Month: May 2014

Bewildered First Impressions: Neil Young, “A Letter Home”

neilIt’s easy to slag A Letter Home for being less an album, more a gimmick—and a gimmick it is, at least in part: Analog fetishists Neil Young and Jack White teamed up to cut an entire record in an old-time recording booth, the kind that was once common at fairs and amusement parks; the booths beckoned rubes to record their own brief aural snapshots—cutting their own vinyl records, most of which were devoted to spoken-word remembrances, jokes, and other novelty communiqués. Here, Young holed up in this tiny booth—barely large enough to fit him and his acoustic guitar—to perform covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Willie Nelson, Gordon Lightfoot, and others; the resulting album is rushed and sloppy, the audio quality full of pops and hisses, sounding every bit as rough and muddy as, say, the surviving Robert Johnson tapes, or something off the Harry Smith anthology.

This is an elaborate novelty, and maybe just a tiny bit of a mind game; after all, Young has taken songs that are nearly all from the 60s and early 70s and made them sound like unearthed singles from the 1920s, a move that plays fast and loose with our conceptions of musical authenticity. It does more than that, though: It also drives home the looming suspicion that, these days, Young is less interested in music and more interested in being a tech-obsessed old curmudgeon—whether that means fiddling with electric cars, his Pono sound system, or Jack’s carnival recording booth. (Admittedly, the notion that Young doesn’t care about songs anymore is undercut by the enthusiasm he displayed when talking about some of these tunes on Jimmy Fallon not long ago.)

This perception that A Letter Home isn’t really about the music—that it’s more about the recording method—sets the stage for an unexpectedly moving and revealing program: Whether by intention or not, Young and White have proven the resilience of these songs, their transcendence over recording methods, concepts, and gimmicks. There’s an old Prince quote, about how a great song is one that you can strip back to just voice and a rhythm instrument and still have something that feels alive and complete. That’s what happens here: The songs are reduced to bare bones and frayed edges but still sound sublime—all of them—whether it’s the surprisingly jaunty take on “Reason to Believe,” a most tender “Girl from the North Country,” or a haunted “Needle of Death.” Maybe the best song: Willie’s “On the Road Again,” for which Jack pulls a piano right up to the door of the recording booth, pounding away and adding a distant duet vocal, the whole song constantly sounding like it’s about to come apart but never quite doing so.

The soul of these songs, and the warmth of the performances, cut through the hiss and scratches and pops—and in the end, the goofy recording technique is simply the delivery vehicle for a great, wonderfully ragged set of music, not a hindrance to it. That’s wildly, surprisingly moving—and for me, it’s one of the more endearing Neil Young recordings.


FIrst Impressions: Royksopp & Robyn, “Do it Again”

doitagainI don’t know a great deal about the duo called Royksopp, but I do know a thing or two about Robyn—the world’s most badass pop star; she who is legally prohibited from wearing tight sweaters on international flights; she who doesn’t engage with her muse by way of piano balladry or finger-picked acoustic guitar playing but is a peerless songwriter nevertheless, offering bold witness to our collective need for vulnerability—for human engagement even when it comes at a cost, which it surely always does—and bidding us love without fear.

The three of them have collaborated—not for the first time—and the result is a new record called Do It Again. With five songs but over 35 minutes of music, it’s being billed as a “mini album.” It is more rewarding and fun than most hour-long musical programs, and strikes a nice balance between songs that are adventurous and experimental, and songs that sound more like Robyn doing what she does best—never repeating herself, just playing to her strengths.

Balance is a keyword here, actually, exemplified by the record’s structure: It is bookended with a couple of moody, experimental numbers, both of them hovering around the ten-minute marker. The opener, “Monuments,” is reflective, exhibiting quiet resolve: The singer pledges that the legacy she’ll leave behind will be one of having loved well, and bravely; saxophones carry the song out, and if the use of this instrument as a signifier of romantic melancholy has become quite familiar, the arrangement here is too evocative for anyone to quibble. The album ends with “Inside the Idle Hour Club,” a spare and leisurely instrumental.

Sandwiched between them are three songs that are vintage Robyn—which is to say, pure pop bliss. “Sayit” is was made with the dancefloor in mind; it’s a throbbing, robotic slow-build, descended from “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do” or “We Dance to the Beat.” “Every Little Thing” is a love song with a hook that could’ve been on a prime Britney Spears song—and that’s not a bad thing. The title song is an irresistible blast of new wave synths, but it’s powered by the singer’s incomparable swagger as much as anything else.

It’s a bit of a gem, this album, and a smashing evolution of some of the lyrical and musical themes from Robyn’s unimpeachable Body Talk LP—not bad at all for something that’s not even billed as a proper LP.

