For anyone who doubts that a singer with a guitar has the power to change the world and alter your DNA, here are Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, and The Airborne Toxic Event to set you straight. Not enough evidence? Bootsy Collins will seal the deal with only four strings and the power of everlasting funk.
PLAY: Emmylou Harris, "Hard Bargain"
It was 40 years ago that Emmylou Harris met country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who introduced her to the world of old school country. Now Emmylou Harris sits atop of that world. In actuality, calling Harris a country singer doesn't fully tell the story. Her voice and expressiveness transcend any one genre. They are also a reminder of what happens when a singer commits to storytelling instead of sounding like a county star.
Harris is lucky that she's both, and her latest album is both spontaneous and studied. Recorded in three days, "Hard Bargain" (the title track is courtesy of Canadian songwriting genius Ron Sexsmith) is a study of struggle — both private and public. And no one makes struggle sound as effortless — or lovely — as Emmylou Harris.
PLAY: Steve Earle, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"
Steve Earle has dedicated his life to sharing the struggles of folks who live on the fringe. It's a space he knows well (Earle spent the first half of the '90s hooked on heroin and in jail). With producer T Bone Burnett by his side, Earle has now crafted another perfect collection of stories told from between the cracks. "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" is, in Earle's words, about mortality. The 11 songs are easily the strongest since 2002's "Jerusalem." They're full of worn-out wonder and another victory for those of us who believe in the staying power of American folk tales told with gravel, grit, and wood. Play it until Earle's debut novel of the same name arrives on May 12.
PLAY: The Airborne Toxic Event, "All at Once"
The Airborne Toxic Event blew into the big time in 2008, thanks to an enthusiastic indie label (Majordomo) and some heavily anthemic tunes. Both were enough to get them upstreamed to a major label and give them a shot at mainstream success. "All at Once" is their chance to play with the big boys. From the opening riff of the lead title track, there's no doubt that the members of The Airborne Toxic Event have been waiting their entire lives for this moment. "All at Once" is a gorgeous, expansive album that does the seemingly impossible: takes the musical formulas built by U2 and rearranged by Coldplay and reinvents them into something wholly fresh. Just when you think stadium bands are dead, here comes The Airborne Toxic Event to make you reach for your lighter — or cellphone lighter app — one more time.
PLAY: Bootsy Collins, "Tha Funk Capital of the World"
From his early funk education with James Brown to his masters course in Parliament/Funkadelic, Boosty Collins has spent more than 40 years showing the world how to keep it funky. "Tha Funk Capital of the World" is the latest stop in Bootsy's never-ending party. And like any good party host, Bootsy knows who to invite. Chuck D, Snoop Dogg, and Bobby Womack are all in the house, but they never forget who's the boss, because Bootsy is firmly in control. It's a loopy ride on the space bass from start to finish. How loopy? The album opener is "Spreading Hope Like Dope," and the closer is "Yummy, I Got the Munchies." You get the idea.
SKIP: Augustana, "Augustana"
On paper, Augustana and The Airborne Toxic Event share the same musical space: two bands committed to big melodies and romantic ideas. The reality is that they couldn't be further apart. Augustana is writing for pop radio play lists, with songs and videos that are long on self-consciousness and short on real musical risk-taking. Their self-titled fourth album is built for the pop culture moment. A few moments from now we'll all be wondering where Augustana went.