Priest Picks #14: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to week #14 of Priest Picks. We took last week off to take stock of our lives and guess what? We’re doing everything right! Still, we used our time off wisely all with you in mind. We’ve been spanning the globe looking for constant varieties of music. And some of the proceeds are detailed below for your listening pleasure. Please procure copies of each before I see you next. That's your only assignment.
1. HARRY BECKETT / Joy Unlimited
Say hello to your new favorite flugelhornist! The reissue of Harry Beckett’s Joy Unlimited is here and it lives up to its cult reputation as a lost jazz classic. Originally released in 1975, the title says it all—this is joyous jazz—full of life and energy and daring. If you like your jazz in the background with Sunday brunch, this isn’t the record for you. This is a main course, not a last second slice of quiche to go with your mimosa. The unbelievable opener, “No Time for Hello,” (clever) finds Beckett setting the tone with his horn early only to cede two mind-boggling minutes to amazing guitarist Ray Russell for an electric guitar solo that has got to be heard to be believed. “Glowing” lives up to its title and surely must’ve been used for the theme music of a Muppets game show back in the late-70s. If you’re waiting for unlimited joy, it has arrived on track two. “Bracelets of Sound” again brings Russell back for some spectacular soloing with able band linked together in unison behind him exchanging moments in the spotlight. Later, “Rings Within Rings” is another astonishing piece that brings together Caribbean vibes with African beats that’ll make your jaw drop. No wonder Beckett has been credited with influencing the new age of jazz currently all the rage in London. This is one record Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, and Moses Boyd clearly have in their record collections. It seems amazing now, but Harry was incorporating these rhythms into his jazz more than three decades prior to that distinguished group. Joy Unlimited is perfectly balanced, showcasing some amazing instrumental breaks with some positively infectious ensemble playing. If you’re looking for a sleeper record, this is it. To quote Wilson Pickett, I feel just like a baby boy on a Christmas morning with a brand new toy, I’m in love!
2. CHRIS LIGHTCAP / SuperBigmouth
While on the subject of jazz that incorporates rock guitar, let’s shift to present day, where it is still being done brilliantly by bassist Chris Lightcap and his band. Lightcap flew onto my radar back in 2015 with the release of Epicenter, where he was backed by his band Bigmouth. It was a killer session with an attractive 1960s Blue Note-styled album cover to match. If you slipped it in between a couple gems from the revered label's catalog, few would find it out of place. It was that good. That group featured a more traditional bass, piano, sax, and drums combo that grooved supremely while shifting gears every few minutes to keep you alert. Somehow, they managed to sound both classic and modern depending on the moment. A few years later came Superette, a record I somehow missed at the time. Superette featured Lightcap working with a brand new band (also named Superette) whose sole purpose was to create an all-electric jazz record with traditional rock instruments (bass, two guitars, and drums). In jazz particularly, it’s very common for bandleaders and players to juggle multiple creative outlets simultaneously, so Lightcap's adventurous spirit is appreciated. Perhaps Lightcap then asked himself "What now?" His answer was to combine both bands into one. So, in late 2019 we got SuperBigmouth, a hybrid of Superette and Bigmouth, and in the deal we now have two amazing guitarists, two drummers, two sax players, a pianist, and of course Lightcap’s everpresent double bass directing things compellingly forward. The album is an absolute thrill, too. Jazz die-hards will love it, of course, but if you’re a rock fan, there’s enough here to satisfy you as well. There are some spectacular electric guitar moments throughout, some serious drum interplay, and more than enough thrills from the horn section. Just check out the opening six-minutes, “Through Birds, Through Fire,” and you’ll see what I mean—Lightcap miraculously finds room for everybody in his new 9-piece band to strut their stuff. After that, just settle in and wonder how this great record slipped through the cracks last year. This is a great record and a perfect complement to Harry Beckett’s record up in the #1 spot today.
