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1960’s Artists Bringing It All Back Home

Many musical legends who started out in the 1960s have released excellent new CDs this year.

Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What (Hear Music). Of the cream of the great songwriters to emerge from the seminal 1960s, no one has remained more relevant than Paul Simon. While often reaching a mainstream audience, Simon continues to innovate, draw from many musical sources and use rhythms in his music in new and exciting ways. Even better than the excellent You’re The One, the album before Surprise, his somewhat strained collaboration with Brian Eno, this new album has a magic and a grace that make one think Simon still has so much good music yet to make.

Ray Davies – See My Friends (Decca). Ray Davies, like some other 60s artists in this roundup, is also in a nostalgic mood these days and is looking back at his music and re-imagining it. After the surprisingly successful choral interpretation of some of his best-loved Kinks songs, he has now paired up with other artists and rec-recorded classic Kinks songs. While some of the collaborations fall flat due to heavy-handed collaborators (Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Metallica), just about everything else here works like a charm, particularly Davies collaborations with Alex Chilton, Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, and Mumford and Sons. Ray Davies, like Paul Simon, has written songs that raise the level of rock composition to great heights.

Hot Tuna – Steady As She Goes (Red House). It’s been 12 years since Hot Tuna put out an album, but it was worth the wait. Larry Campbell’s production gives the band a clean electric vibe, but the Hot Tuna sound is still intact. The highlights are when Kaukonen, Cassady and friends put their stamp on shrewdly chosen covers, such as the Reverend Gary Davis compositions.

Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort (True North). After a five-year hiatus, Bruce Cockburn is back with an album that reaffirms his place as one of the most insightful songwriters in music. Leavening his social and political observations with a great sense of humor and play, Cockburn obviously still has a lot to say. The album is also filled with great music, cool rhythmic touches and his unmistakable vocal approach.

Marianne Faithfull – Horses and High Heels (Naive). Ever since Broken English in 1979, Marianne Faithful has forged a musical career far removed from her ingenue days as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and the breathy-voiced singer of “As Tears Go By.” Strong, daring, edgy and varied in style, this new Hal Wilner-produced disc shows Faithfull never sounding more current. Recorded in New Orleans, the CD, like her previous release Easy Come, Easy Go, has many well-chosen covers.

Zombies – Breathe Out, Breathe In (Red House). On only its third post-60s album and its first since 2004, the Zombies, led by original core members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, proves to be a band very much of today. Some of the songs surprisingly draw from such influences as Steely Dan, Procol Harum, the Beatles and Sting, yet this is an album of highly original music, spotlighting a band people associate with the 60s stepping out in new exciting directions. “Shine On Sunshine” looks like a hit and “Christmas for the Free” is likely to become a holiday staple.

Randy Newman – Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 2 (Nonesuch). Randy Newman, like other artists covered here, knows a thing or two about pre-rock American musical styles. Although he balances his career between making solo albums and scoring films, his deft gift as a songwriter was well established long before he started writing film music. On this new album, a followup to Volume 1, released in 2003, Newman goes back and reinterprets, with just piano, some of his best-loved (or in some cases loathed) songs. The bare-bones structure only sharpens the cutting message of Newman’s songs.

Robbie Robertson – How To Become Clairvoyant (429). The former member of the Band has not made a solo album since 1998. Although he keeps himself very busy as a record company honcho and an active member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as well as working on the soundtracks of Martin Scorsese films, it’s great to see Robertson back in the game. This is as good as any of his previous solo efforts and grows stronger as the album moves from track to track. With musical help by folks like Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and a large cast including the crack rhythm section of Pino Palladino and Ian Wallace, the release shows Robertson writing more about his own life than ever before. At 68, Robertson sounds as engaged and sharp as ever. In fact, this album may signal a rebirth of sorts, as rumors suggest he may tour backed by the Los Angeles-based band Dawes, who has recently supported him on a handful of television appearances.

Levon Helm – Ramble at the Ryman (Vanguard). Robertson’s former partner in The Band is equally at a solo musical highpoint, even as he passes 70. This bristling live album, captured live at the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, is a thrilling and intimate document of Helm and his band available on CD and DVD. Whether it be Band songs, solo songs, or vintage roots covers, Helm makes music in a great American tradition. Once the member of a great 60s/70s group, Helm has now become an integral figure in American music and culture, bridging the gap between pre-rock blues, country, folk and roots music and today.

Emmylou Harris – Hard Bargain (Nonesuch). While she’s never left country music behind, Emmylou Harris makes music as modern and relevant as anyone in music today. The consistency of her work continues on this very simple and live-sounding release quickly recorded in four weeks with only two other musicians assisting her on a myriad of different instruments. Her first album in three years and her third on Nonesuch, the album has been one of her fastest sellers in years. It’s nice to hear her continue to maintain the legacy of her former musical partner Gram Parsons on the opening cut “The Road” and paying tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle on “Darlin’ Kate.” A deluxe edition includes a DVD with in-studio performances of six songs from the album. Once again Emmylou Harris proves she’s incapable of making a bad album.

Neil Young – A Treasure (Reprise). This live album of music taken from the 1984-1985 tour of Young’s band the International Harvesters is yet another excellent Archives Performance Series release. It features Young during one of the better seismic stylistic changes he went through during the 1980s. The superstar band includes such legends as Spooner Oldham and Rufus Thibodeaux, along with frequent collaborators Tim Drummond and co-producer Ben Keith, among others. Not as mellow as Harvest or as raucous as Crazy Horse releases, this country version of the Neil Young sound has just the right energy and authentic western feel. In many ways it’s a lost side of Young’s more country leaning music and a perfect companion to his Harvest, Comes A Time, Harvest Revisited and Buffalo Springfield music. Neil Young proves once again that what he has hidden in his archives is better than 99% of the music on the charts today.

Gregg Allman – Low Country Blues (Rounder). Gregg Allman’s solo albums have often been overshadowed by his place in the Allman Brothers Band. He has not released a solo album since the excellent, underrated and out-of-print Searching for Simplicity in 1997. With the aid of uber-producer T. Bone Burnett, Allman has made another superb solo album that reflects the genuine roots of his music. Uncluttered, sparse, primarily acoustic-guitar driven blues makes this album as good as anything Allman has ever done. Now let’s get Burnett in the studio with the Brothers and keep the momentum going.