Pop Culture Classics' Recommended CDs, DVDs and Books
By Paul Freeman
The exuberance, energy and electricity of the 1965 Beatles vehicle has never been more effectively conveyed than in this new Blu-Ray release. The vibrant colors burst across the screen like pop art. And the fab tunes, in newly remastered 5.1, sound better than ever. The exhilarating tracks include "Ticket To Ride," "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," "The Night Before," "I Need You" and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." The McGuffin is a sacrificial ring, sent by a fan to Ringo. An Eastern cult connives to get it back, even if it means taking Ringo's finger with it. The globe-trotting chase is on and broad comedy chaos ensues. Sad sack Ringo shows a natural sense of comic timing. Cute Paul, acerbic John and deadpan George also have their amusing moments, all tied together with plenty of action by director Richard Lester. Farcical fun and memorable music make "Help!" irresistible. Bountiful bonus features include a wonderful half-hour documentary, an outtake, trailers, radio spots and more.
"PRIME SUSPECT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION"
The crystal clarity of Blu-Ray only serves to make the nuances of Helen Mirren's intricate portrayal even more impressive. The U.K. series aired from 1991-2007 and Mirren continued to find new shadings of the character to explore through the entire "Prime Suspect" run. She plays Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a woman carving out a dominant role in the testosterone-charged world of murder investigation. With dignity and determination, Tennison overcomes sexism, as well as the inherent challenges of the draining job. Her personal life suffers. The addictive, puzzle-sorting, mystery-solving nature of her work makes it possible for Tennison to handle the horrors of the crimes. Gifted guest actors pop up to further enthrall viewers. Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech," "Les Miserables") is among the series directors. "Prime Suspect" earned tons of awards and ranks among the top procedural dramas ever filmed. Here it's preserved in all its brilliantly acted, gory glory.
"HANDS OF THE RIPPER"
"CHINA BEACH" THE COMPLETE COLLECTION"
"China Beach" was hailed as one of television's top dramas, when it aired on ABC, 1988-91. But it isn't as as widely remembered as it should be. Maybe this handsome new box set from Time-Life, delivering all four seasons, will remedy that unfair neglect. The show presented a realistic look at the Vietnam War, told primarily from the point of view of the women stationed at an evac hospital. The series was exceptionally well written and beautifully acted by its outstanding ensemble cast, led by Dana Delany ("Desperate Housewives"), who won two Best Actress Emmys for playing nurse Colleen McMurphy. Other key cast members included Marg Helgenberger, Michael Boatman, Robert Picardo, Concetta Tomei, Megan Gallagher, Ricki Lake and Chloe Webb. They powerfully depict the devastating emotional, as well as physical, costs of war. Soldiers, doctors and nurses pay steep prices for their nation's foreign policy blunders. Those who bravely hold onto their humanity serve as inspirations. The messages imbedded in "China Beach" are as relevant as ever. Music helped capture the period and included such artists as Tommy James, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Sonny & Cher, Manfred Mann, Janis Joplin, James Brown, The Temptations, Four Tops, Martha & The Vandellas and the series theme, "Reflections," by The Supremes. Nancy Sinatra guested in the season one finale, recreating her concerts for troops in the 60s. The box includes all 62 episodes on 21 discs. The set comes with a 28-page color book, dog tags and a generous 10 hours of bonus features, including a cast reunion, featurette, deleted scenes and gag reel. Commentaries provided for the pilot and finale episodes are enlightening. Long overdue on video, this gritty, challenging series has finally been given the high-quality release it deserves.
"THE BEST OF FRIDAYS"
Great news! Shout! Factory has released a five-disc package featuring 16 episodes of the long-lost cult comedy series, "Fridays." While NBC's "Saturday Night Live" made viewers suffer through one of its frustratingly fallow periods, ABC grabbed the opportunity to compete for the irreverent, topical, late night comedy crown. The network launched "Fridays." The underdog series (1980-82) never received the respect it deserved, always being unfavorably compared to "SNL." But the fact was, "Fridays" was edgier, weirder, more inventive and more daring than its more established rival. And though the sketch material was uneven, the show was usually a lot funnier. A show like this is entirely dependent on the talents of the troupe. The "Fridays" cast was terrific. Two members went on to stardom - Larry David (who played Larry Fine in the Three Stooges skits here) and Michael Richards. A third, Melanie Chartoff, deserved bigger success, with her Tina Fey-like combination of sex appeal and smarts. Maybe she was ahead of her time. Also under-appreciated was John Roarke, whose uncanny impressions ranged from Ronald Reagan to Woody Allen. Other cast members became familiar TV and movie faces - Bruce Mahler, Mark Blankfield, Maryedith Burrell, Brandis Kemp and comic Rich Hall, who later joined the enemy, "SNL," prior to becoming a popular guest on British TV quiz shows. Like "SNL," "Fridays" featured a news update segment, with Chartoff as anchor. And there were short comedy films, by innovative filmmakers like Michael Nesmith. But "Fridays" wild mash-ups and razor-sharp political humor separated it from other TV fodder. Included here is a classic, lavish, 17-minute "Rocky Horror Picture Show" musical segment with then President Ronald Reagan (Roarke) in the prancing transvestite Frank-N-Furter role. It's also shocking to see Reagan as The Elephant Man in a later episode. And the melding of George Lucas and Woody Allen in a "Star Wars Memories" sketch is brilliant, as well. Special guests, include William Shatner (in a surreal opening bit playing Captain Kirk being mistaken for Shatner), Billy Crystal, Valerie Harper and Tab Hunter, add to the frenetic fun. This set also includes the Andy Kaufman episode, where the crazed comic gets into a fight with cast and crew, mid-sketch (as depicted in "Man In The Moon"). There's also plenty of 80s nostalgia here, including great music from such artists as The Clash, Devo, The Cars, Pat Benatar, Tom Petty, KISS, Graham Parker, Kim Carnes, Stray Cats, Randy Meisner and Dire Straits. The comedy of "Fridays was certainly fueled by the sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll of the time, as well as the oppressive political climate. But it's amazing how well much of the material holds up today. You'll find ample hilarity and classic rock on these discs. Bonuses include newly shot cast and writer interviews, plus an inside look at the Kaufman incident. Now that "Fridays" has finally resurfaced, don't miss it!
"SHOWGIRLS 2: PENNY'S FROM HEAVEN"
If you're among the cult followers of "Showgirls," who attend midnight screenings of that bodaciously, bloatedly campy messterpiece, you simply must see the sequel, just released to video. Rena Riffel, who portrayed exotic dancer Penny in the 1995 original, channeled Orson Welles, and a bit of Pia Zadora, as she wrote, produced, directed, edited and starred in this wonderfully weird, appropriately cheesy new creation. With a budget so low, it probably wouldn't have covered the catering on Paul Verhoeven's epic, Riffel keeps her tongue right where it belongs - in cheek. Filled with familiarly inane dialogue and skin galore, the flick plays like a Warhol Factory underground extravaganza, if the participants had been filming on nitrous oxide. It's a canny celebration of sleaze.
This wildly funny Mel Brooks comedy tells the tale of swindling producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, who hatch a plot to make an illicit fortune by creating Broadway's biggest flop. Ironically, Brooks later adapted his outrageous screenplay into Broadway's biggest hit musical. But it's always worth revisiting the original 1968 film, as brash Max and neurotic Leo mount their production of "Springtime For Hitler." Writer/director Brooks has never been more hilarious. And Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, in the lead roles, aided and abetted by the zany Dick Shawn and Kenneth Mars (as hammy actor L.S.D. and the ex-Nazi who penned the play, respectively) deliver uproarious performances. Now is the perfect time to purchase the film, as Shout! Factory has released it on Blu-Ray. It looks and sounds great. Extras include a deleted scene, a making-of documentary and a newly shot, funny and informative, extensive interview with Brooks himself.
