In-Depth Review

High Times with Kacey Musgraves

pageantI’ve listened to little else but the new Kacey Musgraves record this week, which I quite like, and have reviewed in some detail over at Cahoots.

The mountain holler and the Opry stage collide on “High Time,” Pageant Material’s opener—and not, by the way, for the last time over the course of the LP. The pedal steel is high and lonesome and the solitary whistle sound is stark like a mountain top yodel; there’s also a string section that’s ravishing and unabashed in its glitter, plus—just for good measure—lyrics that betray an outlaw’s love of weed. Those who knows much about Kacey Musgraves will know before needle hits groove that “High Time” is a double entendre, but it’s actually a fakeout: The song is about rollin’ and smokin’ but really it’s about a moment of surrender, a chance to breathe deep and revel in the joy of the present. Fittingly, the song sways with the lazy gait of a high school dance—a moment stolen, frozen, called from memory.

Read the rest here.

Epic Review: D’Angelo Returns with “Black Messiah”

blackmessiah-300x300It’s the album that everyone’s been talking about, and not without reason. Certainly, it’s prompted me to reconsider my top 10 list from last year; I’ll have a revised version of it posted here in a couple of days. In the meantime, I’ve written a pretty long review of Black Messiah over at Cahoots, a new literary venture of which I happen to be co-founder/co-publisher/co-editor. Check it out, if you’re so inclined.

Review: Over the Rhine’s “Blood Oranges in the Snow” Brings Long Journeys, New Mercies

bloodorangesBlood Oranges in the Snow—the third Christmas collection from Over the Rhine—opens with a weary travelogue, weepy pedal steel and wistful vocal harmonies lending weight to the song’s hard-won hopefulness. “Just a little while longer,” Karin Bergquist promises, and you almost don’t need any additional words to dial into the song’s spirit—tired and a bit broken down, but hopeful just the same. (And yes, as Karin previously put it: “There is something to be said for tenacity.”)

The rustic vibe feels like a continuation of last year’s homespun Meet Me at the Edge of the World, and sure enough: Blood Oranges feels, at times, like the winter companion to that autumnal meditation on rural life. Some of the same names adorn this album’s credits, including several of the Joe Henry players (though not the man himself; the band self-produced, this go-around) and engineer Ryan Freeland. The plot is considerably thicker than this description might suggest, though, and the cast of players is deeper and broader; included also are Over the Rhine acolytes from way back, among them Ric Hordinski and Jack Henderson; for that matter, dynamite drummer Mickey Grimm is back for the first time since the Trumpet Child/Snow Angels era, and frequent partner-in-crime Kim Taylor contributes a song (as she did on The Long Surrender).

No Over the Rhine album that I can think of has so many callbacks to the band’s history; none are as reflective of what Over the Rhine is, not just as a band but as a community. It is a consolidating effort in many respects, though not a nostalgic one. The weight of the band’s history gives considerable heft and meaning to the nine new songs presented here: They are songs about roads that have been long and hard, but good, and travelled together. The point is proven sufficiently just by a scan through the Blood Oranges credits.

Most of the songs here were written by Linford Detweiler; Karin is co-credited on the final number, and there are also one song apiece from Henderson and Taylor, plus a cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December.” On paper this seems like a bit of a patchwork approach to the album, but actually the pieces all fit wonderfully together, the songs in dialogue with one another even as they all conjure different variations of the same vibe. Blood Oranges is, impressively, a very different beast than either of the band’s previous Christmas LPs, and is especially distinct from Snow Angels—just as warm and intimate, but tending toward introspection and melancholy where that album was playful, flirty, and jolly.

It feels as much like an Advent album as a record to spin on Christmas Day. It’s probably not unfair to call Blood Oranges an album about waiting; about toughing it out—the Snow Angels coda “We’re Gonna Pull Through” would’ve fit in just as well on this collection. It’s an album about expectation—the long, dark nights chronicled in these songs all looking forward to some act of grace and redemption, even when it goes unnamed, even when it’s as simple as holding on through another winter.

If that makes it sound like a sadder set than most Christmas albums, well, that may be true—though even “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” have their shadows and their scars, if you stop and really listen. It’s true enough that Blood Oranges is melancholy more than it’s jubilant, and its soul-searching is restless throughout “Another Christmas” and especially “My Father’s Body.” These are songs colored by regret and anxiety, haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past and present; by the time the Merle Haggard song rolls around—what with its painfully pragmatic tale of the everyday hardships that seem, so often, to be heaviest in December—it seems almost like it could capsize the album, but the way Karin sings it the song feels tough—as though the narrator is hopeful not by nature, but by stubborn choice and intent.

