In the Middle of the Worst of It: Pistol Annies on fire

Pistol Annies cover art

The Pistol Annies—Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley—have about a hundred different superpowers between them. Truth-telling, trash-talking, myth-making, hell-raising—their virtuosity runs both deep and wide. One thing none of them are great at is sugar-coating, and on Interstate Gospel—their third and most accomplished album—they are proudly, defiantly, even confrontationally unvarnished. “I’m in the middle of the worst of it,” Monroe sings toward the start of the album—and then comes the knife twist: “These are the best years of my life.” The group has always written about women deep in the shit—sometimes dumped upon them, sometimes self-generated—yet even their most desperate protagonists take the shitstorm in stride. Most weather it with their sense of humor intact; some come through it newly self-reflective; more than a handful are aided by booze or pills, and try though you might you can’t blame them. Interstate Gospel may be the most troubled Pistol Annies record yet, stacked with songs about divorce and regret, but this is a band whose jocularity and compassion seem directly proportional to the enmity faced by their characters. In other words, this is also their most rollicking, joyful, and confident album, the one with the funniest jokes, the most sophisticated blend of hazy autobiography and richly-detailed fiction. “We’re on fire, I think,” Lambert muses at one point, and it’s a line with double meaning—both a statement of emergency but also a not-so-humble acknowledgement that the Pistol Annies are on a hot streak.

That streak encompasses at least a half dozen classic albums between them, estimating conservatively; Monroe’s Sparrow, striking for how it finds room for personal expression within an established lineage, came out just a few months ago. It’s masterful in a different way than Lambert’s contemplative The Weight of These Wings or Presley’s razor-edged Wrangled, and one of the chief accomplishments of Interstate Gospel is how it showcases each Annie’s individuality but also the strength in their bond; the specificity of what each Annie does is sharpened, not flattened, by their fellowship. Maybe that’s why they chose to open the album, after a quick prelude, with “Stop, Drop, and Roll One,” a band introduction and theme song. (“One’s got the Tylenol, one’s got the Adderall, one’s got a drink in her hand,” they summarize, and if you’re not sure who’s who, just listen to when each voice enters the scene.) Presley’s verse on the song showcases the ease and economy with which she can tell a story: “Get this thing off of me, where in the hell is my bra?/ This hurts a lot more than the last time we did Mardi Gras.” Meanwhile, “Leavers Lullaby,” a goodbye letter from a woman born to run, is voiced by Monroe, reflecting a thematic strain that would have fit neatly among Sparrow’s assembly of gypsy hearts and wanderers. “Best Years of My Life” opens with a line that seems like a Monroe special—“I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet”—yet it’s almost more satisfying to imagine the line penned for her by an alternate Annie, the fruit of their sisterly camaraderie and intermingled sensibilities.

As for Lambert, she can’t help but be at the epicenter of what’s nearly a divorce album. Her severed ties with Blake Shelton comprise the most tabloid-worthy breakup among the Annies, and she addressed the matter at length on The Weight of These Wings, a double album where she took stock, admitted fault, and largely found virtue in Being the Bigger Person. Somehow, singing divorce songs under the Pistol Annies banner frees her to chronicle dissolution and its aftermath with an expanded range of emotions, including grief, shame, liberation, and glee. The grief and the shame come primarily in “Masterpiece,” a late-album stunner performed almost as a Lambert solo track, and of a piece with The Weight of These Wings. Here she agonizes over oblivion, anguishing over all the hard work that can go into keeping a marriage afloat just for it to capsize anyway (“like nothing ever happened,” she laments). Considerably perkier is “Got My Name Changed Back,” a courtroom jamboree that turns lemons into lemonade and a divorce settlement into rebirth (“Now who I was ain’t who I be/ I got my name changed back,” Lambert exults). That’s the Interstate Gospel prism, one where it can be easier to see the joy and relief in separation than in sticking it out. There’s no sadder line on the album than the pungent country one-liner Lambert lets loose on “Best Years of My Life,” about a woman who’s stuck: “He don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet.” Meanwhile, each Annie gives voice to wisdom and the healing power of time on “When I was His Wife,” a song of experience if ever there was one. “His love was enough to keep me satisfied/ I said that too when I was his wife,” sings Monroe, another leaver’s confession.

Pistol Annies are uniquely adroit at upholding the Lady Bird doctrine, where paying careful attention is really an act of love. That’s true even when their impish humor and their passion for archetypes veer close to cartoonishness; their empathetic streak is always there to save them. Less caring writers would let “Cheyenne” lapse into cliché, what with its protagonist who loves trashy tattoos and country music. When Lambert hits the longing in the chorus—“If I could treat love like Cheyenne/ If I could be just as cold as the beer in her hand”—it feels like the most nakedly autobiographical sentiment on the whole album. Likewise, the randy “Sugar Daddy” could have been a lark (“My sugar daddy’s got a rhinestone suit/ Got a snake in his boot,” Monroe coos), but it’s noteworthy here for its brazen celebration of feminine agency. Their propensity for empathetic nuance brings unresolvable ache to “Milkman,” which tries to unravel the complicated threads connecting mothers and daughters but ultimately tangles them further; and to “Commissary,” which addresses addiction and enablement by putting the tough in tough love.