"ARTHUR C. CLARKE: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION"
This tremendous science-fiction documentary series is now available as an eight-DVD set. You get all 50 of the half-hour episodes. From his Sri Lanka base, Clarke (legendary author of "2001: A Space Odyssey") hosts. He explores strange phenomena and mysteries from around the world. Among the intriguing subjects are ESP, UFOs, reincarnation, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, crop circles, curses, sea monsters, fire-walking, zombies, and ghosts. And Clarke, in these illuminating studies, separates the probable hoaxes from the truly inexplicable. It's all highly entertaining, as well as enlightening.
"AN AMERICAN HIPPIE IN ISRAEL"
This 1972 rarity, directed by Israeli filmmaker Amos Sefer, is also an oddity. It's not only anti-establishment, but anti-plot, as well. Into Tel Aviv lands a long-haired, bearded, barefooted, war weary, hitchhiking Yank. As the nonconformist has been bumming across the globe, he's been shadowed by silent, ghoulish mystery men, who pop up throughout the film. Dream-like sequences and symbolism abound. "Stop pushing buttons," the hippie proclaims. "Right on!" He stumbles upon kindred spirits. All the hippies want is to be free. And of course, that involves classic hippie pastimes, like romping nude, laughing insanely, dancing wildly and braying at goats. It's all part of the alluring strangeness in this bizarre, trippy flick. The love generation fight amongst themselves when they're stranded on a little island without food. Time for primal screams and even irrational violence. "Lord of the Flies" anyone? A cliché rock score also roots the film in the late 60s/early 70s era. One disc offers the uncensored director's cut of the film, transferred from a 35mm print. An unusually extensive array of extras are included in this deluxe, limited edition, three-disc, Blu-Ray/DVD package from Grindhouse Releasing.
"THE ODD ANGRY SHOT"
This involving, tension-filled war drama is the Australian equivalent of "Platoon." A naive volunteer (John Jarratt) has no idea what kind of hell he's getting into, when he's shipped to Vietnam. He finds out quickly, when an amiable card game is interrupted by bombs that blow several mates to pieces. And it's sometimes nearly impossible to tell benign villagers from deadly enemy forces. Camaraderie is offset by sinking morale. Meanwhile, it becomes evident to the troops that the folks back home don't really know, or possibly even care, what's happening in this nightmarish jungle. But humor helps the soldiers maintain their sanity in the face of daily doses of danger and horror. Brawling, especially with Americans, also serves to cut the tension. No one knows if they will survive... or what will be left of them, if they do. The fine cast, which includes Bryan Brown ("F/X") and Graham Kennedy (as the battle-toughened corporal), is consistently convincing.
Edie Adams is under-appreciated these days. If she's referred to at all, it's as Ernie Kovacs' widow. But Adams had enormous talents of her own. She was a sensational singer, outstanding comedienne, versatile actress, zesty dancer and sparkling personality. Many of her talents are on display in "Here's Edie," her 1962-64 variety series, now available from MVD Entertainment. Directors on the series included Barry Shear ("Wild In The Streets") and Steve Binder (Elvis' 1968 Comeback Special). Guests included many of the top stars of the day, including Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, Sir Michael Redgrave, Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Hope, Spike Jones, Buddy Hackett, Stan Getz, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis, Soupy Sales, Rowan & Martin, Allan Sherman, Andre Previn, Dick Shawn, Terry Thomas, Peter Falk, Louis Nye, Nancy Wilson, John Raitt and Zsa Zsa Gabor. The shows were themed and often shot on location, including Las Vegas, London and New York. Jerry Fielding, later a great film composer, served as the orchestra conductor. These shows include Adams' original Muriel cigar commercials. The 21 episodes, 12 hours, on four DVDs, were digitally transferred from the original two-inch videotapes. Entertaining bonus material includes a number of Adams musical numbers from 50s Kovacs shows.
The first series of this charming, off-beat British show is now available in a two-disc set from Acorn Media. Based on P.G. Wodehouse's short stories, the series is set in 1929, at the sprawling, rundown, ancestral home of an eccentric, dysfunctional aristocratic family. Their country life is far from idyllic. Clarence Emsworth, distracted king of the castle, is mostly interested in his prize pig, the Empress, much to the chagrin of his haughty sister, Charlotte. Timothy Spall ("The King's Speech," "Harry Potter") is perfect as clueless Clarence. As Charlotte, Jennifer Saunders is completely different, yet just as amusing as she was in "Absolutely Fabulous." Jack Farthing ("Da Vinci's Demons") adds to the chuckles, playing Clarence's dim son Freddie. "Blandings" provides extraordinarily tasty comedy.
In this gripping, noirish Irish TV drama, charismatic Iain Glen ("Game of Thrones") plays Jack Taylor, hard-hitting, hard-drinking, reckless ex-Guard (national cop) turned "finder" (private eye). He's a man adrift, trying to cope with change. The suspenseful series is based on novels by Ken Bruen. This is a tough show, but with heart. In addition to Glen's thoroughly engrossing performance, the show benefits from gorgeous Galway scenery and smart dialogue. The three-disc set is well worth experiencing
In this comedy, J.K. Simmons ("Juno," "Spiderman") plays an actor who researches the role of an 85-year-old by filming residents of a convalescent home. The old folks are unexpectedly full of childish mischief and adolescent naughtiness. Simmons has fun with the mockumentary format, collaborating with his wife, Michelle Schumacher, who directed "Geezers," and brother-in-law Randle Schumacher, who co-wrote the script. Viewers will perk up as they spot cameos by such recognizable faces as Tim Allen, Scott Caan, Kevin Pollak, Breckin Meyer, Randy Couture and Sam Raimi.
"THE FALL" - SERIES ONE
"GRAHAM PARKER & THE RUMOUR: THIS IS LIVE"
In an intimate setting (L.A.'s Belasco Theater), Parker re-teams with his revered band for the first time in 31 years. With Parker's voice as effective as ever, they perform a brilliant set of classics and more recent tunes. Highlights include "Fool's Gold," "Stupefaction," "Soul Shoes" and "Local Girls." The more reflective "Stop Cryin' About The Rain" provides another memorable moment. This is the complete concert, drawn from Judd Apatow's documentary about the reunion, "This Is 40." The Shout! Factory release looks and sounds fabulous on Blu-Ray in 5.1 DTS Master Audio surround. The accompanying DVD version sounds fine is 5.1 Dolby Digital. Either way, the concert is sure to delight old fans and win new ones.
"DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS"
These laugh-fests are a far cry from today's raunchy, vicious Comedy Central roasts. The TV roasts of the ‘70s, hosted by Dino, were amiable, fun-filled evenings brimming with good-natured jibes and jests. That's why the show attracted the top stars of the day. There are a dozen complete roasts in this new six-disc set. The targets include Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Kirk Douglas, Michael Landon, Jackie Gleason, Don Rickles and Joan Collins. Eager roasters include John Wayne, Bette Davis, Phyllis Diller, Milton Berle, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters and Muhammad Ali. They generate chuckles aplenty. The appealing bonus features include Dean Martin TV specials, featurettes, comedy sketches, home movies and interviews.
HERBIE HANCOCK - "THE COMPLETE COLUMBIA ALBUM COLLECTION 1972-1988"
The multiple Grammy winner is showcased in this amazing collection. This 34-disc set includes some albums that were never before released on CD. Each disc is packaged in a mini-replica cover. Prolific keyboardist/composer Hancock fearlessly tranverses genre boundaries. His jazz incorporates elements of funk, soul and classical, amongst other musical forms. It's fascinating to study the influential musician's evolution over the course of the years this box spans. This treasure-filled box provides the perfect opportunity to examine the work of an intrepid, enduring artist, who was one of the pillars of the post-bop movement.
"CHET BAKER PLAYS THE BEST OF LERNER AND LOEWE"
Though Baker was already in the midst of self-destruction when he recorded this album in 1959, you'd never suspect it after listening to the gorgeous sounds here. Jazz makes love to Broadway and this baby is beautiful. Tunes that have been covered a thousand times, like "Almost like Being In Love" and "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face," take on a different feel, a haunting loveliness that only Baker's sweet trumpet can offer. "I Talk To The Trees," from "Paint Your Wagon," is another sensitively performed stunner. On this album, Baker is joined by other legends - pianist Bill Evans, flute player Herbie Mann, baritone sax player Pepper Adams and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. This digitally mastered re-release is one to cherish. It's part of the Concord Music Group's laudable Original Jazz Classics Remasters series.
BLUE OCTOBER - "SWAY"
The Austin band returns with their seventh album and its brimming with fresh-sounding, vibrant rock. There's a welcome hopefulness threaded through the album, starting with the opening track, "Breathe, It's Over." Other engaging songs include "Angels In Everything" and the single "Bleed Out." The dreamy "Things We Do At Night" and the redemptive ballad "Not Broken Anymore" will have listeners swaying. The band closes with an evocative instrumental, "To Be," that allows us to pause and reflect. Listening to the album from start to finish is an enriching experience.
TOMMY KEENE - "EXCITEMENT AT YOUR FEET"
Think they just don't make rock the way they used to? You'll change your mind when you hear power pop artist Tommy Keene's new album. He covers a fab collection of diverse, often obscure classic rock. Keene includes irresistible versions of tunes originated by Echo & The Bunnymen, Roxy Music, Guided By Voices, Mink DeVille, Big Star, The Flamin' Groovies and Television. When he reaches out for songs by iconic rockers, he doesn't settle for the obvious. He has chosen The Who's "Much Too Much," The Stones' "Ride On Baby" and The Bee Gees' "I Laugh In Your Face." In the midst of the infectious rockers, Keene offers a subtle, moving rendition of Donovan's "Catch The Wind." A gifted songwriter himself, Keene knows what makes a good tune tick. And this new covers album is a winner.
KELLYE GRAY - "AND THEY CALL US COWBOYS"
Texan Kellye Gray successfully marries jazz and country on this venturesome record. A gentle Latin beat gives a different flavor to Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night." Gray's version of the Elvis classic "In The Ghetto" has a soul-funk urgency. Roger Miller's "Dang Me" is a saucy, shuffling, finger-popper. Orbison's "Only The Lonely" becomes the kind of ballad you'd hope to hear in the wee hours of a smoke-filled jazz club. Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind" is slow and torchy, allowing Gray's vocal to simmer sensuously. Albums with high concepts like this one often don't live up to their promise. This one does. Gray has reinvented these songs, bringing in new depth and meaning.
THELONIOUS MONK & GERRY MULLIGAN - "MULLIGAN MEETS MONK"
Bebopper Monk met West Coast cool jazzer Mulligan and the results were spectacular. This 1957 album has just been reissued as part of Concord Records' Original Jazz Classics series, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the legendary jazz label Riverside Records. This re-release includes alternate takes, which will be eagerly analyzed by aficionados. Pianist Monk and saxophonist Mulligan, both jazz icons, team for tracks that definitely live up to high expectations. The album includes versions of four Monk compositions ("Straight, No Chaser" and "'Round Midnight" among them), one written by Mulligan and the standard "Sweet and Lovely." It's an historic merging of two great artists in their prime.
ART TATUM - "SOLO MASTERPIECES, Vol. 1"
Another Original Jazz Classics remastered re-release from Concord Music Group, this one presents pianist Art Tatum, truly a jazz master and a magician of improvisation. His technique was peerless. These tracks were recorded in 1953. The Concord release includes the nine tracks from the original Pablo album plus seven more from "The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 9." Sculpting a full rich sound, Tatum (who died in 1956 at age 47) displays a fluid, flowing, rhythmic stride style on such tunes as "Body and Soul," "Willow Weep For Me" and "You Took Advantage of Me."
BILL EVANS TRIO - "HOW MY HEART SINGS!"
The great pianist was in top form for these 1962 recordings, just reissued by Concord. His bassist, Scott LaFaro had recently died in a car accident. The distraught Evans reemerged and poured his heart into his music, resulting in these passionate, upbeat tracks. Especially entrancing are " I Should Care" (first heard in MGM's 40s film "Thrill of a Romance") and Glenn Miller's "Ev'rything I love." Evans makes the keys sing, expressing intense emotions. Evans receives strong support from his new bassist, Chuck Israels, who shows a sensitive touch, and drummer Paul Motian, whose pulse is forceful, yet incredibly feathery. Several alternate takes are offered on the new release.
CIAN CIARAN - "THEY ARE NOTHING WITHOUT US"
GUNGOR - "I AM MOUNTAIN"
No, Gungor is not the name of a metal group. It's an alt-folk/pop worship music collective, led by husband and wife Michael and Lisa Gungor. And their sound is exquisite. The songs here exude a softly celebratory, genuine spirituality. Michael delicately, wistfully sings "Long Way Off." Lisa's sweet voice lifts "The Best Part." They take on an edgier tone with the anti-war "God and Country." "Wayward and Torn" also leans towards dramatic rock. Other exceptional tunes include the ethereal "Upside Down" and "Finally." "Yesternite" ends the record beautifully. A universality shines forth from Gungor's heartfelt music.
THE PALEY BROTHERS - "THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS"
Some of the best pop music you've never heard can be found on this newly released collection. Maybe it was a case of right sound, wrong time for The Paley Brothers. Their Sire EP was issued in 1976 (produced by the legendary Jimmy Iovine) and an album in 1978. But the sound harkens back to the ‘60s, blending elements of the Brill Building, Beach Boys and Searchers. The band, fronted by Jonathan and Andy Paley, created an immersive wall of sound, surging with swelling harmonies, jangly guitars and hooky songs. The Paley Brothers captured the essence of pop/rock's Golden Age, in much the same way as The Rubinoos did. All the Sire material is in this collection, as well as 11 previously unheard tracks. And they're not filler. Those unreleased songs are gems, as well. "Spring Fever" has a Gene Vincent kind of fire. "She's Eighteen Tonight" would have killed at Hamburg's Star Club in 1963. "Boomerang" sounds like it could have been a Top 10 hit by The Hondells circa 1965. "Meet The Invisible Man" might have been a smash, had Status Quo recorded it in ‘68. "Runnin' In The Rain," with a wonderfully quirky organ break, would have been great for Del Shannon. The band segues from rock ‘n' roll to surf to British Invasion to bubble gum to psychedelia without missing a beat. Rockabilly more your thing? The Paleys channel The Everlys on "I Heard The Bluebirds Sing" and "Stick With My Baby." "Down The Line" is like Phil and Don amped up on speed. "Ecstasy" bursts with a Bobby Fuller Four exuberance. Want to add punk energy? Check out The Paley Brothers teaming with The Ramones for a scorching rendition of Ritchie Valens' "Come On, Let's Go" from the movie "Rock ‘n'Roll High School." And dig The Paley Brothers' campy novelty ditty, "Fireball XL-5." The previously unreleased "Baby, Let's Stick Together" was produced by Phil Spector. He wrote the song with Jeff Barry and used members of The Wrecking Crew in the session, including Hal Blaine, Don Randi and Steve Douglas. A number of the Paley cuts have that Spector feel and that powerful Blaine-like drum sound. As strongly produced as the recordings are, the Brothers could deliver live, as well, as evidenced by a couple of tunes from their Madison Square Garden gig, opening for Shaun Cassidy. Their urgent live cover of Tommy Roe's "Sheila" had the teeny-boppers squealing. With Tiger Beat-friendly looks and pleasing voices, the Paleys should have been stars. They did, at least, go on to successful careers, writing songs and producing. This album is a revelation. Let's hope the Brothers uncover more lost tracks!
