Willie Nelson still delivering the goods at 80
‘To All the Girls'
Willie Nelson (Legacy)
I suppose 80 is the new 50. Or maybe even the new 35 ... or even 25. At least for legendary country crooner Willie Nelson, who is marking his 80th year by releasing three new albums in just 16 months. “To All the Girls” finds Nelson teaming up with 18 top female artists for a duets album of country, pop and gospel tunes. Nelson's distinctive voice hasn't weakened at all, and he delivers the goods on keepers with Dolly Parton (“From Here to the Moon and Back”), Miranda Lambert (“She Was No Good for Me”), Sheryl Crow (“Far Away Places”), Carrie Underwood (“Always on My Mind”), Loretta Lynn (“Somewhere Between”), Alison Krauss (“No Mas Amor”), Mavis Staples (“Grandma's Hands”), Norah Jones (“Walkin'”), Brandi Carlile (“Making Believe”) and Tina Rose (“After the Fire Is Gone”).
Steel Cranes (self-released)
Bay Area garage duo Steel Cranes deliver a blistering debut full-length in “Ouroboros,” a razor-sharp gathering of 10 tunes that showcases the prowess of Tracy Shapiro (guitar/vocals) and Amanda Schukle (drums). Steel Cranes have only been together a year but already earned comparisons to the likes of Hole and Sleater-Kinney. The album gets off to a fast start with “Anthem,” “Moving On” and “Have You Thought of Me,” and after momentum wanes slightly in the middle portion of the slab, Steel Cranes close things out with a flourish with “Boat Song,” “The One” and “Farewell.” These ladies have a bright future.
Andrew St. James (Island Jar/Fortune)
After several spins of his “Doldrums” debut, I find it hard to believe that Andrew St. James is just 18 years old. Because the emotional depth and resonance of this fantastic 11-track release belies his youth. The opening salvo of “Cassidy” and “Maybe It's Time for Me to Go” is jaw-droppingly good and St. James goes on to impress with “The Lost, the Vain,” “No Hurry (Subterfuge),” “East of Eden” and “I'm All About You.” As good as St. James is on “Doldrums,” you have to figure he's going to get better with more experience. What a wonderful thought.
Jazz-rock collective Kneebody continue their improvisational ways on fourth full-length “The Line,” a collection of 12 instrumentals that finds the guys getting their groove on. Clocking in at more than 57 minutes, “The Line” overstays its welcome by about a third, but standouts “Lowell,” “Trite,” “Sleeveless,” “Pushed Away” and “Work Hard, Play Hard, Towel Hard” should please most anyone who digs electric jazz.
‘The Man I Once Was'
Stewart Eastham (Long Bar)
Having fronted country-rock outfit Day of the Outlaw, singer/songwriter Stewart Eastham strikes out on his own for solo debut “The Man I Once Was.” Mixing in elements of classic country, Americana and some Southern rock, Eastham has crafted a thoroughly enjoyable 14-track release. Opener “Let It Go” is the best of a very good bunch, but the Northern California native also impresses on “Born in California,” “Broken Hearted Lovers,” “The Lights of Tennessee,” “Crawl Up in Your Bottle” and the set-closing title track. Highly recommended.
Allen Toussaint (Rounder)
Recorded over two nights in 2009 at Joe's Pub in New York City, New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint positively shines on “Songbook.” This CD/DVD package includes 25 songs and a 90-minute DVD that includes performance footage and an extensive interview with the living legend. Toussaint is the consummate professional, bantering with the audience and tickling the piano ivories like only he can. Among the many highlights of “Songbook” are “Lipstick Traces,” “Brickyard Blues,” “Who's Gonna Help a Brother Get Further,” “Sweet Touch of Love,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Soul Sister,” “All These Things” and a 13-minute rendition of “Southern Nights.”
Migrant Kids (self-released)
The brainchild of cousins Miguel Ojeda and John Zaokoor, Texas-based trio Migrant Kids deliver an ambitious self-titled debut. Filled with swirling synthesizers and atmospheric vocals, the nine-track album makes for a pretty compelling listen. Opener, the aptly titled “Act I,” sets the tone, and the Kids are on point with “Eyes Removed,” “Lucktear,” “Canvas of Me” and “Blanco.” I look forward to hearing more from these guys.
‘And So We Destroyed Everything'
Instrumental post-rock foursome Sleepmakeswaves took their native Australia by storm with the 2011 release of their “And So We Destroyed Everything” debut and are hoping to make a similar dent in America with the record's stateside release. Though not a big fan of instrumental rock, I found myself getting swept away by tunes like “To You They Are Birds, to Me They Are Voices in the Street,” “Our Time is Short But Your Watch is Slow,” “Now We Rise and We Are Everywhere” and the title track. Good stuff.
Be advised that “Grin,” the debut album from British trio TRAAMS, isn't going to appeal to all (or even most) listeners. It's a rough, raw gathering of 11 tunes that features lots of loud songs and the polarizing vocals of frontman Stu Hopkins. But if you buy what these guys are selling, “Grin” may well put a smile on your face. Personal favorite “Swimming Pool” kicks off the album, and “Flowers,” “Head Roll,” “Sleep,” the title track and “Loose” are almost as good. Why not give these lads a shot?
