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Love, life, and mercy

Noteworthy new or recent releases

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.

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Brian Rasic/Getty Images

Brian Rasic/Getty Images


Bowie and his fans

Albums show the celebrated star’s gratitude

Shortly after David Bowie’s death, the high-culture aesthete Theodore Dalrymple published an essay titled “Not a Fan” in which he pondered why the British daily The Guardian (“a newspaper directed at the most highly educated and intellectual portion of a large population”) “should devote so much space to the posthumous adulation of such a person as David Bowie, and why his activity should be treated with such breathlessly awed veneration.”

As if picking up Dalrymple’s gauntlet, Parlophone Records has spent the last four years putting into circulation special editions of rare Bowie recordings. This year’s bumper crop includes two studio EPs and three full-length live albums. And if the EPs (Is It Any Wonder? and ChangesNowBowie) aren’t substantial enough to change the minds of Bowie skeptics, I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74), Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95), and Something in the Air (Live Paris 99) should at least ameliorate their dismissal of Bowie as a showbiz charlatan.

Interestingly, the most ameliorating quality common to the live albums has nothing to do with Bowie’s music (unless a quarter century of the keyboardist Mike Garson’s holding Bowie’s bands together counts). Rather, it has to do with his onstage manner in general and his onstage manners in particular.

Whether riding his first surge of fame (1974), endeavoring a comeback (1995), or continuing to endeavor a comeback (1999), Bowie can be heard between songs making friendly, self-deprecating small talk with the thousands in attendance (he could always fill arenas) and offering brief but sincere expressions of gratitude to them for their having chosen to buy tickets to his show.

Admittedly, banter may seem like a weak foundation on which to base arguments for a rock star’s redeeming qualities. But given what has become the fore-, aft-, and ’tween-song-banter norm—a tired combination of button pushing, profanity, and grandstanding—Bowie comes off debonair, even gentlemanly.

He comes off generous too, especially on The Soul Tour 74. Recorded when he’d been on the road for a lengthy stretch, it finds him in ragged voice. He has to sing the refrain of “Changes” in a lower octave and blows the climax of “Young Americans” altogether. But like an old-school trouper he knows that the show must go on.

He was in fine vocal form for the ’95 and ’99 concerts. (Despite his reputation as a rock ’n’ roll chameleon, Bowie was clearly comfortable in his own skin.) He was also intent on honoring a promise he’d made at the end of his 1990 tour never again to be a human jukebox simply churning out the hits. So while he includes the occasional “classic,” he focuses on deep cuts and songs from his latest moderately selling albums, rendering himself endearingly vulnerable in the process.

“You might actually enjoy this material,” he seemed to be saying, “if only you have the chance to give it a chance. That chance is what I’m offering. So please take it.

“You never know when it might be your last.”

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From kitchen to bar

Noteworthy new or recent releases

Kitchen Covers: The Collection by Drew Holcomb featuring Ellie Holcomb: The cover art and title say it all: The Holcombs in their kitchen with little more than an acoustic guitar, their voices, and 16 of their favorite songs. The Avett Brothers, Kacey Musgraves, Tom Petty, John Prine, and NEEDTOBREATHE covers aren’t exactly surprising. Neither is the triptych of ’60s chart toppers (Louis Armstrong, Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell). But making them sound as if they belong together along with tributes to Johnny and June Carter Cash, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z takes some doing. Only Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” feels unconvincing.

Out of Body by NEEDTOBREATHE: Be not dismayed by news of Bo Rinehart’s departure. The electronica that distinguished 2016’s Hard Love from everything that had come before has been fully subsumed, making this album feel like a return to form. One listen to “Riding High,” which begins pure country then revs into high gear with guitars bottleneck-sliding every which way, reestablishes their Southern-rock cred with a vengeance. Close listening, however, reveals incremental progress. The hooks are bigger than ever, justifying not only Bear Rinehart’s renewed commitment to emoting like a country singer who thinks he’s Bono (which sure beats the other way around) but also lyrics that reflect the high stakes attending every moment of those for whom Christ is all.

Saint Etienne Presents Songs for the Fountain Coffee Room by various artists: At first glance, this selection of recordings chosen “to fit a bar in mid-’70s Los Angeles” seems top-heavy with obscurities. Tamiko Jones? Jeff Perry? Batteaux? Then one remembers how hip ’70s LA was, and that in such a setting Billboard blips by the Fifth Avenue Band, Delegation, Millie Jackson, the pre-breakthrough Daryl Hall & John Oates, and the post-breakthrough Bobbie Gentry would’ve functioned as entirely acceptable segues between better-known singles by Seals & Crofts, Stephen Bishop, Todd Rundgren, and Boz Scaggs. Mainly, though, the program traces pop-R&B’s gradual transformation into night music for disco dwellers, stopping just short of the moment it crossed the line.

Blonde on the Tracks by Emma Swift: If this beautifully sung, sonically luscious, and creatively reimagined collection of Bob Dylan covers did not include “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “The Man in Me,” it would deserve every syllable of its many rave reviews. But it does contain those songs, the former of which drags on for 12 minutes, effectively grinding the album to a halt, and the latter of which turns a simple love song into a nonbinary, gender-schmender manifesto. “I wanted to sing songs from a female perspective,” Swift has said, “but I didn’t want to change any of the pronouns. I didn’t want to make any attempt to fit these things within a heteronormative context. That’s not what I’m about.” Caveat emptor.

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