Of the three Pistol Annies records, Interstate Gospel sounds the most sure-footed as it straddles country’s past and its present; it prizes both traditionalism and pop punch, and it sounds classicist without fetishizing analog austerity. (This catholic conception of country marks some of the year’s most enthralling albums, including Eric Church’s Desperate Man and Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.) Working with producer Frank Liddell, who helmed all of Lambert’s solo joints, the Annies give equal statue to close harmonies and thunderous drums, finger-picked acoustics and fuming electric blues. The title song is an old-timey frenzy, pounding church pianos colliding with rollicking bluegrass. Presley’s biblical dad jokes (“Jesus is the bread of life, without him you’re toast”) split the difference between Grand Old Opry cornpone and Dixie Chicks irreverence. Elsewhere, “Cheyenne” lilts to a folksy fiddle, while “Sugar Daddy” crackles with loose electricity. These arrangements manage to surprise without ever seeming ostentatious: Listen to how “Got My Name Changed Back” ends on an Andrews Sisters high, or to how “5 Acres of Turnips” morphs from sepia-tinged regret into a psychedelic dream sequence.

It’s that song that may be Interstate Gospel’s true lynchpin: In a rural multi-generational epic, the Annies whisper about dark family secrets. (No specific allegations are made, but there’s talk of “generations of shame” and ominous holes in the ground.) But when the lurching honky-tonk blossoms to its coda, Presley sings amazing grace: “Something beautiful comes out of this dirt,” she declares. Just like that, deep shit is redeemed, through good humor, joyful intent, and sheer force of will—proof of the Pistol Annies’ superpowers working at their peak.

Something Like Stardust: On Robyn’s out-of-date emotions

honey

“They wrote a song about us/ It’s called something like stardust,” sings Robyn on Honey, a haunted masterclass in pop effervescence and emotional plainspeak. Or maybe that’s something like “Stardust,” the Hoagy Carmichael standard about how love is beautiful but never lasts. Disarming though it may be to hear the future-pop auteur and self-described “fembot” reciting from the dog-eared pages of the Great American Songbook, it’s a trustworthy compass blade for Honey’s lovelorn mood and heart-on-sleeve candor. This music is ravishingly emotional, but it’s also stoically utilitarian and subtly cerebral. It’s made to wash over you, a blissful current of deep feels, but also to provide helpful paradigms for self-care, and even to interrogate pop music’s vocabulary of grieving and resilience. You can enjoy the record on whichever of those levels you like, but what you’re probably going to want to do is just sit with it a while: Honey is a warm cocoon of an album. It offers you space in which to luxuriate. Its greatest virtue is its space-filling, mood-altering presence, guaranteed to change the weather in any room where it’s played.

It’s the first full-length Robyn has made under her own name since 2010’s Body Talk, and its gestation was anything but balmy. There was the death of a musical confrere; romantic dissolution; ongoing psychoanalysis; then at last, reconciliation with her lover. Honey maps it all out with diaristic precision; its nine songs are presented in the order in which they were written, and it’s the rare album that benefits from such a deeply confessional chronology. Its rhythms are those of hurt and healing; self-discovery and sustained vulnerability. It charts an emotional journey, something reflected in how the album blossoms; it’s disconsolate at first, then soul-searching, and in the end sanguine.

Robyn used the album’s themes as incubators for its sound. Her back pages are resplendent with bangers, tight and punchy singles drawn with clean lines and irresistible hooks, some of them shepherded into being with pop ninja Max Martin. (Body Talk was lined with self-contained stunners: “Indestructible,” “Love Kills,” “Time Machine,” etc.) Honey is ostensibly banger-free, though “Between the Lines” at least qualifies as a low-key thumper. (Your taxonomies may vary.) Working with a revolving panel of producers—Martin not among them—Robyn remains a redoubtable practitioner in sparkling pop perfection, but here her four-on-the-floor steeliness is softened; opening song “Missing U” shimmers and glows, its beats seeming to dissolve into glitter as soon as they hit the air. It’s a fitting tactility for a song that portrays a love like stardust, sparkling and ephemeral; “this residue is all I’ve got,” Robyn croons, a fembot rusting in her own tears (and only she could make a word like “residue” glisten the way it does here). “Baby Forgive Me” exemplifies Robyn’s new approach—“soft ecstasy,” she calls it—by unfolding with layer upon delicate layer of ethereal synths and whispered harmonies; it’s quiet but insistent, gentle in its caress but propulsive in its momentum. These songs mirror the singer’s state of mind—vulnerable, unguarded, but still committed to forward motion.

She pairs her new softness with songs that are a little more borderless than usual. She can still draw those clean lines—check the string-swept disco pop “Because It’s in the Music,” an uncorked bottle of wistful nostalgia—but in other instances she works in free form, as on the swirling “Send to Robin Immediately,” which boasts some of her sharpest hooks but is more like a trance than a pop single. The loungy exotica of “Beach2k20” hardly qualifies as a song at all; it’s a vibe, a five-minute working holiday in the world’s hippest elevator. The porousness of these songs has thematic resonance: As “Send to Robin Immediately” fades in she’s still singing the lyrics from “Baby Forgive Me,” suggesting feelings that bleed into each other and don’t always fit into tidy compartments.

