MEN OF CRAFT: Quick Takes on Keef, Boz, Dave Rawlings, and Ryan Adams

keefKeith 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.

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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.

First Impressions: Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

somethingmore“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.

First Impressions: Ashley Monroe, The Blade

thebladeAn 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.

First Impressions: Alan Jackson, ‘Angels and Alcohol’

angelsI am never more aware than when I am listening to Alan Jackson that the appeal of country music is in the telling of a good story; where so many of the music’s upstarts trip over themselves to land the punchline or hammer home the premise, Jackson’s always been canny enough to emphasize the inflection, the little details that make his stories sing. He’s never been much for adventure, not unless you count Like Red from a Rose, which he recorded in middle age. His charm has always been in his casual authority, deepening with each new album and every passing year. Angels and Alcohol is sort of a strange thing, then: A traditional, “purist” country album—assuming your definition of pure is calibrated to the late 1980s, anyway—that could ultimately only have been made by Jackson, whose well-worn mastery allows him to inhabit familiar roles and take up familiar scenarios while breathing new life into them. More than once he offers up new compositions that sound like they should have always been country songs, as on the gleeful breakup tale “Jim and Jack and Hank.” The singer’s woman leaves him in her fancy car, dog in her lap, taking with her the bottled water, all that “stuff for ladies,” and whatever’s left in the bank account; the singer might as well be flipping her the bird as he declares that he’s fine with his booze and his records, and then he calls his dad who enthuses that there will now be more time for fishing and golf. In lesser hands the song might have descended into misogyny, but the warmth in Jackson’s voice melts away much of the nastiness; it’s a song about taking comfort and moving on, not about dwelling on an ugly fracture with a mean woman. Note also how the singer takes his time on the opener, “You Can Always Come Home,” letting it begin with a gentle twang and holding it steady until the first verse breaks into a galloping chorus; the song is a father’s open invitation to a child leaving the nest. It’s a stray line—“even if you never find your way”—that grounds the song in reality and keeps it from becoming mush. “When God Paints” gets closer still to mush, but even here there’s some grit to it: “I can be his toughest critic,” admits the singer, regarding the good Lord’s handiwork. Jackson’s music is patient, taking its time to unfold, and it’s better because of it, but note that he can still tear through some righteous swing numbers, as he does on the easygoing “Flaws” and especially on the randy “You Never Know” (as in, “…when love’s coming through that door”), which just smokes, right down to the hot fiddle and piano solos. “Angels and Alcohol” (see also: “whisky and a good woman’s love”) is classic country dualism, Love lost to Drink, which might as well be The Devil, and Jackson delivers it with the gravitas it needs, solemnly intoning key lyrics in understated spoken word, letting the pedal steel shoulder much of the burden. Like the rest of the album, the song feels as old as country music itself, as fresh and as vital as today. That’s the raconteur’s gift, and the true pleasure of this warm and agreeable record.

Kicking the Canon (One More Time): Bob Dylan, ‘John Wesley Harding’

jwhThe Kicking the Canon project ends today, but not before allowing me one final opportunity to talk about Bob Dylan: My take on the wonderfully weird, alluringly mysterious John Wesley Harding is available for your reading pleasure.

I should say that, when I heard this project was ending, I was midway through another Dylan retrospective, this one of Time Out of Mind. I may one day complete the thing, because why not, but until then, here’s my opening salvo: “Who says Bob Dylan left his Born Again days behind? Here is his Book of Psalms, his Lamentations– his resurrection from the dead.”

Kicking the Canon: The Roots, ‘Things Fall Apart’

thingsIt is with much sadness that I report the demise of the Kicking the Canon project, which I’ve quite enjoyed both as a reader and as a proud contributor. Sam Mac and the gang have done excellent work and I’m sorry to see it come to an end so prematurely. The silver lining is that I do have one final review to share with you, this one of the seminal Roots joint Things Fall Apart. Get hip.

Favorites of 2015 – At the Halfway Point

rhiannonA summer tradition; a check-in with the records that have received the most play and generated the most delight around here, from January through today. Of course all of this can and will change, but I recommend the following records without hesitation.

Top Ten Albums of the Year – So Far!

  1. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
  2. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Bettye LaVette, Worthy
  4. Kacey Musgraves, Pageant Material
  5. Paul Weller, Saturns Pattern
  6. Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color
  7. Bob Dylan, Shadows in the Night
  8. Richard Thompson, Still
  9. Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
  10. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

Favorite Re-Issue:

Lead Belly, The Smithsonian-Folkways Collection

Favorite Single:

“King Kunta.” (Honorable Mention: “Biscuits.”)

Most Revelatory Interpretive Singing:

Bettye LaVette finding the quiet heart of The Beatles’ “Wait.” (Honorable mention: Rhiannon getting funky on “Black is the Color.”)

Favorite Production:

T-Bone Burnett on the Rhiannon joint… his best work in 10+ years?

Cameo of the Year:

Harry Belafonte, a most welcome presence on that new Robert Glasper.

Ringer of the Year:

Jay Bellerose, instrumental in turning Tomorrow is My Turn into a banger. (Honorable mention: Kacey’s pedal steel player.)

Favorite Album Cover:

Gotta be Kendrick’s.

Worst Title for an Otherwise Good Record:

Van Hunt, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets.

First Impressions: Richard Thompson, “Still”

stillThe album title comes from the first song, “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” and it denotes an absence of motion, not necessarily the passage of time: “To not be standing still’s where she belongs,” we are told of the song’s central character, though its best line comes a few beats later: “You say you love her, and she don’t doubt you/ But she could learn to live without you.” It’s a song about perpetual movement, the ravages of restlessness, the dark side of wanderlust, but the music suggests Richard Thompson hasn’t strayed far from his roots; he’s a folky at heart, and the song has the lilt and close-to-the-bone verbiage of a Celtic ballad. When you expect fiddles to come in and carry it home, electric guitar licks uncoil instead. Thompson’s folkie proclivities are illumined more explicitly in the next song, “Beatnik Walking,” an acoustic travelogue and a musical biography that cracks gentle jokes without dipping into self-parody: It’s knowing, it’s wisened by age, but it’s not unserious. As a songwriter Thompson is precise with his language and committed to his characters, even when he’s knowingly playing with archetypes. The gal in the first song is the quintessential wanderer, but the sadness of the song convinces you she’s a real person; “All Buttoned Up” is a nasty song about a dirty tease, and “Long John Silver” is probably a metaphor but doesn’t quite close the door on the possibility that it really is about the famous pirate. The song that’ll get the most attention is “Guitar Heroes,” a borderline gimmick not just for its title but for Thompson’s note-perfect six-string impressions of Django Reinhart, Les Paul, and Chuck Berry; it doesn’t quite have the cohesion to work as a rock and roll song but it does work as a bit of theater, because Thompson’s impressions are… note-perfect. The song that should get the most attention, though, is “No Peace, No End”—because it’s such a vivid and empathetic treatise on hopelessness, something Thompson’s always conveyed well; because, like everywhere else on the record, Jeff Tweedy’s production is warm and clear; but mostly because of that guitar, man.

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.