I’ve got another Dylan retrospective up at Kicking the Canon this week, this one of the landmark Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan record, which is plenty freewheelin’ indeed. There was a season in my life when I would have called this my favorite Dylan, and it’s probably still one of my top 25 or 30 records of all time, and as good as any ever made.
Incidentally, I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about future Kicking the Canon assignments, but rest assured that I do have a few more pending publication– not all of them Dylan-related!
It’s epic in its scope (three discs, three hours, 17 songs) and in its ballast (double drummers and keyboardists, full choirs and orchestras, horns aplenty) but not really in its feel: Sure, it’s long, but spend some time sinking into a single disc of it, or just putting the thing on shuffle for an hour or so—I suspect these are the methods through which most of us will enjoy it—and it just plays out like a love letter to everything Kamasi Washington digs about jazz. It’s not monolithic, and though it’s got deep roots it’s not really historical: It’s idiosyncratic, a particular slant on jazz from a talented sax player who grew up with soul jazz, likes it when licks stick pretty close to the melody, and absorbed a bit of the black nationalism of hip-hop, but not necessarily much else, his session work with Kendrick Lamar notwithstanding. Everybody is talking about his allegiance to Pharaoh Sanders (which is indisputable) and later-period John Coltrane (which is maybe a little bit misleading, as he never goes nearly as far into outer space as Coltrane did, and that’s fine). What’s implicit in that is that this is a really a highly traditional jazz album—traditional in a late 60s/early 70s sense, not 20s or 30s—and that’s pretty remarkable. Its title aside, The Epic doesn’t unfurl with any grand narrative momentum, but plays out like a series of scenes, each one exhibiting some particular side of Washington’s jazz obsession: “Change of the Guard” opens the whole thing with solo upon solo, choirs and strings, everybody playing their ass off and pushing the whole thing heavenward; you don’t think it will sustain for a full 12 minutes, but it does. “Final Thought” is soul jazz in cliff notes; it’s the only song here that doesn’t hit the 7-minute mark, but it still finds time for a heavy organ prelude and then a percussive Afro-Cuban workout. “The Magnificent 7” does indeed sound like music for a film, but its swirling orchestration and choral effect don’t detract from the heart of the song, which is a nasty, serpentine groove. “Clair de Lune”—a Debussy piece—is lilting and romantic, patient in its unfolding. “Malcolm’s Theme,” a Terrence Blanchard number, eulogizes Malcolm X, but it’s really a song about black pride. The neatest trick here is when Washington—along with guest vocalist Patrice Quinn—updates a standard (“Cherokee”) by making it sound blissed-out and gently funky, but not “contemporary” in any crass sense, though the ones I come back to are the numbers that prove funk can be its own reward: “The Message” and the globetrotting “Re Run Home” are the standouts. But actually: What really impresses me about this album is that, despite its running time and despite no overt concessions to the listeners who got here by way of To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s incredibly tuneful and accessible to any set of ears—those of seasoned jazz fans or total neophytes. All you have to bring to The Epic is a willingness to be swept along in swing—and in that sense, this couldn’t be anything other than gloriously traditional, deeply rooted jazz.
“This record is, like, the same as our last one, except it’s slower and sadder,” said Joey Ryan in a YouTube video announcing Monterey’s pending release. So they know what’s in their wheelhouse. They operate under no delusions about what they do well, what people love about them, and—in theory—what their detractors might quibble with, though it’s worth noting that I have yet to meet anyone who has heard The Milk Carton Kids and not been seduced by the timelessness and easygoing charm of what they do. Me? My only complaint is that they still haven’t worked the deadpan humor of their live show into their records. Otherwise, I think they’re getting better and better; they’re not stuck in a rut, they’re becoming more skilled and assured in their craft. As for Monterey, it’s mostly slow and mostly sad but actually gets its hair ruffled a bit more than the last one, so I guess I’m not quite on board with Joey’s self-evaluation. It’s a road album, and if you don’t believe it just look at the titles of the first three songs—one referencing “Monterey,” one referencing the “Asheville Skies,” one promising a “Getaway.” The songs were all recorded live on stages and during soundchecks; Ryan and the other Kid, Kenneth Pattengale, have never sounded more harmonious, even when they kick up a little bit of a spritely, finger-picked ruckus on “High Hopes” or quicken their pace for the gently locomotive “The City of Our Lady,” which does, by the way, begin with a line about a train. All the songs sound like they’re in motion. “Asheville Skies” is a vagabond’s getaway: “I’d love nothing more than to cover my face/ Forget who I am and get out of this place/ Pretend to be somebody other than me/ And go on living that way.” So they’re a band on the run, then: Growing up, coming to a crossroads, seeking redemption in forward motion. By way of compass they still remember some sage words from dear ol’ dad and even hear the voice of God on one song, though it’s debatable how much authority they ascribe to either. Pattengale goes solo for “Sing, Sparrow, Sing,” looking to the songbird’s warble to cover him against the world’s destruction, which is explained in a little more specificity on “Freedom,” in which we all have to ring the Liberty Bell a little louder to hear it above the violence of gunfire. They convey the roar of road life not through their arrangements, which are as simple and elegant as ever, but through songs that are filled with noises: Birds, bells, songs, moving vehicles, the music of motion. I generally worry about bands that make road albums—it seems like it’s usually the first step toward cracking up—but The Milk Carton Kids seem to have their heads on straight and take their eternal motion (close to 50 tour dates listed on their website, and that doesn’t even get us through Christmas) for what it is: A chosen life in pursuit of song, a getaway that is it’s own reward. I’m not worried about them at all.
I’ve got another piece up at Kicking the Canon today, this time a retrospective of Dylan’s third and most furious electric album– the wild, careening epic Blonde on Blonde. As I say in the review: “It’s still kind of amazing to hear him get away with it.”
On his first record Chris Stapleton comes crashing out of the gate like a long-time songwriter who’s been honing his craft and waiting for his time in the spotlight, which of course he is: He’s charted in country radio with songs penned for Kenny Chesney and Darius Rucker but apparently had a lot leftover, Traveler clocking in at an hour and three minutes, a dozen original songs and a couple of covers. The unfortunately long running time is one of just a couple concessions Stapleton makes to country music as it’s practiced in Nashville circa 2015, the other being a line in “Nobody to Blame” about a woman who “turned [his] life into a country song,” a tip of the hat to contemporary country’s weird and off-putting self-referential streak. The rest of the record proves that you don’t have to say “country music” for it to be country music, and that it’s more than possible to make records the way they used to make ‘em without sounding stodgy or old-fashioned. Traveler picks up an outlaw swagger and dives into bluesy southern rock, it offers barroom weepers and simmering soul, and it does it all with an easygoing grace that makes Stapleton seem more like a natural than Sturgill Simpson or Jamey Johnson, his closest male contemporaries; better comparisons might be to Brandy Clark or to Miranda when she’s playing the hard country, as on much of the back half of Platinum; Stapleton’s gift is that he’s traditional without being self-conscious about it, writing songs that point backward in time but pack a punch that makes them sound modern. The presence of two cover songs here makes it plain that this is more than just a songwriter’s showcase: He’s a tremendous performer with grit in his voice but great propensity for tenderness; listen to how he pulls back to a whisper when he delivers key lines on “Whiskey and You.” That song is one of several in a row that all mention whiskey, by the way, including a wonderfully supple, burnished cover of “Tennessee Whiskey.” There are also multiple songs about the devil and no-good women aplenty, which might suggest that the record is lovelorn and haunted the way a lot of great country music is, certainly like a lot of Waylon and Merle’s records were back in the day, and that’s true to an extent: There are livelier tempos and rousing choruses but nothing appropriate for spring break, which immediately sets Stapleton apart from his contemporary country peers—he’s a man, not a bro; he’s too goddamn blue to sing about flip-flops and he doesn’t like his drinks out of a can—but let’s not overstate the melancholy here: The songs are often sad and the mood is generally serious but the music is understated, graceful, and effortless: He makes all of this sound easy, and that keeps the album alluring through nearly its entire hour.
Old Yellow Moon had the air of a homecoming, and not only for the reason everyone already knows. It was the first duets album between longtime pals Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, recorded four decades removed from their initial collaboration in Emmylou’s Hot Band, but it could also be argued that the record marked the first time either of them had lent their voices to traditional country and honky tonk in quite some time: Emmylou’s albums have fluctuated between different shades of artsiness and rootsiness ever since Wrecking Ball, and Rodney has made a number of superb records with highly autobiographical concepts (including a collaboration with memoirist Mary Karr), all of which are pretty far out of step from the rest of Nashville country, even the one that had a Johnny Cash duet on it. The follow-up album, The Traveling Kind, has the best kind of familiarity to it: Their chemistry is as easy and unforced as it was last time, suggesting they can make as many of these things as they want; they are at least as good together as they are apart. It is also even more deeply connected to tradition c&w, despite the fact that half of its songs are originals while the last album was a covers affair. The Traveling Kind was produced by Joe Henry, who helmed Crowell’s great album Sex & Gasoline, which was funky and prickly and not especially country-sounding. This one, though, was cut with Nashville studio cats, and it has a certain smoothness to it that Joe Henry joints don’t usually have—not the same thing as slickness, by the way. “No Memories Hanging Around” is pure honky tonk, the hardest country this pair has committed to tape: It’s got junk joint pedal steel and Baptist church piano, plus a title that sort of gives everything away. The rest of the songs are wistful, wise, nostalgic, tender, schmaltzy, restless, lovelorn, contended, and deeply spiritual—not always at once, though they are united in that they’re all songs of experience, awash with memory without being sentimental, rooted in tradition without being self-conscious about it. There’s an ease to it all that only comes from true pros who are comfortable with each other. Not much of the record kicks up dust, though there is some real grit to the shuffling “Bring it On Home to Memphis,” a grinding guitar solo to burn out the casually political “The Weight of the World,” and surging energy in a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “I Just Want to See You So Bad.” Meanwhile, “Higher Mountains” and “Her Hair was Red” are the kinds of big, weepy ballads that I assume are written expressly for Emmylou Harris to sing. You won’t mind them a bit: The pleasure of this record is in how it makes small comforts sound like minor epiphanies, the familiarity of friends lending warmth to the album’s assured craft.
We’ve lost the thread on My Morning Jacket; we’ve focused so much on their growing pains that we’ve neglected their actual growth. Few will argue that Evil Urges wasn’t touch-and-go, its funk affectations fitting the grizzled rock and rollers like last year’s Halloween costume. Circuital had the faint air of desperation, a scramble toward safety, making it more consistent but less fun than the record it overcorrected. And now there’s The Waterfall, the narrative of which seems to be My Morning Jacket settling back into being My Morning Jacket. But actually, that’s just part of the story; the rest of it is what an accomplished band they have become, how casually virtuosic their writing and playing, how ably they’ve honed their craft and absorbed AM pop and classic rock tropes into something with real character to it. The Waterfall can be described almost entirely in terms and comparisons that make it seem terminally unhip, but the gift of My Morning Jacket is how they take something as unsexy as sturdy craft and keep it sounding fresh. “Compound Fracture” struts and stutters, its funkiness feeling fluid and lived in, not “Highly Suspicious” in the least. “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” one of four songs with a parenthetical title, embraces the ridiculousness of prog-rock (its opening lyric, “the idea was always there in its infancy,” is delivered over ponderous keyboards and pummeling guitar), and it packs all the changes and melodrama of a Genesis song into about half the time it used to take Genesis to do it. My Morning Jacket embraces classic rock’s sense of scope and flair but their songs are idiosyncratic rather than monolithic and personable rather than mythic, which makes them more fun and less garish than The Killers. Plus, they can do intimate well: “Get the Point” is a disarmingly frank breakup song that’s set to McCartney-style schoolyard balladry (think also of The White Stripes’ “We are Going to be Friends”). It’s gentle and fingerpicked but the lyric is barbed: “I hope you get the point/ I think our love is done.” (And gee: Who could miss the point of that?) That song also highlights the record’s rather neat trick of being a singer/songwriter record as much as it is a full-band showcase. Jim James spends parts of it moving on from bad relationships and coming to terms with the fact that he’s maybe not quite as cool or as forgiving as he’d like to be, but he also sings a lot about faith in decidedly unreligious terms: At one point his faith can stop a waterfall. “Believe,” which is as vigorous and rousing as Mumford & Sons’ similarly-titled song is brooding and grey, champions freedom in uncertainty. James sounds great throughout, as he always does, and even with a lot on his mind he sounds amiable—as gentle and approachable as we’ve always assumed him to be but a little more conflicted than he’s previously admitted. He’s grown up a bit, maybe, along with his band, and we’d be fools to ignore it.
