Circling Back: The endless possibilities of Eddie Palmieri

full circle

Eighty-one and clearly not ready to slow down, legendary composer and bandleader Eddie Palmieri has a new album, a new record label, and even a new app—which is, if the press release is to be believed, the world’s first to be singularly devoted to the sounds of salsa. It’s the album, of course—titled Full Circle, and loaded from top to bottom with fire and funk—that yields the greatest rewards. The app, though, is curiously instructive. In it, disciples of El Maestro can assume control of Full Circle’s arrangements, choosing to mute, isolate, pan, or fade any given instrument, pulling at these songs like Jenga towers and marveling at Palmieri’s stalwart constructions. It’s a stark illumination into just how much these compositions exceed the sum of their parts; you can remove as many puzzle pieces as you want, trying to reverse-engineer Palmieri’s genius, and you’ll walk away from it with heightened respect for his precision and craft. No way it’s going to demystify the strange alchemy that makes Palmieri’s songs so combustible, though. The Bronx-born pianist has been an innovator since the early 1960s, a Thelonious Monk devotee who challenged salsa’s traditionalism with loose jazz improvisation; artisier even than his pioneering contemporary Willie Colón, Palmieri’s compositions balance body and mind, dancefloor accessibility with brainy musicality. 1969’s Justicia may be the peak of his freewheeling, casually integrative approach—its jams adherent to folk forms, but slyly eclectic in their nods to American rhythm and blues, Monk-style whimsy colliding with showtunes, drum circles, and socio-political topicality. And if that record was his most daring adventure, Full Circle is his richest unfolding of pure virtuosity, joyfully expounding every last lesson a man might learn over decades spent writing for a big band. It has everything you’d want from a salsa record: Moaning trombones, vocal chants, skittering hand percussion, piledriving momentum, and non-stop groove.

It also happens to be a songbook album, revisiting standout tracks from Palmieri’s earlier works. Everything here was recorded with his working tentet, a band of Latin jazz ringers who’ve studied the contours of these songs for decades. There’s real polish to these performances, befitting a band that’s spent so long inside the material—listen to how the wistful “Lindo Yambu,” comparatively brittle on Justicia, sounds so easygoing and lived-in here—yet there’s also an appealing rowdiness. All of the tracks make time for barnstorming solos, and you can often hear other band members grunting their encouragement in the background, even as the rhythm section keeps the beat going with unerring intensity. Full Circle’s defining feature is Palmieri’s mastery of time and space: On one explosive track after another he takes what ought to be a simple dancefloor theme and stretches it out for five, seven, sometimes upwards of 10 minutes, wringing out as much invention and color as he can, building and sustaining tension before letting the song burn itself to the ground. The tunes feel like magic tricks; they seem straightforward on the surface, but unfold with turns and surprises seemingly pulled from nowhere. “Azúcar,” which El Maestro has recorded multiple times since its 1965 debut, is the cleanest demonstration of Full Circle’s methodology. Palmieri leads the band through a few iterations of the main theme—the horn section charging head-long into big-band swing, jittery congas itching to break loose, vocalist Hermán Olivera rousing the group in spirited call-and-response. After two minutes, the horns drop out for a Palmieri solo that’s angular and driving, one minute playfully minimalistic, the next minute florid and rhapsodic. He tangles with the percussion section’s rolling thunder for a few moments, pushing the song toward an eruption that comes in the form of a howling blues from the sax player. The whole band sounds sure-footed in their high-wire act—a conga line on the edge of a volcano.

That these songs are all familiar is part of the point. El Maestro has rewritten the rules of the game over and over again, most recently on 2017’s heralded Sabiduria—an eclectic assembly of folklore, hard bop, and funk, recorded with roughly the same troupe found on Full Circle. That was an album about exploring new frontiers; this one’s about discovering endless possibilities within a tradition. Consider it a roots album, the great composer circling back to his canon with rekindled passion. It’s clear that these warhorses—even the ones he’s recorded over and over—still shake loose fresh ideas in Palmieri’s head. Listen to “Muñeca,” where Palmieri delivers a classically-embellished piano solo only to have the melody drop out completely, leaving drums, bass, and tres guitar to weave a hypnotic, low-end rumble. It’s also a record that derives immense pleasure from Palmieri’s command of the band in all its tones and colors: Notice how the breakneck “Óyelo Que Te Conviene” sounds positively soused in swaggering brass, or how the band navigates rhythmic lurches and hairpin turns throughout “Palo Pa’ Rumba,” never skipping a beat or letting the momentum flag. One of the greatest tricks on Full Circle is its inclusion of two bookending performances of “Vamonos Pa’l Monte,” first played with the regular band, then later with an extended orchestral lineup. It’s a song so good, you won’t mind hearing it played twice, and the forceful, robust sound of the second take is an album highlight. There’s visceral pleasure in the band’s mighty roar, but the pinnacle is when the horns drop out leaving Palmieri—over conga pops and snapping bass—to plunk out a solo, letting loose a fistful of chords and then pausing, savoring the space before his fingers dance over to the next key. He sounds like he’s a kid at play, feeling out musical possibilities as if for the first time.

