You’ll never find me complaining about the about the amount of worthy new releases that arrive on my doorstep on a weekly basis. No way! But I do have to admit that it often gets overwhelming trying to keep up and give attention to all the efforts that are so deserving. Consequently, this particular edition of Lee’s Listening Stack is probably best referred to as Lee’s Listening MOUNTAIN – and a mountain that seems to take forever to scale. But with the imminent arrival of the holidays, I decided to play catch-up and highlight some of the worthier recordings offered up at year’s end. With your indulgence, allow me to dig in…
Songs from the South Volumes 1&2
The A-Z Recordings
To call Australia’s Paul Kelly one of the greatest singer/songwriters of the past 30 years may seem like hyperbole to those unfamiliar with the man’s vast body of work, but anyone even vaguely aware of his career will likely find themselves nodding freely in agreement. Despite a number of early albums released here in the States, Kelly still falls well below the radar, a sad fact considering the adulation he’s deservedly garnered back home. Fortunately, latecomers have opportunity to catch up via both the easy overview provided by Songs from the South or, following the example of more diehard devotees, the exhaustive A-Z Recordings, an accumulation of live acoustic performances that found Kelly revisiting literally every song in his catalogue. With 40 songs on the former and eight discs comprising the latter, three’s ample listening that needs to be done, but those that undertake the total experience will find themselves rewarded with heartfelt, incisive and world weary observations that create in retrospect what can only be described as an infinitely indelible impression.
The Bridge School Concerts
The annual Bridge School celebration has become one of the most anticipated concert fests on the planet, attracting the music world’s most diverse array of superstars (where else would one find a line-up that teams Sonic Youth with Tony Bennett) for a cause well touting. For the past 25 years, Neil Young has proven a formidable host and organizer as he’s donned the role of chief fundraiser for this school for children with special needs. Naturally, two CDs and three DVDs only begin to sample the vast array of exceptional performances that have highlighted this fest, but with contributions from Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, REM, Elton John, the Who and naturally Young himself, it’s a pretty impressive package nonetheless. The DVDs provide more of a flavor of the actual event, with all the good vibes practically oozing from every frame, but even based on the audio performances alone, its obvious each artist is there to give their all. In addition, 25 performances available only on I Tunes fill out the festivities and make acquisition that much more worthwhile.
Rock N’ Raw – Live
The Doughboys story is an unusual one to say the least, a tale of boyhood pals who naively set their sights on rock ‘n’ roll stardom only to go their own ways once school ended and careers and responsibilities called. At least one of their number, drummer and future multi-instrumental wunderkind Richard X Heyman went on to achieve the kind of success the band only dreamed of. Heyman’s had a prodigious career -- after 25 years, this power pop yeoman boasts a catalogue of material that’s not only exceptionally accessible but also sets the standard as far as radio-ready fare is concerned. So it was with some generosity on Heyman’s part that he opted to reunite with his former band mates and bring the Doughboys the kind of respectability they yearned for the first time around. Consequently, the band can boast several albums in their current incarnation, but Rock N’ Raw brings them to a new level of intent, boasting as it does a film-length documentary about their road from past to present and an explosive live performance that’s reason enough for renewed interest. A second disc features the audio portion of that performance, an example of the gritty, R&B based garage grunge that does due diligence to their early ‘60s influences. Rock ‘n’ roll revelry at its finest.
Live at Montreux
In the late ‘70s, with punk at its peak, four journeyman rockers – Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams – proved that rock could readily embrace that ethos by going back to the basics. It helped of course that Edmunds and Lowe were outstanding songwriters as well – songs like “Girls Talk” and “So It Goes” are still classics of the era – but it was their combined penchant for revisiting the sounds of the ‘50s and ‘60s that set them apart. This live performance, recorded in 1980 in the unlikely setting of the Montreux Jazz Festival, proves that point. Culling tracks from their solo careers as well as from their sole studio collaboration, it offers 16 blazing examples of virtuosity, savvy and know how. Thirty years after the fact, it’s still mesmerizing and capable of inspiring more than an occasional sing-along or air guitar exhibition. “Let It Rock,” Graham Parker’s “Crawling From the Wreckage” and “Girls Talk” still remain fine examples of their pub rock regimen, which finds strength in simplicity and energy in earnest. Given the effusive vibe – and Lowe’s prodigious solo career notwithstanding -- it begs the question of whether they’ll ever reunite.
The Singing Mailman Delivers
In 1970, John Prine was still an aspiring songwriting, making his living by working as a mail carrier for Uncle Sam while maintaining his dreams of being a songsmith full time. The Singing Mailman Delivers references that time in his still nascent career, when he was bargaining for studio time and playing his new music for early audiences who likely didn’t realize they were witnessing the gestation of a genius. These early demos will be a source of fascination to Prine’s devoted legions, those who now consider him one of the godfathers of an instinctive Americana that leaned heavily on blue-collar roots. Even at this early stage, Prine’s talents were already revealed – in songs like “Hello in There,” “Souvenirs” and “Great Society Conflict Blues,” where pathos and satire were blended in equal measure. Disc two, recorded live in November 1970, is equally intriguing, and here too, tracks like “Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery” suggest the promise of the greatness that was to come. It’s notable too that Prine slips in a medley of two Hank Williams numbers, “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Jambalaya,” drawing a line from past to present that would inevitably shape his future.
The Cologne Concert
Emerging from Greenwich Village around the same time as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens and the other folk laureates of the early ‘60s, Eric Andersen achieved his own success by penning any number of immortal classics. After several seminal efforts on the prestigious Vanguard label, he did a short stint on Warner Brothers and then switched to Columbia, where he recorded his most enduring effort, the album Blue River. Blessed with good lucks and a deep but engaging vocal, Andersen's achieved a special bond with his fans, particularly in Europe where he now resides part time. The Cologne Concert, recorded early last year, mines various periods in his career, culling Blue River’s title track and the sensitive, sensual ballads “Time Run Like a Freight Train” and “Woman She Was Gentle,” two longtime staples of his sets. It also introduces a pair of new additions to his canon, “Dance of Love and Death” and “Sinking Deep Into You,” each a testament to Andersen’s enduring ability to wring rich emotion. A cover of the aforementioned Mr. Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” also finds an ideal blend, one that resonates though the power of Andersen’s hypnotic delivery. Though only seven songs deep, The Cologne Concert is as memorable as it is mesmerizing.
Michael Martin Murphey
Tall Grass & Cool Water
Michael Martin Murphy’s affinity for cowboy songs and the American West goes back to his beginnings, when he was simply another rural troubadour with the simpler moniker Michael Murphey. Songs like “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines” attest to his love of America’s hinterlands, but it’s his recent series of “Cowboy Songs” and his hosting of the West Fest music festivals that find him firmly in the saddle with lasso in hand. This latest set of songs borrows heavily from tradition, with such well-known standards as “Cool Water,” “Santa Fe Trail,” “The Ballad of Jesse James” and “Springtime in the Rockies” succumbing to Murphey’s melodious treatment. As always, he evokes the sights and sounds of faraway places where space and satisfaction still offer refuge in these troubled times. Consider this then an excellent, evocative set from a performer who shares a spirit we all can believe in.
Joy Kills Sorrow
This Unknown Science
Mining an organic sound that relies primarily on the pluck of banjo, mandolin, cello and keyboards, Joy Kills Sorrow’s second album goes for a spare approach, some wistful reflection and an unobtrusive attitude that seduces even on first listening. Hints of folk and bluegrass are clearly evident, but Emma Beaton's haunting vocals offer an overall caress that keeps things on an even keel. The sparse arrangements may sound unobtrusive, but the band’s unerring charms and lilting melodies quickly take hold and lend a quiet charm that takes hold from the get-go. Even when their narratives touch on troubled circumstance – as described in songs such as “Reservations,” “Wouldn’t Have Noticed” and “Somewhere Over the Atlantic” – they still sound soothing, even despite any unsettling implications. Happily though, there’s truth in advertising and Joy Kills Sorrow becomes an apt description of a sound that trumpets any adversity.