3. LORI MCKENNA / The Balladeer
Attention everyone! This is not the entry you want to skip this week. Here’s a record for every man, woman, and child with a properly functioning heart. If it were up to me, each home would be provided a copy of Lori McKenna's latest record with their new house keys. Lori would be one of those quintessential Nashville songwriters—the consummate professional—except she actually lives in Massachusetts. But if you’re a country artist, when Lori brings you a song you best give it serious consideration. She’s written her share of hits for the stars over the years (“Girl Crush” for Little Big Town, “Humble and Kind” for Tim McGraw, and many others). I’ve been a passing admirer of hers for some time, peaking on her last album from 2016, The Bird and the Rifle. That said, I don’t know if she’s ever put out as cohesive a record as The Balladeer before—perhaps the title is a tipoff as to why. She knows how to write a song that'll tap into your secret place. The place where you go to commune with your deepest desires and disappointments. The Balladeer is an absolute stunner. She’s so good people take her for granted, but if you’re looking for one record from this year that just about everyone will agree upon, you’ve just found it. I was initially drawn to it because of its old-style album cover art that wouldn’t be out of place in late-50s/early- 60s Nashville, but inside the flap is a set of songs that prove once and for all that the best person to sing her songs is, as luck would have it, Lori McKenna. Back in 2016, Lori gave us “If Whiskey Were a Woman,” which was almost a little too Nashvlle textbook for my taste, albeit perfect for country radio (if they really wanted to play songs by real women). Four years later, Lori takes the feminine angle again on “This Town Is a Woman,” a killer opener that sounds like it must be about Nashville, but could work for almost any town. Let’s just pin the lyrics up on the wall at the Bluebird Café and call it a day. But, as it turns out, the song isn’t even in my top five from the album. Perhaps the top song is “When You’re My Age,” a touching ballad from mother to child, hoping life doesn’t continue on its current path, “When you’re my age/I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now/ And I hope the front page isn’t just a reminder/Of how we keep letting each other down.” I don’t know when she wrote this one, but it couldn’t be more timely. Once it becomes a part of your life, I guarantee it will never leave. Then again, maybe my favorite song is “The Dream,” about a daughter meeting a long-passed grandfather she never met in this life. And I could carry the same theme for several more paragraphs, one for each song on my personal list. This is one beautiful album and it is not to be missed.
4. DEDICATED MEN OF ZION / Can’t Turn Me Around
As you may have gathered from this website’s name and motto, we’re not very religious. But there are few things as sweet as a southern gospel record to cleanse the soul and lift the spirits. You don’t have to follow a specific god or dogma to benefit from uplifting, celebratory music. I’ve always felt that there’s a small step between secular and non-secular music anyway. If it’s gospel you express love for a higher power, if it’s R&B you’re directing your attention to a person of sexual interest—just change a few words here and there and the job is done (just ask Al Green and Sam Cooke, two masters of the craft). What I love about gospel music is the passion and it appears the head of Fat Possum Records, Bruce Watson, feels the same way, so he created a new label, Bible & Tire, (Motto: “Retread Your Soul”) for that very purpose. When a person believes, really believes, deep down into the depths of their soul, there is nothing as convincing and moving as their prayers and pleas to a higher power. You can feel it in every molecule of your body. The south, in particular, worships with a very overt and enthusiastic zeal. In small shacks and makeshift churches all over the south, there’s some serious worshipping going down on the regular. If you stumbled into any one of those churches and came upon the Dedicated Men of Zion, you might just find your torn and battered soul enriched and possibly converted. I don’t care who you are—god fearing or atheist—spirituality can have redemptive powers. You do not need to accede to a higher power to search for inner healing. This is a record that will help you do just that. Just like Al Green who sings soul during the week and preaches on Sunday, just like Sam Cooke singing with the Soul Stirrers on the gospel circuit and later R&B in the Harlem Square Club, just like the Staples Singers in their home church on the southside of Chicago and later in their hit-making prime at Stax, this is a record capable of bringing joy into your heart on both fronts. Can’t Turn Me Around is grooving, rocking, powerful R&B music at its core that just happens to be directed to an almighty god. Guitars wail, horns blare, drums pound, and vocalists harmonize like their lives depend on it. If I’m going back to church someday, it’s either going to be at Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis or wherever the Dedicated Men of Zion are appearing next. If there’s an argument that a higher power exists, this may be it.
