The Amber Ages
Since I was a kid spinning 45 singles over and over, never feeling the need for a different song when I found a great one, I’ve always been drawn to the single. Not the hit necessarily, but the singular song that stands out from the rest and resonates with grace and greatness. And which not only stands up, but grows better and even more compelling with each listen. Not every album affords us this opportunity. But this one sure does, and it’s the title track, “The Amber Ages.” Thom wrote the lyrics, with beautiful cinematic music composed by Linn Brown. It is dedicated, I have learned, to his father, Thomas Bishop, Sr.
A multi-dimensional masterpiece, it’s hard to listen to this song without shedding any tears, as I’m also the son of a reluctant warrior who also fought in France, and whose life is over as mine goes on. That dynamic of yearning to hold onto the past resonates throughout my generation, as does the inclination to honor the bravery of these men – just boys then – sent overseas to save the world. Those who survived and came back were humble heroes, as was my father, rarely wanting to talk about it. The song contains that dynamic but so much more: it’s a timeless epic of remarkable proportions, a cinematic summation of recent human history, beautifully detailed. Dedicated to an unnamed soldier who also fought in France long ago, it is the song of a son for a father who peers over fading pages of old journals. Deeply felt and delivered, it’s beautifully underscored by piano. A sprawling song with a beautifully arching and elegiac melody, it’s deeply nostalgic and new at the same time, and grandly poignant.
“The parrots are rustling on Telegraph Hill
Your memory throbbing your spirit is still
And there in the corner defying the dust
Your proud suit of armor stands speckled with rust..”
From “The Amber Ages”
By Thom Bishop.
For that song alone, this would be well worth the price of admission. But there is much more. Beautifully lyrical and luminous songs abound from this Chicago son, including one called “Luminous.” A song about humans being human, that aspiration towards something singular, something special. Always there was a luminous quality in his singing, since he first emerged from the vital Chicago folk-music scene in the 70s. Playing acoustic guitar, he sang with a spirited, angelic tenor voice, delivering stunning, lyrical songs. The stunning songs remain, as does the angelic tenor, but on this song cycle he plays no guitar. The setting is more jazz than folk, speaking of Miles Davis’s famous embrace of silence, the space between the sounds, with Jeff Jenkin’s elegant piano at the heart of each track, fleshed out by Eric Thorin on lyrical double bass. Other colors are painted with warm pedal steel by John Macy, and soulfully haunted flugelhorn and trumpet passages by Gabriel Mervine.
The other shift here is that, unlike previous albums for which he wrote the songs alone, here he’s collaborated on many songs, writing the lyrics while various composers create the music, including Jude Swift, Ed Tossing, Gary Grundel and Linn Brown. And so these songs resound like new jazz standards – like something in the hip wheelhouse of Ben Sidran or Mose Allison. He does bring one of his older songs, the haunting “Mr. Arthur’s Place,” into this jazzy realm, and it comes alive in a new way. Its beautiful meandering melodics lay lovingly with the piano, and the delivery is all heart. It’s a song of great grace, of recapturing the essence of long ago love. Another beautiful song cycle by Thom Bishop, it’s united by the timeless and limitless power of song.
Knowing that John Prine’s longtime multi-instrumentalist, the great Jason Wilber, had recorded an album of covers, bringing us new renditions of great old songs, I assumed it would be mostly folky songs, the kind most easily suited to an acoustic guitar-based artist. But as often happens, I was wrong. Instead he has chosen songs quite removed from the acoustic guitar as we know it – singular and remarkable songs originally rendered with production grand and dimensional, including piano-based and/or open-tuning derived chromatic excursions. But in Jason’s gentle hands, he returns us to the essence of each song – the words and melody – and brings them home in a brand new and poignant light. The instrumentation is pure and unadorned throughout, with Jason on vocals, guitars and bass, and with touches of percussion by Paul Mahern, who also produced and engineered the album, and Devon Ashley. That simplicity beautifully frames these songs, and keeps the focus keenly on the lyrics and melody of these great songs.
Seeing that he’d included Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and The Kingpin,” from her vastly under-appreciated Hissing of Summer Lawns, I was surprised. Of all of her remarkable songs, it’s one that rarely gets celebrated, even by the most die-hard Joni fans, of which there are a multitude. Truth is not a lot of Joni songs ever get covered – not because they’re not amazing songs, but because they are so complex, so distinctive to her style, her voice, her open-tunings of guitar, that it would be a supreme challenge for all but the most gifted singer-musicians to do right. Prince famously covered “A Case Of You” with great love. But, sadly, there are few Princes around.