Blues & Roots: On the crossed paths of Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams

vanished

There is no need for Lucinda Williams to prove anything to us by making a quote-unquote jazz album; for decades now, she has exhibited formal command of an American roots mélange that’s borderless and boundary-free. She’s beyond category, and—in the cool tones of West and the limber jams of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone—she’s convincingly jazz-conversant. And there is certainly no need for Charles Lloyd to prove his country-blues bona fides; now well into his 80s, the guru-level sax master has developed a signature sound that’s earthbound and ecstatic at the same time, jazz improvisations shaded and textured by rustic folk vernaculars. The achievement of Vanished Gardens—their first on-record collaboration, released on the Blue Note label—is something far more rarified, its ambition far more sophisticated, than any exercise in the mechanics of genre. What this album proves is the insolubility of American song; it embodies traditions that have only ever existed in conversation with one another, whose threads can never be fully untangled.

Its crossed paths and cross-pollinations extend to the players themselves: Lloyd and Williams share a common language in the Bob Dylan songbook (Lloyd and his Marvels played an ebullient “Masters of War” on 2016’s I Long to See You; Williams has been performing that same song for decades). They share a few other commonalities, as well—including a couple of guitar players, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, who fill Vanished Gardens with electric thrum and ghostly twang. More than anything, they share an affinity for earthy music that borrows indiscriminately from American song styles. Their summit meeting on Vanished Gardens is equally split between instrumental numbers and Williams showcases; it includes new songs, standards, and reimaginings of the Williams songbook; and it’s powered by The Marvels (Frisell, Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland), a loose and rangy troupe whose jazz credentials just happen to include collaborations with fellow category-killers Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. Together, they play music steeped in southern soil, but abloom with the questing, exploratory spirit of jazz. Put it on the shelf with Nelson’s Stardust, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, even Dylan’s Triplicate—jubilant excavations that embrace American music traditions for their emotional precision and abiding mystery, upholding folk forms even while bursting them at the seams.

Presupposing that the past is never truly past, Lloyd and Williams reopen several pages from the communal songbook. The Marvels offer a delicate reading of “Monk’s Mood,” emphasizing its wistful romance over its whimsy, the guitarists adding cowboy licks while Lloyd goes full Johnny Hodges in his rhapsodic solo. There are also relitigations of old Williams tunes—all of them chosen by Lloyd, it should be noted, with whom they proved resonant. These performances capture one of the chief delights of American folk music—the eagerness with which it reshapes and retells its stories time and time again. This rambler’s spirit animates “Ventura,” which bears witness both to Williams’ elegant formalism—the song’s as sleek and as plainspoken as a standard—but also to The Marvels’ interpretive gifts; they convey the desolation of the original, but allow the chorus to open up with hope and desire. Meanwhile, “Dust,” which chronicles the ravages of dementia, is played with verve, connecting it to the great blues tradition of resolute joy in the face of eternity. “Even your thoughts are dust,” Williams warns, and Lloyd howls his rebuttal into the void.

Vanished Gardens also upholds the folk tradition of topicality. The one new Williams composition here, “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” opens with wordless supplication from Lloyd before transforming into a kind of updated Staples Singers number; it’s a Civil Rights song born of gospel hope, clear-eyed both in its measure of progress and in its reckoning with the devil who still sits at our table. Lloyd’s sax solo toward the song’s end sounds as though it’s wafting down the hall from Charles Mingus’ Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, and Harland’s drumming, all pops and crashes, imbues crackling electricity. It’s of a piece with the opening instrumental, “Defiant,” where Lloyd builds a searching, Sonny Rollins-style solo from the ground up, then lets it snake through a thicket of high-and-lonesome pedal steel from Leisz. By maintaining its clarity of vision and its purposeful momentum through every twist and turn, the song reiterates an important civics lesson from the American canon: Keep your eye on the prize.

