Summer Albums, Part 2, (the guys)

It’s past the half way point of 2010 so it’s about time I review four of my favorite albums of the past six months. Some were released recently, some in the spring. They’re all good for summer listening.

Kevin Welch “A Patch of Blue Sky” (Music Road)

That Kevin Welch isn’t a household name is a crime for fans of finely wrought, soul-searching, and soul-touching songs. Welch has been writing for more than three decades and he’s a master songwriter, a son of Oklahoma (like Woody) who recently moved from Nashville to the hill country of Texas. “Blue Sky” is his first solo record in eight years (although he’s released a couple of must-have discs with buddies Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin during that time) and it’s one of the year’s best, ten songs framed by his rich, expressive voice (listen to him take that breath at just the right time on “Answer Me That”) and tasteful Americana instrumentation (hey, he’s credited with inventing the genre).

Every cut is a highlight from the opener, “Come a Rain,” a litany of simple character statements – “Jesus was a pagan, Woody was a punk” – on through the soulful, gospel sounding title track that’s both hopeful and defiant and blessed with soaring harmonies by the Trishas, which include his daughter, Savannah. Dustin, his son, lends a major hand, helping with the writing and playing guitar. He prodded his father into finishing a poem, “A New Widow,” which is one of the album’s highlights. Welch has never shied from the tough questions, the broken hearts and broken dreams. On “Answer Me That,” he writes:

If love is the answer, what is the question
I still can’t get it right somehow
Where does it come from
What could it become
How can I find some right now
Answer me that

“Long Gone Dream” pines for a lost love. “Marysville” is about a town blown away by the fires of heaven. “The Andaman Sea,” perhaps the disc’s most beautiful cut thanks to Brian Standefer’s cello playing, looks out on that Thai sea and back on a relationship. On “The Great Emancipation,” he notes “blood runs deep, souls run deeper.” Welch’s heartfelt writing is only part of what makes “Blue Sky” so compelling. His voice has gotten better, more emotional, over the years. He may have been through some rough times, but he can see the clouds parting on “A Patch of Blue Sky:”

This is gonna pass me by
That’s all I know
Honey this ain’t my
First rodeo
Been a month of Sundays
Since you said goodbye
All I’m waitin’ on now
Is a patch of blue sky

Peter Wolf “MIdnight Souvenirs” (Verve).

If you only know Peter Wolf from the late-era J. Geils Band hits, then you’re missing something, maybe everything. On “Midnight Souvenirs,” his first solo disc in eight years, he’s the master of ceremonies for a house rockin’ night of R&B (real, soulful analog R&B). Just try to stay in your seat. Wolf, the night owl, leads you through a long night into day of hip-shaking, love making (and breaking), and soul depraving time. Sit back and let Wolf spin you a tale on the mostly spoken word yucks of “Overnight Lows.”

The guy has great taste and it shows although “Midnight” isn’t just an R&B homage. There’s plenty of cutting licks by guests Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Otis Rush) and Larry Campbell (Dylan, others). Sax and strings enter at just the right time on cuts like “The Night Comes Down” and “The Green Fields of Summer.” The lyrics are confessional, descriptive, and occasionally funny.

Wolf chooses his dance partners well. A duet with Nashville bad girl Shelby Lynne on “Tragedy” is a perfect marriage. The cut opens the album and announces we’re going to party over the sadness. Wolf pleads, but Lynne, as soulful as ever, is defiant; she’s not coming back. Cue the horns, guitars that would make Steve Cropper proud, and the late B-3 entry. A mid-album folk rock turn by Neko Case on the fiddle-driven “The Green Fields of Summer” provides a welcome breather. And Merle Haggard indulges Wolf’s twang inclinations with the closing “It’s Too Late for Me.” (Wolf started his career as a DJ and I wonder if “Green Fields” pays homage to the folk classic while “Watch Her Move,” a rollicking piece of R&B makes a nod to Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “She Moves Me”).

Wolf touches down on blues, gospel, country (listen Kris Delmhorst’s backing vocals and Campbell’s sighing guitar on “Then It Leaves Us All Behind)”, and rock. But everything moves you, including the lone cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Everything I Do (Gonna be Funky).”. This is one to put on repeat and play all night long.

Blue Rodeo “The Things We Left Behind” (TeleSoul)

It says something aboutBlue Rodeo’s Lower 48 profile that this fine double disc was released in their native Canada last November, but not in the States until a couple of months later. Why the group never rode the alt country wave of the 1990s that saw Wilco, The Jayhawks, Whiskeytown and others emerge isn’t clear. Blue Rodeo has sold millions of albums up north, won a ton of Juno awards and regularly sells out arenas. Not so much here and that’s a shame. Especially because after a couple of treading-water releases, the band is back in excellent form this time out, moving easily from rockers to ballads to a couple of stretched-out jams on an ambitious double disc that clocks in at 80 minutes (two easily digestible albums).

Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, the songwriters and co-lead singers, have been penning great tunes for nearly 30 years. On “The Things We Left Behind” they trade lead vocals from song to song with each disc coming in at about 40 minutes. There’s a sampling of roots styles here, from rockers to ballads and they all work. They explore influences ranging from The Beatles — several cuts feature “Abbey Road”-era harmonies and guitar work — to the early Eagles/California sound of “Arizona Dust” to rockers like “Never Look Back” and “Candice,” which opens with a piano riff that instantly brings The Band to mind.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say these guys are direct descendants of The Band. Their writing has been consistently superb over a long period and now, as they look back on a life lived, it’s grown only deeper. “It’s such a small place you came from; it’s so far the other way that you’ve gone,” they sing on “Million Miles.”

“We thought we had two records, one that could be like a ‘daytime’ record, and one that could be ‘night time’ with more moody pieces on it, or would be a bit more jammy. By the time we laid the songs out it seemed that idea would do a disservice to them, so we finally had to commit to doing a double record, with each disc being the traditional length of an album, 40 or 45 minutes,” Cuddy said of the album. “While we were at the point of deciding all of this, Thom Yorke made his big pronouncement that the album was dead, albums are boring, we’ll never participate in that again, and we’ll only be doing singles. That made us think there couldn’t be a better time then to make a double album. If Thom Yorke said that, then we’ve gotta do the opposite.”

Along with “Diamond Mine,” “Five Days in July” and “Lost Together,” “The Things We Left Behind” is essential, a return to form that shows the band still has plenty left.

Graham Parker “Imaginary Television” (Bloodshot).

The conceit behind this album, if you believe the press release (and I don’t), is that Graham Parker was asked to create a theme song for a television show. His offering was summarily rejected and that sent him off penning an album of tunes for non-existent shows, shows he’s outlined in the liner notes. To me, that sounds like the wise ass Parker just having one more laugh. The premises are amusing. Parker claims “Weather Report,” the disc’s rocking opener, is about a television series centered on an agoraphobic who’s obsessed with the Weather Channel. But his lyrics portray a man on the outside trying to figure it all out.

“Hey, can you tell me where everybody’s going to,” he sings on “Weather Report.” “They’re out there on the street. They must be elite. They got shoes I can’t afford on their quick fast feet. They have modified irises behind opaque lenses. They’re hiding equipment behind barbed wire fences. They’ve got this high end electronic stuff I wouldn’t know how to work…I’m sitting there on my couch, my enthusiasm sinking. Don’t know where everybody’s going; don’t know what they’re thinking. There seems to be some secret everybody’s on to, but I just don’t seem to get it, man, not even if I want to.”

Whatever the motivation and creative juice, “Imaginary Television” is one damn fine, if often mellow, rock and roll record with Parker’s typically sneering wit looking at life after mid-life. The arrangements are simple, emphasizing Parker’s words and melodies. And while the tone strikes you at first as light, there’s a dark underbelly. What else would you expect?

Close listens — and this disc only gets better with each listen — reveals “Imaginary Television” is a song cycle about a man taking stock of who he is and where he fits as an artist, pamphleteer (read Parker’s fiction and blogs for grins as well as The Graham Parker Show) and a husband and father. Just listen to him: “I don’t feel comfortable inside my own skin,” he sings. “It doesn’t keep things in.”

Over the loping reggae beat of “See Things My Way,” he acknowledges “There is more than one of me” before assuring his wife that “I’ll be there for you and you know that’s true. I just can’t guarantee which one of me that will be so see things my way.”

On the sardonic “Bring Me a Heart Again,” he sings, “I got some courage and I got a brain, straw man though I may be. But long ago I felt my empathy wane. Bring me a heart again. ”

On “Always Greener,” he tells the tale of a man with “something lacking in his life, but he can’t define it. Three kids, two cars, a house, a wife. I guess that defines me. The grass is always greener. On “It’s My Party (But I Won’t Cry,” a riff on the Lesley Gore song, he is again on the outs, left only “chocolate and warm beer. ”
Even the lone cover of Johnny Nash’s “More Questions Than Answers” fits: “The more I find out, the less I know” is the key line.

Throughout the melodies are simple and catchy and, as always, Parker dips into a variety of genres to color his works.

Behind every wise guy, of course, is a sentimentalist. And Parker closes with a pledge to his son on “1st Responder.” “I’ll turn up in a hybrid or a Hummer or a Honda,” he promises. ” I’ll be your first responder. A wicked Maserati, a Kia or Hyunda. I’ll be your first responder.”

Parker made a lot of noise in the ’70s and ’80s, but never made the breakthrough. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to put pen to paper, even as his subjects and his perspective changes.

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