This Week in Music, April 2, 2013: The Band Perry makes The Album Killer

The Band Perry: Pioneer

New release (Republic Nashville; tour dates)
Photo by Robby Klein

Sophomore slump? Not here. As soon as the banjo on the opening track, “Better Dig Two,” makes room for some choice electric-guitar power chords before the two instruments dance together, it’s clear that The Band Perry has lost none of its charm or chops.

If you’re not smitten in those first 3 minutes, no problem: The follow-up song (and follow-up single), “DONE.,” ropes you in from the instant it launches with an adamant acoustic guitar and Kimberly Perry’s “Hoo!,” leading to delicious harmonies on the chorus and a delirious harmonica solo on the break. From there, Pioneer eases down to the ballad “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” and then to the title track, which builds skillfully from intimacy to determination until coming in for a soft landing. And from there, “Forever Mine Nevermind” takes its opening a cappella singalong lines and ultimately fuses them in a giddy tandem with a snaky guitar figure, leaving you breathless. But hold on, the next song —

Well, I could go on and on, track by track. This album is that good. It’s country that knows how to flex. It’s rock that knows how to think. A band aiming for such even duality needs a producer who has lived and played in both worlds. Enter expert Dann Huff, previously associated with everyone from Megadeth to Taylor Swift. Somewhat miraculously, he’s able to give Pioneer a modern, knockout sound while nodding to the Perry trio’s roots in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.

Throughout, Kimberly nails her vocals with authority, and brothers/harmonists Reid (on bass) and Neil (whatchagot?) help fill the tracks until they’re brimming with musicality. Some of the album’s later hooks are slightly less superduper than the earlier ones, but really, that quibble’s a trifle — especially when, near the end, there’s “Back to Me Without You.” The song is a misty-eyed heart-tugger all by itself, but then the band accelerates for a grandly sweeping final chorus that (Warning!) may leave you completely, happily broken down.

“I’m a keeper,” Kimberly sings at one point. That she is, and so is Pioneer.

The Black Angels: Indigo Meadow

New release (Blue Horizon; tour dates)
Photo by Courtney Chavanell

Agonizing over the debate on the Second Amendment? For the Black Angels, the mantra is simple: “Don’t Play with Guns.” That song, written before Aurora and Newtown, offsets the innocence of its lyrics with a sound that may seem too grungy — as in the grunge of the Nineties — for a neopsychedelic band with eyes and ears on the Sixties. But these guys (and one gal) are actually all over the place, from the comparatively mellow meditation of “Holland” to the near-Sabbath riff of “Evil Things.”

Still, they do love their drone machines and Ping-Pong stereo effects, and producer/mixer John Congleton allows the Angels to keep their shimmery, lo-fi attitude. Yet Indigo Meadow is more focused than its predecessor, 2010’s Phosphorescent Dream. Partly, that’s due to the band’s occasional fondness for the more stripped-down garage rock of the early Sixties, best heard on “The Day” and “Broken Soldier.” Back in the psych, however, the guitar-picked contemplations of tracks like “Love Me Forever” and “Always Maybe” have been handled with greater imagination by, say, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, whose material usually sounded more original than borrowed.

And that’s the trouble with the Black Angels: Their music is a nifty pose but, often, little more. Best to shrug that off and dig the best stuff here: the “She’s a Rainbow” sequel “I Hear Colors (Chromaesthesia)” and the stealth vibrations of “Black Isn’t Black.”

Beth Hart: Bang Bang Boom Boom

New release in U.S. (Provogue/Mascot; tour dates)
Photo by Jeff Katz

Some years ago, I was driving on a long stretch of highway in New England, listening to WXRV The River out of Andover, Massachusetts, and up popped a hot live track by Beth Hart. Ah yes . . . Beth Hart, the singer who was born in L.A. but sounded like she had bolted out of a roadhouse on the Texas/Louisiana border. Whatever happened to her?

Well, more than a decade ago, on the cusp of major-label stardom, it seems that everything bad happened to her. Some of it was her own fault (drug and alcohol abuse), some of it wasn’t (an undiagnosed bipolar condition). Since then, Hart has gotten help and cleaned up. Result: nothing less than a rebirth, in the form of Bang Bang Boom Boom, released in Europe late last year but only now available Stateside.

Thing is, it isn’t the shout-it-out-loud affair you might expect. Even though Hart still brings her potent voice, and even though the producer/mixer here is Kevin Shirley (rarely known for having a light touch), the album is remarkable for its balance of power and restraint. So the thing I love about a track like “Baddest Blues” is how, eventually, the hard rock takes over but never obliterates. Elsewhere, Hart mines a soul/gospel vein without ever overworking it (“Spirit of God”) and also manages to dig deep for a yearning ballad (“Thru the Window of My Mind”).

