Month: June 2014

At the Half: 10 Favorite Records from 2014

ihI could spend the rest of this calendar year holed up with old Monk and Mingus records—not listening to a single new release—and still have a tremendous set of records to recommend to you come year-end list season. With half of the year now completed, I can say without hesitation that 2014 has been one of the most significant years for new releases in recent memory, with several stone classics; plenty of others that come damn close.

Everything else I might say about the following list, I suspect, goes without saying: These are ten records I like an awful lot. It’s my halftime list, as it were, and will very likely change between now and December, maybe even between now and next week. That said, the top selection is 100 percent guaranteed to still be my favorite new record come the end of the year—is the heaviest new release in some years now, actually—and the next two albums on the list feel quite close to being mortal locks, as well.

I have found no small level of revelation and realignment in these albums; will keep returning to them for just that reason—and, because they are wildly entertaining, to boot.

  1. Joe Henry, Invisible Hour
  2. Miranda Lambert, Platinum
  3. Jolie Holland, Wine Dark Sea
  4. Amy LaVere, Runaway’s Diary
  5. The Roots, … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
  6. Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home
  7. Rodney Crowell, Tarpaper Sky
  8. Royksopp & Robyn, Do It Again
  9. Stanton Moore, Conversations
  10. Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

… and can you believe I wasn’t able to find room among those ten for Beck, Morning Phase; Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Luther Dickinson, Rock ‘n’ Roll Blues; Kelis, Food; tUnE-yArds, Nikki Nack; Jack White, Lazaretto; Ray LaMontagne, Supernova; The Black Keys, Turn Blue; and Neil Young, A Letter Home?

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First Impressions: Jack White, “Lazaretto”

jw3For a guy who dresses like a Depression-era dandy and frequently opines about the virtues of analog recording equipment and vinyl sound, Jack White is about the furthest thing from a purist. On Lazaretto, he offers up a co-write with Blind Willie McTell and dresses nearly every song in honky-tonk fiddle, yet there’s not a moment on the album that sounds much at all like traditional country or blues. Instead, it sounds very much like a Jack White album—unmistakably so, in fact, as the tight rhythms, squalling guitars, cool electric pianos, and bursts of pure noise bear witness to one of rock’s most distinctive auteurs. He may work with the building blocks of traditional American song, but from those blocks he makes something that’s curiously out of time and defiantly idiosyncratic—the work of a postmodern man who just happens to be in love with the past but has no particular interest in recreating it.

And, for as of-a-piece as this is with his past work—including Blunderbuss, his proper solo debut—he has no particular interest in recreating his own past, either; this record has a character distinct from the last LP, and altogether different from his work with The White Stripes. Compared to Blunderbuss—a relatively subdued, largely acoustic affair, emphasizing texture and tunefulness over grit or swing—this is a pretty savage rock and roll album, sounding much more unhinged, both musically and emotionally. While Blunderbuss gave the vibe that White was nursing his wounds—possibly following his divorce, but really, what does it matter?—this one explicitly rages against isolation and alienation, and there’s something exhilarating in its savagery, angst, and humor, mixed together at different times and in unequal measure.

If all of that makes Lazaretto sound basically like a White Stripes album, not so fast: It is a telling thing indeed that, for all the positive press the album has generated, the most significant effect of White’s solo career seems to be expanding our collective appreciation for Meg White, whose minimalist drumming (it is becoming more and more clear) was the thing that held Jack to earth, preventing him from going too far out there with endless solos and pure technique, but also the element of anarchy that made the Stripes’ records so appealingly chaotic, gave them such wild swing. Neither of White’s solo albums pack quite as much mayhem as he was able to muster with Meg; even when he lets loose and gets loud, which he does plenty here (pretty much the entire first half of the album, in fact), it’s not quite as unpredictable or as dangerous as White Blood Cells or Elephant; it always sounds like he’s very deliberately piecing together a puzzle, each component held carefully in its place within the broader arrangement, everything casually highlighting what a gifted musician and composer he really is.

Whether you hear that as a flaw in Lazaretto or simply a characteristic of it depends on your willingness to move on from the Stripes and engage White on this current plane—and the decision to do so offers ample reward: This record pulls out most of the tricks from his playbook—including country dust-ups, blues jams, rock riffing, and a sepia-toned saloon song—but arranges them in a way that’s not quite like any of his records; it has a different vibe than anything he’s done, new wrinkles in familiar sounds—and that’s a satisfying thing indeed.

9 More Things About Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum”

platinumI said to my dear wife the other evening that Platinum is basically the pop album of my dreams—something that might be a slight exaggeration but is close enough to the truth: Now that Miranda’s fifth album has been heard in its entirety—and played on near-constant repeat around my house for several days—it’s clear that it’s a record dense with ideas, but never actually one that feels heavy; it’s a record brimming with humor and personality and melody, one that rewards thought and analysis but by no means demands them.

