessions of several years ago, it pairs contemporary musicians with Woody’s unearthed manuscripts. Here however, Woody’s words were never intended to be turned into songs; rather, they capture his intimate views of a post Depression America, when the comments of everyday strangers inspired him to transcribe these encounters for prosperity. Rob Wasserman masterminds these sessions, underpinning these loose ruminations with his fluid bass and turning several songs -- “Union Love Juice,” “Peace Pin Boogie,” “Voice” and “I Heard a Man Talking” being the most obvious – into freeform hipster jazz that effectively captures the spirit of the times but veers away from Guthrie’s trademark populist rambles. Pete Seeger’s agile banjo, Jackson Browne’s sweet, yearning vocals and Lou Reed’s deadpan delivery add star power, but the best and most endearing offering comes from Nellie McKay, whose “Old Folks” captures the sentiment and sympathy Guthrie etched in every verse.
Bill Toms posses a voice that would seem to place him midway between Otis Redding and Southside Johnny, a bred-on-the-road soul man who sings with the hard-bitten conviction of one who’s spent half a lifetime in roadhouses and smoky clubs performing solely for the appreciation of the patrons. After an untold number of albums relegated mostly to obscurity, Toms emerges with the disc that come make him a star. While its title harkens to a birthplace of the Blues, Toms also opts to roam other diverse locales, from the determined ballads “Hold On” and “I’m Getting Closer” to the soulful blue collar terrain of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. “Colleen, Goodbye,” “I’ve Made Peace Now” and “On the Road to Freedom” become rally-worthy road songs, each invested with sax solos worthy of the late Clarence Clemmons. Sure enough, as the album opens with “I Won’t Go to Memphis No More,” it bandies a rush that could wake the dead, and from there to the fiery, funky “Let’s Make a Better World” at album’s end, a mesmerizing Toms keeps those spirits stirring.
Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly
Had he not taken that ill-fated private plane ride nearly 52 years ago, Buddy Holly would have turned 75 this year, and not surprisingly, numerous tributes have appeared to mark this auspicious occasion. Both Rave On and Listen To Me gather all-star contributors and Buddy admirers to cover his classic catalog and offer their allegiance to the man many credit with advancing Rock’s nascent beginnings in the mid and late ‘50s. And yet, while most of those who pay homage outrank him in terms of marquee value, none approach their subject with as much enthusiasm and authenticity as Paul Burch does on his new album, Words of Love. Burch shares the same rural origins as Holly, and his rootsy take on these classic tracks – i.e. the fiddles that rock “Rave On,” the country picking on “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” – instills a down-home feel that Buddy and his band honed in their hometown of Lubbock early on. So too, Burch’s easy amble and engaging vocal make Words of Love sound breezy from the get-go. Lacking any dramatic turns or odd, off-kilter detours, it comes across as both heartfelt and engaging, exactly the way the master had intended.
The Farewell Drifters
With only their second album, the Farewell Drifters have hit pay dirt and made a disc that firmly establishes their distinctive sound. And distinctive it is; while the band vaguely echoes a style generally associated with Americana, their insistence on relying solely on acoustic instruments – violin, viola, mandolin, banjo and stand-up bass in particular – would seem to place them on the fringes of a traditional rock regimen. Nevertheless, their eager, ambitious sound finds them as exhilarating as any of their contemporaries. And given the “action” photo that graces the inside sleeve – reminiscent of nothing less than a still from “A Hard Days Night” – it’s clear that the spark that stirs them is as supercharged and spontaneous as any band with twice their amplification. “Tip of the Iceberg,” “Heart of the Slave” and “We Go Together” are obvious standouts, and indeed, the underlying tension generated by the pluck of viola and stand up bass on “Punchline” reflects a band clearly delivering at full potential.
Sweet to Me
(Narrow Lane Records)
Caroline Doctorow’s musical career has bequeathed an admirable repertoire, although she still resides well below the surface as far as popular acclaim is concerned. Regardless, with a rustic back porch stance that finds her akin to Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Judy Collins and Lucinda Williams, she has all the makings of an understated star. Hiring Pete Kennedy to helm her new album, the aptly titled Sweet To Me, offers all the more reason to believe that Doctorow is ready to break beyond her limited following. Likewise, an assortment of assured covers – Gordon Lightfoot’s “For Lovin’ Me,” Donovan’s “Young Girl Blues” and the ever-reliable “Gentle on my Mind” among them – gives added impetus to bring in a bigger audience. Happily though, Doctorow’s beguiling delivery and seductive prowess stand up on their own and suggest that Doctorow is not only adept but accomplished.
T Bone Burnett Presents The Speaking Clock Revue
Ostensibly a fundraiser for the support of arts and music in public schools, The Speaking Clock Revue also serves as a showcase for T Bone Burnett’s current production roster, given that every contributing artist boasts a recent association with this extraordinarily prolific producer. Not surprisingly, these live performances from the Beacon Theatre are terrific, and with luminaries like Elvis Costello, Elton John, Leon Russell. John Mellencamp and Gregg Allman on board, the quality is consistent throughout. Still, when pressed to identify standouts, the clear winners would be Allman’s reconfigured, rambling redo of “Midnight Rider,” Mellencamp’s rousing battle cry “Troubled Land,” Bridges’ spirited “Fallin’ & Flyin’” and Yim Yames (of My Morning Jacket) and his sweetly soaring ballad “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” Considering the fact that the truest indication of a live album’s success is whether or not it makes you feel like you were there, The Speaking Clock Revue ranks not only as exceptional, but essential as well.