By Bliss Bowen
ALLISON RUSSELL, “Outside Child”
The songs on Russell’s first solo album are as “acutely personal” as she indicates in liner notes, revisiting childhood abuse, escape, self-discovery, heritage and saviors, including her grandmother (the haunting, Celtic-rooted “Hy Brasil”) and husband/Birds of Chicago partner JT Nero (“Joyful (expletive)”), with whom she co-wrote all the songs. Past collaborations (BOC, Po’ Girl, Our Native Daughters) occasionally echo behind Russell’s smoky vocal tones and melodies; “Nightflyer” bears a seductive BOC cadence, and the clarinet- and banjo-framed “All of the Women,” with ghostly harmonies from the McCrary Sisters, would fit a Native Daughters set. But “Outside Child” is a transcendent, profoundly soulful synthesis of Russell’s personal and creative experiences, and one of the most moving albums to be heard this year.
DESERT HOLLOW, “Thirsty” (Mule Kick): 3
Vocalist/poet Nicole Olney and Nocona fiddler/banjoist Xander Hitzig joined forces after performing in Paul Overstreet’s 2015 jukebox musical “Sneaky Ole Time” at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Group Theatre, but their debut EP as Desert Hollow is markedly more rustic than Overstreet’s Nashville tunesmithing. The centerpiece track, “Look at Those Birds,” picks up the tradition of Appalachian legends such as Jean Ritchie, while vintage California country influences can be discerned between the harmonies and upbeat melodies of “Mary” and “I Can’t Wait for Winter.” A refreshing country-folk debut.
ROBERT FINLEY, “Sharecropper’s Son”
(Easy Eye): 3½
Reteamed with blues-attuned producer/Black Keys cofounder Dan Auerbach, the legally blind soul singer demonstrates once again he is a potent old-school entertainer as he shares stories from his colorful biography. It’s Finley’s third album since his late-in-life comeback in 2015, after years of performing soul and gospel at regional Louisiana venues, and he gets solid support from Auerbach, a full horn section, and a choice crew of blues and country veterans. His hope and celebratory spirit are hard to resist. Highlights: “My Story,” “Souled Out on You” (showcasing Finley’s vigorous falsetto), “Starting to See” and “Better Than I Treat Myself.”
BIG CHIEF MONK BOUDREAUX, “Bloodstains &
Teardrops” (Whiskey Bayou): 3
An enjoyable release rippling with reggae and blues from the Mardi Gras fixture and 2016 National Heritage Fellowship honoree, reunited with producer/guitarist Tab Benoit, his bandmate in Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars (an extension of Benoit’s nonprofit effort to convince politicians to shore up Louisiana’s fast-eroding coastline). The vibe is relaxed, with sweet interludes such as “Should’ve Been a Preacher Man” outshined by livelier tracks. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Boudreaux leading a parade or New Orleans festival audiences with “Choo Choo,” the Cajun-seasoned “Blues, Blues, Blues” or “Kingston Blues.”