(Columbia *** 1/2)
Gold-Diggers Sound is named after the Los Angeles recording studio, hotel, and bar where Leon Bridges worked and lived (and drank, promotional materials take pains to say) during the making of his third album.
When the Texas neo-soul man emerged as a star in 2015, much of his success was due to retro appeal, with a voice that recalled Sam Cooke and an old-school sensibility presented in pristine black-and-white videos.
The Fort Worth native has been moving in a more contemporary, less stylized direction since, loosening up on Texas Sun, a 2020 EP with Houston psychedelic funk trio Khruangbin.
Bridges followed that with “Sweeter,” a song recorded with L.A. saxophonist, rapper, and producer Terrace Martin, best known for his work with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. Bridges released the rumination on enduring racism earlier than planned after the murder of George Floyd.
“Hoping for a life more sweeter, instead I’m just a story repeating,” Bridges sings, over a skeletal beat and wispy sax. “Why do I fear with skin dark as night? Can’t feel peace with those judging eyes.”
“Sweeter” is included on Gold-Diggers Sound, and while the rest of the album doesn’t follow the song’s topical lead — most songs are about being in or out of love — it does provide a musical blueprint.
Bridges has called Gold-Diggers “my most sensual and confident album,” and that self-assurance comes across in both erotically charged songs like “Steam” and disconsolate bummers such as “Why Don’t You Touch Me.” These are sinewy, stripped-down, after-hours songs, and while they still recall Bridges’ heroes like Al Green, they do so without nostalgia.
— Dan DeLuca
Downhill From Everywhere
(Inside Recordings, ***)
Jackson Browne was one of the most artistically and commercially successful singer-songwriters of the ‘70s, with classic records such as The Pretender and Running on Empty. As he became more involved in activist movements, many of his subsequent works, such as 1986′s Lives in the Balance, foregrounded social justice themes, with mixed results.
One of the remarkable things about Downhill From Everywhere, Browne’s 15th studio album, is how much it sounds like a solid, sturdy Jackson Browne album. Browne is 72, and his voice has weathered, but it’s familiar and comforting, especially on ballads such as “A Little Soon to Say.” He’s working with some longtime collaborators, including drummer Russ Kunkel (who appeared on his 1972 debut) and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. David Lindley, his regular foil, is absent, but pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz effectively reprises Lindley’s role.
The album is full of character-driven stories, from the young immigrant in the empathetic bilingual ballad “The Dreamer” to the aging lover getting an artificial heart in the (somewhat stiff) rocker “My Cleveland Heart,” to the bicycle-riding Haitian priest in the lovely, loping “Love is Love,” to America itself on the title track.
Personal reflections bookend the album, beginning with “Still Looking for Something” and ending with “A Song for Barcelona,” an 8½-minute tribute to the “city that gave me back my fire and restored my appetite.” That feeling of rejuvenation permeates Downhill From Everywhere.
— Steve Klinge
Treasure of Love
(Rack ‘em Records, *** 1/2)
The three principal members of the Flatlanders all developed critically acclaimed solo careers in the time between the recording of their debut album, in 1972, and its eventual release, in 1990 (long story). Since then, the West Texas natives have periodically melded their distinct talents — Butch Hancock the dazzling, Dylanesque wordsmith; Joe Ely, the Buddy Holly-inspired rock and roll dynamo; and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the country classicist with the vintage warble — to create music that is an extension of their individual styles but still stands apart as a new whole.
Treasure of Love, their first album in 12 years, not only highlights the Flatlanders’ still-potent chemistry but also reveals them to be as vital-sounding as ever. Hancock contributes three quintessentially Butch numbers and Ely one, but unlike previous Flatlanders records, the bulk of the material is non-original. If they don’t always make the selections their own, they bring an abiding affection and deep understanding to works by, among others, Dylan and Cash, Ernest Tubb, and George Jones (the title track), and songwriters’ songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury.
As usual, the Flatlanders alternate by track on the lead vocals. Fittingly, however, they go out trading verses on a propulsively rocking version of “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” as if to put extra emphasis on their enduring bond.
Lloyd Maines, who coproduced with Ely, is instrumental, so to speak, in giving the record its crackling energy, thanks to his contributions on steel guitar and dobro as well as electric and acoustic guitars. But it’s ultimately Hancock, Ely, and Gilmore who give Treasure of Love its substantial soul.
— Nick Cristiano