More Favorite Music From 2017

Welcome to Part 2 of my favorite 2017 albums. Today we explore the varied worlds of punk, country and blues. As always, please do not adjust your sets until the transmission is complete.

Punk, in various forms and incarnations, is alive and well. Whether it be straight ahead, Celtic or post-punk (I know, this is a stretch), it can be found on an album released in 2017.

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Seekers and Finders by Gogol Bordello
Question: What do you get when you combine elements of traditional Gypsy music with punk, dub and other genres? Answer: A passel of fun known as Gogol Bordello. If you’re looking for something unusual and exciting, Seekers and Finders is a good place to start.

11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory by Dropkick Murphys
Speaking of unusual mergers, Celtic music and punk make for a powerful combination. Dropkick Murphys have a catalog of solid albums and the latest does not disappoint.

Life is Good by Flogging Molly
Speaking of Celtic punk… Well, Flogging Molly is another band that creates outstanding music by mixing diffuse and disparate sources. Their emphasis is a bit more on the Celtic end of the spectrum, a reeling and rollicking mix of dancing and drinking tunes.

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English Tapas by Sleaford Mods
Demonstrating a minimalist approach reminiscent of early punk/post-punk groups such as The Adverts and The Raincoats, Sleaford Mods take a traditional punk stance on lyrics. Their groovy, repetitive songs touch on subjects ranging from unemployment to social injustices. For a truly unusual and excellent 2017 album, check this one out.

Nothing Feels Natural by Priests
Perhaps the most unusual of these 2017 releases, Nothing Feels Natural borrows elements of funk, darkwave, post-punk and a variety of other genres. Strongly political lyrics combine with this mix of styles to create a riveting and infectious album.

Country music and blues also flourished in 2017.

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Down Hearted Blues by Eilen Jewell
Eilen Jewell takes her amazing, honey-infused voice and turns it loose on blues and country for her latest album. The tunes, they are great and the performances, they are superb. Sure to please even the most curmudgeonly.

50 Years of Blonde on Blonde by Old Crow Medicine Show
This live tribute to Bob Dylan, served up with a typical OCMS old timey flavor, has a little something for everyone. Whether you love bluegrass or love Zimbo (the internets assure me that this is a Bob Dylan nickname) you are certain to love this album.

Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm by Robert Cray
Straight from the guitar of Portland blues legend Robert Cray we find a new release filled to the brim with soulful licks and catchy tunes. Cray continues to put out high-quality material nearly 40 years after his debut.

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Northern Passages by Sadies
Perhaps you’re not ready to commit to full-on country music. The Sadies deliver another great platter of alt-country tunes, which is a fancy way of saying music with some sort of country flavor. If you like the band Cracker, this might be just what the psychiatrist ordered.

Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues by Various Artists
Speaking of old-timey, this collection of jug band tunes from the 1920s and 1930s is a must-listen for blues and country enthusiasts. A fine collection of songs presented in their raw and original form.

The Last Shade of Blue Before Black by Original Blues Brothers Band
Including only one member of the Blues Brothers band, the Original Blues Brothers Band, along with many guests from the original Blues Brothers band (get it?), have put together a fine album of, well, blues. Check out this unexpected gem.

And there you have it. Great music never went away, but you might have to hunt a bit to find it. And perhaps, oh I don’t know, Everett Public Library is a good place to start? As always, check it out.

The Queen of the Blues

One of my favorite albums of 2017 is, surprisingly, made up entirely of old blues covers. Typically, I’m attracted to artists who produce original music. However, as a performer, I love creating exciting arrangements of other people’s songs. If a cover is simply a faithful reproduction of the original, it holds little interest for me. But if it provides a new take, a different feel, startling insights… wellsir, that can make for some mighty fine music.

JewellEilen Jewell, who created this album, is an amazing singer, with a sultry voice reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan or Madeline Peyroux. Her music is typically categorized as country, although it contains a variety of other influences. For her 2017 release, Down Hearted Blues, Jewell borrows songs from some of blues’ greatest artists: Lonnie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Little Walter and Otis Rush, among others. The result is both an enjoyable listen and a delightful lesson in music history.

The album opens with Charles Sheffield’s It’s Your Voodoo Working, a song that defies any attempts at listener immobility. This tune is a perfect match for Jewell’s seductive vocalizations. Not to be outdone, the instrumentalists provide some of the finest chops this side of Chesapeake Bay.

Alberta Hunter’s Down Hearted Blues is transformed into a Hank Williams Sr. soundalike, oozing those white country blues in treacly globules of gratification. Here the band is at its finest, making a seamless transition from blues to country. Of all the songs on the album, this title track is the least similar to the original.

Next up is Clarence Johnson and Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up, here delivered as a mixture of bottleneck blues, rockabilly Travis-style picking and a Texas two-step. The original, performed by Betty James in 1961, sets up more of an early R&B feel, but this updating of the song is equally delicious.

For a different beast altogether, look no further than Don’t Leave Poor Me, originally sung by Big Maybelle in 1955. Here we find Latin-tinged percussion, strong vocals and killer distorted guitar. The band is once again impeccable, demonstrating a keen agility to move convincingly between styles.