SARAH VAUGHAN - "SOPHISTICATED LADY: THE DUKE ELLINGTON COLLECTION"
Concord Records marks the 40th anniversary of impresario Norman Granz's founding of Pablo Records by releasing this two-disc set. It includes two of the glorious vocalist's 1979 albums, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 of "Duke Ellington Songbook." The collection begins with six previously unreleased Vaughan recordings, which were arranged by the great Benny Carter. These beauties include "In A Sentimental Mood" and "Tonight I Shall Sleep With A Smile On My Face." Throughout, the combination of Ellington's elegant melodies and Vaughan's velvety vocals make for music magic. Some of the era's greatest musicians back Vaughan here, including Joe Pass, J.J. Johnson, Grady Tate, Zoot Simms and Vaughan's husband, trumpeter Waymon Reed. Highlights among the 27 tracks are "Black Butterfly," "Lush Life," "In A Sentimental Mood" and "Prelude To A Kiss." A sophisticated set indeed.
"OLD 97's & WAYLON JENNINGS"
The Texas alt-rock band has been around for 20 years. But obviously, one of the high points for them had to be collaborating with the maverick man himself, Waylon Jennings. Waylon caught the band performing and praised them in print. That led to them cutting a couple of tracks together. A talented group backing one of their idols resulted in dynamic sound heard on "Iron Road" and "The Other Shoe." Finally, they see the light of day, thanks to this new EP. It's augmented by four very worthwhile 1996 Old 97s demos. Country-rock fans won't want to pass up this chunk of history.
WILLIE NELSON - "TO ALL THE GIRLS"
At 80, Willie still has a way with a song... and with the women. This new album teams the bearded, braided one with 18 of today's top female vocalists. Among the most memorable duets are with Dolly Parton, singing her own "From Here To The Moon And Back;" with Miranda Lambert on "She Was No Good For Me," one of Waylon Jennings' last songs; and "Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends," which teams him with Rosanne Cash. They have great musical chemistry. Others lending their voices to the project include Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples, Wynonna, Carrie Underwood, Alison Krauss and Shelby Lynne. It's a tribute to Nelson's continuing relevance and the reverence fellow artists feel for him.
"OVER THE BRIDGE OF TIME: A PAUL SIMON RETROSPECTIVE"
Selecting a one-disc retrospective of Simon's half-century of lasting music, spanning Simon & Garfunkle and his solo work, is an impossible task. But this new Sony Legacy release does a good job of it, generously providing 20 tracks. And they didn't settle for just the hits. Included here are lesser known, but equally well-crafted tunes, like "Hearts and Bones" and "The Only Living Boy In New York." Of course, an album like this going to spark lively debate over the omitted songs that should have been included. But every track here is a great one. You won't be hitting the skip button while listening to this outstanding collection.
TONY JOE WHITE - "HOODOO"
Tony Joe White shot to fame in 1968 with "Polk Salad Annie," later covered by Elvis. Forty-five years later, Strat in hand, White is still getting ‘er done. At 70, he continues to deliver a throbbing, hard-to-resist blend of swamp rock and Delta blues. "Hoodoo" is a powerful album, raw, unadorned and fueled by White's tasty licks, potent rhythms and gritty, authentic vocals. And White knows how to write a searingly soulful song. After all, he penned "Rainy Night In Georgia." Here he delivers earthy numbers like "Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now," "Sweet Tooth," "Storm Comin'," and "The Gift." He has a knack for poignant storytelling, as on "Gypsy Epilogue." White is the real deal. Believe it.
HRISTO VITCHEV & LIUBOMIR KRASTEV - "RHODOPA"
Bulgaria-born, Bay Area-based guitarist Vitchev expands his musical palette with each impressive album he releases. The new work teams him with clarinetist Liubomir Krastev. They combine Bulgarian folk with modern jazz, seamlessly blending in new Vitchev compositions and improvisations with the Eastern European roots music. And the two instruments entwine beautifully, creating elegant, evocative musical imagery. They both play with extraordinary subtlety and sensitivity, painting wondrous sonic pictures. There's a poetic quality to the instrumentals. Let this album take you on a wonderful journey.
TIERNEY SUTTON - "AFTER BLUE"
An inspired and inspiring album. Silky, expressive vocalist Sutton has proven herself to be one of our finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. Here she delves into the songs of Joni Mitchell. And the results are gorgeous. Sutton finds entrancing new facets of Mitchell's work. With her rhythmic vocal interacting with Ralph Humphrey's clever drumming, "Big Yellow Taxi" takes on a new vibrancy. "Woodstock," with supple voice backed by Larry Gold's resonating piano, is a slower and more dramatic presentation than we're used to hearing. And it's magical. "Be Cool" is a jazzy vocal duet with Al Jarreau. Very cool! Hubert Laws' breezy flute enhances "Dry Cleaner From Des Moines." "Answer Me, My Love," with Parisian acoustic guitar master Serge Merlaud, achieves a rare and lovely intimacy. With cellist Mark Summer of Turtle Island Quartet, Sutton gives "Both Sides Now" a haunting loveliness. Other guests on the album include Larry Goldings, Peter Erskine and Kevin Axt. As marvelous as these instrumentalists are, Sutton's voice is the instrument that makes this album so heavenly.
DEER TICK - "NEGATIVITY"
Deer Tick isn't afraid to enter the dark corners. But they do so in a reflective and ultimately redemptive way. There's a lot of profound soul-searching going on in these songs. Musically, they fall somewhere between alternative rock and Americana. Front man John McCauley sings with a Dylanesque sneer in his voice. But that tone is rounded out in a disarming duet with Vanessa Carlton on "In Our Time." The crunching guitar sounds are enhanced by the use of keyboards. The hot horns of Texas combo Grupo Fantasmo augment the songs "Trash" and "The Rock." The band has a lot to say on this record and they do so with eloquence and undeniable force.
CHERRY POPPIN' DADDIES - "WHITE TEETH, BLACK THOUGHTS"
The swing revival may be way past the craze stage, but Cherry Poppin' Daddies know how to juice up the music so that it's timelessly exciting. This new wild, witty album swings up a storm. "High Points" are Louis Jordan's "Doug The Jitterbug," Hank Penny's "Bloodshot Eye," and some great originals from the band's singer/songwriter, Steve Perry, including "The Babooch," "Huffin' Muggles" and "Concrete Man Blues." They can adeptly slow it down, gently swingin' Vic Damone-style, as on the title track ballad. Smokin' hot instrumentation and rhythms, smooth vocals and clever lyrics make this album loads of fun. You won't be able to keep still while playing this one. Get poppin', daddy!
EMILY BELL - "IN TECHNICOLOR"
Bell chimes in with sassy, saucy, sizzling pop-rock. "Hey Baby" has a rockabilly flame. "Sweet Crushed Angel" is another irresistible confection. "Flower Bed" bounces with a girl group sense of fun. A funky, soulful "Hand Jive" punch enlivens "Give Me Your Heart." "Love Don't Hold Your Breath" soars with emotion-packed vocal and 60s guitar sound. It's only a matter of time before the Austin-based Bell breaks through in a huge way.
