Bettye LaVette, Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band, Widespread Panic, The Melvins, Tift Merritt and More

If one needs proof of the existence of a cosmic overmind or benevolent deity, therecent re-emergence of Bettye LaVette should be all the evidence required. Her recent releases have been triumphs of the style she's been honing for four decades, but on her

If one needs proof of the existence of a cosmic overmind or benevolent deity, the recent re-emergence of Bettye LaVette should be all the evidence required.

Lavette toiled away in relative obscurity in the ‘60s and ‘70s when she should have been lionized and feted with the same future Hall of Fame fervor accorded to Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. She did disco in the late ‘70s and Motown R&B/Pop in the ‘80s and even gave up recording to do Bubbling Brown Sugar on Broadway for six years before finally getting the recognition she so richly deserves, returning to take her rightful place as one of the greatest Soul vocalists of all time. Her comeback albums — 2003’s A Woman Like Me, 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and 2007’s Scene of the Crime, co-produced by LaVette and Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood — have all raised her profile to the level she should have been enjoying since the very start of her career as a 16-year-old in Detroit.

LaVette’s recent releases have been triumphs of the style she’s been honing for four decades, but on her latest abum, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, LaVette applies her magnificent instrument, a stunning voice that would sound passionate singing the transcript of a Senate sub-committee hearing on bank regulations, to some of the greatest songs in the British Rock canon. Under LaVette’s ministrations, these classics of British Rock expand into simmering Soul gems of indescribable power and emotion. If you know LaVette’s capabilities, one look at the album’s set list will have you goosefleshed and trembling at the thought of her tearing into these tunes.

The Beatles, collectively and individually, figure highly here: “The Word” from Rubber Soul and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” become Gospel prayers, while Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” is transformed into a slow Blues burner and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a Soul torch ballad of the first magnitude. Even more surprising are LaVette’s astonishing reinventions of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love,” all done to a shivering turn.

The climax of Interpretations is LaVette’s spine-tingling take on The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” which she uncorked at the band’s Kennedy Center Honors celebration two years ago, a jaw-dropping performance that actually inspired the concept behind this album. LaVette’s work on Interpretations is so brilliant and patently awe-inspiring that there’s really only one thing missing here: the words “Volume One” in the subtitle.

Ever wonder what would happen if Primus sat in a room with a bag of mushrooms (the electric kind, not the ones for spaghetti sauce) and a stack of Southern Culture on the Skids and Timbuk 3 and Slim Cessna discs? Now you don’t have to. Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band has taken that sonic trip and projected it from its own scorched frontal lobes and straight into yours. The Brown County, Ind., trio (Rev. Peyton on flattop Gibson, his wife Breezy on washboard, his brother Jayme on drums) sports more influences than the front row of a Phish concert, from Delta Blues to hillbilly Country to gritty Folk, all of it filtered through the Peytons’ acoustic Punk sensibilities.

On The Wages, the BDB follows the formula that defined their catalog to date: rousing Country Blues with an almost mystical quality, like the AC/DC-meets-Robert Johnson chug of “Clap Your Hands,” the Muddy Clapton swing of “Sure Feels Like Rain,” the Delta spank of “What Go Around Come Around” and the melancholy Blues march of “In a Holler Over There.”

Breezy and Jayme throw down a rickety rhythm section that clatters like hail on a tin roof (rusted), and the Rev plays his Gibson like a busking Blues dervish on a Southern street corner and sings with the mushmouthed abandon of Les Claypool at three times the legal limit with a gobful of marbles.

The Big Damn Band ain’t for everybody, but they’re for everybody cool, that’s for big damn sure.

Widespread Panic has never been a chart threat. From its beginning nearly a quarter century ago (2011 marks the band’s silver anniversary), the Athens, Ga., sextet has made good albums purchased by a cult-numbered few which has somehow translated into great shows attended by more voluminous Jam audiences. In theory, the Panic’s new album, Dirty Side Down, shouldn’t be the one to break the mold, and yet the band’s 11th album just happens to have notched the best first week chart position in their long recording history. So does that make Dirty Side Down the best album in the Panic’s catalog? Maybe so and maybe no.

The opening track on Dirty Side Down is a fair example of the album’s structure. “Saint Ex” starts off with a gorgeous acoustic guitar introduction, a melodic bit of beautiful Pop melancholy that would have been at home on a Peter Frampton or Todd Rundgren album three decades ago, which transitions into an electric Jazz run that sounds like it was lifted from Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow. Just as quickly, the Panic chugs into a polyrhythmic Southern Rock/Prog swagger that still manages to exude the Jazz glow it had previously sparked. This all occurs in the first minute and a half of the song; by its conclusion nearly six minutes later, the acoustic intro serves as its coda, and “Saint Ex” comes to a close full circle from where it began, a fascinatingly diverse romp through the Panic’s big book of sonic possibilities.