Finally on today’s whirlwind tour, The Poor Girl’s Story is a song that was recorded by Moonshine Kate, one of the first female country performers to be recorded, in the early 1930s. Jewell and her band take this tune on an authentic old-timey acoustic ramble through America’s musical heartland, complete with unwashed men riding the rails and folks heading west to escape poverty and dust.

In short, Down Hearted Blues is one of the finest albums of 2017. Whether you like blues, country, folk or simply fine musicianship, this one is worth a spin. And don’t forget to check out the originals as well. Jewell said of this album, “We really love to uncover the past. It’s almost like digging for buried treasure.” And here she has already done the grunt work for you. So sit back and enjoy this treasure.

Listen Up! June/July New Music Arrivals

Album Art Collage

I took a little break last month, so I’ve got a lot of new arrivals to recommend. Place your holds now and start exploring!

Joseph Bertolozzi – Tower Music (Innova) – Lively but minimalist (if that’s at all possible). This almost comes off as born-digital electronic music, even though the sounds were all produced using one very large analog instrument: the Eiffel Tower. I would love to hear the remixes that could be made from these pieces.

Boulevards – Groove (Captured Tracks) – Funk with a side of hip hop. Fans of Prince and Rick James will be into this.

Musiq Soulchild – Life on Earth (My Block; Entertainment One U.S.) – Dance floor friendly soul, RnB, and smooth slow jams.

uKanDanz –Awo (Buda Musique) –  Hailing from Addis Ababa and Lyon, uKanDanz classifies themselves as “Ethiopian Crunch Music.” What that means is that listeners are treated to a thoroughly satisfying mashup of metal and hard rock guitar riffs and power chords; a blues and jazz horn section; and amazing vocals that expressively wail, croon, and keen.

Debo Band – Ere Gobez (FPE Records) – Bluesy, jazzy, sultry, a little funky – almost torch songs, but with Ethiopian pop overtones.

Case/Lang/Veirs (ANTI-) – Dreamy, beautiful, and engaging vocals, with a bit of twang. Melancholy, moving, powerful, harmonious.

Miles Davis and Robert Glasper – Everything’s Beautiful (Columbia: Legacy) – A re-imagining of Davis’s catalog with the help of a star-studded lineup of jazz, hip-hop, and RnB collaborators.

Garbage – Strange Little Birds (Stunvolume) – In their 10th studio album, Shirley Manson and the band return to their roots by drawing on their musical influences, as well as the sounds that made them a hit in their 1995 self-titled debut. Strange Little Birds has a decidedly nostalgic feel, but is by no means stale.

William Bell – This is Where I Live (Fantasy) -Classic southern soul and RnB with a little bit of rock and roll mixed in.

Imarhan – Imarhan (City Slang) – Traditional Tuareg and pan-African ballads blended with rock and funk rhythms and a healthy love of bass.

Maxwell – Black Summers’ Night (Columbia) – In a long-awaited return 7 years in the making, this album is full of funky, smooth, even jazzy elements with some stand-out drum work.

A-Wa – Habib Galbi (S-Curve Records) – Three sisters with a love for electronic music, reggae, and Yemenite women’s chants. Sound like an odd mix? Only if you’re not into dancing, fun, and on-point harmonizing.

Whitney – Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian) – Upbeat, bright, rock album with distinctive vocals. This debut is chock-full of short but polished tracks that show the well-honed skills of duo Max Kakacek (Smith Westerns) and Julien Ehrlich (Unknown Mortal Orchestra).

Ólafur Arnalds – LateNightTales (Night Time Stories Ltd.) – Down-tempo, ambient, beautiful dreamscapes. Some trip hop beats interspersed. Fans of Bjork, Prefuse 73, and Sigur Rós would probably be into it. ‘Icelandic’ would be the best adjective to describe this one.

From The Blues To Infinity

One of the most fascinating aspects of popular music is the interrelationship of different genres and the evolution/mixture of older genres into newer ones. This is a dense sentence which could earn me a professorship somewhere, but the gist of it is simply: music evolves. Rock and roll didn’t just happen one day. Early rock came out of blues, country, R&B (not the same thing as what we call R&B these days), Western swing, boogie woogie and honky tonk to name just a few genres. Certain songs have been around for a looooooong time and have evolved through a variety of styles.

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Submitted for your approval today is Baby Please Don’t Go, a tune that most likely originated as a slave song in the distant mists of time. Its first popular recording came in 1935 from Big Joe Williams, performed in an old-timey blues style. I’m going to venture a guess that many people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Cream when they hear the term “blues”, and while these are in fact blues performers, 1935 blues sound quite unlike their modern cousin. Instruments were often primitive, cigar box guitars and washtub basses for example. Recording technology was not so advanced. And many of the surviving recordings from the time period are not in great shape, so there’s a lot of hissing and popping that I associate with the genre.

