You’d think we were still heading into the holiday season, given the number of new CDs piling up on my desk. Here’s a look at a stylistically diverse batch of relatively obscure ones that I hope won’t get buried under all the major-artist releases:
Various artists, Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music. This 19-track anthology serves as a sort of cosmic-cowboy companion to the Elektra and Rhino Nuggets albums, except that it doesn’t contain even one-hit wonders. These are no-hit artists, and chances are good that you’ve never heard of any of them, which makes their music’s consistent excellence all the more surprising. Gram Parsons and his Flying Burrito Brothers appear to be high on the list of influences for many of these acts and you can also hear echoes of the Byrds, Poco, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Not everything here will transport you to the country-rock world those artists occupied, however. Songs like Mistress Mary’s sublime “And I Didn’t Want You” and Kathy Heidiman’s “Sleep a Million Years” recall dreamy old pop songs like Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” and Kathy Young’s “I’ve Told Every Little Star”; Plain Jane’s “You Can’t Make It Alone,” meanwhile, sounds a bit like Alex Chilton’s Big Star and Ethel-Ann Powell’s quavering vocal on “Gentle One” conjures up Buffy St. Marie. This is a grab bag of lost treasures.
The Miamis, We Deliver. The Miamis caused quite a stir in New York’s new-wave community in the 1970s, when they performed alongside acts like the Ramones, Blondie, Television, and Talking Heads. But while those groups went on to fame and fortune, record companies passed on the Miamis, reportedly deeming them too punk for pop and too pop for punk. In fact, while you can hear some new-wave sensibility in the concert material on this 23-track collection of 1974–79 studio tracks, demos, and CBGB live reocrdings, the Miamis were really not much like the bands that shared their stages. Instead of anger, they served up tongue-in-cheek humor; instead of guitar feedback, they offered melodies that sometimes recalled the British invasion. The result deserved a national audience.
James Houlahan, Multitudes. A press release accompanying this album says Houlahan has been heavily influenced by Tom Waits and—like a lot of other artists—by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Those reference points make sense in light of the music here, but I’m also frequently reminded of Dr. John’s early work. Houlahan’s gravely voice is a bit like Dr. John’s; and the atmospheric Multitudes often takes you down roads that seem as enigmatic and just plain weird as anything the good doctor has delivered. The album is a bit uneven, but at its best—such as on the dreamlike murder ballad “Fires of Mercy,” which is set to a waltz—Houlahan seems to be on to something original and noteworthy.
Balkun Brothers, Balkun Brothers. The best reference point for the Balkun Brothers’ self-titled new album is probably Johnny Winter, whose “Mean Town Blues” shares the program with 11 originals by guitarist/lead vocalist Steve Balkun and his brother Nick, who plays high-energy drums and provides backing vocals. (The group also includes pianist Dave Keyes.) There are no stylistic breakthroughs here, and some of the compositions—such as “Been Drivin’,” which reminds me of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love”—seem unimaginative. The musicianship is good throughout, however, and Steve’s arresting slide guitar work is frequently more than simply good. This is rock and roll but with a tip of the hat to Delta blues. If you like Winter and also Led Zeppelin, you’ll probably like this, too.
Van Wilks, 21st Century Blues. This aptly titled album finds Austin, Texas guitarist Van Wilks mining some of the same territory as the Balkan Brothers. In other words, this is modern rock flavored with bluesy vocals and guitar licks. Not surprisingly, Wilks has toured with acts like Journey, Aerosmith, and ZZ Top. (The latter group’s Billy F. Gibbons cowrote this CD’s "Drive By Lover.") Somewhat more surprisingly, the CD includes a song and guitar assistance from Christopher Cross, whose best-known work bears no resemblance to this album. Wilks’s vocals get the job done but what makes the record stand out is his frequently spectacular lead guitar work.
Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, The Hazel and Alice Sessions. Veteran bluegrass artist Laurie Lewis returns to her roots to pay tribute to Alice Gerrard and Hazel Dickens, two pioneers of the genre who helped inspire her career. The album contains Lewis’s terrific versions of songs originally recorded separately and together by Gerrard and Dickens, including such traditional numbers as “Train on the Island,” “Walking in My Sleep,” and “Who’s That Knocking?”; Gerrard’s “Mama’s Gonna Stay”; Dickens’s “Cowboy Jim”; and Bill Monroe’s “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling.” Lewis garners first-rate backing from a crew that plays mandolin, banjo, string bass, fiddle, dobro, and more. Alice Gerrard herself sings on Dickens’s “Working Girl Blues” and the great Linda Ronstadt duets with Lewis on “Pretty Bird,” which was recorded 10 years ago but never previously released.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. His third book for the same publisher will be available in fall 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.