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Music Reviews: July 2018 Americana-themed issue

Here are selected music reviews taken from Goldmine’s July 2018 issue (plus a few extras!): from Ray Davies latest Americana album to a popular Eric Clapton documentary.

Here are selected music reviews taken from Goldmine’s July 2018 issue (plus a few extras!): from Ray Davies latest Americana album to a popular Eric Clapton documentary. (Note: Links on eachcover image will connect you to where you can buy each release.)

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Legacy Recordings
(CD, 2-LP)

4 Stars

This album is a very worthy follow-up to Davies’ Americana album that was released last year. Recorded at The Kinks’ Konk studios in London, produced by Davies with co-producers Guy Massey and John Jackson, and featuring backing by guitarist Bill Shanley, the American band The Jayhawks, and a group of U.K. musicians, the album further explores Davies’ love-hate relationship with America. Using vocals both sung and spoken, it has the feel of a theater piece with Davies as the narrator. While the album contains mostly original material, it does feature reinterpretations of three previously released songs. The best of those is a beautifully evocative and wistful version of “Oklahoma U.S.A,” which first appeared on The Kinks’ 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies.

Over the course of the album, Davies, now 73 years old, offers his take on how he viewed America prior to arriving with The Kinks (which was mostly through films), then coming to the States with the band, and continuing through the incident in 2004 in New Orleans in which he was shot.

Opening with the anthemic title track, the album is chock full of brilliant songs. The jaunty, old-style “Back In The Day” references Eddie Cochran and Kay Starr. “Bringing Up Baby” is a rollicking tune about growing up. “A Street Called Hope,” which concerns making the most of a new beginning, contains the lyric “Been too long on that long dark highway.” The acerbic “March Of The Zombies” tells of the dangers of becoming dissatisfied with your life but not doing anything about it. And closing track “Muswell Kills” looks back on Davies being shot and his feelings about it.

Davies and his backing musicians have, again, crafted a terrific album. It’s a great listen, and a thought-provoking piece of work. Davies is reportedly working on a theater/film project that will be based on both this album and Americana. That would definitely be something to look forward to.

-—John Curley

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Eric Clapton
Eagle Vision (DVD, Blu-ray)

5 Stars

In 2007, when Eric Clapton’s autobiography hit book shelves it was hard to imagine that he could possibly be more candid and revealing about his personal life. The book was a confessional where every misstep and shortcoming was examined in a manner that was anything but flattering. It was frankly a difficult read. However, much like the Springsteen autobiography, the words and the story they tell quickly become more poignant when the author is the one lending voice to them.

Enter Life in 12 Bars, directed by Academy Award winner Lili Fini Zanuck. What on the surface appeared to be just another archival, footage-soaked stroll down memory lane became a gut-wrenching expose on the incredibly tragic life of Eric Clapton. From the horrible treatment he received from the woman he would come to learn was his mother, to the lifelong bouts with self-doubt and human loss, the film masterfully weaves these moments with the brilliance of his creative offerings. Never one to fully embrace the “God-like” status that was bestowed upon him, Clapton is revealed to be a man whose path through life has been one that somehow only became more challenging as he aged. Each new personal hurdle proved to be more challenging than the last. Thankfully it led to contentment in later life defined by family. What is unclear is how (excepting for "Layla") these struggles specifically fueled his creative process. While he claims to know every moment in a studio cut when his addictions negatively impacted his performance, none thankfully are revealed in the movie leaving the music unmarred and as special as ever.

In June, the film will be released on DVD/Blu-ray and a corresponding soundtrack will be available from UMe/Universal in a 2-CD or 4–LP version with digital formats. The set comprises 32 tracks spanning Clapton’s long and illustrious career.It includes recordings by The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, The Beatles, George Harrison, Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters plus much of Clapton’s solo work. Of the 32 featured tracks five are previously unreleased, including the first ever release of the entire full-length recording of "I Shot The Sheriff," recorded during the sessions for 461 Ocean Boulevard.

What documentaries like Life in 12 Bars does is properly frame the giants we revere in the rock world as the humans they actually are. Clapton seems to have been committed to proving his otherwise more earthly traits for some time. What films like this do is let us down easy, and at moments hit us pretty hard with that unfortunate reality. The soundtracks? Well they are there to bring us back to level ground and remember what the magic was all about in the first place.

