The Cardinal Press
Last we presented positions 35-14 of what I think were the best albums in 2016. Today we continue with that business and we present Top 13 best albums this year. It doesn’t mean that these any worse than the ones we will put in top 13, it’s just a matter of personal taste. This year was not an easy one, but it brought us some records that will stay with us for many years I think. The top part of the list is reserved some some incredible comebacks (Sylvia Juncosa, Dinosaur Jr, Jody Stephens), new comers (Honeymoon Disease, Honey, Blaak Heat, Connections).
But the album that marked year from me, is Julie Christensen’s new project Stone Cupid. She sang better than ever, on a record that is rocking, grungy and rootsy at the same time. A killer span of genres that can only be brought by one of the Divine Horsemen.
Dive into my selection of the top 13 records and hopefully you will find something for yourself. See you next year!
BEST OF 2016 AT THE LITTLE LIGHTHOUSE
1 Stone Cupid - The Cardinal
2 Connections - Midnight Run
3 Those Pretty Wrongs
4 Blaak Heat - Shifting Mirrors
5 Lilly Hiatt - Royal Blue
6 Lydia Loveless - Real
7 Bad Luck Jonathan
8 Dinosaur Jr. - Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
9 Honeymoon Disease - The Transcendence
10 Disciplin A Kitchme - Opet
11 Jack Oblivian and The Sheiks - The Lone Ranger Of Love
12 Sylvia Juncosa - Wanna Gotta
13 Honey - Love is Hard
14 Meet Your Death
15 Jonathan Richman - Ishkode Ishkode
16 Dan Stuart - Marlowe's Revenge
17 Zig Zags - Running Out of Red
18 Apache - Alcatraz
19 Faux Killas - Time In Between
20 Erotic Biljan And His Heretics - The Devil Stole My Record
21 Seger Liberation Army - Innervenus Eyes
22 Javier Escovedo - Kicked Out Of Eden
In a previous column on the Grammy awards, I noted some differences between the movie and music industries. Another significant difference occurs during the first two or three months of each year. While Hollywood dumps its dogs during those months, music labels purposefully release many fine albums. This year is no exception.
So, for this week I’m highlighting some of the more intriguing roots and Americana music we have to look forward to in the next few weeks. As I cannot cover everything, feel free to add what you have been looking forward to in the comments section below.
Anytime Buddy Miller releases a new record, it is a cause for jubilation. This time last year he set up a make-shift recording studio on the Cayamo cruise ship to take advantage of the other fine folks who were captive performers -- Lucinda Williams. Elizabeth Cook, Nikki Lane, Lee Ann Womack, Kris Kristofferson and Richard Thompson. Cayamo Sessions at Sea sails onto our platters on January 29.
One I have been long anticipating is Henry Wagons' second album recorded in Nashville. I do not miss him at the AMA Festival, as it’s hard to catch any Aussie in the States, and he and Kasey Chambers are the brightest. He's a combination of Nick Cave, Johnny Cash a bit hungover, and a young Waylon holding nothing back. After What I did Last Night walks through your door on February 12.
You may not have heard of Stone Cupid, but you certainly have heard its founder, Julie Christensen, whose sublime vocals graced many recordings and live dates with Leonard Cohen. She formed this band in Nashville to explore her rock side and wrote its songs solo or with some folks you might know -- Chuck Prophet, David Olney, Kevin Gordon, and Cohen himself. Her return should not come as a complete surprise, since she co-fronted the LA punk-roots band Divine Horsemen in the early 1980s. To quote Skip Anderson in his ND review last year, "Her swagger is true to her rebellious punk-rock roots, and refined through working with the likes of Cohen, Iggy Pop, Public Image Limited, and Todd Rundgren [who produced an unreleased solo album]." Christensen has worn coats of many different colors, and this one's red. The Cardinal took flight on January 22.
Flatpicker extraordinaire Larry Keel’s 15th album features some heavy hitters: Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, and Sam Bush, among others. The disc is all original material that showcases both Larry’s and bandmate Will Lee’s exceptional songwriting, singing, and jaw-dropping instrumental performances, accompanied by Keel’s equally talented wife Jenny Keel on upright bass and harmony vocals. As guest Keller Williams says, “When we get together, our wonder-powers unite to form a giant, impenetrable sphere of open-minded, Appalachian psychedelic goodness.” Experienced jimmies into your soul on February 26.
Diana Jones’ last recording, Museum of Appalachia Recordings, was an unheralded treasure, more admired abroad than here. Her appearances can be sketchy, but as a weaver of songs and mountain tales, she has few equals. Her new album, a live one, may be hard to find as it will be available in the US only as an import, but will be worth the effort. Live in Concert becomes part of the unified field theory on February 26.
Speaking of new, hard-to-find live albums, Patti Smith has just done one. Other than her 30th anniversary re-release of Horses, which included a live 2005 recording of the album, Live in Berlin is her only commercially released live album. Live is the operative word here, as it is only available at her shows.
Trixie Whitely is not nearly as well-known in the US as she is in Europe, but as she has just announced a tour of the usual Americana venues in the East to support her new album. She got a nice boost when she was the vocalist for Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub, but it’s her solo work that is even more mesmerizing. Porta Bohemica rails into town on February 5.
Carrie Rodriguez's new bilingual album was recorded with the Sacred Hearts Band and features Bill Frisell and Raul Malo. The album is a mixture of new and old, featuring songs in Spanish written by Mexican composers, as well as originals in English and Spanglish that were inspired by the Mexican Ranchera songbook. Lola falls into our hearts on February 19.
I have adored Aoife O’Donovan ever since her Crooked Still days, and have seen her many times since as a solo artist, fronting her own band where she can really swing, or as a trio with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. O'Donovan has made a unique place for herself. The lyrical introspection of In the Magic Hour arose on January 22.
Some say Dolly, some say Tammy, but I used to watch the otherwise pedestrian Wilburn Brothers syndicated TV show just for Loretta’s song, while always hoping for a second even if it had to be a duet. Lynn’s first album since her lone (!) Grammy-winner eases even the most troubled mind. Full Circle becomes complete on March 5.
Everything you have heard about the Cactus Blossoms is true. Brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum have an uncanny vocal resemblance to the Everlys with a direct line back to the masters, the Louvin Brothers. Produced by JD McPherson, You’re Dreamingwoke us from our slumber on January 22.
I have distinct remembrances of Bonnie Raitt when she, as the daughter of a Broadway stalwart, began singing, playing, and hanging out with old blues guys and gals in the early '70s. I saw her many times back then, with Little Feat, Jackson Browne, Maria Muldaur, and others. She can do no wrong, and Dig in Deep digs even deeper on February 26.
Sierra Hull is joined by Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens, and Abigail Washburn on her new album not so much to lend support but more like an acknowledgement that the one-time wunderkind has come into her own. As if we did not know that already. Weighted Mind becomes weightless on January 29.
As nearly all of these releases will also be availble on vinyl, I would be remiss not to note that an LP version of Gillian Welch's Soul Journey was released last week in Europe. It is now available wherever imports are sold.
If you are with me so far, you’ll note that one album is conspicuous by its absence. That’s because next week’s column will be devoted to exclusively it.
(Due to weather constraints, the posted photo of Stone Cupid was taken by Stacie Huckeba.)
Stone Cupid (from the album The Cardinal) - The Cardinal is a volume of work as a collection of thirteen stories that Julie Christensen inks for the album. Stone Cupid takes the stories song into song with vivid swaths of sound to back Julie Christensen at the microphone. She is bordered with a dual sonics and strums by Sergio Webb and Chris Tench, held in place with a rhythm section of Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil) on bass, and Steve Latanation (Legendary Shack Shakers) on drums. The Cardinal professes faith in Roots music with percussive patters (“Saint on a Chain”), Blue twang (“Would You Love Me”), and Country Rock (“Broken Wing”). With its Roots deep, Stone Cupid gives the tracks freedom to wander in Rock bombast without the need for studio glitz and polish.
The characters that walk through Julie Christensen’s stories are supported in their decisions and missteps with the richness of her vocals, aged in fronting her band Divine Horsemen, and providing background harmony for Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. As the rhythms of “No Mercy” become a whirling froth, they are stirred with snarling guitars as the six string x2 continues to take leads, creating a current for “Girl in the Sky” to float on a river of sparse riffs and airy chord swells. The double guitars on The Cardinal subtly give the album a structured border as they chop chords, nipping at the beat with snaking licks in “Live and Not Die Trying”, gently cradling “Anthem” as it searches for signs, lightly touching “Broken as I Am” with textured guitar tones, cutting deep rows through “Riverside”, and pulling their six strings tighter to give wings to the title track.
Artist: Stone Cupid with Julie Christensen
Hometown: Nashville, TN
Song: "The Cardinal"
Album: The Cardinal
Release Date: January 22
In Their Words: "The song 'The Cardinal' started as a folky ode to the bird, but went south into the murder ballad territory when I started rifling through my past. My association with the Cardinal mascot of my youth, dead friends communicating via birds, and betrayals all tumbled in. When you write songs, you need to lie your face off to get to the truth sometimes. My band rocked it into an even darker place and we just went for it." -- Julie Christensen
JULIE CHRISTENSEN & STONE CUPID The Cardinal
(Stone Cupid ****)
As and when a definitive history of alt country gets written, the opening arguments will be over Who’s On First? One conventional wisdom gives that honor to Jason & The Scorchers (est 1981), another, for no good reason that I can see, to Uncle Tupelo (est 1987: disclaimer, I never did care much for Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt or Wilco). However, there seems little dispute that the first wave included The Long Ryders and The Divine Horsemen. One could try and fit X and Lone Justice into this scenario, but it takes a bit of doing. Founded in 1983 by punk rocker Chris Desjardins (he calls himself Chris D, but I have no patience with such affectations), The Divine Horsemen were pioneers, but the band ultimately served mainly as a launching pad for Desjardins’ then wife and co- vocalist, Julie Christensen.