“Bethlehem,” written by and sung with Jack Henderson, locates the source of that hope more vividly; it’s a soulful and weary song, a dark night of the soul that nevertheless dares to dream of “a hope for all mankind”—the light of that simple phrase shining all the brighter in this pitch-black midwinter. “Snowbirds” could almost be its lighthearted companion piece; its titular characters dive into the water knowing full well that it’s icy cold; they seek love and companionship despite the long odds and the dark nights. The best song here is “Let it Fall,” a simple and powerful exhortation to leave anxieties and insecurities checked at the door.

The album ends not with Christmas Day but with the coming of a New Year, and the promise that “New mercy comes with every morning/ The unexpected with no warning.” It offers us this, too: “Just a bit of New Year’s cheer/ To say I’m glad you’re here.” By this point, of course, the feeling is mutual; in more ways than one Blood Oranges sounds like a moment of rest following a long haul filled with tough sledding; a warm fire on a cold night. Its every grace note, its every new mercy feels earned—for all of us, no matter the journeys we’ve been on.

Review: U2 Are Pilgrims on Their Way in “Songs of Innocence”

songsThe common knock against latter-day U2—one that’s routinely delivered even by the band’s most ardent fans—is that the band never quite recovered from the commercial and critical failure of Pop; that ever since that 1997 album sunk from the charts—in many respects the first true misstep from the biggest, most successful rock band of the last 30 years—Bono and crew have been desperately chasing down their 1980s muse, striving to make albums cut from the same comforting, well-worn cloth of The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire.

It’s a neat little narrative, both convenient and, at first blush, pretty truthful—but dig a bit deeper into their albums of the new millennium and it becomes apparent that it may be a bit too easy to accuse U2 of merely pining away for their 80s heyday. While it’s true that their latter-career reset album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, eschews the irony and experimentation of their 90s albums in favor of big anthems and open-hearted emotion, it’s also true that they carried some of the lessons learned in the 90s with them, particularly about pop songcraft. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is a lightweight slab of blue-eyed soul that never could have fit on the brooding Unforgettable Fire or the tumultuous Joshua Tree, and even when U2 does self-consciously reach for past glories—as on “City of Blinding Lights,” a new-millennium anthem that hits the very same emotional notes as “Where the Streets Have No Name”—they can’t help but come at it from a different perspective: They hoist the song atop their shoulders like elder statesmen, wizened rock and roll survivors all too ready to take audience members by the hand and lead them toward inspiration and hope—not at all the same vibe as the searching, hungry “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There are plenty of other examples besides, and sure enough: Songs like “A Man and a Woman” and “I’ll Go Crazy if I Can’t Go Crazy Tonight” offer hooky, lightweight pop, compact and focused solely on melody—songs that have more to do with the tight songraft of Achtung Baby than with the sprawl and the roar and the angst of their mid-80s albums; songs made by experienced craftsmen rather than rock and roll firebrands. Whether one finds such songs appealingly breezy or vaguely embarrassing is an open question, perhaps, but the point is this: While U2 may have spent the last 15 years making music that sounds like cookie-cutter U2, they’ve not actually made an album that returns to the specific spirit of any particular U2 classic, nor could they: They’re older now, and carry with them every experience and every lesson learned in their pursuit of the muse. They’re not repeating themselves: They’re finding new wrinkles in a signature aesthetic, allowing the sound of U2 to grow along with the men of U2.

What, then, does one make of a record like Songs of Innocence—an album that references vintage U2 as pointedly as any album they’ve made (listen to how “Every Breaking Wave” opens with what could almost be a sample from “With or Without You”) yet sounds as distinct, as much its own thing as any of their post-Pop recordings? Not only that, but the record—for all its anthemic reach, for all its stadium-ready chants, for all its open-hearted enthusiasm—is as clearly indebted to the studio effects of Achtung Baby and to their burgeoning skills as true pop songwriters as anything they’ve made since the 90s? One almost laments that the title Pop was already taken; it would have fit just fine here.

