Month: September 2015

MEN OF CRAFT: Quick Takes on Keef, Boz, Dave Rawlings, and Ryan Adams

keefKeith Richards, Crosseyed Heart. Casual in its craft and subtle in its sophistication, Keef’s first solo album in 23 years sounds at first listen like the kind of tossed-off rock and roll that any monkey could bang out, given an afternoon’s time. My guess is that the strange alchemy here is irreplicable. It takes a lot of work to make virtuosity sound so easy, and you don’t hear a lot of whippersnappers hit this level of craft without breaking a sweat. If you think it sounds appealing to hear Keef fingerpick some Robert Johnson blues, croon a bit of scratchy folk, get lost in a seductive groove with Norah Jones, and lay back for some reggae before firing up for that trademark guitar boogie—well, why are you still reading this? And if you don’t think that sounds appealing, I’m just not sure what I can do for you.

Boz Scaggs, Fool to Care. The first time you listen, don’t even pay attention to the words: Just focus on how these songs move. It’s a treasure trove of kinetic verbs: “Rich Woman” sashays, the title song shimmies, “High Blood Pressure” clings and clatters and bashes like it’s got Fats Domino on keys, “Last Tango in Paris”—well, you know. And then, when you do focus on the words, you’ll want to note that Boz has got money on his mind: His “Rich Woman” may be loaded but “Last Tango” imagines poverty as war—or maybe it doesn’t require any imagination at all—while on “Hell to Pay” Boz and Bonnie Raitt buy off a Senator and a Judge. Notice how our man sardonically narrates the plight of love, just down-gutter from Wall Street, and how he finds the heart to be a romantic anyway. And while you’re at it, notice his good taste: He covers The Band’s “Whispering Pines” and unearths a gem from Bobby Charles’ criminally overlooked, Band-assisted self-titled. That tells you plenty about the headspace he’s in, but one last thing to note is that this album is funky as hell—more of an ass-shaker than my beloved Brown Album, even.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Nashville Obsolete. No, it doesn’t bother me that Dave and Gillian have touched up their old-time stomp and twang with a full orchestral workup, their most lavish overhaul since Soul Journey’s Big Pink sound effects. I don’t think it undermines their authenticity, in the first place, and I don’t assume authenticity to be virtuous, in the second. If I did, I’d be in line to vote for Donald Trump; and if Bob Dylan and Tom Waits have taught me anything, it’s that artifice is usually more fun. It also doesn’t bother me that it takes 44 minutes for them to get through just seven songs. Still, it’s probably worth noting that “The Last Pharaoh” packs more rock and roll thrills into its 3:38 than “The Trip” does in its 10:56. Then again, the tragic symphony of “Short Haired Woman Blues” holds my attention for upwards of seven minutes, while in the four-minute “Candy,” when Dave asks when the song’s going to end, I fear the answer will be never.

Ryan Adams, 1989. Quixotic if he’s nothing else, Ryan Adams takes a deep dive into shallow waters with his song-for song remake of the biggest blockbuster in recent memory, construing a formalist feint that trades the surface pleasures of Taylor Swift’s steely pop for the surface pleasures of college rock and Bruce Springsteen’s Americana, all the while playing into our fantasy that acoustic guitars and anguished vocals signify authenticity more effectively than do glinting beats and streamlined hooks. They don’t, and your enjoyment of this will hinge on your preference for his surface pleasures over hers, though both parties come off well in this little experiment: Her songs have sturdier bones and more definite shapes than the original album might have suggested, and he’s a better stylist when he’s got a template and a conceit to keep him in check. Best remake: “Style,” which trades sighing pop for slurred desperation—and hey! A Sonic Youth reference! Most questionable: The spare ballad treatment given to “Shake It Off.” (“There’s no way he could have topped the kinetic hooks of the original,” you might say to me. “Yeah, exactly,” I would say back.) Which album’s better? If you’re a Spotify user, you’ll have to take his word for it.

ALL YOUR FAVORITE BANDS: Quick takes on Wilco, Yo La Tengo, Dawes, and Florence

star warsForgive the radio silence: I haven’t exactly been drowning in new music—deepening my Ashley Monroe obsession is more like it—but I do want to chime in about a few recent releases, one of which I quite like, a couple of which are decent, and one of which is a bit of a slog. Note that they’re not listed here in that particular order.

Wilco, Star Wars. I’ve never exactly bought Jeff Tweedy as a genius at work, but here he’s fairly persuasive as a rock star at play, which is of course a more rewarding role anyway. The songs don’t stick with me, but the buzzing electricity of the recordings keep my brain humming long after the record ends.

Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There. What does it say about a band when a relaxed, ramshackle covers album feels like an essential reflection of who they are—a mission statement by way of a lark? Maybe that their mission is human connection through words and melody, and that putting one’s finger to the beating pulse of a song is no lark at all?

Dawes, All Your Favorite Bands. Theirs, I will speculate, is The Band, and they do an uncanny impression here that still seems to miss the point completely—the point being spontaneous combustion of humor, myth, grit, and groove.

Florence and the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. The Machine isn’t actually mentioned on the cover, and Florence is too big a personality for them to fit in the frame. How long before she just makes a solo album, do you think? And will the difference be discernible? Anyway, your enjoyment of this will hinge on how appealing you find that big personality, which uses a breakup album as a chance to invoke The Holy Virgin, Lot’s wife, and the biblical Delilah.