Month: November 2015

HELLO FROM THE OTHER SIDE: Quick Takes on Dylan, Adele, Badu

cutting edgeBob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Best of the Cutting Edge. Outside of Bob’s own Basement Tapes, there is probably no other period in recorded pop music that might actually reward an exhaustive 18-disc excursion. There’s a six-discer, too—an entire CD devoted to “Like a Rolling Stone” outtakes, which I’m sure are all just fine—but, finding myself more and more interested in immersive listening rather than scrutinizing academia, I actually opted for the two-disc highlight reel, which has nary a dull moment. If Another Self-Portrait righted wrongful narratives, this one mostly reaffirms what we’ve always said about this most inspired of eras, which is not at all without value. For example, the line on Bringing it All Back Home has always been that the acoustic side is just as caustic, imaginative, surreal, and gamechanging as the electrified side, and these one-man takes on “Love Minus Zero” and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” prove again that inimitability is hardwired into these compositions. There are alternates and backstories from Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, too, and if they don’t dispel the myth that this era was a blur of inspired mania and overflowing brilliance, they do hammer home how careful Bob was to give his dreams structure and shape. I don’t know how often I’ll reach for the loopy, unfinished “Tombstone Blues” in place of the original, but the piano take on “Like a Rolling Stone” makes the master take sound even crisper, and the snarling “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” shows how rock and roll this stuff really was. And is.

Adele, 25. She weathers her quarter-life crisis with the perfectly respectable good taste of, say, Florence Welch (too charitable?), Celine Dion (too mean?), or Sting (maybe that’s it). Throughout the album she realizes that she’s running out of time, that she ain’t a kid no more, and that she needs to relearn how to be young. I don’t remember being so morbid when I was 25, though I probably could have gotten that way if I were this skilled in making schmaltz sound like soul.

Erykah Badu, But You Cain’t Use My Phone. She calls it a mixtape—not an album—and that’s just as well: Though it flows nearly as smoothly as Mama’s Gun and packs almost as much weirdness as New Amerykah Part 1, it’s deliberately slighter than both. It’s also loose and jammy like Return of the Ankh and more focused than Worldwide Underground, so if you assume that this iTunes/Apple goodie is lowest-tier Badu, you may be surprised by the not-insignificant sensual pleasures on offer: An interconnected suite of songs about the need for human connection and technology’s double-edged role as catalyst and cockblock, Phone offers symphonic sweep, loads of humor, typically bonkers Badu weirdness, numerous bangers, the hottest Andre verse in years, a superior “Hotline Bling,” arguably the year’s best song called “Hello,” and that unmistakable voice at the center. If you think it won’t hold your attention then you’ve obviously never tangled with Erykah Badu. She can make you put your phone down.


GET READY TO GET DOWN: Josh Ritter, Guy Garvey, The Dead Weather

ritterJosh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks. Alternate title: Words ‘n’ Grooves. The ever-ornate and endearingly loquacious Ritter returns to the raucous, ragged beat of Historical Consequences—still my favorite of his records, and one I’d long presumed to be anomalous within his catalog—for a wild and wooly rebound from the sparse, desolate Beast in its Tracks. The first two songs both lock into ramshackle funk before monetarily drifting out of, then back into, their established grooves—annoying shifts that speak to Ritter’s tendency to overcomplicate things, but also to how seductive said grooves actually are. In addition to jagged guitars and honky tonk keyboards, most songs sound like they have at least two percussion players; “Cumberland” is propelled by congas, “Where the Night Goes” anointed with E-Street piano. “Seeing Me ‘Round,” the fifth track on the album, is the first time things settle down, and the only time things resemble the last record. Ritter practically raps his delivery on some songs, especially “Getting Ready to Get Down,” which is fitting for a set of songs that somehow get away with being incredibly dense and wordy, blurs of images that simulate the dizzying effect of mid-60s Dylan, had mid-60s Dylan been obsessed with the language of the Bible not so much as signifier of truth but as cultural shorthand. At first I thought the words flew too fast and furious—but the forward momentum here is undeniable, the energy crackles, and the words have are affecting even without you taking the time to decipher them.

Guy Garvey, Courting the Squall. Theory: Garvey provides Elbow with its soulfulness and its ongoing fascination with sound and color; his bandmates bring the energy. His first solo album moves through thunderous percussion, peppy horns, a waking dream called “Unwind” and an old-timey duet with Jolie Holland—but with a uniformly stately pace and Garvey’s sensitive emoting, never seems to go very far at all.

The Dead Weather, Dodge and Burn. Proof enough that sleaze can be seductive—even sexy; and, that there are still new riffs to be written.

First Impressions: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, It’s a Holiday Soul Party

holiday soulLike any good joke or halfway decent story, the holiday album is really all about the telling: You know where it’s headed and likely won’t be satisfied if you have the expectation of a big surprise ending, but a gifted storyteller can find new life and fresh wrinkles in the yuletide tropes you thought you knew by heart. And Sharon Jones? She counts off her new album like she’s James Brown while her Dap-Kings work vintage JB drum breaks into a thoroughly samplable “Little Drummer Boy”—ain’t it funky now? The first song is about Hannukah and the second one is called “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects.” It’s as good as you’d hope it would be, its sociorealism grounding the project in what Over the Rhine calls “reality Christmas” but not letting it sink into despair: Want of a fireplace may stop Santa but it can’t diminish a good parent’s love. Jones also serves up a “White Christmas” you can shimmy and shake to, a great little groove called “Just Another Christmas Song” that finds room for a “Hark, the Herald Angels” riff, a dreamy slow-dance “Silent Night,” and a light-as-air Christmas confection called “Big Bulbs.” (As in, “Baby you’ve got them…”) Basically, Jones does what she’s always done: Takes tried-and-true sonic comforts and renders them fresh and familiar at the same time. She was made to deliver a classic Christmas LP, and here it is. Bonus points for the fact that she’s still chasing her muse and singing her song even while battling cancer. More bonus points because it’s both funky as all get-out and festive as shit. Buy it.


thirteenThough the real point of this blog is for my occasional musings on various new records, I will flatter myself by thinking that a few of you may be interested in my, ah, extracurricular activities. To that end, I have a couple of new pieces for FLOOD Magazine that may strike your fancy: First, a review of Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, a tremendous book that I recommend to anyone who likes great storytelling; and second, an interview with Bokeem Woodbine, a lovely man and a breakout star on the quality television program Fargo.

First Impressions: Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll

samphillipsI wrote about the outstanding new Sam Phillips anthology over at In Review Online, and really cannot say enough great things about this record. As a document of strange and wondrous Americana, it is as essential as the Harry Smith box– and even more compulsively playable. A must-buy if ever I heard one. Go check it out.

First Impressions: Eric Church, Mr. Misunderstood

churchLord knows I’ve had my doubts, and even my concerns—but I’m now more than happy to believe Eric Church is misunderstood, an outsider, a purple unicorn, or any other damn thing he claims to be. I don’t even laugh when he sings about having a “guitar full of freedom.” Unleashed by the same corporate overlords who midwifed Songs of Innocence but thankfully closer to Black Messiah in its defiant expectations obliteration, Mr. Misunderstood is a tight little set that clocks in at 10 songs in 39 minutes, and in that time packs plenty of outlaw swagger, rock and roll thrills, alt-rock namechecks, Dixie-fried funk, Bourbon Street blues, and guitar heroics. Church writes songs that start off like campfire rounds before erupting into sheets of white metal. He snags Rhiannon Giddens for harmonies and Susan Tedeschi for a duet. He packs his songs with music and murder, rebellion and regret, more badassery than any country bro in years—and then he brings it all down with a song trumpeting the toddler wisdom of his three-year-old, turning from the tough shit to down-home sentiment like he’s Waylon Jennings and it ain’t no thing. The title song lifts a melody from Wilco and even namechecks Jeff Tweedy—don’t worry, I like it anyway—but one-ups Being There by being several things at once, mutating from wistful lament to balls-out rock, double-timing and then triple-timing, exploding and scaling back down. “Mistress Named Music” is a travelogue about following the muse, finding its genesis in Pentecostal hymnody but working up a head full of blues. Church left his prog rock inclinations on the last album, thank God; he takes some electric solos here and they all feel vital. “Chattanooga Lucy” is twisting southern funk like Lowell George wrote on his best days. Tedeschi’s turn is on “Mixed Drinks About Feelings,” a barroom blues that’s more Nola than Nashville. “Record Year” is showy in referencing Stevie Wonder, subtle in working in John Lee Hooker; it’s a weeper but not really, because his baby left him but now he’s got a great excuse to sit for hours and listen to records. I’ll drink to that. I mean, look: This record makes you feel things like Jason Isbell’s do, and it’s got nearly as many twists and turns as a Miranda Lambert record but in a fraction of the time. It’s catchy enough to get played on the radio but greasy and funky and hard enough to appeal to people who say they only like real country. In fact, it’s the country record of a lifetime—no misunderstanding about it.