Jason, however, is an exceptional musician, most famous for his multi-instrumental role in the Prine band for decades now, and his easy penchant for bringing as much soul to a mandolin solo as to a harmonica refrain or guitar rhythm. His rendition of “Edith” is revelatory. It brings a softness to the sharp, angular contours of the song, and a sweetness that was always there but obscured by the sonics of the production. His vocal is relaxed, allowing this mysterious story to unfold in a whole other way. This is greatness. This is ambitious. If one can imagine Joni performing it solo, just voice and guitar, before making the album, it might sound like this. All those years with Prine seems to have taught him a lesson of great consequence: that when you have a song filled with rich, complex lyrics, it’s wise to keep the instrumentation simple so as not to get in the way.
He does it again with one of Stevie Wonder’s most exultant melodies and lyrics of sweet ardor, “Overjoyed.” This chord progression – like so much Stevie has created – is beyond complex. No normal musical logic holds it together; rather it is connected by Stevie’s singular genius, which bypasses all conventional ideas of harmony and chord structure to create a progression that propels this melody with transcendent beauty. It’s the kind of chromatic chord structure, not unlike Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” which on paper would seem so complex as to be unfocused and desultory. But it’s the purity of melody which sails this vessel, so that all those chords line up in a sublime symmetry that never sounds unusual or complex, it just sounds right. And with Jason’s warm acoustic guitar playing and gentle voice, the genius inherent in this composition comes alive with humble, understatement, and the effect is stunning.
He similarly transforms another similarly complex song by another genius songwriter known like Stevie and Joni for intricately elaborate chord progressions, David Bowie. “All The Pretty Horses.” Again, a song that is rarely if ever covered, because the artist defined it so deeply already, and because it’s so complex. The chords, as in other songs of his, seem convoluted, even. But on acoustic guitar with a single gentle vocal at its heart, it rings with great grace and beauty.
He also delivers a song he’s performed himself thousands of times, Prine’s classic “Paradise.” He gives it a bluesy edge that is haunting, bending the famous melody into places where its sorrow rings like a church bell. It’s a keen kind of triumph, discovering a whole new depth in this song he’s done for decades, and outlining the paradigm shift in the lyrics – the American towns forever decimated by the coal industry – with a deep and perpetual sorrow.
Other unusual and great song choices are here, including a beautiful rendition of the Stones’ lovely ballad, “As Tears Go By,” as well Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” and Big Star’s “I Am The Cosmos” by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. In each he delivers the essence of the song with stunning clarity, letting us hear each word, each melody note, in a whole new way. This is new, unexpected and great record-making.
Michael Wesley Hughes
Tryin’ To Come Back Home
One of the most poignant and also rocking anti-war statements to have emerged in years. A vivid masterpiece long brewing in the soul of this old soldier, and now emerging after years of playing the blues. Beloved as a brilliant bluesman and the songwriter of blues classics, Michael Hughes now shares his hidden crucible of song and survival. A Vietnam vet who was blown to kingdom come only to be sewn up and sent out to be blown up again, this is his real story, a rock and roll spiral directly into the unfathomable hell of war, and the world after the war, the long and enduring road back home. Although these are songs of outrage, they’re also redemption songs, the songs of an ultimate survivor. And don’t worry: these songs aren’t weepy or pedantic; the man rocks. As pointed and even political as these songs get, they never abandon the aim of good songwriting: compelling choruses, visceral verses and rich melodics ensue.
He’s an incendiary lead guitarist who wails with deep electric sorrow and redemptive joy to cut through the noise and transcend words. Several of his songs from his critically-acclaimed eBlues Highway (2009) were used in HBO’s “True Blood” (as those Southern vampires evidently dig authentic blues). His blues – the songs, singing and playing – spring from a source so deep and genuine that they resound like the first blues, like the songs of the ages.
This album digs as deep, but is a shift to a different kind of songwriting. Still it’s informed by the blues. Fortunately for fans, his electric guitar solos abound, and are as blistering and incendiary as any on his blues records or lives shows. He sounds like a man on fire. But that crying soul is crying about a whole other kind of American blues, that of the thousands of American sons sent to battle. Those who weren’t killed and were sent home found themselves forever chained to the horrors they endured, forever – as the title says – tryin’ to find their way home.
This is the sound of authenticity, an unmistakable sound. Which is why his anthem of human phoniness – “Faking It” – is so perfect here, united around the whole crowd singing, “Fake you!” It’s an outrageous rock stomp about the powers that lie, those who wear, as he writes, “a third degree black belt in Bullshit.” Hughes burns through the song, both vocally and on guitar, while unleashing pure electric fury at the masters of war.