The band’s archivist spirit is balanced by their explorer’s zeal; they’re not here to recite but to discover, something you can hear in their burnished reading of the standard “Ballad of a Sad Young Man,” where country-Western guitars adorn a deep midnight blues, stretched out to something so sumptuous and slow it almost qualifies as ambient music. (It captures some of the same strange weather as The Milk Carton Kids’ “One More for the Road”—a hushed saloon song turned into an impressionistic American epic.) If that song maps out the solitude implicit to so much American folklore, the original instrumental “Blues for Langston and LaRue” captures the inverse, Lloyd summoning Rat Pack nonchalance as he walks his flute atop an ambling beat, careless and cool. And then there are times when everyone just loses themselves in the music. It happens in the title song, mutant bebop that lurches and howls before settling into a trance-like cool-down. And it happens most epically on “Unsuffer Me,” six minutes when Williams first recorded it on West but 11 here, an extended vamp where Williams begs and pleads, then leaves it to the guttural articulations of Lloyd’s horn to say what she can’t. Together, the players lift up one of the most hallowed and ancient set-ups of all—the yearning for redemption. All our crossed paths lead back to it eventually.

Lost ’til I Found My Way: The nouns of Tierra Whack

whackworld

Advice for young songwriters: Don’t underestimate the power of concrete nouns. Country ringers Natalie Hemby, Luke Dick, and Rodney Clawson wrote a tune for Miranda Lambert called “Pink Sunglasses,” which could certainly be heard as a song about self-confidence or about the importance of perspective, but mostly it’s just a song about pink sunglasses—how Miranda wears them, how she loses them, and how they always seem to find their way back to her. There’s something wonderfully grounding in songs about stuff, something tangible and earthbound. It is no small pleasure, then, to hear all the songs about stuff on Whack World, an imaginative and charmingly specific EP from Tierra Whack. A young rapper from Philly, Whack confidently juggles syllables and bounces rhymes off one another, exhibiting a keen ear for crisp, percussive language, paired with a poet’s eye for everyday detail. There is a song here about the game Hungry Hungry Hippos. There is also one about a pet cemetery. One song is about fruit salad, and while it’s redolent of broader, more abstract concerns, it is fundamentally a song about fruit salad. The record is filled with these concrete particulars; by the time it ends, you’ll be able to name Whack’s favorite brand of bug spray, or her go-to Chinese food order.

And it ends a lot more quickly than you might expect, whizzing through 15 songs that each clock in at 60 seconds on the dot. Sure, it’s a gimmick—but also a helpful limitation, a self-imposed obstruction that focuses and clarifies Whack’s writing. There’s just room enough in these tunes for Whack’s concrete nouns to imply, insinuate, and evoke; these songs are like still life paintings, exercises in observation imbued with personal weight and meaning. One is reminded, and not for the first time, of master-teacher Orson Welles, who said of his filmmaking style, “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that… Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.” One might also recall former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, whose immaculately-sculpted poems—hymns to concrete particulars, with titles like “Blue Chine Doorknob” and “Sharks’ Teeth”—feel like riddles and brain-teasers; they are as economical and as provocative as haiku, full of negative space where the reader finds meaning. And so it is with Whack’s little packets of song—each one an instant paradigm shift, both an object lesson and a catalyst for flights of fancy. The one about “Fruit Salad” champions the value in self-care, and it does so in the most pragmatic, prescriptive way possible (“Worry ‘bout yourself and don’t worry about nobody/ Drinkin’ water, eatin’ fruits, and take care of my body”). The one about a “Pet Cemetery,” meanwhile, manages to reflect both a narrow and specific experience as well as the more universal questions that it entails; it’s plainspoken and mysterious in exactly the same manner as Erroll Morris’ Gates of Heaven. “My dog had a name,” Whack raps—but now, her dog is gone, and questions about mortality exist as both cosmic consideration and daily experience. It’s not the only time death hangs over Whack World, either; “4 Wings,” the one with the Chinese food, references a fallen contemporary before pivoting to Whack’s own hardness (“I do not like soft,” she says), hip-hop bravado as a mask and a tonic for brokenness and vulnerability.

