Elton John/Leon Russell, Marshall Chapman, Liz Phair, Bryan Ferry, Iggy Pop and Johnny Clegg

It's only taken a month, but I think I'm catching up after the onslaught that was the 2010 MidPoint Music Festival. In some ways, the reduced number of releases and shows over the next couple of months is something of a blessing as it allows time for ref

It’s only taken a month, but I think I’m catching up after the onslaught that was the 2010 MidPoint Music Festival. In some ways, the reduced number of releases and shows over the next couple of months is something of a blessing as it offers a respite from an increasingly hectic schedule and allows time for reflection on the year gone by in the run up to 2010-in-review coverage.

It also affords me the opportunity to rewind (that’s what we used to do to tapes, kids — how did that become an archaic term so quickly?) and rifle through the stacks to find the titles I wanted to review but didn’t have the time or energy to include earlier. I’ll have to act fast: January 2011 will be here in almost no time (I’m already pitching freelance features and reviews for that month), the sheets get exponentially fuller as the new year progresses and the potential to get behind as soon as I’ve gotten ahead is fairly high. So I’d better get while the getting is good.

Forty years ago, Elton John was a complete cipher, making his debut at L.A.’s famed Troubadour club. In the audience and offering total support to the rookie piano-pounder was acclaimed veteran Leon Russell, whose stint with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour had made him a star, a career boost that he rode into a high profile solo career. Today, Sir Elton’s level of fame is almost beyond quantifying and Russell has become a relative and undeserved obscurity, an asterisked footnote to Rock history.

With The Union, John honors Russell, not by performing his old songs in tribute but by bringing him in as full creative partner with longtime co-writer Bernie Taupin on an album’s worth of new material. Together, the two piano conjurers return to their signature styles — John’s Brit Folk Pop lilt, Russell’s Okie-in-Nawlins swing — which complement each other amazingly well, perhaps because of their mutual love of Gospel. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Gone to Shiloh,” a Civil War-themed hymn that resonates with contemporary relevance as John and Russell blend their voices and keys effortlessly (Neil Young’s guest vocal is appropriately haunting).

The Gospel theme surfaces regularly, from the cultural prayer of “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” to the waltz-like majesty of “There’s No Tomorrow,” but Russell’s rollicking, swampy Blues informs rafter-dusters like “Hey Ahab” and “A Dream Come True.” And John sounds positively rejuvenated on the propulsive “Monkey Suit,” a track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Caribou or Rock of the Westies, while the balladry of “The Best Part of the Day” (featuring John in the lead) and “I Should Have Sent Roses” (with Russell at the helm) are among the best in either artist’s catalog.

Throughout The Union, the familiar melodies and rhythms of John and Russell are woven together to make a brand new sonic tapestry that favors neither one but brilliantly synthesizes both artists. With any luck, The Union signals both another new period of creativity for Elton John and a third or fourth chance for Leon Russell to reignite his once blazing star.

The cover shot of Marshall Chapman’s new album, Big Lonesome, tells a powerful story by itself. Chapman sits, eyes closed, in a shadowed corner with her acoustic guitar, an open case beside her with a publicity photo of Louisville musician Tim Krekel propped against the lid. It’s not hard to translate a thousand words of grief and sadness from this single picture, but any lingering doubt is dispelled by Chapman’s songs, a fitting tribute to her longtime friend and collaborator who succumbed to cancer last year just three months after being diagnosed.

Big Lonesome is all the more amazing considering that Chapman had largely decided to give up music to concentrate on her writing career. Krekel’s passing unleashed a torrent of songs that wouldn’t be denied and, combined with a handful of co-writes that Chapman had in the can, Big Lonesome was inevitable. The album starts with the title track, a Chapman/Krekel classic Country tune that details love gone wrong but just as easily addresses Chapman’s feelings over his absence. Chapman’s songs more directly and literally focus on Krekel, from the Roots Blues pulse of “Down to Mexico” and the shimmery Americana balladry of “Falling Through the Trees” to the Country Blues eulogy of “Tim Revisited” and the hang-your-head-and-moan Country Folk of “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You.”

On the album’s two covers, Chapman channels her inner Lucinda Williams, first on the sad Western Swing of Cindy Walker’s “Going Away Party” and then with her heartrending take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Clearly Chapman doesn’t want to end on a sad note, so she closes the album with a raucous reading of her and Krekel’s Roots Rock classic “I Love Everybody.” Recorded at last year’s Dance or Die Festival in Louisville, the song is Chapman’s very last live performance with Krekel.

