On the one hand, this is a terrible time to be a recording artist. The digital market place has decimated royalties and a new business model friendly to artists has not emerged. In addition, the consolidation of record companies and the preponderance of “suits” in control of what gets released by major labels and what gets played on commercial radio has driven songs that become hits to the lowest common denominator. Still, somehow quality music keeps pouring forth from independent artists of all stripes.
As regular readers know, this blog is not really about reviews of the “hot” new releases. I’m searching for quality performances in the classic forms of country, R&B, folk and jazz whether it was released last week or last century. As regular readers know, I rarely write about an album until I’ve listened to it at least a half dozen times. I want to be sure it’s something I want in my record collection for a long time before I recommend you add it to yours. So much good music has been released already in 2016 that I can’t keep up, much less mine the vaults. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it’s the worst of times; it’s the best of times” as really good songwriters, singers and musicians somehow manage to find a way to our ears and hearts.
Here are a few recent releases in multiple genres that I feel meet the test:
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Margo Price could be Loretta Lynn’s heiress. Compare these lyrics, straight talking to her wayward man:
“I’ve given you four years of chances,
but you threw ‘em all away,
I gave you one thousand four hundred sixty-one days”
to Loretta’s “Don’t come home drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind.”
Or she could be Merle Haggard’s daughter. Again compare these lyrics:
“Cause all I wanna do is make a little cash,
I’ve worked all the bad jobs, bustin’ my ass,
I wanna buy back the farm, bring my momma home some wine,
And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time.”
to Merle’s in “If We Make It Through December” or “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.”
Or she could be both. I’m not sure what else I can say other than this is the best country album I’ve heard since Chris Stapleton’s Traveller.
Margo Price’s voice has that combination of vulnerability and feistiness that marked classic singers like Loretta and Kitty Wells. And like Merle, her songwriting deals with mature themes be it stories of the little guy getting screwed once again, or the broken hearted turning to the bottle, sinking into despair or a little of both. Her lyrics are clever but never cute. She can deal straight from the top of the deck, or turn a phrase tinged with humor or irony. Yet she always clothes even her sad songs in melodies that catch your ear with tempos that pull you up out of your chair for a lively two step or a tender waltz.
Despite my references to musical legends, Price is not a retro act. I’d describe her as neo – classic in the best sense of the word. She takes classic forms as a foundation and builds something new from there. I like her album better with every play, and it’s probably going to make my top 100. What a pair it makes with Loretta’s recent release, Full Circle. And on top of all that, she proves she can honky tonk with the best on “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle.)”
Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day
The first track of this album comes roaring out of the box sounding like a wild combination of Robert Plant and Richie Havens. I have to warn you; Millsap is probably not for everybody, but his voice, his songs and his primarily acoustic band – especially his fiddler/violinist – grabbed me by the ear and wouldn’t let go. No, it doesn’t maintain the intensity of the first song throughout. If it did, it would be an acoustic Led Zeppelin album. I can say that, while the themes of his songs are both current and universal, the music sounds like something the teen age Elvis might have heard on trips to visit his relatives down in Mississippi. It’s right at that juncture where folk and delta blues intersect with gospel just before it becomes rock ’n roll.
Millsap grew up in the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Oklahoma, and he brings that fervor and passion to both his rave-ups like the opener, “Hades Pleads,” or quieter tracks like “Pining” or “Heaven Sent.” In addition to his compelling singing, he’s quite a story teller. In that sense, his music is more folk than country or Americana. While he often sings in the first person, he made clear in an interview for NPR last February, the “I” of the song is not him; rather, it’s a character in the song. The comment reminded me of an article I read some time ago about Merle Haggard in which he said most of his songs were not as autobiographical as many thought. Rather when he got the idea for a story he wanted to tell in song, he tried to put himself in the character’s place and imagine how he might think or feel in the particular situation. Merle was a master at it, and Parker Millsap is pretty darn good at it, too. The NPR article described him as a charismatic live performer. If he carries what I hear on record to the stage, it’s a show I want to see.
(And for a fun change of pace, find the You Tube of his performance of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me.”)
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony
So two guys and two girls meet at the New England Conservatory of Music, decide to become a country music band, and rather quickly dump that to develop a retro mash-up of Motown soul, early 60’s Brill Building pop-rock and pre – Sergeant Pepper Beatles. Then after dumping various side projects, cutting an album delayed a couple of years by contract disputes, and playing several hundred live performances dates, they team up with Dave Cobb, Nashville’s country revivalist producer du jour who enables Lake Street Dive to roll where they want to go. Voila, the result is a thoroughly entertaining throw back romp of hummable melodies, catchy lyrics, enticing singing and great playing – and a title tune named after a rather too cute hair style adopted by Bridget Kearney, who otherwise plays a mean upright bass and sings beguiling harmony.
I could easily say the star of the show is lead singer Rachel Price because she’s damn good. But given where they met, you know that would shortchange the contributions of the other three – Mike “McDuck” Olson, trumpet and guitar, Mike Calabrese, drums, and Kearney – who do most of the songwriting, play all manner of instruments and provide strong backing vocals. Rarely do you get so rich a sound from just four musicians without electronic tricks. Their uptempo numbers are exhilarating, but I’ve chosen the video for the album cut “Mistakes” because I think it so nicely shows off their musical chops.
Folks, these kids are flat talented, have worked hard to build their sound, and love making entertaining music that works as well live as it does on vinyl, CD or digital. It sounds frivolous, but so did King & Goffin until you listened a little closer. Just enjoy that a group this talented wants to entertain you. They’ve put the work in to do it as shown on this video recorded on a sidewalk in Boston way back in 2012.
Garry Tallent – Break Time
After discussing all these newbies, you surely expected I’d bring up an old graybeard didn’t you? If the name sounds familiar, it should. He is a founding member and bassist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and is thus in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also spent many years in Nashville producing for the likes of Jim Lauderdale and playing with folks ranging from Gary US Bonds to Robert Earl Keen and Greg Trooper about whom I wrote in a previous post. The album sounds like a collection of rootsy, at times country tinged R&B tunes from the 1950’s, but in fact every song was co-written by Tallent. He apparently culled from his collection, those that were most evocative of what he said has “always been my favorite era of music,” according to backstreets.com. He even has a couple of guys from back in the day like Duane Eddy and Doug Kershaw join him in the merry making. Kristi Rose deserves special mention for her duet turn on “Stay Away” cowritten by Southside Johnny Lyon.
Tallent is a pro knows how to use his limited voice to serve the song. He’s also a marvelous musician and songwriter with a great ear for fun music evocative of the period he wants to honor with this album. Call it a sleeper, if you want. I guarantee you’ll keep coming back to it when you want to lighten the load of the day, or pick up the mood in a gathering of friends. Relax, crack open a cold one, and put it on.