1. Hard Working Americans – Rest In Chaos
In his liner notes for the new album from Todd Snider’s Hard Working Americans, Dave Marsh invokes some pretty heavy rock and roll names, saying the band is “under the direction of an older wise Jimi Hendrix and a Frank Zappa no less exacting than when he departed.” There’s plenty of fuzzy guitar and there is a bit of Apostrophe/Over-Nite Sensation (see “I’m the Slime”) in this album’s DNA, but I hear two different comparisons. Specifically, Bob Seger from his early garage rock days and ZZ Top back when they were they were a slinky boogie band. Snider seems to be receiving signals from both, at least in the vocal booth. Listen to the low growl of “Throwing the Goats” and try not to think of “La Grange” (or at least Billy Gibbons singing “Come Together”).The overall theme is that we are shrugging our way toward Gomorrah, with the usual factors – over-saturated media coverage, war, environmental abuse – as the cause. In “Something Else,” Snider sings, “Killing is paying like I don’t know how/If peace paid money we’d have made it by now.” And while our collective demise is mostly regarded with humor, Snider sounds like he means it when he sings, “Rest in chaos, my old friend/May you ascend into madness.”
2. Al Scorch – Circle Round the Signs
Somewhen about ten or twelve years ago, it seemed there were a bunch of great punkish bluegrassy bands roaming the planet, like the Meat Purveryors and Devil In a Woodpile, and the world was a better place for it. I don’t hear that sound as much anymore, which is why Al Scorch’s new album is such a welcome discovery. Like his Bloodshot brethren before him, Scorch knows how to pick a banjo and a guitar with dexterity and ferocity. “Want One” and “Insomnia” would easily be punk anthems if you played them on a beat up old Strat copy through an old orange Boss distortion pedal. What the hell, let’s torture that description a bit more and add a Peavey amp. But he’s also skillful with a melancholy heart-squeeze like “Lonesome Low.” Good stuff here.
3. Adia Victoria – Beyond the Bloodhounds
Go ahead and try to pin Adia Victoria down to one genre. I’ll wait here. I have a book to read while you work. The attitude is rock – that’s the center of gravity. But the delivery can be jazz or soul or art rock or blues or even spoken word. “Out of Love” comes on like a spacey march and then doubles back into a Dave Brubeck-like waltz before Victoria comes in, breathy and sultry, but singing about dissatisfaction. “I’m so out of love with everyone,” she sings. She’s an adept vocalist, fluid here and then angular, twisting a phrase over the melody. She can also summons a great twang when she wants to, like when she sings, “Here’s a song for my friends/I hate every single one of ya’ll,” on “Sea of Sand.” There’s a lot here to explore. This one will bear new fruit every time you listen to it.
4. Blind Boys of Alabama reissues – Spirit of the Century and Higher Ground
The Blind Boys of Alabama started singing together in 1939, but didn’t really start to garner a larger secular audience until the 80s. Spirit of the Century, released in 2001, was the one that really brought them out to a sizable mainstream crowd. At the time, I loved their stories about how soul and rock had been stealing gospel songs for decades, so they decided to steal a few of them back, including two Tom Waits tunes, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” and “Way Down in the Hole.” They followed up with more of that on Higher Ground, with the Stevie Wonder title track and covers of Prince’s “The Cross” and Ben Harper’s “I Shall Not Walk Alone.”