It’s not hard to hear the hole in Marshall Chapman’s heart on Big Lonesome, it’s equally easy to hear the love she had for her fallen friend but, most importantly, it proves that she’s a long way from being done with music.

In 1993, Liz Phair established a career’s worth of Indie cred and bitch-slapped the often misogyny-streaked Rolling Stones with Exile in Guyville, her swaggering, estrogen-and-profanity-laced manifesto. Unfortunately, Phair’s subsequent pursuit and capture of commercial success assured that no monumental follow-up would be forthcoming. Funstyle doesn’t fit that bill either, but it might be the most freewheeling and uninhibited set Phair has attempted since her high profile debut.

Phair released Funstyle on her own, as new ex-label ATO was unwilling to take a chance on her bold direction. After starting with “Smoke” and “Bollywood,” Laurie Anderson-flecked Rap-meets-SNL-doing-M.I.A.-spoof numbers essentially detailing the aging Phair’s predicament of trying to remain relevant in an ever-changing youth culture, Funstyle settles into slightly more conventional Pop mode, strewn with Phair’s patented war-of-the-sexes observations (from “Miss September”: “I’ve been in this Garden of Eden a long time/And I’ve never seen Adam do anything I understand”), a Funk/Soul workout (“My My”) and some of Phair’s best songs in years (“Bang Bang,” “And He Slayed Her”).

Funstyle is classic Phair: polarizing, self-indulgent, brilliant, crap, often in a relatively alien sonic atmosphere. It’s not nearly as bad as the haters would have you believe but clearly too much a novelty to be fully embraced.

Bryan Ferry went from art school greaser parodist to legitimate Art Rock/Pop crooner, establishing the former persona on the first three Roxy Music albums and evolving into the latter beginning with Country Life and his sophomore solo album Another Time, Another PlaceRolling Stone placed Roxy at No. 98 in their “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” in 1974. From that point on, Ferry cultivated a reputation for being an erudite and romantic lyricist, a powerfully effective musical composer, a dapper and debonair fashionista and a lady-killer of the first magnitude. Although his ride with Roxy has been bumpy (they’ve broken up and reformed twice) and his solo career has been checkered, the music he's made in his band and solo contexts has always been, at some level, extremely compelling.

Ferry’s latest solo jaunt comes with a bit of sensational baggage, as guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy MacKay, drummer Paul Thompson and sonic manipulator Brian Eno hit the studio together a couple of years back, sparking a heated Roxy reunion rumor. Ferry eventually quelled it with the announcement that Roxy would likely not record again and that the reunion sessions would be used on a future solo project. Three years after Ferry’s Dylan covers album Dylanesque, the Roxy sessions (and plenty more) finally see the light of day on Olympia, Ferry’s first album of primarily original tracks since 1994’s Mamouna.

Olympia’s first single, “You Can Dance,” as well as slow burners like “Me Oh My” and “Reason or Rhyme,” have the slinky and slightly menacing pulse of the best of Roxy’s artily commercial phase, exemplified by 1982’s Avalon. Anyone looking for the Roxy sessions to time-warp Ferry back to the days of “In Every Dream Home, A Heartache” will be frustrated, as his guests (including co-writer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Stewart, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Funkmeister Nile Rodgers, Chili Pepper Flea and Scissor Sisters) all dance to Ferry’s tune on Olympia.

In this case, that shouldn’t be construed as criticism. Eno’s guest shot on “Alphaville” shows how far both artists have come in their sylistic evolutions, “Heartache by Numbers” (Ferry’s collaboration with the Scissor Sisters) is dance-beat balladry at its epic and Teutonic best and Ferry’s sinewy, throbbing take on Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” could almost be a tribute to the Roxy Music album contained in the title.

Ferry has never been more in touch simultaneously with his suave crooner, art house dilettante and flamboyant Pop star than he is on Olympia. In the process, at age 65, he’s crafted a highlight in both of his estimable catalogs.

