Priest Picks #18: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to week #18 of Priest Picks! Thanks for tolerating me last week—I had some issues my team of therapists told me I needed to unburden myself of or risk dire long-term consequences, so I used this expansive forum to do just that. This week, we’re in a better place, and it’s a good thing, too, because we have more sad news to report. But after that, we have the usual never-ending flow of amazing music to cover. So buckle in, take your Xanax, and try out some new albums and songs. I find it’s like getting therapy, but without a smug analyst to dismiss your totally legitimate fears and phobias as if they were figments of your imagination.
1. ‘TOOTS’ HIBBERT (1942 - 2020)
Barely a week after we included Toots & the Maytals new album, Got to Be Tough, in our weekly Top 10 list, we now hear Toots Hibbert has passed away, reportedly of Covid-19 (but not yet verified). If that’s indeed the case, the virus will have swept up in its wake John Prine, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, and one of reggae music’s greatest ambassadors of all-time with no end in sight. Sigh.
I was drawn to the voice of Toots Hibbert the moment I first heard it. I liken it to the moment Otis Redding first entered my life. Some voices radiate genuine soul naturally and his was one of those select few that were entirely free of artifice or calculation. As I sit here,
I’m playing Toots in Memphis, a great record, and it makes me believe Toots understood his profound connection to the American soul music stars of the 1960s and early-1970s. He made the trip to Memphis to record classic soul songs in a reggae style at the famed Ardent Studios, so clearly he was drawn to music delivered without an emotional filter. His take on Otis’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” is perfect, and proves that any song, in the right hands, can be converted to a reggae beat. Reggae, more than any secular genre, is driven by a divine spirit and Toots personified that spirit for 77 years. He treated his responsibility seriously, but with joy in his heart. Today, we drop the pressure to half-mast in his honor.
I want you to believe every word I say
I want you to believe everything I do
I said music is what I’ve got to give
And I’ve got to find some way to make it
Music is what I’ve got baby
I want you to come on and shake it
2. NICOLE ATKINS / Italian Ice
It’s impossible to not be impressed with Nicole Atkins. Her voice is soulful and strong, her songs unique and varied. But more importantly, she just seems to be her own dog following the scent of anything that interests her regardless of the risks. You can tell her main artistic purpose is to keep her life interesting rather than locking into a predictable or easily marketable niche. She should be way more well-known than she is, but her fans are probably secretly thankful she’s not (The reason comes in her own lyrics to “Never Going Home Again”: “I left the money, kept creative control/For the sake of rock and roll”). For this record, the New Jersey native headed down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record with the likes of Spooner Oldham and David Hood of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The studio has a storied history of accepting artists from the North in search of that rare and mysteriously occurring soulful sound only grown in one tiny studio in the Deep South. It has worked for everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Black Keys. Whenever word spreads of an artist heading down to Northern Alabama to record, I pop up out of my hole like a curious prairie dog—cautious but intrigued. On her way down, Nicole picked up a busload of hitchhikers to accompany and support her vision: Binky Griptite of Daptone Records house band the Dap-Kings, two members of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, Britt Daniel of Spoon, Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers, and a member of Alabama Shakes to co-produce. So how does Nicole plan on reconciling this island of misfit toys, you ask? I don’t know since I wasn’t there, but I think Nicole’s free spirit encouraged all to find their own personal place inside of her music. How else to explain the results? It sure helps to have a great set of songs written to provide a foundational core, of course. She may be a diminutive woman, but she’s got a big talent and exudes a positive creative force, so I imagine that was all she needed to corral all the wild animals into one pen. Whatever she did, it has resulted in the finest record of her career, in my humble. She sums up the record as “an acid trip through my record collection” to which I can entirely relate. If I wanted to make my own perfect record, it would be a composite of my favorite records, too. It would be wild and free, diverse in sound and style, intellectually and emotionally powerful without losing a sense of fun and adventure. In that regard, Nicole and I have a hell of a lot in common. Only she has seen her vision come to life, however.