Those feelings can be stumbling blocks for the singer. “All these emotions are out of date,” she laments on the heavy-hearted “Human Being,” her red-bloodedness a glowing ember against the song’s android pulse. On “Missing U,” she’s burdened by memories. “Don’t know how to use ‘em,” she admits—yet Honey is ultimately about how you can use brokenness and loss. The melancholy is immersive, especially in the album’s first half, but the point isn’t to wallow; it’s to feel, to give validation to grief, to be changed and to move on. “Baby Forgive Me” comes from a place of contrition, and advocates for generosity and reconciliation over relational politics; “You got the power/ You set the price/ But baby, be fair/ Be nice,” the song pleads. “Send to Robin Immediately” underscores the urgent need for candor: “If you got something to say/ I need to hear it.” (Isn’t it Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that admonishes us not to let the sun go down without confessing the contents of our secret hearts?) Even the tropical holiday in “Beach2k20” has a therapeutic undercurrent: Sometimes the most soothing balm, for a troubled relationship or for precarious mental health, is just to get away.

Though Honey largely skips dancefloor heat in favor of easygoing sways, it’s still very much music nourished by bodily intimacy. That’s true of “Honey,” the album’s fulcrum, an overflow of warm eroticism following the album’s chillier first half, and it’s true in “Human Being,” which finds something tangible and grounding in physical closeness. By extension, Honey is an analysis of how the music that moves our bodies can also move our emotional needle. It gets pretty meta in “Because It’s in the Music,” about the power of a song to conjure unbidden ghosts; this is where “Stardust” is invoked, yet the song slowly becomes its own subject matter, a trigger for pained memories. Honey ends with “Ever Again,” funk that comes on soft and insistent. (The song channels Prince in how its kinetics are so smooth; it’s a body-mover in stealth mode.) Here, all the ghosts are banished; “that shit’s out the door,” Robyn says, then vowing that she’s “never gonna be brokenhearted ever again.” It’s a promise that even she must know can’t be kept, but pop music isn’t first and foremost a place for logic and argument; it’s a place for feeling, and Robyn’s inward-looking pop fantasia earns the right to end with one of the most indelible ones of all—the feeling of being indestructibly in love.

A Remedy for Nothingness: Noname avoids oblivion

room 25

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” the composer John Cage once wrote. “There is always something to see, something to hear.” Is it possible that Fatimah Warner—the 27-year-old Chicago rapper and poet who performs as Noname—meditated on these words while crafting her first proper album, Room 25? Packing a density of ideas into a sleek 34-minute package, the album seems to exist as a repudiation to emptiness. Noname flits from subject to subject, often within the space of a single couplet, and her rich tumble of language avoids the temptation to impose order on political anxiety, sexual vulnerability, or the awkwardness and the sadness that come with growing up. Our brains are conditioned to shutter these things off into discreet hierarchies, but Room 25 arrives as a kind of re-conditioning, an affirmation that all of these things matter, that everything we come across is to the point. If the album is about any one thing, perhaps the critic Briana Younger is right that it’s about coming of age; another way to look at it is that it’s about intersectionality, the overlap of lived realizations. Shunning the nihilism that’s long been hardwired into hip-hop—whether in Wu Tang Clan’s violent fatalism or in Run the Jewels’ embrace of the abyss—Noname’s music doesn’t abide the possibility of meaninglessness. What she does is closer to Outkast’s elevation of black eccentricity, or Beastie Boys’ pan-cultural interconnectedness: She invests everything with the weight of significance, and in doing so reckons joyfully even with fear and trauma, allowing that life as a young black woman is painful but never conceding that it’s senseless. Her album is—to borrow one of her own phrases—“a remedy for nothingness.”

Room 25’s posture of meaningfulness extends even to its purposeful embrace of hip-hop heritage. Noname made the album with producer Phoelix, and together they offer a more robust and varied update on the airy sounds of the Telefone mixtape. Reductive though it may be to liken her to one of the year’s other dynamic ladies of rap, it’s illuminating to consider how Noname’s approach coincides with Cardi B’s; both of them bring unique vision and personality to traditionist hip-hop sensibilities, but where Cardi B’s scaffolding is the big blockbuster rap albums of the early 00s, Noname roots herself in the analog allure of the Soulquarians—think Mama’s Gun or Things Fall Apart. (It’s telling that she name-drops D’Angelo on “Don’t Forget About Me.”) There are subtle psychedelics swirling around the edges of these songs—listen to the orchestral billow that lifts “Window,” or to the flutter of strings that caresses “Regal”—yet there’s nothing flashy or ostentatious about these tracks, most of them built on live band interplay. “Blaxploitation” lives up to its name without any need for horns or congas or chicken-scratch guitar; it’s plenty evocative with just a sleek undercurrent of fat bass, adding up to two tight minutes of low-end theorizing. “Don’t Forget About Me” sounds earthy and moth-eaten with its organ hum and slow handclap percussion, while “Montego Bae” navigates rhythmic twists and turns with the finesse of a samba (or at least Mos Def’s “Casa Bey”). When Noname does engage modern tropes, it’s not through the trap beats of Migos, but rather through the glossy keyboard tones and church-choir harmonies of Chance the Rapper, with whom she’s collaborated repeatedly; consider the glossy fade-in of “Self” or the spacy jazz of “With You.” The record’s lived-in sound is endlessly appealing, but also thematic: What it suggests is that, even as Noname testifies to the joys and sorrows of making her way in the world, she knows she’s walking a trail that’s been well-trod before.