Kelley Stoltz (Third Man)
Veteran indie rocker Kelley Stoltz hasn't been heard from since 2010's well-received “To Dreamers,” but he's been busy. He's spent time converting his garage into a studio and recorded latest slab “Double Exposure” there. Fans of Stoltz's lo-fi approach to making garage rock should enjoy this 10-track release. He knocks any rust off right away with “Storms” and “Are You My Love” and later impresses with the title track and “Kim Chee.” Welcome back.
The Slims (self-released)
Truth be told, I wasn't crazy about “Slowpoke,” the aptly titled sophomore effort from Florida soul/pop duo the Slims, the first time I gave it a spin. And the second time through was only a little better. But by the third time through the nine-track release from Travis Atria and Collin Whitlock, I found myself warming to this groovy collection of slow jams. Opener “Only a Part, Not the Whole” establishes the mellow tone, and the Slims also score with “She's Talking a Blue Streak Now, Jack,” “Hymnal” and “Tastemaker.” So turn the lights down low, crack open a bottle of wine and have a go with “Slowpoke.”
Lizzie Davis (self-released)
Two-plus years after turning heads as a 17-year-old with her self-titled debut album (under full name Elizabeth Davis), singer/songwriter Lizzie Davis returns with an even better followup in “Latitudes.” With a distinctive — and ear-pleasing — voice, and some wise-beyond-her-years songwriting chops, Davis knocks it out of the park on this 12-track indie pop gem. You won't find a bad song in the bunch, and Davis shines especially bright on “Geography,” “On My Mind,” “Broken Things,” the title track, “All About the Weather,” “Summer Days” and “Reason.” The sky's the limit for this remarkable young artist.
Into It. Over It. (Triple Crown)
Singer/songwriter Evan Weiss is no stranger to making high-concept albums under the Into It. Over It. moniker. His 2009 double CD “52 Weeks” featured one tune for every week of the year, and 2011's “Twelve Towns” had each track named after a different city. “Intersections” started as another concept album, with each song centering around a different intersection in Chicago, but evolved into something more. Now the intersections in question are those in Weiss' life, and he delivers the goods on “A Curse Worth Believing,” “The Shaking of Leaves,” “Upstate Blues,” “A Pair of Matching Taxi Rides” and “Contractual Obligation.” This one's a keeper.
‘Heart of Nowhere'
Noah & the Whale (Caroline)
Charlie Fink, the frontman for British indie outfit Noah & the Whale, is one of my favorite vocalists. He anchored the band's first three albums — each a little better than the one that preceded it — and continues to steal the show on fantastic fourth full-length “Heart of Nowhere.” After a middling instrumental “Introduction,” Noah & the Whale hit their stride with “Heart of Nowhere” (featuring Anna Calvi) and don't miss a beat the rest of the way. It's a fantastic 10-track effort that features a boatload of highlights in “All Through the Night,” “One More Night,” “There Will Come a Time,” “Now Is Exactly the Time” and “Not Too Late.”
Yuppies (Dull Tools)
I'm guessing that the self-titled debut from indie rock four-piece Yuppies will alienate almost as many listeners as it enthralls. If not more. The 11-track release is not easy to get through — even with its 36-minute running time — because the songs are abrasive, seemingly lacking in structure, and occasionally devoid of a discernible melody. Yet amid all the chaos are a few genuine nuggets (“A Ride,” “Right Now,” “Hitchin' a Ride”) that merit some attention. Go figure.
‘In Our Keystone State'
Southside American (Wednesday)
Kudos to Pittsburgh singer/songwriter Benjamin Sweet. Recording under the Southside American moniker, Sweet has crafted one of the year's more promising debuts in six-track EP “In Our Keystone State.” Mixing elements of indie rock, folk and Americana, Sweet has delivered a record that should have widespread appeal. “Godspeed” gets things off to a terrific start, and Southside American keep the momentum going with “In the Dust,” “Ocean Deep,” “Lip Curl Smile” and “Angel of the Night.” This kid is doing his hometown proud.
Echo Base (self-released)
Florida punk duo Echo Base opened eyes with their “Keep Your Expectations Reasonable” EP and build on that solid foundation with “Some Legacy,” their full-length debut. The songs are rough around the edges, yet consistently endearing as Echo Base impress with “Better Demos,” “Have You Had a Nu-Castle Brown Ale,” “Pool Time With Scott,” “McCloud?!” and “Never Tell Me the Odds.” They remind a little of the Front Bottoms, which is high praise indeed.
The brainchild of sisters Marika (vocals) and Miro (drums) Justad, indie pop quartet Tangerine seem on the verge of something special with the release of sophomore EP “Radical Blossom.” Utilizing four-part harmonies and catchy melodies, Tangerine serve up four tasty tunes in personal favorite “Feel This Way,” “Hanford Riviera,” “Mars” and “The Runner.” After almost a decade of name (the Neons, the Sutures) and lineup changes, Tangerine may have at long last found their calling.
‘Joy of Nothing'
Foy Vance (Glassnote)
Born in Northern Ireland and raised in Oklahoma, singer/songwriter Foy Vance utilizes his eclectic upbringing when making music. Sophomore solo effort “Joy of Nothing” (the long-awaited followup to 2007's “Hope”) gets a boost from guest appearances by Ed Sheeran (“Guiding Light”) and Bonnie Raitt (“You and I”), but it's clear that Vance is the real deal. The opening tandem of “Closed Hand, Full of Friends” and the title track is fantastic, and Vance also scores with “Feel for Me” and “It Was Good.” Kudos.