Kick Out the Jams!

A flood of seriously good new roots CDs

My desk is brimming with an unusually bountiful stack of excellent new CD releases. Among the best is Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout Miss Thing (Fat Note Records), the sophomore effort from San Francisco's LAVAY SMITH & HER RED HOT SKILLET LICKERS. I didn't want to like this group, as their name is pilfered from Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers, a popular hillbilly string band of the '20s. Plus the whole retro swing fashion thing still makes Daddy want to catapult his cookies (lose the cartoon nostalgia crap and I'll follow you anywhere, guys). But dig this righteous jive, daddy-os (pppuuukkkkeee!): Lavay and her boys are simply without peer in the neo-swing scene. That's because they're not "neo" at all—the Skillet Lickers are bona fide jazz players, proffering chops and Basie-esque arrangements to shame all other modern groups of their ilk. Then there's Smith, whose sultry vocals readily betray the influence of Billie Holiday, Little Esther and Dinah Washington while sounding slavish to none. In short, this is a contemporary swing band that actually swings, as in the verb. Bonus: following an all-covers first album, the group now includes solid, credible originals—even though they stole Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's patented "Kidney Stew" riff on "The Busy Woman's Blues." We'll call it an homage.

San Diego's JOE MARILLO— a member of the pioneering Jimmy Cavallo & the Houserockers back in the '50s—is one of this country's great unknown tenor sax masters, largely due to his aversion to travel. But the man is a world-class talent all the way, as he proves conclusively on Easy Living With Darcy (Webster's Jazz Classics), recorded with the internationally respected San Diego jazz pianist MIKE WOFFORD. Comprising mostly ballads and standards, this doesn't show Marillo's full arsenal of remarkable gifts—he's a particularly ferocious player on up-tempo bop—but his breathy, soulful, Getz-like blowing and a headful of genius harmonic ideas are impressive enough that the uninitiated will wonder what they've been missing out on all their lives. Wofford is every bit Marillo's equal as a musician, and creative sparks really fly when these guys weave notes together. The real surprise is that Marillo makes his debut as a singer here and proves himself a topnotch jazz-pop vocalist from the Sinatra school. Also, his flute work on "Jade" has Eric Dolphy smiling somewhere. Highly recommended!

DAVE STUCKEY, formerly of the Dave & Deke combo, has released a very solid solo debut with Get a Load of This (HMG Recordings). This staunch CD could be criticized for its unyielding retro-piety—this is 100 percent undiluted, by-the-numbers old-time Western swing. But if Stuckey has nothing unique or personal to add to the musical dialect, this puppy still jumps like a fire-bitch from beginning to end (this is what his scenester fans will really want, but isn't that kind of like preaching to the converted?). Stuckey's songs are so authentic as to be virtually indistinguishable in style from such chestnuts as "Nobody's Sweetheart" and "Some of These Days," and atomic-powered licks on guitar, steel and fiddle are provided by backup that includes label mates Biller & Wakefield and the Hot Club of Cowtown. If you like your hick harmonizin' without even the barest trace of any post-1950 influence, pick this up and do-si-do all night.

Bakersfield Bettie KATHY ROBINSON is another Western swinger, but she loves caressing a weeper ballad and testifyin' some country gospel along with the hot tunes. On Hillbilly Down (Cowgirl Records), her rich, reedy vocals sometimes recall June Carter in timbre while her graceful vibrato is more Patsy Cline-ish; in all, she's probably the best female vocalist on the current roots country scene. She's joined here by heavy company, including Merle Haggard, Tony Gilkyson and Katy Moffatt. Very nice indeed.

Reliable old fat Irish guy VAN MORRISON scores again with The Skiffle Sessions (Pointblank), recorded with CHRIS BARBER and LONNIE DONEGAN—who is, of course, the father of skiffle music, a flash-in-the-pan amalgam of folk, jazz and blues that was all the rage in the British Isles in the mid- to late '50s. Recorded live in Belfast, the music is loose, sloppy and casual but ultimately eminently Celtic-soulful and one hell of a lot of fun. The songs are all classics (Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rogers and much traditional fare) and the vibes exceptionally warm. Morrison is his usual bizarre, idiosyncratic and innovative self; Donegan's adenoidal caterwauling is often off-pitch, but his sincerity endears nonetheless.

SEAN COSTELLO is a 20-year-old pretty boy with a face like an extra from Beverly Hills 90210. So it's wholly unfair that this wet-behind-the-ears little pooh-butt can sing and play blues guitar with all the seasoned shit, grit and mother wit of a grizzled old veteran of the chitlin circuit—which Costello does throughout his debut CD, Cuttin' In (Landslide Records). Hey, forget about Jonny Lang. Lang is the product of the hype machine; Costello is the real deal. His vocal chops and instincts are particularly impressive as he growls and flexes his diaphragm with all the muscle of a Junior Wells, without any self-conscious affectation or phony-assed black dialect. He also covers a wide array of styles, from Chicago stomps to uptown jump to New Orleans sleaze. One really major complaint, though: this may be the most poorly recorded CD I've ever heard. Next time, getcherself a real producer, kid.
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