Any Old Way You Choose It: Back to basics with The Black Keys, Titus Andronicus

lets rock

You can’t talk about the state of rock and roll without talking about The Black Keys– a band that bucks every trend, defies every natural law, and does it all with tricks they copped from vintage blues and garage playbooks. Over the last decade, no other guitar rock band has quite matched their bounty of commercial success and critical acclaim; poor Iceage doesn’t have the sales, while much-maligned Greta Van Fleet lags 5.4 points behind on the Pitchfork scale. There are now nine Black Keys albums in the world– a few of them excellent, all of them valuable– and though they vary slightly in terms of how rigidly they stick to the fundamentals, they’re all persuasive that rock’s most appealing when it’s at its most direct and unadorned. 

In a career modeled on a back-to-basics approach, “Let’s Rock” feels like the closest thing the Keys have offered to a reset; their return to recording after a five-year break jettisons the murky psychedelia of Turn Blue as well as the little pockets of glitter that bedazzled El Camino, instead ratifying the enduring pleasure of short-and-fast songs that wail and thump and spin off into dozens upon dozens of earworm guitar riffs, all of them comfortingly familiar and thrillingly off-the-cuff. Only on two of these dozen self-produced songs do Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney approach the four minute mark, and only on “Walk Across the Water” do you get anything that could rightly be called a slow jam; even there, Carney’s drum kit throws a few lumps into the floating disco-ball gait, ensuring some swing in its sway. It’s a particularly unfussy and unpretentious record from a duo that’s seldom let big concepts get in the way of their joyful ruckus, and as such it’s the most endlessly replayable Keys album in a while– a winsome gene splice of Rubber Factory’s chunky, blues-adjacent racket and Brothers’ ragged R&B. 

You could call it a throwback Black Keys record, but to do so ignores some subtle yet substantial leaps forward in their craft; much as they and we might prefer the illusion that these are just two dudes ripping it up in a repurposed Nashville office building, there are multi-layered harmonies and piles of overdubbed riffs hiding just below the crackle of first-take immediacy, adding depth and heft to some of the group’s cleanest writing yet. (Backup singers Ashley Wikcoxzon and Leisa Hans prove themselves mission-critical throughout.) There’s also something to be said for the genre elasticity Auerbach’s forged through his second career as a record producer, which helps explain how “Let’s Rock,” for all the meat-and-potatoes promises of its title, is really a covert exercise in low-key eclecticism; Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it a “fantasy jukebox,” as good a description as any for an album that moves so swiftly between different flavors of thundering mayhem. “Eagle Birds” is a haywired electric boogie; “Lo/Hi” is a sky-splitting baptism in crackling fuzz; “Sit Around and Miss You” is crinkled country; “Go” stretches a single-syllable vamp into a blast of sing-along power pop. 

Auerbach’s lyrics, always admirable in their concision, mostly hover over matters of love and loss; he’s not too proud to mope (“Sit Around and Miss You” is exactly the kind of song its title promises it’ll be), but just as often he declaims, spinning his lived experience into what sound like weird backwoods proverbs, universal truths expressed through a gnarled vernacular (“every little thing that you do is always gonna come back to you”; “if you wanna make it last forever, maybe get behind the mule”; “don’t nobody wanna be lonely, everybody oughta be loved sometimes”; “no one really knows where it goes from here/ but we all decompose and slowly disappear”). These lyrics aren’t flashy, but they’re honed with precision and effective as a result; perfect tidings from a band whose sweet spot is the intersection of careful craft and disorderly thrills.

They’re not the only band that’s ratifying the fundamentals. An Obelisk, new from Titus Andronicus, is loud, fast, succinct, and electric– all the things the group’s previous record, the divisive acoustic jamboree A Productive Cough, wasn’t. Call it course-correction if you like, though actually, An Obelisk was conceived and written before its predecessor, suggesting the band’s awareness that their hard rock bona fides might need prompt renewal. These 10 new songs fly by in 38 minutes; a leisurely sprawl by hardcore punk standards, but remarkably terse for a band whose stock in trade has always been conceptual epics. They brought in producer Bob Mould, fresh off his own bubbly Sunshine Rock, and he keeps things down and dirty: This is a record that takes all its cues from classic punk albums, the clack of drumsticks counting down choppy riffs and Patrick Stickles’ frantic and sour Joe Strummer slur, all of it captured with just the right levels of tinny, cheap fidelity. “On the Street” is just over a minute of dramatic thrash ‘n’ crash; “My Body and Me” is a little slower but just as crude in its pulverizing electric grind; even when the band really stretches out, as in “Hey Ma,” it’s to salute the big-hearted jubilance and ramshackle folk of The Pogues. An Obelisk bears witness to a deep, full-spectrum love of classic punk, but what makes the album affecting isn’t that it gets the sound right; it’s that it both affirms and critiques its primary texts, taking punk’s anti-authoritarian slant as a springboard for careful self-reflection. An early song called “(I Blame) Society” kicks against the pricks, but the more Stickles thinks on it, the more he wonders if he’s part of the solution or part of the problem. “The Lion Inside” suggests that the true asshole is the inner asshole, while “Tumult Around the World” wonders if one man’s problems amount to a hill of beans when there’s so much trouble to go around. It’s a record that rails against a world gone to ruin, but it takes punk’s street-fighting spirit a step further by throwing a few punches at the man in the mirror and his silent complicity.  It’s rock, rock criticism, and self-criticism all in one– and it’s proof that there are still plenty of big ideas you can conceal just below the din of pummeling drums and ragged guitars.

