The third album released by former guitar-playing savant Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information was originally released in 1974. Even though Otis was only 21 when this outing hit the racks, he “retired” after his befuddled label couldn’t quite figure out what to do with this project that emerged after the prodigy spent three years in the studio playing every instrument. A gorgeously atmospheric collection of R&B songs, allegedly Sly Stone’s jaw dropped when he heard the results. With better marketing, it wouldn’t be hard to have seen it being mentioned in the same breath as what Stone, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were doing at the time. As such, the Brothers Johnson had a 1977 Top 5 hit with Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23” (recorded for his 1971 sophomore outing Freedom Flight). Moreover, the son of trailblazing R&B bandleader Johnny Otis blazed the trail for Prince and later on, the neo-soul movement of the mid to late ’90s.
Forever entwined with ex-Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar of Son Volt somehow still manages to be overshadowed by Tweedy’s critically-acclaimed Wilco, even having the misfortune of having both groups’ albums generally come out in a fairly similar narrow time-frame. Having reformed Son Volt back in 2005 after a brief hiatus, Farrar returned to moving towards making country music that Blake Shelton might look at as being for old farts. And while that terminology might have gotten Ray Price up in arms, stylistically it’s what distinguishes Honky Tonk, Son Volt’s seventh studio album. On it, Tweedy’s ex-bandmate and his crew are paying homage to Bakersfield masters like Merle Haggard via 11 Farrar-penned songs. The Son Volt founder’s world-weary voice is the perfect conduit for these tales that balance feelings of hope and goodness with those of heartbreak and woe. A trilling mandolin gooses along lines like “There’s a world of wisdom/Inside a fiddle tune/Throw this love down the highway/See where it takes you” in “Down the Highway” while the combination of pedal steel and fiddle makes “Brick Walls” the equivalent of a Buck Owens outtake. And while Farrar never seems to get out of an idling gear, be it on the lilting two-step tempo of “Tears of Change” or the leaden twang and pealing pedal steel of “Bakersfield,” Honky Tonk has a measured earnestness that would be sure to put a smile on Price’s face.
For Portugal.The Man’s second major label album, the Portland outfit linked up with Black Keys/Beck producer Dangermouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) to help with the heavy lifting in the recording studio. Given the band’s psychedelic pop leanings and the latter’s ability to coax eccentric yet accessible sonic nuances out of any project he works on, the match is not only solid on paper but in practice as well.
Dangermouse’s penchant for spacey pop works particularly well with John Gourley’s slight obsession tweaking modern religion whenever he gets a chance.
The breakthrough album for the Bay Area-based outfit returns with a reissue commemorating its release three decades ago. Given the wealth of pop manna featured here, it’s no wonder that Sports went septuple platinum. Aside from the way-infectious Mike Chapman/Nicky Chinn-penned “Heart and Soul,” the harp-blowing Lewis had a hand in cowriting most of the remainder of the album with News members, sans a closing Hank Williams cover (“Honky Tonk Blues”) and “Walking On a Thin Line.” While the pub rock, doo wop and R&B influences make for a perfect storm of slightly over-produced but otherwise stellar pop, guitarist Chris Hayes remains the band’s unsung hero thanks to his monstrously hard-hitting yet melodic contributions on staples like the aforementioned “Heart and Soul” and “I Want a New Drug.”
A bonus disc of live versions of the album’s songs rounds out this 30th anniversary edition. With performances dating from 1983 through last year, it’s best appreciated by diehard Huey Lewis fans.
For many American music fans, Frank Turner came on their radar with 2011’s most excellent England Keep My Bones. Given the album’s title was cribbed from a line in a Shakespeare play, Turner’s fourth studio album had a very English vibe to it thanks to its mix of traditional folk cues and the former punk vocalist’s penchant for sounding like Billy Bragg while singing about places like Wessex and Normandy. With his recently released follow-up, the Bahrainian native has hitched his wagon to a major label. While his larger recording budget allowed him to tap Rich Costey (Weezer/Nine Inch Nails), Turner has kept his artistic integrity while fleshing out his sound considerably. Heartbreak is a common theme throughout and although not quite non-existent, the folk elements of prior outings have been dialed back in favor of a meatier sound.
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