A new year, a new band of Brits who arrive from their hype-happy homeland burdened with impossible expectations. Already declared "a poet, a genius," by the New Musical Express, Glasvegas singer James Allan sings in a thick Scottish burr, fighting through a sonic maelstrom that conjures Phil Spector by way of the Jesus and Mary Chain to put forth tales of working-class struggle.
When it works, it really works. "Daddy's Gone" is a cataclysmically earnest cry of pain directed at an absent father. And despite its gimmicky ending - the loving voice telling the singer "when you're standing on the window ledge, I'll talk you back from the edge" - turns out to belong to a social worker - "Geraldine" makes the most of its heart-tugging pathos. But Allan is wont to wallow in his woes, and on songs like "S.A.D. Light" and "Ice Cream Van" catchy choruses don't arrive with enough of a kick to nudge the music out of its slough of despond.
THE DEREK TRUCKS BAND 'Already Free'
Whether in grueling riffs or effortless glides with his trusty slide guitar, Derek Trucks - at age 29 - is a six-string Jackson Pollock who won't eschew emotion in his quest for artistic dignity. Already Free is his best album yet. The blues get bluer. Jazz finds a spiritualism last heard on latter-day Coltrane albums. And Southern rock takes on the epic grace that the late great Duane Allman lent it when he and Derek's uncle, drummer Butch Trucks, started with the Allman Brothers. A sweeping, swampy take on Dylan and the Band's "Down in the Flood" is a centerpiece. Yet Trucks and company (including his crooning wife, Susan Tedeschi, and singer-guitarist Doyle Bramhall II) also show they understand the complexities of soul. The Eastern Indian-inspired "Maybe This Time" and the riff-heavy "Our Love" are the album's most poignant tracks - crunchy, subtle, filled with Bramhall's richly appointed vocals and Trucks' dense licks. Exquisite.
ROKIA TRAORE 'Tchamantche'
Ali Farka Toure's shadow looms large in Malian music, and Rokia Traore has obviously absorbed the master's patient and droning blues, even though as a daughter of a diplomat she spent time in Europe and the Middle East in her youth. She's no purist or traditionalist: The stripped-down arrangements behind her intimate, pure voice balance African and Western instrumentation (the n'goni, a West African lute; a Gretsch guitar).
"Tchamantche," her fourth solo album, is entrancing and beautiful. "Kounandi" is a delicate web of acoustic guitar and classical harp through which Traore weaves her softly insistent vocals. She adds a bit of grit and growl to the electric "Tounka," but "Tchamantche" is primarily gorgeous and hypnotic, including "The Man I Love" (the only non-original and only English-language song), her nod to another master, Billie Holiday. Traore honors her elders, but she is not confined by them.
LOU REED'S METAL MACHINE TRIO 'The Creation of the Universe'
Sister Ray Recordings
Clueless consumer beware: this new Lou comprises two successive October ?8 nights of improv performance in Los Angeles, with Reed on "guitars and electrics," Ulrich Krieger on tenor sax and "live-electronics," and Sarth Calhoun contributing "live processing and continuum fingerboard."
Live albums have long been a habit with Lou Reed. Many got their first taste of the former Velvet Undergrounder's tuneful tales of bohemian debauchery with the widespread FM airplay of his 1974 arena-rock disc "Rock N Roll Animal." Two months ago, Reed released "Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse," along with a Julian Schnabel-directed DVD. On "Creation," Reed indulges his ax-love, sometimes subtly, sometimes riffing with saxist Krieger. "Creation of the Universe" is immaculately recorded, almost entirely instrumental, mostly rock-toned atmospherics and free-jazz rage - and pretty freakin' awesome.
OTIS GIBBS 'Grandpa Walked a Picket Line'
The title of Otis Gibbs' new album comes from the song "Everyday People," which tells you right away that this is a troubadour with a populist bent. Throughout the set, however, Gibbs wraps his empathy for the common man and the marginalized in sharp storytelling full of flesh-and-blood characters. Gibbs, now based in Nashville, writes of abused wives, lonely truckers, hobo jungles - he's been there - and people just trying to grapple with faith of any kind ("It's hard to believe what you don't know," he laments on "Damn Me"). Helping to bring these songs to life are producer Chris Stamey and ace players such as Don Dixon, Will Rigby and Al Perkins, who support Gibbs' assertive delivery with crisp folk and country accompaniment.
CHARLIE HADEN FAMILY AND FRIENDS 'Rambling Boy'
This is one from 2008 that we didn't get to, but it deserves a mention before the year recedes too far into the past.
Charlie Haden made his name as a jazz bassist, but his musical career began in country music in the 1930s, when he started performing at age 2 with his parents and siblings. In an effort to re-create that Haden Family experience, Haden revisits folk and country chestnuts with his wife, Ruth Cameron, and his four children and son-in-law. Nepotism is not an issue - all the family members are first-rate. But it's the "friends" he recruits that makes this especially noteworthy: They include Pat Metheny, Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, and even actor Jack Black who does a spirited turn on "Old Joe Clark."
The philadelphia enquirer