The only album, as far as I know, that made it to the UK was the first, Time Stands Still (Enigma, 1984), which I remember liking a a good deal, however, I’ve been told that Desjardins was somewhat lacking in social skills (Christensen describes him as always having a metaphorical “hammer in his hand while I was Julie Creamcheese from Iowa”), thus had few supporters at Enigma or friends in the media, so the band soon moved to SST Records for whom they cut three albums and two EPs before breaking up in 1988 (as did Desjardins & Christensen). Desjardins’ relationship with SST was so toxic that, unlike many of the label’s acts, he was unable to recover the band’s masters, so there have been no reissues.
However, even before the band’s demise, I had become a Christensen devotee, thanks to her appearance on a compilation album, Don’t Shoot (Zippo [UK], 1986), singing a stone country cover of Almost Persuaded, credit where credit’s due, deftly produced by Desjardins, with Greg Leisz on pedal steel. This one track did two things for me, it totally persuaded me that Julie Christensen was, or anyway could be, one of the all-time great country singers, the other was that, David Houston’s 1966 #1 hit notwithstanding, she irrevocably made Almost Persuaded a song that could only be convincingly sung by a woman. She also cut Once More with Brantley Kearns, but it wasn’t used, damn it. Though recorded before A Town South Of Bakersfield (Enigma, 1986), Don’t Shoot was released after it, so, while arguably the better album, it was regarded as a knockoff (except by some asshole at Time Out In London who shall remain nameless).
Seems some other people noticed that Christensen can sing a bit. Desjardins, for one, signed her up after hearing her harmonize Hello Walls with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs (“I think he took a shine to me right there”). After a couple of bands in her native Iowa, Christensen moved to Austin the late 70s and there fell in with jazz bassist Roscoe Beck of Passenger, who, three months after she left The Divine Horsemen, invited her to audition as a back-up singer for Leonard Cohen, with whom she toured for the next six years. Round the same time, she was signed to Polygram but a Todd Rungren produced album (“It was her ability to sing with conviction in a variety of approaches that made her extraordinary to me”) was shelved and Christensen dropped in an A&R reshuffle (how often have I heard this one?), of which she says, “I’ve done a lot of work on my resentments.” However, her voice could be heard singing backup vocals on albums by Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Robben Ford, Janiva Magness and many, many others.
Unable to retrieve her Polygram masters, Christensen rerecorded some tracks and, with new songs, self-released her solo debut, Love Is Driving (Stone Cupid, 1996, which, back then, meant maxing out credit cards). Since then, she’s put out five more albums including The Cardinal, on which she originally broke format, crediting it to Stone Cupid, rather than herself, but later she found out about algorithms. Do not ask me to explain this, suffice to say, they were not her friends when it came to actually monetizing The Cardinal, so she changed it to Julie Christensen & Stone Cupid, which apparently solved her problem.
Thinking of Stone Cupid, which Christensen praises for “absence of ego,” one name will resonate with most 3CM readers—Sergio Webb, one of my, and I hope your, favorite pickers. Like many people, Christensen first saw him, after she moved from Ojai, CA to East Nashville in 2013, accompanying David Olney or Amelia White, but it wasn’t until she saw him play in a full band setting that she realized he could rock, and asked him to join her band. Come to think, Olney and White are also represented in the credits, Olney for cowriting No Mercy, with Christensen and John Hadley, White for her Girl In The Sky. Other cowrites are Riverside and Broken Wing, with Laura Curtis, other covers are of Dan Navarro’s Shed My Skin, Chuck Prophet’s Would You Love Me? and the album standout, Christensen’s take on Kevin Gordon’s Saint On A Chain. Actually, there is one more cover, of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. Torn between wanting to record Anthem and the fact that it simply didn’t fit into the sequencing (I do dearly love artists who think like that), Christensen included it as a ‘hidden bonus track’ (great version, by the way, with rather fewer rivals than Hallelujah).
Positioning Christensen is a little difficult. As the song selection and the move to East Nashville suggest, she’s got at least a foot in the singer-songwriter/Americana camp, but recruiting Sergio Webb affirms that she is, au fond, a rocker, albeit one whose alt country history still underpins her work. For some reason, she doesn’t think she’s qualified to be a country singer. like who is these days? Still, if I might dream of a pure country album, I’ll take anything Christensen has to offer, though I will say that, on this one, Sergio Webb is very much added value. JC