5. ARLO MCKINLEY / Die Midwestern & “Ghost of My Best Friend”
John Prine was a once-in-a-lifetime songwriter and that’s not even up for debate. He also had a great ear for talent and the music released this year from his Oh Boy record label is proof of that. Earlier this year, the label gave us Dan Reeder’s Every Which Way, an album of miniature songs with humor and heart that I always keep close at hand. Well, Oh Boy has struck again with Arlo McKinley’s new record, Die Midwestern. Prine’s only desire for his label was to find artists who write “good songs,” which is about the highest praise you could get from the always understated and humble songwriting legend. Arlo McKinley, a 40-year-old Cincinnati native, has delivered a whole album of “good songs” on his debut solo record. The only question is why did it take him so long to get here? It’s not for lack of songwriting talent and his voice certainly isn’t the issue, but the real answer likely lies in his lyrics. His journey has seemingly followed a similar path as Jason Isbell (heavy partying to sobriety to walking the line) and his songs have a similar feel as a result. What Prine saw in his songs is immediately evident. “Bag of Pills” hints that McKinley’s road took more than its fair share of detours along the way. “And all I need now, I don’t want/And all I’ve loved now, it’s all gone to my head” brings a history of substance abuse into the picture with a stunning level of candor and when he sings “And life, I don’t want it/If it’s so easy to die,” it’s a major gut punch. The title track recalls the astute small town observations of Brian Henneman (of the Bottle Rockets). And before and between there’s not a bad song in the bunch. His songs really need to be heard and it would’ve been a shame if this talent were wasted on the way to now. McKinley also released a non-album single this year that was written in the funeral home parking lot after his best friend’s wake. Don’t even attempt to stop the tears. Let them flow. This is one of those records that took a lifetime to make and I hope there’s more to come in the future.
6. SPARKLE DIVISION / “You Go Girl!”
There are a lot of people who want the next James Bond to be a woman. The curator of the Bond franchise (ironically, a woman and logical villain for the new female Bond, the brilliantly-named Barbara Broccoli) has dismissed those thoughts for now, stating Bond “can be of any color, but he is male.” Even with that definitive statement, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually get a female Bond someday—the public has a way of getting what it wants. If it does happen I would like to nominate Sparkle Division’s* “You Go Girl!” as the theme song for the reboot. It hearkens back to the early Bond themes with its big band approach, adds a little Brazilian acoustic guitar for a little exoticism, and has just a touch of femininity while still maintaining the bold strokes and big horns of the original classic theme. The song is the lead track on To Feel Embraced, the new eclectic (and rarely have I used the term with greater emphasis) record from avant-garde composer William Basinski. The record is really interesting as well and if you want to travel all over the map in about 40-minutes there’s no cooler way to do it. Ms. Bond would surely approve.
*Perhaps the Joy Division's lesser known counterpart?
7. ORVILLE PECK / Show Pony EP
Well, Orville Peck and his impossibly deep and powerful pipes have hit the big time now. After his amazing Sub Pop debut, Pony, he’s moved to major label land and his first release is the appropriately titled, Show Pony EP. At least Columbia is being up front about their intentions. It’s a bold move for a major label, when you think about it. A gay cowboy from Canada who doesn’t like to show his face in public is not the easiest marketing strategy. But they’re clearly betting everything on his incredible voice and trusting the world will follow. Show Pony is a stopgap effort until the next full-length and, while it isn’t perfect, it does give us some truly great moments. His high-profile duet with fellow Canadian Shania Twain isn’t one of them, however. Intriguing yes, but messy and forgettable in the end. What a wasted opportunity. The clear timeless classic is first single, “Summertime” (not the Gershwin classic), and ode to the end of summer, or a lack of one this year. His voice, walking along a thick bass line, sums up the forlorn feeling most of us are keeping inside right now. The other storyline for this record is “Fancy,” the EP’s last song, which is a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s 1970 song (as later interpreted by Reba McEntire). It’s written in the classic “Ode to Billie Joe” storytelling style, but has devastating undertones that can only be read, under Orville’s careful watch, as a sexually ambiguous rags-to-riches tale, albeit a cautionary one. As for the rest of the proceeds, “No Glory in the West” is yet another cautionary tale, but this time about both a cowboy or a young actor, each being warned about the dangers of traveling West to pursue fame and/or fortune (people will use and abuse you to get what they want). The song is classic Peck and ranks with his best to date. And, for those of you looking for the definitive gay trucker anthem, “Drive Me, Crazy” will fit the bill. I’m not sure whether CW McCall of “Convoy” fame would approve, but I’m hoping he’d yank on his air horn in respect. This “kid” can flat-out sing anything.
