Proud to contribute the first music review for the revamped In Review Online— and of a significant new collection, no less: Four discs of stimulating solo piano work from the great Brad Mehldau. A staggering slab of music, but once you spend some time absorbing it its pleasures are deep and wide.
Bob 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.
Josh 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.
Like 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.
I 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.
Lord 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.
Patty Griffin, Servant of Love. She sounds like she’s searching for something—at times, for a song, though even the meandering numbers have their charms, not least the sunshine harmonies and gentle twang of “Rider of Days.” At other times, it’s an original Americana that’s born of tradition but made in her image, as on the stomping, trumpet-led blues “Gunpowder.” But mostly, it’s answers: The ruins of a relationship are strewn across this covert breakup record (song titles: “Good and Gone,” “Hurt a Little While,” “Everything’s Changed,” “You Never Asked Me”). “Servant of Love” drones its way into a trance of almost religious fervor, which underscores both the heaviness of this record and the fact that it’s not just about Robert Plant. “Hurt a Little While” isn’t her first gospel number, but it is the surest evidence yet that time and heartache have made her a deeper, more soulful singer. And “Snake Charmer” proves that the mischief and sass of “Getting Ready” was no fluke, not least because this end-of-the-album throwaway sounds like something Robert Plant might record.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, So Familiar. Take the title in a couple of ways: Yes, this is pretty similar to their first album, using its zippy, earthbound folk as a foundation and building on it ever so slightly with the addition of some strings here, a bari sax there, a toy piano when they really want to get sentimental. But there’s also a greater familiarity between the two performers, an ease and a comfort that make this one feel more effortless and lived-in even as it very gradually ups the ante. What’s more, they’ve carved out a sound that’s really theirs now—romantic, lilting, wistful, coloring its playfulness in subtle shades of blue. Right now it feels like they could just keep making albums like this forever; right now it feels like I’d never get sick of it.
Richard Hawley, Hollow Meadows. Hawley probably isn’t the first to write a song lamenting our culture’s cellphone obsession, but he may be the only one to pull it off without sounding like a crank; though Hawley’s albums all sound like transmissions from a half-mythic, half-remembered past, he’s wistful and romantic, not curmudgeonly. Probably no big surprise, then, that he responded to the surprise popular success of Standing at the Sky’s Edge with a new collection of low-key, intimate folk songs—patiently unfolding, craftmanlike, not particularly trendy. He’s combined the burnished late nigh vibes of Cole’s Corner with the cinematic scope of Lady’s Bridge, peppering it with some of Truelove’s Gutter’s dark sound effects and Standing’s guitar thrills. Its vision makes it feel like a masterwork, even as its familiarity makes it less bracing than the typical Hawley LP. Of course, Hawley is the master of the slow burn; maybe two months isn’t enough time for me to fully absorb all this. Though, I was smitten with “Which Way” from the get-go. And “I Still Want You” captures the kind of long-term intimacy and weathered desire that nobody writes better than Hawley.
Keith 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.
“I don’t think on why I’m here or why it hurts/ I’m just lucky to have the work,” sings Jason Isbell on the title cut to Something More Than Free. He delivers that line like a man who’s been face to face with the abyss, and doesn’t for one minute think himself entitled to the good luck that’s come his way; he sings it like a man perpetually in recovery, an asshole and an addict pulled out of his own wreckage and waste by the steady hand of love, now looking for meaning in his craft, his vocation, his marriage—whatever will keep his second chance from being wasted. This is his fifth studio album, though it might as well be his second. It follows Southeastern, the bloodletting record that chronicled his collapse into addiction and bore witness to the love that saved him; the record, all frayed nerves and bleeding hearts, made him the reigning kind of Americana, and Something More Than Free feels like the wisest and most satisfying follow-up he could have engineered. It’s another record about finding light in darkness, redemption in love, meaning in work—it’s a record about addiction, but more than that it’s a series of love songs about the “somebody new” who coaxed him back to the land of the living. It’s less of an emotional outpouring than Southeastern, though—a bit more writerly, a bit more mannered. The songs have more shape to them, which makes the electric guitar jam at the end of “Children of Children” feel like a welcome bit of rabblerousing rather than the tedious bore that most electric guitar jams are. Isbell’s got some new tricks here: Check the ramshackle first single “24 Frames,” complete with chiming guitar hook and various shades of college rock. It’s tight but still messy, and its lyric offers a theology of devastation: “You thought God was an architect, now you know/ He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Note, too, the way he lends different weights to different songs: How “Flagship” seems almost like it could float away in its whispery grace, how “Palmetto Rose” struts and swaggers, how “If it Takes a Lifetime” opens the record with a spritely step and a bit of twang. But what I like best about Isbell is how he writes songs that extract universal truths from specific experiences: “How to Forget” sounds at first like a song about that awkward moment when your ex-flame meets your new lover, but really it’s a song about desperately wanting to break free from the past you can’t ever quite forget. Isbell is, by his own testimony, “hellbent on growing up—if it takes a lifetime.” Growing in wisdom and maturity—that’s the work he’s so lucky to have; this record is the fruit of his labor.
