(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Johnnie Taylor: Live at the Summit Club (Stax)—Circa 1972, and, like Solomon Burke’s Soul Alive, the songs showcase the patter and not the other way around.
Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns (Stax)--Those wanting a document of Carla Thomas onstage should check out disc three of the recently released Wattstax soundtrack. Recorded five years after this Washington, D.C. club show, her Wattstax set includes good versions of this album’s two best songs (“Gee Whiz [Look At His Eyes],“ “B-A-B-Y”) and excludes this album’s padding: eight minutes of lame patter and twelve minutes of equally lame music by Carla’s father Rufus. Wattstax also finds her rising to the challenge of revving up a football stadium. Here she demonstrates to an apparently small and definitely subdued crowd her jazzy show-tune chops, which aren’t bad but are nothing that would’ve had Lena Horne, Lola Falana, or Eartha Kitt looking over their shoulders. Rating: Two-and-a-half zip-a-dee-doo-dahs out of five.
Carla Thomas: The Queen Alone (Stax)--Until now I didn’t know her for anything besides “Gee Whiz” and “B-A-B-Y,” but more there definitely was, including a buoyant “Any Day Now” to rival Chuck Jackson’s heavier one. Rating: Three-and-a-half volts out of five.
Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (Rounder)--Linda Thompson is one of the greatest singers to emerge from the British folk scene of the late ’60s, and, thanks to this attractively stark album, fans as young as her son Teddy (versions of whose acoustic-guitar instrumental “Stay Bright” begin and end the disc) won’t have to locate her old recordings for proof. Despite suffering (and repeatedly recovering) from a vocal disorder that has occasionally silenced her during the last twenty years years, she still possesses a voice that‘s as sad and beautiful (in that order) as the one she had when she was stealing the show on albums with her top-billed ex-husband Richard. And if “Do Your Best for Rock ’N Roll” (weird honky-tonk gospel, sort of) and Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan’s “Day After Tomorrow” (yep, war is still bad) clash with the romantic melancholy of the rest, the rest, which range from hauntingly pretty to quietly stunning, more than compensate. Highest point: the traditional folk song “Katy Cruel.” Second-highest: “Blue & Gold” and “Whisky, Bob Copper and Me,” songs that sound traditional but that Thompson wrote or co-wrote herself. Rating: Four overcast vistas out of five.
The Traveling Wilburys: The Traveling Wilburys (Rhino/WEA)--Four rare or previously unreleased tracks, five videos (though not “Nobody‘s Child“), and (in the “limited-edition deluxe edition”) a 40-page book join the two original albums, which have been unavailable for over a decade. Album two (Volume 3) was jolly good fun; album one (Volume 1) was that and more--namely, Bob Dylan’s and Jeff Lynne’s best record of the ’80s and Roy Orbison’s, Tom Petty’s, and George Harrison’s best record ever (well, not counting Harrison’s Beatles records, of course). Rating: Five cool dry places out of five.
Randy Travis: Songs of the Season (Word/Curb)--The babies born during the year that Travis released his last Christmas album are now old enough to vote, so it’s not as if the finest male country singer since Merle, George, and Willie hasn’t had time to plan this follow-up. Still, it feels haphazard: some carols, some shopping-mall favorites, some stripped-down Texas swing, some moderately deployed string ensembles. What saves it is what has saved Travis since the mid-’90s: religion. The contemporary cover “Labor of Love” and his own “Our King” reverberate with quiet conviction. Rating: Five swans a swimming out of seven.
Trio Mediaeval: Folk Songs (ECM)--Twenty mostly traditional Norwegian ballads, Christian hymns, and lullabies arranged for a cappella female trio and occasional primitive percussion, and, no, you don’t know any of them. And, chances are, even if you did, the vibrato-free voices of Anna Marie Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Ostrem Ossum blending in an Austrian monastery would have you marveling afresh at the otherworldly power of the performances. Rating: Four-and-a-half virgin springs out of five.
Frankie Valli: Romancing the ’60s (Motown)--Forget Barry Manilow; this seventy-something singer with the eternally youthful pipes is the way to re-hear these songs if re-hear them one must (“Take Good Care of My Baby,” “On Broadway”).
Ralph van Raat: John Adams: Complete Piano Music (Naxos)--Although inspired by minimalism’s first wave, Adams has been intent from the beginning on blending form and content in such a way as to avoid the latter’s being all that anyone noticed. So while these four compositions spanning 1977 to 2001 employ minimalism’s trademark repetition and utilize the piano more as a percussive than a melodic instrument, they also convey strong, often intense, emotion, thus serving not only as a kind of missing link between nineteenth-century romanticism and the twentieth-century avant garde but also resisting merely hypnotic effects in favor of more kaleidoscopic ones. Pianist van Raat’s liner notes describe “American Berserk” as “fractured boogie-woogie,“ and, sure enough, it sounds like what a player piano might give out if fed conventional piano rolls doctored by William S. Burroughs. My favorite piece, though, is the luminously locomotive “Hallelujah Junction,” which, as a composition for two pianos, makes up in some ways the album’s least minimal sixteen minutes. Named after a real-life truck stop, it suggests as much “hallelujah” as “junction,“ making it an exhilarating soundtrack for driving off into the sunset. Rating: Four final frontiers out of five.
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Friends: Solos, Sessions & Encores (Epic/Legacy)--The electric roots mish-mash to end all electric roots mish-mashes (“Pipeline” with Dick Dale, “Oreo Cookie Blues” with Lonnie Mack).