Blessed with a smoky phrasing that seems like she's channeling Billie Holiday, Madeleine Peyroux might not be the first person you’d expect producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell) to have take a crack at elements of Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western. Considered by many to be one of the first times a major artist chose to have jazz and country music meet at creative crossroads, you’d think Klein would have gone with Peyroux peer Norah Jones, who went down a similar road with 2005’s Feels Like Home and even collaborated with Charles shortly before his death. Be that as it may, Klein’s instincts proved correct as the Atlanta-born Peyroux slipped into these songs comfortably while putting her own subtle spin on these readings. Peyroux fares well with the Charles-related material.
People, Hell and Angels
Arguably one of the greatest and most innovative guitarists of all times, Jimi Hendrix generated a tidal wave of influence to generations of artists that followed in his wake. And while only three full studio albums were released during the brief four years he enjoyed mainstream success, Hendrix’s posthumous canon wound up being four times as large and of varying quality.
These dozen songs represent the roots of the never completed First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the double-album follow-up to Hendrix’s 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland. Among the highlights are “Somewhere,” a loping slice of acid rock drenched in wah-wah riffing and featuring Stephen Stills on bass that also includes one of the guitarist’s sweeter and cleaner solos. Buddy Miles and Billy Cox form the bedrock rhythm section for “Hear My Train A Comin’,” which despite its hard rock attack has a blues base to it, indicating the direction Hendrix might have taken the genre. Look no further than a reading of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart” that’s included here that is far subtler than “Train” but no less potent.
At a time when most of his peers are content to work the oldies circuit, 72-year-old Tom Jones continues to reinvent himself. In his latest incarnation, the knighted Welshman has gone the latter-day Johnny Cash with respected Americana producer Ethan Johns playing the role of Rick Rubin. Jones started down this particular root music path with 2010’s most excellent Praise & Blame, a collection of mostly gospel and spiritual songs with the odd Dylan or Billy Joe Shaver cover thrown in for good measure. This collection finds Jones upping the ante considerably. Kicking off with a ruminating reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” and the opening line of “Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places when I used to play,” and before you know, the iconoclastic pop star is hip deep in gravitas.
Throughout his solo career, Van Morrison has been a creative dynamo — churning out albums at an almost annual rate. The price he’s paid, particularly in recent years, is a homogenous blandness to his material that’s been the aftereffect of his being so prolific. So when he took a four-year break from recording before returning with this, his 34th studio album, the Belfast Cowboy seems to have picked up lightened up somewhat. Between his wailing away on an alto saxophone and nuance phrasing, these 10 songs are awash in jazz, blues and soul nuances.
It all comes across wonderfully on opener “Open the Door (To Your Heart)” with its steady Hammond B-3 organ pacing the proceedings. But it’s also the first of many nihilistic observations Morrison makes, particularly when he’s slipping in lines like “Money doesn’t make you fulfilled/Money’s just to pay the bill” on the aforementioned “Open You Door.”
Despite being one of the three Kings of blues, (alongside B.B. and Freddie — both no relation), Albert King was actually born Albert Nelson. While the Mississippi native’s earliest recordings date back to the 1950s, it wasn’t until he hooked up with Memphis-based soul outfit Stax/Volt that King enjoyed crossover success. Ironically, it was at a time when his genre of choice was losing favor with African-Americans as young whites were starting to really delve into the blues. So it’s no surprise that Cream wound up delivering a solid cover of the title track to King’s Stax debut. And that future greats including Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan would constantly sing his praises.
Backed by Booker T. & the MGs, the imposing left-handed guitar slinger really dug in, serving up the stinging blues shuffle “Crosscut Saw,” affecting the requisite swagger throughout the brassy declarations of “The Hunter” and gently bobs along through a lightly swinging reading of “Kansas City.” Most surprising is King’s effectiveness as a balladeer, not only on the Ivory Joe Hunter’s juke joint weeper “I Almost Lost My Mind,” but on a reading of pop bandleader Ray Noble’s 1934 standard “The Very Thought Of You” that works far better than you’d expect it to.
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