Morphine and Cupcakes
Tear Stained Records
With her dreamy delivery and a cover photo that’s both sensual and seductive, Australia’s Emily O’Halloran takes her rightful place as the latest Americana siren to deliver songs obsessed with twilight tones. Morphine and Cupcakes marks her debut, but with its sobering sentiment and hazy nocturnal ambiance, O’Halloran proves she’s a master of the form, bringing to mind other knowing artists like, say, Lucinda Williams or Kasey Chambers in rare states of repose. O’Halloran’s sobering stance reflects her vagabond youth, time spent hitchhiking across the continent and plying her craft in an array of disparate locales. Consequently, her worldly ruminations seem unobtrusive at first, but the sentiment that brews below the surface quickly becomes all too apparent, particularly in songs like “Sorry,” “Kindness” and her obscure Dylan cover “Billy,” which she literally makes her own. Hauntingly beautiful, Morphine and Cupcakes makes for a most auspicious debut.
Another Lost Highway
Whether he’s vetting bluegrass, honky tonk or classic country, Arty Hill provides proof he’s the real deal, a happy-go-lucky heartland crooner who’s equally adept at a back porch ballad or a rowdy barroom serenade. In fact, Another Lost Highway provides a perfect blueprint for what a real down home dissertation ought to be, its adroit arrangements allowing enough of an edgy attitude to make it all gel effectively. Hill has the voice of a rugged redneck troubadour, suggesting a style imbued by Hank Williams, stirred by Waylon Jennings, but as tireless and timeless as Willie Nelson while taking to the road -- or a highway -- once more. Song titles like “Roll Me a Song,” “12 Pack Morning,” Halfway House” and “Victoria’s Secret Is Safe With Me” suggest that for all his roughshod ways, Hill still manages to plant tongue firmly in cheek whenever the occasion may call for. And that gives this good old boy a leg up on the competition and all the more reason to grab some brews and share his sentiments.
Friends of Fall
Despite several key personnel changes, Crooked Still still carries on under their common brand, purveying a beguiling blend of spare bluegrass and folksy Americana. The latest result of that endeavor is this charming seasonal selection of seven songs neatly stitched together by singer Aoife O’Donovan’s assured but unobtrusive vocals and the band’s lithe and delicate tapestries. Of particular note are their surprisingly spirited renditions of the Beatles’ “We Can Work it Out” and an especially touching take on Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” a song that taps their yearning essence to a tee. Despite its brevity, Friends of the Fall proves comforting indeed.
Having crafted a sound that melds stadium-sized hooks with nuanced melodies and swelling sentiments, Golden Bear deliver a third album that lives up to its name in more ways than one. Despite the fact that they hail from Austin, this is not your typical Americana outfit; to the contrary, their spacious sound and muscular refrains provide a bold, broad MO, one that can accommodate both the daring designs of songs like “The Juggernaut” and “Prospect Park” as well as the ornate instincts of “Who We Are.” Muscular yet melodic, Golden Bear seems poised to make their mark, not only in its hometown but in destinations far beyond. Indeed, the fact that they don’t fit easily into any particular niche should serve them well, attracting listeners who find their well-crafted tunes too compelling to resist.
Live at the US Festival
Live at the US Festival
Organized by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, the short-lived US Festival achieved a heightened degree of notoriety during its two years of activity, 1982 and 1983. Consequently, these two DVDs -- recorded on what was billed as “Country Day” on June 4, 1983 – boast some degree of historical significance. Waylon and Willie were riding high on their reputations as originators of the insurgent outlaw country ethos, and in set lists that culled from their best known songs – Waylon’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” “Good Hearted Woman” and “Luckenback Texas,” Willie’s “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Whiskey River” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and the duo’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (shared on both discs) – there’s a clear-eyed confidence that finds them at the top of their game. Sadly, Waylon’s no longer with us, but in looking back at these classic concerts, the timelessness of these performances is readily apparent. Fans of modern country and country crossover music will find each of these offerings essential.
Fearing & White
Two intrepid troubadours, one from Ireland by way of Australia, the other a native Canadian, meet at a folk festival and establish a friendship and collaboration that transcends the distance that finds them half a world apart. Surprisingly then, Stephen Fearing and Andy White find a camaraderie that makes that separation seem irrelevant. To be sure, it took more than a dozen years to bring this partnership to fruition, but the easy, breezy interaction belies any awkward interaction. The songs veer from supple to sublime, the sound of two singular singer/songwriters bound by a common vision and finding mutual ground in their quiet melodies, an upbeat attitude and a simple acoustic setting. Fans of each will find plenty to cheer about, but the sum of the two parts makes an even more rewarding whole. Let’s hope they find time and opportunity to do more.
The Deep Dark Woods
The Place I left Behind
With three outstanding efforts behind them, this Canadian combo pulls out all the stops to deliver their best record yet, a set of songs drenched in both sobriety and optimism, propelled by melodies that quickly work their way under the skin even on first hearing. Drawing from a winsome roots rock template, even their saddest songs come across as vibrant and engaging, thanks to the rich arrangements and a knowing nod to subtle hooks and gentle refrains. In songs like the buoyant “Westside Street” and the mournful title track, they seize on the sentiment, as if relaying narratives wholly intended to kindle lessons in humility and humanity. At first, The Place I left Behind offers a soothing and seductive impression, but in fact this is music that rouses rather than lulls, leaving something new to discover with every listen. It’s clearly a candidate to be christened one of the year’s best examples of exemplary Americana.
Sooner Or Later
The V-Roys benefited from their short-lived association as a backing band for Steve Earle, but their talents truly blossomed when they ventured out on their own, offering up a gruff, gritty roots rock sound befitting their eastern Tennessee origins. In retrospect, they were some kind of super group, boasting astute songwriters in Scott Miller, John Paul Keith and Mic Harrison and a crack rhythm section consisting of drummer Jeff Bills and bassist Paxton Seller. Imbuing their alt-country sound with an edgy, earnest attitude, they had the potential for wide appeal, and with the release of this excellent compilation, they may finally get their due. It culls 18 of their most formidable offerings, and while song titles like “Cold Beer Hello,” “Goodnight Loser” and “Kick Me Around” indicate they’re not much for messing around, the sentiment is consistently heartfelt, the delivery compelling. In many ways they provided a template for many of the roots rockers that continue to flourish, specifically the Drive By Truckers and Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit, two outfits that quickly come to mind. Hopefully too they’ll finally get their due. At any rate, for now anyway Sooner Or Later is a riveting collection that creates a stunning impression from start to finish.
The Compete Columbia Albums Collection
For some this may seem just another Byrds rehash, but released in tandem with other box sets compiling Columbia’s catalogue, its really much more of a treasure. Like similar sets Sony is releasing simultaneously – collections that tap catalogues from ELO, Earth Wind and Fire, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Nina Simone among others – the Byrds box offers all the band’s albums released on the Columbia imprint and neatly packages them in miniature cardboard copies of the original album sleeves to garner collectors’ approval. Not that you’d want to read them; in reducing their size, the original liner notes have become practically impossible to decipher. Fortunately, an extensive booklet is also included, providing detailed notes on each specific song, and in turn, a fact-filled narrative about the band’s trajectory. All the bonus tracks affixed to the last set of reissues remain intact, which, like before, expand a couple of the entries into two disc sets. Some may grouse that there are no additional outtakes or rarities added to this sumptuous collection, and that’s a viable point. Yet, even so, given the bonus treatment accorded the last time around, there’s more than enough to satisfy the fan that wants everything all in one place. And indeed, this box provides a tidy compendium that finds its own place of honor.
