Sandy Denny: Live at the BBC – The great British songstress Sandy Denny died 30 years ago last April. As this superlative four disc set of BBC recordings (including a DVD of 1971 performances) underscores, no one has yet matched the poetic directness of her writing or the gorgeously understated finesse of her vocals. The first disc offers the essentials without the orchestral excess of her later solo records. But a bootleg-ish 1971 take on Blackwaterside with Richard Thompson typlifies the treasures here.
Sly and the Family Stone: Greatest Hits – When is a greatest hits album more than just an assemblage of popular tracks? In the case of this 1970 Sly Stone anthology, it is the opportunity to show off non-album hits – Hot Fun in the Summertime and Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) – along with such muscular album title-tune singles as Stand! and Dance to the Music. The result reflects the soul-pop serenity and rich earthy funk of the Woodstock era’s most industrious and enduring R&B rockers. Perfect summer music.
Ronnie Earl: Heart and Soul – Another sterling sampler from one of the most underappreciated blues stylists of our age. Compiled from albums released between 1983 and 2003, including his extraordinary Black Top recordings, the one-time Roomful of Blues guitarist delivers loads of tasty, piledriving grooves. But when the attitude cools, as on I Smell Trouble (with Fabulous Thunderbird Kim Wilson on vocals) and Catfish Blues, the blues mood of Heart and Soul positively glows.
Sun Ra: Nothing Is – Sun Ra loved to tell audiences he and his band were from outer space. But as the wonderfully animated playing on this 1966 scrapbook of New York college performances attests, Ra’s music was further out in space than Ra himself ever was. The bits of broken bop, ragtime twists, chants and symphonic deconstruction sound as confrontational on the two-minute Imagination as they do on the 13 minute Shadow World. What Frank Zappa was to rock ‘n roll, Sun Ra was to jazz.
Old 97s: Blame It on Gravity – Rhett Miller and company remain indie-rock’s great Americana-drenched recyclers on Gravity. The album zooms instantly to life with a frenzied electric strum that could pass for an El Paso version of Pinball Wizard. Even crazier is the rockish tango with a zooming intro that sounds like a cross between Dick Dale and Rush. There are bursts of pure pop ingenuity, too, like Ride. But Miller still provides a hapless undercurrent to it all as an inviting, restless and slightly over-anxious host.