Record Reviews


Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

Album: “No Mercy in This Land”

Grade: A

With a Grammy for best blues album in their pocket for 2014’s “Get Up!” Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite put themselves in contention again with “No Mercy in This Land.”

The credit sheet gives the impression of a lopsided May-September collaboration. Harper wrote or co-wrote the 10 tracks, sings and plays guitar (slide, acoustic, electric) on all of them and co-produced the record. All Musselwhite does is play the harmonica and intone some emotional verses on the title track. Just like all Shakespeare did was write plays.

The album veers between electric and acoustic sounds, from songs about the challenges and thrills of love to a couple of tunes about alcoholism and others about seemingly insurmountable hardships.

There are sharp observations and knowledge of the world in Harper’s songs — “Everybody says I love you/But not everybody lives I love you” and “You may have learned to hustle/But you never learned to dance” — and they’re a great fit with the duo’s magnetic blues repertoire, blended with gospel, soul and rhythm & blues.

—Pablo Gorondi, Associated Press

Kim Richey

Album: “Edgeland”

Grade: A

Kim Richey has been winning over critics for years, but music buyers have been slower to catch on. On her eighth album, “Edgeland,” she once again demonstrates the range of her talent.

From the delicious opening guitar lick on “The Red Line,” a deceptively simple song about a ride on Chicago’s “L,” Richey shows off her ability to turn mundane details into A-level song craft. The song lifts an ordinary train ride into art in a way that a lot of songwriters try but few pull off.

In Richey’s hands, the effect is dazzling. She puts listeners on the train beside her, though it feels like she’s alone there, lost in thought and discerning observation.

Richey sustains that level of craftsmanship through a dozen new songs, including collaborations with Chuck Prophet, Robyn Hitchcock, Mike Henderson and other Nashville mainstays. She makes the most of terrific ensemble playing, and her old-soul singing conveys sadness and energy all at once.

—Scott Stroud, Associated Press

Bettye LaVette

Album: “Things Have Changed”

Grade: A

There are enough cover versions of Bob Dylan songs for a lifetime but Bettye LaVette’s own dozen are a truly special kind. She doesn’t simply sing them — she molds, adopts and transforms them, taking possession of the songs like few other interpreters do or can.

If Dylan has often purposely confounded expectations, LaVette’s career, which began in Detroit in the early 1960s, was plagued by disruptions and did not hit a consistent stride until some 40 years after its start. But it’s been highlight after highlight since 2003’s comeback “A Woman Like Me,” including several Grammy nominations.

The repertoire of “Things Have Changed” sticks mostly to roads less traveled, leaning heavily toward Dylan songs from the 1980s onward, including “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,” “Emotionally Yours” and “Ain’t Talkin’,” while the title track is his Oscar winner from the 2000 “Wonder Boys” soundtrack.

“The Times They Are A-Changin,”’ the biggest hit on the album, gets a funky, swampy reading that injects the menacing track with a deep soul.

LaVette and the band take liberties with the songs — changing or dropping lyrics, altering melodies, updating moods — but the reassessments achieve their purpose: unburdened from a specific Dylan album or period, their kinship is clear and undeniable.

—Pablo Gorondi, Associated Press

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