Weekly spins: Mavis Staples; Echo in the Canyon; Stray Cats; Ryan Hamilton; Empire Cats

Further evidence of the chicanery of modern digital media release practices: What should have been last week’s lede was left out, partly because it wasn’t highlighted in Apple’s new music; and partly because we now trickle out a song at a time while letting listeners pre-add the album to their library. [Insert fist-shaking exhortation to exit my lawn here.]

So, without a doubt the album of last week, and maybe this month was Mavis Staples’ We Get By. And I’ve got some other holdovers herein.

Mavis’ late-career renaissance stands second only to Johnny Cash’s, but she seems to have some time to catch up. This time, her muse is Ben Harper, who produced, wrote all the songs, and appears on one track. Mavis means Gospel and hope; Harper means urgency and dark for the light to envelop.

“What good is freedom” Harper asks us, in Mavis’ voice, “if we haven’t learned to be free?” Excellent question.

The deal with the Echo in the Canyon soundtrack is that Jakob Dylan illustrates the new documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene with a series of duets covering songs of the era. The production sparkles, but they all turn up sounding almost, but not entirely, unlike a Wallflowers album.

Between this and last week’s diss of Rocketman, a reader could understandably get the misapprehension that I don’t dig covers. To the contrary, I adore a good cover. But a good cover sheds new light on both the original song and the covering artist — so it’s a risky, but potentially rewarding game.

I wasn’t sure we needed a Stray Cats reunion, given that both Bryan Setzer and Lee Rocker’s solo output has been a close echo, but damned if this isn’t a perfectly enjoyable slice of nostalgic late-eighties nostalgia for the fifties.

If you are ever on a sinking ship, chain yourself to the nearest piano.

Seven years ago — exactly, per the Facebook reminder I got this morning — Ryan Hamilton tried and largely failed to sink a piano in my pool for a Smile Smile video. (This was along with his then-bandmate Jencey Hirunrusme and her husband-to-be Cole Keeton.)

The indie-folk thinky pop sound of that song couldn’t be more different from the in-your-face, regressive party-hardy sound of the new release from Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts.

I’m largely aware of this release because I have Little Steven’s Underground Garage tuned on my car stereo for the occasions that I’m not in my own library. And that generally eclectic station has become the Ryan Hamilton showcase, playing the first single, “Mamacita” more than it plays Springsteen.

That’s not terribly surprising, as Little Steven shares writing credits on the album.

If I listened to the Hamilton oveure without context, I’d probably assume this was his early, youthful, exuberant work and that the Smile, Smile was latter-day mature introspection, as opposed to the inverse reality.

This is catchy rock, and probably would have been a favorite album in my twenties. But to my middle age ears, the rhymes feel a little easy and I get it: people DRINK A LOT. That said, the title track made my favorites library, and if you hear “Mamacita” twice, you’ll never get it out of your head.

It’s apparently the week for folks I know to release unapologetically fun rawk albums, as our friend and fellow Mungarian Johnny Ferrell (AKA Empire Cats) dropped a debut full of power-pop-metal riffs that put me in mind of Billy Squier and Spinal Tap. (And I mean that as a compliment.)

This week’s random track should prove that I truly don’t hate covers — Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit bring a foreign-yet-familiar take on Simon and Garfunkel’s America:

Sadly, I’m inspired to add a new RIP feature to these weekly posts. We lost two giants this week.

I dug Leon Redbone as much for his idiosyncratic style and patois as his throwback guitar jazz. I got to see him some years back at The Kessler here in Dallas, and it was exactly as you’d expect.

Being a Texas transplant, I only became aware of Roky Erickson on his second career after surviving a horrific experience in a psychiatric ward — and then, via Keven McAlester’s excellent documentary on him. (Keven was kind enough to give me some advice in my failed attempt to make a documentary about ten years ago.)

I do love the 13th Floor Elevators stuff, but there is something magical and calming about his “comeback” record with Okkervil River.


Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.