Culling the Herd: Catching Up - Alabama Shakes, Alejandro Escovedo, The Allman Brothers, Amy Winehouse

As I pick this up again, I realize that, to maintain my A to Z approach, I have to go back and pick up some stuff.

Alabama Shakes, “Boys & Girls” – 5 stars.  Dig it.

I think I first heard Alabama Shakes on the Sound Opinions podcast, which is where I’ve found a bunch of really good stuff.  The hosts are…well, they’re rock critics, so sometimes they take it all too seriously, but they also just love music, and it shows.  They brought Alabama Shakes in to their studio for an interview and live session, and before they started playing the guys started referencing Janis Joplin and noting that the band members are all under 25.  "Great," I thought, "ironic hipster posing."  Was I ever wrong, proving once again that it doesn't hurt to, you know, actually listen to the music.  To my surprise and shame, I kinda like Katy Perry.  Same thing. 

Anyway, the first song - "Hold On" - immediately grabbed me, and I bought the album before the interview was over.  I have no idea what the specific references are (blues has never been much of my thing), but there's a serious, honest grit, bluesy and funky, and they sound like they've been playing together for twenty years.  "Hold On" is the high point, but there are half a dozen other terrific songs ("Rise To The Sun" has gotten the high praise of me hitting 'repeat' on my iPhone, as has "Be Mine").  Just a fabulous record.  Buy it.

Alejandro Escovedo, "Big Station" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

I don't know if I've written this before, but Los Lobos is one of my two favorite bands ever.  REM's high points were probably a bit higher, but for a shorter period (if 20 years can be considered "short" in rock and roll), and Los Lobos has been putting out spectacular records for almost 30 years, going back to "Will The Wolf Survive?" in 1984 (by the way, sweet Christ but I'm old).  My love of Los Lobos has taken me down some unexpected paths, one of which is Mexican / Latin music.  I have absolutely no idea what half the lyrics mean, but something grabs me when I hear it.  A post for another day.

My Aunt Diana is latino, and somehow during a long-ago family party we started talking music (Diana is something of a pop culture freak like me) and Los Lobos came up.  Now, when I post something Los Lobos-related to facebook she immediately reminds me that I have to work on my...um...cumia?  I'm so sorry to say that I've forgotten what it's called.  The falsetto "ah, ha-ha-ha!" trill that you hear in some Mexican music.  Diana is great.

All of which has almost nothing to do with Alejandro Escovedo, except this:  last summer Los Lobos toured (which they happily do, constantly) with Los Lonely Boys and one Alejandro Escovedo.  I think I'd heard the name, but knew nothing more than that.  When I posted that I wanted to see them, Diana reminded me that I definitely needed to practice my...cumia?...which made think that Escovedo would be pretty latin-ey.  Man, was that wrong.  Turns out, it's a straight-ahead alt-country / indie rock record (an aside, the genre and sound of his voice made me think he's in his mid-thirties.  Nice try, champ - he's 62).  A fantastic one, front to back - it just drives and drives and drives.  Think Lyle Lovett songwriting with a musical edge.

To my regret, I eventually missed that Los Lobos / Los Lonely Boys / Escovedo show, and I'm not sure why.  I will definitely not miss him the next time he comes around, though.  Good stuff.

The Allman Brothers, "Jessica" - 5 stars.  Dig it.

We subscribed to Newsweek when I was a kid.  The way I remember it, my mom got to read it first, then my dad, then me, then everyone else.  I vividly remember getting one issue that my mom had redacted, cutting out a photo in the 'Newsmakers' page of celebrity news and such.  As you might expect, this absolutely obsessed me.  What could I be missing?  Mom had no idea how resourceful a 12-year-old could be when he's chasing something forbidden, and this was a really a simple problem, solved by...going to the library, which I constantly did anyway.  The photo turned out to be this one:

Pretty tame, obviously - not sure why mom was so nervous about it, especially when I remember seeing another photo on the same page of a different issue of Newsweek in which I could actually see...a nipple.  Sort of.  Possibly.  But when you were 12 in 1977 that was a Big.  Deal.  That I can remember the photo above (and I do, in pretty remarkable detail) is proof of that.  But I digress...in any case, I think that photo was my first exposure to Gregg Allman or his Brothers.  Gregg popped up again, briefly, in the late 80s (?) with "I'm No Angel," which is a pretty good song that John used to play at parties.  But they fell from my consciousness for another 20 years.

They Might Be Giants did a song called "Jessica" on one of their EPs (as a side B to "Why Does The Sun Shine?"), and I loved it...I knew I recognized it, but didn't know what it was.  A quick google search later, and suddenly Cher and Gregg Allman are groping each other in Newsweek.  The internet is neat.

The original version here is pretty great - classic southern boogie, goes on too long.  A definite keeper.

Amy Winehouse, "Frank" - 4 stars.  Dig it.

I love "Back to Black," so I went back to Amy's debut album, recorded about three years earlier, and it's also terrific.  The songwriting is very similar, and Winehouse's voice is sharper and fresher; the mileage she'd put on between the two recordings is remarkable when you listen to them back to back.  It's also less R&B and more jazzy - she used Sharon Jones' backing band The Dap Kings for "Back To Black", and it shows.   Her voice is front and center, and what a voice it was.  So sad.