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Record Roundup: Last Gasp 2012

Buddy Miller, Iris Dement, Jason Isbell & Paul Kelly
Jim Caligiuri, 1:06pm, Wed. Dec. 19, 2012
Here’s four new releases any self respecting geezer would love to get for the holidays.

Twenty years ago, Jim Lauderdale’s guitarist was Buddy Miller. We hung out a bit and although I appreciated Miller’s skills, I thought he was just a fuzzy-headed guy in a baseball cap. Then Miller started making his own LPs and became one of my favorite musicians and songwriters. Not sure what took them so long – perhaps it’s the fact both are busy collaborating with everyone from Emmylou Harris (Miller) to Elvis Costello (Lauderdale) – but they've finally re-teamed.

Buddy & Jim reflects their long-running friendship, mixing covers from Fifties country stars Johnny & Jack and Sixties soul man Joe Tex with typically strong originals like “I Lost My Job of Loving You.” Brotherly harmonies and some of Nashville’s best pickers make this disc a throwback to a time when country music dug deeper than singing about pickup trucks and the agony of teenage heartbreak.

Those thinking that Iris Dement became afflicted with Willis Alan Ramsey syndrome can rejoice. Sing the Delta, her first album in 16 years, beats out Lyle Lovett’s buddy who still hasn’t followed up his debut after 40 years. The wait was worth it, however. The Arkansas native relies more on the piano than she has in the past, but her new songs are as full of passion and vivid imagery as anything she’s done before.

There are occasional touches to the new material that separate Raise the Delta from her previous four albums – Infamous Angel (1992), My Life (1994), The Way I Should (1996), and Lifeline (2004) – most notably the mournful horns on the title track. Yet Dement continues to examine the meaning of faith and family throughout. The story of her brother’s death, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” is as uplifting as she gets, but fans who appreciate her fragile melodies and sepia-toned stories will react with welcome jubilation.

If Jason Isbell’s solo discs haven’t convinced you to see him on his occasional trips through Austin, then Live From Alabama should be the kicker. With his band the 400 Unit, ’Bama’s songwriter/guitarist tackles a lot of ground, from songs he recorded as a member of the Drive-By Truckers (“Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel”) and divergent covers (Candi Staton’s “Heart On A String,” Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane”) to devout originals (“Alabama Pines,” “Dress Blues”).

While not quite as big-sounding as DBT, Isbell & the 400 Unit are equally dynamic and effective on Live From Alabama. Moreover, he remains one of his generation’s best tunesmiths.

Speaking of great songwriters, Australia’s Paul Kelly just issued Spring and Fall, his first album of new material in five years. (Since it’s box set season, don't forget his The A to Z Recordings earlier this year.) A song cycle reflecting the rise and fall of a romance, it’s understated yet engaging, melancholy yet revealing – something only a master like Kelly can accomplish.

Tunes like “Gonna Be Good” and “I’m On Your Side” may seem simple melodies plainly stated, yet Kelly imbues them and the rest of Spring and Fall’s 11 songs with comfort and a healing tone that’s rare in a portrait of devastating heartbreak.

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