Monday, June 13, 2016

New Music Friday 6/03/2016, First Listen To Releases from William Bell, Judy Collins & Ari Hest, Tinsley Ellis, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Max Jury, The Lonely Heartstring Band, Brad Mehldau Trio, Maren Morris, Paul Simon, C.W. Stoneking, Tegan & Sara, and Train



Photo of Judy Collins and Ari Hest courtesy of Shore Fire Media

My normal process is to read the new release list every Friday, mark the ones that I'm interested in hearing, then I listen to them in their entirety over the next several days, then if there's something that I really like a lot, I will write about it if time allows. Every week I read at least the first one fifty items on the new release list, checking out a few tracks each of up to one third of them to see what they sound like. If I mark half a dozen albums to listen to, that's a pretty good week. This week I picked twelve albums for a first listen, the most ever I think, since I started using Spotify to audition new releases. This seems like such a good week, I thought I'd offer my first reaction after one spin. The best album of the week? There were two that stood out and their excellence was clear on one listen: The collaboration of Judy Collins & Ari Hest, and the latest from Tinsley Ellis. The debut from The Lonely Heartstring Band, the new one from William Bell, and Maren Morris' debut came close.


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William Bell - This Is Where I Live: William Bell has a strong and appealing voice that sounds somewhere between Arthur Alexander and Robert Cray. It sounds so good in fact, that you would never suspect that he was in his seventies. Bell was once considered an icon of soul and blues at the original Stax Records of Memphis and he co-wrote the classic "Born Under A Bad Sign" (covered by Cream among many others). Bell has a first rate band backing him with excellent production by John Leventhal and a good set of songs. All but two tracks were co-written by Leventhal with songwriting partners Bell, Marc Cohn, and Rosanne Cash in various combinations. One track was written by Jesse Winchester and a new version of "Born Under a Bad Sign" (written by Bell and Booker T. Jones). Amidst the other new releases on Friday, this was a breathe of fresh air and when played in its entirety, it does not disappoint.
Listen to the lead track "The Three Of Me", "Born Under a Bad Sign" and the title track "This Is Where I Live".


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Judy Collins & Ari Hest - Silver Skies Blue: I first heard Judy Collins in 1968 when she had her first enormous hit doing Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now". Over the last several years I've come to know and love the music of singer-songwriter Ari Hest. Hest's association with Collins began several years ago when he was the opening act for a part of her tour and she took a liking to one of his songs. Collins frequently invites Hest to join her on stage to sing with her, including her Live in Ireland album and DVD. They co-wrote and sang "Strangers Again", the title track of Collins' duets album. Silver Skies Blue is a full-on collaboration where Collins and Hest co-wrote the songs and shared the vocals as well. It is quite remarkable that Collins' voice doesn't sound any different to me now than it did in '68, and there is considerable vocal chemistry when she sings with Hest whose voice has been described as velvet. The mostly acoustic production is supplemented by some sweet lead guitar and piano. The songwriting is first rate, too, and you will enjoy the two of them singing alone, together, and trading lines and verses.
Listen to the title track "Silver Skies Blue", "Slow Burn" and "Let You In". Watch the music video of "Strangers Again" (below).


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Tinsley Ellis - Red Clay Soul: This album is so good that I can't figure out how I've not run across Tinsley Ellis before. In any case, I'm glad to hear this Georgia-based blues rocker now. Red Clay Soul is a potent combination of soul, blues, and rock. The appeal of Ellis' voice is only exceeded by his lead guitar work, which is amazing. Every track on this album has lots of delectable lead guitar. This album was recorded in Nashville and produced by Ellis and keyboard player Kevin McKendree. The other backing musicians are also top notch. It was hard to pick tracks from this album because they're all so good that you really need to buy or stream this record to hear the whole thing. One track you must hear now is "Estero Noche", an instrumental that is all lead guitar with a melody so beautiful I am certain that Carlos Santana would be proud to have this track on one of his records.
Listen to "Estero Noche", "All I Think About" and "Givin' You Up".


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Michael Franti & Spearhead - Soulrocker: I've crossed paths with the career of Michael Franti & Spearhead a number of times including listening to one of his full length concerts on the radio a few years ago. Franti is an eminently likable frontman and his band plays a most agreeable mix of soul, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and reggae. So I jumped at the chance to hear his latest, Soulrocker. The thirteen tracks are all tightly written, almost pop-rock. Considering this group's songwriting and performing skills this would not in itself be a bad thing, but what bothers me about Soulrocker is that about half the tracks incorporate EDM (Electronic Dance Music). For me, the synthesizers and sequencers rob the music of much of its soulfulness. However, Franti's favorite themes of love and of social consciousness run deep in this record. I genuinely like Soulrocker, I just wish they had left the EDM out of those seven tracks.
Listen to the lead track "Crazy For You" and the EDM influenced "Get Myself To Saturday". Watch the music video of "Once A Day" (below).