As suggested by the eight-song teaser, posted to the Web the week before the album released, it’s also a bit of a mess: It has 16 songs that feel, at least at first, like they don’t belong on the same album together, so presenting the record as a “sampler” didn’t actually obscure its character, even if it did undermine its real depth.

The charm of the record is in the sprawl, and in light of that, the best way to unpack it further may be with a few bullet points:

  • I’ll admit that I’m more than a little smitten with Miranda Lambert, and this record hasn’t done anything to minimize that. Think of the position she’s in, and how well she’s handling it—how ably she plays both sides of the fence: If she isn’t the biggest female star in country music she’s surely one of the top two or three (and really, I’d say that she is the reigning queen, if only because Taylor Swift’s music has less and less to mark it as identifiably country), and on Platinum she both pushes the country mainstream forward while taking it back to its roots; the album is cohabitated by smart, edgy singles and more rootsy songcraft, songs that sound like the country radio of 2014 mingled with songs that honestly could’ve been cut in the 1970s.
  • I said that the album is dense with ideas, and I think it is: There’s much to be said about the feminism on this album, which reflects both feminine strength and vulnerability, suggesting that the two are not entirely unrelated; the record is also about nostalgia versus living in the moment, and here again Miranda seems to suggest that the two are not mutually exclusive—that perhaps we can find strength for the present by looking back to the past.
  • There are a lot of thematic threads that stitch different songs together, suggesting that it’s less of a hodgepodge than it first seems. Surely it’s no accident that Marilyn Monroe is invoked by name in both “Girls” and “Platinum,” or that smoking and drinking play a significant role in both “Hard Staying Sober” and, well, “Smokin’ and Drinkin.’”
  • These through-lines and dichotomies are what give the record such richness: Like on so many classic, sprawling double albums—which this one is in spirit, if not in actual runtime—the songs mirror each other, answer each other, exist in conversation with each other. There are some obvious examples and some not-so-obvious ones—the most obvious being how the nostalgia in “Automatic” is followed, just minutes later, by the even more overt and specific celebration of tradition in “Old Shit,” basically a bluegrass number; that song, in turn, gives way to the Texas Playboys-style swing of an old Tom T. Hall song (“All That’s Left”), performed with the Time Jumpers and sounding like it could have appeared on my favorite Merle Haggard album, his winsome Bob Wills tribute album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. Old shit, indeed.
  • Of course, not all of these nostalgic songs are as simple as they first seem. It’s hard to shake the notion that the last line in “Automatic,” about shaking a Polaroid, is a nod to a certain Outkast song—clearly, Miranda is someone who’s more than a little familiar with the pop charts—and while “Old Shit” may celebrate her grandfather’s values, it does so with a cheeky album title that members of her grandfather’s generation might frown on.
  • Another connection: Note how “Priscilla”—in which Miranda beseeches Mrs. Presley herself to offer advice on successfully staying married to a man who’s “married to attention”—finds Miranda wondering how she and Blake might “be the first to make it last” in the tabloid spotlight. “Automatic” is the next song in the sequence, and its line about “staying married” being the only way to work out problems almost seems like the answer she was looking for. (And, by the way, it’s also an example of that “old shit” coming in handy.)
  • Note how a trip to the hair salon is celebrated as a source of feminine strength in “Platinum,” even as the wonderful “Bathroom Sink” suggests that glamor is a form of “hiding”—the kind of seemed contradiction that makes Platinum so richly human and appealingly messy.
  • … or maybe Miranda means to suggest that we can find strength in vulnerability and brokenness, something that’s also, subtly in view on the delightfully punky “Little Red Wagon”—which is all feminine strutting, except for the actual chorus. “The front seat’s broken and the axel’s dragging” is a metaphor for brokenness, but not one that holds our narrator back from her “backyard swagger.”
  • My comments above might suggest that I’ve warmed considerably to “Automatic,” a single I didn’t much care for at first but appreciate more in the context of the record; alas, the same can’t be said of “Somethin’ Bad,” the album’s lone misstep: Miranda sounds a little desperate to keep up with Carrie Underwood on a tune that’s basically 80s hair metal in its production, TV pageantry in its composition.

But as with so many great double albums, even the weaker material seems somehow to have value: It provides context for the true brilliance on display everywhere else, and brings into focus just how much Miranda has accomplished on this excellent LP.

It’s Finally Here: Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”

ihFinally the critical notices for Invisible Hour are starting to pour in, and I’m heartened by what they all seem to suggest: That there’s some rare alchemy going on here, signs and wonders unfolding in real time as the record spins. But could I request, perhaps, that we permanently retire the party line that Joe Henry is somehow an unsung and under-regarded singer/songwriter? More and more this line of thinking strikes me as a canard: While he may not be as widely-loved as some of us would like, he is perhaps the most fiercely loved performing musician I know of; those of us who are hip to what he’s doing love the man and his records with crazy, punchdrunk zeal. We would risk life and limb to save his record from a house set on fire; will pass them along to our children, along with the family Bible and grandma’s recipe for apple pie.