Noname was a poet before she became an MC, and her performances sparkle with crisp enunciation and linguistic invention. She values verbal precision enough that, when she can’t locate a word for the existential dread that keeps black people awake at night, she coins her own (“I’m struggling to simmer down/ maybe I’m an insomni-black”). Such dread darkens the edges of this colorful album, as on “Prayer Song,” where skeletons still rattle in America’s closets: “I was lost but thinking I was truly free/ Darkness lingers in the wake of slavery/ Hold me close, don’t let me fall into the deep.” Ephemerality is an ongoing worry, too. “I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay,” she raps in “Don’t Forget About Me,” but the fear that keeps her up at night isn’t just death—it’s oblivion. Room 25 feels haunted by the ghosts of black people whose bodies were transmuted into gold and tobacco and cotton; and by the women whose testimonies to abuse and injustice have been swept into silence. These are two different kinds of negation, but Room 25 is the portrait of a young artist who chooses joy over abyss. On the brink of erasure, she revels in her own tongue-twisting dexterity, delighting in the sparks that fly as syllables collide (“Penny proud, penny petty pissing off Betty the Boop”). She has sex for the first time, and recounts it with giddy earnestness (“fuckin’ is fantastic”). She does work that she’s proud of (Telefone “saves lives,” we’re told, believably), but turns on a dime to deflate her own self-mythology (“the secret is, I’m actually broken”). And she savors friendship, as on “Ace,” a posse cut with Smino and Saba, one of the gentlest chest-thumps you’ll ever hear (“the radio niggas sound like they wearing adult diapers,” Noname boasts, but mere seconds later she’s moved on to the virtues in vegan cuisine). There is no empty space or empty time on this record; nothing in its web of meaning that scans as cursory or superfluous. “Don’t forget about me,” one song says, and those words hang over the entire record: A remedy for nothingness; an erasure resistance plan.

Legacy & Lineage: Old and new jazz from Joshua Redman; Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas; Brad Mehldau Trio

still dreaming

Joshua Redman’s Still Dreaming tells a story of lineage and legacy. It starts all the way back with Ornette Coleman, the “free jazz” godfather who still daunts neophytes with his reputation for entropy and abrasion. Exposure to his work unveils the alleged rabble-rouser as a tunesmith without equal, and on early classics like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, Coleman pursued an aesthetic equally devoted to free expression and melodic purity. Those early Coleman records use the master’s great tunes as trailheads for idiosyncrasy and invention; they feel both direct and unpredictable, with each player developing a unique personal grammar amidst a tumble of melodies and rhythms. The restless Coleman would eventually be seduced by funk and electronics, but the spirit of those seminal explorations was continued by Old and New Dreams—a group of Coleman alumni that included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell, and saxophonist Dewey Redman. Old and New Dreams were keepers of the flame, perhaps, but they used it as a spark for further combustion. Their albums from the 70s and early 80s carve out new territory within Coleman’s elastic aesthetic; their legacy exists in his shadow, but it also deepens his pioneering vocabulary.

Joshua, as you might have guessed, is Dewey’s son—and though he’s recorded several albums of his own with Coleman/Old and New Dreams veterans, he’s always been aloof in his relationship to his father’s pedigree. The younger Redman is many things, including a deep conceptual thinker, a generous collaborator, and a preeminent balladeer. One thing he’s not is complacent custodian to anyone’s legacy—Coleman’s, his father’s, or anyone else’s.  The great thrill of Still Dreaming, then, is how it reveals the ideals of Old and New Dreams to be eternally renegotiable. This music deliberately engages with a particular sound and tradition but not as a means to preserve it in amber; instead, the saxophonist and his third-generation dreamers blow the dust off familiar conceits, taking a rangy and roaming approach to their springy melodic pursuits. It’s an album about lineage, but only as filtered through their unique and vibrant personalities.

The newest dreamers include Ron Miles on coronet, Brian Blade on drums, and Scott Colley on bass—all three players whose eclecticism both embraces and surpasses jazz traditionalism. (Colley, in particular, is quickly becoming an MVP sideman; see also the twitchy energy he brings to the Nels Cline 4.) Their performances evoke the spontaneous camaraderie and effervescent tunefulness of Old and New Dreams without ever lapsing into tribute-band territory—and as evidence, check their take on Haden’s “Playing,” which served as the title song on Old and New Dreams’ best album. The original began as a speaker-rattling bass rumble, as though it was recorded from deep within a subwoofer, but here it’s recast as mournful dialogue between Redman and Miles before Colley and Blade enter with a nervous-tic pulse. This song and Coleman’s “Comme II Faut” are the only canonical selections here, with everything else composed anew by Redman or his band members—and perhaps it’s telling that the most lovably Coleman-esque song on the whole album is “New Year,” a bubbly Colley composition that opens with a tightly melodic head before each band member peels off into a joyous and ramshackle solo, stretching the tune like it’s taffy but never losing its original shape.

