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.


Deluge: New Records from Allison Moorer, Courtney Barnett, Sufjan Stevens, and More!

down to believingIn a perfect world—one in which, I presume, I wouldn’t have to sleep—I would write extensively about all the new records that have been in heavy rotation around here, but alas: I have a newborn in the house, the first issue of Cahoots coming out tomorrow, and—oh yeah—a day job, which translates into a mountain of new music that I simply haven’t the time to do justice.

I hope to write more about some of these at some point; in the meantime, don’t assume this cursory treatment to be a lack of enthusiasm. I quite like all of these albums, and recommend them to you all.

  • Down to Believing, the phenomenal new record from Allison Moorer, is a tremendous, personality-packed country and Americana album, heavy on heartbreak but also willing to dip its toes into bleak humor, ferocious blues, and hard-won optimism. It’s lovely and soulful, and while it runs a bit long—as country albums seem to do, these days—every chapter feels integral to the story, including the graceful CCR cover. This is her best album yet, I think, by some distance.
  • There are actually several recent releases from tough, vivacious women, and two that I particularly hope don’t get lost in the shuffle. Short Movie—immediately my favorite Laura Marling album—finds her broadening her palette to include moody electric effects, but what impresses the most is the drama implicit to these songs; her amazing authority as a vocalist, tender and vulnerable but still strong and magnetic. She even does a talking blues number here and just kills it.
  • Also of note: The Firewatcher’s Daugher, from Brandi Carlile and, once again, a personal best. If her previous albums were all tasteful and immaculate, this new one is messy and rough and unhinged in all the right ways, at times careening with kinetic energy and at times swaying with beautiful close harmonies, all of it teeming with life and blurring the lines between country, rock and roll, and burnished folk.
  • Courtney Barnett has rightly made waves with Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, a 90s-loving record in the best sense of the term: When it rocks and rolls it does so in a way that’s hip and weird and above all fun, and when it slows down the songs are deeply felt and soulful. This is such a funny and addictive record; it is making its auteur into a Very Big Deal, and deservedly so.
  • Meanwhile, over on the Blue Note label, bassist Marcus Miller has just released a deliriously funky record called Afrodeezia, which features an international cast of guest musicians, among them Chuck D.; it’s a blur of jazz, West African music, R&B, gospel music, and hip-hop, Robert Glapser’s presence on it tipping you off to just how hip and genre-defiant this thing is, but the big story is that it’s just a joy to listen to, full of big melodies and monster grooves.
  • Finally, there is Sufjan Stevens and his new record Carrie & Lowell. I must confess to not being the world’s biggest Sufjan guy, but the things that often keep me at a distance from the man—like his thin, brittle voice and self-conscious lyrics—work quite well here on an album that’s deliberately a bit awkward, tender, and vulnerable. It’s a modest and seemingly personal collection like none of is previous ones, and as such it’s the one that moves me the most deeply.

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.

Deluge! Catching Up with Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga

popularproblemsMuch as I’d love to offer up a quick roundup of some of the fine, moving new records I’ve heard in October—and there are several noteworthy titles, believe you me—the truth is that I’ve not even shared my thoughts on all the significant new titles from September. That’s sort of embarrassing—because I’m so far behind—but also sort of great: Proof enough of what a rich year this has been, and continues to me.

There are actually just three titles left scribbled in my September music journal, and not yet covered on this blog; not quite a deluge on par with the last one, then, but a small and steady rainfall, at the very list. All three titles are worth your time:

  • I’ll start with the most surprising of the bunch: Popular Problems, new from Leonard Cohen. To be perfectly candid, Coen’s previous offering, Old Ideas, left a bad taste in my mouth; it remains one of the worst-produced albums I’ve ever heard, and the songs seem to fetishize death as much as they look for meaning in life. Popular Problems is something altogether surprising, then: While we may never hear an actually well-produced, musically rich Leonard Cohen album, this is the closest we’ve yet come, the album actually sounding like it was recorded live with real musicians in places; even when Leonard sticks to the synthesizers, he keeps things feeling fresher and more organic than he has in a long time, and even borrows some motifs from folk, blues, and country. But what’s best, of course, are the songs—funny, intimate, philosophical, political, and often quite moving—nowhere more so than on “Born in Chains,” which is a straight-up Easter song whether Cohen realizes it or not. Opener “Slow” is the perfectly wry, knowing Leonard Cohen anthem, while “You Got Me Singing” is an unspeakably moving, affirming closer. A beautiful and brilliant record—and the most surprising thing I’ve heard this year.
  • Another wonderful surprise: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, the double album from Lucinda Williams, and an absolute rock and roll monster. It’s too easy to call it her Exile on Main Street, yet the cliché fits—for the album’s sprawl, for its lived-in American roots feel, and even for its soulful use of gospel singers, here and there. The album opens with a lyric penned by the singer’s father, an invitation to empathy and compassion, and that sets the scene for a series of stories and sketches about characters who are often down and out, lost on the wrong side of love. The songs are direct and cut straight to the bone, lyrically and musically, and that leanness (a weird thing to say about a double album, I know) is what makes the album so appealing.
  • Finally, there is the not-at-all-bewildering collaboration from Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, entitled Cheek to Cheek—which plays not a bit like a novelty, but simply like a very fine, elegant, often lively set of big band duets. The songs are all standards that we know by heart, but so what? The arrangements are not radical reinventions but they are certainly lush, elegant, and—most critically—deeply More to the point, though, Bennett and Gaga are perfect vocal foils: She’s a gifted jazz singer, and if she oversells a song or two, well, it contrasts nicely with the unflappable, totally laid-back Bennett. It’s a lot of fun.

