Even if the songwriting wasn’t so good on Alvin’s latest release, Ashgrove would still score major points for its lush guitar work. But the songs—which were all written or co-written by Alvin—are simply outstanding in their lyrical depth and melodic beauty. Produced by slide-whiz Greg Leisz (who also plays standard, slide, and steel guitars on the album), Ashgrove tells a story that begins with Alvin ruminating about the famed Ashgrove in Los Angeles (where, as a youngster, he saw many of his blues heroes), and ends in a poignant reflection of his life—much of which he has spent on the road—on “Somewhere in Time.” Backed by Bob Glaub (Jackson Brown, John Fogerty) on bass and Don Heffington (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris) on drums, Alvin and Leisz create deliciously simmering electric textures that are laced with haunting melodies and swampy tremolo. Alvin also ventures into vibey acoustic territory, particularly on “The Man in the Bed,” a deeply emotional and probably very personal song that explores the thoughts of a man caught in the twilight between life and death. Ashgrove is easily one of the best roots-rock records of the year, and it might be Alvin’s best yet. As the guitarist himself put it: “If there’s one Dave Alvin solo album you’ve got to have, this is it.” Yep Roc.
John Jorgenson is so closely associated with the music of Django Reinhardt that he was tapped to play the role of the Gypsy jazz master in the film Head in the Clouds. Jorgenson goes all-out in his cameo role as the leader of the Hot Club of France, sporting a pencil mustache, greased-back black hair, and even faux burned left-hand fingers. But on Franco-American Swing it isn’t Jorgenson’s external resemblance to his musical hero that’s on display, it’s his heart. Rather than simply covering Reinhardt tunes, Jorgenson penned 11 wonderfully inspired originals in the Gypsy-jazz style, some of which include luscious string arrangements by Don Hart, and most of which swing like crazy.
Although all of the tunes feature jaw-dropping playing, standouts include the two versions of the blazing “FA Swing,” the lovely waltzes “Valse De Samois” and “Waltze for Mary,” the gorgeous ballad “In Memory of Danny Gatton,” and the gently lilting blues “Mirror in Blues.” In addition to the originals, there are great arrangements of the Shadows’ ’60s hit “Man of Mystery,” Nino Rastelli and Dino Olivieri’s early-’30s “J’Attendrai,” the classic “Blue Drag,” and Reinhardt’s own classic “Minor Swing.” Don’t miss this one. J2.
Most jam bands build their fan base through live performance and then let them down with lackluster studio albums, but such is not the case with Particle’s first endeavor, Launchpad. The record does an admirable job of distilling the band’s funky instrumental electroid jams, which often fall somewhere between Phish, Daft Punk, and “Frankenstein”-era Edgar Winter Group. Guitarist Charlie Hitchcock conjures a ballsy tone from his homemade “Chucktones” gear, and he wields an impressive combination of groovy rhythm chops and shredding solo technique. Not every track on Launchpad propels the listener to the stratosphere, but Particle has certainly blast off. OR Music.
Van Lear Rose
Whether in interviews, on singles, or onstage, the White Stripes have always preached the gospel according to Loretta Lynn. So you just know when Jack White got the opportunity to produce the 70-year-old legend, he wasn’t just going to do it, he was going to do it right. So don’t even think that Van Lear Rose is some evil record company concoction, because it’s not. What it is, however, is an album that measures up to Lynn’s most artistically potent work of the late ’60s.
Although his guitar playing slyly permeates Van Lear Rose, the story here is Whites’ ultra-vibey production. With the help of a backing band coined the Do Whaters (“I named them that because they got in there and did whatever we needed them to,” says Lynn.), White and company don’t so much update Lynn’s sound. Instead, they add a sense of intimacy and electricity by stripping away any unnecessary clutter, letting a couple guitars and a pedal steel create a bed for Lynn’s classic voice to take center stage with her tales of heartache, bar rooms, and family. Take that new country! Interscope.
Vibraphonist Gary Burton has a knack for discovering and nurturing fresh voices in jazz guitar. Such heavyweights as Larry Coryell, the late Sam Brown, Jerry Hahn, Mick Goodrick, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Bill Frisell got their first major exposure in one of Burton’s bands. His latest find is Julian Lage, a 16-year-old guitarist whose phrasing, tone, and sense of melodic adventure put him on par with today’s best jazzbos. With a stunning mix of heart and chops, Lage roams the fretboard of his Manzer archtop, hunting down beautiful, singing melodies that seem to float off his strings. Occasionally, he’ll cut loose with a flurry of notes or a long, spiraling run that reveals his stupendous flatpicking technique, but his primary focus is on threading daring lines through the tricky changes. Lage’s three originals display a deep harmonic sophistication, and his touch and dynamics evoke his musical hero, Jim Hall. Concord Jazz.
The Plague of Crafty Guitarists Volume One
The artists on this 15-song CD share only one thing in common: they have all participated in one or more of Robert Fripp’s Guitarcraft seminars. The songs include solo and ensemble acoustic compositions, world fusion blends, a pop song, a sound collage, some light electronica, and even two blues-inflected numbers—some played in Fripp’s New Standard Tuning (C, G, D, A, E, G, low to high). Many of the pieces are quite good, and despite the stylistic differences, the collection holds together very well. My personal favorites are the more melodic and acoustically oriented tracks by Sur Pacifico, Tobin Buttram, Nigel Gavin, Playmovil, and the Geary Street Quartet. The ambient “Free for the Taking” by Janssen and Jensen is also compelling, and Bill Hibbits’ “Jean Jean” includes some nice slide playing, while Santos Luminosos’ “Cristales 45,” despite its cool Theramin part, failed to fly my kite. Inner Knot.
Toots and the Maytals
Reggae is not known as a breeding ground for guitar gods, but on True Love, perhaps the greatest collection of guitar superstars ever assembled to take turns trading licks with Toots, one of the genre’s luminary artists. Bonnie Raitt’s signature slide opens “True Love is Hard to Find,” and her effortless singing is the best complement to Toots’ still-fantastic voice on the album. Eric Clapton’s playing on “Pressure Drop” is the kind of stuff you wish he’d do on his own records, and Jeff Beck breaks out all over “54-46 Was My Number,” Toots’ classic tribute to his time in the Big House. Other guests include Trey Anastasio who keeps it tasteful on “Sweet and Dandy,” Ben Harper who displays some beautiful acoustic slide work on “Love Gonna Walk Out on Me,” and Keith Richards on the tune “Careless Ethiopians.” Is this Toots’ best record? No, but it sounds great and features some nice re-workings of his most terrific tunes. Is True Love the best reggae record ever for guitar freaks? Yeah Mon! V2.