Italian Ice is loaded with strong moments. First track in, we’ve got a radio-ready gem in title and sound with “A.M. Gold,” but it also seems eerily relevant, “Oh life, it’s getting’ harder every day/Prayin’ for dry land in New Orleans/Prayin’ for rain in L.A.” It sounds like it was written seconds ago. And then, one after another, the songs spill out easily, casually, as if it were nothing. “Captain” shows her touch with a ballad, allowing a partner who has carried much of the relationship’s weight to take a deserved break, “And when you’ve found a wreck/I’ll pull you on deck/I can be your Captain for once.” It’s a stunning moment that I repeatedly come back to for solace, pillow clutched tightly to my chest. Sometimes songs make me thankful, and this is one of them. There’s not a throwaway song in the bunch, either. There’s perhaps no greater accolade for an album than “I’ve got a place for this in my life.” And I’ve cleared out a permanent spot for this one.
3. WAYLON PAYNE / Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me
It’s his real name, believe it or not. His mom was country crooner Sammi Smith (of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” fame) and his dad was musician Jody Payne (a member of Willie Nelson’s touring band among other gigs), so there’s no surprise he has talent. Oh, and his grandfather and namesake is none other than Waylon Jennings. So he’s had a country music pedigree from day one whether he wanted it or not. Along the way, he also picked up drug and alcohol addictions, likely stemming from abandonment and abuse during his formative years (with dad and mom both on the road so much, he was raised by relatives). And on top of that, he’s a gay man, which doesn’t make things easier in the historically conservative Nashville music industry. Hence, he’s now 48 and Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me (he also has an issue with overly long album titles) is only his second album and his first since way back in 2004. Until now, he’s worked behind the scenes, writing some notable songs for Miranda Lambert (from Weight of These Wings), Ashley Monroe, and Lee Ann Womack, and even did some acting work along the way (most notably in Walk the Line with Joaquin Phoenix where he played Jerry Lee Lewis). I’m sure he wouldn’t recommend a similar path to anyone just to gain fodder for some left-of-center country songs, but there’s no denying his past makes his present dramatically more compelling. Blue Eyes is an album that’s more earned than written, so highly personal there’s no mistaking it for anything but authentic. It is breathtaking at times but never inaccessible, smoothly sung and convincingly rendered, starkly honest without being overbearing. It’s his story and it will absorb you, cradle your tired soul, and maybe even heal you somehow. It’s way more than a standard country record. It’s a life record. And it cuts to the bone.
4. NORAH JONES / Pick Me Up Off the Floor
If you’re listening to this record in the dark, late at night, with headphones on, like you should be, you might think you feel Norah’s breath on your neck as she sings. You might feel the reverberation of confidently struck piano keys in your chest. You might find yourself hopelessly immersed in the intimate atmosphere she creates with her music. Make no mistake, the music of Norah Jones became a sensation for good reason. It’s smooth and clean, rich and seductive—like barrel-aged whiskey. People tend to drink that up when given the chance. If massive sales give you anything, it’s artistic capital, which you can spend it as you see fit. You can record what and where you want, and work with almost anyone you like. It doesn’t always work out that way in the end—the weight of artistic freedom can also crush you—but Norah Jones has fashioned a remarkably free creative life for herself since she sold 27 million copies of her debut record back in 2002. The approach clearly agrees with her as she’s been doing anything she wants, sales be damned, pretty much every since. Her music has benefited from a lack of outside influence as well. I’ve loved her past few records and Pick Me Up Off the Floor extends her winning streak. She’s not stated as much, but to me this sounds like a song cycle about the stages of recovery post-breakup. It starts with stunned sadness, evolves into depression, and then surveys the emotional aftermath. But somewhere about halfway through the record, an exit strategy of sorts kicks in, centered around just living and surviving day-to-day. Soon, a path forward is determined, with little steps of progress toward a greater purpose uncovered, and life continues. We all know what has to be done, but sometimes we have to let the process run its course. This is that soundtrack. And there’s no more compassionate and sincere companion to spend it with than Norah Jones.