Elsewhere, they recast Old and New Dreams’ lineage in their own image; listen to “Blues for Charlie,” with a smoky romance from Redman that goes down smoother than anything his ancestors ever recorded together, even as its malleable easy-listening is warped and transfigured over the song’s seven-minute run time. This, basically, is the Old and New value proposition: Musicians of extraordinary distinction putting pristine melodies through one mutation after another, bending them against their personal aesthetic preferences. There’s a prickly energy to the whole album, a high-wire tension heard in how Redman and his band fly so high above their melodic safety net, only to find their way back to its reassuring familiarity. You hear it best on “Unanimity,” a Redman composition. The quartet springs headlong into a halting groove, all four of them voicing the song’s buoyant refrain in perfectly stuttered unison, before they unravel it into a frayed jumble: Snaps and pops and rolling thunder from Blade, pliant swing from Colley, horn solos that disassemble the main theme and then jigsaw it back together. Take the song’s title as a mission statement: One of the great pleasures in jazz is hearing individual voices finding common ground, personal freedom wed to like-minded co-creation. It’s a pleasure that Still Dreaming both ratifies and expands.

It’s not the only recent jazz album to renegotiate a prestigious legacy. On a new collaborative album, Norwegians Bugge Wesseltoft and Prins Thomas engage the legacy of ECM Records, the venerated label that’s printed countless classics from Paul Bley, Keith Jarett, Charles Lloyd, and, as luck would have it, Old and New Dreams. ECM is acclaimed for its sound—bright, crisp, and warm—but also for its aesthetic, one that upholds both jazz and classical works and increasingly blurs the distinction between the two. Bugge Wesseltoft & Prins Thomas embraces ECM’s pristine sonics as well as its reputation for elegant synthesis, bringing both into the digital age. (The entire record feels like the answer to a question you hadn’t realized you’d asked: What would the classic ECM aesthetic sound like it augmented with laptop computers?) Wesseltoft is a jazz pianist long conversant with electronica, Thomas a keyboard texturalist indebted to jazz’ looseness and its use of space. Here their sensibilities dissolve into a seamless fusion, one that brings out the best in both artists while also pushing them into new discoveries. There are surprising textural composites here: “Norte do Brasil” sounds like the music of cathedrals as played on the chintziest Casio keyboard, euphoria channeled through washed-out synths. There are unexpected left turns into the back pages of jazz: “Sin Tempo,” intimate minimalism for live piano and drums, flirts with the melancholy and romance of a Bill Evans ballad. “Bar Asfalt” is elevator exotica, Wesseltoft’s piano winding its way through a funhouse of chimes and drum loops. But the album’s 800-pound gorilla is opening song “Furuberget,” an 18-minute shapeshifting groove that encompasses electronica’s layers and loops and the jazz tradition of thematic variation: Sometimes the song dissolves into its own beeps and bloops, only to be respawned as something recognizable yet reimagined. It’s a case study in how music that’s built on the past can still utterly surprise.

And you can’t discuss jazz legacies without talking about one of the music’s preeminent living historians—that is, someone for whom jazz is living history, ever open to reinterpretation. Pianist Brad Mehldau thinks about jazz structurally, comparatively, and taxonomically, not just in his heady liner notes but also in intellectually rich solo piano albums. This year’s reflective After Bach considered classical music through a jazz prism—it would have fit in well in the ECM discography—but his most colorful and kinetic albums are the ones he makes in the trio format. Seymour Reads the Constitution! crackles with energy and swing; it’s the work of a group that’s as comfortable with each other as they are with the lineage they unspool—Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard. There’s no overarching concept here, but the album belongs to the same tradition as Bill Evans’ Portrait in Jazz or Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle—albums that subtly animate the pliable nature of the piano/bass/drums format. Mehldau remains devoted to the porous nature of the jazz canon, here claiming a couple of pop tunes as standards: The trio brings a nimble touch to the folksy flourishes of Paul McCartney’s “Great Day,” and they breeze through The Beach Boys’ waltz “Friends.” There are more canonical standards, too: “Almost Like Being Love” begins with an ambling gait but builds into a whirling dervish of fleet-fingered piano and rumbling drums. These songs map out the physical and intellectual possibilities implicit in the chemistry between three musicians, but the most valuable offerings of all may be Mehldau’s originals: The clattering “Spiral” ascends forever, faster and faster as it goes, while the title song is a tragicomic picaresque, a sly shuffle through melancholy and whimsy. These are some of Mehldau’s most charismatic compositions to date, finding room for distinction in a lineage that stretches on.

As Long as There’s Tread on These Tires: Eric Church learns the hard way

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“Some of it you learn the hard way,” Eric Church sings on Desperate Man, an album that plucks austere truths from tragedy and trauma. He’s got every right to sing about hard knocks. Church had already left town by the time the shootings started at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, but not all of his fans were so lucky; he was wracked by survivor’s guilt, and wrote a song called “Why Not Me” that memorialized a man who was gunned down while wearing an Eric Church T-shirt. He’s also endured breakdowns to his personal health, subjecting himself to painful treatments just to weather the rigors of a heroic touring schedule. No one would blame the man for moping, but dejection’s a non-starter for a guy whose calling card is defiance—and with his back against the wall, he swings harder than ever: Describing himself as “a half-cock, full-tilt, scarred-hands-to-the-hilt, don’t-push-me, grown-ass man,” Church responds to darkness with steely resolve. But that’s just part of the story: Desperate Man is tenacious but also reflective, and Church spends most of it articulating the lessons hard knocks have taught him.

