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.