It doesn’t hurt to have a passel of pros behind her, including drummer Anton Fig. Guitarist Randy Flowers is right in line with the just-enough-fire approach, especially with his solos for “Caught Out in the Rain.” But the main draw overall is Hart’s material; she wrote six of the tracks herself and co-wrote the rest, and they all come together on an album that can just as effortlessly be bold (“Swing My Thing Back Around”) or sly (the title track). My single favorite moment, however, is in “Everything Must Change.” After the second verse, the track builds, and you expect Hart and the band to blast it through the roof. But instead, everything drops out for a lone piano, as Hart sings plaintively, “I just want to go / I just want to go, go outside and run.” Power and restraint. Then it’s on to the third verse and a perfect, subtle finish.

The original album ended there, too, and I would’ve preferred it to remain that way. Still, most listeners will have a hard time arguing with the inclusion of a certain bonus track for the U.S. edition: the blues classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” in a live performance honoring Buddy Guy at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. Yes, that was Hart with Jeff Beck, both of whom, fittingly enough for this album, stretched out but never went too far.

The press release for Bang Bang Boom Boom refers to Hart’s “ongoing comeback.” Consider it done.

John Murry: The Graceless Age

New release in U.S. (Evangeline; tour dates)
Photo by Amoreena Berg

Like Beth Hart above, John Murry is an American whose current album was released overseas in 2012 before getting a domestic release today. Also like Hart, Murry once had drug troubles; to be frank, he overdosed on heroin and almost died. But very unlike Beth, John revisits his darkest moments to exorcise them, bluntly — as in “Little Colored Balloons,” the 10-minute piano-dirge account of his mindset leading to that O.D. It includes this harrowing crescendo:

I held my hands out
Blood-stained, and I’ve got my doubts

I tried to wash it off
Yeah, I tried to wash it off
Red as Southern clay
Blood-red as Mississippi clay
And yes, it still remains
Goddamn it if it still remains
Where is Pilate’s water?
Tell me, where is Pilate’s water?

For Murry, it was indeed an age without grace, and the depth of his resonant, Tupelo-bred voice emphasizes the seriousness of his subject matter. Yet he and we are able to come out the other side. Five tracks in, the catharsis is musical, too, when “Things We Lost in the Fire” changes from its acoustic-guitar setting to a full-band electric march — a jolt on an album that, until then, had mostly understated instrumentation. Encouraged by that breakthrough, tracks like “Southern Sky” and “Penny Nails” sport tuneful choruses that hint at a new age.

Born in the shadows but struggling for the light, the album closes with the solo-piano prayer of “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” the song that fellow Southerner Bobby Whitlock provided as the capper for Layla and that, no doubt, has been reassigned here to Murry’s wife. If, after being estranged from her and hitting bottom, Murry can find a way to reconcile with her (true story), then there’s hope for us all.

Petula Clark: Lost in You

New release (The End)
Photo by Julien Scussell

Reality check: Petula Clark is 80 years old. Of course, “Downtown” is timeless. (That innovative 1964 smash was written by its producer, the unheralded Tony Hatch, who would also compose and helm the likes of “I Know a Place” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway.”) This album has a few recent tracks, such as “Cut Copy Me,” taken from Petula (released last year in Europe). Then there’s a range of cover versions from Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Also included: John Lennon’s “Imagine” and, in the words of the press release, “a whole re-imagining” of “Downtown” itself.

Various Artists: The Music Is You — A Tribute to John Denver

New release (ATO)

It’s hip to be square! Or, to put it another way, it’s cool to cover John Denver, according to My Morning Jacket (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”), Dave Matthews (“Take Me to Tomorrow”), Train (“Sunshine on My Shoulders”), Lucinda Williams (“This Old Guitar”), Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris (“Take Me Home, Country Roads”), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (“Wooden Indian”), and many more. By golly, even J Mascis is here (teaming up with Sharon Van Etten for “Prisoners”). J and John: You can’t make this stuff up.

Mad Season: Above

Reissue (Columbia/Legacy)
Photo by Lance Mercer

It was the fall of 1994, and depending on your perspective, the classic period of Seattle’s grunge scene was at its height (after the March release of Soundgarden’s Superunknown) or had hit rock bottom (following the April suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain). That fall and into the winter, three members of major grunge bands — Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready, Alice in Chains lead vocalist Layne Staley, and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin — holed up with bassist John Baker Saunders to record as the side project Mad Season. The album they made, released in 1995 as Above, would be their only one. It has since become something of a cult classic, enough to warrant this 2-CD + 1-DVD Deluxe Edition.

The first CD begins with a remaster of the original album, and from the start of the leadoff track, “Wake Up,” it’s clear that this wasn’t your ordinary “supergroup.” A long, slow, smoldering, ultimately never-changing bass line pulls you in; not until the 4-minute mark does McCready take a solo. Martin, in his quite personal liner notes for the reissue booklet, explains it this way: “In hindsight, I think Mad Season was one of the heaviest blues bands to ever come out of Seattle.”