First Impressions: The Roots, “… and Then You Shoot Your Cousin”

rootsThe following is not intended as anything more or less than a quick set of first impressions– well, impressions of after my fourth listen, but it’s an odd and dense record– posted to Facebook this morning. I’m still unravelling the different threads of the record, but am concerned that it’s being too quickly dismissed as somber, bleak, or even slight, rather than engaged for the deeply mysterious and compelling work that I believe it to be.

A funny thing happened to The Roots on their way to semi-retirement. After getting off the road and settling into a cushy gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, they’ve suddenly become exponentially more prolific than they ever were before– no small thing for a working band like The Roots. By ?uestlove’s own reckoning they now write hundreds of new songs every week; have collaborated on-stage with everyone from Springsteen to Randy Newman, and on-record with Betty Wright, Booker T. Jones, and Elvis Costello; and yes: Have now released three proper, post-Fallon Roots joints that have effectively redefined who The Roots are as a recording unit (not least because none of these albums actually seem to feature the full Roots lineup, making it seem as though the Roots brand is really just a vehicle for ?uestlove’s flights of fancy).

Ironically, regularly displaying their sense of humor on ‘Fallon’ seems to be making The Roots more gravely serious on record; their increasingly prolific nature, meanwhile, has been tempered somewhat by much shorter albums– all of them with strong conceptual thrusts, tackling middle age, the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the fractured nature of hip-hop as a culture.

New album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is the shortest one yet, at barely over half an hour; it’s also the bleakest, a brutal and biting satire of a culture in love with violence and completely given over to the basest drives of capitalism. ?uestlove has suggested that the record is intended as a comment on hip-hop culture– and the deeply referential lyrics, which pick up on thoughts by everyone from KRS-One to Jay Z, certainly bear this out– but to approach this record as a tourist would be to do it and yourself a disservice: We’d be fools to think this same seed of self-preserving bloodlust isn’t carried somewhere in each one of our bruised and battered human hearts—watered not by hate but by fear.

This is also their most their weirdest album—they’ve outpaced Kanye in the art-rap department, stripping away most recognizable elements of funk and instead going back to jazz and 40s and 50s pop and looking ahead into avant classical music, weaving instrumentals, snippets, and full-fledged Roots songs into an intentionally disjointed, postmodern hip-hop operetta. (Hop-hiperetta?)

It’s some weird shit, is what I’m trying to say, with weighty concerns: Violence, misogyny, and greed are offered up as the dehumanizing fruit of hip-hop culture—indeed, of an American culture now marked more by dreams deferred than by dreams brought to realization. (All of this makes the whistled, sunshiney closer, “Tomorrow,” seem like a coda so bitterly ironic that even their new pal Randy Newman might think it too dark.)

You could say the album is too brief, but—like A Love Supreme—its sheer intensity might make anything more than 30 minutes all but unbearable. You could also say they’ve become far too serious, and maybe you’re on to something—but right now it seems as though this is the message they’ve been given, the voice with which to deliver it. Best to stand back and let these dear hip-hop journeymen testify—because as brutal as this all can be, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about hearing a veteran band like this go so far out—while looking so far in—and conjuring a record as brave and uncompromising as this one.

Deluge! (Quick Thoughts on Jolie Holland, The Roots, The Black Keys, etc.)

jolieIn my decade and a half of blogging, I have found that—nearly without fail—the seasons in which I am busiest, too preoccupied with other things to get serious about online writing, are the very seasons in which blogging holds the most appeal, or at least the seasons in which I have the most to blog about. Take lately: Between travel, family, the 9-5, and other creative endeavors (plus my heavy investment in Invisible Hour), there just hasn’t been as much time as I might have liked to write about new records that have come across my desk.

And actually, that’s another reason I haven’t devoted more time to the blog: I’ve been spending so many hours connecting with new records, of which there have been many fine ones in recent weeks. I feel a bit like we’re getting a deluge of worthy new music, enough that I think it useful to pause just now and offer a few quick recommendations. Some of these records I hope to formally engage in the weeks to come; others I just know I’ll never get to. All are excellent and have offered me something in the way of revelation and pleasure, and you could do worse than to invest an hour with any one of them.