This is a film worth owning. When you do there’s no chance this will be a single viewing. You’ll turn to it again and again.

—Ray Chelstowski

Omnivore Recordings
(CD Reissue)

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4 Stars

John Sebastian once said that when his band, The Lovin’ Spoonful, broke up in ’69, it was the emergence of NRBQ out of Kentucky that “took the ball at that point as the original American Music Band.”

NRBQ—New Rhythm’n’Blues Quintet—opened its pioneering 1969 debut by covering rockabilly’s Eddie Cochran (“C’mon Everybody”). The static electricity that permeates this hard-rocking salvo was so excitingly profound that one didn’t even realize the following track, “Rocket #9,” was by Sun Ra, the outer-space jazz man. It just somehow fit. And that’s been the genius behind this band for a half-century, as proven by their must-get box High Noon and even their recent EP, Happy Talk. The point is that what Terry Adams, Steve Ferguson, Joey Spampinato, Frank Gadler and Tom Staley started on NRBQ is an American primer of rock ’n’ roll assimilation.

Remastered and amazingly released on CD for the first time, NRBQ holds true to that premise, laying down an exquisite free-form bombshell here like the early days of FM Radio. The swamp-rock of “Kentucky Slop Song” veers right into “Ida” by avant-garde jazz pioneer Carla Bley, thus shattering all previously known genre rules for fledgling rock bands. “Mama Get Down Those Rock and Roll Shoes” is their answer song to the 1958 Chuck Willis classic “Hang Up My Rock ’n’ Roll Shoes.” “Hymn Number 5” introduces the sound of their toy piano, which they would continue to use on album after album. After a cover of Bruce Channel’s 1961 “Hey! Baby,” their New Orleans traditionalism comes out on “Liza Jane” (while a dog barks in the background).

NRBQ has kept up this free-wheeling aesthetic throughout the decades. Are they in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet?

— Mike Greenblatt

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Lloyd Green & Jay Dee Maness
Journey To The Beginning: A Steel Guitar Tribute To The Byrds
Legacy Recordings
(LP, Limited Edition)

4 Stars

By 1968, The Byrds' best days were largely behind them. 1968 brought The Notorious Byrd Brothers, an album that followed their greatest hits collection and was absent of any real commercial hits. In an effort to reenergize the band, Gram Parsons was brought in and with him a countrified sound was established, ushering into the rock world a genre that would later be defined as country rock.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the 1968 record that Parsons creatively inspired and directed, is an often overlooked record. It was recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles in March and April of that year. Throughout, the record glides about with the help of the fabulous steel guitar work provided by in-demand country music session cats (Lloyd Green, Johnny Paycheck, George Jones, Charley Pride) of Nashville and Jay Dee Maness, a young hot shot from L.A. The studio group was rounded out by Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Kevin Kelley (Hillman’s cousin) and Parsons. The friction between McGuinn and Parsons began immediately and grew so intense that Parsons would leave the band in August, embarking on a journey that would define his legend. That fame finds its roots right here with this record.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album, Maness and Green have recorded an instrumental version of the record that puts their steel guitars at the center of the action. They are surrounded by major deal Nashville session players like Eugene Moles (bass), John Gardner (drums), and Russ Pahl (guitar) — and it shows. The record is very tight and has a weight that’s largely absent on the original recording. Even for those who might not favor the steel guitar sound, this is a record that is anchored to the spirit of rock 'n' roll.

It was recorded largely at Cinderella Sound in Nashville, with some additional recording done in markets like Austin and L.A. The album follows the track sequence of the original beginning with the cover of Dylan’s "You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere." It closes with a second version, the only track to contain vocals and they are provided by an all-star cast. Together Herb Pedersen (The Desert Rose Band), Jeff Hanna (The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco), and Austin’s own Jim Lauderdale knit together a vocal quilt that is a fabulous as the talents they bring forward to the recording. It’s a fantastic way to close the record and makes one pine for their vocals to have been sprinkled a bit more throughout the record.