Immediately on its heels comes “North,” a more typical Panic boogie workout Jam on which you can definitely hear them stretching into a 10-plus minute excursion in front of an ecstatic audience. Then comes the dark one-two punch of the moodily optimistic title track, which John Bell sings in an approximation of Leo Kottke and the Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts, and the gorgeously melancholic “This Cruel Thing,” written by longtime Panic collaborator Vic Chesnutt, who did a couple of albums with the Panic under the band name Brute. The song’s weary lyrical worldview and atmospheric Jimmy Webb-like shimmer is made all the more poignant by the fact that Chesnutt took his own life on Christmas Day last year; try to remain unmoved as all of the Panic’s vocalists wail the song’s refrain, “When this cruel thing is over,” up to the song’s haunting final note.

Thankfully, the Panic lighten the mood ever so slightly on the Blues boogie of “Visiting Day,” the scuffed Country/Pop of “Clinic Cynic” and the ominous slink of “Shut Up and Drive.” Dirty Side Down is certainly one of Widespread Panic’s darker and more atmospheric albums to date, and one of the band’s most broadly diverse from a stylistic perspective.

When The Futureheads dropped their eponymous 2004 debut album, the British quartet were hailed as the next coming of New Wave and there was plenty of evidence to support that contention. The Futureheads were all jittery guitar rhythms, clever wordplay, breakneck chord changes and an angular melodicism that turned on itself like a sonic pretzel. The band’s next album, 2006’ News and Tributes, was a study in contrasts as it explored a more traditional Pop structure more in line with Fleetwood Mac than the ‘70s New Wave riders they’d been compared to on their first go-round. The Futureheads’ third album, 2008’s This Is Not the World, was a spikier Punk document, a return to the form of the first album but slightly more tumultuous, perhaps a sign of the internal stresses that nearly broke up the band after News and Tributes.

On their latest album, The Chaos, The Futureheads deliver on the promise of its first amazing album and expand their range by weaving in lessons learned on subsequent releases. The title song kicks off the album with all the nervous verve of XTC at their absolute manic best, “Stop the Noise” and “Dart at the Map” outjam The Jam and “I Can Do That” and “Sun Goes Down” march through the melody with the anthemic boot stomp of the Kaiser Chiefs and the my-fist-your-face Punk joy of Channel 3.

“This Is the Life” and “The Baron” roll everything the band does best into tightly wound packages that display all their gifts to maximum effect, from jerking rhythms to almost Prog/Jazz and classic Rock-like fills to heart-wrenching shifts between them all. “Jupiter” closes the album with a crazy Gospel combination of Queen and Gang of Four.

With The Chaos, The Futureheads don’t so much transcend their New Wave influences as effectively absorb them and send them back into the world as a fresh new sound and vision.

The Melvins’ story over the past quarter century reads like the acid-fried fiction of Ken Kesey or the theater of the absurd of Kurt Vonnegut. Founded by guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne in the early ‘80s, The Melvins started out playing Jimi Hendrix and Cream covers, moved to Hardcore Punk then tried their hand at Slowcore, their love of Black Flag coming out more like Black Sabbath.

The Melvins were an enormous influence on the Seattle scene, especially on Kurt Cobain. When Nirvana broke wide, a good many fans (and Atlantic Records) checked out the band based on Cobain’s fervent recommendation. And regardless of label affiliation, whether corporate giant or basement-run indie, The Melvins’ approach has typically been the same: a disdain for conventionality and slabs of monolithic guitar mayhem with a physical presence as palpable and imposing as the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Certainly no one could accuse The Melvins of subtlety, but on their latest, The Bride Screamed Murder, Osborne and the current iteration of the band (bassist Jared Warren, new drummer Coady Willis and original drummer Dale Crover) opt for an interesting experimentalism. The opening track, “The Water Glass,” veers between The Melvins’ standard Hardcore-meets-Sludge-Metal and a Marine drill instruction workout, while its follow-up, “Evil New War God,” adheres to a similar path, with Osborne’s doomy riffs holding an odd back and forth conversation with his drummers’ thunderous fills toward the song’s climax. With “Pig House,” Osborne crafts a credible hybrid of Rush and Andrew W.K. and “I’ll Finish You Off” comes off like a Doom Sludge one act play conceived by Alice Cooper and Les Claypool in a Metal tribute to Frank Zappa.

In fact, much of the second half of The Bride Screamed Murder plays out in a similar fashion as the band’s blistering riffmongering gives way to oddly structured interludes or little sonic asides, almost a Stoner Metal approximation of Jazz (particularly their menacing take on The Who’s “My Generation”), making this one of The Melvins’ more weirdly accessible albums.

With each successive album, Tift Merritt has revealed more of her nuanced songwriting presence and considerable musical skills. On Merritt’s almost universally acclaimed debut, 2002’s Bramble Rose, she introduced herself with songs that played to her Folk/Alt.Country singer/songwriter strengths, while her sophomore album, 2004’s Tambourine, found her folding in more Rock and Soul influences. With 2008’s Another Country, Merritt showed her evolution toward the kind of pure musical excellence that Emmylou Harris has perfected.

