“The Earls of Leicester” by the Earls of Leicester and “Three Bells” by Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes

The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas & Rob Ickes
Three Bells

Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

I was reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life when I got and started listening to these two albums, which were released simultaneously by Rounder. He writes about the unlikelihood that a few teenagers in London would make it their life’s mission—at least foe a few years—to become a Chicago-style blues band, and that such a thing was only possible because of the invention of recorded music. Though he first picked up a guitar only about 25 years after the death of Robert Johnson and while the likes of Muddy Waters and Little Walter were still alive and productive, there’s simply no way he would have ever heard their music were it not for vinyl records and radio waves. Before their invention, musical styles grew slowly. Music was tied to a particular place and people, and to activities like Saturday night dancing and Sunday morning worship—a juxtaposition that influenced bluegrass music as much as it did the blues.

Music also passed from hand to hand, from master to apprentice. Musical mutations into new styles only occurred when a genius came along to synthesize and create from what already existed—the example most obvious to readers of this site is of course bluegrass music, which happened when the cross-eyed boy from Kentucky played dances with his fiddling uncle and a black guitar player at the same time and place musical evangelists were teaching the shape-note choir singing style. Without proximity to those three elements, Bill Monroe would not have created what Alan Lomax called “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British—American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

You wouldn’t quite call Josh Graves a genius on Monroe’s level, but he certainly was a virtuoso, much like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who hired Graves so his Dobro sound could further distinguish the Foggy Mountain Boys from other early exponents of Monroe’s art. (For the full story, read Bluegrass Bluesman.) Graves’ innovations led to a new vein of gifted musicians deciding to play bluegrass, including Mike Auldridge, who bought his first Dobro from Graves himself.

It’s to pay homage to Graves and the sound he helped create, of course, that prompted Jerry Douglas, the undisputed Dobro master, to form the Earls of Leicester. Walk down Broadway in Nashville, and you’ll bump into enough pickers who could play an impromptu Lester & Earl set, but the five that Douglas has enlisted do it as good as it could possibly be done: Union Station’s Barry Bales plays upright bass, Johnny Warren fiddles as good as his father Paul did with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Shawn Camp (lead vocals, guitar), and Charlie Cushman (banjo) play the parts, respectively, of Curly Seckler, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The effect they achieve on this 14-track album is uncanny—they don’t sound exactly like the source material, but they capture the key element of the Flatt & Scruggs sound—its effortless mixture of down-home drive and smooth sophistication. It’s great to hear Camp, an accomplished country-rock singer songwriter, sing bluegrass, coming closer to Lester’s vocal style than one could imagine anyone else doing, and O’Brien and Cushman have Curly’s chop and Earl’s roll down pat. Warren’s fills and breaks are as exciting as his daddy’s were, and Douglas’ vicariously reminds us just how important the grafting of Graves on to the bluegrass family tree was for what we hear and appreciate today. Adding the Dobro’s six strings as the music’s sixth instrument gave it so much more depth without sacrificing a bit of its integrity.

After Graves and before Douglas, there was Mike Auldridge. As a founding member of the Seldom Scene, Auldridge helped that band firmly establish the “progressive” approach to bluegrass—mixing in both the songs and the sensibilities of the country-rock and singer-songwriter styles of the 1970s. You can do a lot with a traditional five-piece bluegrass unit, but you absolutely cannot put across a song like “Sweet Baby James,” much less make it far superior to the original, without that small taste of Auldridge’s Dobro.

In the months before Auldridge died in 2012, he recorded Three Bells with Douglas and Rob Ickes—no backing band, just the three of them—with Auldridge’s instrument in the middle of the stereo mix, Douglas left, and Ickes right. I don’t think an approach like this could work, in a simply technical sense, nearly as well with any other instrument—especially not among the other five bluegrass tools. And it’s hard to imagine three other players could use this approach to create a sound so skilfully woven, as if all 18 strings were played by only one musician.

The 11-song, 45-minute track list is free of cliché—only “Panhandle Rag,” a composition of Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys) is from the bluegrass/country instrumental canon, which makes sense. Such tunes are written with the idea that each instrument in the band can have a turn showing what it can do before passing off to the next man.

Instead, this ensemble refashions old parlor, jazz, and easy listening songs like “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Sunrise Serenade,” and “The Three Bells” into brocaded tone poems free from the schmaltzy sheen present in their most popular versions. Don Reno’s “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap” is similarly refined into a stately hymn.