Whack World has an accompanying movie, and any one of its songs could be sliced off into an Instagram video—but if the artist’s chosen medium is a sop to the social media age, it’s also steeped in punk. (Compare with Turnstile’s latest hardcore fantasia, Time & Space: 13 songs in 25 minutes.) At least a couple of Kanye West’s recent Yeezy Season entries proved that brevity is no guarantee against torpor, but Whack’s album buzzes with kinetic energy, songs colliding with one another and gaining vibrancy through their close quarters. She’s structured it as a suite, sequencing the album according to its own internal, emotional logic but also leveraging disruptions for dramatic effect; and she’s given each song a single clear, indelible vocal hook. Maybe it all sounds like a blur on the first listen, but go back for seconds and notice how many tunes you can hum, and how nimbly Whack moves between voices and flows; in the first three minutes alone she flits from trap melodicism (“Black Nails”) to half-mumbled introspection (“Bugs Life”) to sing-song nursery rhymes (“Flea Market”)—and that’s before you even get to her helium-huffing drawl on “Fuck Off,” squeaky C&W that draws a straight line back to Erykah Badu or Goodie Mob’s southern-fried eccentricity. That song’s choogling zaniness is the oddest turn on an album that generally favors clean and uncluttered beats over anything too fancy; Whack World is faintly reminiscent of the warm, gleaming grooves on Noname’s Telefone—a connection nourished by the performative, slam-poetry feel in Whack’s vocals—and there’s much wisdom in how she allows her verbal dexterity and melodic ease to do most of the heavy lifting. But these tracks aren’t exactly spartan, either; they’re sleek but textured, adding up to a collage of subtle, washed-out psychedelia: “Cable Guy” is featherweight synth-pop peppered with Migos-style asides, “4 Wings” leans on a rickety funeral-home piano, and “Silly Sam” decorates bluesy guitar with tinkling bells and keys. There’s no instrument or production effect as compelling as Whack’s own voice: Listen to how it rises and crests on “Fruit Salad,” cutting through the antiseptic, lounge-lizard groove; or to how she modulates it on “Dr. Seuss,” forming her own tiny choir of oddballs and outcasts.

The brevity of these songs compels most of its pleasures to be small ones, yet its greatest conceptual feat is how all the fragments add up to something immersive and whole—an album about preserving your mental health even while accosted by loss and grief. It’s telling that, on a record marked by its precision first and foremost, “Fuck Off” takes the time to repeat its cheerful dismissal twice (“I hope your ass breaks out in a rash/ You remind me of my deadbeat dad”); the narrator is tracing her scars, but then she moves into healing: “I wrote this cause I feel ten feet tall,” she boasts, answering traumatic memory with an affirmation of dignity. And then there’s “Fruit Salad,” wherein the humblest of subject matter offers eruptive catharsis following so many songs that are haunted by death: She’s putting one foot in front of the other, taking care of herself, telling her story through riddles and metaphors, scene sketches and concrete nouns. Whack World transmutes its songs of stuff into songs of the self—and it saves one of the best for last. “I was lost ‘til I found my way,” she raps on the closing track, named for the GPS app “Waze” and folding an entire coming-of-age tale into that single line. It’s a story about particulars that any of us can relate to, as no one but Tierra Whack could tell it.

Let There Be More Kindness: The mundane, the momentous, and The Innocence Mission

sun on the square

Every album by The Innocence Mission is filled with characters who channel the mundane into the momentous; characters who turn the tide and save the day through simple acts of kindness.

There’s “When Mac Was Swimming,” in which a little boy enjoys a day at the pool, blissfully unaware of loved ones scurrying around town, making plans and preparations for his birthday party. (“You’ll never know, darling/ You’ll never know how you are loved,” is the song’s simple and seismic conclusion.)

There’s the friend in “July,” showing up with sparklers in her hands at the end of an arduous day; she delivers light and joy, and has no idea how badly both are needed.

There’s even Fred Rogers, iconic for his empathy and compassion, invoked as both patron saint and kindred spirit on an album called Hello I Feel the Same. In the song, our narrator dreams that she can drive for miles just to see him; for him to smile at her, and tell her how she “could make things better.”

Such humility is befitting for this, the gentlest and most tender-hearted of bands—though they may be selling themselves short. For years they have been making things better for their small yet fervent following. Like the girl in “July,” they always seem to arrive with a gesture of kindness and encouragement just when such things are in shortest supply; and it is possible that they, too, have no idea how badly their joyful witness is needed.

