That ‘70s show keeps on rolling

Every year around late summer, I think about Elvis.

The man some called the King died in the middle of August 1977 at age 42. And while he’d turned into a bloated, drug-saturated caricature in his twilight years; and he’d made a ton of crummy movies in the 1960s, albeit followed by a swell comeback from 1968–70; what comes to mind when I think about the man from Tupelo is his meteoric rise. And, also, how his early music was a wicked brew that resulted from the various musical components swirling around his psyche: blues, black- and white-gospel forms, country, even crooner pop.

That collision of seemingly unreconcilable musical forms has been at the heart of a lot of great music—the Beatles, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Prince—and present-day acts such as Beck and My Morning Jacket. Even the much-maligned Grateful Dead drew from such seemingly disparate genres as rock, blues, jug-band folk, country and various world-music forms.

But not every artist finds his or her muse in such alchemical pursuits. For some, the call of the familiar is more powerful, and the ingredients that go into their particular musical soufflé are drawn from more narrow parameters.

Now, 1977 wasn’t just the year Elvis died, or the year that punk broke—an explosion that gave us the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Elvis Costello and a raft of other greats. That year also was the heyday of such record labels as Warner Bros./Reprise and Elektra/Asylum, when the Southern California songwriter aesthetic was in full flower.

Nothing on Kate Gaffney’s new album, The Coachman, reminds me of the kind of roiling multigenre tumult that birthed an Elvis—Presley or Costello—but the very well crafted 10-song set may be the best goddamn Bonnie Raitt album I’ve heard in a really long time.

Gaffney, a Philadelphia transplant who’s signed to local label Dig Music, which seems to have a real affinity for this style of music, has a lovely voice, a mature alto that doesn’t sound cutesy-dusky in the way that so many female singer-songwriters do these days. She writes songs that ring comfortably familiar, but differ enough to sound like she isn’t locked into writing the same song over and over. In fact, her compositions are each quite distinct.

Still, as much as I adore this album, it sounds like the work of someone whose record collection probably doesn’t contain too many surprises.

Produced in Los Angeles by Barrie Maguire, another Philly native who played bass with such adult-contemporary/Americana staples as the Wallflowers and Natalie Merchant, The Coachman opens with the minute-long and breathy “My Word” and closes with the title track at 18 minutes-plus, an elegiac steel-guitar and organ-laced meditation. The eight songs in between are mostly in the four- to five-minute range, with organ-laced chick gospel (“What Kind of Man”), Allen Toussaint-style N’awlins percussive funk-granola hybrids (“Falls Bridge,” “Before I Go”), finger-style folk (“Mighty Ship”), a couple of waltzes (“Give It a Whirl,” “Philadelphia Lawyer”), a Band-like Arcadian plaint (“The Ballad of Sleepy John”) and a reggae-flavored pop tune (“Fallen for the Road”).

Gaffney is backed on the disc by Jackie Greene, another artist with a decided affinity for post-Blonde on Blonde Americana, along with jam-band staples Steve and Jim Kimock and Ben Harper’s band the Innocent Criminals.

Although The Coachman is slated for an October release with a release party at Harlow’s, she’s also playing that same venue on Thursday, September 4, sharing a bill with labelmate Sal Valentino, who will be playing with a band and string section. If it’s anything like his Palms show last spring, it’s not to be missed.