Linford Detweiler’s extraordinary piano playing and Karin Bergquist’s emotion-filled voice make Over the Rhine’s latest, Drunkard’s Prayer, a soul-satisfying listen. Recorded entirely in their living room, the spare and simple songs speak of love and loss, grace and spirit, and of going out and coming back home. Back Porch Records.
(Come On Feel the) Illinoise is Sufjan Stevens’ fifth album and the second in his ambitious 50 states series. The 22 songs and instrumental pieces are mostly short, and in them this New York-based Michigan native creates a whole world and invites you to step inside. He covers a lot of ground: Native Americans, the boy from the log cabin, the windy city, the great fire of Chicago—all without a warmed-over blues riff or second-hand idea. Stevens not only follows up the geographic particularity of 2003’s Greetings from Michigan, but also maintains the spiritual savor and instrumental richness of last year’s Seven Swans. This latest work carries gorgeous melodies, lush instrumentation, impeccable arrangements, and polished harmonies. Asthmatic Kitty Records.
Country-folk musician Iris DeMent’s wavering and slightly tinny voice is an acquired taste for some, but for others she delivers a dose of pure, sweet soul. Lifeline is a collection of traditional spirituals—“Blessed Assurance,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and the less-familiar but beautiful “Hide Thou Me,” among others—that DeMent sang in her early pentecostal days. Here they are in their spare and pleading glory. FlariElla Records.
A filmmaker followed the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock during its 30th year; Raise Your Voice is the result—a TV documentary with an accompanying CD of the same name. The six-member group sings spirituals, hymns, blues, and jazz with its characteristic fire and light, pointing out injustices, encouraging activism, and celebrating the wonders of a life of faith. www.sweethoney.com.
There Will Be a Light, by Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama, won last year’s Grammy Award for best traditional gospel album, and with good reason. Harper and the Blind Boys are a perfect pairing of youth and wisdom, gospel and blues, rock and soul. Gospel with a truckload of boogie. Virgin Records.
Folksinger/songwriter Dar Williams’ My Better Self looks at the personal and public ways we interact. In “Teen for God,” the nightgowns of young girls “glow with a holy light” as they pray for the sinners in drunken car wrecks. “Echoes” is a quiet anthem about how every good we do “echoes all over the world.” She’ll put words to action with her Echoes Initiative, in which she’ll highlight the work of community organizations in select cities along her tour. Ani DiFranco, Patty Larkin, and Marshall Crenshaw add their voices. Razor & Tie.
Minton Sparks’ spoken-word portraits of dutiful mommas, straying husbands, and sinning sisters conjure characters that are as real in their humanity—and need for grace—as any you’ll encounter in the flesh. Each story on Sin Sick is paired perfectly with mandolin (Chris Thile of Nickel Creek), banjo (Abigail Washburn), guitar, violin, or piano. www.mintonsparks.com.
Most of the blues, country, and gospel-infused songs on Kate Campbell’s Blues and Lamentations focus on the “other”—the woman looking for shelter in “Peace Comes Stealing Slow,” the gambling man in “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy,” or the “daddy who worked down in a hole,” hauling Birmingham coal. Songs about real people living real lives—some in simple arrangements of guitar and piano, others with the New Orleans sound of trumpet and clarinet. Large River Music.
Headphones, a side project of Dave Bazan and Tim Walsh (the pair is also known as Pedro the Lion), recently released its self-titled debut. On Headphones, Bazan plays a nice collection of vintage keyboards and analog synthesizers, rather than Pedro’s indie-rock guitar, and he has a great feel for the way a shift in rhythm can turn a line on its head. For years he’s adopted personae to tell stories in songs. Elliptical tales of infidelity—to God, spouse, and friends—greed, depression, and (occasionally) joy are his stock in trade. Suicide Squeeze Records.