In 1975, The Stooges were a distant memory after a blazing start. Iggy Pop was confined to a Los Angeles mental facility to kick his heroin addiction, and the Asheton brothers had returned to Ann Arbor to start Destroy All Monsters and begin a 30-year vigil to reunite with their mercurial lead singer. James Williamson, Ron Asheton’s replacement on guitar, remained in L.A. and he and Iggy began working on a demo that the pair hoped would land them a new record deal. Williamson worked on the music during the week and Iggy provided vocals during weekend passes from the hospital, but the demo ultimately attracted no label interest. The following year, Iggy and David Bowie began working on the album that would become The Idiot. Its release in 1977, followed five months later by Lust for Life, gave Iggy Pop the indelible stamp of commercial legitimacy that launched his solo career.

Three months after Lust for Life, Bomp Records released Kill City, the overdubbed and remixed version of the demo that Iggy and Williamson had recorded in 1975. Kill City’s sound was muddy and indistinct, made worse by a crappy green vinyl pressing, and was generally viewed as a crass and unworthy attempt to cash in on Iggy’s newly minted success. The loss of the master tapes meant that the album’s transition to the CD age was by way of the green vinyl version, which merely digitally enhanced Kill City’s murkiness.

Thankfully, the masters were finally unearthed and Williamson took them back to the studio with engineer Ed Chernay. Together the pair has rescued the rightful legacy of Kill City as the connective tissue between the scorched-earth Rock of Raw Power and the subtly powerful electronic murmur of The Idiot.

There’s no trace of synths on Kill City, at least until the effects on the instrumental closer “Master Charge,” but Iggy and Williamson definitely pursued a kinder, gentler sonic course in these sessions, as evidenced by the smoky Jazz/Punk of “Sell Your Love,” the acoustic banshee whisper of “Night Theme” and the quiet Stones-meets-Spirit sway of “No Sense of Crime” and “Lucky Mokeys.” At the same time, Williamson and Iggy sound simultaneously charged up and dour on “Beyond the Law,” as the music gallops along at an effervescent pace while Iggy spits out lyrics like “We don’t believe in anything/ We don’t stand for nothin’/ We got no V for victory/ ’Cause we know things are tougher.” A similar atmosphere pervades “Consolation Prizes” and the title track — Williamson’s music careens headlong through the songs but with considerably more reflection and purpose than the strapped-to-a-missile terror of Raw Power, and Iggy’s vocals mirror the measured pace of his confined rehabilitation.

Obviously, the sound of Kill City was never sterling, but Williamson’s new mix brings the material into the redeeming light that it really should have enjoyed nearly 30 years ago. In 1977, The Idiot seemed like a total departure for Iggy Pop but, in the reflected glow of the restored Kill City, it feels more like Iggy’s natural evolution than Bowie’s forced influence.

Johnny Clegg’s mix of African Pop and western Rock provided the template for later genre-blenders like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel with the formation of the world township band Juluka in the late ’70s. Unlike the Pop dabblers who milked the hybrid for its transitory benefits and moved on, Clegg has remained committed to the idea of weaving together the joyous sounds of Zulu rhythms and South African musical tradition with the infectious melodicism of modern Pop/Rock for the past three decades. And Clegg is no armchair-to-studio activist: The white frontman for a multi-cultural South African band has been jailed and waylayed uncountable times for disregarding South Africa’s apartheid laws, which he was, if you’ll pardon the expression, instrumental in helping to overturn.

The title of Clegg’s new solo album tells you a lot about both his subject matter and his viewpoint: Human. He doesn’t necessarily hear the divisions within his music, he just hears music. And although he can’t help but see the divisions that separate mankind into small, isolated camps, he recognizes that our collective responses to our individual environments and the external world at large are, at our very cores, a component of our common humanity.

Take Human’s opening track, for instance. “Love in the Time of Gaza” is Clegg’s firsthand observation that love can bloom and thrive even in a time of unspeakable destruction. And, as Clegg explains in the liner notes concerning the soul-stirring “Asilazi” (featuring the gorgeous voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir), the political freedom that South Africa now enjoys is an empty gesture without the economic freedom to benefit from it, while “Congo” notes (with no small irony) that Africa’s wealth has often been its greatest detriment.

Even when Clegg is addressing very specific African dilemmas, there is a universality that accompanies the message and, of course, the music that propels the message transcends any attempt to fit it into a particular pigeonhole. On Human, like so many albums before, Clegg is a human making human music. Over the past three decades, few have done that as well as him.

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