Breakdowns and Breakthroughs: Buddy & Julie Miller talk it out

breakdown on 20th ave south

During seasons of heartbreak, it’s just like the old song says: We all need somebody to lean on. But what happens when the person you lean on is also the one who did the heartbreaking? Bill Withers didn’t offer a contingency plan, but Buddy and Julie Miller have it covered on a new album called Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. The very title suggests that the 10 years elapsed since their last record haven’t exactly been idyllic, and the songs— many of them thrumming midnight blues, palpable with conflict and unease— offer confirmation. Several gingerly run a finger along domestic wounds still tender to the touch— hurt feelings, stony silences, resentments left on simmer just a little too long. And there beyond the windowsill, the world roars its violence and hums its indifference. It’s enough to make a person want to scream, but who will hear it, and who will care? The Millers voice those questions right from the jump: “In the night/ who hears the words coming out of your mouth?” Heartbreak comes sooner or later, these wise songs counsel– so who do you lean on? Who will receive your complaint, your confession, your psalm of lament? What are you doing to keep the lines of communication open?

It so happens that 20th Ave. South is the couple’s real-life Nashville mailing address, and while it’s generally judicious not to assume too much autobiographical intention from any songwriter, Buddy and Julie have been candid about some of the personal struggles that informed their return to recording. Maybe you know the backstory: For many years the husband-wife duo were among the most prolific and beloved power couples in the Americana scene, lauded both for their solo albums and the music they put out as a pair. (2001’s Buddy and Julie Miller is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.) When the cruel effects of fibromyalgia forced Julie to back away from public life, Buddy eased into a second career as producer for various luminaries, helming rewarding records by Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson, and Solomon Burke; most commendable of all is Robert Plant’s ragged and lovable Band of Joy. But the couple’s musical collaborations dried up, and understandably, Julie felt left-out and adrift. As the Millers tell NPR’s Jewly Hight, it took a little time for Buddy to realize how much distance he’d allowed into their marriage, and for Julie to express how much she felt wounded. The very existence of a third Buddy and Julie record– heralded by fans as borderline miraculous when it was announced earlier this year– attest that their lines of communication ultimately led to a reconciliation, though the songs suggest that it’s all an ongoing process. “Everything is your fault in the whole wide world,” Julie deadpans in one song; perhaps it’s a hyperbolic reenactment of a lovers’ spat, but then again, many a truth is spoken in jest. More assuring is the riotous “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the closest this record comes to the playful energy of classics like “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast.” “You’re gonna love me, even when you think you don’t,” Julie smiles, affirming what every long-married couple knows: that love is as much about action as it is emotion, and on any given day may have little to do with how you’re feeling.

There’s a strange weather bottled here– the particular air of a couple who have hurt and healed together, and who’ve been reminded that sustaining a marriage requires daily engagement. Even the record’s sound bears witness to this. To accomodate Julie’s poor health, Buddy set up equipment in the couple’s bedroom, meaning the low-key, homemade feel of these songs is no put-on. Where previous Buddy and Julie albums have come with just the right amount of polish, and supple support from studio pros, this one’s all the Millers, leaning into an intimate simplicity. “Unused Heart” and “Breakdown on 20th Ave. South” both stick to the low embers of the blues, conjured by little more than the hiss and fuzz of Buddy’s electric guitar. There’s some percussion overdubbed here and there, but not the crisp pop of a snare drum or the ring of a hi-hat; on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the muffled thump could almost be someone knocking against a bedframe or a dresser drawer. The record hums with an appealing domesticity, and at times its crude clatter also suggests something of the caustic emotions that swirl around the album’s edges. Listen to the guitar strings and rattling tambourine bleeding into each other on “Feast of the Dead,” a grey smear of mourning. Of course, the highlight of this and any other album from the Millers is the blend of voices; Buddy’s cowboy croon remains a perfect foil to Julie’s impish energy and free spirit. In other words: They were made for each other, and their harmonies inject clinical-strength joy amidst the album’s sorrows.