5. BAND ‘THANK YOU’ NOTES
In this day and age, with everything immediately accessible on our computers, it’s good to see customer appreciation is alive and well with some artists. Witness the attached photographs, in this case from two artists we’ve highlighted in various Pickled Posts—the Ex-Bats and Anthony Garcia—featuring simple, but effective “Thank You” notes for ordering the physical copy of their latest LPs. Most artists send, or have someone send, their music via mail order with no extras whatsoever, and I get it. I don’t expect thanks for buying music nor do I require ‘perks’ as an incentive, but when they do arrive I must say it makes my day. I don’t require Celine Dion to autograph every one of my many orders for product, she’s far too successful and busy for that, but for an artist “on the way up” it’s a nice touch that fosters a positive feeling for your music in general. It also makes people want you to do well (and no, not so I can auction the note on eBay someday if you suddenly become the next worldwide phenomenon). It’s just good business to appreciate your
audience. And if you can set up a future presidential candidacy in the process, as is the case for Ex-Bats lead singer Inez McLain, then so be it. She’s running in 2027, which is intriguing—does she know something we don’t? But when the time comes to cast my vote, I’ll remember the little note she and her band sent me seven years prior and it might just tip the scales in her favor.
You never know.
6. MOTORPSYCHO / “N.O.X. II: Ouroboros (Strange Loop)” from The All is One
Around the globe—maybe that odd woman across the street who just put her Christmas tree on the curb in August, perhaps the freaky-fast dude from Jimmy John’s who’s laying on your doorbell right now, possibly the CEO currently regaling the Board of Directors with Q2 stockholder dividend updates—there are secret yet proud Motorpsycho fans lurking everywhere. These are people who do not blink an eye or show any signs of distress when a new 85-minute album from the Norweigan prog-rockers is released. That’s mainly because this band’s ambition isn’t at all new to them. In fact, The All is One is Motorpsycho’s 21st album and it seems only fair to announce its arrival with comparisons worthy of such a massive undertaking. The album is a monolith, an obelisk, a castle, a fortress, an alcazar, an Elysian field, and just about any other term from the script of a typical Game of Thrones episode. It’s ambitious even for a band that once titled an album Still Life With Eggplant and another Angels and Daemons at Play. You can call it progressive rock if you must (and you must), which I realize comes pre-packaged with an eye-roll and/or dismissive smirk, but this is undeniably and gloriously a spectacular album to behold. That people in this disposable day and age are still making grand efforts to create such complicated and dynamic music is alone a triumph, but to have it this fully realized is simply astounding. To put it mildly, I am nowhere near capable of giving you a full assessment of their record at this point—and may never be—but I didn’t want to wait any longer to trumpet its arrival into my life. To make things easier on me, I’ve carved out one of my favorite moments from the album so far, a brilliant track pulled from deep inside the Rush-esque multi-part suite known as “N.O.X.” (Touché, “Cignus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres”!) At 8:23, there’s an epic quality to it even though that makes it only the fifth longest song on the record. It includes a lot of everything Motorpsycho does best all in one gluttonous helping. Heavy, rhythmic grooves contort into sprawling, ultra-technical guitar solos, which segue into dramatic, celestial organ interludes, with all coalescing into a sweeping, grand finale worthy of a King’s arrival. And there’s still 45-minutes of music to follow! Delight in the decadence of this jumbo turkey leg of an album! The All is One is a giant labyrinth and getting lost inside of it may be one of the not-so-simple pleasures of life, but make no mistake sir, it is a pleasure.
7. MASTODON / Medium Rarities
This just came out Friday, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the new hodge-podge release from Mastodon called Medium Rarities since. It’s quite a Whitman’s Sampler of heavy goodies and, as one would expect, they range from face melting (a new version of epic instrumental “Jaguar God”) to amusing (a cover of the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin gem “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”) to superfluous (a cover of Metallica’s “Orion” is excellent, but not really a stretch) depending on the track. Among several highlights for me is their complete reinvention of Canadian songwriter Feist’s “A Commotion” (from her excellent 2011 album Metals), which didn’t strike me, to put it in the most extreme way possible, as a possible Mastodon jam when I first I heard it almost ten years ago. When I circled back to the original yesterday, however, it all made sense, especially the refrain, “It if rips you all apart/The grudge has still got your heart.” Was this ripped from the pages of the Mastodon songbook? But that’s not all! For the low, low price of $12.99, you get that and the essential and absolutely demented one-off single from 2014, “Atlanta,” which features—do I have to even clarify this?—a maniacal cameo from the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes. “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” eat your heart out! It’s one of those things you’ve just gotta hear—no use explaining it further. But that’s still not all! If you buy now, Mastodon will also throw in the not only essential, but compulsory, “Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife” from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. It’s their version of the pre-movie “turn off your cell phones” and “be courteous to those around you” PSA taken to gloriously macabre levels. To illustrate, here’s one pull quote: “If I see you videotaping this movie/Satan will rain down your throat with hot acid/And dissolve your testicles and turn your guts into snakes.” Aw, hell, one more won’t hurt: “Don’t crinkle your food wrappers loudly/Be considerate of others/Or I will bite your torso and give you a disease.” This is why we keep metal around. When something isn’t getting into the thick skulls of the American populace, we sometimes need to literally bash people over their heads to get crucial messages across. Owning this song is a moral imperative so act now. While you’re at it, get the whole fucking shitshow for your listening enjoyment. You both will, and won’t be, sorry.
