Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women – “Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women” (Yep Roc). Just hearing Dave Alvin and the greatly underrated Christy McWilson duet on rousing versions of “California’s Burning” and “Weight of the World” would be enough to make this one worth your scratch. Alvin’s resonant bass and McWilson’s rollicking tenor are a perfect match, among the best pairings in folk/rock. But those are just the top on a disc full of highlights, including a Cajun reworking of The Blasters’ classic “Marie, Marie,” Alvin’s nostalgic trip back to meeting Joe Turner on “Boss of the Blues,” and the appropriately somber “These Times We’re Living In.” Alvin’s has assembled a stellar band, including Cindy Cashdollar playing slide guitar, Laurie Lewis on fiddle, Nina Gerber on electric guitar and Amy Farris. McWilson is present throughout, her aching, emotional vocals matching Alvin note for note.
The impetus for this disc was the death of Alvin’s buddy, Chris Gaffney, of liver cancer last year. Gaffney had been a key part of Alvin’s rock band, The Guilty Men. Rather than continue without him, Alvin asked Cashdollar to assemble an acoustic backing band for a live show and she came up with an all-female group. It’s hardly surprising the ambitious Alvin has taken another twist in the road. He has fashioned a long and varied career, moving from The Blasters to X to The Knitters and to a solo career that includes reworking his own superb songs repeatedly (and to great effect) as well as covering classic folk songs and even his sublime disc covering California songwriters. He’s matured into a fine singer, a sort of rootsy Leonard Cohen, and his writing is consistently compelling. This may be his best yet.
Todd Snider – “The Excitement Plan” (Yep Roc). With his latest, Todd Snider takes a big step up into the rare circle of songwriters who can match Randy Newman’s self effacing wit and shrewd social commentary. From the opener, about finding a four-leaf clover (with one leaf missing), “That’s close enough for me,” he sings deadpan. “Must be my lucky day,” he cracks wise.
On “Greencastle Blues,” he opens with just vocals and piano, a nod to Newman. The song was inspired by Snider getting busted for smoking pot a couple of years ago. “Some of this trouble just finds me, most of this trouble I earn,” he sings over pedal steel guitar. “So how do you know when it’s too late, how do you know when it’s too late to learn?”
Most of the tunes are about alright guys down on their luck, unable to figure out what went wrong or how to make it right. “Bring ‘Em Home,” fueled by Snider’s harmonica and Jim Keltner’s drumming, is about a guy who enlisted hoping for something better and now just wants to come home. “Unorganized Crime” tells the story of a hit man so incompetent yet so proud that he wants to turn himself in so everybody knows what he did. For baseball fans, Snider gives us “America’s Favorite Pastime,” the story of Dock Ellis’s LSD-laced pitching performance in 1970. For variety, Snider duets with Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me,” a bit of barrelhouse country. The lone cover, Robert Earl Keen’s “Corpus Christi Bay,” fits right in. “If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway,” Snider sings
Don Was produced and Greg Leisz lends his considerable picking skills, but the production is wisely low-key, putting Snider’s vocals front and center, gently wrapped in just a little bunting. He bids us farewell with “Good Fortune,” a simple wish, but by that time, we’ve had the good fortune to settle in with Snider and his characters for 40 minutes of good, bad times.
Wilco – “Wilco (The Album)” (Nonesuch). On its seventh album, the sometimes gratingly adventurous Wilco dares to color outside expectations and release a superb roots rock album in the vein of their superb discs. “A.M.” and “Summerteeth.” There’s little of the experimentation of the past decade and that’s just fine, thank you. That doesn’t mean “Wilco” is boring or staid. There’s plenty of interesting forays from the grungy guitar of “Bull Black Nova” to the catchy pop rock duet with Feist on “You and I” to the straight-ahead Sixties rock harmonies George Harrison weeping guitar of “You Never Know.” “I don’t care anymore,” Jeff Tweedy sings again and again, before adding, “But you never know.”
In fact, “Wilco” is the one Wilco album of the last decade that holds up to repeated listenings; it’s consistently catchy, challenging, and revealing time after time.
Tweedy hasn’t stopped taking a hard look around. “Wake up, we’re here,” he sings on “Country Disappeared,” “It’s so much worse than we feared.”And there are enough musical quirks to fend off fans who think he’s “sold out,”notably on “Bull Black Nova,” which opens with plinking piano and evolves into a swirl of angry guitars, mirroring the lyrics.
“Do you dabble in depression? Is someone twisting a knife in your back?…Wilco will love you baby,” Tweedy sings with a wink on the opening title tune. Tweedy has been through tough times in recent years, kicking another addiction, and it’s a signal that both he and the group, now going on five years in this incarnation, are back on solid ground, ready to lend a shoulder. That assurance — and the strongest batch of songs in years — make this an equal to Wilco’s best.
Elvis Costello — “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane” (Hear Music). With Jim Lauderdale supplying harmonies (and, presumably, corny jokes), Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and T Bone Burnett producing this disc offered loads of promise. On the other hand, it contains four tunes from Costello’s unfinished Hans Christian Andersen opera, remakes of two earlier releases, and a cover of a tune made famous by Bing Crosby. Recorded in Nashville in just a few days, the result is a pleasant but nonessential Costello offering that’s a bit of a mess conceptually shifting gears with neck-wrenching ferocity from tunes inspired by fairy tales to the dark lore of the South. It also finds Costello in full crooning mode, which works better as a changeup than a regular diet.
The best cuts follow a southern theme, among them “Down Among the Wines and Spirits,” originally written for Loretta Lynn, “The Crooked Line,” a duet with Emmylou Harris (no one records in Nashville without inviting her), and the leering romp from Carolina to Massachusetts, “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” the album’s centerpiece written with Burnett. Costello seems to produce a disc per year. Maybe it’s time to slow down and do a little more editing before releasing everything he records.
Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey – “Here and Now” (Bar None). The irresistible harmonies of Holsapple and Stamey are wonderful to hear again, nearly two decades after their superb disc, “Mavericks.” “Here and Now” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it has plenty to offer — great melodies and the expected bright jangle pop sound that carry you along the 14 tunes. It’s one of those breezy summer pop rock records that carry you along effortlessly.
There are a couple of throw-aways, maybe one song too many about songs, but after all the required dB’s mix tape track was “Amplifier.” “Widescreen World” has the urgency of a rockin’ beat of a dB’s cut as well as that skewed road trip view. “Early in the Morning,” featuring a gentle Branford Marsalis sax solo, chronicles the sleeping cycle changes as you age. “My Friend the Sun” is a perfect cover choice, an updated version of Family song about new beginnings weathering tough times. “Broken Record” slows things down with a clever idea, likening a romance to a favorite record. There are mature looks at life on “Begin Again,” which would have fit on a Peter Case disc, and “Long Time Coming,” a look back highlighting those close harmonies. “We’ve still got a ways to go,” they sing.
Let’s hope that includes another collaboration in short order. “Here and Now” shows they’re refreshed, their songwriting and singing as catchy as ever.