But of course, Auldridge, Douglas, and Ickes are all gifted composers as well, and their own songs are the best on this album: Auldridge’s bright and bouncy “For Buddy,” Douglas’ propulsive “North,” and Ickes’ perfectly titled “Dobro Heaven.”

Each man also contributes a solo performance—Auldridge a gorgeous medley of “‘Till There Was You/Moon River,” Ickes his own reflective “The Message,” and Douglas the truly sublime “The Perils of Private Mulvaney”—to remind us both the emotional richness a single Dobro can convey, and of why this trio making this record just in time is so special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Walking Through Clay” by Dirk Powell

Dirk Powell

Walking Through Clay

Sugar Hill Records

5 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

When the writing bug hit me in 2000, it was because of roots music. I was listening to wonderful stuff—Lucinda Williams, Kieran Kane, Fred Eaglesmith, Kelly Willis, and the Del McCoury Band, to mention a few names—that few people I knew were listening to, and I felt compelled to share with others the incredible surge of enthusiasm I experienced whenever I heard music that moved me.

I thought, if only others could hear what I hear, they would be transformed as I have been. Walking Through Clay, the fourth album Powell has released—and first in a decade, since the heartfelt, traditionally sounding Time Again—feels and sounds a lot like a summation of what was bouncing around in my wee brain some 14 years ago—if only everyone could hear this, they would get it.

Dirk Powell made his musical bones a long time ago. He has been playing banjo, fiddle, accordion, and near anything else he sets his hands to most of his life, and professionally for almost as long. I don’t have a memory of the first time I became aware of Powell, but I know it was before I heard his amazing collaboration with Tim O’Brien and John Herrmann, Songs From the Mountain. That recording was the first time I really listened to how powerfully he could interpret ‘ancient tones,’ building an eerie bridge from the past.

I’m predisposed toward appreciation when Powell is associated with an album. He has played on or produced some of my favourite albums of the past two decades, from Balfa Toujours’ Deux Voyages and Ginny Hawker’s Letters From My Father, to Darrell Scott’s Theatre of the Unheard and Wayne Scott’s equally brilliant This Weary Way, and more Tim O’Brien albums than can comfortably be listed. Some of the albums are almost unknown (Polecat Creek’s excellent Leaving Eden), while others made numerous ‘best of’ lists in their year of release (such as Laura Cortese’s Into the Dark of last year). Like O’Brien, Powell surrounds himself with quality, and in turn makes any project he is associated with that much more appealing.

An album as intricately woven with the soul of Americana music as this one is can only be held together by an artist with a strong and clear vision, and the ability to experience the collective sound prior to their creation. Powell is just such an artist, a master instrumentalist, collaborator, and arranger.

Walking Through Clay is joyful, even when it occasionally veers toward the dark as it does within “Golden Chain.” It is an album that has to be heard in its entirety to be understood, as to listen to any single particular track is to be afforded only a small measure of the overall production and risk missing the magnitude of its impact. Mindful of the limitations of genre and astute to the enchantment of musical alchemy, Powell blends the electric with the acoustic, allowing the Appalachian sounds that were his birthright to sidle up to the bayou blues that are his choice.

Rarely does an album overwhelm me as Walking Through Clay has. Infrequently while listening to music, a shiver will be caused to run through me, and I’ll find myself forced to clap, just a single, full-bodied release that allows my body to self-regulate itself and bleed-off overstimulation. That sensation found me multiple times this month while listening to Walking Through Clay, and always during one of the album’s highlights, “Some Sweet Day.”

As a wonderful Cajun band does—permitting folks to grab a mouthful before heading back into the melee of a rough-hewn dance floor—Powell allows almost all of these songs an extended instrumental introduction. These melodic explorations establish a context, defining a setting that is palatable before lyrics provide detail and prior to the songs exploding with driving passion.

Walking Through Clay boldly opens with a pair of powerful blues-based songs, the first of which—“Rollin’ Through This Town”—I was convinced featured Blackie & the Rodeo Kings until the liner notes arrived later. It is powerful and melodic, setting the album on a course simultaneously fueled by ingenuity and tradition.

