Midland – On The Rocks
Imagine that somehow your travels have taken you to a small town in west Texas, maybe Abilene, San Angelo or Big Spring. You’re by yourself with nothing to do, so after washing down a chicken fried steak with a couple of beers, you mosey down to the nearest honky tonk. There on stage are three guys who look a bit like the Flying Burrito Brothers and sound like George Strait meets seventies LA country rock. Before you know it the music drags you out onto the dance floor in the arms of a friendly cowgirl wearing tight jeans and cowboy boots and off you go two-steppin’ in the great counterclockwise circular sea of folks from eight to eighty having a damn good time.
It takes awhile, but soon you realize these guys are a cut above. They can play; they can sing in harmony. You haven’t even noticed until now that this is not the typical small town cover band. They’re playing their own songs – catchy melodies, traditional country lyric themes – and nobody’s throwing bottles through the chicken wire fronting the stage. And like I’ve said once before already, everybody’s having fun. Sometimes that’s all you want from a batch of tunes.
Lizz Wright – Grace
My first impression of Lizz Wright’s newest release Grace was that this is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard in any genre. I know I shouldn’t say something like that because the album, no matter how beautiful, may never be able to live up to that hype. Yet repeated listens continue to affirm my first impression. Grace seemed such an apt moniker that I looked up the formal definition of the word. While it has several, the first became the title for this blog post because it so well described the feeling I derived as the songs flowed through the album.
A Georgia native and now part time North Carolinian, Wright grew up musically in the church as did so many wonderful singers from Aretha Franklin to Parker Millsap. Although they cross many genres, their music has an innate soulfulness in common.
Wright’s music simmers at the nexus of folk, gospel and jazz. Although she’s written many songs for her previous albums, this one includes only one co-write. The others are drawn from an eclectic mix of songwriters like Allen Toussaint, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, Cortez Franklin and this number by Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.
When I describe the album as beautiful, I don’t mean that every song is a lovely ballad. In fact the songs vary in tempo and rhythm. I mean we are treated to compelling lyrics, seductive melodies and Wright’s beautiful voice – especially moving in her lower registers. Moreover, those elements are masterfully combined with brilliant musicians and instrumentation by producer Joe Henry. He provides room for every note and every nuance in the performances. The album is an homage to Lizz Wright’s native south and a gift to all who will hear her music.
Syleena Johnson – Rebirth Of Soul
The title might be hyperbole, but the delivery is silky old school soul singing punctuated by bright horn riffs and shimmering strings. Syleena is the daughter of Syl Johnson, a somewhat overlooked singer, songwriter, guitar player and producer from the classic soul period in Chicago in the sixties. He hooked up with Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in Memphis in the seventies, where unfortunately he was overshadowed by the great Al Green. Syleena’s earlier recordings were in the contemporary vein of R&B and Hip Hop, but when she decided to record Rebirth Of Soul as a tribute to her dad, her old man eagerly signed on as producer. The result is superb, one of the better revisits to the soul standards catalog of recent vintage.
The song selection is key to the album’s success, in my opinion, because even though they’re all covers, for the most part they’re not rehashes of the typical lineup of big hits. A couple are included like “Lonely Teardrops” and “Chain Of Fools.” Most, however, were lesser hits like Bettye Swann’s “Make Me Yours,” Otis Redding’s “These Arms Of Mine,” and Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings Of You.” She also covers a couple of her dad’s records. My point here is that the selections paired with the arrangements – retro yet fresh – add to a package of music you’re not tired of hearing before it even starts. Plus Syleena’s voice is well up to the task. She’s neither gritty nor a belter, but she has the chops to glide or soar as the songs demand all the while giving them a mature shading of her own, as on this classic “hold your baby close and slow dance” number originally recorded by Betty Everett.
One of the better tunes on Rebirth of Soul is Syleena’s cover of her dad’s minor hit “We Did It.” But what the heck, let’s give papa Syl a little respect and close with his own version from the seventies.
Here’s the thought I put on hold when I wrote my tribute to Fats Domino: I’ve listened to a tremendous amount of new music over the last few months. To borrow an old cliche, I’ve thrown quite a bit of stuff against the wall, and quite a bit of it has stuck. It’s too much to even think about much less write about all at once. So I’ve decided to take ‘em one at a time.
This means that for the next few weeks, I’m changing my approach to my blog posts. I’ll write one short recommendation every three or so days and include just one or two videos. I can get a bunch of very good music to your ears more quickly. Plus you’ll know when you open these “Short Cuts” that you can enjoy the post and tunes in small bites – less than ten minutes in most cases. Let’s get started!
Christian Lopez – Red Arrow
Lopez is a 22 year old from West Virginia blessed with a stress free tenor voice that hits all the notes and slides easily in and out of falsettos as the song requires. He’s also a fine guitar player, and he’s smart about his choices of collaborators and songs. Red Arrow is his second album, and it’s stronger than his debut. He presents a set of tunes with lyrics befitting his age, but thanks to marvelous melodies and arrangements that touch on multiple genres under the Americana umbrella – a bit of country, a bit of folk, a bit of r&b flavored pop, they should also appeal to even old cats like me. After all, we were 22 once. Us older guys even get a bit of a nostalgia trip of our own as Lopez sings about “1972.”
And keeping the youthful take on old school rolling…
He looks like he’s having fun, and certainly fun is the feeling I get most listening to Red Arrow, but as he shows here, he can write, sing and play beautiful melodies as well.