A talented Texas singer-songwriter, Robison waxed a string of sometimes-thoughtful, sometimes-rowdy albums, starting with 1996’s Bandera. He lost his singing voice to surgery in 2018, but apparently regained the ability to sing just last year. Previously married to Dixie Chick Emily Erwin, he recorded a duet of “The Wedding Song” with Natalie Maines, and taped a stellar live version (below) with his sister-in-law Kelly Willis.
Surprisingly, Rick Sheaâ€™s latest album doesnâ€™t sound particularly different from his earlier efforts, even though it was tracked remotely by musicians distributed amongst their own studios. Begun in the Spring of 2019 in Sheaâ€™s home studio, by early 2020 the collaboration had spread to multiple studios and was coordinated by e-mail and computer network. Incredibly, the album shows no seams or lack of group ethos, and though Shea tips his hat to the pandemic on a few titles, the songs donâ€™t evidence the Groundhog-like sameness that our collective shelter-in-place has brought to daily life.
The opening cover of Al Ferrierâ€™s rockabilly â€œBlues Stop Knockinâ€™ at My Doorâ€ takes in Lazy Lesterâ€˜s harmonica-driven Louisiana stomp, and adds accordion and guitar solos to the yearning, heartsick vocal. Sheaâ€™s low, slow â€œBlues at Midnightâ€ picks up the sorrowful mood as he suffers the late-night misery of being left behind, and â€œJaunita (Why Are You So Mean)â€ imagines the travails of Sheaâ€™s in-laws during their dating years. The albumâ€™s title track is dramatized from an autobiographical seed, and â€œDown at the Bar at Gypsy Sallyâ€™sâ€ takes a few liberties with the San Bernardino bar scene in which Shea cut his musical teeth.
Alternate takes from the Everly Brothers hit-making years on Cadence
Among early rock â€˜nâ€™ roll acts, the Everly Brothersâ€™ catalog is one of the most thoroughly documented. In addition to album reissues and greatest hits collections on numerous labels, Bear Family has issued three omnibus box sets (Classic, covering the â€˜50s, and The Price Of Fame and Chained To A Memory, covering their years on Warner Bros.), along with two themed compilations (Rock and The Ballads of the Everly Brothers), a two-disc reissue of the classic Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, and a one-disc â€œmini boxâ€ titled Studio Outtakes. That latter disc, featuring 36 illuminating alternate studio takes from the brothersâ€™ Cadence-era sessions, including 26 that were not included on the Classic box set. Studio Outtakes fell out of print and is reissued here in a jewel case with a 34-page booklet thatâ€™s slimmed down from the original issueâ€™s 64-pages.
Unlike the multi-disc Outtakes volumes on Johnny Cash, Billy Riley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Tillotson and Carl Perkins, or the grey market two-volume CadenceSessions, the conciseness of this single disc doesnâ€™t require slogging through the repetition of false starts, incomplete takes and a half-dozen alternates of the same title. The multi-disc outtakes sets make a nice addition to a collectorâ€™s archive, but this 79-minute single disc is the more musical experience, playing as a well-curated compilation of hits, B-sides and album tracks with the twist of alternate takes. The evolution heard in these alternate takes offer listeners a peek inside the Everly Brothers creative process, and for the most familiar songs, an opportunity to relive a bit of the experience of hearing them for the first time.
Whatâ€™s truly impressive is how quickly, and seemingly easily, the Everlys struck up their brotherly chemistry in the studio. First takes of â€œAll I Have to Do Is Dream,â€ â€œBird Dog,â€ â€œBye, Bye Love,â€ â€œClaudetteâ€ and â€œWake Up Little Susieâ€ hadnâ€™t always settled on the vocal lines or instrumental accompaniment that would turn the song into a hit, but you could hear the magic building, particularly in the brothersâ€™ magnetic harmonies. The differences are often subtle changes in rhythm, harmony, tempo, accompaniment, instrumental balance or production effects, offering an aural lesson in the tweaks a producer and artist make as they search for a hit. For example, the softening of the vocal attitude between takes 1 and 5 of â€œAll I Have to Do Is Dreamâ€ finds the song evolving into its dreamy final form, while tempo, lyric and key changes differentiate takes 3, 5 and 7 of â€œPoor Jenny.â€
The laying on of spiritual hands offered up on 2016â€™s Blue Healer is now turned inward, with a dramatic album that finds Mathus moving from guitar to piano, and enriching his musical brew with space. Space for the vocals and lyrics, and space for instrumental backings that arenâ€™t exactly spare, but often stray from the thick gumbo of his earlier albums. He ranges easily and authoritatively through Americana, folk, country, R&B, rock and electric swamp, turning his lyrics inward to explore the underpinnings of his own artistic life. The songs often drift into being, as though Mathus is gathering his thoughts as he addresses the microphone; heâ€™s relaxed, confident and intensely present as he reveals himself. Thereâ€™s an immediacy in this approach that casts a new light on his earlier records, suggesting they may have been more of an outward manifestation of the internal truths he mines here.
