If you don't have the time to keep up with the latest in new music, we've got the perfect solution for you: Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts come by to talk about the best new tunes in one short segment. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez for a chat about rock artists in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Nashville.
Artist: Watkins Family Hour
Album: "Watkins Family Hour"
Songs: "Hop High," "Steal Your Heart Away"
Summary: For more than a decade, one of the most reliably delightful music destinations in L.A. has been the somewhat regular Watkins Family Hour evenings at the Largo club, with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek) hosting a varying cast of friends in some charming and often stunning performances. The nights are also full of down-to-earth goofiness, genial needling and joking around, very loosely given an old-timey feel as singers often gather around one vintage-looking microphone. It’s sort of a home-made answer to "A Prairie Home Companion" (which, as it happens, has recently announced that Chris Thile, the other member of Nickel Creek, will take over as host when Garrison Kielor steps down).
The album, the first under the Watkins Family name with a short national tour to follow, brings together some of the key compatriots — including Fiona Apple and Heartbreakers piano man Benmont Tench — into a little collective ensemble. The earthy flow of the show isn’t recreated on the album, but the spirit is in every song as the album runs from folk and country (Harlan Howard’s "Where I Ought to Be" sung by Apple, the comical "King of the 12 Oz. Bottle" sung by drummer Don Heffington) to blues (Little Brother Montgomery’s "Prescription for the Blues," sung by Tench) to Dylan (the touching "Going, Going, Gone," sung by multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz) to the Grateful Dead ("Brokedown Palace" as a gorgeous album-closer).
At the hub, though, is always the Watkins’ folk-bluegrass roots, strong in Sara’s fiddle, Sean’s guitar and their blood-twined harmonies. It’s explicit in the traditional "Hop High," but no less so in what may be the surprising highlight, a version of Lindsey Buckingham’s "Steal Your Heart Away," sung by Sara. If it sounds like she’s singing with a smile that can light up a room, well, ask anyone who’s been to the shows: She is.
Album: "Into the Deep"
Songs: "Into the Deep," "Sugar Doosie"
Summary: It’s two! Two! Two bands in one! One one front, Galactic is perhaps the funkiest, sharpest instrumental in New Orleans of the last couple of decades. On the other, it’s been a terrific backing band for a wide range of singers. In that regard it’s something of the heir to NOLA’s own core band, the Meters, and a bit of Memphis’ Booker T. and the MGs, not bad precedents to follow. Often, though, it’s seemed the split personalities have been at war, or at least at odds.
This new album doesn’t exactly mend the rift, but in many ways the two sides are now reconciled better than ever. Having singers the caliber and renown of Macy Gray (who’s been their featured guest in recent concerts) and Mavis Staples doesn’t hurt. Both the title song with Gray and "Does It Really Make a Difference" with Staples would be standouts on their own respective albums, and here show Galactic’s ability to play to, with and for the singer (in the past they’ve worked with various R&B, rock and hip-hop figures quite effectively). It’s a matter of both sensibility and adaptability. Not to mention considerable chops, anchored by Stanton Moore, who ranks among the best drummers in a city known for great drummers.
The problem is, Galactic sometimes takes on the singer’s persona at the expense of its own, even though the band wrote or co-wrote every song — not bad if this was a singer’s own album. But this is a Galactic album, and if you really want to know what this band can do, you need to go to the four instrumental tracks. Here’s where the quintet, augmented by an assortment of ace New Orleans brass players, really come to life. The opener "Sugar Doosie" is, well, a doozie of classic New Orleans funk, Galactic-style.
Artist: Jason Isbell
Album: "Something More Than Free"
Songs: "24 Frames," "Something More Than Free"
Summary: "You thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb, ready to blow," sings Jason Isbell in the song "24 Frames." Well, wow. If that line doesn’t grab you, hang on a second, another killer is coming right along. And if the song’s central notion, life as a movie that we sometimes just watch happen, is not exactly new, Isbell makes it seem as if no one has really explored it before.
At once celebrating and lamenting the every day, The North Alabama-raised, Nashville-based Isbell takes on topics and scenarios we may have heard and seen many times before, but with fresh eyes on the world-weariness. It’s all rather, to coin a term, Kristoffersonian. And he puts an even tighter frame around the scenes than the panoramic views of and from the New South he helped create with Drive-By Truckers, the band he was in before going solo in 2007.
There’s the couple in "Flagship" trying to forestall the stagnation and dissipation they see around them. There’s the lunchpail guy getting up every morning in the album’s title song — somewhere between Bruce Springsteen’s "The Working Life" and Jackson Browne’s "The Pretender." There’s the guy who doesn’t have to go to work thanks to a workers’ comp settlement in "The Life You Chose" — "I got lucky when I finished school / lost three fingers to a faulty tool." There’s life in a "Speed Trap Town." There’s the premature adulthood in "Children of Children."
The music is, by and large, subservient to the words, and with words this astonishing that’s how it should be. But that’s not to say the music is dismissible. The melodies help paint the pictures, bringing out the emotions and characters with vivid colors. And the band, which includes his wife Amanda Shires (a wonderful artist in her own right) on fiddle, walks that fine
line between impressive and intrusive. And when they do crank it up, as on the penultimate "Palmetto Rose," it’s a double-barreled blast. Even without that, this album affirms Isbell as one of the superior writers and performers in Americana, and beyond.