"I got sweet soul,” Valerie June declares on the fast-moving final number of her latest album, one of the notable new roots-related releases we’ll survey here.
“Got Soul” isn’t the only song on The Order of Time (Concord *** 1/2) that exudes a vibe straight out of Memphis, where the Tennessee native now based in New York spent some years. “Open Up Your Heart” and “Slip Slide on By” are churchy ballads that recall the heyday of Stax Records.
That doesn’t mean June, who will play the Trocadero on Friday, can be easily pigeonholed. The Order of Time, like her 2013 breakthrough, Pushin’ Against a Stone, also offers an indefinable blend of country, folk, and blues that manages to feel both ancient and modern -- “Just in Time” even hints at orchestral pop. And June, who sings in a laid-back drawl that invites intimacy, makes it all into a beguiling whole.
Since he rebooted his career nearly two decades ago, tradition-minded country star Marty Stuart has favored ambitious concept albums. Way Out West (Superlatone ***) is another. It’s a paean to the American West, California in particular, and though it clocks in at only 39 minutes, it has a cinematic sweep.
Working again with his great band, the Fabulous Superlatives, and for the first time with producer-guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Stuart plays "spot the influence": You can hear nods to, among others, the Ventures, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds; his ex-father-in-law, Johnny Cash (a cover of “Lost on the Desert”); as well as flamenco and spaghetti western music. The title track is a trippy, spoken-sung excursion, but with “Whole Lotta Highway (and a Million Miles to Go),” Stuart reverts to classic-country mode, presenting his own top-notch take on the venerable tradition of the trucker song.
Mike Zito is a veteran bluesman whose career, like Stuart’s, has gotten a second wind. Make Blues Not War (Ruf ***) offers blazing testimony to that. Producer, drummer, and songwriting collaborator Tom Hambridge, who has punched up Buddy Guy’s recent excellent albums, has Zito and the other musicians play live in the studio, and the guitar-heavy music leaps out of the speakers with raw intensity, from the Hendrixian blues-rock of “Redbird” to the breakneck boogie of “Crazy Legs” and “Route 90,” and the more rustic “Girl Back Home.”
"The blues is good for you,” Zito sings on “Make Blues Not War.” These blues certainly are.
Jaime Wyatt comes honestly by the title of Felony Blues (Forty Below ***). The young California native did eight months behind bars for robbing her drug dealer in what was obviously a darker time in her life. “Wasco” and “Stone Hotel” are drawn directly from that experience.
That feisty, hard-country style, however, is just one side of Wyatt. She’s as much Linda Ronstadt as Margo Price, as you can hear on the openhearted California country-rock of “Wishing Well” and “Your Loving Saves Me,” the latter a duet with Sam Outlaw. She also shows formidable interpretive skills with her take on the Merle Haggard cut “Misery and Gin.”
Few sounds are as joyously infectious as vintage New Orleans rhythm and blues, and Scott Ramminger offers a bounty of it on Do What Your Heart Says To (Arbor Lane ***1/2). The sax-playing singer and songwriter is backed by A-list Crescent City players, who also help him stretch out to include roots-rock, soul, gospel, and zydeco.
Ramminger’s colorful and clever songs match the quality of the musicianship. For all the fun to be had, however, with numbers such as “Give a Pencil to a Fish,” he can also change pace and deliver the heartrending ballads “Hoping That the Sun Won’t Shine” and “Winter Is Worse.” He’s also smart enough to augment his serviceable vocals with a passel of female powerhouses, from Francine Reed and Bekka Bramlett to Janiva Magness and the McCrary Sisters. (The Subdudes’ Tommy Malone also contributes.)
Shinyribs, out of Texas, displays a similarly freewheeling spirit on I Got Your Medicine (Mustard Lid ***1/2). The nine-member ensemble led by Kevin Russell, formerly of the Gourds, draws on many of the same sources as Ramminger. Russell is a terrifically charismatic singer and songwriter, and for all the roof-raising rambunctiousness of blasts such as “Tub Gut Stomp and Red-Eyed Soul” and “I Don’t Give a --,” like Ramminger, he can also slay with a smoldering soul ballad, whether it’s his own “I Knew It All Along” or Toussaint McCall’s “Nothing Takes the Place of You.”
For a complete 180, we close with Chip Taylor (and, as the album cover adds: “aka James Wesley Voight”). Best known as the writer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning,” the 76-year-old brother of actor Jon Voight has reinvented himself over recent decades as a Guy Clark-style Americana troubadour.
A Song I Can Live With (Train Wreck ***) is ultra-spare, built on acoustic guitar and piano, and Taylor’s weathered voice barely rises above a whisper. If the mood is often hushed and sepulchral, a stubborn appreciation of life pulses through the set. And the title track expresses a sentiment that no doubt animates not only Taylor but all the artists mentioned here and many others: “Lord, I’m asking you a favor / Let me write a song I can live with.”