Their elegant new album Sun on the Square is the latest in a long line of records that feel like refuges and oases—records that favor serenity over agitation, sincerity over irony, modesty over ostentation. These albums celebrate friendship, domesticity, and God’s grace—always seen through the prism of the tiniest gestures of love and charity. One of the new song titles, “An Idea of Canoeing”—like “When Mac Was Swimming” before it—conveys something of their flair for turning idle afternoons into mile-markers; this is a band unparalleled at documenting the little moments of grace revealed by hindsight to be formative.

There was a time when The Innocence Mission followed their instincts pop-ward, even feinting toward mainstream success on bubbly, up-tempo albums like Glow. They’ve pared down from a working four-piece to a central husband-wife alchemy—Don and Karen Peris, often but not always joined by longtime collaborator Mike Bitts on upright bass, and now by their string-playing children on select songs—and since 2007’s We Walked in Song they’ve quietly released a series of albums that feel of a piece: modest bedroom recordings that champion simplicity, savoring the warm thrum of acoustic guitar strings; the diaphanous tremor in Karen’s voice; songs that move at an unhurried, autumnal pace; words that glisten with elegance and precision. Sun on the Square both continues and subtly progresses that series, offering another collection of unassuming songs that find some subtle new wrinkles within a signature sound.

It’s their most distinguished album since 2003’s Befriended, largely because it’s their most sonically adventurous and casually exploratory. The Perises still write quiet folk songs, but here there’s pure sound bleeding through the edges, making even some of the slowest and softest numbers sound humming and atmospheric. Don’s acoustic guitar remains at the forefront—and his gossamer notes still ring like church bells—but many songs are given a summery ambiance by Karen’s pump and field organs, which hang a kind of hazy mystique over the proceedings, as if suggesting a pervading and enveloping mystery so thick it’s almost tangible.

This is an Innocence Mission record that feels visceral, sensual: Karen has professed inspiration from bossa nova singers like Astrud Gilberto, and maybe that explains “Sun on the Square,” a warm breeze that you can practically feel on your skin. It’s masterful in how it assembles simple components—the acoustic guitar’s hum, a sprinkling of piano, a brisk ride cymbal groove—into something irreducible and breezy. Other songs feel like they hide entire worlds within them, each one a tiny diorama of immaculate detail: “Buildings in Flower” is lo-fi folk, a scratchy basement tape decorated by dancing bells and the jovial swell of a melodica. The dreamy “Shadow of the Pines” surrenders to opulence, losing itself in an oceanic wave of piano, accordion, and harmonica. “An Idea of Canoeing” builds into a cosmic swirl of voice and guitar, closer to shoegaze than to folk austerity.

While the group’s sound has seldom been so expansive, Karen’s lyrics are more economical than ever; in tight, uncluttered stanzas, she expresses the openness and vulnerability of characters who choose generosity over insularity. In “Records from Your Room,” the sound of old vinyl wafts through the windows and out into the street, a reminder to passersby of common grace, “the depths of belief, the kindness of strangers.” The genial waltz “Look out from Your Window” celebrates connection amidst separation and noise: “Look out from your window now/ Can you see me cheering for you, up and down?” Meanwhile, the hymn-like “Star of Land and Sea”—the only song here sung by Don—is a benediction into peace-making and neighborly love: “Be a light to all/ You shine/ Into darker lands/ You shine.” Maybe it’s an answer to the title song, a prayer lifted up in troubled times: “Let it ring into the air/ Let there be more kindness in the world.”

To pray for more kindness, of course, is to acknowledge the indecency of the world we live in; how often it feels bent toward cruelty. Dark edges aren’t totally foreign to this good-natured group, yet even on 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood—their Sufjan Stevens-endorsed landmark, about a prolonged season of sorrow and doubt—there’s a sense of looming mercy and unseen hope: “The world at night has seen the greatest light,” one song says, maybe or maybe not referencing the Nativity. They’ve been reflecting that light ever since, on one album after another that proves its own point just by existing—delicate and brave, ringing with mundane and momentous kindness.