ANTHONY STRONG - "STEPPING OUT"
The U.K singer/songwriter/pianist played Jerry Lee Lewis in a West End production of "Million Dollar Quartet." On this album, his third release, he explores pop/jazz, primarily of the Sinatra, swinging variety. He's winningly smooth and stylish as he sails through a thoroughly enjoyable set of standards and well-crafted originals. Strong is equally skilled at uptempo numbers like "Luck Be A Lady" and ballads such as "Overjoyed." He's especially convincing on the dramatic "Learning To Unlove You." Strong seems poised to become the next retro sensation.
TARUN BALANI COLLECTIVE - "SACRED WORLD"
The New Delhi jazz group released this, their debut album in India and now it's available in North America. Drummer/composer Balani, who studied at Boston's famed Berklee College of Music, has fashioned a collection of mesmerizing, boundary-dissolving tunes. On tunes like "Belief," "Azaan" and "Arjuna," Balani forges his own musical world. Experience the genesis of someone who could well turn out to be a visionary artist.
Whatever your political persuasion, you'll find plenty of chuckles in satirist/radio personality Rocky Mountain Mike's new album. A contributor to Stephanie Miller's syndicated radio show, Mike (writer-producer Mike Hardeman), joined by a comedy-and-song ensemble he assembled for the project, jabs good-naturedly at President Obama, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, the Tea Party, NRA and other targets. If your elected officials are leaving you feeling run-down and depressed, these clever tracks might just be the remedy.
"PRISONERS" - SOUNDTRACK
The score to the film, (a combination character study/thriller, which stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mario Bello) is appropriately dark in tone, often ominous, disconcerting. The mood shifts and shadings are handled with perfect articulation by composer Johann Johannsson. He builds a subtle undercurrent of tension, using the orchestra with subtlety, but great power. The soundtrack, on its own, tells a gripping story.
"WORLD'S END" - SOUNDTRACK
When Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright get together for their wild and witty comedy romps, music always plays a big part in the proceedings. "World's End" is no exception. The collection is primarily infectious vintage Britpop - Blur, Pulp, The Housemartins, Stone Roses and Suede. But The Doors, the post-punk Sisters of Mercy, and Scottish bands Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub and Soup Dragons also make their presence felt. Snippets of Pegg and Frost interspersed here and there add to the high spirits. If you've seen and loved the film (and if not, why not?!!), you'll definitely want the album as an exuberant reminder of the horror/comedy's ferocious fun.
VAN DYKE PARKS - "SONGS CYCLED"
THE SWINGLE SINGERS - "WEATHER TO FLY"
Celebrating the group's 50th anniversary, The Swingle Singers continue to expand the boundaries of vocal arrangement and performance. American Ward Swingle founded the Singers in 1963, assembling Parisian session singers to record jazzy vocal versions of Bach's keyboard music. Over the years, the ever-changing group has earned five Grammys. Their music has been featured on the soundtracks of "Glee" and "Sex and the City." Primarily an a cappella group, The Swingle Singers, now based in London, have seven members, four men and three women. They've incorporated beatbox techniques, imitating percussion sounds to complement the melodic and lyrical lines. On the new album, explore a wide range of material, from The Beatles, Tears For Fears and Elbow, to world music, to the more classically oriented "The Diva Aria," from the film "The Fifth Element." Another top track is their own distinctive take on the Beyonce smash, re-titled "Swingle Ladies." This is a record that should appeal to a diverse audience.
JAMES BOOKER - "CLASSIFIED: REMIXED AND EXPANDED"
The great New Orleans pianist/vocalist, who died in 1983, age 43, was a master of blues, boogie, R&B and jazz. Musically, he was a risk-taker. He influenced artists ranging from Jerry Garcia to Doctor John to Harry Connick, Jr. This new release offers a wonderfully remixed and expanded edition of his final record, "Classified." Booker's piano-playing is heartrending on "Angel Eyes." He makes "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Hound Dog" his own. He cooks on Fats Domino's "One For The Highway." His piano, on Allen Toussaint's "All These Things," overflows with emotion. Booker could even bring his own brand of soulfulness to a respectful performance of the classical "Warsaw Concerto," as well as to "The Godfather" theme. His strongest vocal here is on the slow, plaintive blues, "If You're Lonely." He switches to Hammond B-3 organ for a cheeky rendition of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." There's a lively spirituality to the closer, "Amen." Booker's music lives on. Amen.
SHELBY EARL - "SWIFT ARROWS"
Seattle-based singer-songwriter Shelby Earl is amazingly gifted at both singing and writing songs. She bares her soul in these beautifully crafted, deceptively complex pop/Americana songs and the results are riveting. Her work may bring to mind St. Vincent or, for classic folk-rock fans, Melanie Safka. Earl's vocals are incredibly moving. She can be deeply poignant. But she can make lighter, even amusing moments seem effortless and natural. In several instances,he contrasts the tone of the music and the lyrics. It's a very effective technique. Standout tracks include "Grown Up Things," "Sea of Glass," "We Will Die," and "This Is Me Now." Producer Damien Jurado perfectly complements Earl's beautiful compositions and performances, sometimes with a low-key backing, other times with a Phil Spector-like grandeur. Earl - an exceptional artist. "Swift Arrows" - and exceptional album.
OTIS REDDING - "THE COMPLETE STAX/VOLT SINGLES COLLECTION"
A great artist deserves reissues handled with great thought and care. And that's exactly the case with this outstanding package from Shout! Factory. In this very cool three-disc set, you'll find every one of the legendary, highly influential soul singer's singles, both A and B-sides. And some of the B-sides, such as 1967's "Let Me Come Home," easily could have been hits, as well. Appropriately presented in magnificent mono, they've been meticulously, and unobtrusively remastered. Of course, "Try A Little Tenderness" and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" are here. But you'll be equally knocked out by Redding's versions of "Knock On Wood," "Hard to Handle," "Higher and Higher" and "Can't Turn You Loose." Each track is brimming with Redding's intense emotion. And, of course, the unrivaled Stax house band matches him with its fervor. Additional adrenaline rushes come with Redding's live performances of "Shake" and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." The sound is totally hot. And very cool. And it's cool to be able to listen to this entire collection and chart the musical evolution of a remarkable artist. Once you start listening to these 70 tracks, you won't be able to stop.
LORI LIEBERMAN- "BRICKS AGAINST THE GLASS"
Lori Lieberman has been recording albums for 40 years. And her latest, the 15th of her career, ranks among her finest. She is still creating timeless music. Lieberman combines gorgeous melodies, intelligent lyrics and a breathtaking, splendidly expressive voice. You'll be entranced by such songs as "Truly," "Elephants" and "It's Another New Day." These are musical moments to cherish. Lieberman knows how to take the listener on a moving, rewarding journey.
ROBERTA DONNAY - "A LITTLE SUGAR"
Bay Area vocalist Roberta Donnay has a voice you'll instantly fall in love with. It can be coquettish, soulful, sassy or poignant. With her Prohibition Mob Band, Donnay has unearthed long-forgotten gems from the ‘20s era. Though the album offers nostalgic fun, Donnay emphasizes the timeless nature of the great tunes. Musical relationship tales are always relatable. Donnay puts her own sweet spin on songs sung so many decades ago by artists like Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Irving Berlin's "Say It Isn't So," one the album's better known tunes, was sung by Billie Holiday, among others. Donnay takes it and makes it her own. Both Donnay and these tunes are well worth discovering.