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Williams’ song became quite popular (today being perhaps the most-recorded song in history) and was recorded by a variety of blues legends including Lightnin’ Hopkins (1947), John Lee Hooker (1949), Big Bill Broonzy (1952) and most famously by Muddy Waters in 1953. Waters’ version, known as Turn Your Light Down Low, is a nod to the future, a more urban (and electric) blues, and a jumping off point for rock bands in the 60s.

Amongst all these blues, The Orioles recorded a doo wop version of Baby Please Don’t Go in 1952 that was a hit. Their interpretation combines early R&B accompaniment with doo wop vocals, creating a much different feel than the earlier blues versions. Ray Charles also performed an amazing R&B take on the song featuring female backup singers, and, well, Ray.

As the blues became electric, rock and roll began to emerge as a distinct genre. Billy Lee Riley, a member of Sun Records rockabilly stable, recorded a version in 1957 that maintained some of the blues elements, but that featured a distinctly upbeat feel. But the real rock explosion came in 1964 when Van Morrison’s band Them recorded a hit which remains the version people are probably most familiar with today.

Other rock bands followed with the own versions: Paul Revere and The Raiders (1966), The Ballroom (1967), Ted Nugent’s psychedelic group The Amboy Dukes (1968), AC/DC (1975) as a single that reached #10 in Australia, and the Rolling Stones with Muddy Waters in 1981. Each group brought their own interpretation to this now-classic song. And the recordings continue with Cowboy Junkies, Aerosmith and Tom Petty in more recent years. The song provides a veritable geological strata of popular American musical styles. Pretty cool.

So check out these artists, if not to listen to Baby Please Don’t Go, then to hear a wide variety of styles and perhaps to detect common elements that lead from one style to another. It’s a great big beautiful world of music out there (to badly misquote Louis Armstrong and Devo), so take a chance on something new. Or something blues. You choose.

Later, gotta snooze.

Listen Up! February New Music

Blackstar Cover Art

For those of you not looking for another Bowie reflection/review, TL;DR, skip to the list at the bottom. For those of you who are into it, read on.

January was a tough time for many music fans, with the loss of some pretty legendary names. For me, it was the death of David Bowie that hit hardest. I can’t claim to have been a Bowie superfan, but his music was ever-present in my youth, and became the soundtrack to a lot of great memories as I grew into adulthood. Beyond liking the music Bowie created, I was even more fascinated by his ability to constantly reinvent himself, turning life into performance art. Nothing exposes the depth of this artistry better than the way he orchestrated his final months, turning his death into a powerful statement on 21st Century privacy, lifelong creativity, and going on your own terms.

The result of this period was Blackstar (officially ), David Bowie’s final album, released on the artist’s 69th birthday, just two days before his death. I will never forget the shock I felt upon hearing of Bowie’s death just days after celebrating this latest release. What a surreal experience it was to go back and re-listen to the album within the confines of a completely different context. Lyrics took on haunting new meanings; music videos became more somber and stirring. The Thin White Duke was saying goodbye; we just weren’t listening.

This album would have been a great listen without the backstory, but knowing all the details and the way they were carefully crafted and presented just makes Blackstar the stuff of legend. It made me think a long while about my own mortality and wonder how I would choose to confront it: with careful plans and aggressive strides to make sure I left my loved ones with something lasting and memorable, or with fear and denial until my final moments. David Bowie’s last act showed us that it was possible to die with courage, dignity, and a flair for the dramatic. As he so eloquently said from the stage on his 50th birthday “I have no idea where I’m going from here, but I promise I won’t bore you” – I’m sure that even after his death, the legacy of David Bowie will continue to intrigue and entertain us for years to come.

That’s the long story of one of my new arrival picks, so I’ll just give you a list of brief highlights for the rest. Place your holds now! In the case of Blackstar, it might be a little bit, but it’s worth the wait.

Blackbird cover imageMiloš Karadaglić – Blackbird: The Beatles Album (Mercury Classics) – love the Beatles? Like classical guitar? This is the album for you.

Outskirts Cover ImageShemekia Copeland – Outskirts of Love (Alligator Records) – A fiery, driving mix of blues, rock, and soul. It’s the type of album you want to listen to on repeat.

For One to Love CoverCecile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (Mack Avenue Records) – Delightful follow up to Salvant’s 2013 Grammy-nominated album, WomanChild. This 26-year-old jazz virtuoso has a phenomenal voice and a load of creativity.

Image from wondem.bandcamp.com

Image from wondem.bandcamp.com

Dexter Story – Wondem (Soundway) – For listeners looking to try a little of everything, look no further. Story effortlessly blends funk, jazz, soul, and traditional East African instrumentation and vocals to create vibrant and hypnotic soundscapes.

Cool Uncle CoverCool Uncle – Cool Uncle (Fresh Young Minds) – What happens when smooth jazz icon Bobby Caldwell gets together with Grammy-winning producer Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson)? Well they make beautiful music, of course, and they have a great time doing it. This is largely a pop/funk/RnB record, with playful nods towards the worlds of smooth jazz and even yacht rock. It may sound borderline cheesy, but it’s the kind of cheese you could fall in love with. It’s great to see people with this level of talent having fun with their craft.