Dreadful and punny though it may be, the title of The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets actually serves a purpose: What it conveys is the album’s structural A-side/B-side divide, how its first seven songs are freaky, funky, and wild, and back seven slower, seductive, a bit more straightforward. This is a throwback to the way albums used to be made in the glory days of the vinyl LP, when picking the second-side opener really mattered and when a band might have devoted one side to fast songs and another to ballads. In some ways, it’s an unusually formal move for Van Hunt, an oddball funk/R&B singer who has long indulged in an impish humor and an omnivorous taste that got him kicked off the Blue Note label and sent back to indies; this new album was crowdsourced and, like his great album What Were You Hoping For?, self-released. The album’s dual structure undercuts some of his weirdness but emphasizes what’s always made his music work so well: Under all the quirks he’s a more than able writer and arranger, and his songs all have sturdy bones, and though the two halves of the album have some basic differences in character they all still sound like they’re cut from the same cloth. The front seven are busy, funky, and sexually ravenous, sounding like the kind of demented depravity that Prince has more or less abandoned with the onset of age and curmudgeonliness. “Vega (Stripes On)” rides hi-hat through a hard funk groove, complete with razor edge guitars and a spoken-word warning that “this next verse is full of similes and metaphors.” It’s Van Hunt at his more brazenly carnal and also his most awkwardly goofy: Listen to him pivot from “what good is a good girl in my wet dreams?” to “I’m the captain of this relationship.” His penchant for puns usually ends up a winsome counterbalance to his lothario shtick: He’s a guy who wants to get laid but maintains his sense of humor even when he doesn’t; he tries to be seductive but doesn’t have a perfect batting average. Even Don Draper goes to bed alone every now and again. The rest of the first side is similarly groovy and randy, running through the cling and clatter and cymbal crashes of “Pedestal” and the surging “Teach Me a New Language” before really getting weird and deep and funky on the nocturnal groove of “(Let It) Soak (N)” and the wah-wah Sly Stone vibe of “…Puddin.’” (Key lyric: “I don’t want nothin’ in my puddin’ but chocolate.”) The back seven open with “Headroom,” which one might naturally assume is another sexytimes pun but is actually a wrecked song of late-night loneliness and regret. “French for Cloud (Cstbu)” sparkles, “Rub My Feet (Suddenly)” lilts and coos, and “If I Wanna Dance with You” moves to the piano for the time-honored tradition of the overwrought, lovelorn power ballad, though it may not be as straightforward as it first seems. (Key lyric: “If I wanna dance with you I have to use my remote control.”) In less confident hands this record might collapse under comparison, not just to Prince but to D’Angelo, neither of who get as scruffy as Hunt does here: The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets is offbeat and cheerfully unapologetic about its musical roots and its auteur’s personality, which shines through at every turn and gives the album plenty of character: It wears eccentricity as its own kind of seductiveness.
Note: The following is a little off-brand for me– I write about music because I love it, and don’t derive any particular pleasure from writing about music that leaves me cold– but this album is such a perfect intersection of everything I hate. How could I not offer a cheery response?
Tell the focus groups
They nailed it: Algorithms
“We need a duller
Version of Kings of Leon.”
“Play it like U2,
But more poe-faced and brooding.
We’ll hear this ten years
From now, getting prescriptions
Filled—and still hate it.
I never thought I’d
Miss those migraine-thump kickdrums.
I’ve been wrong before.