Most of 2016 has been too cold or rainy for golf. I’ve been spending more time fishing – through the internet and record bins, I suppose, because I’ve really been running across bunches of good new music. Some of it is truly new to the market, and some of it is just new to me. A fellow asked me the other night, “what have you heard that’s new that you really like?” Since I’ve written recently about classic recordings, I figure it’s high time we talk about what’s new.
I’ve run across so much music that I really like in the last month, I’ll dedicate this post to records that were released in late 2015 and early 2016. I’ll talk another about albums released in the past that are, nevertheless, new to me.
Dub Miller – The Midnight Ambassador
Around the turn of the millennium, Lone Star State native Dub Miller was one of several promising newcomers on the Texas singer/songwriter scene that became known “Texas Country/Red Dirt.” Then he suddenly left the music business and spent over ten years working on ranches, in oil fields, even going to law school for two years. Somewhere along the way, while living in Colorado he began to ease back into music leading eventually to the release in January of The Midnight Ambassador.
I checked some of his old albums, and they’re good with better than average songs, but his new one takes it all to a much higher level. The singing and playing is better, and the songwriting is both literate and vivid in its imagery. The rather banal title of the slow-dance first cut, “Things I Love About You” lowered my expectations, but then it opens with “I like the way a big Gibson guitar sounds in a dark, empty room…And I like the way the sun shines just for me on days I’ve got nothing to do…” I was hooked. And Dub’s warm baritone voice and marvelously paced album kept me hooked all the way to the end. There are uptempo songs and waltzes, happy and sad, and a couple of ballads about honest to goodness rough as cob cowboys. There’s even a guaranteed singalong complete with call and response. Bookending the beautiful love song that starts the album is the finale – equally beautiful yet as heartbreaking a post breakup country weeper as you’ll ever hear. What holds it all together is Miller’s subtle yet expressive voice – not too smooth, not too gritty, just right as Goldilocks might say – and the quality of his writing. He reminded me a bit of Chris Wall, and as Chris would say, that’s mighty fine, mighty fine.
Here’s one of Dub’s songs about a genuine rough as cob cowboy.
Anderson East – Delilah
Anderson East’s debut album was produced by Dave Cobb, the man behind the controls for Chris Stapleton and Sturgil Simpson. So this should be another traditional sounding country record, right? Wrong. I clicked on the first tune, and from my speakers came a groove reminiscent of Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me.” I fast forward to cut two, “Satisfy Me” and we’ve got, I don’t know, Clarence Carter. And so it goes through the entire album, all the songs of which East wrote or co-wrote except one. Very impressive blue eyed soul.
I dug a little deeper and found that the album was recorded at legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals. Then I found an interview with Cobb in which he talked about his process for developing authentic sounding records. His mission with Simpson and Stapleton wasn’t to record a traditional country album. It was to record albums which were authentic to his artists, their background, their musical roots, their personalities – to who they are. Anderson East, whose real name is Michael Cameron Anderson, is from Athens, AL, not far from Muscle Shoals. The music in his bones is like the music that was in the bones of all those white studio musicians and producers from that area who grew up in the fifties and early sixties listening as much to Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as to Hank Williams. Cobb spends the time to finds his artist’s musical essence, then finds the musicians and recording space that will help bring it all out. He also likes to record it live so the performances flow naturally.
I’ll be interested to see where this fellow goes with this sound as his career proceeds. But let’s not overthink all of this. Just turn on the stereo and get your groove on.
Jason James – Jason James
Dave Cobb didn’t produce Jason James’ debut record, but the source of James musical influences are crystal clear. It’s the traditional country sounds that he heard playing on the radio and turntable while growing up in Texas. It’s the music of George Jones, of course, and the likes of Gary Stewart and Johnny Paycheck. He both writes and sings in a hard core country vernacular that sounds authentic because he is authentic. Unlike some who try too hard to get that sound, his voice is easy on the ears. Plus he was smart enough to use some of the great older studio musicians who played on records by guys he grew up hearing. As he said in an interview in Rolling Stone, “Growing up that’s what I was surrounded by. And my voice just seems to fit it.” It’s music made for a honky tonk dance floor. There are lots of drinking songs, but they’re not the bro country variety bragging about partying with a girl in tight jeans who likes Jones and Haggard. These are the drinking-through-heartache songs like Jones or Haggard would actually sing.