Some of these personal revelations are delivered directly in the lyrics, but elsewhere, such as the title track, poetic images are rendered with expressive singing and backed by instrumentals that essay mood rather than narrative. The basic revelation of â€œReally Hurt Someoneâ€ is heightened by intense violin runs and vocal dynamics that suggest Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkinsâ€™ â€œI Put a Spell on You.â€ The drifting piano and backing chorale of â€œBeen Unravellingâ€ add a meditative counterpoint to a palpably lonely vocal – as if Joe Cocker was fronting the Friends-era Beach Boys. Mathus turns to an R&B groove for â€œSunk a Little Loa,â€ swampy electric blues for â€œAlligator Fish,â€ trad-jazz for the story song â€œJack Told the Devil,â€ boozy C&W on â€œSouth of Laredo,â€ and tips his melodic hat to Jimi Hendrixâ€™s â€œAngelâ€ on â€œSunken Road.â€
A flash of inspiration turned into an essay of experience
Shawn Mullins was six years and four albums into his recording career when he waxed the 1998 breakthrough album Soulâ€™s Core. He was at the point in a musicianâ€™s career when they start to wonder if theyâ€™ll ever break out of the artistically-rich but commercially-lean orbit in which theyâ€™ve been traveling. The pace of recording often turns studio sessions into snapshots of inspiration, with a long tail of discovery ahead as the album is toured. The initial writing and recording are coated in layers of experience as songs are contextualized in the flow of a live set, developed by a road bandâ€™s chemistry, reflected by audience reaction, and interpreted through the changing circumstances of the performer. Material with artistic depth is in a sense never finished.
Given the pivotal role that Soulâ€™s Core played in Mullinsâ€™ career, itâ€™s no surprise that many of the albumâ€™s songs have remained central to his live set, and that over time, his relationship to the material, and his perspective on its meaning has deepened. For this self-released double-CD, Mullins has re-recorded the album twice: once with his road band, and once in an acoustic solo setting. The formerâ€™s live-in-the-studio setting captures the bandâ€™s decades-long development of the songs as stage material, while the latter more deeply introspects the songwriterâ€™s changes in personal relationship to his younger self. The band disc perfectly blends the tight playing of oft-played material with the stretching and exploration of songs whose core theses have become second nature; the solo disc gives Mullins an opportunity to look back twenty years on his own.
Returning from self-inflicted wounds and widespread destruction
Kasey Andersonâ€™s hard road back to rock â€˜nâ€™ roll is a journey that he wasnâ€™t sure he could, or even wanted to make. Alcohol and substance abuse, addiction, bipolar disorder, self-delusion, desperation, deceit, fraud, conviction, prison, sobriety, probation, recovery, amends and restitution are a deeper well of troubles than most songwriters accrue in a lifetime, let alone before they turn thirty-four. Released from prison, he edged back into playing music as an artistic outlet rather than an onramp to a former career, and with the support of friends and fans, his writing and performances have grown over the course of a couple of years from a restorative avocation into an ongoing concern.
Fans who can look beyond the damage Anderson wrought will find an artist whose commitment to music was deepened by the limited opportunities he found in prison. The physical and mental isolation of incarceration taught Anderson to use his imagination rather than leaning solely on experience, and the endless hours of self reflection allowed him to ponder questions of redemption. Patience has replaced drug- and bipolar-induced binges, letting his songwriting craft flow in whatever time it naturally takes. That said, his passion for what he writes is unhindered, and when he steps up to the microphone, thereâ€™s an urgency to express what heâ€™s learned about himself.