SARA HICKMAN - "SHINE"
Hickman, who was named "State Musician of Texas," is an accomplished songwriter whose tunes have been covered by such artist as Willie Nelson, Shawn Colvin and Edie Brickell. But Hickman is also enchanting folk-pop performer. Her latest album, "Shine," takes the listener from the light to the shadows and back again. And it's a trip you'll want to take over and over. Her music can be bright, bubbly, buoyant, as on "Tasty Sweet." Or contemplative, as on "Trouble With Boxes," which puts life into perspective. Or wistfully romantic, as on "Human Wish." "Selfish Freak" is a relatable rant against an ex. The feisty "Primitive Stuff gives her another opportunity to vent. "You Are Not Alone" is sweetly compassionate. Hickman's dulcet voice is especially touching on the exquisite "Rapture" and the darkly lovely "Two Winters." "Nova" perfectly describes, in amusing terms, how love's initial heat turns prickly. The joyful title track exhorts the listener to soar into a personal liberation. This is a very welcoming album that you'll want to revisit often.
With a uniquely appealing, girlish voice, kind of a cross between Bernadette Peters and Brenda Lee, alt-Americana singer-songwriter Little Lonely (Julie Cain) can be quirky, melancholy or darkly humorous. She creates surreal imagery of country carnivals, the Dust Bowl, time machines and roadside stores. She's an ingenious lyricist and her melodies go in unexpected directions, while proving memorable. An interesting array of instrumentation helps shape the atmosphere. Among the distinctive songs are "Penny's First Available," Top Stair," "The First Time You Left Me" and "Jesus Is In My Swimming Pool." Come on now, dive in and explore the uncharted waters of Little Lonely!
HARRY NILSSON - "THE RCA ALBUMS COLLECTION"
Nilsson was one of our greatest songwriters. Ironically, the general public knows him best for two songs he didn't write - Badfinger's "Without You" and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'." His own hits included "Coconut," "Me and My Arrow" and "Jump Into The Fire." This lavish new collection allows us to fully explore his work both as song interpreter and songwriter. His glorious voice could make you cry or laugh, dance or quietly reflect. The eclectic, eccentric Nilsson could segue gracefully from a rocking Beatle cover to a quirky Randy Newman tune to string-laden selections from the Great American Songbook. But it's his own songs that demonstrate his true artistry. Equally gifted at writing music and lyrics, Nilsson created such great songs as "1941," "Without Her," I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City," "One," "Cuddly Toy," "Daddy's Song" and "Best Friend," the theme song to the TV series "Courtship of Eddie's Father." Such artists as Three Dog Night, The Monkees, Blood Sweat & Tears, The Yardbirds and Ringo Starr recorded Nilsson's songs. The box set contains 17 discs - all 14 of his RCA albums (with tons of previously unreleased bonus tracks), plus three discs of sessions, including 29 additional, previously unreleased tracks. Like Harry's voice, this set is awe-inspiring!
KARA GRAINGER - "SHIVER AND SIGH"
The Australia-born, L.A.-based singer/songwriter/guitarist mixes rock and blues to stunning effect. She unleashes a sizzling, soulful voice. It's particularly sultry on the slow-burning "Overdue For The Blues." Grainger tells off an ex in the stinging "Little Pack of Lies," then stands strong on "No Way You Can Hurt Me Now." "Shut Down" really turns up the temperature. In addition the excellent originals, Grainger puts her own inviting imprint on Robert Johnson's "C'mon In My Kitchen." The whole album is very tasty.
MARIA BAMFORD - "ASK ME ABOUT MY NEW GOD"
WILL LEE - "LOVE, GRATITUDE AND OTHER DISTRACTIONS"
The bassist in David Letterman's house band for more than 30 years, Lee is also a top session musician and a founding member of the ultimate Beatles cover band, the Fab Faux. His list of recording credits is jaw-dropping. He hasn't released an album of his own since 1993. The new one is winningly diverse, varying from jazz to a wide range of rock, pop and blues styles. Lee proves himself to be a very capable singer, as well as an outstanding, versatile bass player. On this record, Lee serves up some beautifully polished original songs, including the wondrous "Gratitude," the irresistible "Miss Understanding," and an exotic "Shahara," and three well chosen tunes from other writers - Allen Toussaint's rollicking "Get Out of My Life Woman," a lush, ballad version of Len Barry's 60s hit, "1,2,3" and a gorgeous instrumental version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." Lee's fretless bass is exceptionally expressive, taking the lead on "Simple Way To Say I Love You." Other musicians on the album include such luminaries as Pat Metheny, Bob James, Steve Lukather, Paul Shaffer and Toussaint. Lee may be among the greatest sidemen in history, but he triumphs with this moment in the spotlight.
JULIE KATHRYN - "BLACK TREES"
Kathryn's softly soulful voice glides through a winsome set of elegant original tunes, as well as an exquisite version of Bob Dylan's "Emotionally Yours." The Americana/pop singer-songwriter is originally from Lake Placid, New York. The moods vary from the yearning title track to bubbly dance music like "Nightingale" (which appears later as a bonus track in an engaging folk-rock rendition). Other top tracks include "Windfall" (penned by Jay Farrar of Son Volt) "Blue Car" (a Greg Brown tune) and Kathryn's own beautifully blue piano ballad "In My Dreams." Kathryn proves herself to be a captivating artist.
It's no wonder that this Southern rock has the ring of authenticity. Skynyrd is in ShanyTown's blood. Guitarist/lead vocalist Ronnie Morris and his brother, Robbie, the drummer, are nephews of the Van Zant brothers. Gritty vocals, dazzling blues guitar licks, a tight rhythm section and potent songwriting fuel this album. Powerhouse tracks include "Redneck," "Mexico" and "Me and Mine." The band can also slow it down soulfully for "One More Night" and "Justin's Song." The slide on "Lost Souls" will send chills up your spine. A formidable debut.
WATERBOYS - "AN APPOINTMENT WITH MR. YEATS"
Mike Scott, Waterboys frontman for lo these past three decades, has led the Scottish rock band into uncharted waters. And the voyage is a triumph! Scott has composed Gaelic-flavored pop/folk/punk music to wrap around the poetry of iconic Irish poet W.B. Yeats. It's astonishing how natural the fit turns out to be. Scott finds contemporary relevance in such poems as "Let The Earth Bear Witness." The work of fiddler Steve Wickham stands out, as the band gives resonance to these creations.
GEORGE JONES - "AMAZING GRACE"
It seems fitting that the first posthumous George Jones release would be a gospel album. Most of these tracks come from 2003's out-of-print "The Gospel Collection" (his last sessions with producer Billy Sherrill). Jones often sang about sinning, during his long career, so here he reaches for redemption. Jones' pure emotion elevates traditional hymns like "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," as well as "Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me?" Guests on the closing number, the previously unreleased "Great Judgment Warning," recorded in 1994, include Travis Tritt, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, RIcky Skaggs, Marty Stuart (on mandolin) and Connie Smith, with producer Brian Ahern on acoustic guitar. The reverent album is an uplifting way to remember Jones.
BABY QUEENS - "RED LIGHT"
Produced by Cian Ciaran of Super Furry Animals, this genre-defying EP by a female Cardiff, Wales quintet shines with sweet, lush, lead vocals and layered vocal harmonies. Cool instrumentation, blending rock, hip-hop and funk gives the title track a catchy feel. Comprised of two sisters, two cousins and an adopted sister, their voices mesh beautifully. The track called "Star Light" is more beat-driven, but also atmospheric. These tunes will whet your appetite for a full album!
The Australian band, comprised of three brothers and a pal, soaks their emotive rock with a savory soul sauce. They give each track its own distinctive identity. Sam Margin's plaintive vocals and the crisp electric guitar lines cut through carefully layered instrumentation. "Lay It Down" deserved the significant airplay it received. "The Day You Went Away," with its chant-like vocal background, is intensely hypnotic. Other top tracks include "My Gun" and "The Best We Got."