So accustomed are we to hearing music devoid of musical or lyrical substance, albums with little coherence but much filler, it’s like living on a diet of junk food. One yearns for something, anything, that’s real. So when you hear this, the raw power of a man singing from his soul, so revelatory of human drama, it resonates even more powerfully. With rampant frivolity and banality celebrated daily, and with more and more people making music with less and less substance, the sound of a true artist rings like a beautiful bell-tone through the noise.
These songs exemplify that musical highway of truth. These entail his excursion to hell, and his protracted emergence. A nightmare so brutal that it never left him. To this day. Nightmares. Like so many veterans, the nightmares never stop. Asked about honor, he answered soberly with no lack of sorrow: “There is no honor when you are carrying your friend’s body, and he’s been blown in two.”
All of it and more, all these years later, now channeled into a charged and remarkable cycle of songs. Here is a man of heart trying revealing this madness in “Evil,” the album’s closing song, which he tells us in the liner notes, embraces the mission of transforming a “human with compassion” to a “trained killing machine.”
Produced dynamically by songwriter-producer Lisa Nemzo, the entire album surrounds Hughes in driving grooves, rich choirs of voices, and soulful rhythm beds on top of which his guitar gently – and powerfully – weeps. Nemzo powerfully connected with these songs and with their singer. Each is etched ideally to the artist’s contours, his voice and style. These are songs of great intensity, and the production directly embodies the character of each, and with great soulfulness. His singing has never sounded more vital, as electric as his combustible Hendrix meets B.B. King at the crossroads guitar playing throughout.
It is with gratitude that we honor those who have survived, and those like Mr. Hughes who help us, though his words and music and especially, his soul, to make sense of this madness. That Mr. Hughes not only survived, but survived to write and sing these kind of songs, gives us all hope. This album helps us remember not to forget, to honor those who did for their country what their country asked them to do. It honors the fallen, those who paid the ultimate price even without knowing the reason. And it honors the dream of a world beyond war, a world where humans can learn the meaning of harmony, and the song of true peace.
I have seen the future of R&B, and her name is Hollie Stephenson. This is greatness, an astounding debut. She’s a stunning singer who writes songs that resound like R&B standards. This is the heart of real soul, the sound of exultant, transcendent horn-charged R&B. It sparkles like the heart of Motown soul with a measure of pure Philly soul and with a modern, poignant edge. At first listening it resounds like Amy Winehouse but without the drugs, just pure soul and retro girl-group elation ideally suited for a new world. But the Amy comparisons fall away after listening over and over, and this is an album that invites constant listening like the classic records of yore. Her voice, with the warmth and piercing agility reminiscent of other great soul singers like Amy and Duffy and Dusty Springfield, is very much her own. At all of 17 years, she discovers and crafts new songs like an old soul, one deeply immersed in soul, R&B and classic songwriting.
It would be easy to listen to this and assume this young singer had chosen soul chestnuts, great standards of the past to belt out with tender romance. But, amazingly, these are all new classics.
These are the kinds of songs that songwriters spend their whole lives to write. She’s written them all before turning 18. It’s prodigious of the first degree. “Broken Heart Strings” starts good and just gets greater, with a chorus of great power. “Dried Out Lies” is set against a dizzying horn section and a tempo which quietly increases the singer’s passion simmers. “Pointless Rebellion,” the album opener, sparkles with bright yearning, delightfully delivering the title and all it implies with both whimsy and wonder.
She’s the discovery of Dave Stewart, who produced the album and co-wrote some of the songs, including the gorgeous “Sunday Morning.” Swelling with strings and a choir of voices, it’s a sumptuous ballad for the ages. Were she only a songwriter and not a vocalist, she’d been providing luminous and soulful songs for other singers. But as vocalist she rises to the high bar of her own material to deliver the kind of album we used to live for. This is a very rare debut, a soul masterpiece.
Beautifully resonant and hypnotic roots rock. Quiet Life is a great Americana band who write songs for the ages, the kinds of songs that seem to have been around forever. Produced by Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog and recorded at his Mt. Slippery studio in Philly, it’s an album of much tenderness and charm. Songs like “Summer of ’16” and the title song, “Foggy,” resound with a warm wistfulness. Close harmonies and organic textures abound. The ghost of Jerry Garcia is evoked in the mystic and folky focus of these songs, starting simple but always with the promise of infinite expansion, that these songs never really stop, but keep spinning like galaxies into the mystic. It all starts with “Live Wire,” a compelling song of simplicity and grace. If The Band collaborated with Pink Floyd, it might touch a realm like this. Everything starts small, and gradually builds and builds, sending this humble song home wrapped in wonder. For this track alone, this would be one worth keeping.