The original 1968 recording was a starting point for steel guitar to really find a home in rock music. This would soon lead to Jerry Garcia contribution that has become rock’s most infamous steel guitar solo, that found on CSNY’s 1970 "Teach Your Children." By then, steel guitar just felt right on a rock record. That comfort zone worked itself out in the very session this new record so wonderfully celebrates.

—Ray Chelstowski

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Ali McManus
Desert Dreams Books & Music (CD)

4 Stars

Ali McManus is probably better known for her inspirational speaking than for her musical talents, but that may all well change with the release of her debut record Unbreakable. Confined to a wheel chair since the age of seven (the result of a rare bone disease), McManus has put the last 14 years to incredible use, speaking to scores of people about how she has faced adversity head on. One way has been through music. There she's developed a competence at piano, guitar and writing that is wonderfully evident on this debut.

Working with legendary rock producer Jack Douglas, McManus has put forward a collection of piano-based songs that deliver a message of hope and optimism against melodies that build in size and scale like an old Jim Steinman Meatloaf track. The tunes get to a flying altitude in due time, never seeming to rush forward like a modern country ballad. However, there are hints of arena country to be found throughout her records.

Vocally, in one sense, her voice flutters in a style reminiscent at times of Dolly Parton — especially on “Rhythm That Rhymes.” But in total, it’s almost impossible to ignore comparisons to Stevie Nicks. Not only does her voice and styling go right to where Stevie lives and breathes, but songs like “Wings” and “Heart Shattered” seem to be framed in a manner that you’d find on any early ‘80s Steve Nicks record like Bella Donna or The Wild Heart.

On the production front, the music is a bit too bright, which is a surprising turn for Douglas, who with all of those early, pre-Permanent Vacation Aerosmith records, was known for attaching the band to a warmer kind of rock sound. That doesn’t happen here. Part of this may due to a “commitment to not commit.”The album doesn’t neatly fit into any particular genre, and this in turn may broaden “the McManus appeal.”

Whatever path that this record takes, its most important role will be in further expanding awareness of Ali McManus and her journey. Much like her hometown of Detroit, Ali openly possesses a “never quit” attitude that ensures that whatever she does will represent her best and it surely will never be her last.

—Ray Chelstowski

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Danielle Nicole
Cry No More
Concord Records (CD)

3 Stars

Spinning Danielle Nicole’s sophomore effort Cry No More is like a trip down memory lane. It quickly reminds the listener of early Jonny Lang. It’s a blues-based affair that weaves in and out of hits and misses. The misses don’t stray too far from the hits. But the hits land square and solid. Not surprising, as she is backed by some of the best in the business. Modern day legends like long time Bonnie Raitt sideman Johnny Lee Schell, drummer Tony Braunagel (Taj Mahal), and guitarists Kenny Wayne Sheperd, Walter Trout and Sonny Landreth bring a real sparkle to the record.

Where Danielle shines is when she interprets other people's songs. The standout in that regard is her cover of the Bill Withers track "Hot Spell." The arrangement is built solidly around her bass and there is an amount of restraint that makes the song one of the most mature performances on the record. Danielle’s vocals sit somewhere between Susan Tedeschi andBettye LaVette. However, too often her vocals live within the realm of a howl, instead of exploring what is clearly an impressive range marked by equal amounts of available control. If there’s a drawback to hosting this much musical guest talent is that she seems intent on matching each guitar player’s fire with overflexing her own muscles. Her own songs seem to be where this resides and it tends to make them all sound like a slightly different version of the last. Again, covers for her work best.

In fact, her cover of Prince’s "How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore" is arguably the finest track on the record. Here she delivers an Eva Cassidy caliber performance that is matched with a tasty measure of guitar work by Monster Mike Welch. It also stands apart in coming in under four minutes in running time. With 14 total tracks that largely live beyond four minutes each, this is a bit indulgent. An EP of songs like "How Come" is welcome any time. That’s the stuff that makes clear why Concord Records brought her on board.

—Ray Chelstowski

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Ry Cooder
The Prodigal Son
Fantasy Records (CD)

4 ½ Stars

It’s tempting to read too deeply into Ry Cooder’s latest. The simple reason for the title is that “The Prodigal Son” is the tune that he and drummer/producer son Joachim framed this gospel-heavy project around.

