Texas Piano Man (New West Records)
Less than a minute into Robert Ellis' latest, brilliant effort, Texas Piano Man, you can't shake the feeling that he's channeling the ghost of Harry Nilsson. Who else besides Ellis, but possibly Nilsson, could manage to take the chorus "I'm fucking crazy" and turn it into a wedding-caliber love song ("Fucking Crazy")? And that's just one song in.
Ellis puts down the guitar on his fifth LP and sits behind a piano for an even more relaxed vibe, and his wit still shines through just as strong with this outing. Songs like "Nobody Smokes Anymore" ("the last years of your life are so shitty anyway") and "Passive Aggressive" are among some of the best he's written in an already impressive career.
Likely because of the piano, there is a distinct '70s vibe to most of the songs here, which just goes to highlight Ellis' chameleon like tendency to seamlessly slip in and out of genres, from honey tonk to Americana, folk to rock. He caps off this nearly flawless collection with "Topo Chico," an ode to Mexican sparkling water that manages to best Nilsson's "Put the Lime in the Coconut."
Ever Green, Ever Rain (Dark River Records)
Florida native Michael McArthur credits isolation, among other things, for the tone of many of the songs off of Ever Green, Ever Rain, his debut LP. That loneliness can heard throughout each and every track here as McArthur turns in a vulnerable, haunting collection of modern folk that brings to mind everyone from Bon Iver to Iron & Wine.
There is an openness to many of these songs, like the self-confessional "Elaine" that makes the listener almost feel guilty for listening in. Gorgeous? Yes, but it sounds a little intrusive, like listening to a relationship ending at the next table. There is also a vulnerability to both his voice and lyrics that echoes back to decades to folks as diverse as Nick Drake and James Taylor.
Though a dozen tracks of earnest, heartfelt folk can be tough to take in one sitting for some, McArthur manages to turn his isolation and loneliness into a movingly beautiful album.
Unreleashed: Demos and Rarities 1996 - 2018 (Jett Plastic Recordings)
Although it took Jonny Polonsky more than two decades to put out five records, the LA, by way of Chicago, cult pop artist apparently harbored a bunch of songs none of us were ever privy to. As a follow up to last year's Fresh Flesh, Polonsky is offering up 21 rarities for his patient fans and it appears the wait was worth it.
This set spans the full 22 years since his fantastic debut, Hi, My Name is Jonny, (an album that sat alone on the merch table for eight long years before Polonsky finally turned in the follow up) and last year's solid LP.
Like most compilation albums, especially one with close to two dozen tracks, not everyone here is destined to be a fan favorite, but the record starts of strong with two of his best songs yet, the deceptively dark "Everywhere All the Time" and "Do You Remember". Overall, the cache here is in keeping with Polonsky's brilliant marriage of lyrical wittiness and smart catchy pop music. He also excises some of his quirkier musical impulses here on songs like the Samba/Wah Wah-filled "Black Rainbow."
Unreleashed is available on a special vinyl gatefold edition, with a limited run of colored vinyl. And while the vinyl version houses 18 tracks, the digital and CD versions include three extra songs.
Are You Open? (Royal Potato Family)
For his 10th studio album, Seth Walker dug deep inside for inspiration and managed to turn in one of his most personally vulnerable efforts to date. Covering both love and loss, lyrically he covers some of the most honest territory yet in his two-decade long career.
The album kicks off with two soulful tracks, "Giving It All Away and the more funked up "Inside," both solid tracks, but not nearly as inspired as what follows. By the time he gets to the stunningly beautiful title track, a number that lyrically lays bare his vulnerability, the record pivots to a far more compelling product. Tracks like "Hard Road," which could easily have fit beside any song off of Paul Simon's epic Graceland, and "No Bird" find that Walker clearly soaked up plenty of the city's vibe when he moved to New Orleans several years ago.
The bulk of the songs that close out the album manage to flirt with Americana, Blues and even hints of Gospel for a slightly uneven, but ultimately remarkable 10th album.
Fool (Ear Music)
Coming immediately off a run of summer dates in 2018, Joe Jackson and his current band hit the studio to capture a group that was still very much hitting its stride musically. The resulting album Fool, Jackson's 20th, still boats many of the jazz-infused pop trademarks that marked his post-big hit debut through much of the 1980s. It's a solid set from the always dependable Jackson, if not a bit uninspired in places.
The album starts off with the ambitious "Big Black Cloud," a dark song that sounds a little forced on the first listen but stays with you on repeated listens - one of the savviest tracks on the record. The breezy "Friends Better," sounds as if it came off of "Look Sharp!"
Elsewhere, there are some songs that sound like they were last minute add-ons ("Alchemy" is so plodding you can almost watch time stand still), but taken as a whole, Fool still finds Jackson playing some of the best pop music out there, immune to fads and current trends.