Known to tour America in a fabled forest green Ford van which runs on used vegetable oil, this is a roots band for the 21st century. Foggy is an album perfect for the upcoming summer of ’16, already rendered iconic in advance. It’s music that makes you happy, but also evokes a whole world far beyond. It’s brand new and modern, yet forever connected to those great albums of the past which still deliver, even after all these years. This is one for the ages.
Money In The Bank
Very great and unexpected. Fun, spirited, angularly singular songwriting abounds. Entirely on her own ground, Melinda Gibson is no folkie though often seen in their company: these are super-charged, fervently delivered rockers which have more to do with a raw, punk-fueled energy reminiscent of John Doe and Exene’s incendiary exhortations in X than anything unplugged. It’s powered by a muscular three-piece ensemble of Melinda on voice and guitars, Shawn Clawson on bass and vocals, and the ferocious David Rodgers on drums. She’s funny and serious as Patti Smith, with lyrics that cut through the sonics with a whimsical mingling of enlightenment and resignation. “Money In The Bank” is a brilliant reflection of modern times and the financial crosses we all bear: “You do what you have to do to get the money in the bank, the money in the bank…” “Madman” springs out of the gate on a galloping electric groove that seems one-part folk and one-part Bowie. Written and produced with James Hurley, this is a delightful EP of five finely etched songs. She sings with soulful authority throughout, projecting the lyrics with pointed whimsy and soulful focus. With only one song in five that exceeds three minutes, she knows how to make a strong, essential statement without every overstaying her welcome. This is inspired and vigorous songwriting and robust record-making. The only weakness is that, unlike almost every album made these days, there’s not enough here. We want more! But kudos to the artist for bringing such essential power and punch on an album that reminds us just how good it can get. There’s no wasted moments here, no excess, no self-indulgence. Just the powerful purity of singular passion. Here’s hoping there’s much more to come.
San Fernando Valley Blues
The man is prolific and engaged, and this is but one of many collections he’s recently created and released. But it’s so good I can’t get past it. He writes beautifully detailed, sensual songs, the kinds of songs people complain that nobody writes anymore. Both evoking retro ghosts but with his feet planted firmly in the now, this is seriously good. He sings with the calm confidence of Johnny Cash mixed with the wounded soul of Townes Van Zandt and a touch of Buddy Holly rockabilly swagger. Recorded at assorted homes and apartments spread through the vast urbanity of Los Angeles, it’s an album of much quiet grace and focus. When he sings, you want to listen – there’s a summoning, compelling dynamic to his voice that invites you to take in every word. It’s delicately attired by as assortment of musicians who revolve around the sun of his acoustic guitar like satellites, a dynamic cast of players including Paul Eckman, Wyatt Stone, DJ Bonebrake, Christopher Lockett, Jim Cavender, Dale Daniel and more. “With Me Everywhere I Go” resounds like a beautiful ballad Elvis would have loved, romantic and generous both. “I Used To Love California” is an essential exploration of a musician’s world, filled like love songs with symbols that lose their charm when the love ends. It brings to mind those musicians who blame the state itself, not the music industry or their own bad luck, on their lack of success, as in “I am outta here, dude – California has messed with me enough. I’m going back to [fill in name of any home-town] where they treat me better.” “Duke Ellington’s Tears” is a remarkable rootsy country-stomp about the “quiet grace” of the maestro years past his heyday, on the great abyss, finding himself playing in a high school gymnasium. It’s a tribute to the fortitude of all musicians, of the hard roads traveled down decades for the few quick trips on the glory train. The sad fact that, as Shel Silverstein once wrote, even living legends have to live. “Too Hot To Sleep” is temperate and hypnotic.
“San Fernando Valley Blues” sounds like a modern blues standard, with perfect charged-blues phrasing on sad lines like “In Panorama City, she’s topless in some bar.” (Anyone who has spent any time in Panorama City knows just how sad that is.) In the vast desolation of the San Fernando Valley, what Van Dyke Parks once termed “an endless suburban nightmare,” there are infinite stories of hollow despair. But this crystallizes all of it, the perpetual yearning for stardom that brings some so close to the luminous core of Hollywood without ever attaining it.
It all ends up with the retro charm of “Tracy Lee,” a love song by an admitted fool that swings with rockabilly ardor. Skip Heller’s the real deal: a deeply committed and gifted songwriter who seems capable of just about anything. This is not only a great collection of perfectly conceived and executed songs, it’s a lot of fun. I want to put this in my car and drive through the valley all day long.
Good Days a Comin
It opens with spirited guitar and violin, like the early jazz flights of Django with Stephane Grappelli. That is until his voice comes in, a voice resonant as the earth, singing with a gentle warmth and delivering beautiful originals and some great covers. This is a beautifully intimate, warm song cycle all built on the simple foundation of his fine guitar playing with just a few delicate touches, such as the sparkling violin of Robert Bowlin. Ivas’ guitar style is reminiscent of the late great Steve Goodman, who blended layers of fluid ragtime and jazz into a rainbow of country and folk, and could play leads and rhythm and sing all at the same time. Ivas seems cut from the same cloth, and with a voice like Goodman’s, of much amiable love. He brings us beautiful and timeless songs of his own which echo with a beautiful Americana purity, such as “Roll Mississippi” and “Here I Am,” the latter of which was co-written with Edward John. He also delivers some entrancing covers, including Merle Travis’ spectral “Dark As A Dungeon” and Tom Paxton’s great “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” This is an artist of purity, a gifted and lyrical guitarist and songwriter. It’s an album you can live inside of for weeks, and never feel let down. This is soulful and solid stuff. Honoring the traditional ground from which he’s emerged, Ivas John embraces the source while reaching into the hopeful future, the good days he knows are a comin’.
Something Left To Say
An Americana masterpiece. A tender, beautifully realized and lyrical song cycle from Jared Rabin, founding member and lead singer-multi-instrumentalist of Chicago’s great Falldown. He writes perfect songs, beautiful melodic gems lovingly layered with rich vocal harmonies throughout, wed to compelling grooves. It all starts with the gently galloping “Something Left To Say,” a song about grabbing the reins of the present while they’re in your hands. He brings it home with a perfect couplet, like a great Paul Simon line, both simple and complex at the same time: “And I’ve got something left to say/Soon tomorrow will be yesterday.”
Produced by Jared with Rick Barnes at Chicago’s great Rax Trax studios, this is an album which shows off the multitudes of music which live in this one man. As those who have invited him for years into their bands and onto their tracks know well, he’s a remarkable multi-instrumentalist who brings a dynamic and delicate warmth to everything he touches. Unlike other gifted songwriters who leave guitar solos to others, he takes burning leads throughout, such as the fleetly fluid one in the center of “Eight Trips Around The Sun.” And besides the solos, he covers so many bases at once it’s staggering, like an Americana Stevie Wonder. Besides singing and writing all the songs, he plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass, mandolin, violin, banjo, piano, organ and harmonica.
Besides that the only musicians are drummer Jordan Kozner, as well as Dan Kristan, who plays double bass on two songs, and Kallie Palm on vocal harmonies. Percussionist Juan Pastor provides great tapestry rhythms and handclaps on the opening cut.
His music reflects a music lover who has seriously absorbed every kind of music his whole life, from old jazz and standards through folk and country to rock and far beyond. It all informs his music, which is deeply dimensional and richly rendered. “Nothing I Can Do” is a charged fiddle-based country stomp, like one part Jackson Browne and one part Charlie Daniels. “Ride the Wheel” is a slowly simmering anthem which closes the album with amazing guitar exhortations throughout set against an urgent pedal-tone bassline. The effect is exultant and powerful, as if Hendrix sat in with the Eagles, even exploding at the end, after the harmonies are gone, into pure incendiary feedback. It’s an apt conclusion to this song cycle both tender and volatile, touching on every degree of this one artist’s vast musical spectrum. He seems like a guy who could do anything musically, and I look forward to what’s next. In the meanwhile I’ll keep spinning this disc, and keep it with my collection of classics.
The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town
By Marty Jourard
University Press of Florida
Gainesville native Marty Jourard is a founding member of The Motels, with whom he made five albums. He’s also a scholar and a historian who for many years has spoken about compiling a book which celebrates, preserves and analyzes the musical phenomenon of Gainesville, Florida, from which an inordinate amount of musical heroes emerged. The list is legend: Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, Mike Campbell, Don Felder, Duane Allman, Dickie Betts, Gram Parsons, Bernie Leadon and more. All of them emerged from this little Florida town. How and why that happened is a subject near and dear to Marty’s heart, and he unfolds the many layers of this history with love. It is more than a book of history, as he proclaims in the introduction. It’s a love letter to Gainesville itself. For it was more than random luck that allowed it to become a musical mecca. It was the spirit of the place itself: “…it was a place that encouraged and supported music,” he wrote, “bringing plenty of wild rock and roll energy to what otherwise could have been just another small southern college town.” Tremendously researched and rendered, Jourard connects all the dots remarkably in an ambitious tour de force of tireless scholarship, regional pride and love of music. He’s got a story-teller’s eye and heart, and transforms what could be a dry history lesson into a passionate and remarkable read.