See You on the Moon, Merritt’s fourth studio album and second for Fantasy Records, expands on the creative growth of Another Country with another emotionally-wrought set of intimately universal songs. Along with her longstanding band and kindred soul producer Tucker Martine, Merritt has crafted an album that synthesizes all of her amazing skills into her fourth consecutive stellar album.

“Mixtape” opens the album like a cross between 10,000 Maniacs and Shelby Lynne as she extols the analog joy of the old-school homemade cassette while “Engine to Turn,” “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight” and “Papercut” quiver with the kind of emotional and lyrical intensity that has marked Kathleen Edward’s similarly toned work. And the album’s two most poignant songs of loss, “Feel of the World” and the title track, are both soul-searing evocations of Emmylou Harris’ flawless songcraft.

With See You on the Moon, Tift Merritt solidifies her growing reputation as an astonishingly gifted and intuitive songwriter and hints at the very real possibility that her creative range varies narrowly between really good and great.

The acoustic Folk side project has long been a staple for Indie Rock players of every stripe to somehow prove their diversity and depth and authenticity. Good Old War doesn’t really fit that model. Guitarist/vocalist Keith Goodwin and drummer/vocalist Tim Arnold decided not to revisit the Prog/Pop leanings of their previous group, Days Away, when it collapsed. Instead, the duo steered toward a contemporary Folk/Pop sound, and with the addition of Unlikely Cowboy guitarist/vocalist Dan Schwartz the trio Good Old Way was born (the band’s name comes from the players’ surnames; it’s a word puzzle, figure it out).

The band’s 2008 debut, Only Way to Be Alone, enjoyed more than a little acclaim, but their eponymous sophomore album might be not only the better of the two but it could potentially find them plenty of backers when end-of-year lists are compiled.

The second Good Old War album begins with “GOOD,” a lilting little instrumental that sounds like an Americanized version of Juluka, and starts a sequence that punctuates the album (“OLD” follows a few tracks later and “WAR” closes the set). Unlike so many bands who wear their Folk/Americana detours like momentary fashion, Good Old War are more interested in finding the places where their old roots intersect with their new direction and that’s where the band’s sound becomes compelling and fun. And while it’s not necessarily a completely original concept (Guster’s been working this corner for awhile), God Old War does an amazing job of creating a fresh take on the idea with brilliantly crisp musicianship and heavenly vocal harmonies.

Mining nuggets from Pop/Rock’s richest veins — everything from The Beatles (“While I’m Away”) to Paul Simon (“That’s Some Dream”) to Roger McGuinn (“My Own Sinking Ship”) — and then using that raw ore to produce gorgeous and unique new material, Good Old War has crafted an irresistibly wonderful album that manages the rare feat of sounding classic and contemporary simultaneously.

If you stopped listening to the Stone River Boys’ debut album, Love on the Dial, after the opening track, the late Stephen Bruton’s “Bluebonnet Blue,” you’d be seduced into thinking that this was a shit hot Bakersfield bunch with an ironclad patent on honky tonk Country Blues. But keep your hot little hands off the remote and let Love on the Dial spin into the second track, because that’s where the revelation starts; listen carefully as the Stone River Boys transform Tyrone Davis’ 1968 hit “Can I Change My Mind” into a bona fide Country classic, with the swing and soul of the original intact and as good as new. By the time you’ve digested a good portion of “The Struggle,” the nebulous notion that this isn’t your standard Country album has blossomed into a full-fledged fact.

Just a little backstory will explain the fundamental difference between the Stone River Boys and run-of-the-mill Country acts. The Boys are built around the almost limitless talents of guitarist Dave Gonzalez, who was one of the primary sparkplugs in The Paldins and The Hacienda Brothers, and vocalist Mike Barfield, who earned the title “The Tyrant of Texas Funk” as a member of the much beloved Hollisters. The Haceindas were headed in this direction three years ago, but leading light Chris Gaffney’s cancer diagnosis and death derailed any further explorations. But Gonzalez and Barfield reconnected on a tribute tour to raise money for Gaffney and thus was planted the seed of the Stone River Boys. And what a wondrous tree has sprouted from that planting.

The band’s originals sound like they could have been lifted straight from a ’60s Bakersfield retrospective box set, except, of course, for the unmistakable air of Funk and Soul that permeates every steel guitar-tinted note. And the Stone River Boys’ choice of covers is even more surprising, from the aforementioned “Can I Change My Mind” to the Country classic “Special” from Nashville hit genies Jerry Foster and Bill Rice to an amazing spin through “Take a Giant Step,” the iconographic and much traveled Pop nugget from Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

There is so much cross-pollinated brilliance on Love on the Dial you might wonder if you’re responding to the Stone River Boys’ Funk or Country. Rest assured, the Boys are like a well-tuned muscle car: You’ll love all the individual components but you’ll be most impressed with the whole package once you hit the gas and go.

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