The title track rocks even harder, is rich and deep with its genesis in Powell’s family’s Civil War experiences. Powell spits out deeply-felt, historical images in a near-punk litany, bringing to mind Jason & the Scorchers. This is the exception as Powell has a subtle yet strong voice, not classically individual, but also free of contrivance.

Whether singing, or by playing nearly a dozen instruments—five-string banjo, fiddle, woodtop fretless banjo, guitars—acoustic and electric—and mandolin among them—Powell is the star. By placing his voice and his words at the fore of this collection rather than relying on traditional songs and interpreting the creations of others, Powell has stepped up to be the performer at the front of the stage rather than occupying the position as the sideman and collaborator he long has. It is a brave and, for this set, necessary choice, and he accomplishes the task with great success.

Comparisons to The Band go far beyond Levon Helm’s contributions to “Abide With Me,” which also features Amy Helm. Powell isn’t afraid to employ propulsive beats, while ensuring the breezy influences of New Orleans, zydeco, and Cajun traditions be maintained. In a very different but no less soulful manner, the Bobby Charles’ influenced “That Ain’t Right” explores another side of Louisiana music. “As I Went Out A’Walkin'” is populated by ghosts from the hills crossing centuries to play fiery stringband music.

Aoife O’Donovan, quietly establishing  herself as the go-to harmony foil of modern Americana, sounds gorgeous on “Goodbye Girls,” while Martha Scanlan’s “Sweet Goes the Whistle”—one of only three songs not written by Powell—is seamlessly absorbed into this marvelous blend.

I don’t pretend to know much about Kentucky, where Powell’s family originates, or Louisiana, which Powell has chosen to call home, but when he sings “I’m never going to leave Louisiana” in David Egan’s “Spoonbread,” I believe him and experience a connection to his aching, dark, joyous and life-affirming world.

Walking Through Clay—dedicated to the departed Helm and Powell’s great-great- grandmother—connects historical and musical traditions  into a wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly contemporary roots rock album that is destined to be one of the year’s finest.

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“The Love I Have for You” by Miss Tess & the Talkbacks

Miss Tess & The Talkbacks
The Love I Have For You
Signature Sounds
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I became a fan of Miss Tess & The Talkbacks with the release of Sweet Talk. It’s good news that she stays in the groove with this latest release. The only downside is it’s an EP with only seven numbers. That’s probably a matter of budget rather than a lack of material.

Sweet Talk had strong swing influences with touches of Western swing, country, and jazz. This new CD is rockabilly-tinged country. Included is the country standard “Night Life,” one of Willie Nelson’s best compositions (in company with dozens of others) and impressed upon the hearts of real country music fans by his and Ray Price’s recordings. Formatting for the radio generally means a track less than four minutes but I’ve always hoped for a jam version of “Night Life” on a recording. There’s such a great opportunity for multi-instrument vamping with this song, and the Talkbacks could have done this. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Their version follows the same formula of singing and instrumental breaks as the Nelson and Price versions but, hey, it’s good music. Miss Tess’ voice is sultry with some edge and she does this blues message well.

She offers a softer side with “The Alabama Waltz,” a Hank Williams composition that he rarely performed and gave to Bill Monroe, who released the first recording of it. Miss Tess’ version, which features some beautiful work by guitarist Will Graefe, is a sentimental story, not unlike Patti Page’s Tennessee Waltz, but not quite matching the pathos of Williams’ version (but how many singers can?). When Williams sings, “I was sad and blue, downhearted, too; it seems like the whole world was lost” you easily believe his words. This was an interesting choice by her.

Miss Tess is in her element with “Sorry You’re Sick,” a bouncy song that fits her style perfectly, giving it more texture than its composer’s 1982 version. Ted Hawkins is hardly a household name but it’s our good fortune she’s brought new life to this number. She mirrors tracks with Bonnie Raitt on another uptempo number, “Give It Up Or Let Me Go,” and she keeps that feeling with “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad.” Listening to her cut of this number you catch yourself twitching, wanting to snap your fingers or pat your feet or something, opposed to the mellow, take another sip of beer version of composer Randy Newman.

Her other cover song is a remake of Neil Young’s “Hold Back The Tears.” She chose to make it a 4/4 ballad while Young did it with a Latin beat.

The only original number is the title track. It’s tempo is slow but it has drive punctuated by bassist Larry Cook and drummer Matt Meyer, the latter thankfully not part of the thump-THUMP crowd of drummers often heard today.

