Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: Global a Go-Go (Hellcat)
When you think of The Clash, you probably conjure punky, bone-crunching rock, but in fact the band was always fairly eclectic — beyond the obvious reggae, ska and dub influences; have you checked out Sandinista lately? So it's no surprise that the post-Clash careers of Mick Jones (in various incarnations of Big Audio Dynamite) and Joe Strummer have been dedicated to fusing different styles, while still retaining the drive and political bent of The Clash. Strummer's wonderful second disc with The Mesacaleros, Global a Go-Go, is rooted firmly in that tradition — it's a diverse polyglot of genres, all infused with that unmistakable, slightly reckless, but always endearing approach of his. “Late news breaking…this just in…,” he says at the beginning of one song; “Extra, extra read all about it!” in another; and, indeed, the whole album has that Clash-like sense of urgency — it's the musical News of the Day. Strummer's provocative lyrics really do criss-cross the planet, touching on social issues, politics and globalization; there's lots to chew on…but it never loses the beat for a second. There are loads of acoustic textures and highly varied instrumentation (flutes and fiddles?), but also a dose of crashing power chords, anthemic vocal blends and modern sonic touches (loops, etc.). All in all, an extremely powerful statement from one of rock's great provocateurs.
Producers: Scott Shields, Martin Slattery, Joe Strummer and Richard Flack. Studios: Battery (London). Mastering: Chris Parmenidis.
— Blair Jackson
The Blind Boys of Alabama: Spirit of the Century (Realworld)
The Blind Boys of Alabama, who have been performing soulful gospel music since 1939, are wonderful enough on their own; the words “national treasure” don't even do them justice. But Spirit of the Century takes this old-time vocal group to a surprising new place. The Boys are supported by haunting, electric music from an exceptional collection of players with varied aesthetics: John Hammond (electric guitar and dobro), David Lindley (slide guitars and electric guitar), Charlie Musselwhite (harmonica), Michael Jerome (drums) and Danny Thompson (double bass). And the tracks on the release range from the most familiar traditionals arranged in new ways (e.g., “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”) to moody spirituals from Tom Waits, Ben Harper and the Rolling Stones. This album should bring the beauty and depth of gospel music to a whole new audience.
Producer: John Chelew. Recording engineer: Larry Hirsch. Mixing engineers: Jimmy Joyson and Larry Hirsch (2 tracks). Studio: Capitol Studio B (L.A.). Mastering: Stephen Marcussen/Marcussen Mastering (Hollywood).
— Barbara Schultz
Various: Windham Hill: 25 Years of Guitar (Windham Hill)
When I reviewed the first couple of releases on a new label called Windham Hill a quarter century ago (!), founder/guitarist Will Ackerman was living above the garage of mansion in Palo Alto, Calif., and guitarist Alex de Grassi delivered his first album personally to my house in Berkeley; that's how funky the operation was. Ackerman's label subsequently revolutionized the business of selling acoustic-based instrumental music, influencing scores of other independent labels, and created a number of “stars” in the acoustic music universe. This lovely Silver anniversary compilation brings together tracks from the label's finest acoustic guitarists, including Ackerman, de Grassi, the late Michael Hedges, Steve Erquiaga, Snuffy Walden and others. Tracks range from highly emotional pieces (such as Ackerman's gorgeous but heartbreaking “The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit”) to more light-hearted romps (“Larry World” by Russ Freeman) and the jaw-dropping pyrotechnics of Hedges' “Aerial Boundaries.” Somehow it all flows together coherently — credit to executive producer Dawn Atkinson, who chose the tracks — making this an always engaging and moving listening experience. A fine introduction to this unique strain of Americana. (A companion volume compiles some of the best Windham Hill pianists, including George Winston and Liz Story.)
Executive producer: Dawn Atkinson. No individual recording credits listed. Mastering: Chris Bellman/Bernie Grundman Mastering.
— Blair Jackson
Various: The I-10 Chronicles/2 One More for the Road (Back Porch/Virgin)
This is Vol. 2 in a series of new recordings of great roots road songs. Of course, there's no shortage of material for this type of collection. The trick is in matching artists and songs in a way that's fresh and compelling, and this CD manages to be affectionate and vibrant. Here are some highlights: Dave Alvin layers acoustic and electric guitars with his deep, understated vocal to create an almost anthemic version of Merle Haggard's “I'm a Lonesome Fugitive.” Raul Malo of The Mavericks leads a '50s doo-wop rendition of Haggard's “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” And Adam Duritz and Dave Immergluck (of Counting Crows, but billed here as “the Devil and Bunny Show”) play a rollicking acoustic version of John Hiatt's ballad “She's Crossing Muddy Waters.”
Producers: John Wooler, Randy Jacobs and Sally Browder. Engineer: Sally Browder. Recording studios: Ocean Way (Hollywood) and RecordOne (L.A.) Mixing studios: RecordOne Studios and Steakhouse (L.A.). Mastering: Bernie Grundman and Narada Mastering.
— Barbara Schultz
Odetta: Lookin' For a Home (M.C.)
This one's a natural: The veteran folk singer Odetta has been singing the songs of Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter, 1889-1949) since the early '50s, so who better to do an entire disc of tunes popularized by him? Odetta is in full command on these 15 tracks, her sure vocals soaring over the relaxed backdrop of various acoustic instruments (and toe occasional orhan and electric guitar). The expected classics are here — “Goodnight Irene,” “In the Pines,” “Bourgeois Blues,” “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” etc. — but the arrangements are not always what you'd expect — this isn't merely a folk recitation; there's been some real thought and care put into these interpretations. Gatemouth Brown helps out on a track, and harmonica ace Kim Wilson and pianist Henry Butler appear on two each. A fine collection of great story-songs and deep blues.
Producers: Mark Carpentiri and Seth Farber. Engineer: Fred Guarino. Studios: Tiki Studios (Glen Cove, NY), Unique Recording (NYC), Westrak (NYC).
— Blair Jackson