The depth of that devotion provides helpful context for the new album, which is that rarest of masterworks: One that offers the easiest entry for novices while offering the deepest rewards for long-time converts. Already there is a clear consensus forming around this as the man’s high watermark, though debates might continue about, say, whether Reverie or Blood from Stars is the better record, whether the clean elegance of Civilians is more rewarding than the anarchy of Tiny Voices or vice versa.* But Invisible Hour isn’t just a milestone for Joe Henry fans; immediately it is the record I will reach for when someone asks me for a Joe Henry gateway drug; I plan on ordering a few dozen copies to have on hand for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Christmas stockings, as well.

It is welcoming, unfolding its charms immediately but its mysteries over time– is, in short, the best album he has made. It sounds the best. He sounds the best, and seems to be aging in reverse, at least as a singer. His songs have never before danced atop the highwire of being emotionally accessible but also deep, intricate, worthy of meditation and amply rewarding to those who invest some time and devote some engagement.

And finally– because God knows I’ve gone on about this thing, and will continue to– I will say personally that the album has been most moving to me. I invite you to read my essay, linked here, for a fuller appraisal of the album’s themes, but let me tell you that it puts into beautiful and elegant language much of what I hold to be true– in my heart of hearts– about love as action; understanding as the root of compassion, and compassion as the conqueror of fear. It has enlivened my heart and mind as I have weighed my marriage, my parenthood, and my citizenship; is as radical and transformative a political record as you could ask for, precisely it’s made up of love songs, and captures true intimacy as well as any album I could name.

Do I really have to come right out and say it? You should buy it. It’s out tomorrow. It’s spellbinding. And it matters.

* A few of you have asked me, so I will tell you: Tiny Voices will likely always be my favorite album of all time, as it is such a wild and unexpected intersection of so many things that I love, and because it has resonated with me so meaningfully at so many critical junctures in my life– but Invisible Hour is certainly high on the list, in terms of sheer personal preference.

Half-Review: Miranda Lambert, “Platinum”

platinumMiranda Lambert’s big breakout album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—a stone classic—is rightly heralded for many things, high on the list being the album’s lean, focused strike: In its relatively brief running time and its streamlined track list, the album felt more like an outlaw country record anything out of contemporary Nashville, where big, bloated, hour-plus programs have become the norm. Every song on Crazy Ex felt like part of a larger narrative, and every song played an integral role in the set’s musical and emotional momentum—even the covers.

What’s weird is that the records that Miranda has made since then have been in many ways just the opposite, with long tracklistings and no real sense of thematic or musical focus, yet the music has suffered little as a result of it: A set like Four the Record is great in different ways than Crazy Ex was, emphasizing the sheer breadth of what Miranda can do so well, the depth of her musicality; I’d trim a couple songs from its 15-song running order, but if being slightly overgenerous is her biggest fault then who’s really complaining?

The unimpeachable Miranda will soon return with a fifth record, this one called Platinum. Weirdly, exactly half the album is being streamed in advance—and even with its abbreviated running order, it’s a whopping eight songs. The record is going to be a monster, in other words, and in more ways than one: 16 tracks is lengthy by any stretch, but the album also seems to be overflowing with different, often competing ideas about what country music can be.

Frankly, none of the eight songs being streamed in advance sound like they belong on the same record together—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Something like Sign ‘o the Times or The White Album is appealing precisely because of the sprawl, so Platinum being incoherent isn’t such a bad thing. It’s a double album in spirit, if not in actual assembly, and that’s something that I can rally behind.

What really makes this eight-song teaser such a promising precursor to the full album release, though, is that all of the songs are excellent—and in fact, all are better than “Automatic,” which was released as a single but underwhelmed me, sounding like Miranda was drifting a bit too close to sentimental, red-state-country balladry for my tastes.

The songs on the sampler handily best the single, making its selection as the single a little baffling. The opener, “Girls,” is a kind of mid-tempo power-country number, not unlike “All Kinds of Kinds.” “Little Red Wagon” is a burst of pop-punk album and snotty, tough girl strut (“you can’t step to this backyard swagger!”), but with weird flourishes of country twang and old soft-shoe pizzazz lurking around the edges. If there’s any through-line connecting these songs—thematically and spiritually, if not exactly musically—then it’s the kind of spunky feminism that you’ll hear in “Bathroom Sink,” a song that grapples honestly with regret and self-image; some of the biggest pleasures, though, are the oddball tracks like twangy, appropriately traditional yet endearingly crude “Old Shit.”

It’s a mess, but an endearingly one—and frankly more human and unpredictable than the album title, cover, or first single might have suggested. One can only hope that the songs still unheard add further charm, further reach to this program—adding up to a weird and wonderful blockbuster.