Month: February 2015

Run the Jewels and the Narrative Possibilities of Hip-Hop

rtj2-300x300Not a record review per se, but I wrote an essay about last year’s highly-touted Run the Jewels 2 over at Cahoots. I initially found the album to be a little off-putting, and it is indeed an abrasive, at times exhausting listen, but I’ve grown to be pretty impressed with its raw power. It’s not nearly as precise or as well-argued at a great Public Enemy record, but it does offer some unique narrative possibilities of its own, which is what my essay is about.

First Impressions: Rhiannon Giddens, “Tomorrow is My Turn” (And others!)

tomorrowThough the year is still young and I’ve only heard a handful of new records, I can already say with no small amount of confidence that 2015 will yield at least a couple of deep and significant albums; in fact, both of them are out in stores now. One, Bettye LaVette’s Worthy, I have already written about. I actually wondered, upon reviewing it, if it might remain my top new release of the year, even come December’s list-making season, but now I’ve played Rhiannon Giddens’ amazing album Tomorrow is My Turn on high volume, and I’m not so sure.

Giddens is a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and for that she already has a secure legacy; hers is a gift far too great to be constrained by a group, however, and her debut solo album is at once more expansive and more personal than any CCD album could ever be; it’s also riskier and, to be perfectly candid, much better. If there is any justice in the world the album will make her a huge star.

It’s a soulful album that takes on country, Appalachian music, old-school R&B, torch songs, and blues by turn, often twisting and tweaking conventions and taking the songs in unexpected directions: If you have heard her righteously funky, beatboxed version of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” then you know what I mean. That will likely remain one of the most joyous and addictive songs of the year, but it’s arguably not the best thing here. The title song is a vocal showstopper for its depth, its elegance, its cool; the Odetta number “Waterboy” is a vocal showstopper of another kind, loose-throated and brazen in its desire. But everything here is excellent, everything here is somehow tough and tender at the same time—all perfectly befitting a record of songs associated with female singers and songwriters. She so makes these songs hers, and she so gels them into their own emotional journey, that this feels very much like a Rhiannon Giddens joint, not a “covers album.” And on that level, it certainly earns comparison to the interpretive mastery of the LaVette album.

I should say that Tomorrow is My Turn is also easily the best-sounding T-Bone Burnett production in years—like, a decade. The studious nature and muddy sound he’s favored ever since Raising Sand are is gone, replaced by something really warm and vibrant and kinetic when it needs to be—a tremendously welcome surprise.

So there are those two albums, and there’s Shadows in the Night, which I honestly find to be most moving in its evocation of classic saloon balladry, in its treatment of standards as folk songs, and in the great romance and allure of its weariness; it’s a sad and broken album but not a dismal or alienating one. There’s comfort in Bob’s crooning.

And what else have I been listening to, besides? A few other records worthy of mention:

  • Gretchen Peters’ new album Blackbirds is most beautiful—stark and soulful country that finds tremendous depth and color in its songwriting and performances. It’s a record about death, endings, finality, and it’s appropriately sober and haunting, but there’s also much empathy and tenderness on display.
  • I quite like the new Pop Staples album, Don’t Lose This, which is obviously a posthumous release but doesn’t play as ghoulish as those albums often do, even though it does have several songs that fumble toward mortality. It’s actually a very warm, amiable, and soulful record, with a lot of welcome vocal time for Mavis and some excellent kit work from Spencer Tweedy.
  • Finally, and like everyone else, I’m happy to have Sleater-Kinney back, and am enjoying No Cities to Love for what it is: Not a comeback but a righteous and addictive rock-and-roll continuation.

First Impressions: Bob Dylan, “Shadows in the Night”

bobOver at Cahoots, I shared a few reflections on the new Dylan– sort of a review and sort of not. It’s a little different from what I normally do, I think it’s fair to say, and my aims in writing it were to conjure some of the record’s broken, late-night vibe while also highlighting the ways in which Dylan treats standards and Sinatra numbers as folk songs– just as surely as he did with “Mannish Boy” and “Delia’s Gone,” just as surely as he did with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Those are the two things I like most about the record, which is really quite alluring in its own modest way.

First Impressions: Bettye LaVette, “Worthy”

worthyThe new album from Bettye LaVette, called Worthy, is deep, funky, and addictive– maybe the first really significant release of 2015, and likely to be one of its greatest treasures. (I like it even more than I like Rhiannon Giddens’ album, which is out next week– and I like that one a lot.) I wrote a review of Worthy over at In Review Online, for anyone interested.