Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson and San Angelo transplants Los Lonely Boys are among Austin’s highest-profile musical acts, and both have records out next week. Los Lonely Boys play a 4 p.m. Monday in-store at Barnes & Noble’s Arboretum location, while Benson is at Waterloo Records on Tuesday for a 5 p.m. record release show. Here’s a look at their respective new albums:
Ray Benson, "A Little Piece" (Bismeaux): The founder and frontman of western swing kings Asleep at the Wheel, Benson has issued only one solo CD previously (2003’s Grammy-nominated "Beyond Time"). His talent for working outside the Wheel’s tried-and-true, rhythm-centric framework first became apparent with his lovely rendition of "If I Needed You" on a 2001 Townes Van Zandt tribute.
On his own, Benson tends toward more contemplative expression. For a guy who made his name with dance-floor material, he’s surprisingly strong as a balladeer. The title track, which opens the record, is a sort of life mission statement; framed by beautiful acoustic and steel guitar work from co-producers Benson, Sam Lightnin’ Seifert (Benson’s son) and Lloyd Maines, it sways with a sweetness and grace that brings to mind Willie Nelson. Which is fitting, given that Willie shows up a couple tracks later as a duet partner on "It Ain’t You," a beautifully stark and simple number co-written by the late Waylon Jennings.
Elsewhere, Benson picks up the pace. "JJ Cale" pays tribute to the late soulful country-blues musician with a lowdown groove that sounds straight outta Tulsa. "Killed by a 45" plays to the darker side of honky-tonk, with a clever lyrical twist. "Crossroads" stretches into Latin territory, conjuring sounds of the Texas-Mexico border. Collectively, the album’s 11 tracks attest to Benson’s status as one of Austin’s most gifted musicians, whether or not he’s behind the Wheel.
Los Lonely Boys, "Revelation" (LonelyTone/Playing in Traffic): The brothers Garza — guitarist Henry, bassist Jojo and drummer Ringo — may never again approach the stratospheric heights they reached when their 2004 debut album went double-platinum and spawned a smash single (the Grammy-winning "Heaven"). That hasn’t stopped their drive to create broad-appeal pop music drawing strongly on their Latin heritage and Texas upbringing.
Henry’s fall from a stage a year ago, which resulted in injuries that required a long recovery period, seems to have affected his lyrical perspective on some tracks. Most notable is "There’s Always Tomorrow," a live-life-to-its-fullest declaration in which he wonders, "What if I don’t wake up? What did I leave behind?" It’s also the record’s most immediately appealing track; though it steers away from the Boys’ traditional foundations, relying heavily on keyboard flourishes and studio gloss, it transcends concerns of genre and stands as a grand pop moment.
More rootsy flavors are evident on the Latin-tinged opener "Blame It on Love" (which carries a little Buddy Holly influence as well), the down-and-dirty groove of "Give a Little More," and the complex rhythms and vocal layers on "Don’t Walk Away." From start to finish, it’s a record that would sound great on the radio — perhaps a tough sell in a post-radio age, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment.
Next week in Austin360
Is Austin the Live Festival Capital of the World? We’d bet our party-loving city would place in the Top 5 at least. Next week we’ll run down all fests large and small coming up this year. Plus, Matthew Odam visits El Patio, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2014, and Abram Shook talks his solo record.