Rooted and Restless: Acoustic travelogues from Steep Canyon Rangers, I’m With Her

see you around

American folk music is rife with restlessness; its backroads and byways are well-trod by lonesome hobos and wayfaring strangers; by ramblers, drifters, lovers and leavers. On two new albums, restlessness is both a theme and an aesthetic. Steep Canyon Rangers’ Out in the Open and I’m With Her’s See You Around are both travelogues, full of weary and weathered but ultimately hopeful songs about change, transition, and movin’ on. And, both albums embody roots music idioms while also subtly pushing at the boundaries. These records are respectful of tradition without ever being beholden to it; they are eager to offer an expansive and subtly progressive take on familiar forms.

Few bands have done more to expand bluegrass’ cultural cache than the Rangers, a fleet-fingered North Carolina troupe now well-decorated for their work in support of Steve Martin. Martin doesn’t appear anywhere on Out in the Open, which means there’s more air time for singer/guitar player Woody Platt and singer/banjoist Graham Sharp. It also means there’s room in the fold for another renaissance man, this time producer Joe Henry, who’s got an extensive track record working with artists who both embody and elaborate the grammar of folk music. (Give a listen to his albums with Hayes Carll and Joan Baez, among others.) Henry gives the Rangers room to roam, which happens to be one of the things bluegrass is really great for: On up-tempo songs with locomotive rhythms, the Rangers sound like they’re racing into open horizons, sketching the invisible boundaries of an untamed frontier. “Let Me Out of This Town,” the most locomotive of the bunch, is the jittery confession of a man bursting to escape from small-town monotony, set to a frenzy of banjo notes that sound like a train hellbent on careening off the tracks. Escape isn’t an option for the narrator in “Can’t Get Home,” a deceptively rollicking tune about a soldier imprisoned in his own memories. Songs like these and “Roadside Anthems”—where nimble mandolin work weaves through galloping banjo and loping fiddle—offer familiar bluegrass pyrotechnics, speed and virtuosity in service of melodic purity. Yet there are just as many moments that prove how pliable bluegrass orthodoxy can be. A campfire lullaby called “Going Midwest”—where a man packs his bags and says goodbye to everything he’s ever known—is carried by acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies; it’s spectral and spare, singer/songwriter introspection that recalls no one more than The Milk Carton Kids. The title song, a rickety construction of puffed harmonica and steady-thumping kick drums, is a shambolic delight, sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing but staying upright through sheer whimsy and will. Its good-natured goofiness is eclipsed only by “Shenandoah Valley,” where the Rangers slow things down considerably for a bit of old-timey soft-shoe, rhapsodizing about a romantic dalliance with the power to stop time.

These are all subtle shake-ups that reveal a musical tradition in constant dialog with itself, in service of songs that grope for solid ground in a world gone topsy-turvy. “Farmers and Pharaohs” is a mirrored hall of romantic regrets, given folksy flourishes by Nicky Sander’s swooping fiddle. “I learned the hard way/ Now it’s too late/ If I could take back that very day,” the song goes, and you hardly need the clause completed: It’s the worst moment of a man’s life, captured in amber, a talisman and a mile-marker born of wisdom and rue. Similarly, “When She Was Mine” tells one of the oldest stories in the world, and it tells it all right there in its title. The ringer in the bunch is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a Dylan cast-off-turned-standard, here adorned with mossy harmonies that make it sound ancient. It’s a soldier’s windswept lament; he knows he can’t escape death, but at least he can go out with dignity. He fits in well on Out in the Open, an album that ennobles tradition by leaning into change.

The same could be said of See You Around, the debut album from I’m With Her, just about the super-est group imaginable within today’s acoustic roots scene. A working unit since 2014, the all-ladies band is so named for their embrace of collaboration and camaraderie, values they uphold throughout this ego-free set. The group—Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan—discovered an easy chemistry through back-stage jams at various concert halls and festivals; wrote the lion’s share of their album together, save for a stray Gillian Welch cover; and convened with producer Ethan Johns, who gives the album a clean, spare production—mostly just voice, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle— that leaves them no room to hide. (So unembellished is the production, the introduction of electric fuzz in “I-89” feels just slightly less disruptive than Jack White’s adoption of a bass line in “Seven Nation Army,” all those years ago.) Rather than embalming the album in austerity, though, Johns’ tidiness highlights the band’s sophistication and allure—the melodic precision and emotional acuity in their songs; the casualness with which they blend bluegrass, folk, and country traditions; and the way the three of them only ever sound like one person, whether trading verses or harmonizing together. If the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band built for speed and showmanship, I’m With Her trades in sly seduction—songs that are winsome both in their earthiness and in their seamless virtuosity. Listen to how “Game to Lose” rises from doleful, fiddle-led verses to a hard-strummed, staccato chorus, reminiscent of the progressive string band music Watkins innovated in her Nickel Creek days; or, to the hazy hypnosis in “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a loping and languid tryst that turns southern sultriness into something atmospheric and enticing.