One possible comparison is to the Over the Rhine album Drunkard’s Prayer: Both records find musical couples giving a long hard look at a relationship they may have been taking for granted, and at least glancing at the possibility that all of it could crumble. And, both records chronicle breakdowns but persist into breakthroughs, talking things out and laying the groundwork for reconciliation. Indeed, Breakdown is remarkable in its candor, and though the Millers have always favored plainspeak, they’ve never recorded songs as disarming or as brutal as some of the ones here. Most disarming: The mournful “Secret,” Buddy’s breakup backup plan, where he hopes he can at least hang on to his privacy (“don’t betray my confidence,” he pleads). Most brutal: The spare and spectral “Unused Heart,” where Julie cries out in the night and finds an emotionally distant partner by her side (“you might as well be made out of wood,” she smirks). “Nothing can be possessed but the struggle,” Flannery O’Connor once advised, and by taking ownership of their hardship the Millers create a meaningful context for their songs of union: “Spitting on Fire” affirms a love that can be as gentle as a spring rain or as ravenous as a hurricane, while “Til the Stardust Comes Apart” is a song of devotion so crisp and clean it could pass for a songbook standard.

Speaking of context, there are a handful of songs on the record that look beyond the Millers’ scenes-from-a-marriage to survey what’s happening in their neighborhood– and sometimes what they find is a world imploding on itself. That’s certainly the implication of “War Child,” where the next generation’s only inheritance is bloodlust and despair; the song is punctuated with the militant rumble of a snare drum. Amidst the jingle-jangle of “Feast of the Dead,” Julie sifts through the ash and dust of a dying planet, finding glimmering slivers of wisdom (“may we love while we’re in the light,” she urges, because time’s a-wastin’). The most evocative scene-setter of all is “Underneath the Sky,” where Julie hungers and thirsts for righteousness– “hard to find in a place like this,” she admits. Like Nick Cave, she’s singing the abattoir blues, and like Bob Dylan her heart’s already in the Highlands; “I want you to take me somewhere that truth and justice kiss,” she sighs, a simple and effective prayer language. It’s an important framing for the marriage songs, highlighting the high stakes and real danger of a world where moth and rust destroy, and where anything and everything falls apart.

These are heavy concerns, but Julie Miller’s never been involved with a record that she didn’t enliven with buoyant Christian witness– and here the writer of “All My Tears” offers one of her most striking spirituals yet. Amidst Dylan-esque folk chords, “Thoughts at 2am” awakes with worry but finds comfort in the everlasting arms. “The Author of compassion has our pain beneath his skin/ and so the whole wide world upon his fingertip does spin,” Buddy and Julie sing together; like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand. We all have a midnight breakdown sooner or later– but what this song supposes is, maybe there’s always someone listening after all?

Self-Portrait in Jazz: On the evolving Linda May Han Oh

aventurine

There’s a lifetime of music contained in Linda May Han Oh’s Aventurine. No, that’s not a commentary on the album’s length; at 74 minutes, the program is generous and immersive, abiding discursions without ever feeling unfocused. There’s nothing on it that isn’t necessary to the big picture. Rather, it is a reflection of how Oh has quite literally been working toward this album her whole life. The material includes a few curated selections that sound like they’ve been seeded into her genetic code, revealing the lineage in which Oh situates herself: Chinese folk music to reflect her cultural upbringing, recalibrated jazz standards to ratify her chosen tradition. These songs are surrounded by original compositions, some of which are relatively new but several of which Oh has been playing, adjusting, and refining for over a decade, plumbing their depths and mastering their contours. Thus, Aventurine is an album about roots but also evolution; it adds up to a thesis statement, a synthesis of where Oh comes from and how it’s made her who she is. It is– to tweak a Bill Evans expression– a self-portrait in jazz.

If you don’t know Oh, now is a boon season for making her acquaintance. She plays upright bass with her husband, the pianist Fabian Almazon, on his new This Land Abounds with Life— another deep-dive into upbringing, culture, and identity, specifically his Cuban heritage. It’s an auspicious platform for Oh’s skill as an instrumentalist; listen to her fearless wayfinding on “The Everglades” for just one example of her style– nimble, tactile, molasses-thick. But it’s on Aventurine that you can witness her depth and imagination as a composer and a conceptual thinker. She recorded it with the dauntless ensemble of Greg Ward on saxophone, Chess Smith on drums, and Matt Mitchell on piano. Jazz improvisation provides its engine, but an air of classical refinement shimmers around the edges; both a string quartet and the Australian vocal group Invenio are featured throughout, the latter adding worldless evanescence not unlike the cloud of witnesses on Brad Mehldau’s Finding Gabriel.

Aventurine gets its name from a green-hued quartz, variously described as opaque and translucent. It’s fitting imagery for a sparkling suite of songs that feels both accessible and coy; emotionally direct but stylistically unclassifiable, constantly reshaping itself in real time. Certainly Oh and her band don’t want for swing, and some of the record’s most persuasive moments come when they cut through the air of gentility with a brash, low-end rumble; in “Lilac Chaser,” the string section sounds like they’re soundtracking a summer garden party, right up until Oh and her rambunctious rhythm team start kicking up dirt, dissolving the song’s elegant veneer into a combustible groove. Other songs are just as kinetic, but unconventionally so: “Kirigami,” named for a particular strain of the origami tradition, folds ever inward, until all that’s left is a delicate solo from Oh; then it unfurls itself again, blossoming back out into orchestral opulence. Like the paper artistry that gives it its name, the song embodies precise workmanship and careful attention.

