Anyone not interested in auto-tune-drenched pablum and chart-friendly fodder not much more substantial than the streaming technology it’s being delivered on can be assured that there’s still plenty of solid music being recorded. The following is some of the more next-level releases you may have missed in 2019.
Allison Moorer – Blood (Autotelic Records)
Sparse and rife with vulnerability, Moorer joined forces with Kenny Greenberg (who produced her first two records) for this collection of songs that is a companion piece to her equally moving memoir of the same name. Highlights include the slinky swamp rocker “The Rock and the Hill,” the powerful “All I Wanted (Thanks Anyway)” and “Heal,” a prayer of self-affirmation co-written with Mary Gauthier. Sister Shelby Lynne shows up to finish off “I’m the One to Blame,” an unfinished song by the duo’s late, abusive father.
Jesse Malin – Sunset Kids (Wicked Cool Records)
Not unlike Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the combination of former D Generation front man Jesse Malin and Americana goddess-turned-producer Lucinda Williams are two great tastes that go great together. Malin’s latest is a reflection of how being in his early ‘50s has him at a crossroads in life where introspection and personal losses like the passing of his father has had an impact. There is lots to love about this outing, from the way “Promises” carries a “Wild Horses” vibe and how “Chemical Heart” is a pop earworm punctuated by perky Farfisa organ, to the nods to Ike and Tina Turner, Bernie Taupin and Jake LaMotta that are liberally sprinkled throughout.
The Highwomen – The Highwomen (Low Country Sound/Elektra)
Spearheaded by founding member Amanda Shires, this supergroup, inspired by the Highwaymen of Cash, Nelson, Kristofferson and Jennings fame, was rounded out by Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. Teamed up with American super-producer Dave Cobb, the quartet conjured up a delightful batch of songs that include the rollicking honky-tonky that is “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” the harmony-soaked anthem “Redesigning Women” and the soulful same-sex weeper “If She Ever Leaves Me.”
Read LIW‘s interview with Brandi Carlile: The Ever-Talented Brandi Carlile
The Specials – Encore (Island)
While Jerry Dammers and Neville Staple remain in absentia from this reunion, the founding member triumvirate of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter hasn’t lost its knack for composing catchy social commentary. Longtime fans will tuck into the infectious groove of “B.L.M.” that follows Golding’s familial trip through Jamaica to England and then the United States framed by a steady diet of racist experiences. Other highlights include a nod to gun-crazy culture via a cover of the rock-steady 1960s Valentines ear-worm “Blam Blam Fever,” the snappy indictment of conservative politics that is the “Ghost Town”-flavored “Vote For Me” and the infectious reggae “Embarrassed By You” which takes to task younger thugs and xenophobes.
Yola – Walk Through Fire (Easy Eye Sound)
Credit Dan Auerbach for spotting the talent of this former Massive Attack/Chemical Brothers backup singer. And while he produced and cowrote a number of songs on her full-length debut that Auerbach released on his own label, Yola’s singular voice and approach lies at the crossroads of soul and country. From the epic baroque pop trappings framing the sweeping opener “Faraway Look,” the UK native makes it clear that this project is driven by her substantial talents. She more than holds her own in a duet with Vince Gill on the ballad “Keep Me Here,” exudes subtle mastery of the rich country-pop on “It Ain’t Easier” and lives within the heartfelt gospel-flavored grooves of “Love All Night (Work All Day).” If there’s any kind of musical justice, Yola should be the one walking away with the Best New Artist award at this year’s Grammys.
Jesse Dayton – Mixtape Volume 1 (Blue Élan Records)
The former Waylon Jennings sideman returned with a collection of covers that are a true cross-pollination of genres. The end result finds The Clash’s “Bankrobber” sounding like a second cousin to the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law,” Elton John’s “Country Comfort” getting infused with rich mix of ethereal steel guitar and a wailing harp while the New Wave gem “Just What I Needed” gets transformed into a ballad that wouldn’t have sounded foreign being crooned by Dayton hero George Jones.
