Thug-love duets of the recent decade's summer seasons -- the latest/hottest being Wyclef & Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" and "So What" from Ciara & Field Mob -- just won't cut it in dire times. But Outlaw country iterations of same will. So y'all know Kris Kristofferson's Live From Austin TX (New West; ***1/2) is just what Dr. Feelbad ordered. Some sistahs watch 1976 Diana Ross starrer Mahogany when in despair or PMS-ing; yours truly screens the Babs-Kristofferson cinematic gem A Star Is Born from the same year. Sure, the Texan singer-songwriter is my hero in the metaphysical sense; but he also fills his denims mighty fine. And Live -- the disc culled from a 1981 performance on Austin City Limits -- showcases Kristofferson's prime tunes: "Me and Bobby McGee," "For the Good Times," "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" and "Help Me Make it Through the Night." Ole Kris ain't lyin'.
Relative newcomer Devon Allman (son of Gregg) and his Honeytribe may aspire to Kristofferson-like sensitive thuggery. Yet sample grooves from their forthcoming debut (August 29), Torch (Livewire), suggest the true grit is thus far reserved for their classicist blues-rock licks. Recorded at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios, songs like the title track and "Things You Never Stole" are a fine start, though.
Blues is a genre where one expects to hear "My baby done left me" narratives, but what happens when blues formalism is spun out into the cosmos and back to Africa? Santana III -- Legacy Edition (Columbia/Legacy; ****), that's what. At the time of the original LP's 1971 release, the classic San Francisco-based Santana lineup was at its height, as evidenced by the power of stand-bys "Everybody's Everything," "Guajira," "Jungle Strut" and "Everything's Coming Our Way." The new CD edition includes vault tracks and live recordings from the Fillmore West -- the latter featuring standard blues femme fatalism on "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen." If the dulcet "Everything's Coming Our Way" proffers optimism, the murky bilingual incantation of "No tengo a nadie" on "No One to Depend On" provides suitable reference to the heart of darkness.
On the year's first great country disc, His Hands (Astralwerks; ***1/2), resuscitated Southern soul singer Candi Staton knows well what evil lurks in the hearts of men. If Staton's unfamiliar (for lack of a better comparison), she could be likened to a southeastern counterpart of Chi-Town belter Chaka Khan -- although never as out there. Staton, like Khan, possesses a hard voice and saw her career derailed by severe man woes. Staton's early '70s LPs recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama's Fame Studio, are grails of Southern soul. His Hands, although the polar opposite of the wispy Dixie femme trend embodied by Norah Jones, should gain the attention of those who enjoyed Bettye LaVette's similar comeback moves in 2005.
In a just world, Staton's twangtastic, steel-ridden CD would hit CMT's heavy rotation; suitably for the Bible Belt, the title track, one of her strongest, expresses gritty, agape love for the Lord, and the arrangement reaches for the firmament. Luckily for those more earthbound, Staton breaks it down knee-deep on the domestic blues of "In Name Only." Have mercy!
Staton's masterful deployment of the soulful side of country would have the late Georgia singer-songwriter Gram Parsons crowing were he still kickin' it today. Of course, the new three-CD set The Complete Reprise Sessions (Warner Bros./Rhino; ****) has Parsons holding it down on that score. This latest collection, naturally overseen by his duet partner, Emmylou Harris, gathers all of the tragic Southern troubadour's late career solo recordings and extras.
The vital, lasting of these songs comes from the revelation that Harris' and Parsons' voices -- like those of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, as well as Marvin Gaye's and Tammi Terrell's -- were preordained to perform in harmony. Harris' clarion-sweet tones chase Gram's wracked croons through "The Streets of Baltimore," "In My Hour of Darkness" and a Louvin Brothers cover ("Cash On the Barrelhead") -- all the way to high lonesome nirvana.
Of Harris' gift, Parsons cited the ability to sing duets with love in their respective pairs of eyes. And there is a haunting, sultry thread running through "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning," "Hearts On Fire," and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant's immortal "Love Hurts." "Love scars/Love wounds and mars/Any heart not tough/Or strong enough" -- hot damn.
Parsons' and Harris' unacknowledged passion aside, the country-rock icon's most devastating, heartbreaking songs come from an isolated voice, and refer to his own familial interiors: "Brass Buttons" (an ode to Parsons' late, alcoholic mother), "$1,000 Wedding" (a bizarre, hard-core reflection on his amour fou for baby mama Nancy Ross). This astonishing power of gothic revelation ought never be foreign to down-home listeners from this region.