Exactly how much more praise can we lavish upon Richard Thompson before his head explodes? How many more times can we hail his fluidity and invention as a guitarist in both acoustic and electric settings, his elegant brilliance as a songwriter, his honey-with-a-double-bourbon-chaser voice and his almost supernatural consistency before he turns into a pile of ash like a not-at-all-teenaged vampire?
Well, let’s give it one more shot, because Thompson’s latest album, Dream Attic, is — take a deep breath, everyone — fantastic. While our people check on Thompson’s physical well-being, let’s dig a little deeper into Dream Attic and try to keep our compliments at a non-lethal level.
For his newest release, Thompson chose the oft-attempted device of recording brand new songs in a live setting as a way to adrenalize himself and his band. Not surprisingly, it worked like a voodoo charm. But half the battle in this kind of situation is the songs, and Thompson provided 13 gems for his audience-in-the-studio experiment. Now, in any other hands, a CD that leads with the lyric “I love kittens” would likely be doubling as a coaster by the third or fourth track, but that’s how Thompson opens “The Money Shuffle,” a scathing rebuke of Wall Street greed. There hasn’t been an easier or more obvious songwriting target in recent memory, but Thompson applies his standard humor and intensity to the task and thus circumvents criticism for easy subject matter merely by writing the best possible song on the subject.
And that seems to be Thompson’s formula for the rest of Dream Attic; if he and his infinitely talented cast want to explore British Folk balladry or Celtic reels or propulsive Rock rhythms or ethereal Pop, in the service of murder ballads or character studies or fist-pumping anthems or quiet odes to love lost and found, they simply nail it all down tighter than God’s alibi, Thompson blazes away on solos that are the envy of guitarists a third his age and it all comes out the other end as one of Richard Thompson’s best albums ever.
And even though that claim could be made regarding a good 40 percent of his catalog — and the remainder all falls into the second best category — it hardly diminishes the absolute hair-raising goodness of Dream Attic.
OK, we’ve gotten confirmation that Thompson is just fine, so it turns out he, in fact, can't be complimented to death. Maybe he’s superhuman after all.
There was a time when James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone and Otis Redding and all of Motown roamed the airwaves and Funk, Soul and R&B were a part of the overall sonic fabric, and it was good. JJ Grey might not be old enough to remember those days from firsthand experience but when he writes and records (under the banner of JJ Grey & Mofro), the Florida native sounds like he could have been a grizzled old veteran sideman on any Soul session in the ’60s.
On their fifth album, Georgia Warhorse, Grey and Mofro don’t stray far from their established manifesto as they continue to inject their contemporary version of Southern Rock with massive doses of classic Soul set to the funkiest backbeat imaginable.
Grey’s vocal range is just one of Mofro’s many potent weapons; he shifts from a gutteral Captain Beefheart growl to a Chris Robinson howl to a Delbert McClinton moan without a hitch.
For those who require extra incentive, Reggae superstar Toots Hibbert provides vocals on “The Sweetest Thing” and Derek Trucks nails some incendiary slide work on “Lullaby,” but Mofro doesn’t really need star power to sell Georgia Warhorse. This is the real damn Rock and Soul deal.
It would be easy to dismiss a new Heart album with a few glib remarks about Ann Wilson as a cottage industrialist writing music for husband Cameron Crowe’s films and their skadillion-selling soundtracks and Nancy Wilson’s see-food diet. The fact is that Red Velvet Car is not just a really good Heart album, it’s the kind of album that will make the likes of Evanescence and Halestorm seriously consider if they’ve got the chops, talent and fortitude to maintain their output at a similarly high level for three and a half decades.
Make no mistake, there have been fallow years for the Wilson sisters, times when they either phoned it in or were absent altogether. But 2004’s largely undervalued Jupiter’s Darling and the Wilsons’ increasingly incendiary live shows over the past several years were indicative that they still had a world-class album lurking in their rehearsal space. Red Velvet Car is that album.
From the opening slink and snarl of “There You Go,” it’s clear that the Wilsons are not interested in reinventing their past or chasing current trends. Instead, the crafty sisters have evolved naturally, utilizing the elemental aspects of their various sonic guises, from the Zeppelinesque thunder of the early work (without the airy-fairy imagery) to the passion of their power ballad years (without the slickness or unnecessary bombast) and filtering it through the wisdom and maturity of their 35-year journey.
All of that is evident on the thumping and sinewy Rock of “WTF” and “Wheels” and the Brit Folk balladry of “Hey You” and the title track. And the sisters’ many gifts all come together in “Sand,” the album’s spectacular closing track, a brilliant reworking of a song from their Lovemongers days.
Longtime Heart fans will clearly be ecstatic with Red Velvet Car, but this is an album with potentially broad appeal that could grow the Wilsons’ audience by attracting the fans of new female-fronted bands that, in a very real sense, owe their very existence to Heart’s success in the mid-’70s.
UK quartet Stornoway has been christened Britain’s brainiest band, based on their Oxford degrees, and the band’s lyrical references on its breezy debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, bear out that assessment. Each song on the album has the feel of a self-contained little story set to a carefully considered (but never labored over) soundtrack.
Stornoway’s Nu Folk leanings, particularly on their first single “Zorbing,” get them yard-sticked against Belle and Sebastian pretty consistently (they didn’t help their case in naming themselves after a Scottish port on the isle of Lewis), but they are just as likely to offer up sounds that suggest a passing listen or two to The Kinks (“Watching Birds”), The Housemartins (“I Saw You Blink”) and Simply Red (“On the Rocks”), while their collegiate birth and slightly caffeinated Pop style could inspire comparisons to Vampire Weekend or Fleet Foxes. And given Stornoway’s penchant for layered sonic beauty and exquisite harmonies, a nod toward the spirit of Brian Wilson might not be completely out of the question, as evidenced by the wonderfully swinging and soaring Pop of “The Coldharbour Road” and the album’s expansive closer, “Long Distance Lullaby.”
Whatever sonic touch points they activate, it’s Stornoway’s wide-eyed perspective in a cruelly cynical world that grabs the most attention, and the idea that love can be as confusing and painful for a naif as a sophisticate. Stornoway has come up with an airy and engaging debut with Beachcomber‘s Windowsill; time and evolution and perhaps even a scuffing of their innocence will determine their longevity from this point.
As multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel takes a busman’s holiday away from My Morning Jacket to create his solo debut, it seems an appropriate time to remind the world at large that MMJ is the product of Jim James’ creative vision, and that it would be unfair to judge Broemel’s work by the incredible standard that James has set. It seems appropriate to say that until actually spinning Broemel’s first album under his own name, All Birds Say, and realizing that he possesses chops, influences and talents that stand shoulder to shoulder with his acclaimed boss.
On All Birds Say Broemel exhibits the same kind of perfectly naive exuberance that Paul McCartney brought to his initial forays away from The Beatles four decades ago, particularly on tracks like “Life Leftover” and “Enough.” At the same time, Broemel’s songs shine with other highlights as well, from the studied Pop sophistication and contemporary Tin Pan Alley charm of Harry Nilsson (“Different People”) to the reinvented Country lilt of Michael Nesmith and Gram Parsons (“In the Garden”) and the modern Folk Pop ache of Ron Sexsmith (“On the Case,” “Heaven Knows”). A few more spins of All Birds Say, and even diehard fans may be forgiven for finding themselves thinking “My Morning Who?”