We Banjo 3 – Roots To Rise Live (Copperplate Independent)
While most live albums end up being a sort of rote exercise for most groups, this offering by We Banjo 3 percolates with the kind of exquisite musical vibrancy and honest playing that will have you checking to see the next time they swing through your neck of the woods. Effortless and effervescent. These 14 songs are a killer representation of WB3’s brand of Celtgrass reflected by traditional medleys like “Puncheon Floor/Late for the Dance/Sean Reid’s” and “John Brown’s/MacDonald’s March.”
Gary Clark Jr. – This Land (Warner Brothers)
Call the Texas native a mere blues guitarist at your own risk. With his third studio album, Clark not only flexes his stylistic muscles by dabbling in reggae (“Feelin’ Like a Million”), R&B (“Don’t Wait Til Tomorrow”) and Hendrix-fueled funk (“Feed the Babies”), but addresses racism with a blues-meets-hip-hop title track that is an uncomfortable and uncompromising listening experience.
Hayes Carll – What It Is (Dualtone)
The latest by this Americana young buck finds him falling somewhere between John Prine and Todd Snider, crafting songs with a humorous, yet fine-tuned edge. With new wife Allison Moorer helping out with the producing/co-writing heavy lifting, Carll dishes off gems like the gnarly twanger “If I May Be So Bold,” the solid bluegrass-flavored stellar title cut and opening number “None’ya,” a loose-limbed fiddle and acoustic guitar-soaked nugget.
Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury (Atlantic/Elektra)
While others were busy anointing Sturgill Simpson as the patron saint of Americana, the Kentucky native instead chose to buck expectations with a project that is more of an exercise in psychedelic Southern rock that is also doubling as a soundtrack to an accompanying Netflix film. It’s quite the odd, but enjoyable ride, whether you strap into the ethereal skronk of “Remember to Breathe,” marvel at how John Prine helped cowrite the ZZ Top-ish disco shuffle “A Good Look,” wrap your head around the mechanized rockabilly of “Last Man Standing” or get swept up by the New Wave-like charm of “Mercury in Retrograde.”
Original Soundtrack – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Columbia)
Any time Quentin Tarantino releases a film, it becomes its own event. For music fans, the accompanying soundtrack is just as much of a big deal. Not unlike Martin Scorsese, Tarantino knows the music matters for helping set the tone. For this smorgasbord of song, late ‘60s L.A. is reflected with a cross-section of songs that show how underrated Paul Revere & the Raiders were (“Good Thing,” “Hungry”), that Los Bravos were capable of more than “Black Is Black” (the most excellent single “Bring A Little Lovin’”), and that New York City-centric Latin boogaloo got exposure on the West Coast via The Village Callers’ “Hector” (which the Beastie Boys later sampled). And Neil Diamond, who got a nod on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack via Urge Overkil’s cover of his “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” gets showcased via his gospel homage “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” Tying it all together is a slate of vintage on-air ads for everything from perfume and tanning butter to root beer and a high school reunion. Best of all is the hip delivery of late hipster KHJ DJ the Real Don Steele.
Wilco – Ode to Joy (dBpm Records)
Coming out of a three-year hiatus, Wilco’s thirteenth studio outing is a hefty slice of dad rock, if that definition is to encompass introspection and a hard-eyed look at real life. Founding member Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche take the lead on this atmospheric-sounding record. Tweedy’s experience of losing a loved one is at the heart of “White Wooden Cross” and its layering of beautifully strummed guitar and Kotche’s subtle timekeeping while the lumbering cadence of “We Were Lucky” gives guitarist Nels Cline a chance to cut loose with a bit of six-string squall and howl. Elsewhere, the mid-period Byrdsian “Love is Everywhere (Beware)” winds up filling both the heart and soul.