He wrote most of the songs himself, and an exception, “Walk Through My Heart,” he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon. Perhaps at times his vocal influences show a bit too prominently, but I’m willing to bet he’ll settle more strongly into his own voice as his career matures. For now, his writing and his choice of writing partners, players and producers fit just fine. He’s keeping darn good company, and the results show it. It’s rare to see a new artist so comfortable in old clothes. The more I listen to James the more I like him. I hope he finds an audience that will let him develop to his potential.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
I have dismissed Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks earlier in their careers as Bonnie Raitt and Duane Allman wannabes, and I foolishly assumed the same of their band. Funny how many assumptions turn out to be wrong. Recently, my son-in-law put some of this most recent album on his stereo for me, and what I heard prompted me to reassess the band. I’ve listened to the album several times, and this past weekend watched the band’s performance on “Austin City Limits” (ACL.) While my critique of Tedeschi’s and Trucks’ solo efforts may or may not be accurate, I should not have extended my attitude to their band. In a post performance interview on ACL, Trucks said that at the time he and his wife Tedeschi were considering forming a band together they had been watching a documentary on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour led by Joe Cocker in the early 1970s. Cocker’s band/entourage included all manner of musicians and singers, and the couple loved what they saw.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band (TTB) that emerged has two drummers, a bass player, a keyboard player facile on both organ and piano who also plays flute, a horn section, and a trio of back up singers who double on various rhythm instruments plus its leaders on guitars. While they may have drawn on Bonnie and Duane, they’ve used the vehicle of the band to develop something of their own. TTB is tight and professional and performs with verve. Tedeschi, who handles most vocals, and Trucks may be the headliners, but they create an ensemble approach that allows all members to enhance the whole not just accompany the stars. The TTB show I saw didn’t give me goose bumps like I got from the similarly constructed Nathaniel Raitliff & The Night Sweats on ACL the week before. Regardless, I have a feeling the TTB is built for the long haul. Already, I like this album better the more I hear it. Tedeschi and Trucks are working musicians in the best sense of the term. TTB will wear well for folks who like music drawn from the confluence of R&B, blues and a little rock ’n’ roll.
Steep Canyon Rangers – Radio
Steep Canyon Rangers (SCR) has flourished in Steve Martin’s glow as his backing bluegrass band. All the while they’ve released pretty darn good albums and built a following with their work at bluegrass festivals sans Martin. Most of their previous albums contained a couple of dandy tunes, my favorite being the rip roaring “Tell The Ones I Love,” which plays with the legend of “The Wreck of Old 97.” Yet beyond a couple more tunes, I just didn’t feel compelled to listen. I couldn’t put my fingers on why given their obvious superior musicianship.
With Radio I feel they’ve put it all together. Now I see SCR as a bluegrass band, but different. For one, they don’t have the typical high lonesome tenor dominating their vocals, yet their singing is solid with wonderful multi-part harmonies. For another, they’re the rare (maybe first) bluegrass band I’ve heard that kind of has a groove. Not a Muscle Shoals style groove – after all this is still bluegrass, but a groove nevertheless. In part this is due to the presence of a drummer, a rarity in bluegrass even today. I think it’s also the way they meticulously work out their arrangements. Finally, it may be the songs themselves. Many bluegrass bands have a driving beat, but I’d describe SCR as having rhythm. I may be drawing a fine distinction, but for me it’s one with a difference. While SCR is considered “progressive” in bluegrass parlance, producer Jerry Douglas encouraged SCR to stretch a little more. The resulting album better showcases their vocal character and instrumental dexterity. This one’s a keeper from the first track to the last.
Remembering a couple of greats from the 1970’s
In the last few weeks, we’ve lost a couple of artists who were really fine singers, players and songwriters, but whose most important contribution was to conceptualize, develop and lead two of the most influential bands in the post sixties era. I’m speaking, of course of Maurice White and Glenn Frey and their bands Earth Wind & Fire and The Eagles. If you were to ask me which albums I’d recommend if you want to revisit their music, my answer would be…
Earth Wind & Fire – Greatest Hits or Gratitude (Live)
Greatest Hits (the 1998 version with 17 cuts) has them all and they’re thrilling to hear – the vocals and musicianship and the punch, power and beauty of the music that White and his cohorts brought forth from so many roots impact the heart, body and soul. Gratitude, the live album, contains concert pacing and includes several of their biggest hits, most notably an extended version of “Reasons” that soars to a scintillating ending not heard on the studio version.
The Eagles – Long Road Out Of Eden (disc 1)
The Eagles seventies hits have worn a tad thin for me, but I really like disc 1 of their last original CD from 2007. (I don’t know why but disc 2 comes off to me as self indulgent. Rarely does any band have enough good material for a double CD.) They’re all in good voice on their leads and to me the very best they’ve ever sounded on their harmonies. It’s superb collaborative singing that belies the well publicized tensions in the band. And the playing is equally superb and beautifully recorded, so you hear the intricacies of their work.