A few selections from the jazz canon reveal a composer who cherishes her roots, mostly insofar as they give her the right bearings for forward motion. Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” reimagines the frenetic energy of bebop through knotty bass, anxious strings, and a whiplash dialogue between piano and sax. An album-ending take on Evans’ “Time Remembered” translates the song’s brazen romance into an extended showcase for the string section. There’s also the Chinese folk song “Song Yue Rao,” which uses a simple melodic framework as scaffolding for skittering improvisation; its presence here is one of the most striking examples of Oh’s overlapping allegiances and ideologies, her family origins intersecting with her discipleship in jazz. The original compositions are just as revealing. In the glistening “Ebony,” stuttering rhythms build tension, then erupt into rapturous dance. “The Sirens are Wailing” is part tone poem, part historic epic, winding through ghostly atonalities and ravishing melodies with clear emotional logic and narrative sense. In “Rest Your Weary Head”– a two-parter that Oh wrote for her nieces– the string section creates a murky undertow, and vibraphones sound like depth charges; the piece builds from a lullaby into a knobbly, resilient groove. And in the cosmic swirl of “Aventurine,” the strings, piano, and voices enter one at a time, each registering something like awe and wonder. It sounds like real-time self-discovery; like nobody but Linda May Han Oh.

Guess it Was Something I Shouldn’t Have Done: Bruce Springsteen and the hunger of a lifetime

western stars

In “Western Stars,” the title song from his nineteenth studio album, Bruce Springsteen introduces us to a grizzled character actor. In his glory days, the man was a staple of cowboy pictures, back when there was still an appetite for such things; he even shared a scene with John Wayne. Now, he mostly catches checks by appearing in commercials, hawking credit cards and “that little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again.” But the unspoken tragedy of Western Stars is that nothing’s coming back to anybody; that things will never again be as they were. The shambling daredevil in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” will never walk without a hobble. The runaway in “Chasin’ Wild Horses” can never return to the home he abandoned. The  country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” transmuted love into heartache and heartache into a tune, but there’s no alchemy in the world that can reverse the process and give him back what he lost. You get the sense that none of Springsteen’s weary men could join Bono in his paraphrase of the sinner’s prayer: “Reach me/ I know I’m not a hopeless case.” And they would likewise find little comfort in the haunted hymnal of Over the Rhine, who dare to hope that they’re “not too far gone” to get “undamned.” For Springsteen’s men, redemption is no longer a live option on the table. They have spent the prime of their life courting restoration; now in their twilight, they have to learn to make peace with their cavernous hollow. 

The political allegory writes itself. There is a palpable sense of irrevocable loss here, the dashed dreams these characters wrestle with suggestive of the vanishing American life Springsteen’s been lamenting almost since the beginning, never feeling less like a memory and more like a mirage than it does here. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” sang Springsteen on a bleak album called Nebraska— but that was 25 years ago; and while Western Stars doesn’t sound as stark, its eschatology is just as unforgiving. Here Springsteen ends the album with a song called “Moonlight Motel,” named for what was once the site of a holy rendezvous between two young lovers. Now one of them visits the parking lot of the long boarded-up hotel by himself, drinking two shots of whisky and pouring a third one on the cold earth. Both the union and the site of its consummation are long gone, and they’re not coming back any more than the cowboy pictures, the American Dream, the middle class, the civilization we all thought would outlast us. (The burning question, same as ever: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?)

Springsteen uses a musical shorthand to underscore these songs of time and its ravages, hearkening back to an era– was it real or imagined?– when popular music could be nakedly sad, unfold at a leisurely pace, and bear the warm countenance of luxuruous string sections and acoustic instruments. Replacing the muscle and majesty of the E-Street Band with the splendorous melancholy of a string section, Springsteen has made an album quite unlike any he’s made before, one that’s equally indebted to the crisp formalism of Burt Bacharach and the lush country of Glen Campbell. He counts a few familiar names among his list of collaborators– wife and harmonist Patti Scialfa, long-time fiddle accompanist Soozie Tyrell, producer Ron Aniello–  but the lyric sheet’s biggest tell is the name Jon Brion, who decorates several songs with drums and farisfas and celestes, recalling something of the gentle sparkle and easygoing opulence he’s brought to albums by Kanye West, Fiona Apple, and Brad Mehldau. The gentleness is key: Some albums are overwhelmingly disconsolate, but Springsteen’s melancholy is always warm, welcoming, and alluring; it envelopes you just like a Nick Drake record might, channelling an impressionistic vision of American vistas whose vivid Technicolor is slowly fading into washed-out pastel. In “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” Latin rhythms are ironed out into easy-listening exotica. “The Wayfarer” lilts and glides across luxuriant strings and chattering castanets. In “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the string section creates a canopy of stars, while the high-and-lonesome steel guitar of boon sideman Greg Leisz keeps it earthbound and dusty. “Sundown” revisits the symphonic pomp of Born to Run’s Phil Spector-isms– and in what may be the album’s biggest surprise of all, Springsteen convinces that he’s actually gotten better at handling those big Roy Orbison operatics. 

