Here are three of the best albums of 2019 so far. Two of them are surprising and heartening resurrections by American bands who deserved better in their first lifetimes but haven’t given up. The third is bold prog-rock violence from Norway by a band with nearly three decades of mayhem in their discography but is still too much of a secret in this country. May the silence end here.
The Long Ryders, Psychedelic Country Soul (Omnivore)
Founded in the combined insurrectionist spirit of punk, Folkways Records and the Declaration of Independence, the Long Ryders did not have a name for what they played the first time they came around, in the mid-Eighties. Now they have the perfect one. On Psychedelic Country Soul, the Ryders’ definitive lineup — singer-guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy, singer-bassist Tom Stevens and drummer Greg Sowders — set out again from a crossroads they invented on 1984’s Native Sons, where Nashville, ’77 London and the mid-Sixties Sunset Strip converge in songs of pioneer aspiration and outlaw bonding. This time, add gangsta L.A. and CBGB to the intersection. The Ryders recorded their first album in more than three decades with an old friend, longtime Ramones producer Ed Stasium (who was at the board for the Ryders’ 1987 LP Two-Fisted Tales). And they did it at Dr. Dre’s studio, thanks to a former roadie, Larry Chatmon, who now works for the Beats mogul.
“I heard something once/And I’ve chased it ever since,” Griffin declares in “The Sound,” a galloping homage to mission affirmed across the album in the opening rush of “Greenville,” the all-for-one march “All Aboard” and the bracing wonder in “What the Eagle Sees.” The title track is a proper trip, dissolving at the end like a prairie-wind variation on the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. And there is one cover, Tom Petty’s “Walls,” done as if the Byrds had cut it first for 1966’s Fifth Dimension and dedicated to the late composer: “If modern music had a friend, he was it.” The Ryders are back to pick up their share of that load.
One more thing: Those who slammed the Long Ryders in 1986 for taking a one-time life-saving payment for their appearance in a television commercial for Miller Beer owe the band a huge, groveling apology. Licensing music for advertising is now stigma-free — not just accepted but coveted. But the Ryders, who took that deal to stay alive and in the ring to do the real work, paid dearly for it in self-righteous censure from critics, fans and fellow musicians. Even so, there is a line in this album’s credits, 33 years later: “The Long Ryders wish success and happiness to all bands.” Everyone else should be so generous and forgiving.
Motorpsycho, The Crucible (Rune Grammofon)
A single disc of only three tracks, one of which swallows the equivalent of an entire album side, the latest album by this long-mutating Norwegian band answers the question no one else has been brave enough to ask so far: What if Metallica, the 1972 Genesis and Crosby, Stills & Nash united to make their combined answer to Yes’ Close to the Edge? Originally forged in Nineties hardcore metal, Motorpsycho have pursued a more exciting and luminous line in heavy progressive rock — streaked with psychedelia, lined with Arctic-California harmonizing — for more than a decade. On The Crucible, Hans Magnus Ryan (voice, keys, guitar), Bent Saether (voice, bass, keys, lyrics) and their latest drummer Tomas Järmyr bind the double-album reach of 2017’s The Tower into a tighter sequence of hymns and blowouts, a focused composition and hard-turn theater of guitar-mountain themes, acid-choir interludes and Mellotron glaze that makes even the 21-minute title track feel an epic in your pocket — taut, full and to the point.
Ace of Cups, Ace of Cups (High Moon)
On February 26th, Ace of Cups, a band of spirited rock & roll women from San Francisco, promoted their self-titled debut album with their first-ever New York performance at Mercury Lounge — 50 years later than they deserved. Founded in 1967, named after a Tarot card representing new beginnings, but gone in frustration by 1972, the original quintet — guitarist Denise Kaufman, drummer Diane Vitalich, organist Marla Hunt, bassist Mary Gannon and guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson — were the Bay Area’s “All Lady Electric Band” as one of their vintage business cards put it: opening local shows for Jimi Hendrix, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Band; appearing as guest singers on albums by Mike Bloomfield and Jefferson Airplane. But Ace of Cups were never taken seriously enough in their own right, even on that enlightened scene, to get their own record deal and any traction out of the West Coast.
A 2003 anthology of demos and live tracks, It’s Bad For You But Buy It!, issued by Ace Records in the U.K., was some belated justice. Ace of Cups is a double album with nearly two dozen songs — some resurrected from the old set lists, others reflecting back on the events and people that shaped the band and its time — newly recorded by Kaufman, Simpson, Gannon and Vitalich. They are in robust vocal and playing form, and the result is true arrival: the bright, anthemic stubbornness of “Feel Good”; the crisp folk-rock in “Fantasy 1&4”; the garage-rock resistance of “Stones”; the a cappella salvation finale “Music,” showing off the group’s enduring bond in singing and more. Special guests include the Dead’s Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. But Ace of Cups — now all women of a certain vintage — hold their own in what they profess is an unfinished story. On the back of the album booklet, the four friends sit on a hill, facing the horizon and with these words above: “To Be Continued.”