It’s an album about how hardship leaves us clinging to the essentials– and appropriately, it’s the most succinct album he’s ever made. Unexpectedly, after some early albums that felt gangly in their ambition, Church has gotten good at getting to the point. He made Desperate Man with producer Jay Joyce, one of Nashville’s best (see also his work with Brothers Osborne and Emmylou Harris). Joyce has a knack for country recordings that walk a line between no-fuss traditionalism and modern color, and between this one and 2015’s Mr. Misunderstood, he’s condensed Church’s outsider attitude and sly eclecticism. Desperate Man runs a tight 36 minutes, and Church’s prog-rock fantasies only surface once, in the lurching drums and stabs of guitar that interrupt “Drowning Man,” otherwise a desolate country weeper. That song’s not the only time Church indulges in saloon soliloquies here; “Jukebox and a Bar,” one of his warmest and saddest ballads, lays out the desperate man’s survival kit right there in its title. Yet the work Church and Joyce do is never reductive; instead, it’s unostentatiously catholic. They synthesize classic rock sensibilities on “Desperate Man,” Stonesy swagger hotwired to Little Feat’s Dixie funk. Church belts a chunky soul ballad on “Heart Like a Wheel,” and leads his band through a choogling clavinet boogie on “Hangin’ Around.” “The Snake,” acoustic blues caked in Delta mud and analog hiss, is the most unvarnished thing he’s ever recorded, while “Higher Wire” is all atmosphere, a woozy immersion in wailing organ and smoldering guitar licks.

One of Church’s most endearing qualities is how he never acts like he’s too good for country radio (even though he most assuredly is). He’s scaled the charts without compromising his outsider image; he does things his way, and just happens to generate hits along the way. It’s not hard to imagine him finding another one with “Hippie Radio,” a fleet-fingered ramble through classic Pontiacs and FM glory; its multi-generational storytelling finds just the right shade of sepia. Even more perfect is “Some of It,” which stitches together fatherly truisms (“mamma ain’t a shrink, daddy ain’t a bank, and God ain’t a wishing well”) into a song about how most things worth knowing you just have to learn for yourself. This is a master class in country songwriting– a song where concrete particulars add up into something that’s universal (as opposed to general.)

These songs show Church at his best: He has a knack for penning pop-country tunes that update the outlaw aesthetic with sleek hooks and contemporary punch, an ace in the hole that distinguishes him from guys like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton—both excellent songwriters who sometimes seem bound by their traditionalism in a way Church never does. He loves old-time country but he’s not a purist, and he’s internalized country craft well enough that he can bend it to modernity without causing it to break. Maybe the more helpful reference points would be Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves—true-blue country singers each gifted in reinvigorating classic forms. There’s a freedom to these recordings, a comfort both with history and modernity, that opens up plenty of avenues for expression.

And what Church expresses here is heartache and resilience. Like Mr. Misunderstood, Desperate Man has the feel of smudged autobiography; the writing isn’t confessional but it does reflect Church’s emotional state. He condenses existential worry into pithy parables and proverbs; opening song “The Snake” is the working-class cynic’s guide to politics and an oblique reflection of Church’s rock-and-a-hard-place state of mind. The album’s breezier numbers—“Desperate Man,” “Hangin’ Around”—both feel like they’re vamping over the abyss, maintaining their momentum just so as not to curdle into despair. An unfussy spiritualism shows up more than once: “Monsters” is a song about how evil is real, the boogeymen just get scarier as you get older, and sometimes your best defense is to drop to your knees and pray. Meanwhile, “Hippie Radio” taps into another religious impulse, hallowing the connective power of popular song. (Put it in the hymnal next to Maren Morris’ “My Church”—no relation.) Church’s resilience is stoically uncomplicated, and “Solid” vouches for the unglamorous virtue in being grounded: “You may think I’m way too chill/ But I get it done, got my daddy’s will/ And I’ll always, I’ll always keep a promise.” On “Drowning Man,” he responds to a declining national mood with a truer and purer Americana; Lady Liberty may be turning her back, but longneck beers and honky tonk women offer abiding consolation. The least complicated and most affecting sentiment of all is in “Heart Like a Wheel,” about two mismatched lovers who roll the dice and hope for the best. “Over or under, we’ll roll like thunder/ as long as there’s tread on these tires,” Church says. It’s a love song that champions perseverance for its own sake—a simple truth and a valuable lesson for anyone living through desperate days.

All This Useful Beauty: Elvis Costello looks backward to move forward

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There’s a helpful antecedent for Look Now, the first new Elvis Costello album in five years—but it may not be the one you think. True enough: Costello spent the summer of 2017 revisiting songs from Imperial Bedroom, hoping that album’s baroque décor might prove a trailhead for further explorations, and Look Now does share some of that album’s lushness, its elegance, its crisp pop formalism. He’s also likened the new record to Painted from Memory, his winsomely melancholy and darkly romantic 1998 album with Burt Bacharach. Bacharach co-wrote a few songs here, all of which lovingly recall Painted from Memory’s brazen emotion and classicist structures. But the most valuable touchstone of all is Unfaithful Words and Disappearing Ink, the 2015 memoir where Costello consolidated a lifetime’s allegiance to the mechanics of song. Look Now synthesizes, deepens, and expands on ideas from earlier Costello albums, but more impressively, it feels like the musical self-portrait of a songwriter and record-maker who’s always been obsessively devoted to the particulars of his craft. It has the vigor and punch befitting a man who was raised on The Beatles; a sophistication that speaks to his moonlighting as an operettist; tight, tuneful constructions that affirm his adherence to Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building in equal measure. It is masterful and peculiar: An album that builds on everything we know about Elvis Costello while revealing that he can surprise us yet.