The album opens with the chaos thatâ€™s engulfing the world, but quickly turns personal as Anderson reflects on the freedoms and indiscretions of youth, suffers the debilitating â€œLithium Blues,â€ and takes a sober look at the personal turmoil that consumed him. Yet even as he thinks back, heâ€™s careful not to be trapped by the past, nor, perhaps owing to his own track record, measure others by his personal yardstick. The solemn â€œGeek Loveâ€ paints a touching portrait of sideshow freaks (which, for the few who know it, pairs beautifully with the Babylon Minstrelsâ€™ â€œGibsontonâ€), and demonstrates Andersonâ€™s growing ability to parlay seeds of personal experience into rich fictional stories.
Having disbanded in 1998, only a year after the release of their Steve Earle-produced (and recently reissued) second album, High Hat, these Americana pioneers went their separate ways for more than fifteen years. The group reunited in 2014 for live dates, and a 2015 album of new material, Roots Rock & Roll, showed their premature ending left plenty of juice for an encore. That encore has now extended to a second reunion album, with vocalist/songwriter Kenny Roby and bassist Rob Keller joined by multi-instrumentalist Luis Rodriguez and drummer Dan Davis. As good as the first reunion album sounded, this second is even more vital and energized.
Robyâ€™s new material is filled with kaleidoscopic memories of younger, more daring days, but there are also songs streaked with troubled and failed relationships, and the wear of an adultâ€™s daily grind. Much of the discord is camouflaged behind poetic lyrics and melodies that belie the personal gravity. As with the bandâ€™s original incarnation, the musical influences cast a wide net. There are Brill Building flourishes of baion beat and baritone guitar, vocal hooks that suggest Dwight Twilley and Tom Petty, pop punk, pub rock, and psych flavors in both the somnambulistic title track and the faded â€œWaste of Time.â€
Award-winning blues soul singer explores wider roots
Janiva Magness had an artistic coming out with her self-penned 2014 album, Original. Though sheâ€™d dabbled in songwriting before, the album marked a turn from interpreter of other peopleâ€™s stories to essayist of her firsthand emotions. She continues that direction with her latest, co-writing four of the albumâ€™s twelve tracks, and selecting material from collaborator and producer Dave Darling, as well as Paul Thorn and others. She also welcomes several guests to the album, including vocalist Delbert McClinton on â€œWhat I Could Do,â€ harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite on â€œHammer,â€ and most surprisingly, Poco pedal steel player Rusty Young on the shuffle â€œOn and On.â€ The latter, taken with Doug Livingstonâ€™s dobro on the Western-tinged â€œDown Below,â€ shows off the range of roots Magness has been exploring.
A West Texan singer-songwriter named after Kris Kristofferson has a lot to live up to. But thereâ€™s a soulfulness in Phillipsâ€™ voice, the sort you hear on deep Van Morrison tracks, and a redemptive faith in his songs that suggests Bruce Springsteen. His album ponders the end of a relationship, and though written in the first person, the stories are biographical rather than autobiographical. The split viewpoint lends a philosophical angle that musters a friendâ€™s pain and outrage from an observational angle. The songs battle the lethargy of aftermath, ponder second chances to end things cruelly, and find their way to forgive and move on to what could be renewal. â€œHad Enoughâ€ opens the album with a moment of realization that signals the oncoming emotional thaw. A growing understanding of just how unraveled heâ€™d become leads to confession and confrontation as he begs for reaction, castigates himself and looks for an exit.
Itâ€™s been fifteen years since Hadacol founder Greg Wickham dropped a new album. He hadnâ€™t intended to leave the music industry, but a break blossomed into marriage and children, and though he continued to make music, he stayed away from the business. But it was the family that led him towards hiatus that also led him back to the studio, as he sought to complement his pre-parenthood work with songs created as artifacts for his children. And with that motivation, he began writing the sort of contemplative and mortal songs one couldnâ€™t feel or even imagine as a 20-something singleton. Think of it as parental advice from a rock â€˜nâ€™ roll father whose adolescent excesses taught him not to carelessly blunder into a banal midlife.
On board with Wickham is his brother and Hadacol co-founder, Fred, along with the groupâ€™s former bassist Richard Burgess, who combine with Wickhamâ€™s voice to produce a familiar sound. Itâ€™s not Hadacol 2.0, but something grown from the same roots in a different time and emotional place. The blue country rock â€œHow Much Iâ€™ve Hurtâ€ would have fit easily into Hadacolâ€™s repertoire, and youâ€™ll hear the waltz-time of the bandâ€™s â€œPoorer Than Deadâ€ in the opening â€œAngel of Mercy (Song for Sophie).â€ The latter, however, replaces the formerâ€™s downbeat surrender with an expectant tone of home, and stretches out the backing with organ and horns.