THE READING ROOM: The Grace of Good Albums in 2019
Photo by BRRT / Pixabay
Christmas is supposed to represent a time when light shines in the darkness: the darkness of winter’s bleak, short days; the darkness that shrouds the hearts of men and women in society; the darkness that blankets any hope for renewal. Christmas, with its lights and festive colors, promises to bring deliverance, but it too often brings more darkness than light to our world these days. The greatest promise of Christmas is not the light it shines but in the attitude of charity and grace it fosters. We give gifts, and we receive gifts, and we’re grateful for the unmerited grace we’re given when we receive a physical package or a hug or a letter from an estranged relative.
I’ve been grateful this year, once again, for the gift of music. I am grateful to the artists who have toured tirelessly because they love the music they write and play and because they want so much to share it with others. I am grateful to the songwriters, singers, and musicians whose lyrics and music help make this dark world a lighter place, who brighten the corners wherever they are and wherever their music can be heard. I am grateful for the music that keeps us dancing, laughing, crying, hoping, and loving, and I am grateful that music still has the power to transport us momentarily from the difficulties in our lives and to transform the world around us.
In my final column of 2019, I share a small portion of the music for which I am thankful, and about which I have not had the chance to write this year, listed in no particular order.
George Ducas – Yellow Rose Motel
The first song on Ducas’ album, “Don’t Leave Her Lonely,” is a perfect straight-ahead country rocker, and the album only gets better after that. Ducas (“Lipstick Promises”) is a canny songwriter who tells stories in his songs with a nod and a wink and whose music shimmers with energy.
Donna Ulisse – Time for Love
Ulisse is a songwriter’s songwriter — she was the 2016 IBMA Songwriter of the Year and the 2017 SPBGMA Songwriter of the Year — and her new album illustrates her ability to weave humor, pathos, and love in tunes from the soaring bluegrass gospel of “I Am Not Afraid” to the tongue-in-cheek, calypso love song “Magazine Rack.” Ulisse’s pure vocals shine brightly, warming every track on the album.
Gene Clark – No Other
One of the best reissues of the year brings back Clark’s 1974 album — filled with echoes of psychedelia, folk, and soul — that dropped into obscurity almost as soon as it was released, something Clark never really got over. The set includes memorable versions of the song that Clark wrote with Bernie Leadon, “Train Leaves Here This Morning” (which the Eagles recorded on their first album), “Silver Raven,” and “Life’s Greatest Fool.”
The Viscaynes & Friends – The Viscaynes & Friends
This reissue provides a glimpse of Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone)’s first band, The Viscaynes, a doo-wop group out of Vallejo, California. The album is also, in part, a tribute to their producer George Mottola, who produced The Individuals and The Precisions, two other groups whose songs are on the album. The tight harmonies of The Viscaynes propel the melancholy “Yellow Moon,” the longing of “Heavenly Angel,” and the pleading of “Help Me with My Broken Heart.” The songs feature a young Sly Stone playing what would become some of his characteristic guitar licks, and the album adds yet another page to the history of doo-wop music.
Emily Duff – Hallelujah Hello
Duff raises the church roof with her soulful vocals on the stunningly moving album. Songs such as “Jesus Love This Tired Woman” and “Eggs All Day” — in which heaven is depicted as a diner where food feeds the soul just as it sustains the body — are highlights on Duff’s powerful album.
Emily Scott Robinson – Traveling Mercies
The sparse beauty of the title track on Robinson’s album imbues the entire album with a stark splendor that radiates grace and mercy and love.
Steve Conn – Flesh and Bone
Conn casts a haunting musical spell with his cascading piano chords — whether it’s the striding jazz of “Famous,” the somber operatic tone of “Annalee,” or the bluesy swing of “Let Me Cry” — and his mesmerizing vocals that can capture poignant the ache of loss and the little, sometimes imperceptible, joys of life.
Harlem Gospel Travelers – He’s On Time
Eli “Paperboy” Reed put together this quartet when he met its members singing in a program in Harlem called Gospel for Teens. The quartet delivers energetic harmonies and leads, ranging from the transcendent “If You Can’t Make It Through the Storm” and the Soul Stirrers-like “Am I Doing Enough” to the swaying and swinging title track. He’s On Time pushes gospel music out of the realm of the choir and into the more intimate world of the music delivered by quartets.
Kalie Shorr – Open Book
Laying it all bare on this album, Shorr delivers a powerful take-no-prisoners set of songs that celebrate the freedom from being stuck in a bad relationship and that embrace the joy of being on one’s own. Shorr powerful vocals and insightful lyrics recall Miranda Lambert’s early work, and with this album Shorr certainly joins the ranks of Lambert, Carrie Underwood, and Maren Morris.
Various Artists – No Other Love: Midwest Gospel, 1965-1978
This stunning collection recovers rare black gospel from the Midwest — mostly from Chicago — and illustrates the ways gospel music reflects the hopes, disappointments, and challenges of communities and individuals. The songs collected here — such as Rev. H.H. Harrington’s “Black Pride” and “Christmas in Heaven” — demonstrate the ways that concerns about social justice are woven inextricably into gospel music. A rich collection.
Jude Johnstone – Living Room
Johnstone dwells in a sonically spacious universe within her living room in these spare, affecting songs that move us and stir our souls.
Gloria Gaynor – Testimony
The singer who promised “I Will Survive” in 1979 has always been a gospel singer, and here she testifies on soaring versions of classics such as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (where’s she’s joined by Mike Farris, Bart Millard, and Jason Crabb in moving call-and-response vocals) and “Talkin’ ‘Bout Jesus” and originals such as “Back on Top.” Testimony is a soul-stirring album.
And the best of the rest …
Ariana Gillis – The Maze
The Sensational Barnes Brothers – Nobody’s Fault but My Own
Elizabeth King and the Gospel Souls – The D-Vine Spirituals Recordings
Renée Wahl and the Sworn Secrets – Cut to the Bone
Steep Canyon Rangers – North Carolina Songbook
Uncle Walt’s Band – An American in Texas
Michael Cleveland – Tall Fiddler
Ghalia – Mississippi Blend
Resonant Rogues – Autumn of the World
Dori Freeman – Every Single Star
Ali Shumate – Every Bit of Me
Melody Guy – Dry the Rivers
The Way Down Wanderers – Illusions
Beth Bombara – Evergreen
Cindy Lee Berryhill – Garage Orchestra
Cindy Lee Berryhill – Straight Outta Marysville