There is, however, truth in advertising. The Prodigal Son is a return to the rootsy American string music of which Cooder has near encyclopedic knowledge and mastery. He has a well of resources and skill that has made him a go-to guy for everyone from The Rolling Stones to film director Wim Wenders.

Cooder has little left to prove but plenty left to share. In his 50 years as a professional musician, he’s firmly entrenched as a national treasure, serving as champion and master of most forms of early American music. Twenty years ago, he helped create an international phenomenon with the Buena Vista Social Club. Since then his own records have formed an ongoing narrative regarding the immigrant experience through his California trilogy — and he authored the short story collection Los Angeles Stories (City Lights) in 2011 — before giving way to a pair of overtly political records.

The Prodigal Son is a salve. Political indignation has been replaced by the peaceful resolve of the early gospel, folk and blues that comprise 8 of the disc’s 11 tracks. The disc’s opener, The Pilgrim Travelers’ “Straight Street,” rides a mandolin groove that supports some of the best singing of his career. The song’s cool lilt and cadence set a tone of peace and uplift that is, in a word, heavenly. “Well I used to live on Broadway/Right next to the liar's house/My number was self-righteousness /And a very little guide of mouth/So I moved, I moved /And I'm living on straight street now” goes the first verse. Who are we to argue?

It’s a peaceful, easy feeling that exists on songs like Alfred Reed’s “You Must Unload” and The Stanley Brothers’ “Harbor Love.”

Blind Willie Johnson is represented twice. “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” has an ebullience that naturally lends itself to his slide playing, which is majestic throughout the disc. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” probably the best known of the songs here, is given a foreboding acoustic treatment that provides an appropriate eeriness that would make its author proud. Cooder and son play an arsenal of instruments throughout, all resulting in an authenticity that is essential, but, at this point expected, given the elder Cooder’s reverence to all forms of music.

Of the three original songs, two exhibit the zaniness — and true believers know that isn’t meant as a knock — that categorizes the guitarist’s solo discography. But it’s “Jesus and Woody” that is the most poignant. In imagined conversation, Cooder suggests that salvation and righteousness can be found in folk singers as much as organized religion. It’s the closest The Prodigal Son gets to politics. But ultimately it gives way to revelry as “In His Care” closes this most solid collection with an outburst of gospel joy.

—Ray Hogan

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God’s Children
Music Is The Answer: The Complete Collection
Minky Records (CD)

2 1/2 Stars

Back in 2009, Paul Weller and Scottish producer Keb Darge released a collection they called Lost &Found. The idea was to shine a light on lost R&B gems of the 50’s and 60’s. Most of the artists are obscure, and none of the tracks were very memorable. Even back then I realized that hits back in the day always found their way to radio. It was rare to find someone who was creating musical magic and keeping it all to themselves, or their inner core of fans. Even Rodriguez found a large loyal audience, albeit in South Africa. So fault me for being suspect whenever I am presented with the music of some lost overlooked artist or act from the past. Too often it’s simply promotional fluff.

Enter, God’s Children. Minky Records has released Music Is The Answer: The CompleteCollection. This contains eight never before issued tracks and six from long out of print 45’s. God’s Children was a Latino act that hailed from East LA. Billed as a “super group”, they share East L.A. origins with Los Lobos, a group that founding member Willie Garcia would later contribute to.

This new collection finds God’s Children supported by first rate session players like The Wrecking Crew As a result, the orchestrations are solid and lush and reminiscent of then current acts like Johnny Rivers and The Association.

Where the band stands out are the rare moments where they break from the syrupy sweeping sound of the pop acts they were trying to emulate. The record opens with the title track, a funky Hammond B3 iron clad strut. Here the band establishes an identity with a confidence that seems almost effortless. This is a solid B Side offering and frankly a really fun tune. The additional versions of this track are solid as well. That’s where it ends, and where the band’s identity wanders.