Some of that baroque décor has been moved in from Imperial Bedroom, carefully re-arranged to underline emotions and accentuate tunes without ever adding clutter. “I Let the Sun Go Down” bottles whimsy and melancholy, flecked by brass and buoyed by Costello’s cheerful whistling; “Dishonor the Stars” is punchdrunk pop that builds into a sweeping orchestral chorus. Other songs find Costello slipping into his role as earnest piano-side crooner, balladeering with the warmth and sensitivity he mastered on Painted from Memory: “Photographs Can Lie” is anguished melodrama, “Don’t Look Now” a tender sketch of emotional intimacy, Bacharach anchoring both behind the grand piano. These reference points are merely the poles between which Costello unspools boundless color and imagination.

He made the album with producer Sebastian Krys, a Latin pop guru whose gift is finding the breathing room within lavish arrangements; it may be an album where Telecasters share space with celestas and jazz bassoons, but Costello and Krys keep things clear and punchy. Just listen to “Under Lime,” a champagne salute of an album opener, wrestling seven verses and one theatrical flourish after another into a tight five minutes of sleek effervescence. Its propulsion comes courtesy of The Imposters, making their first one-record appearance since 2008’s Momofuku. Drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher supply the swing, and Steve Nieve’s piano gives the song its sparkle.

Their muscle and finesse go a long way toward keeping Look Out visceral. They raise the heat on “Why Won’t Heaven Help Me,” bringing its percolating simmer to a boil, and their red-bloodedness leaves a few dents in the gleaming, airtight grooves of “Burnt Sugar is So Better,” written with Carole King. Regal horns lend elegance to “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” but The Imposters manage to scuff things up a bit with Thomas’ flurry of cymbals and Nieve’s clenched piano groove. They’ve have aided and abetted Costello’s genre-curious eclecticism for decades now, and they’re as game to offer genteel support on “Don’t Look Now” as they are to rumble on “Unwanted Number,” a garage rock thumper festooned with symphonic swirl and snappy girl-group harmonies.

Mastery of form is nothing new for Costello, but Look Now is particularly effective in plumbing the emotional depths of familiar grammars. “Suspect My Tears” is a string-swept mountaintop ballad in the Motown tradition, with lyrics both bitter and empathetic in their chronicle of emotional manipulation (“you’re not the only one who can turn it on,” the protagonist says of his crocodile tears). “Stripping Paper” returns to the domestic conceits of Painted from Memory, here using wallpaper removal as a metaphor for marital dissolution; every strip that’s removed is a painful memory, once so bright but now faded and torn and ready for the waste bin. The song’s silent agony is all the more devastating for its mannered exterior. In the past Costello has sometimes been clever to a fault, but here deploys his wit with strike-team precision, both in the words as well as the arrangements; notice how much “I Let the Sun Go Down,” which surveys the wreckage of Brexit and mourns the slow crumble of Britain, recalls the pastel-colored music hall of Sgt. Pepper, a landmark of English nostalgia.

There are dark moments here: “Under Lime” brings Jimmie—the wannabe London cowboy from National Ransom—into the #metoo era, unmasking him as a predator passing for a gentleman. Costello dispenses with him cheerfully (“it’s a long way down from the high horse you’re on”), and lingers long on his compassion for Jimmie’s victims. In “Photographs Can Lie,” a daughter is shattered at the glimpse of an old family snapshot, ruing that her father isn’t the man she’d always imagined him to be. “He’s Given Me Things,” perhaps the creepiest closing song of any Elvis Costello album, is a twisted Gosford Park scenario set as a haunted, stately ballad: Here a mistress is elevated to privilege through a tryst with a rich man, and the tangle of shame, sex, and class warfare that ensues is worthy of a Jarvis Cocker album. (“He has an awful lot of money,” the woman says of her redeemer. “The past can be bought—and then erased.”)

Yet as Costello’s wit matures into wisdom, his once-legendary snarl has been replaced with a deep well of compassion: For the darkness at the edge of these songs, there’s also real empathy for the characters. “Unwanted Number” is a song about an unmarried mother navigating a thicket of slanderous rumors; Costello says he initially saw her as a victim, but his assessment changed after the song was finished, and he came to see it as a celebration of the selfless love she gives to her child, despite receiving so little love of her own. And in “Don’t Look Now,” a wife trembles in vulnerability at the thought of her husband’s stare, even as she wants so badly to be the object of his affection. The act of looking is a big part of what the record is about, even its title exhorting the investment of our gaze and consideration; in its sumptuous surfaces and empathetic songs, Costello proves again and again the value in paying attention.