Lorrie Singer & Bradley Kopp
A Deep Oasis
Bradley Kopp, a notable Austin producer and songwriter, and erstwhile partner Lorrie Singer are a compatible pair, possessing the sort of synergy and savvy that’s branded every successful boy-girl combination from Loretta and Conway, up through Johnny and June and Gram and Emmylou. Like those forebears, they glean from a rich rootsy precedent, all back porch rambles and sweet, swaying sentiment. They receive ample support along the way – Iain Matthews, Mark Hallman, Paul Pearcy and other Kopp clients and associates tag along for the ride – but the basic strengths of this set lie in Singer and Kopp’s traded vocals and the effortless rapport they maintain throughout. The down home sentiments are easy but assured and clearly come naturally, but the songwriting stands out as well, particularly the beautiful ballads “Cowgirl Souvenir,” “America Walking By” and “The Savage Ways of Man.” Obviously Kopps ought to get out from behind the board more often, because when he does, the results are as superb as they are satisifying.
Now entrenched in the fourth – or maybe fifth – incarnation of their career, Strawbs ably soldier on, exploiting their unique standing as one of Britain’s most able prog folk outfits of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Not that there was a whole lot of competition; after all, the two parts to the whole – folk and prog -- rarely existed in the same sphere. Nonetheless, Dave Cousins and company can claim a lot more laurels than merely being the first refuge for such notable names as Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman. These days, Cousins has built an entire cottage industry revolving around reissues, vintage live performances and the continuing efforts of an acoustic version of Strawbs, one which delicately strips away the over-the-top voracity of the middle period band (which followed in the wake of their earliest acoustic incarnation) and provides unplugged examples of the band’s best loved material. Acoustic Gold culls the best of recent releases, touches on several classics (“Benedictus,” “The Man Who Called Himself Jesus,” “Grace Darling”) and adds a handful of unreleased tracks to please the completist. It’s well worth the investment.
The Beau Brummels
Along with Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Moby Grape’s eponymous debut and Workingman’s Dead, Bradley’s Barn was one of those definitive albums of the late ‘60s, one that not only set a new course for its creators, but also helped redefine the notion of Rock and Americana. Sadly, it only achieved that prominence in retrospect; the second stage in the Beau Brummels’ modest chart achieving career, it arrived well after the group peaked commercially and well before any notion of country rock was universally unveiled. Still, for Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott, the band’s two prime movers, the move to Nashville signaled a bold artistic investment and one which is now looked upon with awe and appreciation in terms of setting a roots rock standard. Rhino’s expansion of the original disc into a two disc, 37 song opus offers the due recognition this album deserves via demos, alternate versions, unreleased outtakes and some solo Valentino tracks that haven’t been unearthed up until now. Well after the fact it takes its place as a California classic.
Loudon Wainwright III
40 Odd years
Loudon Wainwright is that rare breed of singer/songwriter, one who can elicit tears from his sad reflections and recollections, or prompt a broad belly laugh while noting the absurdities of the silliness we humans proffer. He’s been at for more than 40 (odd) years and aside from his talented offspring (Rufus, Martha, Suzy and Sloan Wainwright), he leaves behind enough great songs to fill this superb four CD/single DVD box. There’s so much great material in fact, its clearly a challenge to know where to begin, although by including early classics like “Dead Skunk” and “The Swimming Song” the novice will likely enter the fray with disc one, while the true aficionado will relish the fourth disc of unreleased tracks and the DVD that includes, among other gems, footage from a Dutch documentary, BBC appearances, musical numbers from Saturday Night Live and various concert performances. Having seen him this past February on the Cayamo Cruise, I can attest to the fact that Wainwright is not only a remarkable entertainer but the epitome of a consummate songsmith, and for those intent of coming to their own conclusion, this excellent box set will provide all the proof needed.