Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: Django And Jimmie (Legacy) It is admittedly not the most adventurous of music criticism to find a new album by iconic country music figures Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard the week’s most compelling, but consider this: First, this is amazingly listenable, no matter what your favored genre. Secondly, Willie Nelson alone, Simpsons character and part of our cultural fabric, could not be a more fascinating figure. Thirdly, a collaboration between Nelson and Haggard that is as fun, life-filled and colorful as this—in large part due to producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon, who’s responsible for penning nearly half of the songs here—can’t help but appeal to nearly everyone. With its nods to cultural heroes Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers, its heartfelt but humorous remembrance of Johnny Cash via “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” and its not exactly subtle but fully wonderful “It’s All Going To Pot,” this may be the first Nelson album in memory that has truly massive crossover potential, given the right circumstances. Highly appealing, and one of the year’s best and brightest collaborations.
Dawes: All Your Favorite Bands (HUB) One can’t help but admire the much-loved Dawes—that band that everyone in the world and their more powerful friends likes even more than you do—for deciding after all this time the future of rock lies in emulating the Stealers Wheel catalog. They are exceptionally good, they are loved by people in unpredictable quarters, and future bands will make millions purely by copying this album note for note and waiting for the reviews to roll in proclaiming, “Hey, this sounds like All Your Favorite Bands!” Notes, songs, clever arrangements, assumptions that listeners have three-digit IQs—it’s a bummer, but it’s all here!
Florence + The Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Island) It’s a wonderful world when an exciting pop band like Florence + The Machine can return to the scene with a groovy third album that recalls the excitement of their very first–way back in those days of the 2010 VMA’s, when Flo sang “Dog Days Are Over” and, for at least a moment, they seemed to be. But still: I see no mention of “the Machine” on this album cover, let alone that very clever “+,” and am wondering if those incessant rumors that this whole charade was a cynical repackaging of a little-known 1972 collaboration between Partridge Family Mom Florence Henderson and Canterbury rockers Soft Machine have finally taken their toll. If not, then what? This is well-performed, serviceable stuff that if anything has an odd tinge recalling those Judie Tzuke albums that Elton John’s Rocket Records released in the late ‘80s—which, to Elton’s eternal credit, sadly means this couldn’t sound more contemporary. And with that name of theirs, I bet they’re big in Italy!
Robin Gibb: Saved By the Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb 1968-1970 (Rhino) It’s always an odd call when one is compelled to note that the week’s very best album without any qualification whatsoever is basically a reissue of stuff recorded over 40 years ago, but the very peculiar truth is that is indeed the case with this remarkable 3-CD collection of solo material recorded by late BeeGee Robin Gibb during that brief period when he’d left the band to strike on his own—however temporarily—and went wonderfully, profoundly, nuts in the very best sense. Consisting of his marvelous 1970 solo album Robin’s Reign—it was superb, it was the equal of any of the BeeGees’ sets up to Odessa, and not to be a name-dropping geek, but no less a cult figure than Alex Chilton told me it was one of his very favorite albums way back in 1974—the oft-bootlegged but never-released follow-up Sing Slowly Sisters, and various rarities, it is stunningly good, massively great, and a superb addition to the still under-appreciated Gibb legacy. Anyone who appreciated the stunning weirdness of songs about people trapped at sea “filing this berg to the shape of a ship”: Here’s lots more, and it all sounds better than ever.
SOAK: Before We Forget How To Dream (Rough Trade) It would appear that SOAK is much easier to pronounce than Bridie Monds-Watson–but the young female singer from Northern Ireland is otherwise extremely easy on the ears, in the very best of ways. A fascinating voice, youngish, reverberated and sweetly character-filled, the skateboarding singer is completely three-dimensional on this album debut, drawing you back again and again for repeat listenings. Wait a minute, is she urging her audience to “be just like me, c’mon c’mon, be a nobody ” on that song? It is the polar opposite of Paul Jones in Privilege all these years later but, oddly, it has the same effect. A stellar, personality-packed debut, and we want to hear more.
The Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson: Meet Me In Bluesland (Alligator) There is a certain musical area that combines blues, country and flat-out rock ‘n’ roll–and it is there that this very remarkable combination of players reside. This 2003 collaboration between well-known country/Southern rockers the Headhunters and the enormously influential pianist Johnnie Johnsons—the man some credit for having more to do with Chuck Berry’s music than Chuck Berry—is a rocking’ joy through and through, an unexpected romp that’s as good to hear as it must have been to perform. There are songs you’ll know like “Little Queenie,” and there are riffs you’ll know like the back of your hand that have no formal name. This is great, upbeat stuff that you’d expect to never see the light of day—but here in fact it has, and it’s very good indeed. Kudos to Alligator for bringing it to our attention.
Sun Kil Moon: Universal Themes (Caldo Verde) If there is a small but fascinating niche in popular music that involves songwriters offering the veritable Too Much Information cliché as a matter of habit, it would have to be the fascinating Mark Kozelek, once of San Francisco’s Red House Painters, who is at the top of that royal heap. If some songwriters tell tales they hope will be re-interpreted by all who hear it—think “like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down”—Kozelek, with his scattered lines like “and then we had pizza,” tends to head the other way. His embracing of the mundane is actually fascinating, his reliance on minor chords compelling for extended listening, and his singing—which often sounds like it’s being done while he’s eating oatmeal—is uniquely his own, through and through. Fascinating now, staggering to future anthropologists in 500 years. Yeah, that’s show biz.
Roman à Clef: Abandonware (Infinite Best) A highly listenable debut from a crew including members of A Sunny Day In Glasgow and Ice Choir, this indie collection can’t help but evoke early Prefab Sprout thanks to the high-pitched backing vocals of Jen Goma–but beyond that, respect for fine pop songcraft and clever arrangements is amply evident through every track here. It’s all good stuff, worthy of many a listen, and indicative of much more to come. Recommended.