CD reviews: North Mississippi Allstars, and more
(Songs of the South)When the North Mississippi Allstars – guitarist Luther Dickinson, brother Cody Dickinson on drums, and bassist Chris Chew – emerged a decade ago, the usual influences cited for their Southern boogie-blues were the Allman Brothers, Cream-era Clapton, and an older generation of musicians from the same north Mississippi soil, particularly the late R.L. Burnside (whose son, Duwayne, played guitar with the Allstars for a short while).But the musician who has always loomed largest over the band is Jim Dickinson, who produced Luther and Cody (and also produced albums by Big Star, the Replacements and Mudhoney). Daddy Dickinson, who died in 2009, is especially present on “Keys to the Kingdom.” The liner notes don’t specify who produced the album; instead it reads “Produced for Jim Dickinson.”The boys do well by their father’s memory. “Keys to the Kingdom” plays like a literal elegy, with songs such as “Ain’t No Grave,” “Hear the Hills” and “How I Wish My Train Would Come,” and tinges of gospel throughout, never stronger than when Mavis Staples adds vocals to “The Meeting.” But while the album kicks off on a note of anger – “This A’Way” opens with the standard blues lament, “I hate to be treated this a-way” – and there is a vivid seriousness of purpose, the sound is upbeat, playful. What other word besides playful describes how the Allstars re-work Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” or the gleeful beat to “Jumpercable Blues?” The album ends on a note of grace with “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven,” which imagines a hereafter jam session of old friends on guitars and pianos, “sisters shaking that heavenly thing.” Jim seems to have left his sons a great lesson: When life treats you hard, pick up your instruments, make up some songs and play the hell out of them.
produced by Brian Deck (Warner Bros.)It’s been three years since Austin-based singer-songwriter Sam Beam released an album under his alter ego, Iron & Wine. It seems like the 36-year-old Beam came up with a new idea each day of those three years. “Kiss Each Other Clean” is dense and grand, covering all kinds of territory, with horns and guitars and bubbling electronics, vocals that seem to appear from all corners of the stereo spectrum, bits of folk, bits of funk, memories and romance and religious faith. Around every bend, something new awaits.The achievement here is finding a center, so it’s not just one jolt after another. That solid core is Beam’s voice, a soft but enchanting instrument that often seems to be reaching back into ’70s radio – it keeps reminding me of Gerry Rafferty, not a bad thing – but clearly wants to use that only as a starting point. Even halfway through “Kiss Each Other Clean,” that voice is capable of making your ears stand up and take fresh notice. On “Half Moon,” Beam stretches his vocal cords into a near-falsetto that gives the album yet another dimension; and then on the next track, “Rabbit Will Run,” he finds yet another tone – darker, ominous. The album ends with “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me,” and if there any doubts by this point about Beam’s ambition, the song’s coda should lay those to rest.I can’t promise that you will love “Kiss Each Other Clean” like I do. But I do insist on giving this at least five full listens before making any negative pronouncements.
produced by the Bad Plus (Eone)The Bad Plus – a New York piano trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King – is on its own this time. No guest vocalist (as in 2009’s “For All I Care,” which featured singer Wendy Lewis), no familiar melodies from the rock canon (past albums have been heavy with tunes by Yes, Nirvana, the Bee Gees, Wilco and so on), no outside producer (they have worked often with Tchad Blake, who has added an edge to albums by Los Lobos and Tom Waits). No matter. “Never Stop,” with all original compositions, finds the trio aiming for the same thing they always have: acoustic trio music with advanced harmonies that nevertheless delivers the bite, aggression and beats of rock ‘n’ roll. But when the Bad Plus leans toward the more melodic and relatively gentle, as it does rather often here, they do a pretty good impersonation of a regular jazz firstname.lastname@example.org
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