Springsteen has spent close to 50 years mastering perspicuous metaphors for male malaise– many of them automotive!– and he’s gotten them so streamlined, so close to the bone that they just barely register as metaphors anymore. “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone,” sings the weathered narrator of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” “A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” He’s a broken man; a man being held together. Other songs employ the language of prodigal sons. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend,” says the drifter in “Hitch Hikin.’” “When I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head,” admits “The Wayfarer,” restless any time he’s not in flight. In “Tucson Train,” a heartbroken man waits at the station for his lover finally to return, years of separation giving way to possible jubilee. It’s the most brazenly hopeful song on the record, unless of course it’s really a study in self-delusion. Surely it is ominous that the song has the same premise and the same locomotive sound effects that conclude Frank Sinatra’s classic downer Watertown, where a possibly-crazy, probably-misguided fellow similarly waits for salvation coming down the rails. Both Springsteen and Sinatra allow their songs to fade to black before telling us how things turned out.

It is hard to think of many writers who capture men– their fracture and their resilience– with the same tenderness and specificity that Springsteen does. (Richard Russo?) He is clear-eyed in assessing their wretched estate, but invariably chooses affection and empathy over pity. “Guess it was something I shouldn’t have done,” understates the narrator in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the latest in a long line of Springsteen characters who went out for a ride and never came back. This is just the delicacy with which an old man might rue the mistakes of his youth: He’s candid about his regret but also careful not to make too much of it, lest his entire sense of self shatter like glass. The country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” isn’t so zen; he spends sleepless nights replaying the biggest mistakes of his life on an endless loop. “I traded you for this song,” he says into an empty room. Again you might think of a U2 line: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ First they kill their inspiration, then they sing about the grief.” And for what? “All I’ve got’s this melody and time to kill,” Springsteen sighs.

Of course, this character is no stretch for Springsteen, who’s been writing about men like this all his life. What distinguishes Western Stars is its sense of hard-earned wisdom. In “There Goes My Miracle,” a man sees his last chance at happiness walking out on him, never to return– and he’s been battered and bruised enough to call it for what it is rather than cushion the blow with florid prose. “Heartache, heartbreak/ Love gives, love takes,” goes one line, its moon-June rhymes suggesting a kind of wizened plainspeak. The narrator in “Hello Sunshine” is more enlightened still. “You know I always liked my walking shoes/ But you can get a little too fond of the blues,” he sings, the prodigal realizing that he’s wandered long enough. It’s a song about choosing hope as a matter of intention, and it resonates all the more for the many years Springsteen’s characters have stared into the abyss. Indeed, his catalog teems with young men who rant and rail, who roam far and wide looking for the missing piece, satisfaction for their hungry hearts. For the old men of Western Stars, there’s no piece to be found, no satisfaction good enough; slim odds at best for a third-act miracle or surprise salvation. If they find redemption, it’s in the peace they make with their fracture; the realization that the hunger lasts a lifetime. Maybe none of them find restoration, but at least some of them find rest.

The Past is Ash and Dust: John Paul White’s golden age

the hurting kind

“Darling, if we find a time machine/ the past’s the last thing that I want to see.” John Paul White sings those words on “Yesterday’s Love,” a tear-stained honky tonk number at the center of his handsome new collection The Hurting Kind, and at first the admission may baffle you. Certainly it sounds a little odd for White to eschew the good ol’ days in the middle of an album obviously and explicitly modeled on the values and aesthetics of a bygone era. “I had been burying my head in ‘countrypolitan’ stuff like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline and early Roy Orbison, and a lot of Chet Atkins and Bill Porter records,” the singer explains. “I think I was doing that because I was looking for that style of music in today’s world, and for any artist doing that type of thing. Then I decided to make the kind of record that I wanted to sit down and listen to – one that I’ve been looking for and can’t find.” Chasing classicism, White schooled himself in vintage Nashville songsmithing, working closely with veteran pens like Bobby Braddock and Bill Anderson– writers whose formal inventions have become established conventions– as well as keepers of the flame like Jamey Johnson. The resulting 10 songs find the jagged emotion within supple craft, and White adorns them with all the right period detail– twinkling barroom piano, weeping pedal steel, guitars and drums, even the occasional swell of a string section. It’s an album steeped in history, yet it isn’t exactly a time machine. “While you try and chase the fading sun/ Oh, don’t you know it sets on everyone?” White asks; invoking the past while bristling against nostalgia, The Hurting Kind gleans lessons from days gone by while acknowledging the folly in trying to turn back the clock.

