Well, here I am again: Coming back to the blog hat in hand, a bit chagrined that it’s been so long since an update but honestly unsure of where I could’ve found the time. Lest anyone assume my silence is due to a lack of subject matter—that is, a lack of worthy new music to write about—I want to offer a quick but hearty assurance that this couldn’t be further from the truth: 2014 continues to be one of the most significant years for new music that I can remember.
I’m going to bullet point a few things that have been on heavy rotation, with the acknowledgement that I won’t get to write about all of them in depth—much as I’d like to—but I will earnestly try to write more about at least a couple of them. Then again, I’ve been saying that about the new Jolie Holland album since May, so don’t get your hopes up too much.
I will certainly recommend any and all of the following, however:
- Easily the highlight of my recent listening experiences is Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, the magnificent new record from Robert Plant. Plant, it seems to me, is virtually alone among his contemporaries—only Paul Simon can equal or eclipse him—in his restlessness, in his zeal for ensuring that no two of his albums sound the same. That’s not to say that this new one is without a foundation—it picks up the threads of American country-blues and folk music, as well as the folk traditions of Africa and England, that have been present on Band of Joy and Raising Sand, and for that matter Led Zeppelin III—but he weaves them together into something layered, propulsive, and totally groovewise. The album is twangy, trance, funky, folky, solemn, celebratory, and bluesy—to varying degrees and at different times—and utterly absorbing. It’s a record you can immerse yourself in again and again, and it may be Plant’s finest hour.
- The big story right now, of course, is the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence. Plenty has been written about the surprise release strategy of the album—some of that writing laudatory but much of it weirdly snarky—but what matters to me is the music. U2 was the band of my high school years, and I’ll always have a soft spot for them, even as they’ve seemed increasingly rudderless and lost in recent years. I am so very pleased with this new album, though: God knows it’s not perfect, but it’s melodic, vigorous, and hip without sounding desperate; it experiments with new textures and sounds, Bono sounds great on it, and the autobiographical nature of the lyrics has focused his songwriting more than it’s been since God knows when. No, it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s surprising and—unique among U2 albums—genuinely fun, and I never thought I’d like a new U2 album quite so much.
- Meanwhile, I think Spoon is one of the very finest American rock and roll bands to emerge in the last 20 years; I would call their 2007 set Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga something of a modern classic, and I play it more often than I do any one White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, or Queens of the Stone Age album (and I dig those bands plenty). New album They Want My Soul is nearly as good: A seductively rhythmic album that comes across as simultaneously minimalist (in its precision and its leanness) yet also somehow extravagant (it’s drunk on different textures and sounds, and revels in sensual pleasures). It’s got a killer vibe, a killer set of songs, and a wonderfully ragged lead singer who continues to establish himself as uniquely soulful, compelling in his frayed and frazzled humanity. What more could we ask for?
- The new Jenny Lewis album is called The Voyager, and I increasingly think it may be just as good as her excellent Acid Tongue—maybe even better. This one is focused where that one was sprawling, and the pleasures are in the craft: The tight, hooky songwriting and the appealingly mucked-over production from Ryan Adams (and a bit from Beck). Lewis blurs the lines between pop and country-rock here, and by turns recalls everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Tom Petty, and her songs are funny and quirky with some deep, dark undercurrents about loneliness and the pains of growing up. It gets better with every play, and I think “Head Underwater” is the most addictive single of the year—vying with U2’s “Every Breaking Wave” and maybe a Spoon song or two, I guess.
- Some of you know that I was not huge on The Bad Plus’ Stravinsky record from earlier this year, but now they’re back—so soon!—with Inevitable Western, an all-originals album that takes us back to the loud, knotty, adventurous, and occasionally just dreamy music they’re known for. It deserves a spot on the shelf with such corkers as Made Possible and Never Stop—the latter still my favorite of theirs, I think, but this one very much on the same level. Pick any of their records and see how much is expands your definition of what jazz can be.
- I sort of scoffed at the idea of Song Reader, the sheet music project from Beck, when it was announced a couple years ago, but now there’s an actual artist, in which a roster of great musicians gives voicing to Beck’s songs—and it’s not half bad. The songs themselves, it turns out, are outstanding—self-referential, funny, and catchy—and the performances all allow the individual musicians to let their personalities shine through. Loudon Wainwright III gets to be biting and funny, Jarvis Cocker is suitably deadpan, .fun is actually fun, Laura Marling’s song is lighter and more propulsive than most of her own compositions, Jack White’s honky tonk jam tops anything on his own Lazaretto, and on and on.
- Singer/songwriter LP has an album called Forever for Now that’s excellent, splitting the difference between craftmanly singer/songwriter fare and the vocal pyrotechnics of, say, an Adele. It’s a hooky record with a lot of soul to it, and though it maybe reaches for those big skyscraping hooks a bit too often—the lone subdued, acoustic song comes as a bit of relief—it’s a fun record to sing along to.
- Finally, Dr. John has a new album called Skee-Dat-Dat-Doo: Spirit of Satch, which is surely the weirdest and most idiosyncratic Louis Armstrong tribute album ever made. It’s got reggae grooves, raps, smooth soul, NOLA funk, gospel, guest spots for Bonnie Raitt and the Blind Boys of Alabama and tons more, and some excellent trumpet spotlights for Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard. Not all of it works perfectly, but most of it works very well indeed—and you’ve got to give the good doctor credit for not taking the easy route with this one.