You can hear it most obviously in the more experimental numbers, first and foremost the album’s incredible closer, “The Troubles”—as rich and as moving a song as they’ve made in ages, an elliptical and haunting funhouse of voices and studio effects, Lykke Li singing the otherworldly hook but Bono rooting the song in clear-eyed self-realization. There are other songs here that vaguely recall the experimental bent of Achtung and Zooropa—the synth-driven “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” for example—but that’s merely one aspect of the album’s curious refraction of U2 past and present. While no one will mistake the album for anything but a carefully produced and thoroughly polished piece of music, “Cedarwood Road” rides a nasty, raucous guitar lick that’s more rock and roll than anything they’ve done this side of War. Though it isn’t as immediate as “Vertigo” or “Get on Your Boots,” the pummeling opener “The Miracle” is a crowd-riling singalong that’s actually more carefully written and arranged than either of those tracks, and thankfully less goofy and embarrassing. And about those new wrinkles: “California” opens with a harmonic ode to The Beach Boys, of all things, and though it morphs into an Edge-driven rocker, it’s far too breezy to be just another U2 anthem.

There are hooks throughout the album—big ones—and no song that drifts into atmospherics, extended soloing from The Edge, or “Streets”-styled grandeur; everything is tight, lean, and to the point. It’s appealing, actually, and is made all the more so by the nimbleness of the melodies and rhythms. Therein lies the biggest surprise on Songs of Innocence: Though U2 is notorious for its perfectionism, fussing over each song to the point where there’s nothing that could ever resemble true spontaneity or improvisation, and though this album was infamously worked on for a span of five years—multiple producers credited, and nearly half a dozen keyword players listed for the first track alone—the real miracle in all of this is its comparative lightness of touch. Yes, it’s still immaculate rather than raw—and really cutting loose and getting their hair ruffled a bit is what U2 still so desperately needs—but the heavy-handed Lanois/Eno production has been lifted in favor of a punchier sound masterminded by Danger Mouse. The result is U2’s most melodic album; its most fun; in many ways, its most straightforwardly appealing. The biggest difference between this album and the last two: Songs of Innocence offers the illusion that it wasn’t quite so fussed over.

You can hear the difference best, perhaps, on “Every Breaking Wave,” the closest thing the album has to a by-the-numbers U2 anthem. And it is a by-the-numbers U2 anthem, maybe, not just for its “With or Without You” intro but for its measured lead-up to an explosive, fist-bumping chorus. What’s notable is what the song lacks: There’s no Edge solo, no wooo—wooo refrain, and one of the sludgy production that bogged down, say, “Magnificent” or “City of Blinding Lights.” It draws its power from its mighty hook, it makes its point quickly, and it doesn’t contain a single wasted second. Not for nothing, the song also breaks away from the thematic material one tends to associate with U2 anthems: It’s neither a fight song like “Pride” nor a restless longing like “Streets,” but rather is an anthem of surrender, Bono singing about waves on a beach as though it’s his parting line before falling backwards into them, carried along by the song itself.

There is another way in which Songs of Innocence marks itself as distinct from other U2 records: It is, according to Bono’s typically half-reliable testimony, the most intimate and personal album U2 has ever written. When we talk about intimacy within the context of this band, of course, it means something a bit different than when we use the word to describe any other band: U2 belongs to the world and is zealous for turning every song into a battle cry; they are content with intimacy only when it’s sweeping enough to fill a stadium, and that’s as much a defining characteristic of U2 as anything. Nevertheless, there is a real sense in which Songs of Innocence marks a return to something, something the band has never really explored on tape: It’s a song rooted in childhood and adolescence, as seen from the vantage point of wisdom and age. It captures the hurt and the anger and the hopefulness, the fighting spirit that led these four men to become rock and rollers and to develop so great a Christ complex to begin with; they are indeed Songs of Innocence sung from a place of experience, the remove of time adding perspective and nuance but leaving some of that visceral, roiling emotion very much in place.

The album is, indeed, as flagrantly emotional as it is flagrantly melodic. The best way into its world is through its final song: “The Troubles” is a kind of self-reckoning, Bono coming to terms with the fact that he’s spent so many years trying to solve the world’s ills because he has been running from his own demons, the specters of his own troubled past. It is a conscious decision to turn his gaze, finally, inward, and it casts a light back over the ten songs that come before it.

Even their sequencing is revealing. “Iris” is a song of devotion to Bono’s mother—long his muse, but never referenced as explicitly as she is here. Iris Hewson died of a brain aneurism when her boy was still quite young, and it is, perhaps, no coincidence that her song is followed here by “Volcano,” which is all frayed nerves and bristling anger, a portrait of the artist as a young hothead, a flamethrower, a street fighting man. Hurt gives way to anger, and that anger colors much of what Bono delves into here; “Volcano” leads to the particularly Irish rage, indignation, and disillusionment of “Raised by Wolves,” and the troubled spiritual and political landscape of Bono’s youth shows up elsewhere in the predatory priest of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight.”