If White’s wrong about anything, it’s that they don’t make albums like this anymore. You can slot The Hurting Kind on the shelf beside Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow, Alison Krauss’ Windy City, perhaps even Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars— albums that move away from the austerity-as-authenticity ethos and suggest that lushness can be just as honest, just as sophisticated, and just as historical as music that’s made to be bare-bones and unadorned. White’s devotion to sturdy craft pays off with full-bodied arrangements that haul his emotional truths to the surface rather than burying them under schmaltz and polish; it’s a work of excavation, and White, along with co-producer Ben Tanner, employs sumptuous studio arrangements with scalpel precision, offering them as their own kind of emotional plainspeak. That’s the whole point of “I Wish I Could Write You a Song,” where the object of White’s affection is literally too beloved for words. (You might be reminded of Bob Dylan’s line: “All my powers of expression, I thought to sublime/ Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme.”) She deserves a masterpiece while he can’t even nail down a single verse to capture her splendor– so instead he offers this seething fever dream of lovestruck wonder and writers-blocked frustration, where ultimately it’s the lush color of the band that articulates what words can’t. (His robust voice, one of the best in country music, helps.) Meanwhile, the wounded closer “My Dreams Have All Come True” hijacks both the musical and lyrical vocabularies of Roy Orbison for a slo-mo, operatic trauma; acknowledging a relationship’s collapse, White sighs that it’s a reality sprung straight from his nightmares. Ghostly steel guitar flickers at the song’s periphery; it sounds like a house slowly evaporating into cinder and smoke.

The Hurting Kind is a record that’s respectful of tradition but skeptical of sentiment and memory– and you’ll hear all the proof you need in “James.” The sparest moment on the record, it’s mostly just White picking his guitar and quietly bearing witness to an aging Marine whose faculties are failing him; he can remember his drill instruction but he’s not entirely clear of your name, and White’s tender narration captures the sad resignation of a man whose sense of himself is slowly being whittled down to “odd bits and pieces.” He’s not the only character on the album who’s trying to maintain his bearings amidst time’s merciless churn. Lee Ann Womack stops by to  share romantic war wounds in an opulent, Grand Old Opry-style duet called “This Isn’t Gonna End Well”– as in, “when you kiss me I can tell this isn’t going to end well,” an admission that past heartaches yield a truncated future. White also has a gift for preserving moments of tension: Listen to the prickly “The Long Way Home,” where a travelling troubadour’s suitcase full of songs takes him farther and farther from his family. It’s a song born of friction, and White sings it like a man grasping for domesticity like a rope being jerked through his hands. Most harrowing of all is “The Hurting Kind,” which sensitively chronicles a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. “Love is hard to find/ but your love’s the hurting kind,” whispers White; with no salvation on the horizon, all she can do is retrace the steps that led her here, over and over in her head.

You can tell from White’s traditionalism that he understands the allure of golden-age thinking; and you can tell from the way his songs litigate nostalgia and question linear memory that he doesn’t quite trust it. He airs his incredulity in “Yesterday’s Love,” where “the good old days, well, they’re good and gone.” But his most withering critique of sentimentality comes amidst the sawing fiddles and ringing guitars of “The Good Old Days,” a study in human progress; noting that we’ve come so far and still have so far to go in realizing “the true and equal worth of every woman and every man,” White calls bullshit on back-in-my-day moralizing. “The past is ash and dust/ our best days are in front of us,” he pledges. He’s taking the long view, imagining an arc of history that ultimately bends toward justice. But until it does, we’re caught in time’s riptide, just trying our best to hang on. And if country music has taught us anything, it’s that sooner or later time makes fools of us all.

None of Us are Free But Some of Us are Brave: Jamila Woods watches her ancestors

legacy legacy

Somewhere in the multiverse, an alternate version of Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! exists in a state of unregenerate corniness, its songs to Zora Neale Hurston and Eartha Kitt taking the form of musical Wikipedia entries or Hamilton-style exposition, its invocation of Miles Davis bedecked with an obligatory trumpet solo, its conjuring of Muddy Waters landing right on the nose with its approximation of the Chess Records sound, its open letter to James Baldwin name-checking Fonny and Tish while cantilating shamelessly from The Fire Next Time. The album as bequeathed to us by our benevolent timeline is many things, but corny ain’t one. True enough: The Chicago singer, poet, and activist names each song here for an oracle– most but not all of them black Americans– but at every turn she resists rote hagiography or biographic recitation. What could have been a mausoleum feels more like a lively dinner party, Woods summoning her ancestors to the table for a cross-generational exchange of lived experience and ancient wisdom. It’s a cloud of witnesses that attests to a full spectrum of black struggle and black pride, and within that framework posits endless revelation concerning strength and vulnerability, identity and legacy, fear of man and love of enemy. As it happens, Woods’ “MILES” doesn’t include a single horn, though it does capture some of the clattering funk and in-the-red heroin intensity of Davis’ bristling 1970s recordings, just as its lyrics (“I’m better than your best”) recall the apocryphal tale of Miles sneering to a record label executive that he could cobble together a band that rocked 10 times harder than The Rolling Stones. Likewise, there is no obvious or literal blues facsimile in “MUDDY,” though it does ripple with crude, speaker-rattling bass and swagger with veneerless shit-talk (“Motherfuckers won’t shut up!” is how the song opens). And “BALDWIN,” the album’s dramatic apex, pairs Nico Segal’s spritely brass with meditations on how fear kills and love frees, codifying a committed discipleship to America’s most consequential chronicler. “My ancestors watch me,” Woods boasts on a song named for the poet Nikki Giovanni, yet it’s just as accurate to say that she’s watching the ancestors, keeping one eye on the counsel of the past and following their lead as she navigates the treacheries of the present.

