Nils Lofgren & Lou Reed

For his first studio album in eight years, with songs worked on during his day job touring Australia as a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, singer/songwriter/guitarist Nils Lofgren dusted off and chiseled away at five songs no one had ever heard that he co-wrote with Lou Reed. Blue With Lou (Cattle Track Road Records) will obviously show up in many lists of best albums of 2019. It’s that good. Co-produced by Lofgren at his home studio in Arizona, one of the tracks that folks have, indeed, heard, is “City Lights” from Reed’s 1979 The Bells album. Here, though, on this stunning and satisfyingly delicious update, saxophonist Branford Marsalis wails. The five discoveries are so good, one has to wonder why they stayed locked up in a trunk for decades.

Thirteen songs were written in one very long night in Reed’s New York City apartment. Three were on Lofgren’s 1979 Nils album. “Life” was on Lofgren’s 1995 Damaged Goods and “Driftin’ Man” on his 2002 Breakaway Angel. But five—“Attitude City,” “Give,” “Talk Thru The Tears,” “Don’t Let Your Guard Down” and “Cut Him Up”—survived without having ever been recorded until now. Although Lofgren wrote most of the melodies and Reed wrote most of the lyrics, there was a bleeding-through of responsibility and damn if you can’t distinguish Reed’s acerbic worldview set to Lofgren’s buoyant melodic constructions. It makes for a profound listening experience, especially when you consider the fact that Lofgren, at 67, can still sing like the young man he was in Grin, the band he formed in 1971 after leaving Neil Young. Now add six new Lofgren compositions, the most affecting of which is “Dear Heartbreaker,” his paean to a fallen friend named Tom, and “Rock Or Not,” a protest song.

This is no-flab, all killer, no filler, basic, brilliant, ballsy rock ‘n’ roll—a rarity these days.

Akira Tana & Otonowa

The pleasures of world music and jazz improv come to the fore on Ai San San:  Love’s Radiance (Vega Records). Drummer Akira Tana and his Otonowa band formed in response to the devastating 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami that killed over 20,000 people. They’ve performed benefits to raise money for the last seven years. On this, their third album, traditional and pop songs from Japan get turned into instrumental jazz, compete with the requisite amount of Eastern flourishes. Its folkloric beauty swings in a post-bop free-for-all of magnetic proportions. His original quartet has now been augmented by three to make it into a septet of alluring sound, complete with the use of traditional Japanese instrumentation and melodies all gussied up with good taste to add flair, surprise, and syncopation. Highlights include a 1923 song most Japanese school-children know by heart, the theme song to a seventies Japanese detective show, three ancient Japanese fisherman folk songs, and it all ends on a wistful note with a breathtakingly gorgeous reading of jazz pianist Horace Silver’s 1959 “Peace.” This is stunning stuff in its breadth and scope.

I Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

Allen Toussaint is a saint. His DNA is all over everything from Elvis Costello’s 2006 The River In Reverse, Dr. John’s 1974 Desitively Bonnaroo, Paul McCartney’s 1975 Wings album Venus and Mars, and John Mayall’s 1976 Notice To Appear. He wrote “Workin’ In A Coal Mine” for Lee Dorsey, “Southern Nights” for Glen Campbell, “Pain In My Heart” for Otis Redding, and “Java” for Al Hirt. The man could do no wrong. Now comes a stirring tribute by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra called Songs: The Music Of Allen Toussaint (Storyville Records) with seven of his songs and two original tribute tracks.

Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong first recorded “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” in 1947. I do. Singularly drenched in its own mysterious culture, it’s a magic town that imprints itself upon your psyche. There’s simply no place like it in the world. You breathe the music there. It’s in the food, the water, the air. New Orleans music is joyous—even the funeral marches—to the point of heavenly. As an elder statesman of that town, Toussaint brought class and dignity to the fore with his regal demeanor, compositions, pianistics, and productions. The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra does his memory proud. Tough to pick a highlight but “Ruler Of My Heart,” the 1963 Irma Thomas hit (later covered by a scorching Linda Ronstadt version in 1998), is sung here by the exquisite Nayo Jones, and, man, does she nail it!   

Wandering Pilgrim

Meet Simon Bonney from Australia. At 14, he ran away from home. At 16, he formed a punk band in an abandoned building. As part of the Melbourne indie scene, he met his future wife and collaborator, formed a post-punk band until it broke up and he went underground in 1980. In 1983, he resurfaced in London with Mick Harvey of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds, with whom he ran away again to Germany. In 1992, he emigrated to the U.S., stayed 10 years in Los Angeles, made two records, had two kids, flirted with country music, and ended up in Detroit before moving back to his home continent, where he became a recluse deep in the outback where no one would bother him. Then he wandered to the thousand islands of Micronesia in the Western Pacific Ocean, Papua New Guinea, and Bangladesh. Now he’s back in the States where he’s working on an album of new material. But before that is completed, he’s released PastPresentFuture, his self-released manifesto of highlights from his first three albums. It’s damn good. Provocative. Soothing. Charming. With hopes, longing, and the kind of amusing worldview that can only be had by an international vagabond, he’s Woody Guthrie crossed with Neil Young. Trent Reznor crossed with Richard Thompson. With an unforgettable voice and a penchant for strangled lyrics that seem to be choked out of him, he’s that special one-of-a-kind artist that refuses to settle and is probably doomed for a lifetime of the kind of regret he shows here. How much you wanna bet his new stuff is going to be amongst the best of next year?

—Greenblatt

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