Heart: Red Velvet Car
When Heart's core members, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, got together to record their first album of new material in more than six years, they really didn't have anything to prove. Since hitting the rock scene back in the '70s with radio-ready tracks such as "Crazy On You" and "Barracuda," Heart proved that women could rock just as hard as the boys. After reinventing themselves in the '80s and again in the '90s, the members of Heart simply could have sat back and marveled at the success of the past 30 years. Perhaps that is what they did, since the band's output since 1993 has consisted on one album, 2004's "Jupiter's Darling." Whatever the case, Heart is back with "Red Velvet Car," which features plenty of material that will appeal to even the most casual Heart fan. Ann Wilson's voice sounds as strong as ever, and Nancy Wilson's guitar still has plenty of bite, especially on tracks such as "WTF" and "Wheels." Much of the album has a more subdued and introspective feel, though, as if producer Ben Mink pushed the Wilson sisters toward a more organic, acoustic album. The inclusion of dobro, banjo, cello and autoharp definitely gives this project a mellower feel throughout. While the Wilson sisters haven't exactly reinvented themselves like in decades past, "Red Velvet Car" nonetheless shows that Heart is still a vibrant and very alive rock outfit.
Key Tracks: "There You Go," "WTF," "Queen City"
The Avocado Sessions: This Side & The Other
While Americana music might be all the rage these days, that music genre's listeners, like those of just about any other style, can spot a poseur or impostor a mile off. It takes only about a minute into "Love Stone," the first track on "The Avocado Sessions: This Side & The Other," to realize that Gigi Dover is the real deal. Along with her band, The Big Love, this Southern chanteuse delivers the goods with a touch of influence from everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Janis Joplin. I could recommend "The Avocado Sessions' " great background music to play while you are otherwise involved on a Sunday afternoon, except for the fact that when I attempted to use it for just that purpose, I continually found myself listening intently, with whatever other task I had been busy with long forgotten. Tracks such as "Poppies" and "Was It Just Yesterday" will definitely stick in your brain long after hearing them. While not every song on the CD is a winner, Dover and multi-instrumentalist Eric Lovell get credit for pushing the envelope as to what Americana music can be. Particularly interesting is "A Better Place," which benefits from Lovell's excellent sitar playing. Anyone looking for something along the lines of Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams would do well to check out Gigi Dover & The Big Love.
Key Tracks: "Poppies," "Was It Just Yesterday," "A Better Place"
Ariel Pink: Before Today
California musician Ariel Pink has been writing songs since he was 10. Now 32, Pink also has been releasing collections of original music since 2004, and has slowly built a rabid fan base among underground music listeners. "Before Today," Pink's latest album with his band, Haunted Graffiti, ranks as one of this year's best musical surprises. Listening to the CD, it is almost as if Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti is suffering from a multiple personality disorder. "Hot Body Rub" sounds as if it was recorded during the height of Britain's 2 Tone era, while "Round and Round" sounds like classic Rolling Stones. Hints of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Moody Blues waft through various songs. "Before Today" is one of those albums that begs to be listened to from beginning to end, rather than just downloading a track here and there. Hearing what he has come up with on "Before Today," I had no problem believing that Ariel Pink's songwriting experience stretches back more than two decades. This is weird, wild stuff from a true original. That's sadly something we don't see enough of these days.
Key Tracks: "Hot Body Rub," "Round and Round," "Can't Hear My Eyes"
Alejandro Escovedo: Street Songs of Love
Alejandro Escovedo's 2008 album, "Real Animal," helped cement the Texas songwriter's reputation as one of music's most interesting chameleons this side of David Bowie. Escovedo, who fronted the punk band The Nuns in the '70s before turning to roots rock with the band Rank and File, has become a well-respected name in the music business, both with listeners and other artists. "Real Animal" served as a journey through Escovedo's musical career, touching on all the musical styles from punk to folk. On "Street Songs of Love," Escovedo's latest, the artist is on a creative roll from the get-go, starting with "Anchor" and its lyrics of "I'm in love with love." "Down in the Bowery" features Escovedo singing a duet with Ian Hunter, while Bruce Springsteen lends backing vocals to "Faith." "Tender Heart" harkens back to Escovedo's punk days, while tracks such as "After the Meteor Showers" and "Undesired" have a more introspective feel. If you enjoyed "Real Animal," then look at "Street Songs of Love" as a continuation of that musical journey.
Key Tracks: "Anchor," "Silver Cloud," "Faith"