From here the record just rambles about. This begins with a carnival show inspired It "Don’t Make No Difference," an erratic oil spill of musical elements. The keyboard shrill alone makes listening painful. Ballads like "If You Ever Go Away" demonstrate the vocal potential of Lydia Amescau. But the material is again just derivative and second rate. This kind of stuff was just being done better by others. Things even move into schmaltz with tracks like "Brown Baby" and "Hey, Does Someone Care." The cover of "Put Your Head On My Shoulder" is where any air left in the musical balloon is forced out. It’s as if God’s Children had all of the elements to be successful but just couldn’t put it all together. They would have benefitted from better management and a real label.

This was a Latino-led rock outfit and yet nowhere to be found in the music are any elements from that culture, that world. While the band may lay claim to paving the way for groups like Santana, what set Santana apart at the time was a heavily infused Latin sound, from percussions, to melody, to the very words that were sung. Up until that point no one else had done anything like it. It was novel, and owes little to what your hear from God’s Children.

What might have been more interesting is a walk up to God’s Children that begins with their Three Midniters origins. There founding members Garcia and Lil’ Ray Jimenez performed throughout the region with rock standards, loose open garage jams, and traditional barrio in a blend that would become known as “Chicano Rock.” The evolution of that music might have made for a more engaging collection – and it would have definitely rocked instead of strolled.

In the end, it really comes down to material and God’s Children just didn’t have the best available at the time. The cultural angle can only go so far. Like Redbone, the first all Native American rock band, the novelty wears off quickly if you don’t have a hit in your hands like “Come And Get Your Love.” This dig into the God’s Children archives didn’t find one. Again if they had, you would have probably heard it already.

—Ray Chelstowski

By Mike Greenblat

The American Roots Project
ArtistShare (CD)

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Genre: Jazz

Saxophonist/Composer Owen Broder has achieved the miraculous on his new band’s Heritage debut, for it is here where Appalachian folk music, bluegrass, gospel, country and blues are revisited and revamped through a jazz blender. The fact he can take “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams and make it sound like a Miles Davis rehearsal is purely astounding. No less radical is how he treats the 1909 folk “Cripple Creek,” taking it, as he does, through a myriad of changes. Whether it’s the early 19th Century cowboy song “Wayfaring Stranger” or his own swinging opener “Goin’ Up Home,” Broder has assembled an octet of sympathetic players to color his visions in Americana tones. 

Lynn Taylor & The Barflies
Self-Release (CD)

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Genre: Americana

Nashville singer-songwriter Lynn Taylor lost his wife to cancer and his grief is all over Staggered, his third CD. Songs like the title track, “If You’re Gone” and “Crumble Away” are very dark but after that comes the healing light and that’s where Taylor really shines with his top-notch band who swing away, especially on fiddle and dobro. Taylor, son of a preacher man, has learned his lessons well, as John Prine is an obvious influence.

Abe Partridge
Cotton Fields and Blood For Days
Skate Mountain (CD)

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Genre: Singer-Songwriter

He comes from Alabama with a banjo on his knee. He sings his own unforgettable oddball songs in a lowball gravel-pit voice. His White Trash Lipstick debut had a song called “The Undisclosed Location In Southwest Asia Killing Floor Blues” that he wrote after being deployed in Qatar for 100 days. (He’s fond of long song titles.) On his brilliant new follow-up, Cotton Fields and Blood For Days, there’s a song called “Ride Willie Ride: Thoughts I Had While Contemplating Both The Metaphysical Nature Of Willie Nelson And His Harassment By The Internal Revenue Service.” Think Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt or Steve Earle. This guy’s special.

Chris Smither
Call Me Lucky
Signature Sounds (CD)

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Genre: Singer-Songwriter

Chris Smither’s 18th album, Call Me Lucky, recorded in Austin, comes four years after Still On The Levee. This time, he’s taken the wild approach of including a second disc with crazy interpretations of the same songs on the first disc! Bonnie Raitt, Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, John Mayall and Diana Krall have recorded his songs. He wanted to cover his own damn songs, too, so that’s exactly what he did and wait’ll you hear the different arrangements! He throws in Beatle-song “She Said She Said,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and, most impressively, “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” by The Mississippi Sheiks, that dates back to 1930. But it’s his wry life observations that have always made him, in a 50-year career, something of American treasure. 