An album of deep fracture, most of its songs resembling crime scenes, The Blade opens with an optimism that sounds like it could bubble over and carry the rest of the record along with it: “On to Something Good” is sunny pop—classic country, assuming your history of country only stretches back to 1990 or so—and it might seem like a feint or a false promise were it not for the singer’s conviction: Ashley Monroe delivers it like a dare, a fragment of sunshine to pocket and carry with us through the record’s twists. And twist it does, literally so on the title track, wherein romance turns to betrayal and love into a two-edged sword: “You got it by the handle,” the singer sighs, standing amidst the wreckage, “I got it by the blade.” Monroe is such an ace singer and songwriter that a perfect metaphor like that one isn’t even the highlight of the album, and she often says the most when she doesn’t say much at all: “Bombshell” trembles and jitters at the thought of dropping an unpleasant truth; note that the song doesn’t actually reveal what said bombshell happens to be. My first assumption was infidelity; yours may be something different. It ultimately doesn’t matter: “It’ll never be a good time to drop a bombshell,” coos Monroe, and it’s not hard to hear it as a song of experience. Even the songs that sound totally put-together reveal tattered ends and razor edges: “Had anybody ever told you/ That they’d be lucky just to know you?” one song goes, but what sounds like a song about intimacy is actually a song about separation: It affirms the beauty of the Beloved while damning the singer’s hesitation. The subtlety of these songs provides context for Monroe’s dips into mythology and drama: “Dixie” is a song about leaving the South, but really it’s a song about hopping the next train to leave your past and your memories behind, to start anew. (She ain’t leaving ‘cause of the weather, the singer assures us.) “I Buried Your Love Alive” mirrors it in its resolve to put heartache and hurt six feet under, while “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” conjures country tropes and gothic folklore to convey the deepest despair of all: What if even my acts of self-destruction don’t make the longing go away? There’s humor here, too, as there must be on an album that leans so far in to embrace the hurt of love and the ache of desire: “Winning Streak” is about a loser, and it breezes by in feisty self-deprecation, while the closing “I’m Good at Leavin’” looks for a silver lining. I could go on and on about the songs, but let me also mount this theory: Maybe the real reason it’s called The Blade is because it walks with such poise along the razor’s edge of country authenticity and country pop: Monroe can do breezy country folk (check “Mayflowers”), outlaw swagger (“Dixie”), or backporch twang (“Winning Streak”) without sounding self-conscious and without sacrificing melody; she can turn toward soft rock and unabashed pop without pandering. (Listen to this and then go back to Platinum, and tell me Miranda couldn’t have swung for the charts without anything so dire as “Somethin’ Bad.”) Here’s how your experience with this brilliant album will go: The first time through, it’ll just be fun. Three or four listens in, the songs will start to cut you—deep. Eventually you’ll realize that country and Americana records don’t have to be self-serious or fetishize “rootsiness” to sound real, and the heavy stuff lands better when there’s a joke or two thrown in. And, that for right now, nobody does this stuff better than Ashley Monroe.