So far in 2017, I’ve seen a boatload of new music that fits easily under the big tent of Classic CowjazzR&B, to mix at least two metaphors. In the first couple of weeks of February, I was almost overwhelmed by the number and variety of promising looking albums. About half of them proved to be inconsequential, but many turned out upon repeated listening to be great joys. Subsequently, despite a few quiet weeks, the flow of top shelf music has continued.
For this week and the next couple of weeks, therefore, I will pass along to you my recommendations for what I consider the best new releases of the first third of the year. No doubt you may have heard about some of these already, but I hope I’ve found some you love but missed. These will be “quickie” reviews rather than more lengthy descriptions and back stories. Bottom line: I want you to know about these albums. We’ll start with four:
- Louisianna swamp R&B,
- classic country,
- contemporary “commercial” country with classic vocal chops,
- and a folk album that is contemporary in presentation yet 60’s era classic in commitment to justice.
Shiny Ribs – I Got Your Medicine
Shiny Ribs leader Kevin Russell was formerly frontman for Austin based band The Gourds. This amazing group was grounded somewhere near the nexus of progressive country and R&B. Russell’s vision, given shape with Shiny Ribs, took him further toward R&B. His new band came to my attention via my youngest brother and his friends who attend Merlefest every year. Their first few albums had some great and some not so great tunes, in my opinion. With this album, he hits his stride as one of the most fun, entertaining and yet never slick acts I’ve heard in a long time. When a song with as much crowd appeal as “I Don’t Give A S- – t” is not even the best song on the album, well it’s a damn fine, fun album. You’ll have to get up off your butt and let it all loose.
Allison Krauss – Windy City
Buddy Cannon, who has brilliantly produced Willie Nelson’s last couple of albums, helped Krauss select and develop a marvelous collection of mid-twentieth century album cuts and B-sides by some of country’s best songwriters. As you listen to her voice float over the melodies, you’ll wonder why they weren’t all top ten tunes like “Gentle On My Mind,” which was one of the few here that were. She’s terrific and the arrangements and musicians are first rate. There are several highlights, but my favorite is Roger Miller’s beautiful “River In The Rain” from his score for the Broadway re-imagining of Huckleberry Finn, Big River.
Tony Jackson – Tony Jackson
Quick – name an African American country music singer other than Charlie Pride. Darius Rucker doesn’t count. And when I listened to the first cut of Tony Jackson’s first album, I thought, heck, I could be listening to Darius or any number of young faux country artists. But then I got into the meat of the album, and I found one of the best country voices I’ve ever heard. Unlike Pride, Jackson didn’t grow up on country music. It didn’t cross his radar until he found himself as a US Marine in the middle east, far from home. Much later after quite a few years as a bank executive, he started singing. Fortunately for us he hasn’t stopped. Although he’s quite facile on contemporary pop country, his real strength is classic country. He tackles toughies like George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Conway Twitty’s breakout hit, “It’s Only Make Believe” with aplomb. Another particular favorite is the John Sebastian tune, “Last Call.” Tony proves sometimes commercial is cool.
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Rhiannon Giddens proved on her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn that she’s an extraordinary talent capable of singing in just about any genre she chooses. Her voice is rich and able to be both powerful and subtle, sometimes within the same song. She can be blue, she can be gay.
Giddens can also be angry, and she can be mournful. She is at heart a folk singer. Not the sappy variety. Freedom Highway in fact has a sharper point of view than her debut. Some of her songs make you a bit uncomfortable. Some lift your spirit. All of them have strong stories to tell. And her voice compels you to listen, to cry, to laugh, to rejoice in her talent.
Giddens was born a decade after the folk boom. Regardless, she can certainly carry the torch for the likes of Odetta, Judy Collins, Mary Travers (of Peter Paul & Mary) and fellow banjoist Pete Seeger. For evidence, check out her album’s title song written by Pops Staples for the Staples Singers in 1965.
Okay folks, these are my first but by no means final four picks from 2017’s bumper crop. Stay tuned next week for four or five more.