8. PRETENDERS / Hate For Sale
You’ll get an argument from me if you answer the best rock band frontwoman of all-time question with any response other than Chrissie Hynde. There’s arguments for some others, of course (Slick, Nicks, Wilson, Harry et al), but if anyone embodies rock & roll in all its rebellious glory it’s Chrissie. She’s a straight rock and roller to the core, a total badass, and she has always kept the band alive in lieu of going straight solo, even through death and numerous personnel changes. No, Hate for Sale is not classic era-Pretenders, but it sails amazingly close considering how long the band has been going. Even at her age, she still sounds like a vital leader of a potent rock band. If you are anywhere close to this at 68 years you are my hero, too. Let me repeat that—Chrissie Hynde, our true believer of true believers, our casual queen of “fuck offs,” is sixty-fucking-eight years old! And she can still wipe her ass with most other lead singers, male or female, who are a third of her age. Chrissie, along with original Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers (back for the first time since 2002) and her new songwriting foil, guitarist James Walbourne, have fashioned a damn good rock & roll record in a time where very few groups are making them any more. It’s refreshing to get back in the trenches with a band that love everything from Bo Diddley (“Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely”) to reggae (“Lightning Man”) to pub rock (“I Didn’t Know When to Stop”) to a song both the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Patti Smith would’ve been equally thrilled to write (“Maybe Love is in NYC”). And I still haven’t brought up the record’s best rocker “Turf Accountant Daddy” (whatever that means) and great rockers like “Hate for Sale” (which sounds like an update of the classic kids book “Caps for Sale” but set in the Bowery) and “The Buzz.” Here’s all the proof you need of Hynde’s continuing relevance. How many rock bands release a record this good as their leader approaches the big 7-0? Answer: Chrissie Hynde’s band does.
9. MARCUS KING / El Dorado
If anyone was born for the musician’s life it is Marcus King. His name just sounds like a blues artist right out the womb (and thanks to his musical family he started playing shortly after he learned to walk). But I take issue with him being reduced to that constricting label just the same. And I also reject his arbitrary classification as a jam band artist, too. What an insult. I see him as an old soul who plays and sings like he’s been rocking juke joints in the Delta for the last forty years. He plays the guitar like he sold his proverbial soul at the crossroads and his sweet, cracked, soulful voice defies the fact he’s still only 24-years-young. When you watch him play, there’s no mistaking the presence of a natural talent. His age has to be a typo, right? Nobody has this kind of authentic presence at such a young age. There’s a separation between guitarists who can play the right notes and those who seemingly channel their inspiration from a higher power. Marcus seems to pull his music from some ethereal plain that few rarely see, let alone get in the same zip code. Blues, soul, country, jazz, gospel, and Southern rock course through the fingers of this amazing baby-faced kid as if they were one big melting pot, an amalgamation of everything he’s ever heard integrated into some new form. It’s hard to imagine what could be coming down the pipeline in his hopefully long future, but he’s already made some fine music in his career so far (he’s been playing gigs for over 10 years!). He could easily have mined that swampy guitar hero angle for the rest of his days and nobody would’ve complained. But instead, Marcus has put out a solo album, produced buy the ubiquitous Dan Auerbach, that takes almost everything this so-called jam band community cherishes and puts it off to the side. On El Dorado, the guitar, while ever-present and often staggering, plays a diminished role compared to his past band efforts. His songs stand out most of all, and his voice comes clearly through even though some of them are shockingly decked-out for the occasion. Take a brief scan of the instruments used and you’ll find he’s a didgeridoo short of a Beach Boys session: Wurlitzer, clavinet, vibrophone, glockenspiel, steel guitar, harpsichord, acetone, strings, etc. It certainly doesn’t work perfectly all the time, but there are moments of rapture to be found when it all comes together. Clearly, he doesn’t want to limit himself, so in response he’s made an approximation of a great Southern soul record that includes every genre for which the south is known. Even when it overreaches, his intent is pure. At times, Auerbach might have overproduced a little, but ambition is forgivable when you're dealing with a young prodigy--you want to see what else he can do. Despite that, this is a record far exceeding what should be in his grasp at this point. Get this one on vinyl only if you want to hear it in all its glory.
