By John DeFore
Take a look at the cover of Dap-Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (Daptone) and try to guess its vintage. The '70s pastiche continues onto the promo spiel on the back cover and the dance-step map inside; the graphic design is so cleverly antiqued (it came out in 2002) that you might reasonably expect the band to be a big disappointment.
You'd be way off. Jones is the real thing, brother, a funk queen from James Brown's home town whose eight-piece band - heavy on the bari sax and ancient organ, and conspicuously missing any trace of the modern world - is a steamy serving of soul power. The Daps are led by Bosco Mann, who produced the disc, wrote all the songs (except for the killer cover of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately," which is performed so as to fit the retro vibe), and clearly is a soul scholar.
The reason to pipe up now about a two-year-old disc is that Jones is on tour - she plays Saturday, May 15 at Austin's Continental Club - and if her live show is half as cool as the disc, this is going to be like stepping into a time machine.
There's another time-travel opportunity coming up on the live front. This one will make sense only to those diligent enough to have followed the many aliases of Will Oldham, the artist also known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who has led bands called Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Anomoanon, et cetera. With that many names under his belt, you can imagine how many songs Oldham has written - and now, he has revisited that catalog for Greatest Palace Music (Drag City).
Here, we leap back to the early '90s and ask, "What if Will hadn't been such a weird, limelight-phobic artist?" Where the first Palace Brothers music was frighteningly stark, emotionally and acoustically fragile, Greatest Palace Music is played by a group of session pros who have been on some of country music's most polished recordings. No more hillbilly croak, or at least not so much - where those old discs were not necessarily something you could pass along to just anybody, this is an album to make Oldham's brilliant songs accessible.
On the other hand, some of these new arrangements are almost perversely steeped in Nashville tradition; maybe Prince Billy has something else in mind entirely. Judge for yourself when Oldham brings his band to Texas later this month. (A San Antonio date is allegedly being booked somewhere for the 28th; the 26th and 27th are firm at Austin's Parish.)
Among other musical treats ahead this summer is the opportunity to hear Antietam live, as they tour through Texas with Yo La Tengo. The band, which has been described as the South's answer to YLT but has a rawer edge, has been around for over 20 years in various configurations, all of which revolve around vocalist Tara Key's guitar work. (Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once dubbed her "the best female guitarist this side of the Atlantic.")
The band's new Victory Park (Carrot Top) is an atmospheric throwback to the kind of Velvet Underground-inspired indie pop made by the Feelies and Galaxie 500 - with its underplayed vocals and low, steady thrum - but isn't stuck in the past. By all accounts the band is gripping live, though hopefully a bit less devastating than the historical event for which they're named.
From the nightclub stage back to the headphones, two new live albums are making me remember why I liked a couple of songwriters in the first place. Jay Farrar has never been the most engaging stage presence - watching him play might put you to sleep, in fact - but Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, which will be released June 8 on his own Transmit Sound label, is a fine album. It's one of few live records that might be better than the concerts they document, in fact; and unlike Farrar's studio records, it provides him a chance to do a blistering cover of Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane."
James McMurtry doesn't cover Neil Young, but he does rock more on Live in Aught-Three (Compadre) than you might guess if you've never seen the thoughtful songwriter play live. He jokes around more, too, although sometimes one suspects he's being facetious. Before launching into "No More Buffalo," he quips: "I used to think I was an artist; come to find out I'm a beer salesman. And I'm okay with that now - it's not a bad job, really."
Live pairs a few old favorites like "Too Long in the Wasteland" and "Rachel's Song" with tracks from his more recent Sugar Hill albums, which have been a little less consistent. The best of McMurtry's songs are so literary - so intent on honing a short story's worth of local color into a few short verses - that it's surprising how well they come across in roadhouse arrangements. Maybe the songwriter really has made peace with selling pints for a living. •
By John DeFore