CHRISTA WELLS - "FEED YOUR SOUL"
A gifted singer and award-winning songwriter, Wells serves up an album filled with lovely, delicate, contemplative songs of love, humility and spirituality. Among the piano-driven gems here are "Have Your Eyes Open," "Shine," "For My Child," "The Way That You Love Me," "Being Loved" and the title track. The album was financed through a Kickstarter campaign and those who contributed will feel that they're now part of a very special music project.
CHARNETT MOFFETT - "SPIRIT OF SOUND"
Jazz bassist extraordinaire Charnett Moffett has released a new ensemble album, "Spirit of Sound," which is electric, in more ways than one. It's as mesmerizing as it is daring. This summer, he also issued "The Bridge: Solo Bass Works," which showcases Moffett's amazing dexterity on the acoustic instrument.
THE CLAUDIA QUINTET - "SEPTEMBER"
For jazz fans, seven is definitely a lucky number. "September" is the seventh album from The Claudia Quintet, the extraordinary combo led by composer/drummer John Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck skillfully threads intricate rhythms throughout the tracks. His compositions are thought provoking. Using a wide sonic palette, he paints vivid pictures of various September dates, none more poignantly expressive than "September 12 Coping Song."
PETE ANDERSON - "BIRDS ABOVE GUITARLAND"
Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/producer Pete Anderson proves once again that he deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the top roots-rock players. He has often collaborated with Dwight Yoakum. "Birds Above Guitarland," Anderson's latest solo new album, is steeped in traditional blues, adding rock, country, funk and even a trace of zydeco. One of the highlights is the slow burn of "I Got Mine." Another is the rollicking "Rock In My Shoe."
KATRINA CARLSON - "SUNSHINE STATE OF MIND"
Looking for music that will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step? Carlson's jaunty, joyful songs like "Shine On," ‘Give The World," "Bright Side" and the title track will fill you with optimism and, yes, sunshine. On this new album, Carlson, whose songs have been heard on "Lost" and "Dawson's Creek," doesn't turn a blind eye to the pain in the world, but she resiliently chooses to hold onto a positive point of view. And her voice is simply sublime.
JILLETTE JOHNSON - "WATER IN A WHALE"
An extraordinary debut album from singer/songwriter/pianist Jillette Johnson. Her lyrics can be profound, often deeply personal and confessional. And her piano-playing is classically-oriented. But Johnson demonstrates a perfect grasp of how to create a completely compelling pop song. A superb and sensitive voice brings out the full emotional range of each number. Among the stunning tracks here are "Torpedo," "Last Bus Out," "Pauvre Coeur" and "Heathen." Johnson shows herself to be an enticing artist who isn't afraid to bare her soul in her music.
BRIANNA LEA PRUETT - "GYPSY BELLS"
Singer-songwriter Brianna Lea Pruett, who hails from California's Gold Country, has hit the jackpot with this magnetic folk-pop-country album, "Gypsy Bells." Her compositions and vocals are hauntingly beautiful, subtle and nuanced. The album's choicest cuts include "Sun On The Mountain," "Shine For You," "Marry That Boy" and "Under Your Wing." Pruett is also an outstanding visual artist, which you can discover, in addition to her music, on her website, briannaleapruett.com
GIPSY KINGS - "SAVOR FLAMENCO"
The Gipsy Kings, royalty when it comes to world music, return with their first album of new material in seven years. They come from France and are comprised of two sets of brothers, the Reyes and the Baliardos. Tracks like "Samba Samba," "Corazon" and "Caramelo" display a remarkable energy. In addition to their zesty nuevo flamenco, the group touches on a number of styles, including bossa nova and acoustic pop. Hail to the Kings!
STEVE EARLE: THE WARNER BROS YEARS"
This four-CD/1-DVD set, covering Earle's potent mid-90s output, serves as a striking reminder of the artist's blazing impact. Included are three of the darkly eloquent singer-songwriter's best albums, "Train a Comin'," "I Feel Alright" and "El Corazon." But the real reason why this package is a must-have is the previously unreleased live material. One of the CDs contains a "Live at the Polk Theater" performance. This fantastic 1995 Nashville show, displaying Earle's bluegrass leanings, features Peter Rowan, Norman Black and Roy Husky, Jr. backing him. Emmylou Harris and Bill Monroe make guest appearances. The DVD delivers "To Hell and Back," a concert Earle performed with his band The Dukes, in 1996, at Tennessee's Cold Creek Correctional Facility. With the inmates cheering, the newly rehabilitated Earle delivers an impassioned set that includes many of his classics, including "Copperhead Road," "The Devil's Right Hand" and "Guitar Town." Whether going acoustic or electric, this growling country-folk-rock poet is electrifying.
LISSIE - "BACK TO FOREVER"
Lissie's guitar-driven, hook-laden songs have a magnetic classic rock feel. Her multifaceted voice is penetrating, a la Stevie Nicks. She powers her way through rockers like "The Habit" and "Can't Take It Back." But Lissie is equally strong on slower material, such as "They All Want You" and "Love in the City." She pours her heart into her songs, whether the topic is cheating lovers, soul-crushing jobs or environmental tragedy. Building on her influences, Lissie boldly carves out her own musical niche. As she sings on the the dramatic "Shameless," "I don't want to to famous, if I have to be shameless."
RECKLESS KELLY - "LONG NIGHT MOON"
The outstanding country-rock balladeers from Austin return with a worthy successor to their Grammy-nominated "Good Luck & True Love" album. Stirring vocals and instrumentation make each track memorable, whether uptempo, like "Every Step of the Way," mid-tempo, like "Real Cool Hand," "The Last Goodbye," and "Be My Friend (In Real Life)" or slower, poignant material such as "I Can't Stand It," "Didn't Mean To Break Your Heart," "Idaho," "Irish Goodbye" and the title track. There's a heart-grabbing honesty to Reckless Kelly's music. Somewhere, Gram Parsons must be smiling.
HUGH LAURIE - "DIDN'T IT RAIN"
Laurie shifts from the purely New Orleans sound of his first album, "Let Them Talk," to explore a wide variety of blues, in terms of style, mood, tempo and era. He's backed by a fuller-sounding, virtuosic, versatile Copper Bottom Band (though sometimes the focus is on Laurie's nuanced-piano-playing and guest vocalists). The results are even more impressive than his illuminating debut. And there's still a strong flavor of The Big Easy brand of soul. "Vicksburg Blues" is a rousing collaboration with Taj Mahal. "The Weed Smoker's Dream," with vocal by Guatemalan artist Gaby Moreno, provides another high point, pun intended. The Copper Bottom Band's own Pepper MaShay channels vintage blues mamas on tunes like "I Hate a Man Like You", "Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair" and the album's grabbing opener, "The St. Louis Blues", which pairs her with Laurie. Laurie's own vocals, on such songs as Dr. John's "Wild Honey," the standard "One For My Baby, "Evenin'," Alan Price's "Changes" and Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart," are utterly convincing. This is a wonderfully celebratory-sounding blues album.
STING - "THE LAST SHIP"
The concept draws from Sting's childhood, when he observed the decimating effects of the downturn in the shipyard industry that had, for ages, fueled his Northern England hometown. He is using these songs for a musical theatre production he has written. And you can certainly picture the seafaring imagery and sounds being utilized in that context. But the songs stand on their own. Sting is a fine storyteller and his singing captures the characters' thoughts and emotions. The Geordie boy liveliness of "What Have We Got" gives the proceedings a robust boost. "Ballad of the Eastern" is another soaring number. Touching moments can be found in "Practical Arrangement," "I Love Her But She loves Somebody Else" and "The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance," in which the rugged protagonist grows sentimental. The album provides a satisfying journey and paves the way for the theatrical experience to come.
VIENNA TENG - "AIMS"
The singer-songwriter-pianist moves towards a dreamier, more synth-driven sound on this new album. And it works well for her. Within the intricate production, Teng captures an ethereal beauty. Her elegant songwriting and enticing voice would work well in almost any sonic setting. Among the many engaging tunes are the pulsating "Level Up," the layered harmonies of "In the 99," the tender "Close to Home" and the wondrous "The Breaking Light."
CARLA BLEY/ANDY SHEPPARD/STEVE SWALLOW - "TRIOS"
Pianist/composer Bley, joined by longtime collaborators bassist Steve Swallow and British saxophonist Andy Sheppard, makes her ECM debut. The drummerless trio cooks up warm, inventive performances on these well-known compositions, tastefully stirring in Latin, European, swing and bop ingredients. The three incredible musicians respond to one another by entwining imaginatively, reaching new heights.
ROY ORBISON - "IN DREAMS: GREATEST HITS'"
This album, packed with Orbison classics, was originally released in 1987. The legendary vocalist and Mike Utley helmed the superb re-recordings, while T Bone Burnett and filmmaker David Lynch produced the title track, "In Dreams." Orbison's soaring, tingle-making tenor was still in stunningly fine form as he sailed through such 50s and 60s hits as "Only The Lonely," "Crying," "Pretty Woman" and Running Scared." The performances are every bit as hauntingly beautiful as the original versions and the advantages of modern sound technology only serve to enhance the thrill of listening to that supernaturally sweet voice.
THEE OH SEES - "FLOATING COFFIN"
For nearly a decade, San Francisco's Thee Oh Sees has been creating pleasingly pulsating indie rock. "Floating Coffin" is their latest release and it bristles with punkish pluck. The 10 new tunes are terrifically unsettling. Atmospheric numbers like ‘No Spell" and "Minotaur" make the intensity of tracks like "Night Crawler" and "Tunnel Time" even more potent. The trippy band, led by John Dwyer, has released more than a dozen albums, each having its own identity. This is their most audacious offering yet.
RALPH ALESSI - "BAIDA"
Born in San Francisco and raised in San Rafael, progressive trumpeter Alessi has been on the NYU jazz faculty for a decade. He also is now teaching at New England Conservatory. His new ECM post-modern jazz album, "Baida," will stimulate the intellect, as well as the emotions. Alessi has played with such notables as Steve Coleman and Ravi Coltrane, but here, with his quartet, he really shines, as musician, bandleader and composer. There are classical elements to some of his pieces. Each track is complex and imaginative, capturing a wild range of musical ideas and moods.
RUTH MOODY - "THESE WILDER THINGS"
On her second solo album, "These Wilder Things," Wailin' Jennys' Ruth Moody displays a captivating voice - sweet, gentle and filled with yearning. The Juno Award-winning Canadian artist's songs are beautifully crafted. The smoothly integrated stylistic elements range from bluegrass to folk to indie-pop to gospel. Mandolin brings entirely new textures to the album's one cover, a splendid interpretation of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." Guests on the new record include Mark Knopfler and Jerry Douglas.
MISNER AND SMITH - "SEVEN HOUR STORM"
The new album from the duo of Misner and Smith, "Seven Hour Storm," brims with Sam Misner's delicate, lovely songs and the exquisite harmonies he fashions with Megan Smith. The melodies are winsome, the lyrics elegant. Smith plays upright bass, keyboards, harmonium, piano and mandola. Misner plays acoustic guitars. High points include "The Upside," the soaring "Bird Street," with its chimey 12-string electric guitars, and "Lovers Like Us," which benefits from a pretty little pedal steel break by Bruce Kaphan. Close your eyes and let the music whisk you away.
SUSANNE SUNDFOR - "THE SILICONE VEIL"
Take a wondrous musical excursion that you won't soon forget. Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfor has sculpted a gorgeous series of soundscapes on her "SIlicone Veil" album. Often spine-tingling, the atmosphere can exude a beautiful iciness, like her homeland. Her voice can soothe, jar or penetrate. It's a versatile instrument that hypnotizes the listener. Her fifth album, a number one smash in Norway, could be her breakthrough in the U.S. Sundfor transverses numerous genres, from electronica to folk. There are echoes of Bjork, Annie Lennox and Sarah Brightman. Sundfor should become as popular in North America as she is in Scandinavia.
LOU DOILLON - "PLACES"
TRAVIS - "WHERE YOU STAND"
Fran Healy and the lads are back with a new album, "Where You Stand." The Scottish band's warm brand of pop still holds plenty of charm. Travis emerged in 1997 with their aptly titled debut, "Good Feeling." And, on the latest material, they're still making listeners feel good. Having paved the way for groups like Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol, Travis proves that they still have plenty of appeal themselves.
HUGH CORNWELL - "TOTEM AND TABOO"
Best known as the former frontman of U.K.'s The Stranglers, Cornwell delivers a gripping new album, "Totem and Taboo." The title references a Sigmund Freud essay collection. Cornwell's literate lyrics touch upon political and social issues, as well as pop culture. "I Want One Of Those" cleverly jabs at consumerism. The epic "In The Dead of Night" is arresting aural noir. "Bad Vibrations" and "God Is A Woman" are other top tracks.
ALICE RUSSELL - "TO DUST"
Russell, the soulful U.K songstress, weaves a powerful spell with her "To Dust" album. The R&B-inflected rocker "Heartbreaker" really sizzles. She pumps it up with "Hard and Strong." The torchy "I Loved You" is another of the most ear-catching tracks. Russell has just released digitally, an EP of remixes, titled "Midnight At The Beverly Laurel."
"NILSSON: THE LIFE OF A SINGER-SONGWRITER" BY ALYN SHIPTON
Meticulously researched and lovingly detailed, Shipton sheds light on one of the most gifted, fascinating, colorful, contradictory and enigmatic figures in pop history. Working in a bank, while trying to peddle songs in his spare time, Harry Nilsson's talents led him to pen hits for some of the major artists of his time, to become a chum of his idols, The Beatles, and ultimately, to succumb to the excesses of the rock ‘n' roll lifestyle. An inspired tunesmith and brilliant lyricist, with an angelic voice of tremendous range, Nilsson was almost as dedicated to his self-destruction as he was to the purity of his art. Shipton points to young Nilsson being abandoned by his father as a key to the inner torment. And the daddy theme runs through Nilsson's work, whether being examined as a dark void or fantasized about as an idyllic relationship. But his story isn't simply a tragedy. It's a life filled with as much laughter as pain. Shipton chronicles Nilsson's wild adventures with such pals as John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz, Jimmy Webb and Keith Moon. Most importantly, however, Nilsson left behind a legacy of majestic music (as described in our review of the new Nilsson RCA albums collections earlier in this column). Shipton gives us wonderfully in-depth study of each of Nilsson's recordings. Readers of this engrossing new biography will come away with a tremendous knowledge of and respect for the man and his music. And a great sense of loss, as this delightful fellow departed far too soon.
"WILD TALES: A ROCK & ROLL LIFE" BY GRAHAM NASH
"LITTLE LUNA AND THE UNIVERSE" - BY JESSICA FLEISCHER
Jessica Fleischer, (whose new pop album, recorded under the name Lots of Love and titled "From The Start," has also just been released) has created a children's book that will enchant not only youngsters, but the grown-ups that read to them. Fleischer wrote the imaginative tale and also provided the wonderfully winsome, truly magical illustrations. Little Luna goes to bed each night, counting stars instead of sheep. This allows kids reading the tale to learn about the solar system. But, beyond facts about planets and galaxies, Fleischer offers suggestions about the oneness that binds everything - and everyone - in our universe. This will open the door to parents discussing with the children such subjects as spirituality, humanity and what our existence really means. An extraordinary little book. An extraordinary opportunity.