Still, you don’t really hear the true blues until Track 5, “Artificial Red.” And contrary to Martin’s generalization, there’s a lot more happening on this album, from the tribal-drum elements of “X-Ray Mind” and “November Hotel” to the macabre campfire trance of “Long Gone Day.” In one corner, you get a ballad with a light touch (“River of Deceit”). In other corners, you get liberal doses of hard rock, whether inspired by Led Zeppelin’s debut (“I’m Above”) or aligned with the modern version being perfected at the time by Soundgarden (“Lifeless Dead,” “I Don’t Know Anything”).

Throughout, Staley’s lyrics speak the mind of a troubled young man who would eventually die from a drug overdose (as would Saunders). Some of his lines are plain and simple, such as “The only direction we flow is down” and “Lord, it’s a storm, and I’m heading to fall.” Others are more artful: “How he’d wished that they would wed / ‘I promise on our love,’ she said / Promises were never kept / Alone on dirty floor he slept.”

That first disc is extended to a nearly 80-minute playing time by the addition of five bonus tracks. “Interlude” may be just an unissued snippet of acoustic guitar from the original sessions, and the cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier” may be on loan from the Working Class Hero tribute album (in a new remix that isn’t particularly revelatory). But the other three tracks are ear-openers: The music is from recordings for a second album that was left unfinished, and whereas “Locomotive” shows the band taking one more (vivid) look back at grunge, both “Black Book of Fear” (co-written with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) and “Slip Away” reveal a rapidly developing maturity.

Meanwhile, because Staley never contributed lyrics or vocals for those three songs, survivors McCready and Martin asked Mark Lanegan to fill the bills last year. (Lanegan, also of Screaming Trees, had guested on Above.) He’s a perfect match for the material, and some of his lyrics effectively echo those of his predecessor. Staley: “My pain is self-chosen.” Lanegan: “Your self-chosen cure is your self-chosen pain.” Staley: “Slow suicide’s no way to go.” Lanegan: “No time to ride on the back of a beast such as suicide.”

Original producer/mixer Brett Eliason has overseen the reissue with McCready and Martin. And thanks to legendary remastering engineer Joe Gastwirt, Above and its bonuses have a rousing sound, with a deep resonance to the bass and a natural punch to the drums.

But wait, there’s Moore: Live at the Moore, the 1995 VHS release, now re-edited by director Duncan Sharp, remixed in 5.1, and transferred to this set’s DVD. Also shown: a complete gig from New Year’s Eve 1995, the video for “River of Deceit,” and other visual extras. And the compilation’s second CD offers, for the first time, the entire Moore concert, with all 11 tracks in their proper set-list order.

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: 50th Anniversary, The Singles Collection, 1962–1972

Archival release (Motown Select)

On the first two discs of this three-CD set, you get every A- and B-side. Among the classics: “Heat Wave,” “Dancing in the Street,” “Nowhere to Run,” and “Jimmy Mack.” You can also hear “Jimmy” in Spanish and in a previously unreleased stereo version. Nearly 30 more unissued recordings fill the third disc, including six tracks originally helmed by Deke Richards, one of Motown’s influential writer/producers. He mixed the tracks exclusively for this set before his death last month.

The Four Tops: 50th Anniversary, The Singles Collection 1964–1972

Archival release (Motown Select)

The Four Tops get the same treatment as Martha’s crew above. Just some of the 16 No. 1 pop and R&B hits: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” Among the rarities: versions of “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Reach Out,” and “Walk Away Renée” in Italian (!) and 14 U.K.-only singles, which include five duets with the Supremes and one track, “Simple Game,” with backing by the Moody Blues.

Albert King: Born Under a Bad Sign

Reissue (Stax)
Photo by Phil Bray

It was Albert King’s first album for Stax, with backing from Booker T. and the MGs (and the Memphis Horns). Almost immediately upon release in 1967, it became a modern electric-blues landmark. This Stax Remasters Deluxe Edition includes previously unreleased alternate takes of four of its signature songs: “The Hunter,” “Crosscut Saw,” “Personal Manager,” and the title track. The fifth bonus is an untitled instrumental. Music historian Bill Dahl contributes new liner notes. King, who died in 1992 at the age of 69, will be posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18.

Rilo Kiley: RKives

Archival release (Little Record Company)

With Jenny Lewis out on her own, Rilo Kiley is no more. Hence, this dip into the vault, with 16 rarities that include B-sides and nine previously unreleased songs. Available in four formats: CD, vinyl (two LPs), FLAC, and 320-kbps MP3. There’s also a Deluxe Bundle, curated personally by the band, in which you get the CD, the double LP, a download, various physical extras (tote bag, poster, button, stickers), and a cassette tape with exclusive demos.

Chet Atkins & Les Paul: Guitar Monsters

Reissue (Real Gone)

This 1978 follow-up to 1976’s Grammy-winning Chester & Lester has guitarists Chet Atkins and Les Paul sparring on numbers like “Over the Rainbow,” “Lazy River,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation.” No bonus tracks, but Chris Morris provides new liner notes, and the album has been freshly remastered for its first stand-alone appearance on CD.

Also out today from Real Gone, together on one disc: 1966’s The Pops Goes Country and 1968’s The Pops Goes West, from Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops, with Atkins joining them on Country.