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Talking About the Love of God by the Harvesters: The only readily available information on this charming, just-reissued album of Southern-gospel songs is that it was initially released in 1977 on the Irish label Emerald Gem. And even then it must have seemed anachronistic—not because of its material (songs such as “One Day Too Late,” “More Than Just a Swear Word,” and the “There Goes My Everything” rewrite “He Is My Everything” were more or less contemporary at the time) but because of its style: a throwback to the well-mannered coffeehouse folk of the ’60s, replete with acoustic guitars, dulcet vocal harmonies, and just enough harmonica and steel guitar to suggest that the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was waiting in the wings.
The Absence of Presence by Kansas: If you still have a soft spot for the 1970s Kansas, you’re perfectly within your rights to pass on this effort from the current lineup if only on principle. With just Phil Ehart and Rich Williams on hand from the original band, exactly how “Kansan” can it be? As it turns out, plenty. Composed exclusively by the four-year veteran Zak Rizvi (six songs) and the two-year veteran Tom Brislin (three), the music’s FM-friendly lengths, hard-rock brawn, and prog-rock multidimensionality sound like the missing link between Masque and Leftoverture. What also doesn’t hurt: the vocal similarities between Ronnie Platt and Steve Walsh, and the demi-philosophical concerns common to both Brislin and the pre-conversion Kerry Livgren.
First Rose of Spring by Willie Nelson: For his first marijuana-free album, Willie Nelson hasn’t exactly knocked himself out writing. Only two cuts bear his name, and he composed those with his producer Buddy Cannon. So assume that Nelson exhausted himself deciding which songs by other people to record, and conclude that it was energy well spent. Not only do the nine covers crystallize crucial facets of his ornery-old-cuss-with-a-heart-of-gold persona, but they also find him emoting with tender loving care. That he’s not getting any younger we knew. That he was squirreling away definitive interpretations of Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” Roy Clark’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and Beathard, Sampson, and Cannon-Goodman’s “Stealing Home” we didn’t.
Living on Mercy by Dan Penn: At 78, Penn no longer has the voice to make the Southern soul in which he specializes sound as special as it is. But Will McFarlane, Clayton Ivey, Michael Rhodes, and Milton Sledge (Penn’s band) could almost be the Memphis Boys. And whether the songs are new, 15 to 20 years old (Penn’s estimate of the title track’s vintage), or over 50 (“I Do”), they’re of a piece with the hits that he co-wrote for Aretha Franklin, the Box Tops, James Carr, and James & Bobby Purify. Mind you, “of a piece with” doesn’t mean “on par with.” Then again, Penn’s par is pretty high. And he does go out of his way to specify that the mercy that he’s living on is God’s.
Critics are calling Dan Penn’s Living on Mercy (The Last Music Co.) his first new album in 26 years. And not counting a live album with Spooner Oldham, a live bootleg with Allen Toussaint, and two “demos collections” (Penn’s term), it is. There was also, however, a new “old” Penn album in 2012: an Ace Records compilation called The FAME Recordings. Named after the Muscle Shoals studio in which Penn cut the tracks, the compilation makes the strongest case to date for Penn’s outsize role in the development of Southern soul.
Recorded during the mid-’60s, The FAME Recordings is, technically speaking, a demos collection as well. But neither Penn nor his Alabama accompanists approached the material as if they were merely minting blueprints. Instead, they sound as if they intended to take the songs to the bank themselves, whereupon they would’ve almost certainly cashed in. Sam Cooke, after all, was dead, Otis Redding soon to be—and, believe it or not, Penn sang like a mixture of the two. —A.O.