Chicago Winds is the first first secular album from Dave Hollister in over a decade. The singer not only returns to R&B but keeps his collaborative circle small. Produced and written almost exclusively by past associates Warryn Campbell and Eric Dawkins, it's a solid and consistent release that shows Hollister in top form, singing about relatable, common-man issues with the same level of conviction heard in his best work. No less than half of the songs can contend with the career highlights selected for his 20th Century Masters compilation, and though some longtime fans may miss the streetwise swagger of the earlier work, they can at least respect that Hollister has matured, remains an excellent singer, and isn't trying to be anyone but himself. Even on "Neverland," where the underappreciated Campbell and Dawkins grant him a Princely, early-'80s synth-funk backdrop, Hollister is 100 percent his own artist. The album opens with the mature snap and boom of "Spend the Night" and concludes with a gleaming remix of the same song, courtesy of Blackstreet partner Teddy Riley. Between them, the top highlights are "I'm Different," "Cold," "Wish You Well," and the title track, the last of which features piano and a string arrangement from Jimmy Jam. All of them are down to earth yet stellar.
Sounding in passing a little bit like Nickel Creek blended with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Stray Birds are one of the folk- and bluegrass-influenced string bands reshaping the sound and feel of modern Americana, grounded in traditional elements recast in a 21st century light. Comprised of classically trained multi-instrumentalists Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven, and Charlie Muench, and featuring two distinct and fully complementary songwriters in de Vitry and Craven, and highlighted by gorgeous harmonies (all three sing), Stray Birds have enough melodic pop DNA to feel fresh and new even as they also sound at times like they're from a previous century. Best Medicine is the trio's second full-length, following 2012's critically acclaimed and self-titled Stray Birds (the group released an EP of covers, Echo Sessions, in between in 2013). All but two of the dozen songs here were written by either de Vitry or Craven, and if de Vitry is the more strikingly literary of the two, Craven's songs are every bit as graceful and sturdy. One of the covers, a version of the traditional "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet," here just called "Who's Gonna Shoe," is a clear highlight, as is de Vitry's "Best Medicine," "The Bells," and "Black Hills," while Craven's "Stolen Love" and "Simple Man" are wonderful pieces, both timeless and graceful. The two songwriters did write one of the songs here together, the lovely and delicate "Feathers & Bones," a piece that shows the quiet strengths of both.