Dig in the Dirt for Light: The surprising excavations of Sam Phillips

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Some songwriters you picture standing on stage holding an acoustic guitar, or dutifully stationed behind a grand piano. Sam Phillips you might imagine wearing a headlamp and wielding a pickaxe. On her many lovely and distinctive albums, truth and mercy lie sparkling and precious, buried beneath rubble and mire, there for anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and extricate them. “Dig, baby,” she exhorted us on 2004’s A Boot and a Shoe. “Let’s excavate the surface.” And now, on her new World on Sticks, she declares her intention to “dig in the dirt for light”—a line so quintessentially Sam Phillips, it might as well be the title of her memoir. She has always believed in deeper realities and unseen good; she has always been about the business of excavation.

World on Sticks joins a lineage of albums that haul that unseen good to the surface, mining grace notes from the most unexpected places. On The Turning, it was a crisis of faith; on A Boot and a Shoe and Don’t Do Anything, romantic dissolution. For her first set of songs since 2013’s Push Any Button, Phillips is writing in a more prophetic office, surveying the ravaging effects of unchecked prosperity and unencumbered freedom. It’s an album about how greed and capital strangle our connections to each other, to the environment, to any broader sense of mystery; about how limitlessness can be imprisoning, and desiring more and more satisfies less and less. “I want what I can’t have,” coos Phillips in a slinky, rattlesnake groove called “Continuous Limit,” dissatisfaction springing eternal. But the diagnosis is followed by a word of wisdom: “You don’t have to make a living when you’re alive/ You don’t have to make a killing before you die.” At every turn, the album resists materialism as a dead-end and a mirage; it sifts through ephemera for truth that will last.

This is weighty subject matter, but Phillips has made a career out of defying gravity. A specialist in pure pop, she has an easy way with melody that lends many of her albums summer soundtrack status, while her ear for breezy vocal hooks has won her steady work composing for shows like Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her songs are always deliriously tuneful and terse, but what she never gets enough credit for is her role as the preeminent pop tinker. Ever since she started producing her own records Phillips has displayed an impish zeal for playing around with different tones and colors, and on World on Sticks she schemes a high wire balancing act between the tight-knit band alchemy that made Push Any Button crackle and the lush orchestrations of a string ensemble. The band includes Chris Bruce on guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass, and drummer of drummers Jay Bellerose on all things that shake and rattle; the strings are arranged by Eric Gorfain and played by The Section Quartet. It’s an alchemic match-up that combines the punchy energy of rock and roll with the intimacy of torch songs, and it results in visceral pleasures as well as impressionistic effects. “World on Sticks” is a study in melody, groove, and noise, Bellerose unleashing some of his most thunderous playing, punctuated by squalls of loose electricity. The bleary “Teilhard,” meanwhile, is a wind tunnel of rustling acoustic strings and clanking percussion. On the mournful “Tears on the Ground,” strings fall like shadows across a winding road, while on “Roll ‘Em,” a song about a sociopath, they create a black hole down which the singer disappears. All of these songs are uniquely evocative; all are impeccably succinct, hook-filled, and buoyant.

They chronicle failed connections, intangible realities all but abandoned to material concerns. There are lost connections to the natural world; on the spare and urgent opener, “Walking Trees,” Phillips contrasts the patient wisdom of the planet to the rootlessness of its inhabitants: “If we could find one place, we’d grow the roots down/ But we’re like walking trees/ We can’t stay in the ground/ If we could always keep moving and never stay where we are/ We’d have to hold to the underground to reach up to the stars.” (Remember on Fan Dance, when she sang that “God is growing underground”?) There’s also “Tears on the Ground,” which mourns for a world that can only endure so much negligence and abuse: “The Earth has fever in her angry eyes/ Fires make the waters rise/ As we’re watching her gardens die/ The future’s falling from our eyes.” Phillips’ songs cast our lost connection to the world around us as an act of profound self-destruction. But there are also songs about being lost to the self; “Roll ‘Em” is a dark confession of ruthlessness, the frank admission of someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; the plucky “I Want to Be You” is just as disturbing, a dispassionate song of self-estrangement. All of these songs are, on some level, about lost connection to objective reality itself, but none more explicitly than “How Much Is Enough,” which quietly rages against our era of epistemological murk: “Someone keeps giving out the wrong numbers/ We’re not supposed to know what’s true.”

Phillips’ lyrics are littered with signs of the times—or “signposts in a strange land,” as she once called them. “American Landfill Kings,” about an empire built on garbage, seems at first like a return to the moral witness of “Black Sky” and “Same Changes,” withering blasts of conscience that Phillips has largely backed away from in favor of songs that riddle and tease, suggest and provoke. Yet even a song like this one, with its sinister hurdy-gurdy rhythm, is scalpel-sharp in its diagnosis; it’s a snapshot of a culture of hoarders, where an obsession with collected junk reflects internal entropy and disarray. Its humor is mirthless and bleak—but remember Phillip’s mission statement: She’s digging in the dirt for light, and on the album’s final song she unearths some. It’s hard to hear the string-swept benediction, “Candles and Stars,” without thinking of A Boot and a Shoe’s “Reflecting Light,” maybe the most cherished of all Sam Phillips songs. Both are about the paradox of grace, how it can only be channeled through flawed and broken vessels. But where she had “worn out the world” on that earlier song, here she has no such luxury; on a planet cannibalizing itself, our only hope lies in reconnection. Atop stately piano and thumping percussion, Phillips sings: “If only with candles and with stars/ and broken light from dreams like ours/ we will still find the way through/ to love.” The song is just a glimmer shining through rubble– the kind of light Phillips has spent her entire career digging for.