Monday, May 18, 2020

Music for Our Times: Michael Ubaldini, Action Skulls, Dom Flemons, Moby

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to challenge the health and economic stability of millions across the planet, stellar recordings from four American artists offer a welcome respite from the global turmoil even as their depth captures the spirit of the times.

Artist: Michael Ubaldini
Title: Music Notes From The Underground (Blackwater Records)
You might like if you enjoy: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Woody Guthrie
Tell me more: Singer-songwriter Michael Ubaldini is a true American treasure, having issued a long and acclaimed discography exploring a myriad of corners of the roots music universe including rockabilly, blues, folk, rock 'n' roll and Americana bound together by sophisticated songcraft. On the rock 'n' roll poet's latest LP Music Notes From The Underground, Ubaldini continues his life-long quest to share tales from the far-flung world around him via his rich and beguiling signature approach. We live in tumultuous times so it's no surprise that Ubaldini has more than a bit to say about the world at large even when armed with nothing more than his rich baritone vocals and acoustic guitar. On the well-aimed acoustic cut "Labels," he looks at the popular pastime of using bumpersticker tags to identify people: "Culture warrior, a redneck or a hick / a red or blue state, eccentric or sick / Put you in a space, easy to classify / From the time your born, until after you die." On "King Of The Paupers," he targets a pampered and angry know-it-all who is "one of the haves / and not one of the have nots." Followers of Ubaldini know he is far more than a one-trick troubadour. The tender "Blue Eyes Down On You" is a beautiful folk ballad, adorned by Ubaldini's outstanding and expressive harmonica work. The beautiful "Bells Of Harmony" is hopeful while "New Winds of Change" takes a more realistic look at a sky filled with dark clouds on the horizon  "I Aint Ta' Returnin' Home" is a poetic and lushly-rendered confessional of farewell wrapped in a simple and elegant song. "Little Mama Everything's Alright" is a warm and reassuring dispatch of calm to close things out on another terrific album from the artist.  Information:

Artist: Action Skulls
Title: A Different World (Action Skulls Music)
You might like if you enjoy: Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris, the Cowsills, America
Tell me more: Action Skulls' sophomore album A Different World is a resounding, perfectly-crafted response to the coronavirus pandemic. Armed with their winning vocal harmonies, obvious sonic chemistry, impressive musicianship and terrific songs, Vicki Peterson (the Bangles, the Continental Drifters), her husband John Cowsill (the Cowsills, a long-time member of Mike Love's Beach Boys touring band) and Bill Mumy (co-founder of the duo Barnes & Barnes, and a celebrated actor known for his memorable roles on "Lost In Space" and "Twilight Zone") wrote and recorded the Americana-flavored disc in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak. In a recent video interview, Mumy noted that he was very inspired to write about how Americans have reacted to the crisis, penning specific songs from different character points of view  amazingly he wrote 12 songs over a 14-day span. The songs stir with listeners sure to relate to numbers created in the early days of the new world we now all share. The baroque pop title track is bolstered by the refrain "Woke Up This Morning in a Different World," a line that is offered at first intimately and later via intoxicating Beach Boys-flavored vocal counterpoint. The album's first countrified single, "Social Distancing Blues," takes a calm and relaxed look at the state of the world when the pandemic arrived. Other songs provide a wry escape; the old-time bluegrass strains of "When I See You Again" and "I've Had Me Gin" along with the aptly-pegged "The Stay at Home Blues" artfully explore the challenges of sheltering in place in 2020. More poignant in tone are the wistful "Until Now," the lovely piano-anchored "You Heal My Soul," haunting "Cured by Love" and evocative "We've Got a Baby in Our House." The instrumental solo piano piece "Quarantined" is simply exquisite. Information:

Artist: Dom Flemons
Title: Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus (Omnivore Recordings)
You might like if you enjoy: Carolina Chocolate Drops, James "Boot" Hanks, North Carolina Ramblers
Tell me more: There is a jubilant spirit that races across the expanded reissue of Dom Flemons' 2014 album Prospect HillNow titled Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, the expanded reissue of Flemons' third solo album comes bundled along with his previously-issued 2015 vinyl EP (What Got Over) and 12 bonus tracks. Flemons  a Grammy winner and two-time Emmy nominee  rose to fame as co-founder of Carolina Chocolate Drops. A talented multi-instrumentalist (banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug and more!) who has a profound connection with early roots folk, bluegrass, country, jazz and other styles, this collection is a true celebration. The buoyant New Orleans-flavored "'Til the Seas Run Dry," an inviting take on Frank Loesser's 1934 country classic "Have I Stayed Away Too Long?", his original acoustic folk ballad "Too Long (I've Been Gone)," the fife and drum-driven cut "Grotto Beat" and playful "My Money Runs Out" are among my favorite selections on disc one. The second disc features a collection of original and traditional songs that showcase Flemons' genuine "love of ethnographic recordings from the Library of Congress." The driving "Milwaukee Blues," searing Chicago blues-styled "Clock on the Wall," North Carolina Piedmont blues romp "Keep On Truckin'," the original "What Got Over" and an alternate version of the aforementioned "Have I Stayed Away Too Long?" are among the fantastic gems here. The collection includes insightful and detailed liner notes from Flemons and his wife, Vania Kinard, enhanced by photography from Timothy Duffy showcased in a 16-page booklet. Flemons' Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus is available as a 2CD or digital release. Information:

Artist: Moby
Title: All Visible Objects (Mute)
You might like if you enjoy: Moby, Color Theory, Roxy Music, EOB
Tell me more: Groundbreaking musician-producer Moby's latest album All Visible Objects is primarily an electronica affair but is bolstered by weighty soundscapes and emotional terrain that defies a majority of the genre's proponents. The pulsating "Morningside" and celestial "Too Much Change" are lifted by soprano Apollo Jane's powerful punch. A stirring take on Roxy Music's "My Only Love" is luxurious and enhanced by Mindy Jones' hypnotic vocals and Moby's layered keyboards. The dreamy instrumental "Separation" further expands Moby's reach on the disc. Even a focus on spoken word ("Refuge") is intoxicating via Moby's mesmerizing creativity and sublime studio production. Dance-focused tracks explode as they should ("Power Is Taken," "Forever," "One Last Time") and celebrate the New York native's bona fide legacy as one of the champions who brought dance music into the mainstream in the 1990s. All of Moby's profits from "All Visible Objects" will be donated to charity, including wildlife and conservation groups as well as human rights organizations. Information:

Robert Kinsler

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