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Max Jury - Max Jury: On Sunday, June 5th, I posted the following to my FaceBook page:
This morning I listened to the debut album by a singer/songwriter named Max Jury. His piano based ballads were good and all but when I just read what some publicist came up with, I had to laugh.
"A soft-voiced young piano playing singer/songwriter out of Des Moines, Iowa, Max Jury has struck a rich seam of pure, musical gold. His self-titled debut album is a classic in the making. Think of the bruised Americana of Gram Parsons, the rich piano storytelling of Randy Newman and Tom Waits, the lush melodicism of Paul McCartney and rough edged gospel heart of the Rolling Stones playing country ballads. And then trace a fragile link to the tender soul of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green all the way to the 21st century beats of Alicia Keys and D'Angelo. Weave together a magical tapestry of 70s Laurel Canyon acoustic confessionals and 21st Century Neo Soul and breathe it all out in a whisper of breathless emotion. Max Jury is a thing of rare beauty."
I can't think of any new artist who could live up to that kind of hype. Still, the Max Jury album is worth your time.
Listen to the lead track and first single "Numb" (or watch the music video below) and "Dreams".


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The Lonely Heartstring Band - Deep Waters: I was about three tracks into listening to The Lonely Heartstring Band debut when I thought to myself that even though I love both folk and country music, I generally draw the line at bluegrass. However, there are exceptions and since this band is comprised of some of the best musicians I've heard and they have some very agreeable vocals, by track six I was totally hooked and ready to say that I love this album. Then along came track seven, which knocked my socks off. Maybe the timing came into play, I'll detail my disappointment with the new Paul Simon album (which also came out this week) below, but this version of "Graceland" is so good that I would considerate it in a league with the original. This album nicely varies the tempos; there are some tender ballads and there are some barnburners. They even breathed new life into "If I Had A Hammer." I was prepared to appreciate The Lonely Heartstring Band but now I can't wait to see them live.
Listen to "Sophia", "Graceland" and "Big Bruce". Watch the music video of "The Tide" (below).


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Brad Mehldau Trio - Blues and Ballads: This album couldn't be more different from everything else in this article. This is pure jazz, unhurried and articulate. With all the pop, rock, country, blues, folk, etc. that I've been listening to lately, it took me a good five minutes into track one to decompress and tune into the slower pace of this piano trio. It's a good thing that the first track was almost eleven minutes long, and even still I must admit that I didn't immediately recognize "Since I Fell For You". In fact, there was only one tune on the album that I did recognize the first time through, the Beatles' "And I Love Her". It's a terrific rendition, Mehldau with his ultra creative piano playing in and around that familiar melody, accompanied by Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. I've seen and heard Grenadier play many times backing his wife Rebecca Martin. I very much enjoyed this album in its entirety. It's a nice place to escape to, a respite from the fast pace of the world we live in.
Listen to the lead track "Since I Fell For You" and "And I Love Her".


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Maren Morris - Hero: Maren Morris and her single "My Church" have been the recipient of so much advance buzz that her debut has become one of the most anticipated releases of the year. Jon Caramanica, writing in the NY Times, compared her to "Kacey Musgraves, without the awww-shucks shrug." He continued, "Profanities — well, really just one — are sprinkled throughout “Hero,” this 26-year-old singer and songwriter’s outstanding major label debut album, and perhaps the canniest country record in recent memory." The Musgraves comparison is apt, however I'd place her somewhere between Kacey and Gretchen Wilson. If "My Church" brings Wilson to mind, then "I Could Use A Love Song" reminds of Musgraves. Hero was released last Friday to a flood of good reviews. On much of the album, Morris' vocals are multi-tracked, plus the songs are so lyrical that she is singing most of the time. Even though it lacks the usual hallmarks of country music (pedal steel and fiddle), this is not bland country rock. Morris has that big Texas voice and the songs win you over one after another. These songs are well positioned to cross over into pop and rock. Deep into the album, tracks 8 & 9 open up that wall of sound with some very nice guitar-based tunes that have single tracked vocals and both are becoming my early favorites. I'm especially fond of "I Wish I Was", which has a nice simple arrangement and lyrics that give the album it's name. Maren Morris co-wrote and co-produced every track. Hero is a bold, smart, and auspicious debut.
Listen to "My Church" (or watch the music video below), "I Could Use A Love Song" and "I Wish I Was".


