Linda Ronstadt: Duets (Rhino) There’s probably a generation or two who’ll note Linda Ronstadt’s being admitted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and wonder exactly what the nice lady who made those orchestral albums with Nelson Riddle back in the ‘80s has to do with Kurt Cobain and Gene Simmons. I’m not sure this compilation of her duets answers that question—Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, James Ingram and James Taylor aren’t exactly Chuck Berry’s misbegotten stepkids—but it illustrates Ronstadt’s spectacular skills both as a vocalist and, no less important, as an interpreter. Her rise to prominence in the ‘60s directly coincided with that of singer-songwriters like Dylan, who not only wrote great tunes but sang them, and her greatest skill was inhabiting the unique songs she chose to cover and very often making them her own. With a guest list of partners including those mentioned above as well as Don Henley, Dolly Parton, Aaron Neville, Emmylou Harris, and Ann Savoy, Duets is a well-curated sampler of one of pop’s finest vocalists dazzling us with her warmth and versatility, which as this week’s induction illustrates, is no small thing.
Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey: Going Back Home (Chess / Hip-O) I don’t know what is the more delightful surprise: The incorporation of the famous Chess Records “horsehead” logo on this album cover in its completely non-ironic manner, or that these two performers, who rose to fame in the ‘60s and ‘70s respectively, sound convincing, workmanlike, professional, and—oddly enough—actually hungry in their desire to create good music. Maybe it was the ease with which many of us could accept the ‘60s-facsimile rocking of new Irish band the Strypes, which put us in that ‘60s Pretty Things/Yardbirds mode, but there are further parallels to be had here: If the Strypes now evoke a young and energetic Who or Dr. Feelgood, Daltrey and Johnson, all these years later, now seem like their original inspirations, elder statesmen such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, making music well into the 60s and 70s despite age taking its inevitable toll. Good, strong stuff, and one of Daltrey’s best showings in years.
Black Label Society: Catacombs Of The Black Vatican (eOne Music) There is a certain admirable proficiency about the Black Label Society and its main guitar dude Zakk Wylde that is comforting yet as oddly anonymous as, say, a jazz album bearing a “Curtis Fuller – trombone” credit in the 1960s. While the band has been making music seemingly forever—at least since 1998—there’s been enough personnel turnover, enough newness to make even the staunchest metal fans think they were getting something new every go-round. Albums like this, good, solid, and rocking, give listeners a chance to sit back, think about Zakk Wylde as the metal archetype he has become, and be grateful he and his band still, after nine albums, aim to concoct something new each time out, and that it’s as solid as this is. Still not impressed? “When the Guitar Hero franchise was all the rage,” says the bio, “Wylde was a playable character in the game.” Oh yeah.
Joan Osborne: Love And Hate (eOne Music) One of those very skilled, talented humans both blessed and cursed by swift and unexpected fame—in this case her 1995 hit “One Of Us”—Joan Osborne has had the nerve to continue her career since then, often to excellent effect. She’s played with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, she was featured in the 2002 documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, and her 2012 album Bring It On Home received a Grammy nomination in the Best Blues Album category. This new one is her eighth, overall, it’s not especially bluesy, and somewhere in the mess of press and bio info here there’s mention of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. I wouldn’t say Love And Hate sounded like either of those--very few albums do—but there’s a substance and depth here that is not easily achieved, and I think Osborne is getting more interesting with time. Recommended.
Carlene Carter: Carter Girl (Rounder) It may have been a while since you’ve considered Carlene Carter; to a certain generation, she was the cute & spry American babe who headed to the UK and struck up some relationships there, nearly all of them musical. Much has happened--she’s back now, recording for Rounder Records, and this new album, produced by Don Was, is evocative, mature, and consistently impressive. With the inevitably top-heavy guest list—on hand are Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill and about the best musicians you can find—Carter Girl in 2014 ironically sounds more like a country album than most of last week’s ACM winners, which themselves seem to be subtly aping the sort of albums Carter herself made back in 1979. Oh well. A strong and very welcome showing for one of pop music’s long-missed characters, now back again.
James Durbin: Celebrate (Wind-Up) Now that rock ‘n’ roll is just a mildly interesting offshoot of pop music—which itself is of course dominated by EDM and hip-hop—it’s possible to accept much of it without any of the emotional baggage that convinced many of us it needed to be as earth-shaking and revolutionary as, say, the Beatles. Which is good news for James Durbin! Since I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of American Idol, I’m not entirely sure what he stands for except maybe fascinating haircuts, but one thing I do know is this: He’s not trying to sound like Mariah Carey here, like most Idol people; the songs are actually catchier than one might expect; and the next time Styx is looking for a Dennis DeYoung replacement, domo arigato!
EMA: The Future’s Void (Matador) Blessed with one of the year’s finest album covers, and the follow-up to her highly acclaimed debut set Past Life Martyred Saints, Erika M. Anderson’s new album is bursting with intelligence, emotion, paranoia about personal privacy, and the always-hip references to Cthulu. Though it’s by no means easy listening, the arrangements are fascinating, the sonics adventurous, and the subject matter of the songs uniformly striking. EMA’s future, despite the album title, is so bright she’s gotta wear one very large shade.
Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition (Nonesuch) Any week that features a brand new Linda Ronstadt compilation can likewise use something by celebrated sister songbird Emmylou Harris, and you can’t go wrong here with this new edition of Harris’s superb 1995 set Wrecking Ball. Produced by Daniel Lanois and a Grammy winner in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category, the album returns fully remastered and boasting both an additional disc of unreleased stuff and a DVD containing the documentary Building The Wrecking Ball. It really is a remarkable set—timeless and dreamy, inescapably thanks to Lanois, the stellar song selection, and Harris’s glorious voice.
A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren (Viking) A brief plug for a much-needed, wonderfully written bio of late rocker Alex Chilton--once of the Box Tops and Big Star and by any measure one of the more interesting figures in American rock ‘n’ roll. Holly George-Warren’s research is first-rate: She answers questions many fans never knew enough to ask, she injects warmth and affection in those areas that perhaps need it most, and not unimportantly, leaves readers wanting to hear more rather than less Chilton when they’re done.