I focus most of my reviews on the albums that will be of the widest interest, which generally means well-known artists. However, I also want to direct attention to some of the less-prominent performers who seem deserving of the spotlight. Here are capsule reviews of new albums from some of the ones who’ve impressed me most in recent months.
Guitar Heroes, James Burton, Albert Lee, Amos Garrett & David Wilcox. I felt like rolling my eyes when Guitar Heroes arrived in the mail along with what seemed like a hype-filled press release about how it “promised to be one of the most heralded albums of the year.” After listening to the CD, though, I concluded that it fully deserved the superlatives. Featuring four longtime guitar virtuosos recorded live at the Vancouver Island [Canada] Music Festival in 2013, the album finds the quartet playing up a storm and offering a wealth of inventive electric guitar work. The three rock chestnuts that open the set—“That’s All Right (Mama),” “Susie Q” and “Sleep Walk”—are themselves worth the price of admission.
Tomorrow Comes the Spring, John Neilson. Keep an eye out for this guy or, better yet, listen to this auspicious collection of catchy folk/rock originals. The Austin, Texas-based Neilson—who has written songs for TV and film and coauthored material with Sophie B. Hawkins—sounds a bit like Steve Earle but is vocally more versatile: he can go from rough-edged to delicate in a heartbeat.
Ghost Town Girl, Echo Sparks. It’s no surprise that this trio’s infectious debut—billed as “sounds of the new Old West”—comes out of Orange County, California. What is surprising is that it comes out of the year 2015. The male/female harmony vocals and country-influenced folk/rock have less in common with contemporary music than with late 1960s/early 1970s acts like the Stone Poneys, It’s a Beautiful Day and the duets of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Expect twangy guitars, strong melodies and hints of rockabilly and south-of-the-border music.
Redrova, Balkun Brothers. Delta and electric blues come alive on this impressive self-produced debut. Lead vocalist Steve Balkun is a thoroughly capable singer but what puts Redrova over the top is his masterful guitar work. If you’re a fan of, say, Johnny Winter and Jimmy Page, you’ll likely go for this too.
Lucky Stars, Leaf Rapids. Western-Canada-based Leaf Rapids features vocalist Keri Latimer, her bass-playing husband Devin and producer Steve Dawson, who plays dobro and electric guitar. Their affecting, ethereal music blends elements of folk and country/ western with a strong pop sensibility and conjures up artists as diverse as Twin Peaks vocalist Julee Cruise and early girl group the Murmaids (“Popsicles and Icicles”). This is ear candy from first track to last.
This Perfect Crime, Matt Keating. Keating’s latest CD delivers everything you could want from a folk/pop artist: intriguing lyrics with clever wordplay, vocals that command attention and addictive melodies. The excellent production keeps Keating’s voice stage center. After 11 albums, it’s clear that this guy belongs alongside Greg Brown, Elliott Murphy, Tom Russell and a handful of others on a list titled, “How can these people possibly not be famous?”
Time in the Middle, Claire Holley. Holley opens her eighth studio album by turning Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” from bouncy reggae into a delicate, half-whispered meditation. “Don’t worry ’bout a thing,” she sings, “’cause every little thing gonna be alright.” You’ll believe her. This is hummable, confessional folk that manages to seem simultaneously powerful and light as a feather. Holley’s vocals, which remind me a little of Norah Jones, will draw you in.
Morose Elephant, Jeff Jensen. You’ll likely want to file this under “blues,” but that label belies Jensen’s diversity. There are folk, jazz and rock elements on some of these tracks, which employ everything from delicate string arrangements to lively brass instrumentals. Somehow it all hangs together in this passionate collection.
Stranded, Greg Nagy. Nine new songs, most coauthored by soul singer Nagy, join a cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” on this album, which (according to a press release) reflects the dissolution of the artist’s 25-year marriage. The artist’s guitar work is fine, but the main attraction is his voice. Not all this material showcases its potential, but songs like “I Won’t Give Up” mark him as a soul singer who could rank with the greats.
Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com) edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press.