Deluge! (Quick Thoughts on Robert Plant, U2, Spoon, Jenny Lewis, etc.)

The-VoyagerWell, 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.

Deluge! (Quick Thoughts on Jolie Holland, The Roots, The Black Keys, etc.)

jolieIn my decade and a half of blogging, I have found that—nearly without fail—the seasons in which I am busiest, too preoccupied with other things to get serious about online writing, are the very seasons in which blogging holds the most appeal, or at least the seasons in which I have the most to blog about. Take lately: Between travel, family, the 9-5, and other creative endeavors (plus my heavy investment in Invisible Hour), there just hasn’t been as much time as I might have liked to write about new records that have come across my desk.

And actually, that’s another reason I haven’t devoted more time to the blog: I’ve been spending so many hours connecting with new records, of which there have been many fine ones in recent weeks. I feel a bit like we’re getting a deluge of worthy new music, enough that I think it useful to pause just now and offer a few quick recommendations. Some of these records I hope to formally engage in the weeks to come; others I just know I’ll never get to. All are excellent and have offered me something in the way of revelation and pleasure, and you could do worse than to invest an hour with any one of them.

  • Outside of Invisible Hour, there may be no release from this calendar year that’s ignited my imagination quite like Wine Dark Sea, out this week from Jolie Holland. I love everything about Jolie—have ever since her stone classic Springtime Can Kill You LP from 2006; I love her voice, her songcraft, and her devotion to making each record sound different from the one that came before it, even as all share the same dusty, lived-in vibe, engaging American folk and parlor song from different angles. This new one is something altogether weird, warped, and wild—a savage, thumping set of country-blues songs as filtered through the New York underground, rooted in the same dust and clay that Robert Johnson trod but reimagined through the prism of punk. It snarls and howls and kicks up dust; has a bruised and battered heart and considers love in all its treacherous beauty. Tremendous record, and pretty far out there.
  • Speaking of far out there, those who know me well know that I love The Roots—both with and without Jimmy Fallon—and am smitten by how ambitious their records have become since they made the shift to late night. How I Got Over and undun are both significant works, but the forthcoming … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin is on another level; it goes deeper out and deeper in, and—more even than the last couple of Kanye West records—it feels to me like the advent of art-rap. It’s much more appealing and intoxicating than that tag might make it sound—dense in its sound and weighty in its subject matter, but also compact and never without recognizable elements of swing and soul. I know I dig it plenty, though it may take a while to appraise just how much. (My suspicion: A lot!)
  • I love the musical and cultural history of New Orleans, and many of my favorite records engage and celebrate the vibrant lineage of that city—The Bright Mississippi, The River in Reverse, Trombone Shorty’s records, and so on. Conversations, the new record from Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, is something a little different: His first recording as the leader of an acoustic jazz trio, and a rather remarkable conjuring of Mardi Gras music in all its color and kinetic energy. Like Duke Ellington, Moore is masterful at utilizing the full textural palette of his band—whether it’s a 28-piece or just piano, drums, and bass—and this record’s invention is only topped by its righteous sense of swing.
  • The new album from Sturgill Simpson is called Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and for that tip of the hat to Ray Charles alone it’s aces; factor in Simpson’s devastating outlaw strut and his impeccable Waylon Jennings gravitas and you’ve got the makings of a record that reaches back to an almost forgotten tradition and brings it into the present day. The songs, most of them originals, are tough and sensitive in equal measure, explicitly philosophizing but rooting everything in hard life experience; it clocks in at a lean 30-minute running time, its hard-hitting brevity just one final and welcome nod to the crisp, no-frills outlaw era.
  • I’ve been a little bit resistant to the music of tUnE-yArds over the years, not least because of the annoying stylization of the band’s name and some of their LP titles, but new record Nikki Nack is a set of summer bangers that I’m finding easy to warm to; it’s like Graceland on speed, and it overflows with energy and attitude, humor and invention.
  • Food, from the sublimely gifted singer Kelis, is a treat—by turns sweet and savory, nourishing for sure but not without its moments of pure bubblegum pleasure. The production is tricked out with all kinds of colors and textures, some of them recalling vintage soul and R&B and others defiantly modern, giving the record an out-of-time allure—but of course, it’s the songs that count, and they’re fine ones.
  • A final note: Dan Auerbach has clearly been dipping pretty heavy into the R&B as of late, something that’s evident not just in the songs he wrote for the new Black Keys record but also in his production work for Ray LaMontagne, whose new Supernova is a major left turn; the opening song alone sounds like the spacey vibe of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” crossed with the druggy undertow of “I’m Only Sleeping,” with a paisley color palette that could’ve been cribbed from Prince. What makes the record identifiable as Ray LaMontange—what gives it its grit and its soul, and makes it more than just an extreme pop makeover—is his ongoing Van Morrison fixation, here manifest in some scatting and soulful pop that’s evenly split between Astral Weeks and Moondance. He goes way out into the mystic, Ray does, and the album is an appealing and worthwhile adventure. As for the Keys’ own record, Turn Blue, it’s thankfully less self-consciously arty than their last Danger Mouse joint, Attack & Release; it’s pretty weird, at least by their standards, but even through the flourishes of epic psychedelic rock there’s plenty of grit and swing. Both albums, it should be noted, work neither because of nor in spite of the psychedelic flourishes, but rather because there are some strong bones underneath all the wonky production—plain and simple.