See You Around—its very title suggesting movement and separation—is a scrapbook of stories, many of them involving travel and transition. It’s an appropriately frayed collection, full of loose ends and spritely invention—consider the weightless harmonies that hold “Wild One” aloft, or the easygoing spontaneity of “Waitsfield,” an instrumental rag—yet it also feels like it adds up to something complete, a lifetime of experience and regret, seen from a vantage point that’s clear-eyed without being callous. World-weariness fleshes out even the most archetypical tales: “Overland” is a railroad song that finds relief in the turned page: “Oh I’ve lived through more than I could tell/ I’ve sold all that I could sell/ Finally leaving it behind, goodbye, farewell.” And it’s not the only wayfaring tune here; “I-89,” built from layers of delicate picking and wheezing blues, imagines wanderlust as a survival instinct: “If there was another way out I’d take it/ If there was another way down I’d go.” Feminine agency animates romantic arrangements of all varieties, even as the songs reflect just how much these entanglements change and shape us: “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” is about a dalliance in the orchard, told with just the right blend of discretion and lustiness, while “Close it Down” is about a barroom fling with a married man, one in which both parties see things for what they are, and even extend empathy to the wife who’s back home. And then there’s “Ain’t That Fine,” a song of experience that’s all about accepting mistakes and moving on, told with wistful humor (“I can’t believe the things I put my mother through”) and hard-won contentment (“Some folks have it better/ But oh, we’ve got it good”). There are bruises aplenty here, but I’m With Her never stops to count them: See You Around is concerned with the events that push us forward, not the ones that hold us back; it’s a document of evolution, and the travelogue of pilgrims making progress.

Grind and Scream, Laugh and Cry: New highs from Low Cut Connie

dirty pictures part 2

Low Cut Connie’s Dirty Pictures (Part 2) opens with an anti-drug song, though not necessarily in the way you might think. In “All These Kids are Way Too High”—a howling boogie in the Mott the Hoople vein, first chugging and then barreling atop pounded pianos and buzz saw guitars—singer Adam Weiner imagines himself a song and dance man, peddling party tunes to a local frat. He’s hopeful for an evening’s wild abandon—it’s been a “rough fuckin’ week in America,” he understates, and a little good-natured carousing might do us all some good. Problem is, the frat kids are all too plastered for any kind of embodied, in-the-moment experience. “They wanna grind and scream, they wanna laugh and cry/ But they’re standin’ around because they’re too damn high,” snarls Weiner, in a song that subverts the music of teenage rebellion to indict youthful ambivalence, all the while celebrating the ragged, contagious joy of unostentatious rock and roll. That’s the album’s calling card and its thesis statement: Minute for minute and song after song, Dirty Pictures (Part 2) serves up one damn high after another. It is mind-altering in its euphoria, intoxicating in its kinetic energy. It invites the listener to shake off anything holding them back from ecstasy and release.

Total naturals at no-frills rock and roll firepower, Low Cut Connie is a group of working-class road dogs from Philly—a bar band by any other name, or at least they would be if they weren’t so stacked with swing and swagger, heart and humor. You’d need a dream team of era-spanning hall-of-famers to approximate the gutbucket flair of Weiner and his crew, who filter the primitive fury of early Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis through the arena-swelling bravado of the E-Street Band, the cheerful unpretentiousness of Nick Lowe and Rockpile, and the lo-fi rush of The Replacements. Weiner shimmies and sashays atop big fists of piano chords with all the vulgar grace of David Johansen, all while the band’s dual guitarists capture the nervy buzz of Johnny Thunders. And then there’s the rhythm section, relentless with their galloping back-beats: A twitchy kickdrum gives “Oh Suzanne” its addictive pulse, while a flurry of crash cymbals adds fizzle and panache to the live-wire “Please Do Not Come Home.”