Salvation comes in the form of Joey Ramone—who else?—whose rallying call in “The Miracle” sends Bono down the road to rock and roll stardom, toward belief in both his ability and his duty to turn his rage into holy ruckus. Critically, Ramone is not himself the door to Bono’s redemption, but merely a signpost for it: “The Miracle” shifts subtly from a song about the transformative gospel of rock and roll to a Gospel of another kind, Bono hearing Joey’s song as a distant echo of some heavenly anthem that brings total restoration and peace.

Again, what isn’t present on Songs of Innocence is as notable as what is. There are songs about acts of political violence and religious abuse that Bono witnessed as a young man, but there is no sloganeering, no crusading, and nothing that could rightly be characterized as an openly political song: Even when he’s singing about an IRA bombing in “Raised by Wolves,” the song isn’t actually about the bombing at all, but about the brokenheartedness and fractured psyche that Bono was left with. “The Miracle,” meanwhile, only tips its hat to Joey Ramone in the title, the lyrics left more ambiguous—and while some listeners may lament the lack of specificity, the song is hardly vacuous: It’s a song about awakening, discovery, passion, and hope. Joey Ramone is the catalyst but not actually the subject matter.

So here is the funny thing about Songs of Innocence: It’s an album about all the things U2 albums have always been about—remaining hopeful in a broken world, knowing that the kingdom come is both already and not yet here—but it’s about them in a different way. It’s an album about Bono, but a different side of him than usual. It’s an album that sounds, with every yelp and every guitar pedal, like a U2 album, but not like any particular U2 album, or even a particular U2 era.

Maybe its key is “Every Breaking Wave.” Maybe surrender is more than just an idea to these men: Maybe they’ve stopped running and are instead just floating—not stagnant and not complacent, but letting the waves of song and spirit carry them where they will. To me, this album doesn’t sound like U2 trying to be U2, but neither does it sound like U2 avoiding being U2; they’re simply doing what they do and what they’ve always done, but from a vantage point they’ve never been able to reach before. The change of perspective is everything, and it’s what makes Songs of Innocence sound so sweet—what makes it sound, for all the world, like the old made new again.

Review: The Roots Tip the Scale in “…And Then You Shoot Your Cousin”

rootsI have a minor complaint that encompasses the last couple of Roots albums, but the most recent in particular. I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair for me to say it, but say it I will: I’d love to get one more Roots record where the full band just plays, and where Black Thought serves as the band’s true voice rather than as a single player in the wider ensemble. That’s not how these records have been, certainly not the new one: I couldn’t say for sure but I am nearly positive that several band members aren’t actually heard on this new LP at all—I don’t hear a tuba, for one thing, and even Captain Kirk’s guitar and Frank Knuckles’ auxiliary percussion play a more muted role—while Black Thought is present on fewer tracks here than on any previous Roots album. This is a very different band than the one you see in concert or on Jimmy Fallon, or for that matter from what we heard on “The Seed” and “Thought @ Work.” I happen to like the three post-Fallon Roots joints more than their older material, so maybe I ought not complain at all, but I can’t help but be a little vexed that a group lauded for its live performance ability, and blessed with arguably the greatest living MC, downplays so many of its core strengths.

In other words, part of me wishes ?uestlove and Thought were interested in giving us different kinds of albums than the ones we are getting, which is, perhaps, an unfair bar against which to measure … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. The two principle Roots have as much as said that they are only interested in doing passion projects from now on, which we might reasonably take to mean art projects. Certainly, Cousin steps further over the rap/art divide than any other Roots album—more even than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, if we’re being honest, though it also manages to feel less indulgent, which is no small feat. For godsake, this is a record that starts out with a minute-long Nina Simone sample—not chopped and distorted like Kanye’s Watch the Throne Nina Simone sample—and also contains a lengthy excerpt from an avant-garde composer; the first true Roots song on the album, “Never,” has a choral voice and a string section, and sounds like it could soundtrack a slow-motion action scene in a John Woo movie. This is a long way from Things Fall Apart, and for that matter is a long way from “How I Got Over” or the Wake Up! album recorded with John Legend.

