NIGHTSHADE Steve Dawson (Black Hen Music)
One magazine has referred to Steve Dawson as "the T-Bone Burnett of Canada." I tend to think of him more as a Canadian version of Ry Cooder. And I love Ry Cooder.
Whatever comparisons are made, this might be one of the best albums coming out this year from a singer-songwriter unfamiliar to a lot of Americans.
Dawson has a great voice to go with his fine slide guitar and storytelling, everything seeming to flow effortlessly. In this, his fifth solo recording, Dawson goes with a dark theme, but it's not a downer. It's an introspective look at life, with songs such as "Darkness Still," "Walk On," and "Have That Chance," being almost more of subtle wake-up calls for seizing opportunities and not so much lamenting about being mired in depression.
The album is acoustic and gut bucket blues, flirting with other genres and "Side of the Road (inspired by the life of bluesman Skip James)," includes interplay with some banjos. This is an album with a steady, warm and feel-good groove that keeps bringing you back.
Sophisticated writing and musicianship from a guy who's produced albums for Jim Byrnes, the Sojourners, and others, as well as having had a big hand in the award-winning Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Project album of 2009.
-- TOM HENRY
MOUNTAIN HOME Owen Temple (El Paisano Records)
The 10 new songs here show off the creative talents of an Austin-based favorite, singer/songwriter Owen Temple. Listeners quickly understand why his works have won him numerous awards throughout Texas, the Midwest, and the eastern United States. With this album, he continues the artistic promise shown in his first five studio releases.
This release is a strong and often stirring, thought-provoking anthology of vignettes about eccentric characters in small towns and, on occasion, the towns themselves. It's story-telling country music at its best, sometimes leaving heavily toward folk music. It's Americana for sure.
The melodies are solid, often loping, and unencumbered by studio wizardry that can detract from the lyrics. Simple instrumentation and light harmony vocals mate perfectly with Temple's workmanlike vocals. All together, they do a fine job of weaving the stories. This isn't dance or party music by any means, but deserves serious attention, much like a book of short stories.
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
HOT SAUCE COMMITTEE PART TWO BEASTIE BOYS (Capitol)
"Hot Sauce Committee Part Two" is the first Beastie Boys album since the 2007 all-instrumental "The Mix-Up." "HSC Part Two" was scheduled to be released in 2009 under the name "Hot Sauce Committee Part One," if that's not too confusing, but was delayed when Beastie Adam Yauch was diagnosed with cancer.
The exhilaratingly lighthearted return to form doesn't suffer in the slightest from the delay, in part because it's such a gleeful retro effort. The beats and scratches are unabashedly old-school, and the celebrities, rappers, and athletes whose names are dropped, from John Salley to JJ Fad to Brad Pitt (whom Mike D informs us he is the Jewish version of), have all been around nearly as long as the Beasties themselves.
That's a long time. "Oh my God, just look at me," Yauch rhymes on "Too Many Rappers," which features Nas. "Grandpa been rappin' since '83." "HSC Part Two" doesn't ignore what the Beastie Boys learned in the interim, but it shakes off the sense of seriousness that often has weighted them down of late. The album flows like a smartly sequenced, rough-around-the-edges mix tape, and integrates the dub instrumental "Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament" and the reggae-riffing (and Santigold-featuring) "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win."
On "Hot Sauce," the Beasties recapture much of what made them so much fun in the first place, without ever seeming to try hard. And after more than 25 years, that's not easy to do.
-- DAN DeLUCA, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER