Month: April 2014

First Impressions: Rodney Crowell, “Tarpaper Sky”

tarpaperWe got a fine duets album with Emmylou Harris last year, and the multi-artist collection Kin in 2011, but Tarpaper Sky is the first record in some time now that’s straight-up Rodney Crowell, firmly within his wheelhouse and doing what he does best. It’s just a Rodney Crowell album, in other words, but referring to it as such downplays both how good it is and how significant it is to have a new recording of original songs from a singer and songwriter of such distinction.

It also happens to be a reunion with many of the musicians who played on the landmark Diamonds & Dirt sessions, but that might make it sound like a bit of a throwback: Truthfully, there’s nothing retro or nostalgic about this one, even if it does find Crowell engaging the same milieu of country, rock, blues, folk, and Cajun idioms that he’s long tangled with, borrowing from them at different times and in unequal measures. What makes the record special is that he’s approaching his music from a place of contentment, a place where he can bank everything on the warmth, humor, and wisdom in his songs, never sounding like he’s out to prove anything but never sounding like he’s phoning it in, either; Tarpaper Sky isn’t a lazy album, but rather it’s the sound of a consummate pro doing what he does best, and it’s a delight to hear it.

The highlights are many, and they include one of the tunes he co-wrote with memoirist and poet Mary Karr for the Kin album: “God I’m Missing You” sounded rather pained when Lucinda Williams sang it, but Crowell takes it to a different place, inhabiting the song with a warm melancholy, a weary kind of sadness. Not everything is so forlorn, and in fact much of the record rocks and rolls with surprising energy, hard-won hope, and the sheer joy of making music. “Frankie Please” is a driving rock and roll number in the old-fashioned sense, and it pairs off nicely with the excellent roadhouse blues song “Somebody’s Shadow.” Opener “The Long Journey Home” is part anthem, part travelogue, written from the perspective of a seasoned journeyman who knows he doesn’t have all the answers but is increasingly content in the journey itself. Of the gentler numbers, “Grandma Loved That Old Man” is especially charming, a character study made warm by the intimacy and specificity of its details. Like much of Tarpaper Sky, it’s written from a place where memories inform the present, where yesterday’s dreams and heartaches point the way forward.

The record  has a song dedicated to John Denver and another written “for Guy,” presumably Clark—all of which points to Crowell’s frame of mind here, but he’s not merely looking to the past: He’s actively engaging it, building from it—and what he’s built is one of his most satisfying records yet.

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First Impressions: Wilko Johson & Roger Daltrey, “Going Back Home”

wilkoThere may not be a more joyful record released in 2014 than Going Back Home—which may be a bit of an odd thing to say about an album that started with a death sentence. When Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he would have been forgiven for holing up somewhere to record a moody reflection on his own mortality, something like the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin recordings or Time Out of Mind—fuck it, he would have been forgiven for just heading to the beach to ride things out—but of course, Johnson is the very embodiment of a working musician, so instead of doing anything quite so morose or somber, he headed to the studio intent on cutting a fast-and-loose set of rock and blues, working with his studio band and simply blazing through as many rock and roll tunes as they could in the span of a few days. Roger Daltrey of The Who was recruited to sing, and the resulting album is one that hits all the right notes—combining a few new tunes with a number of Dr. Feelgood warhorses and a righteous, rip-roaring take on Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Our Your Window,” most of the songs whizzing by in less than three minutes, the entire set just hitting half an hour, not one moment that isn’t pumped full of visceral, gut-punch rock and roll.

To say that Johnson and his band sound like they’re enlivened—having the time of their lives—may be surprising but is inarguable based on the evidence here; the album may not quite have the kinetic energy of prime Feelgood albums, but it does have plenty of rock and roll swagger that’s pitched somewhere between the careening beat of 50s R&B, the anarchy of punk, and the macho strut of electric blues, particularly the McKinley Morganfield variety; not for nothing is Going Back Home released on Chess. The most surprising thing may be Daltrey, who sounds every bit as alive and as overjoyed as Johnson does, more than earning his credit as a marquee collaborator. Here he gets to let loose with material that’s bold and ballsy, full of piss and venom; in other words, it’s pretty far removed from the kinds of self-consciously arty lyrics that Pete Townshend tends to give him, and while Daltrey doesn’t try to hit all the same notes he did circa Who’s Next, he does tear into these songs with a gruff ferocity seldom heard from him, at least not recently. Going Back Home is a gas from start to finish, and while it doesn’t tackle death or finality head-on in its lyrics, in its own way it faces mortality with true grit: After all, what are we to call a joyous, careening piece of music like this if not a celebration of life, and a protest of death?