VARIOUS ARTISTS – Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James (Sylvan Songs Records)

Strange AngelsTaking its name in part from a James song, Strange Angels: In Flight With Elmore James reworks thirteen well- and lesser-known James songs in homage to his lasting influence on not just the blues, but far beyond.

To do justice to the roll-call of first-rate musicians appearing on this album would leave little room for discussing the music itself. Suffice to say, stellar names from soul, country, rock and pop feature large. Even the notional “house band”, Elmore’s Latest Broomdusters (an update of James’s own band name), consists of hugely respected musicians including producer/drummer Marco Giovino. Special mention here goes to Rudy Copeland whose mighty Hammond sound provides a meaty punchline to many of the tracks.

Wisely, perhaps, no-one tries to emulate the shimmering metallic thrust of James himself, and these covers are largely indebted to his influence on later blues rock. The resulting tracks are, broadly speaking, much heavier sounding, with plenty of what the Buzzcocks used to refer to as “tricky guitar solo(s)”.

Elayna Boynton sets the pace with a galloping take on ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’, followed up by soul legend Bettye Lavette’s lived-in ‘Person To Person’. A briskly rollicking trot through ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ by country singer Rodney Crowell is followed by the unmistakeable grunt “Huh, yeah” as Tom Jones powers through ‘Done Somebody Wrong’. ‘Mean Mistreatin’ Mama’ is a triple-bill of Warren Haynes, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Mickey Raphael’s storming harmonica.

Deborah Bonham’s ‘Dust My Broom’ unfortunately somehow manages to lose that classic raw slide guitar wailing riff under a country rock beat, although Jamey Johnson’s ‘It Hurts Me Too’ keeps the bar room piano firmly on tap.

‘Strange Angel’ (singular: as listed on the promo CD) brings together the stunning sibling harmonies of Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer over a long, slow, jazzy beat embellished with more of that Hammond sound, plus a fat, gritty guitar riff, all underpinned with a twanging county steel.

Triple Grammy award winner, Keb Mo’, lends an almost fairground-ride motion to ‘Look On Yonder Wall’, with maybe just a soupçon of the Grange Hill theme. In contrast, Mollie Marriott delivers an impassioned vocal on ‘My Bleeding Heart’, bringing real pathos to lines like “People, people, you know what it means to be left alone”.

The ringing phone that opens Chuck E Weiss’s take on ‘Hawaiian Boogie’ is followed by the most gorgeous dirty, fuzzed out guitar, with just a taste of New Orleans. Weiss said of his choice, “After careful consideration the vocal work for Elmore was too perfect for me to touch… So I chose my favourite instrumental!!!”

Perhaps the most radical interpretation here sees Addi McDaniel’s smooth lounge vocal smouldering over a slouchy, loose gypsy fiddle-led blues with touches of banjo and a Spanish-inflected guitar. Then the house band winds up proceedings with ‘Bobby’s Rock’, another scuzzy, fuzzy rendition, with that driving Hammond in place of the sax of the original.

And if all of this collected talent offering updates on some classic songs is not enough of a feel-good factor, profits from the album go to benefit two US charities. C’mon, what’s not to like?
Su O’Brien

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Rodney Crowell – ‘Shake Your Money Maker’:

Rodney Crowell announces new album

Rodney Crowell

Multi-Grammy award winning troubadour Rodney Crowell will release his new album Close Ties on 7th April through New West Records. The ten-song set is his first album in over three years and follows The Traveling Kind, his acclaimed collection of duets with long-time collaborator Emmylou Harris. Co-produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie, the album features a duet with Sheryl Crow on the haunting ‘I’m Tied To Ya,’ and ‘It Ain’t Over Yet,’ a vocal collaboration with his ex-wife Rosanne Cash and John Paul White. It is the first time Crowell and Cash have appeared on record together since Cash’s Interiors album in 1990. Rolling Stone premiered the video for ‘It Ain’t Over Yet,’ which also features legendary harmonica player Mickey Raphael and reflected,

“the evocative lyrics call to mind the two-tone, punked-out cover image from Cash’s 1985 LP Rhythm And Romance, which preceded Crowell’s mainstream country breakthrough of five consecutive Number One hits from 1988’s Diamonds & Dirt and the subsequent collapse of the couple’s marriage.”

Close Ties both demonstrates Crowell’s strengths as a songwriter and illustrates how he has learned to balance personal recollection, literary sophistication and his profound musical reach. It’s at once his most intimate record and his most accessible, the product of years of understanding the ways songs can enter – and be entered by – life. Close Ties is a loose concept record that ranges from songs about Crowell’s childhood in Texas (‘East Houston Blues’) to songs about arriving in Nashville as a young songwriter (‘Nashville 1972’) to songs about friends (the anguished ‘Life Without Susanna’) and lovers lost (‘Forgive Me, Annabelle’). It is a roots record, in the sense that Crowell himself has deep roots that stretch back into the alternative country scene of the early seventies that included Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and more. But it defies easy classification. Is it country? Is it a singer songwriter record?

“I have declared my loyalty to Americana. It’s a hard category for people to get their heads around, or at least the terminology is. But all the people who represent it – Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and more recent stars like John Paul White and Jason Isbell – share a common thread, and that thread is poet. Whether they are actual poets or their music exemplifies a poetic sensibility, generally speaking, the Americana artist shuns commercial compromise in favour of a singular vision. Which resonates with me.”

One trait of a poet and the concept behind Close Ties involves the careful handling of memory.

“A few years ago I made a record called The Houston Kid that triggered Chinaberry Sidewalks [Crowell’s 2011 memoir],” he says. “Those memory muscles are pretty strong in me. They have a natural pull. And so many of these songs use those memories as raw material.”

Fifty years after Crowell first started playing as a teen in Houston garage bands, he has moved into elder-statesman territory, and continues to extend the path carved out by the top-tier songwriters who preceded him. His songs have been recorded by country legends (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Strait), to current country chart toppers (Tim McGraw, Keith Urban) to blues icons (Etta James) to rock and roll legends (Van Morrison, Bob Seger). He is a Grammy award winner, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, recipient of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association, and the author of his autobiography, Chinaberry Sidewalks.

If you would like to order a copy of the album (in CD or Vinyl), download it or just listen to snippets of selected tracks (track previews are usually on the download page) then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website.

Buying through Amazon on helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website:

‘It Ain’t Over Yet’ – official video: