Now That I Know You So Well: Julia Jacklin and the perils of proximity

Crushing

In his song “Right Moves,” Josh Ritter sings about two far-flung lovers, driven apart by what he calls “the comedy of distance” and “the tragedy of separation.” These are two helpful categories for understanding romantic plight, but the songs of Julia Jacklin call for a third one—call it the peril of proximity. On her bruised and thorny album Crushing, the Australian singer and songwriter picks apart intimacy’s inevitable complications. For her characters, love is an act of entanglement, requiring the surrender of privacy, autonomy, and control. They get their toes stepped on, their personal space violated, their sense of identity eroded. Jacklin’s songs—most of them set either just before or just after a breakup—are all about what real vulnerability costs, and about how hard it is to ever fully extricate yourself from love’s briar patch. But while Crushing unfolds against a backdrop of romantic wreckage, it’s not exactly right to say that the album is a document of heartbreak; it’s more like a chronicle of attempted reclamation.

Then again, reclaiming the self isn’t always easy. Take it from the woman in “Body,” which opens the album with a slow burn and the dreadful sense of inevitability. The woman has just broken up with her boyfriend, and panics to remember that he has a compromising photo of her—something he could use to shame her. “Well, it’s just my life/ and it’s just my body,” Jacklin sighs, but the ominous implication is that these things aren’t completely hers at all, and perhaps never will be again; she’s given a piece of herself away and can’t take it back. But if familiarity makes it tough to sever ties, it can also make it painful to stay. “Don’t know how to keep loving you/ Now that I know you so well,” Jacklin sings later in the album. She’s distressed by a romance that’s settled into routine, and while disentanglement can seem wrenching, devotion may be harder still.

On Crushing, love isn’t just a matter of emotions but of flesh and bone and physical space. Sometimes, that’s burdensome. In “Head Alone,” Jacklin sings about wanting to be loved in ways that aren’t just carnal, to have a reprieve from infatuation’s fumbling hands; “I don’t wanna be touched all the time,” she sings. “I raised my body up to be mine.” That word body comes up repeatedly—11 times in the first two songs, Lindsay Zoladz calculates—and more often than not it represents the tension between ceding your autonomy to someone else and claiming ownership of something that’s yours alone. The woman in “Pressure to Party” is urged to hit the club and dance her broken heart away, but she’s not ready; she doesn’t have her “body back,” she says, an alien in her own skin. That same phrase shows up elsewhere, when Jacklin sings that she’s “headed to the city to get her body back,” as if embarking on a holy pilgrimage to rediscover her independent, unentangled self.

Given the incarnational slant of Jacklin’s writing, it’s only fitting that the sound of Crushing is delicate, tactile, physical. Working with producer Burke Reid, she lends these songs clarity and warmth, to the point where you can hear the piano bench creaking in the whispered reverie of “When the Family Flies In,” and the rustling hum of acoustic guitar strings in “Convention.” A few songs work up a rickety rock and roll energy: “Pressure to Party” jangles and pulses with the DIY clatter of 80s college rock, while “Head Alone” chimes and surges like something Lucy Dacus and her boygenius troupe might conceive. “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” the album’s simmering fulcrum, sticks to the low embers of the blues, complete with a grinding electric guitar solo. Though Jacklin’s songs occasionally reach brisk tempos, most unfold slowly and steadily. This, too, feels fitting: These songs bear witness to how easily hearts and lives and bodies can be damaged, and Jacklin’s deliberateness suggests that she knows how important it is to handle delicate things with care.

Of course, even the most fastidious lovers can find their efforts come to ruin, but another parallel between Jacklin and Dacus is that they both seem less interested in cataloging heartbreak then in considering post-heartbreak narratives. “I’m not a good woman when you’re around,” says the character in “Body,” seizing romantic dissolution as a chance to regain her true identity.  Yet in “Good Guy,” Jacklin gives voice to the corruptor: “I don’t care for the truth when I’m lonely,” she admits, and then assures her partner that he’s “still a good guy,” no matter the compromised circumstances of their union. She’s granting him permission to tell a certain story about himself, no matter how much or how little his actions bear it out. Entering into love’s entanglement means allowing yourself to be changed, your sense of self blurred—which means extrication can offer a blank slate. “Who will I be, now that you’re no longer next to me?” Jacklin wonders in “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” as if hitting her own reset button following a romantic dead end. But the blank slate gives and it takes away. In the haunted closer, “Comfort,” Jacklin hopes the best for an ex-paramour, and wishes she could tell him everything’s going to be okay. “But that’s what you get,” she says to herself. “You can’t be the one to hold him when you were the one who left.” Now unentangled, she can have her body and her self back; she can be who she wants to be. But at what cost?

Through the Gateway: Julian Lage goes exploring

lovehurts

Jazz enthusiasts, like any other religious converts, can often tell you the exact moment they were radicalized. Perhaps it was through early exposure to Kind of Blue; a chance encounter with Time Out; even a soul-shaking rendezvous with Art Blakey’s Moanin’. It’s no knock against guitarist Julian Lage’s crackling, exploratory album Love Hurts to say that it will probably never reach such rarified stature as those venerated classics, yet one of its great joys is the totally reasonable notion that it could be that kind of album for someone—a gateway drug, a point of entry. That’s a distinction it reaches through infectious energy and careful equilibrium. Love Hurts is deep and wide enough that it nobly and effectively evinces the richness of the jazz tradition, yet it’s also tight, tuneful, and seldom demanding—an album that welcomes even the uninitiated with pleasures both visceral and intellectual.

That’s not the only sense in which you could call it a gateway album; it’s a gateway for Lage himself, a wanderer and a roamer for whom improvisational music is the launchpad, not the final destination. On Love Hurts, he uses the jazz tradition as a portal, a trailhead for further explorations; the final chapter in a loose trilogy of guitar trio albums, it codifies his porous, catholic take on the form, one that subsumes the brash rumble of embryonic rock and roll, the clean lines and evocative formalism of the Great American Songbook, and the rustic solitude of folk music. This is the pluckiest entry in a trifecta that also includes the well-regarded Arclight and Modern Lore, and its restlessness may be attributable both to a change of venue and of personnel. Lage cut this set at The Loft—the Chicago studio that’s gestated many a Wilco and Jeff Tweedy joint—and his guitar heroics are anchored by the cool fretwork of bassist Jorge Roeder and the mighty wallop of Bad Plus drummer Dave King. Both share Lage’s zeal for discovery, and King in particular stands unequalled for his complement of nimble swing and blunt-force power. Their natural rapport generates first-take immediacy; indeed, Love Hurts was recorded live in just a day and a half.

The trio’s combustible chemistry is the rocket fuel for these hungry performances. A razor-sharp take on Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow is the Question” trades the original’s brassy buoyancy for cutthroat thrills—a high-speed chase down a tightrope wire. More raucous still is a haywire reading of Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” which sounds like the whole band’s tumbling down a spiral staircase, Lage shredding his way to the bottom and King’s snap crackle and pop illuminating every step along the way. These intuitive experiments in locomotion provide the album with plenty of flash, but Lage also knows when to lay back and let the melodies speak for themselves. A former child prodigy, he learned a long time ago that pure technique only carries you so far, and he brings a hymn-like austerity to the title cut, a song associated the likes of The Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris. Lage lingers over every note, as if probing for maximum anguish and melancholy, and the song finds its cognate in a smoky, album-closing version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” played with the same sparkling clarity. These songs capture the same vast frontier solitude you might here on an album by William Tyler.

They also point to Lage’s standing as a folklorist, a collector of American songs who is untroubled by genre or orthodoxy. He’s interested in songs with rich lineages, and to that end he also uncrumples the dog-eared standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” played with lilting romance and soft-shoe charm. His only writing credit is for a song called “In Circles,” a ghostly ballad that loops back on itself like a serpent eating its own tail. It’s an exercise in discovery, the band feeling their way through the parameters of this unvetted text, and it finds a companion in the album-opening “In Heaven”—a David Lynch fever dream with which Lage claims a certain level of obsession. As Lage unfolds the song’s elegiac melody, his clean guitar lines are caught in a cloud of static smudge—but then the song opens up into the ambling pace of Roeder’s bass, crisp cymbal pops from King, and smoldering blues wrung from Lage’s guitar. Like so much of Love Hurts, it feels like equipoise—familiar sounds enlivened with the thrill of shared discovery; as evocative as it is accessible.

Takes an Army Just to Bend Her: On the ever-changing and undefined Patty Griffin

patty

Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself. Coming 22 years into her recording career, it’s a choice that can’t help but feel consequential, raising the specter of candid autobiography, or at the very least some kind of Rosebud moment. The album’s mosaic of stories, fantasies, dreams, and confessions doesn’t exactly add up to a memoir, but it does offer a robust meditation on the nature of self— on identity as something that’s foisted on us by destiny, but also forged through the decisions we make. “No matter where I go/ I can’t escape who I am— or forget,” Griffin sings on “Where I Come From,” a song about how you can run away from home but you can never escape where you come from. The album is concerned with those parts of the self that can’t be evaded—hardships overcome, scars earned, consequences lived with. As U2 might put it, it’s an album about all that you can’t leave behind.

Griffin recently weathered a hardship of her own: She survived cancer to make this album, something that’s never mentioned directly but brings focus to these ruminations on where she’s been and what she’s become. The cloud-bursting piano reverie “Luminous Places” is her moment of Zen: reflecting on a life devoted to song, Griffin is thankful for all the long highways she’s traversed, even as she knows her fate is to become “just another voice in the wind.” Considerably feistier is “Hourglass,” where a punch-drunk brass band punctuates Griffin’s reflections on immortality (“the hourglass never really runs out of sand/ you get to the end and you just turn it upside down again”). And over the stately churn of “River,” she hymns an ancient and mysterious reservoir of feminine strength: “She’s been left for dead a million times/ Keeps coming home, arms open wide/ Ever-changing and undefined.” She could be singing about any or every woman, but there’s comfort in thinking she’s singing about herself, marveling at a resilience she never realized she had in her.

There’s another way in which it feels right for this album to be self-titled: With quiet confidence, it consolidates all the strengths Griffin’s developed as a record-maker. She cut the album in her Austin residence with a small cohort of collaborators—producer Craig Ross, guitarist David Pulkingham, noted harmonist Robert Plant— and though it never strays from its homemade intimacy, it has the feel of a travelogue, an encapsulation of her journey to date. You can hear some of the rawness of her Living with Ghosts era on “River” and “Where I Come From,” two songs that lean into the rustle of acoustic guitar strings and the grain in the singer’s voice. But these songs aren’t retreads so much as refinements: “River” courses and swells through an orchestral undertow learned from Nick Drake albums, while the galloping “Where I Come From” is visited by a spectral choir, haunting Griffin’s thoughts in wordless solidarity. Griffin’s been at this long enough that she knows how much strength there is in doing a lot with a little, and the record’s most atmospheric effects are achieved through simplicity: “Bluebeard” is heavy with ominous storm clouds, conjured with nothing more than the drone and hum of acoustic guitar strumming, while “The Wheel” is a loping blues so limber and live-in, it sounds like it’s caked in Delta mud. There is evocative scene-setting throughout the album, nodding back to the porous Americana of Impossible Dream and Children Running Through: A high-and-lonesome Spanish guitar makes “Mama’s Worried” sound like it was recorded in the same border town where Willie Nelson made Teatro, and “Hourglass” lurches and tips like it’s wobbling down Bourbon Street.

The women in Griffin’s stories grapple with a world that’s vast and capricious, and it’s often symbolized here by nature itself. Rivers flow through these songs, and on “Hourglass,” they represent all the things Griffin’s protagonist is taught to fear. She doesn’t buy in: “I knew all along that that just wasn’t me/ I was swimming in the river with ghosts and debris.” Of course, Griffin has made a career out of diving headlong into the treacherous ebb of memory, but her courage is offset with moments of uncertainty. In the ghostly trance of “What Now,” our narrator seeks counsel and direction from the sea itself, and is met with roaring indifference. But like the preeminent naturalist Neko Case, Griffin seems to favor the idea that the natural world sides with the vulnerable and the oppressed. In the ghastly murder ballad “Bluebeard,” the protagonist takes up with a bloodthirsty brute; when she glimpses the dark abattoir of his heart she speaks up and nearly pays the price, but the ocean itself comes to her rescue, swallowing the evildoer whole. She’s a “maiden no more,” Griffin wryly observes, baptized by fire into a whole new identity.

But not many of the women on Patty Griffin have natural forces come to their aid; most are left to make the most of whatever hand they’re dealt. On several songs, dire situations are forced on them by men, who exist on this album mostly to cause trouble. There’s Bluebeard, of course, but also an unnamed lothario in “What I Remember,” who sweeps our heroine off her feet but then puts something in her drink. Griffin plays it like a tattered page from the Great American Songbook, and narrates the woman’s bleary recollections piece by painful piece. (“Here’s what I remember/ it really was that tender.”) And for the working-class mother in “Mama’s Worried,” men are just the beginning of her troubles; her husband has disappeared, leaving her with bills to pay and mouths to feed. She bears her burden with stoicism and hopes no one sees how much she’s hurting, but her daughter quietly takes it all in. Like Over the Rhine, Griffin reminds us that nothing goes unseen.

These characters are pressed but not crushed, oppressed but not despairing, and the album doesn’t linger on their circumstances so much as it highlights what they make of them. Like Griffin’s titular “River,” each woman here carves a “crooked line,” one equally informed by choice and destiny, and most have epiphanies of their true mettle. (“Takes an army just to bend her,” goes one awestruck line.) The subtlest and most stirring epiphany comes from the narrator in “Had a Good Reason”—a professional singer who, years after the fact, is still wrestling with maternal abandonment. “I used to think it might be who I am,” she admits. “Maybe who I am wasn’t right.” But now she knows better—and though she may still trace her scars, she knows they’re just part of who she is, and who she’s still becoming.

The Light of All We’ve Lost: Over the Rhine gets taken for everything

love and revelation

The first thing you should know about Over the Rhine: All their favorite people are broken. They’ve spent the last decade closing most of their concerts with a song proclaiming as much, and on Love & Revelation— the first new Over the Rhine collection in close to six years— the prognosis doesn’t seem markedly improved. “I can fix anything except for me,” sings Karin Bergquist on the rough and tumble opener, “Los Lunas,” and what follows is a tender, album-length meditation on all things unfixable— broken love, crumbled empires, breached faith, bodies plundered by sickness and death. Love & Revelation is an album buffeted by trials, hounded by loss, stricken by a grim national mood; to the band’s enormous credit, it’s also unflinching and unsentimental. The wisdom of this record is how it chooses to abide sorrow, sitting with it, letting it linger; the aim isn’t to wallow but to acknowledge, to speak pain out loud, perhaps to be surprised by joy and healing. It’s an approach that bears fruit, as these songs are alit with moments of grace. “Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” Bergquist wonders on “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved),” the album’s hushed denouement. After 30 years praising the mutilated world, Over the Rhine knows good and well that irrevocable loss is part of the deal; what they have to offer is the small mercy of bearing a terminal diagnosis together, perhaps even holding their hand out and offering a steady sway.

A second thing to know about Over the Rhine is that they are specialists. With a few charmingly offbeat exceptions— the Technicolor dreams of Films for Radio, the buoyant brass in The Trumpet Child— they make records hallowed with slow, sad songs. The gamble of this self-produced album is that it leans into that aesthetic perhaps more than any other Over the Rhine record. That’s a feature, not a bug, and what you’re hearing is familiarity, not formula. Some of these songs they’ve been stretching out in their live concerts for years, and the resulting recordings feel as comfortable and lived-in as a favorite pair of blue jeans, all the stiffness long worn away. It’s not hard to imagine an embryonic version of “Los Lunas” that was tighter and stiffer in its spiked country-rock; the version here doesn’t rock so much as it rolls, its dusty drawl assured and endlessly appealing.

Though Over the Rhine has long pared down to the central chemistry of Bergquist and husband Linford Detweiler, this marks their third record in a row supported by their Band of Sweethearts posse— synergistic studio pros Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keys), and multi-purpose guitar heroes Greg Leisz and Bradley Meinerding. Sensei Joe Henry, the original convener of the Sweethearts, is absent in body but present in spirit, and it’s to him that the album’s title is attributed. Detweiler’s piano, the anchor of so many classic Over the Rhine records, largely cedes the spotlight to the quiver and thrum of the guitars, which fill these lonely rooms with whispered memory and ghostly glimmers. You can practically feel those ghosts roaming through you on the spectral “Given Road,” where the pedal steel’s high-and-lonesome moan sends shivers and chill bumps. “Making Pictures”— the photo negative to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”— comes on as warm and gentle as spring’s thaw, while “Rocking Chair” lives up to its title with an easygoing front-porch gait. These songs are crafted so carefully and played with such gentleness and affection they sound like lost Over the Rhine classics, and Bergquist—with so many show-stopping vocal pyrotechnics already on her resume—mostly sticks to small gestures, quiet blues, magnetic intimacy; she’s the low-key MVP. There are some winsome surprises on offer, too: Detweiler and Bergquist blend their voices with sumptuous strings on “Let You Down,” wistful pop that’s as consoling as a favorite afghan. The title cut, where Bergquist sings over a cool rumble from Bellerose and Condos, hints at an alternate universe where Over the Rhine made it big as a drum n’ bass duo.

“Love & Revelation” is an outlier in another way, too: Amidst songs of experience, it sounds more like a song of resistance, Bergquist pledging her sedition from a semi-automatic Jesus (“they’d arm him to the teeth, but that’s not my belief”). The song suggests waywardness among the Good Shepherd’s sheep, making it an effective keynote for a record about holy and consecrated things gone to spoil—covenants broken, the human frame ravaged by time. Time does what it does on “Leavin’ Days,” and Bergquist lodges a psalm of lament born from saying one too many goodbyes (“I don’t like these leavin’ days”). Grief hangs heavy over “Given Road” (“I just miss the one that loved me”) and “Broken Angels” (“I want to take a break from heartache/ drive away from all the tears I’ve cried”), while “Let You Down” wrestles with things falling apart (“everything feels lost/ so lost it never can be found”). Bergquist cries a trail of tears on “Los Lunas,” a goodbye that’s wry with both acceptance (“one of us had to be gone”) and regret (“should’ve moved to Pasadena when we had the chance”).

These songs are plainspoken in their sorrow, but there is a third thing you should know about Over the Rhine: While they’ve never promised the leavin’ days weren’t going to come, they have long emphasized that none of us have to face them alone. They ratify their fellowship and solidarity again on Love & Revelation, tapping into a deep reserve of empathy that only comes through years of paying dues and saying goodbyes. “You can bet I’ll stick around,” offers Detweiler on “Let You Down,” and it’s a commitment made with eyes fully open; there are no delusions here about just how deep in the shit you can be. But if Over the Rhine’s body of work proves anything, it’s that deep shit can be a conduit for amazing grace; the album’s other Detweiler-led song, “Betting on the Muse,” unpacks the artist’s toolbox for turning darkness into light. Here’s what you’ll need: Eyes open to “all this blinding beauty” around you, a capacity for astonishment, a childlike sense of wonder, the laughter of recognition, and strength enough to weather whatever drubbings come your way. (“You’ve got to get taken for everything/ to have anything to give,” Detweiler notes; is this the opposite of Bono’s truism that “every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief?”). Meanwhile, in “Making Pictures,” Bergquist pledges that “nothing goes unseen”—a reminder, perhaps, that pain isn’t wasted and everything exists within the scope of redemption. (Amy Helm paraphrase: “This too shall light.”) The album wraps up with a pronouncement of blessing, a frayed and whispered Detweiler composition called “May God Love You (“Like You’ve Never Been Loved).” It’s a bruised benediction for Over the Rhine’s favorite people: “We’re not curable, but we’re treatable/ and that’s why I still sing,” confesses Bergquist. So maybe Love & Revelation isn’t going to fix what’s broken; but at the very least, it finds some light in all we’ve lost.

The Unsettled Past: Revisionist histories from Liz Brasher, Yola, & Adia Victoria

silences

The past is unsettled. It’s not recounted so much as interpreted, and on a trio of distinguished albums by dynamic singer/songwriters, interpretation is exactly what you got—three different visions of the rich American roots lineage, all filtered through personal experience and seen through the lens of modernity. Liz Brasher’s Painted Image salutes the music of Memphis in an act of sophisticated synthesis and loving pastiche. Yola’s Walk Through Fire channels country and soul through immaculate studio-craft and stylized arrangements. And Adia Victoria’s Silences kicks the blues tradition down a rickety set of stairs and into a haunted house of her own diabolical invention. In a roots scene that’s sometimes bogged down by questions of authenticity, these albums are refreshing for choosing slanted imagination over historic replica. That all three are made by authoritative women of color—too often excluded from these idioms—is a bonus of considerable magnitude.

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You could call Brasher’s album a study in tangled roots. A church singer by training, she grew up in North Carolina but decamped to Memphis for the Painted Image sessions, and the result is a sumptuous consolidation of the city’s robust musical pedigree. The cavernous spaces of Sun, the tight rhythms of Hi, the raucous melisma of the gospel tradition, the wee-small-hours heartache of the blues—all of the pieces are here, but they’re not always arranged in the way you’d expect them to be. Brasher brings an outsider’s love but no binding allegiance to Memphis culture, which frees her to play it straight and play it loose in equal measure. Songs like “Blood of the Lamb,” which opens the album with the hazy hum of an organ, the low moan of a brass section, and the reverberant crawl of an electric guitar, hint at roads not taken, suggesting Brasher could spend a career slinking and belting her way through tightly-framed retro soul. She’s even better on the roiling, string-soaked “Cold Baby,” a song of romantic dissolution so tremulous and fraught, it sounds like the center won’t hold and the whole thing could at any moment implode. These are expressive, emotionally weighty reproductions of classic tropes, but Brasher throws some curveballs with “Hand on the Plow,” which sounds like Willie Mitchell’s percolating grooves as interpreted by Steely Dan, and “Every Day,” where the horns return for a high-and-lonesome Mariachi fanfare—a geographic detour but also an effective accent piece to the atmospheric and forlorn songs that surround it. “Painted Image” closes the album with chamber strings and a Spanish guitar, but rather than offering a genteel denouement, Brasher casts it as an echoing, impressionistic fever dream—woozy immersion in longing and regret.

There are plenty of both of those things in Brasher’s songs, all originals and often with lyrics that are as conflicted as her arrangements are sure-footed. Many of them chronicle inflection points, lovers forced to either grip harder or let go of their fraying bond. (“Don’t you know ‘maybe’ never saved no one?” she asks in “Moon Baby,” haunted pop that shimmers and insinuates.) The songs where she sounds surest happen to be the ones forged in gospel resolve. She’s comfortable enough with her faith vocabulary to spin a few sly jokes (“pillar of salt in my lot”) but also to use it as her compass blade and guiding light: “Laid my life down at the throne/ and I ain’t going back no more,” she sings on “Hand to the Plow,” a song of perseverance and a reminder that you gotta serve somebody. To that end, the Pentecostal clap-along “Living Water” sounds like it’s about Jesus, but the spectral “Heaven and Earth” has its scale tipped terrestrially. Here Brasher longs to love and be loved in both body and soul, and whatever whispered mysticism is there gets swallowed up by the howling carnality. It’s the lynchpin for an album that’s anchored in a particular piece of soil but exists to both ennoble and transcend it.

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Brasher isn’t the only one whose love of American roots idioms is adoptive. The woman born Yola Carter hails from Britain but carries a torch for classic C&W, which might explain why her debut Walk Through Fire filters extravagant countrypolitan lushness through the baroque constructions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She made the album with producer Dan Auerbach, who has a knack for scrupulous studio constructions that are richly detailed but also spacious and funky—see also his underacknowledged Dr. John team-up, Locked Down—and Walk Through Fire features a murderer’s row of studio talents that range from bluegrass virtuosos to veteran Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley sidemen. What they conjure here is an airy yet ornate interpretation of classic country/soul, often assembled with the same intricacy and care you’d find in any given frame of a Wes Anderson film. Album opener “Faraway Look” has sighing strings, twinkling harpsichord, chiming bells, even little flecks of brass—and if that sounds a shade too twee, it’s only because you haven’t heard the Richter-scale force Yola can summon when she sings. Pictured on the album cover with an acoustic guitar in hand, her image faintly recalls truth-telling poet-warriors like Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perceptions that the album’s soft edges only slightly dispel. She’s a magnetic force, a singer of regal clarity and curlicued precision but also thunderous power; on the verses of “Faraway Look” she plays the calm at the center of the storm, but by the time the supersized chorus sweeps in she’s turned into a tempest. Her magnitudinous boom makes it clear early on that the album’s delicacy won’t scan as anemic gentility, and the rest of the songs bear her out. Each one is a delicate jewel, even (or especially) the ones that work up a little rustic grit: Listen to the sawing fiddles and harmonica on “Walk Through Fire,” little embers of twang that gradually get fanned into an all-consuming flame. Yola has an easy way with a melody, and her lavish arrangements are complimented by tunes that are simple and direct: “Ride Out in the Country” sounds every bit like a breezy car ride on a warm spring day, while “It Ain’t Easier” finds breathing room within layers of fiddle and steel guitar—a wispy country weeper. She also exhibits a vast formal command, easily building “Lonely the Night” from a simmering Delta groove into a gleaming Phil Specter chorus, and packing maximum emotion into a tight package on “Keep Me Here,” a lovelorn saloon song where she gets tears in her beer and a vocal assist from the great Vince Gill.

Just as Yola’s voice holds both gale-force weather and judicious restraint, her songwriting carves space for resonant strength and harrowing vulnerability. There’s no question that this is a heartache album, full of long nights and bitter regrets; Yola’s characters toss and turn in their beds, they talk to shadows, and they desperately try to stave off the ebb of memory. (In interviews to promote the album, she’s been frank about her survival of an abusive relationship.) Her gift is for plainspeak, but her songs are littered with carefully-sprung bear traps; “Ride Out in the Country” sounds at first like a simple confession about going somewhere to forget a broken heart, but of course it’s not so simple at all: “Falling out of love with you/ It’s not an easy thing to do/ But you don’t care about me, baby.” Such knife-twists are manifold, and they’re always deployed with disarming frankness; “That faraway look in your eyes/ is getting harder to disguise,” she sings in the opening song, quietly appraising a love grown cold. But if Walk Through Fire is an album of brokenness, it’s also a catalyst for healing: It was a house fire that turned Yola’s world to rubble and precipitated these new songs, and she turns the experience into a potent metaphor for weathering seasons of intense trial. “The red hot coals are calling/ And I know it’s the only way/ There ain’t no use in prolonging/ The fact that I just can’t stay,” she sings, seeking forward motion even when it’s painful. These aren’t new metaphors, of course, but what makes Yola so compelling is how she makes everything here feel like it’s part of her story, even as she uses the vocabulary of all the firewalkers who have gone before her.

***

Boldest of all is Silences, from the startlingly visionary and self-assured poet, singer, guitarist, and blues insurrectionist Adia Victoria. She’s spoken openly about how the blues idiom was the prototype for punk and about how her mission is to restore its sense of danger, talking points she shares with many an old-timey twelve-bar revivalist—only she actually means it, and proves in on this uncompromising set of music. She enlisted The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce, and together they transmute Skip James’ haunted austerity, Robert Johnson’s ghost stories, Howlin’ Wolf’s ribald exuberance, and Ma Rainey’s rural vernacular into something bracingly contemporary. On paper it may not read much like traditional blues, yet as it plays it never sounds like it could be anything else: Bernard Herrmann string cues, chilly electronics, woodwind thrum, shards of electric guitar fuzz, and sinister trip-hop beats work together to lurch and howl, lull and menace. You can hear a few quick bars of finger-picked acoustic guitar at the start of “Bring Her Back,” but that droning loop quickly builds into a heady swirl of drums, skronking brass, and alien keyboard effects. It’s merely one of the most obvious bridges between past and future, and its counterpart is the roaring late-album highlight “Dope Queen Blues,” where a clenched stride piano motif is torn and frayed by hissing electronics and spritely horns. Victoria knows the blues well enough that its mordant bent is offset by a defiant lust for life, and there’s an unsettling glee to the spiked cabaret number “Devil is a Lie.” But she can also burrow deep into anguished introspection, as she does in the chilly, wide-open soundscape of “Cry Wolf.” In an album that consistently tilts and disorients, Victoria is the gravitational force that holds everything together. Though she has a storyteller’s performative zeal, she mostly passes on big gestures in favor of the low embers of her voice, pitched somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Valerie June with just a bit of Fiona Apple’s tremulous quiver. She projects total calm even in the songs that are most harrowing, an aesthetic choice that ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hers are songs that could only be fermented by the blood and soil of the American South, here presented as a landscape peppered with Jesus Saves signs and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Victoria’s another Carolina girl who was raised in church—hooked on eternity and other drugs, as David Bazan might say—and whose early adulthood has been a reckoning with various kinds of oppression and internal friction. That she’s shaken off the faith of her fathers is something she makes clear in the grim opener “Clean,” where it’s midnight in the garden of good and evil and she’s a kind of deicidal Van Helsing, stalking the Almighty and ultimately plunging a knife in His chest.  It’s a macabre fantasy that’s immediately followed by “Bring Her Back,” sung from the perspective of a dead girl who spoke out when she shouldn’t have and paid the price. The specter of lynching looms large, and whatever metaphysical reverie Victoria abides is shattered by the blunt-force trauma of the N-word, deployed just once to situate these songs not in ether or abstraction but in actual human bodies, bruised and bloodied.

Victoria is drawn to the grotesque, a form she uses to paint human malice and divine discontent in the starkest terms possible. It’s a trait she shares with sage-of-sages Flannery O’Connor, to whom she is an avowed devotee, and who famously distinguished between the Christ-centered and the Christ-haunted. Silences is decidedly the latter, though really it’s not even the ragged fugitive Jesus who haunts Victoria so much as the hellhounds on her trail. The devil is all over this record, presented as both living entity and as manifestation of personal demons—and either way, his presence is tormenting. There are the makings here of a grand, gothic drama, a battle for the singer’s soul: On “Devil is a Lie” the Prince of Darkness brings all her plans to ruin, yet on “Pacolet Road” it’s her faith that makes a fool of her. Forces of good and evil give Silences its dramatic framing, but her metaphysics are enfleshed by personal experience. You get the sense that the howl and snarl of Victoria’s music are designed to drown out the unholy clamber of what Richard Thompson calls “the rattle within,” and on “Cry Wolf” Victoria begs and pleads and promises to be good, knowing full well that she’s broken such promises before. “Nice Folks” hears that death rattle emanating from just below the white-washed gentility of Southern manners (the folks O’Conner might call “good country people”), and you wouldn’t be crazy to think of Dr. King and his castigation of political moderates—evil’s most reasonable and well-intentioned bedfellows. “Heathen” is a song about recalcitrant women (and the men who love them), making the most of an ungovernable spirit; amidst smoky jazz, Victoria offers a cheerful fuck-you to anyone who wants her to compromise or to crawl. These songs suggest isolation, but the closing “Get Lonely” reaches out for union. Over a cavernous trance beat, she coos to a partner: “I want to get lonely with you.” It’s the desolate love song of two heathens who reckon they might yet be redeemed.

Remove Your Beliefs: On the essence and imagination of Sneaks

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An old saying tells us that a camel is just a horse that was designed by committee. Sneaks isn’t a committee—in fact, it’s not even a band, but rather the nom de plume for musician Eva Moolchan—yet you might say that the new Highway Hypnosis is something like a camel. Imagine for a moment its democratic assembly by a consortium of genre representatives—a punk who demands terseness and brevity, a bubblegum pop confectioner who doles out earworm melodies, a hip-hop producer who insists on making the whole thing out of reconstituted beats, samples, and sound FX. The end result has a clear pedigree but an odd shape; it’s not hard to unspool its DNA, yet rarely does it sound much like any one of its discrete parts.

Moolchan is a DC-based singer, rapper, spoken word artist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist whose calling card is minimalism—though Highway Hypnosis proves that such things are always relative. The album clocks in at a breezy and appealing 28 minutes, modest by most metrics but more than twice the length of any previous Sneaks album. And though its songs are all assembled from humble components—voice, bass, drum machines, a smattering of samples and keyboard effects—each one feels intellectually robust and generous with imagination. The tight framing is strategic: It brings clarity and focus to Moolchan’s resourcefulness and whimsy, how her songs always abound with invention even as they feel boiled down to their barest essence.

Nowhere is Sneaks’ gift for distillation more evident than on “Holy Cow Never Saw a Girl Like Her,” which uses just Moolchan’s voice and bass to capture the raucous DIY spirit and bruising physicality of punk, condensing it into ripple after ripple of speaker-rattling low end. The song also happens to be the most extreme example of her songwriting economy; she doesn’t craft narratives so much as she conjures feelings, sketches scenes, and offers mantras to roll around in your head, absorbing their possibility and implication through sheer osmosis. You receive Sneaks’ songs in the same way you’d receive a compilation of haiku, a collection of poems by Kay Ryan, or a set of songs by Tierra Whack—as small and precious treasures, both fragmentary and complete. In the case of this song, the only lyrics Moolchan needs are the ones in the song’s title, which take an instant of ambuscading desire and preserve it in amber. It’s bottled experience; it’s stopped time.

Punk is an obvious touchstone for Moolchan’s hardcore thrift, and she returns to it more than once; check the ominous strum and crude drumming on “And We’re Off,” which marinates in minor-key menace. Yet what makes her minimalism appealing is that it never scans as Spartan or austere; she takes spare elements and multiplies them like so many fish and loaves, resulting in songs heavy with atmosphere, deceptively opulent. There’s some real production jujitsu going on, as on the hazy trance of “Saiditzoneza,” a study in dankness that builds tension from a metronome beat, multi-tracked vocals, and thick studio shimmer. And in the album-closing “Hong Kong to Amsterdam,” a jittery slice of EDM, Moolchan orchestrates a symphony of pots-and-pans beats with the same deft touch as Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bear. Give credit to Moolchan, but also to co-producers Carlos Hernandez and Tony Selzer, who open up her post-punk simplicity with new colors and textures.

Given her rhythmic propensity and her smart use of space, it’s no surprise that Moolchan gravitates toward hip-hop and dance music, and some of Highway Hypnosis’ most persuasive moments are its formal engagements with the sounds of the club. “The Way it Goes” embodies the original value proposition of hip-hop production, assembling something concrete from isolated moments; it’s all breaks and beats, stitched together with coherence and elasticity. The ethereal wash of “Cinnamon” morphs into a master class in beat dropping, while “A Lil Close” creates dense funk through a cloud of drum loops and the serpentine twist of Moolchan’s bass.

These songs are structurally and mechanically varied, yet they are all winsome in the same way: They highlight an artist who understands her influences well enough to deploy them confidently and judiciously, making a lot with a little while underscoring just how many things a song can do. Indeed, even with their tight framing, the songs of Sneaks all find different ways to tease, riddle, and pull the rug out from under you. You may get so swept along in the tranquilizing groove of the title track—whispered chants over a trap beat—that it takes a few listens to realize that there’s a commercial for the album buried deep in the mix; by then, you’re well on your way down Moolchan’s conceptual rabbit hole. With its rickety beat, church bells, and titular mantra, “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” takes a piece of colloquial advice and turns it into something cryptic and ominous. And “Beliefs” offers the gift of deprogramming: “Remove your beliefs and start again,” Moolchan sings, another one of those mantras that begs for obsessive scrutiny. One interpretation to consider: It’s the unofficial motto for an album that delights in leaving preconceptions at the door. Throughout it, Moolchan takes up genre tropes not as binding dogma, but as building blocks and puzzle pieces—and what she assembles with them is a tiny marvel, boundless with possibility.

Take Me Back to Camp Sunshine: Bob Mould’s hopeful intentions

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It’s been a tough few years for Bob Mould, the power trio standard-bearer, college rock Founding Father, and legendary architect of Sugar and Hüsker Dü. He spent the better part of the 2000s making records that variously wrestled with middle age and the deaths of his parents—each album robust and cathartic, each one understandably introspective and glum. Finally deciding he’d endured just about enough of American life’s callous indignities, Mould decamped to Berlin where he realized just a little too late that the winters are long and grim. All of which makes it perplexing to find a brand new Bob Mould album bearing the cheerful label Sunshine Rock, with not one but four of its songs celebrating the sun in their titles. You might justifiably wonder if the famous sadsack has either finally snapped or is simply yanking our chains, a theory lent some credence by a late-album folk ditty called “Camp Sunshine,” where Mould pines for the halcyon days spent at his childhood summer camp. But its idyll is not a put-on, and neither is it a retreat into nostalgia: Rather, it heralds a real emotional sea change. Sunshine Rock is a statement of joyful intent from a man who’s made the decision to abide hope, to champion perseverance as a value unto itself, and to take up gladness and gratitude as potent all-natural mental health supplements. Mould sings these buoyant new songs not as someone who’s deluding himself, but as someone who’s weathered enough dark times to be convinced (and convincing) that brighter ones must be coming. Maybe the Camp Sunshine he sings about is a memory or maybe it’s a poetic invention, but either way it’s an oasis, a place for refuge and realignment. What these new songs suppose is: Perhaps the true Camp Sunshine is the inner Camp Sunshine.

His updated outlook comes with a rejiggered delivery vehicle; Sunshine Rock is built on the electric thrills Mould has always championed but bejeweled with a few flourishes from his new silver linings playbook. Mould’s allegiance is to rock and roll the way its framers intended it to be played, meaning short songs with clear melodies, played loud, fast, and with boisterous abandon. Here he slashes and burns through a dozen elastic, brambly earworms, rocket-fueled by the mighty wallop of the Superchunck rhythm section. It’s vivacious enough to sound like the whole thing was cut live to tape just this morning, and classicist enough that it could pass for an unearthed relic from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. The album’s one opulent gesture is the inclusion of an 18-piece string section, appearing on select songs not so much to dramatize them as to add ballast and heft—cosmic swirl on the title track, panoramic denouement on “Western Sunset.” The orchestral festooning never distracts from the ferocity of Mould’s overdriven power pop, nor from the music’s thrum, crunch, crackle, and howl. He’s still a purveyor of premium-grade bubblegum—check “Sunny Love Song,” so breezy and buoyant and instantly memorable that it actually earns its lark of a title—but Mould’s love language is one of ragged riffs and clattering cymbals. Here he speaks it fluently, dealing out hard stuff aplenty: The pulverizing din of “Thirty Dozen Roses” makes it a headbanger’s ball, while “I Fought” is a banshee-wail punk anthem. A late-album cover of Shocking Blue’s “Send Me a Postcard” is played with enough withering, in-the-red intensity to strip the thread off a screw. Maybe this marriage of garage rock ruckus and symphonic décor is exactly what Stephen Malkmus had in mind with his admonishment to sparkle hard.

For Mould, hopefulness isn’t a feeling but an active verb, a prophetic witness that requires constant engagement and daily reaffirmation. There are hints throughout Sunshine Rock that positivity is still a bit ill-fitting for him: Listen to the tightly-coiled “What Do You Want Me to Do,” where spring-loaded resentments explode like booby traps, detonated by his venomous snarl. More reflective is “The Final Years,” an end-of-the-road memoir that could easily have slipped into the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin repertoire. Here, the singer laments his “years of misplaced rage,” and reckons with the daunting task of setting his mind to nobler things in whatever time he has left. (“What will we cherish in the final years?” he asks, clear-eyed.)  There’s a lot of fury that snakes through these songs—in “Irrational Poison,” the narrator is desperate not to drown in his own toxicity— but that just makes the declarations of open-heartedness that much more affecting; while some men just grow jaded as they make it to the top of the mountain, Mould sounds like a guy who’s seen just how much of a dead-end bitterness can be. And so “Sunshine Rock,” the album’s keynote, is the sound of clouds parting, Mould ably playing the romantic hero who swoops in on his white horse and saves the day. (“They don’t love you like I love you,” he pledges.) And in “Lost Faith,” he posits despair as a kind of waywardness, but love the lighthouse beckoning us home: “We all lose faith from time to time/ You better find your way back now.” You might call it a song of experience: The testimony of someone who’s been deep in the shit and doesn’t claim to have all the answers—but he knows enough to know hope.