If you like the rockabilly sound you’re going to love Miss Tess.

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“Cross My Heart + Hope to Die ” by D.B. Rielly

D.B. Rielly

Cross My Heart + Hope to Die 

Shut Up & Play

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Where do rock ‘n’ roll and roots meet?

Right here, my friend. The title says is all: Rielly promises to be true, but knows he won’t be. Can’t be.

He couldn’t be a purist if he had to, and in being so completely eclectic, he embraces the heart of Americana—stringband, zydeco, blues, and soul, country, jugband, gospel, and parlor music—a heart that is fired by a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat.

D. B. Rielly is yet another of those under-known purveyors of music embraced by a select, fervent collective of listeners who have somehow tripped across his gems within overwhelmingly crowded streams of social media. To listen to D.B. Rielly and not love him is akin to smelling bacon and not salivating.

I first encountered Rielly three years back when he released the remarkable album Love Potions and Snake Oil. That set was amazing. This one, more so by a factor of Tony Joe White.

Who is D.B. Rielly? Hell if I know—he doesn’t tour northern Canada too often. His website bio reads, in full:
“D.B. Rielly was born in the hearts and minds of lonely widows. He was raised by traveling vacuum cleaner salesmen and fed a strict diet of Cream of Wheat and Gilligan’s Island until, at the age of three, he was sent off to receive his education at the I Don’t Like Your Attitude, Young Man, Academy of Discipline.

Decades later, realizing he’d never be able to snatch the pebble from anyone’s hand, they “graduated” him. D.B. was unprepared for a world full of choices, opportunity, reality TV, and boy bands, so he wandered—clutching tightly to the only memory he had left: the sound of a Hoover Deluxe 700. It’s no surprise that he gravitated toward the accordion—and is shunned by music-lovers everywhere.

So back on the road he goes. You may spot him hitching a ride somewhere, anywhere you’re headed is fine. You may spot him in a deserted diner trying to look up the waitress’ skirt. But one thing is certain: “wherever dogs are howling and little children are holding their ears, you’ll find D.B. Rielly and his squeezebox.”

In other words, I wish he was my dad.

Rielly brings to mind several disparate artists of greater renown, and is none the worse for these comparisons. “Moving Mountains” sounds like something Paul Birch might have recorded a decade ago on his brilliant Last of My Kind, and “Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” is a funky little Louisiana-influenced country tune that reminds me of Dwight. Bobby Charles’ bluesy essence find second life within Rielly’s hopeful “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The female protagonist in the lively “Roadrunner” is the one D. B. won’t let get away; the restraining order is in the mail.
Two solo numbers, “Come Hell or High Water” and “Your Doggin’ Fool,” serve as highlights. With multi-tracking, Rielly weaves guitar, accordion, percussion, and banjo into interesting and dense musical tapestries, revealing his individuality while embracing the music of his roots. Really, there isn’t a down moment within Cross My Heart + Hope to Die‘s all too few 35 minutes.

Bob Seger’s song of 40 (!) years ago, “Turn the Page,” is revitalized by Rielly and his band, maintaining its lonesome vibe while nourishing it with banjo, percussion—via washboard—and especially Hiromasa Suzuki’s guitar. The urgency of this road song is magnified through Reilly’s intensified treatment. It is the albums only non-original.

Like Scott Miller, Mike Plume, Kate Campbell, Antsy McClain and a couple ten thousand others who are devoted to making their kind of music—come hell or high water—D. B. Rielly is a songwriter, singer, and musician of immeasurable quality.

Dang me if I can figure out why Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are on every radio station from there to here and D. B. Rielly ain’t. He’s like Marty Stuart with an accordion. Buddy Miller without friends. Roy Orbison without glasses, and Iris Dement with testosterone.

D. B. Rielly is just plain good.

Listen.

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“The Definitive Doc Watson” by Doc Watson

Doc Watson
The Definitive Doc Watson
Sugar Hill Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Doc Watson’s recording career began in 1962, but his presence seems to extend back into history much further than that. Born in North Carolina in 1923, and blinded by disease in his first year, he soaked up every note he could hear—over the radio and from the family Victrola—and by his death in 2012 had become to the American acoustic music what Mark Twain is to American literature. One can hear a little bit of everything that came before and what came after Watson in the music he made. While Samuel Clemens wielded a cigar, a pen, and a wit that was both friendly and fearless, Arthel Lane Watson’s tools were a nimble clawhammer banjo, a booming guitar—steel-stringed and flat-picked, always—and a voice strong and broad enough to sing just about every type of song an American might care to sing without the aid of electricity.