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Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger: My first thought after listening to Paul Simon's thirteenth solo album was, "Where's the melody?" There are tons of interesting rhythms suggesting that Simon has thoroughly incorporated African musics into his songwriting. It is impossible for Simon to make a bad album. His voice is so familiar that it seems ingrained in our DNA and he always has something interesting to say in his lyrics. According to his press release, this album is all about sounds; Simon sought out sounds for this project from an adventurous array of sources. "Paul Simon's collage of sounds for Stranger to Stranger also includes the Italian electronic dance music artist Clap! Clap!, whose sound he ended up putting on three of the tracks ('The Werewolf,' 'Wristband' and 'Street Angel')." He also says that he developed a conversational approach to his singing based on the idea that lyrics are akin to speech. I'm good with all that, but I would also like some melody with my sonic excursion, please. My early favorite on this record, "Wristband", was just released as a single. When I remarked (above) that this album was disappointing, I meant in the sense that Stranger To Stranger's melodies are so understated that there is no songwriting that comes anywhere near Simon's finest achievements like Graceland or American Tune.
Listen to "Wristband" (or watch the music video below), "Stranger To Stranger", and "Insomniac's Lullaby".


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C.W. Stoneking - Gon' Boogaloo: I saw C.W. Stoneking perform in 2008 and I was amazed by his commitment to his art. He not only played the country blues of 1930's Appalachia, but he had the mannerisms, tone of voice and style of speech of the period, plus he had the look, from his shoes to his hat to his steel National guitar. His music sounded like the roots of roots music. Like a Broadway performer, he dripped with authenticity. This seemed like someone who ate, slept and breathed the life of a 30's bluesman, right down to his hair style (see photo below). I had a chance to talk to him after the set, he was from Australia and I was so impressed that I bought his two CDs on the spot. Fast forward to last Friday. When I saw his name on the new release list I had to check in to see what he's up to now. In his world, time has advanced a little and "Gon' Boogaloo" finds him playing an electric guitar. All the other aspects of his portrayal seem intact, but now he sounds like a forties bluesman from the backcountry. Maybe even more remarkable than the totality of his persona is the fact that this is all original material that Stoneking writes, plays, and sings. It either sounds like an original Library of Congress recording, or we have time traveled back to his time period, or visa versa.
Listen to the lead track "How Long", "The Zombie" (or watch the music video below) and "We Gon' Boogaloo".


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Tegan and Sara - Love You To Death: It's funny how preconceptions often color our perception of music. I last listened to Tegan and Sara on their 2004 album So Jealous, and its totally irresistible track "Walking with a Ghost". Being that I had missed the intervening albums, I really had no good reason to have expectations one way or the other. Still, I was somewhat surprised to find that they have replaced the chunky guitar chords and 12-string textures with a full-on pop album. And it is quite a well crafted pop album, built on a foundation of rock. What hasn't changed is the magic that happens when the voices of these identical twin sisters combine. It turns out that they embraced pop on their last album Heartthrob (2013) garnering a gold hit single and a song placement in the Lego movie complete with a performance at the Oscars. I now have "Walking with a Ghost" in my head just from thinking about it.
Listen to the first single "Boyfriend" (or watch the music video below), "Dying To Know" and "100x".


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Train - Does Led Zeppelin II: The good news and the bad news about Train Does Led Zeppelin II is one and the same. Frontman Pat Monahan and his band are so crazy talented that they have successfully pulled off the feat of recording a note for note copy that is so close to the original that if you are not listening closely, it would be hard to tell which is which. Monahan does the Robert Plant vocals so well that it's scary. That said, I can't escape the feeling that this record is totally pointless. If you want to hear Led Zeppelin II, just play Led Zeppelin II. Because Led Zeppelin is no longer performing, Train audiences can take delight in seeing some masterful musicians play these iconic songs live. And that is a totally reasonable premise. I still don't see buying this record when the original is available, unless you are a Train completist. Oh, there is one good reason to buy Train Does Led Zeppelin II, "...the band's proceeds from this album will go to their charity of record, Family House in San Francisco."
Listen to "Whole Lotta Love", "Ramble On" and "Livin' Lovin' Maid".

Bonus Archival Photo: C.W Stoneking, Rockwood Music Hall, NYC, 9/10/2008.

Photo - W. Kates

Bonus Tracks: Official Music Videos

Judy Collins and Ari Hest - "Strangers Again"


Michael Franti & Spearhead - "Once A Day"


Max Jury - "Numb"


The Lonely Heartstring Band - "The Tide"


Maren Morris - "My Church"


Paul Simon - "Wristband"


C.W. Stoneking - "The Zombie" (Live recording at Record Paradise record store)


Tegan and Sara - "Boyfriend"

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