Individual moments are less weird and less intellectual than all of this might sound: “When the People Cheer,” with its twinkling piano and Jay Z-referencing lyric, sounds almost like a single, and the album-closing “Tomorrow” is a tremendous R&B song, made no less affecting (though perhaps affecting in a different way) when it collapses in an avant-jazz heap, the bitter ironies below its surface oozing upward and out. “Understand” and “Black Rock” both have bangin’ beats and memorable vocal hooks. The thing is, though, the record doesn’t really sound like it was meant to be understood in terms of individual songs: Like the Romare Bearden piece that gives it its cover, this record is a collage, individual images meant to congeal into something whole and unified, even the samples and “interludes” feeling like parts of the larger mosaic. (People have asked me if they are missing anything when they stream the album on Beats or Spotify, which don’t have the three sample-based tracks, and I honestly believe that they are: Every note of this seems significant.)

The record is the shortest The Roots have yet made—just half an hour or so—and its succinctness is both admirable and perhaps a bit damning. I’ve said before that it almost feels like a Love Supreme scenario—any more than half an hour and the intensity of it would be unbearable—but I increasingly think the album might benefit from just a little more heft, a little more space for its themes to develop. When all is said and done it feels like a complete piece, a finished work, but perhaps not as deep or as heavy a work as undun—despite the fact that the two albums aren’t that far apart in terms of total run time. Another vocal track or two might have made this song cycle feel like it had that kind of gravitas—though give The Roots credit for following through on their conviction that the music itself says as much as words ever could, if not more.

Too-short or not, the album is a serious and significant exploration of capital and violence; its characters are the kinds of people you never hear from in hip-hop, except on Roots albums: They are desperate men who’ve played to win but drawn losing hands; they’ve hit rock bottom, and they know it. This is an album about bloodshed that stems from greed, aggression born of desperation; it’s set on the streets and the corners but has more than a couple of lyrics that suggest parallels with the boardroom.

It differs from undun in another key respect, despite the overlapping themes: That album told one man’s story from start to finish (or, rather, the other way around), and as such had time to develop and humanize him. The songs here all have different characters, which in effect reduces them to caricatures—but that’s the point: It works through scalpel-blade humor of the gallows variety, subverting and inverting rap clichés to reveal its themes.

It is a jet-black album, but its critics are wrong to call it humorless: It’s loaded with humor, simply devoid of joy. (Joy, by the way, is something that tends to be more readily available when you’ve got the warmth and camaraderie of musicians playing at the same time in the same room together—but there I go again.) It’s a brutally mirthless album that progresses with cold inevitability, and the more you play it the more you hear the hellish comedy within its lines. Then, as with a black comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street, you hit a point where you realize that all of the stories unfolding here are true, or at least accurate enough, and the heaviness of the whole thing really sinks in; here, it’s “Dark (The Trinity),” a funeral dirge and an unrelenting barrage of street-level nihilism. “Ain’t no use in attempting to civilize savages,” emerges as the record’s most insidious and disturbing line; it’s something we recognize as a lie—we must recognize it as such, or else sink into hopelessness—yet its resonance with current cultural debates is striking and terrifying; isn’t it essentially the argument of those who would dismiss any form of gun regulation?

Of course, The Roots are not nihilists, and lines like that one demand that we remind ourselves this is satire. There’s plenty you can fault the album for, but being timely and being unfunny are not among them. (Whether it actually makes you crack a smile is a different matter.) Neither can you accuse them of lacking in ambition: This is the farthest out-there they’ve yet gone, which is no small thing to say about a band that just took over prime late-night TV real estate. I can’t imagine the higher-ups at NBC loving this album title, but who cares? Certainly not The Roots: They’re as uncompromising as ever, and Shoot Your Cousin is weirdly exhilarating in its fractured beauty: It’s broken and bleak, but simply by spending time with these stories we affirm that all of this matters. Grace has the final word, even in a world as oppressive as this one.

Epic Review: Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”

ihJoe Henry is my favorite singer, songwriter, and record producer; more than that, I consider him a friend as well as a mentor. As such, some might suggest that my appraisal of the man’s new album might be heavily biased, and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Then again, I prefer to think that I’ve engaged with Joe’s work on a deeper level than I have any other music; I may have a bias but I’m not bullshitting, and my hope, anyway, is that what I write about his work is illuminating to the reader and the listener.

All of that to say: The new Joe Henry record, Invisible Hour, is due on June 3 in the United States; I have written a fairly lengthy review of it at David Kennedy’s all-things-Joe-Henry blog. I know that a review of this scope may be asking a lot of those not initiated into the Joe Henry fold, and as such I may write something more concise later this month or next.

But truthfully: Invisible Hour is a landmark recording. It is among the very finest and most profoundly moving records I have ever engaged in writing, and as such I invite those interested in beauty and revelation to investigate further. Only good things can come of it.