Acoustic folk-blues artist Chris Smither and zydeco bandleader Chris Ardoin lead this week's releases.
Also worth noting are the big-label debut of funky blues-rock sextet Big Sister, a box set from 1970s folk-rock hitmakers America and a collection of field recordings made by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in Trinidad.
(Click here for a select list of this week's releases.)
Smither is well respected for his introspective lyrics, wry performance style and distinctive guitar sound. But he's probably best known for writing "Love Me Like a Man" a staple of his good friend Bonnie Raitt's repertoire since she first recorded it for her 1972 album, Give It Up (it's also heard on her 1995 live album, Road Tested).
Smither's newest album, Live As I'll Ever Be (HighTone), was recorded at various concerts throughout the United States and Ireland between June 1996 and April 1999. Accompanying himself with foot stomps and his trademark weave of complex fingerpicking and rhythmic basslines on his blue guitar, Smither entertains audiences with a few choice stories and 14 songs from his last four studio albums.
Humorous numbers such as "Winsome Smile" (RealAudio excerpt) balance more dramatic songs such as "No Love Today" and "Slow Surprise" (which Emmylou Harris recorded for the "Horse Whisperer" soundtrack). Smither tosses in a robust cover of Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" (RealAudio excerpt) for good measure, and closes with a heartfelt interpretation of Rolly Sally's "Killin' the Blues" (RealAudio excerpt).
The great-grandnephew of Cajun and zydeco godfather Amédée Ardoin, the grandson of Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin and the son of noted zydeco musician Lawrence Ardoin, 19-year-old Chris Ardoin started performing in public with his father's band before he hit puberty.
He recorded his first album with Double Clutchin' co-founded with brother Sean Ardoin, who has since moved on to other projects when he was just 13. Best Kept Secret (Rounder) is the band's fifth album, and like the others it represents Ardoin's 21st-century vision of zydeco.
The lyrics are sung mostly in English, and the beats are closer to funk and hip-hop than zydeco's customary shuffles and waltz tempos. Most of the 12 tunes were written by Chris Ardoin, but two standout cuts are gutsy, rocking covers: the Temptations hit "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and Sheryl Crow's "If It Makes You Happy" (paired in a medley with Ardoin's "It Just Ain't Right").
With three lead guitarists and two drummers, Woodstock, N.Y.'s all-female sextet Big Sister is nothing if not loud and bold. The riff-happy group started out as a blues band before moving in a more rocking direction; their sound now incorporates heavy doses of funk, blues and soul.
They make their major-label debut with So Hi How Are You (Capricorn) after previously releasing three albums on their own. Produced by Phish engineer John Siket, the album comprises 13 original tunes, including rockers such as "Dawn," "Disconnected," the funky "Around," the guitar-driven ballad "Talk Down to Me" and "Alive," a danceable fan favorite at the band's live shows.
Formed in 1969 in London by a trio of high school mates, the folk-rock band America ruled the U.S. airwaves in the early 1970s with their lightweight blend of acoustic guitars, layered harmonies and catchy hooks. FM radio staples such as "A Horse With No Name" (RealAudio excerpt), "Ventura Highway," "Sister Golden Hair," "Lonely People" and "Tin Man" the latter two produced by legendary Beatles producer George Martin remain staples of classic-rock playlists to this day.
The new three-disc box set, Highway 30 Years of America (Rhino), features those along with the rest of the band's hits in a 64-track package that also includes demos and five previously unreleased cuts, plus an interview with founding members Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell and Dan Peek.
Remastered to 24-bit digital, the 26 festive songs captured on Alan Lomax Collection Caribbean Voyage: Trinidad Carnival Roots: The 1962 Field Recordings (Rounder) trace the connections between African-Caribbean traditions and the region's modern music. The carnival spirit dominates the original field recordings made by renowned ethnomusicologist Lomax in Trinidad in 1962. The collection features a good bit of calypso, as well as kalendas, maypole songs and Hosay drumming, plus interviews with performers in which they discuss their musical traditions.