Take these four dudes and stick 'em in a recording studio and a "Spark Of Life" (ECM) will result. That's exactly what producer Manfred Eicher figured when he conjoined Poland's leading jazz trio with a Swedish saxophonist. The Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joakim Milder balance originals with well-chosen covers of Herbie Hancock ("Actual Proof"), The Police ("Message In A Bottle") and two Polish artists: contemporary classicist Grazyna Bacewicz and the grunge group Hey. The result is a free-flowing melding of ideas that house intricate passages so complex yet alluring that it will take at least two or three listens to scratch its inestimable surface.
Always on the search for real country music amidst the garbage of today's country-pop, Mike Love (not the evil Beach Boy) stuck out like a sore thumb when I first heard his organic breath of fresh air. A lifelong musician, this perennial opening act has finally self-released his "Gypsy Man" debut (www.mikeloveband.com) after only a four-song EP 12 years ago. Sweet, acoustic, biographical and folksy, "Gypsy Man" tells of the life of this traveling musician in 10 honest songs that instantly sound as if an old friend has returned. ("Love's hard when it's always on the run," he sings in "Drifter's Lament.") Love wrote or co-wrote six tracks, played guitar, sang, harmonized with himself, produced and mixed in his home Kansas studio before it was mastered in Nashville by Richard Dodd, a Grammy-winning studio star who has worked with no less than Tom Petty, Ringo, Keith Urban and Mellencamp. "Gypsy Man" is a cool mountain stream of unaffected musings that go down easy.
If you're lucky enough to live in Austin, a town where music is in the air, water and food, you could go to The Cactus Café on Guadalupe Street and see The Light Upstairs. This delectable duo is so damn delicious, you want to partake in its joyous pleasures over and over again. Emily Burns and Christian Glakas met in 2005, formed The Light Upstairs in 2009, released their "Disconnecting The Dots" later that year, followed it up with "The Hour Of The Pearl" in 2012 and now, with a feel that runs from profound folk and Fleetwood Mac-styled pop to, yes, real country goodness and what they're calling "minimalist Americana," have self-released "Breathing Out And In" (www.thelightupstairsband.com). It's a perfect title because that's how effortless their music sounds, almost as if they were siblings. Add some keyboards, bass and drums to their lovely voices--that intertwine and feel so close over, under and atop each other--plus their acoustic guitars, and you have proof positive that "country-pop" doesn't have to be all phony glitz and glamour. There's room for heartfelt atmospheric anthems stripped bare and laid out nakedly for all to see and hear the abject emotion within these grooves. Subdued, almost celestial, "like stained glass in a quiet church," according to John Aieli of radio station KUTX, "Breathing Out And In" hits the sweet spot.
Enough prettiness. Time to get ballsy, low-down, dirty-funky and soulful. Please allow me to introduce one bad-ass bitch. Kaye Bohler wants to know if you can "Handle The Curves" (self-released, www.kayebohler.com). She writes 'em, and she growls 'em out in a throaty phlegm-fest like a female Joe Cocker. Former Dwight Yoakam producer/guitarist/bassist Pete Anderson had a little something to do with this sounding like a Memphis Stax session, complete with horn bursts. But it's Bohler's show and she takes full advantage of it. "Handle The Curves" is a sexual come-on. Are you man enough?
Lisa Mills says "I'm Changing" (MillsBluz/Burnside) on the follow-up to her impressive 2010 "Tempered In Fire." This Alabama-by-way-of-Mississippi songstress has been called a female Otis Redding and compared to Lucinda Williams. Be it blues, country, gospel or Southern Rock, this gal can belt 'em out with the best of 'em. She's got a helluva band. Drummer TK Lively is from Wet Willie. Guitarist Corky Hughes is from Black Oak Arkansas. British bassist/co-producer Ian Jennings has worked with Jeff Beck. Mills has been on the road fronting Big Brother & The Holding Company, singing all those songs that Janis Joplin made famous. "I'm Changing" ends with a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" that turns the song inside-out. Ditto for her version of the righteous Reverend Robert Wilkins' "I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down."