The Wood Brothers
One Drop Of Truth
Honey Jar Records (CD)

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Genre: Rock

We may not have The Band to swoon over anymore but we sure still got The Wood Brothers (shown above). On their sixth album, they lay One Drop of Truth on us and we’re all the better for it. Brothers Oliver and Chris with main man Jano Rix have taken a firm Americana stance on this rockin’ houseparty of well-worn wisdom that you can dance to. Water is the metaphor here, be it in tears, rain or in a strong alcoholic drink. “Happiness Jones” is the highlight: “All of my wisdom came from all the toughest days/I never learned a thing bein’ happy.” As for the title track? “Rather die hungry than feasting on lies/Give me one drop of truth I cannot deny.” 

JD Wilkes
Fire Dream
Big Legal Mess (CD)

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Genre: Rock

They’re calling this “boho bluegrass,” a “hillbilly-gypsy fantasia” of “damaged cabaret” filled with Latin rhythms, high lonesome hollers and “apocalyptic ska.” What it actually all adds up to is roots-rock experimenter JD Wilkes of the Legendary Shack Shakers going crazy solo for the first time with Dr. Sick of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and a Drive-By Trucker or two. It’s a Kentucky thing, man, where imagination runs as fertile as Kentucky’s wild grass, sounding like an experimental world-gone-awry vision perfect for the times we live in. Wilkes plays banjo, piano, harmonica, percussion and an old hurdy-gurdy he probably found in his grandmother’s attic. Add horns for “Down In the Hidey Hole” as he waits out the nuclear storm. Then put on your dancing shoes

Jim White
Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
People In A Place To Know (CD)

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Genre: Americana

Southern Gothic takes on a new meaning in weirdo Jim White’s world. You could call him a folk singer on LSD if you want — he’s also a novelist, painter and producer — but this Athens, Georgia hippie knows enough to bring California’s Dead Rock West and London’s Holly Golightly along for the ride. The result is a real trip, all right. Celtic, surf, African, Turkish snake pit music, ‘80s indie pop, jazz and poetry are all referenced within these grooves. Who else would write a song about a bit character from The Andy Griffith Show, Ernest T. Bass, hillbilly to the core, who if you called him unhinged would be a complement? “E.T. Bass At Last Finds The Woman Of His Dreams” is not only psycho-odd but done as a duet with Andrea DeMarcus of Cicada Rhythm who sings in a cool Billie Holiday style that almost reverses the intent of the song itself. Go figure.


By Bruce Sylvester

Columbia (CD)

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Having won NBC's “The Sing-Off,” these five guys left Minnesota for Nashville and an a cappella country vibe, balancing good-old-boy songs with John Mayer's truth-and-fear-laden “In the Blood.” Bluegrass standard “Man of Constant Sorrow” becomes multi-textured doo-wop.

Yep Roc (CD, LP)

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Genre: Traditional Folk

In 1963, blind Arthel Lane Watson (1923-2012) was emerging from North Carolina's mountains to the national stage. This finely mastered 26-song show was at the '60s folk revival's legendary Club 47 in Cambridge, MA. Chatty and modest, he showed deep respect for his music's forebears. After a dazzling acoustic guitar run, he charmingly told his audience, “It's easy.” Doc was the real McCoy of American music.

Perpetual Obscurity/Thirty Tigers (CD, LP)

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Genre: Gospel

After years of recording his Americana songs, Thorn turns to his native South's black community's thrilling gospel he heard in his youth — gutsy soul, R&B, even juke joint blues. Like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and The Staple Singers before him, he makes gospel rock with fervor.

Self-Release (CD)

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Genre: Blues/R&B/Swing

A neurologist in Indianapolis by day, Spenos turns retro singer and sax man romping with good-time songs from his own pen alongside classics from the likes of Professor Longhair and The Dominoes. The head doc's disc's press notes say it will “thrill your auditory cortexes.” Far out, man.

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Sprocket Vault (DVD)

Genre: Musical

This charmingly innocent 1959 love story/musical also includes Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Jackie Wilson and The Flamingos. With both treasure and trivia, it's a realistic snap-shot of the era's songs.