8. THE ROLY MO / T.R.M. EP
Lots of promise here from Glasgow punk band the Roly Mo (name inspired by a character on a British children’s TV show—see photo). Their six-song debut EP rewards patience because it’s not front-loaded with the best songs as per usual protocol. The real potential appears in its second half, with the arrival of “Stuck in a Rut,” a
song both timely and much needed right now. If you thought we had this angle covered already by the bloody brilliant 1979 single “In a Rut” by, naturally, the Ruts, you’re wrong. We’re in perhaps the deepest rut of our lifetimes right now, so I welcome a new, fresh face with the same sentiment. Next up is “I’ll Be Happy When You Die” which sounds to me like a should’ve-been 70s punk classic that just missed its window by about 40-years or so. No matter, it’s here now. “Control Yourself” ends the EP on a high note and bodes well for the band's future. It hints that they have even more to show us in their arsenal. Guarded optimism abounds!
9. MOJO BUFORD / Mojo Workin’
This “new” album from Mojo Buford was released in 2020 for the first time, but was recorded in 1969. Buford was one of Muddy Waters’ sidemen back in the day right around the time Muddy’s “Got My Mojo Workin’” was hot and Mojo was asked for the song so many times he figured he’d just change his name to Mojo and get it the fuck over with already. During his tenure with Muddy, he did some recording that for some reason never saw the light of day at the time. Listening now, it’s really inexplicable how an album as good as Mojo Workin’ got shelved after it was recorded. I’m not going to anoint it with “lost classic” status—the claim has been so overused it means almost nothing anymore—but this is some pretty smoking-hot blues from a guy used to sitting deep in the pocket of one of the greatest bluesmen in history. It’s a short, 33-minute session with some great unearthed highlights. Otis Spann’s “Blues is a Botheration” sets the tone early for Mojo’s excellent blues voice and absolutely wicked harmonica skills. “Lost Love” also smokes like a Southside Chicago barbecue pit. “Deep Sea Diver,” a not so subtle sexual analogy, brings in a little Saturday night lasciviousness into play for good measure. And, if you expected to go home without a killer version of “Got My Mojo Working,” you were sorely mistaken. The song may be worn out through overuse, but if you want to get close to the original heart of the song, doesn’t it make sense to go right to the source for the real thing?
THE 10 SPOT: Sequel Songs, Pt. 2
ELIZABETH COOK / “Mary, the Submissing Years"
Just last week, I was writing about “sequel” songs, so while the topic is still fresh, here’s another one, just released by Elizabeth Cook (on her new album, Aftermath, out last Friday). While last week’s selection (“Jessie’s Girl II” by Coheed and Cambria) wasn’t a rousing success (to put it mildly), this one proves that a different
perspective on an existing classic sometimes makes sense. “Mary, The Submissing Years” is the mother’s version of John Prine’s classic “Jesus, the Missing Years” (from his album The Missing Years). And it's a total hoot, to say the least. This could be blasphemy, but I'd go so far to say it's an essential complement to John’s original. I'm sure he would've absolutely loved and endorsed this take on his song. Elizabeth manages to find both the heart and the humor in John’s song, which makes sense she is considered to be the quintessential Nashville oddball in some circles. In other words, it’s no cheap take-off done without much thought just for fun. That said, there are too many amusing lyrics to highlight, but if you’re so inclined check it out. I bet you’ll appreciate the obvious effort made to pay proper respect to one of Prine’s most beloved songs.
That’s all for this week. Like that isn't enough. C'mon people, don't be greedy.