Maybe the true multiverse is the one Woods carries inside her– the cultural lineage she harbors in her DNA and filters through her own distinct personality. “No one you can name is just that one thing they have shown,” Joe Henry once sang, and throughout LEGACY! LEGACY! Woods proves that she contains irreducible multitudes. “Must be disconcerting how I discombob your mold,” she shrugs on “ZORA,” sidestepping category and classification without breaking a sweat. Elsewhere, she cites the precedent of the ancients as all the authority she needs for endless reinvention. “I’m a fable,” she intones on a spacy meditation for Sun Ra, and in “EARTHA” she adopts a playful sing-song voice to narrate her move from people-pleasing into self-acceptance: “I used to be afraid of myself… now I’m too far grown for your plot.” The album-opening song for Betty Davis bears witness to a woman on the cusp of transformation; what begins as a jazz daydream morphs into cross-talking funk, a musical shorthand for personal rebranding. Even the sound of LEGACY! LEGACY! asserts its identity through plurality; the tracks– mostly from A-Slot, with pinch hits from Odd Couple and Peter Cottontale– form a seamless suite of R&B, consistent in mood but rich in detail, carefully perched between stylish, contemporary beats and the warm, analog allure of classics like Mama’s Gun and Voodoo. The jostling, tough-talking “ZORA” condenses the glitz of an orchestra into its lithe choruses, while “GIOVANNI” parts feathery synth clouds with an explosive electric guitar solo. A late-album song for Octavia Butler coos and rattles with blissed-out keyboard flourishes. The momentum never wanes, and the banger ratio is 100 percent.

The surfaces of the album may glisten, but there’s trauma beneath them– and you don’t have to dig very deep to find it. Like the remarkable Songs of Our Native Daughters record, released earlier this year, Woods’ album lingers long over violence enacted on black bodies, and black women in particular. A song inspired by the poet Sonia Sanchez meditates on the legacy of chattel slavery, and extends the blessing of moral clarity; “it was bad,” Woods summarizes, a verdict that startles in both its simplicity and its weight. From there, a guest rap from Nitty Scott traces scars that have been carried for generation upon generation, and exhorts careful self-inventory: “Do you love yourself? Are you healing your trauma?” It’s not just physical bodies that are plundered, but also bodies of work, and several songs wrestle for a sense of autonomy over creative output. Amidst bleating keyboards and skittering drums, “MILES” pokes a big middle finger in the eye of the minstrel tradition: “In the old country/ you could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma’am/ but I’m a free man now,” Woods struts, rattling off her rhymes with crisp enunciation that a lot of rappers would kill for. Meanwhile, the song for Muddy Waters celebrates a blues vernacular so rooted in experience, it can’t be commodified or contained: “They can study my fingers/ they can mirror my pose/ they can talk your good ear off/ oh, what they think they know.”

There’s also a song for artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work provided the title for the most recent Jon Batiste album; it’s based on an interview where Basquiet was asked to name the source of his anger. He smiled rakishly and refused his interlocutor the satisfaction of an answer. Woods turns it into a study in emotional freedom, an admission that even anger is something that can be hijacked if you’re not quick to claim ownership. Like everything else here, she sings it with an ineffable cool, and a twisty guest verse from theMIND simmers but never boils, Slot-A building percolating funk through call-and-response vocals and fleet cymbal work. LEGACY! LEGACY! calls injustice for what it is but never quite rages, choosing positivity not so much out of high-mindedness but rather as an instinct for survival (“fear ain’t no way to live,” reads one morsel of ancient wisdom). “SUN RA” imagines simply ceding the planet to evildoers and staking a new world somewhere in the cosmos– it’s sort of the flipside to A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program”– while “ZORA” locates the righteous value in being the bigger person; “My weaponry is my energy/ I tenderly fill my enemies with white light,” Woods affirms. And in “BALDWIN,” hate is too great a burden to bear; “My friend James says I should love you anyway,” Woods sings, the brass band swelling behind her in solidarity. Bolstered by the ancestors, Woods is emboldened to walk through dark days speaking her truth, abiding her multitudes, extending charity even to those who only wish her violence. “None of us are free but some of us are brave,” she sings in “ZORA”– taking her place in a long lineage of courage.

