Daniel Smith could no more come on "normal" than he could write from a non-Christian worldview. In other words, longtime fans who've wondered whether his restructuring Danielson around Andy Wilson, Joshua Stamper, Evan Mazunik, Patrick Berkery, and, yes, Sufjan Stevens might portend changes can relax: The lead track recasts 1 Corinthians 13, Smith still sings like a young Andy Pratt seeing visions, and the catchy songs ("People's Partay," the charmingly naïve "Little Norge"), are bait-the kind used by fishers of men who know whereof they angle.
First Loretta Lynn, now Wanda Jackson-apparently Jack White was born to mastermind comeback albums for septuagenarian roots matriarchs. The only revelation is "Thunder on the Mountain," a recent Dylan song that Jackson makes her own and then some (and not just by replacing Alicia Keys in the first-verse shout-out with Jerry Lee Lewis). But if most of the others are vintage rockabilly-era oldies, they're also right up her alley, especially "Dust on the Bible," a stirring reminder of why Jackson left mainstream music in the first place.
The title of the lead track, "Israelites and Okies," is no joke: This latest album by the CCM equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys is a concept album likening the peregrinations of Dust Bowl stragglers straight out of Steinbeck to the progress (or lack thereof) made by Promised Land-bound pilgrims everywhere. And, unlikely though it seems, the concept works, in part because the Dogs take it as seriously as they take their country-rock and in part because they don't: "Dead End Diner" is as funny as it is infectious.
This album is almost too enamored of the wee-small-hours vibe it generates. When Karen Bergquist sings, "I wrestle my angel in smoky stage lights," she's not kidding-sometimes she's so intent on burrowing into the heart of the mysteries about which she's singing that she subordinates clear enunciation to her hushed intensity. On the other hand, it's rather nice that a lyric like "Prepare ye the way of the Lord" takes awhile to emerge. Not every epiphany, after all, transpires in the blink of an eye.
It's hard to imagine why Sony would release the one-disc, 14-track Playlist: The Very Best of T Bone Burnett just five years after the two-disc, 40-track Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, especially since, of the five tracks not on Twenty Twenty, Playlist includes only two of the 22 songs Burnett has released in the interim.
Maybe Sony hopes the news Burnett has made by producing the latest albums by Elton John and Gregg Allman combined with the Playlist series' budget price will result in a modest profit. The fact remains that the "very best of T Bone Burnett" is his 1980 masterpiece Truth Decay, but it's currently not in print, so Sony's not wanting to steer listeners its way is understandable. Besides, haphazardly compiled though Playlist is, the songs hold up as well in this context as in any other. Here's hoping it proves to be the album that earns this modest prophet the wider hearing he has long deserved.