  • Outside of Invisible Hour, there may be no release from this calendar year that’s ignited my imagination quite like Wine Dark Sea, out this week from Jolie Holland. I love everything about Jolie—have ever since her stone classic Springtime Can Kill You LP from 2006; I love her voice, her songcraft, and her devotion to making each record sound different from the one that came before it, even as all share the same dusty, lived-in vibe, engaging American folk and parlor song from different angles. This new one is something altogether weird, warped, and wild—a savage, thumping set of country-blues songs as filtered through the New York underground, rooted in the same dust and clay that Robert Johnson trod but reimagined through the prism of punk. It snarls and howls and kicks up dust; has a bruised and battered heart and considers love in all its treacherous beauty. Tremendous record, and pretty far out there.
  • Speaking of far out there, those who know me well know that I love The Roots—both with and without Jimmy Fallon—and am smitten by how ambitious their records have become since they made the shift to late night. How I Got Over and undun are both significant works, but the forthcoming … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is on another level; it goes deeper out and deeper in, and—more even than the last couple of Kanye West records—it feels to me like the advent of art-rap. It’s much more appealing and intoxicating than that tag might make it sound—dense in its sound and weighty in its subject matter, but also compact and never without recognizable elements of swing and soul. I know I dig it plenty, though it may take a while to appraise just how much. (My suspicion: A lot!)
  • I love the musical and cultural history of New Orleans, and many of my favorite records engage and celebrate the vibrant lineage of that city—The Bright Mississippi, The River in Reverse, Trombone Shorty’s records, and so on. Conversations, the new record from Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, is something a little different: His first recording as the leader of an acoustic jazz trio, and a rather remarkable conjuring of Mardi Gras music in all its color and kinetic energy. Like Duke Ellington, Moore is masterful at utilizing the full textural palette of his band—whether it’s a 28-piece or just piano, drums, and bass—and this record’s invention is only topped by its righteous sense of swing.
  • The new album from Sturgill Simpson is called Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and for that tip of the hat to Ray Charles alone it’s aces; factor in Simpson’s devastating outlaw strut and his impeccable Waylon Jennings gravitas and you’ve got the makings of a record that reaches back to an almost forgotten tradition and brings it into the present day. The songs, most of them originals, are tough and sensitive in equal measure, explicitly philosophizing but rooting everything in hard life experience; it clocks in at a lean 30-minute running time, its hard-hitting brevity just one final and welcome nod to the crisp, no-frills outlaw era.
  • I’ve been a little bit resistant to the music of tUnE-yArds over the years, not least because of the annoying stylization of the band’s name and some of their LP titles, but new record Nikki Nack is a set of summer bangers that I’m finding easy to warm to; it’s like Graceland on speed, and it overflows with energy and attitude, humor and invention.
  • Food, from the sublimely gifted singer Kelis, is a treat—by turns sweet and savory, nourishing for sure but not without its moments of pure bubblegum pleasure. The production is tricked out with all kinds of colors and textures, some of them recalling vintage soul and R&B and others defiantly modern, giving the record an out-of-time allure—but of course, it’s the songs that count, and they’re fine ones.
  • A final note: Dan Auerbach has clearly been dipping pretty heavy into the R&B as of late, something that’s evident not just in the songs he wrote for the new Black Keys record but also in his production work for Ray LaMontagne, whose new Supernova is a major left turn; the opening song alone sounds like the spacey vibe of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” crossed with the druggy undertow of “I’m Only Sleeping,” with a paisley color palette that could’ve been cribbed from Prince. What makes the record identifiable as Ray LaMontange—what gives it its grit and its soul, and makes it more than just an extreme pop makeover—is his ongoing Van Morrison fixation, here manifest in some scatting and soulful pop that’s evenly split between Astral Weeks and Moondance. He goes way out into the mystic, Ray does, and the album is an appealing and worthwhile adventure. As for the Keys’ own record, Turn Blue, it’s thankfully less self-consciously arty than their last Danger Mouse joint, Attack & Release; it’s pretty weird, at least by their standards, but even through the flourishes of epic psychedelic rock there’s plenty of grit and swing. Both albums, it should be noted, work neither because of nor in spite of the psychedelic flourishes, but rather because there are some strong bones underneath all the wonky production—plain and simple.

Epic Review: Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”

ihJoe Henry is my favorite singer, songwriter, and record producer; more than that, I consider him a friend as well as a mentor. As such, some might suggest that my appraisal of the man’s new album might be heavily biased, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Then again, I prefer to think that I’ve engaged with Joe’s work on a deeper level than I have any other music; I may have a bias but I’m not bullshitting, and my hope, anyway, is that what I write about his work is illuminating to the reader and the listener.

All of that to say: The new Joe Henry record, Invisible Hour, is due on June 3 in the United States; I have written a fairly lengthy review of it at David Kennedy’s all-things-Joe-Henry blog. I know that a review of this scope may be asking a lot of those not initiated into the Joe Henry fold, and as such I may write something more concise later this month or next.

But truthfully: Invisible Hour is a landmark recording. It is among the very finest and most profoundly moving records I have ever engaged in writing, and as such I invite those interested in beauty and revelation to investigate further. Only good things can come of it.