At a time when most of his peers are content to work the oldies circuit, 72-year-old Tom Jones continues to reinvent himself. In his latest incarnation, the knighted Welshman has gone the latter-day Johnny Cash with respected Americana producer Ethan Johns playing the role of Rick Rubin. Jones started down this particular root music path with 2010’s most excellent Praise & Blame, a collection of mostly gospel and spiritual songs with the odd Dylan or Billy Joe Shaver cover thrown in for good measure. This collection finds Jones upping the ante considerably. Kicking off with a ruminating reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” and the opening line of “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places when I used to play,” and before you know, the iconoclastic pop star is hip deep in gravitas.
Throughout his solo career, Van Morrison has been a creative dynamo — churning out albums at an almost annual rate. The price he’s paid, particularly in recent years, is a homogenous blandness to his material that’s been the aftereffect of his being so prolific. So when he took a four-year break from recording before returning with this, his 34th studio album, the Belfast Cowboy seems to have picked up lightened up somewhat. Between his wailing away on an alto saxophone and nuance phrasing, these 10 songs are awash in jazz, blues and soul nuances.
It all comes across wonderfully on opener “Open the Door (To Your Heart)” with its steady Hammond B-3 organ pacing the proceedings. But it’s also the first of many nihilistic observations Morrison makes, particularly when he’s slipping in lines like “Money doesn’t make you fulfilled/Money’s just to pay the bill” on the aforementioned “Open You Door.”
Despite being one of the three Kings of blues, (alongside B.B. and Freddie — both no relation), Albert King was actually born Albert Nelson. While the Mississippi native’s earliest recordings date back to the 1950s, it wasn’t until he hooked up with Memphis-based soul outfit Stax/Volt that King enjoyed crossover success. Ironically, it was at a time when his genre of choice was losing favor with African-Americans as young whites were starting to really delve into the blues. So it’s no surprise that Cream wound up delivering a solid cover of the title track to King’s Stax debut. And that future greats including Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan would constantly sing his praises.
Backed by Booker T. & the MGs, the imposing left-handed guitar slinger really dug in, serving up the stinging blues shuffle “Crosscut Saw,” affecting the requisite swagger throughout the brassy declarations of “The Hunter” and gently bobs along through a lightly swinging reading of “Kansas City.” Most surprising is King’s effectiveness as a balladeer, not only on the Ivory Joe Hunter’s juke joint weeper “I Almost Lost My Mind,” but on a reading of pop bandleader Ray Noble’s 1934 standard “The Very Thought Of You” that works far better than you’d expect it to.
What Kramer vs. Kramer was to the state of divorce and broken relationships on the cinematic front is what Fleetwood Mac’s legendary 1977 album. With couples Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks splitting, McVies John and Christine recently divorced and drummer Mick Fleetwood having problems with wife Jenny, there was no shortage of subject matter. And while stories of debauchery during the year-long recording session are legendary, the results wound up having the band’s eleventh studio outing become one of the best-selling albums of all time, selling nearly 20 million copies in the United States alone. Between the stellar harmonies, inescapable hooks and lyrically true couplets, songs like “You Make Loving Fun” (about Christine McVie’s lighting director boyfriend), “Dreams” (Nicks’ post-breakup optimism), “Go Your Own Way” (Buckingham’s post-breakup pessimism) and “Gold Dust Woman” (Nicks’ struggles living in Los Angeles) became radio staples and outright classics. A near-perfect serving of pop songs with heft, this Rumours reissue contains a bonus disc of live songs taken from the subsequent 1977 tour that’s rather anticlimactic and another CD containing outtakes from the recording sessions that are only paramount to the most diehard of Fleetwood Mac fans.
Holly Williams – The Highway (Georgiana Records) Talent doesn’t always automatically transfer to the next generation (see Elijah Blue Allman). As the granddaughter of Hank Williams, Sr., daughter of Hank, Jr., and half-sister to Hank III, Williams already tried to go the major label route. This time out, she chose to run with Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock and self-release her third studio effort. Far more stripped-down and organic than the Nashville native’s first two records, these 11 songs go beyond the tear-in-your beer sentiments that have been the long-held stereotype of country music. Yes, there’s mention of booze and cheating in the opener “Drinkin’,” but Williams deftly handles it by tracing the dysfunction from spouse to narrator all the while including abandonment and self-destruction, framing it all with a mid-tempo mix of pedal steel and fiddle. On the mid-tempo “Railroad,” she masterfully touches on desperation that becomes wanderlust with lines like “You never walked in my shoes, you never understood/Why I was escaping anyway that I could.” Elsewhere, the forlorn “Happy” with its mix of cello, acoustic guitar and harmonizing by six-string strumming hubby Chris Coleman makes it a gem amid a field of musical diamonds.
While the name recognition that comes with cameos by guests like Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan and Dierks Bentley might draw listeners to Williams’ latest, it’s the songs, all of which she had a hand in writing, that will make them stay. It’s a far more substantial effort befitting her lineage versus what’s being churned out by the Music Row sausage factory nowadays.
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