Cloud of Witnesses: Brad Mehldau searches the Scriptures

Finding gabriel

When something’s broken, it’s always wise to check the manual. That’s what the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau does on his new Finding Gabriel, an album born of grief and confusion over crumbling institutions, shattered societal guardrails, and the prevailing sense of things falling apart. Trying to make some sense of these beleaguered times, Mehldau searched the Scriptures. “Finding Gabriel came after reading the Bible closely for the last several years,” he explains. “The prophetic writing of Daniel and Hosea resonated in particular, as well as the wisdom literature of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the devotional words of Psalms. The Bible felt like a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day—one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.” So the album is a Bible study, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. There’s no attempt here to summarize Judeo-Christian dogma; instead, Mehldau preserves the voice of the Bible as a library of human experience– the collected testimonies of migrants, asylum seekers, wayfaring strangers, and prophetic hosts pleading for the Kingdom to come. It’s an album about life amidst chaos, and if it doesn’t settle on any answers, it upholds the search itself as something holy in its own right; something that binds us with the great cloud of witnesses from the past.

Mehldau’s immersion in ancient wisdom is well-annotated, the liner notes appending a textual citation to each of its 10 songs. Not that you necessarily need them: Even the biblical novice will register “Born to Trouble,” which juxtaposes the deep blue of Mehldau’s piano against the antiseptic indifference of an analog synthesizer, as a meditation on the plight of Job; “Striving After the Wind,” which chases vanities through a haze of loops and squelches, as a repartee with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes. Even so, anyone who plans attendance in Mehldau’s Bible study will want to do the readings in advance. You might even supplement with Jesus’ words from John 10:27 (Mehldau’s citations keep it Old Testament, but there’s no reason we should stick to such arbitrary dispensations): “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Or this, from Psalm 55: “I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” The ancient wisdom posits time and again that voice is a connection point between humanity and the divine, and Mehldau seems to grasp the theological weight of that on Finding Gabriel, a largely lyric-less album that’s bedecked with a host of vocalizing witness-bearers. When those voices do congeal around actual words, they tend to be faint expressions of need; one song opens with a slow and bleary exhalation, then Mehldau’s simple request to “make it all go away”– a crude prayer language, perhaps, but as relatable as any Psalm. Much more often, voices unite in wordless supplication: They appear in “The Garden” one after another, like so many stars appearing in the night sky, cooing and moaning as the song’s weariness builds toward ascent. Just as the sheep know the call of their shepherd, you’ll know from the timber of these voices that they are searchers and seekers, lifting up holy groanings even when intellect and vocabulary fail them.

The voices that swoop and dive through these soundscapes– not unlike the unruly choirs that add vocal ballast to Kamasi Washington’s records– include such luminaries as Kurt Elling, Becca Stevens, and Gabriel Kahane. You’ll hear Mehldau himself speak up a time or two, but even when he’s not at the mic, the whole of Finding Gabriel bears his unmistakable voicings. Mehldau is justly celebrated for his brainy, deeply conceptual solo recordings (After Bach, 10 Years Solo Live) as well as records that expand the lexicon of the traditional jazz trio (Seymour Reads the Constitution!), but Finding Gabriel feels closer to Largo or Highway Rider— albums that required a broader palette to capture the eccentric colors of his imagination. It’s an expansive record that consolidates much of what Mehldau’s done before but also carries the thrill of experiment and discovery: “The Garden” opens with a narcotic keyboard haze learned from his beloved Radiohead, its gauzy reverie ultimately blasted open with righteous skronk and howl from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and breakneck drumming from Mark Guiliana. “Proverb of Ash” captures the meditative feel of Mehldau’s solo piano recordings, only here he accompanies himself on synths and drum loops, the result a wonderfully rickety one-man-band groove. “O Ephraim” is an elegiac cycle that thrums with anticipation, while “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night” teeters from an arena-rock backbeat into the delicate swell of voices and strings. The animating tension in all of this is between Mehldau’s usual intellectual robustness and his willingness to negotiate new sounds and textures; you can tell that there’s concrete ideological scaffolding holding all of this together, yet much of the album is played on keyboards and synthesizers that were new to Mehldau, keeping these performances just slightly off-kilter and exploratory.

The voices themselves are what make the greatest impression, yet they’re subsumed by the voice you hear on “The Prophet is a Fool,” a composition so formally audacious and thematically brash that it casts a shadow over everything else on Finding Gabriel. Here, Mehldau rolls the tape from a political rally, including the voice of the 45th President of the United States inciting his acolytes into fear-mongering isolationism. Mehldau himself verbalizes blunt commentary. It’s unsubtle, but perhaps Mehldau would tell you that it’s pitched at just the right frequency for a brutish age. And maybe there’s more to it than it first seems. With the rally scene, the pianist provides us with a study in discipleship– a reminder that we all have voices to whom we’re accountable, whether they’re heads of state or simply ragged figures testifying in the desert, ratifying the prophets who came before them. Either way, sheep always recognize the sound of their shepherd. The Bible tells us so; Brad Mehldau bears witness.