Watson, who recorded dozens of albums and played thousands of sets, made plenty of music for any archivist to come up with countless representative permutations, but Sugar Hill’s Fred Jasper’s playlist of  34 songs on this two-disc set spanning one and three-quarter hours hits the spot for newcomers and longtime fans alike.

The first 10 tracks—save a brisk guitar duet on “Black Mountain Rag” with John Herald—feature only Doc, on stage or in studio with either a guitar or banjo, in the first three or four years as a national performer. His relatively youthful presence is as distinct and commanding as that of legends like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt who were being re-recorded near the end of their lives spent mastering their art. Watson, who had half a century of music yet to come, was already masterful: effortless on a languorous “St. Louis Blues,” brooding on “The House Carpenter,” which one should compare and contrast with Bob Dylan’s take from The Bootleg Series, Vol.1, and swaggering on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Anniversary Blue Yodel (Blue Yodel #7.”

The meat of this feast—the second half of disc one, the first half of disc two—chronicles Watson’s musical relationship with son Merle, who was a chip off the proverbial old block on banjo and guitar, from the late 1960s until Merle’s death in 1984. They pick some country blues worthy of both halves of that descriptive phrase, and offer a simple, yet exquisite take on the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train.” The first disc ends with father and son enacting the six-minute cinema of the sex-and-death English folk song “Matty Groves,” a track from 1966 that I’d somehow missed up until now, but have been wearing out the last couple of weeks.

Disc two brings in many of the pickers who came after Watson and, following his example, showed that folk and country music—in the original, musicologically correct senses of those adjectives—need not be merely simply played, repetitive music by which one dances in barns. Dan Crary, Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Marty Stuart, and Mark O’Connor show here with Watson, and throughout their remarkable careers, why they are regarded the world over as musicians who can play and create music as soulful, complex, or grand as any composer or musician from any other musical tradition.

The Definitive Doc Watson closes with a three-minute romp through “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in a hotel room in 2006 with Sutton, one of the few guitarists worthy of being discussed along with our subject here. It’s striking in that you have to really listen to keep it straight who is playing what—showing that Watson’s shadow looms long—and that you could have labeled this as a recording with Merle from 1970, or as one of Watson’s debut recordings (if there was someone who could pick quite this good in 1962) and it would fit right in.  Just load it up and play it—in order or on shuffle; it’s all great. Steeped in time and shaped by it, Watson is himself timeless.

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“Hammer Down” by the SteelDrivers

The SteelDrivers
Hammer Down
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Bluegrass music is a hard soundscape in which to try and do something new. Synthesized in 1946 by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and friends, it is still a young musical style, but its unwritten rules and widely practiced traditions have made rare the bands that spring fully formed on the scene with a radically new sound that still deserves the label bluegrass.

A collective of Nashville pickers and singers, the SteelDrivers did that in 2008, integrating the sounds and swagger of outlaw country and blues-rock (though not straight blues, that’s a challenge still waiting to be met) into the bluegrass sound without adding extraneous instrumentation or needlessly complicated arrangements.

They perfected their recorded style with 2010‘s Reckless, which was released with the word that it marked the end of Chris Stapleton’s run with the band, leaving many wondering if the group could retain its power without the wild, gritty soul that the truly gifted lead singer gave the band.

But word soon got out that replacement Gary Nichols was every bit the singer Stapleton was, and Hammer Down confirms it for those who’ve missed the SteelDrivers live shows. Indeed, though after a couple of listens through good headphones I’ve decided that Nichols’ voice is just a tinge smoother than Stapleton’s, I did a few double takes when playing it in the car the first couple of times—the edges are plenty rough enough to leave a mark.

Tammy Rogers’ presence with harmony vocals that are feminine without being soft makes Nichols sound that much stronger, and her fiddle grabs the blue notes and the ancient tones alike. Richard Bailey (banjo), Mike Fleming (bass), and Brent Truitt (mandolin) resist what must be a strong temptation to bash and shred their way through these songs as strongly as Nichols sings them, instead they ride a tasteful swing that make for a wider dynamic range than you realize the first time through.