10. I DON’T WANNA GO DOWN IN THE BASEMENT: Banished CDs, Volume 2
This is part two of a new feature we debuted in Priest Picks #7 where we go down to the basement and pull three random CDs from a storage bin and reassess them for a possible move back upstairs to the main collection. We’ll explain why we have them, how they got down there in the first place, and what we think of them now. Oh, and most importantly, we’ll answer the question if they were exiled fairly or unfairly.
12 RODS / Split Personalities
Why we have it: I’m guessing 95% of people who bought this album did so on the recommendation of Pitchfork, then a nascent taste-making website, who gave the record a preposterous rating of 9.7/10 back when it came out. If you think that’s overstating it just a bit, they rated the band’s debut EP, Gay?, a perfect 10.0 upon release as well. At this point in their existence, those two releases made them the most well-reviewed band of all-time on the site. I’ve always suspected foul play or bribery, but I’ve never been able to prove it. I’m sure we can chalk it up mostly to youthful exuberance and a desire to anoint modern classics on a website that was created to highlight great new music. Fair enough.
Why it was in the basement: Neither Gay? nor Split Personalities would get anywhere near a 10 rating in today’s Pitchfork world. They have much more editorial oversight and are very persnickety about what they anoint and when. Now, I think there’s someone at the end of the review assembly line who asks “Is this really cool enough to be praised by the most important and brilliant website in the world?” (yes, sarcasm). In this case, the overseer would’ve downgraded the record to a 7.8, which would imply support but not adulation (also called “Having it both ways”). Pitchfork has, in cowardly fashion, completely expunged both reviews from their archives. Another interesting note: 12 Rods next album, Separation Anxieties, was rated a 2.0 by Pitchfork—honeymoon over!—and the band subsequently broke up immediately after (if their album titles were any indication, perhaps they simply had too many personal issues to deal with). As to why it is in the basement, in this case, it’s a storage issue. Just didn’t have the shelf space and something had to go to the minor leagues as a result.
Verdict (Fair/Unfair Exile?): Unfair. This is a pretty adventurous, innovative, and creative alternative rock album. In retrospect, the high Pitchfork ratings were clearly overstating things substantially, but that pretty much describes 90% of albums they rate highly to this day. As a result of this Appeals Court Verdict, I have moved it to the main floor where my “proper” collection resides. Congratulations!
THE HAVALINAS / The Havalinas
Why we have it: They had a pretty wild reputation back in the day and made a rousing version of gypsy-like rock & roll that intrigued me at the time. They really tried to pull off a look, too, but it came off as ridiculous.
Why it was in the basement: The record doesn’t work in its entirety—it wears you out eventually—and over time I boiled the whole thing down to “High Hopes,” the album’s best song by a mile, so I put that in my digital library and banished the CD to the basement. I have it on playlists from the period to this day. The song also got a major boost when Bruce Springsteen included his far inferior version of the song on his album of the same name from 2014. So the Havalinas get the last laugh as the royalty checks roll in.
Verdict (Fair/Unfair Exile?): Fair. I got what I wanted, and even if there are a few songs worthy of continued play, I’m not going to grieve their loss.
CONSHAFTER / Your Day Job
Why we have it: This was a promo sent to me for review back when I had my own website.
Why it was in the basement: I’m not a Weezer fan at all, and Conshafter seemed like a bargain-basement version, so that’s where they ended up. I’ve recycled 95% of the records sent to me over the years, and this one surely would’ve been landfill too, but it was spared because it had a song titled “Porn Star Mustache” that I thought was amusing.
Verdict (Fair/Unfair Exile?): Fair. It wasn’t so much my decision as it was fate’s call. It will never see the light of day again.
Be kind, take care and buy records, in reverse order.