The ten songs that clock in at 35 minutes are all good, being a bit more varied in subject and arrangement than those on either previous project. The album-closing “When I’m Gone” is a sunnier song that suggests this great band will continue to grow without leaving behind the approach that sets them apart.

 

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“Old Sock” by Eric Clapton & “Electric” by Richard Thompson

Eric Clapton
Old Sock
Surfdog Records
1 star (out of 5)

Richard Thompson
Electric
New West Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Eric Clapton’s place as the godfather of rock guitarists is undisputed—of course because of his brilliant early work, but also because he seems like a nice guy who has outlived greater talents like Hendrix and Duane Allman—but as a solo artist his work has been erratic, reaching a new low with the fittingly—and frighteningly—named Old Sock. All of the adjectives it brings to mind apply to this 12-track, 53-minute set that nearly put me to sleep on a recent road trip.

There are only two new songs here—more about them later—and the remaining 10 are don’t seem to have been chosen for any other reason that the minimal effort they required. A folksy “Goodnight, Irene” and a syrupy “Born to Lose” (from Ray Charles’ country and western phase) would be bad enough, but tossing in three chestnuts from the so-called Great American Songbook in as well, all with shimmering strings and Roy Conniff-style backing vocals, is just painful, surpassing even the dreck that Rod Stewart has been shoveling for the last decade or so.

“Further on Down the Road” (Jesse Davis/Taj Mahal), “Till Your Well Runs Dry” (Peter Tosh), and “Your One and Only Man” (Otis Redding) sound like faux-reggae rejects from the 461 Ocean Boulevard sessions, while the late British blue guitarist Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues” is most assuredly devoid of any trace of the purported blues. A soft arrangement, a lazy vocal, and a brief guitar solo that could have been pieced together from three or four other solos from different songs just doesn’t cut it.

Neither of the new songs did Clapton write. “Gotta Get Over” almost comes to life, but not quite. It’s a decent song, with a decent vocal and lots of those familiar guitar fills that Clapton does better than anyone, but which have been done to death. The other original is “Every Little Thing,” which may have already wrapped up the award for worst track of 2013. Not only is it another of the faux-reggae lot, complete with a faux-Marley title, but its chorus halfway in assaults the listener with the worst sound that can be captured by a recording engineer: a children’s chorus. After this debacle, I’d be surprised if we ever got a good new track out of Clapton again.

However, the constant stream of great work from Richard Thompson continues. Electric was recorded in Nashville with Buddy Miller producing, with Thompson including, for the most part, just Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Michael Jerome on drums, and, occasionally, Siobhan Maher Kennedy on backing vocal. Without anything to hide behind, Thompson’s strengths as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist—both electric and acoustic—continue to amaze.

“Stony Ground,” “Sally B,” and especially “Stuck on the Treadmill” have the thump and heft of the sort of rock songs that aren’t getting made much these days: a cranky guy belting out pointed lyrics and driving the point home with guitar solos that sound like the gleam on a shiny new barbed-wire fence you glimpse as you’re about to hit it face-first after being thrown over the handlebars.

“Salford Sunday” and “Where’s Home?” have the folk tinge that Thompson’s work has had since his days with Fairport Convention, the latter featuring the incomparable Stuart Duncan on fiddle and some of the Buddy Miller sound that one might have expected on the rest of the disc. (I also wanted a Thompson/Miller guitar duel, but I guess Buddy knew better). “Straight and Narrow” is another rocker that Thompson does well—a grungy look at an unattainable, frustrating vamp—but I’ve never cared for the Farfisa organ sound.

Another Nashville luminary—Alison Krauss—lends her translucent voice to “The Snow Goose.” Though it’s only for a couple of slight passages, the two voices together are as as gorgeous as a summer sunset sliding through the clouds.

Thompson has always been able to write about the bitter and the sweet of mature relationships as well as anyone, and “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You” are two more that resonate more deeply than anything new I’ve heard lately.

“My Enemy” and “Good Things Happen to Bad People” are aptly situated near the middle of Electric, and they amount to 11 devastating minutes of haunting melody, harrowing guitar work, and a vocal/lyric meditation on self-hatred and contempt for the world that holds everyone to account. The effect is not quite cathartic, leaving the listener to deal with the scab that’s just been scraped off.

Electric is my frontrunner for this year’s best album, and it’s going to take something remarkable to change that.

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