Not one but two of these songs are named for girls—“Beverly” and “Oh Suzanne,” both sounding like titles plucked from the Chuck Berry catalog—and the album’s lone protest tune wears its topicality in its title (“Desegregation”; the Connies are for it). These are gestures at a certain old-time rock orthodoxy that prefers things loud, fast, and out of control—a missive Weiner and his team live up to in a howling cover of Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child!” Theirs is a rock and roll that’s made for the dance floor, and they bring plenty of low-end thump to their boogie-woogies, but there’s alluring physicality even to songs like “One More Time,” back-country doggerel that’s seductively simple and swaying. For a band that’s so often described with words like greasy and sweaty, there’s real sophistication to the way they sculpt their tunes and treat all of rock’s eras as equal, pulling inspiration from disparate sources and putting them together in a way that feels natural. “Every Time You Turn Around,” the closest thing they’ve got to a piano ballad, is roadhouse R&B festooned with Queen-ly harmonies. “Oh Suzanne” exudes slapdash energy, but underneath it there’s a canny construction, one that builds from clipped verses to a roaring chorus in no time flat. And in “Please Do Not Come Home” Weiner shows that he can write pure power pop with bracing earnestness.

Every song on the album offers a good time, but these are good times born of weariness and desperation. Weiner’s characters are guys who’ve taken a few licks, dudes increasingly aware that they’re also-rans or has-beens—like the narrator of “Hollywood,” the album’s only song to abandon rock and roll altogether in favor of straight singer-songwriter fare. “Oh Hollywood, don’t break my balls/ I’m not a real bad guy after all,” Weiner croons, his confession sounding scruffy and vulnerable; it’s an anthem for anyone who harbors big dreams, but also knows how easy it is to get chewed up and spit out. Maybe the narrator is the same guy from “All These Kids are Way Too High,” a true believer who sings his ass of every night whether it gets the kids dancing or not; he may never be a star, no matter how many climactic highs he has to offer. And “Master Tapes,” opens with a cavalcade of vulgarity, but it’s profanity without bravado—the quick-fire cursing of a guy who’s talking tough even as he feels scared and broken inside, trapped in his own memories and regrets. Weiner’s spare, economical writing finds lovability in these sad-sack ruminations. Even when writing from abysmal lows, he and the Connies produce glorious highs, open to anyone who’s willing to sweat and grind and dance along with them.

Lick and Purr and Give You a Scratch: Tami Neilson goes bananas

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Tami Neilson’s “Bananas” may or may not stand as 2018’s best song about gender inequality. If nothing else, it will almost surely be the one with the highest quality and quantity of dick jokes. Ostensibly riffing on “Tomatogate,” the 2015 scandal in which a leading country radio programmer offered dubious business justifications for the marginalization of female singers, Nielson’s song offers one fruit-flavored double entendre after another in its uproarious dismissal of a male-dominated industry. “Bananas here/ Bananas there/ Seems it’s nothing but bananas everywhere,” Neilson winks—and then she tips the metaphor on its head (so to speak): “It’s banana she want equal pay/ Just for workin’ all night and day.”

It may seem like a novelty, and in fact it almost sounds like one. Nielson’s tune affects the Caribbean lilt of 1950s exotica, calypso roots filtered through Vegas razzle-dazzle. It’s topical, it’s jokey, and it’s sung with a Broadway singer’s performative zeal. But pay attention to how sharp the writing is—not just for how it turns its metaphors inside and out, but for its crisp, canny internal rhymes (“it’ll leave you reeling when you hit the glass ceiling/ Watch your pretty head, take my advice/ Best think twice, just play nice”). And if you listen past the island horns to the high-and-lonesome pedal steel, you’ll hear how the song’s tethered to country traditions. It’s a smart piece of writing, and its wage-inequality protests pack at least as much punch as, say, Margo Price’s similarly themed “Pay Gap,” not least because Neilson’s song has better jokes. Thus it becomes a key to unlocking Sassafrass!, the quietly audacious album to which it belongs—a country album that feels rooted in its craft, yet never held back by conservatism; an album that inhabits many of the conversations the #metoo movement has nurtured, but also feels like it’s made to weather the times and offer enduring appeal.

As a singer, Neilson is a powerhouse, an old-school soul belter who aims for the rafters but never compromises her control, her crisp enunciation, her rounded phrasing. Opener “Stay Outta My Business” is a brassy, retro R&B number; Neilson is coy and commanding, making it clear she could have made an entire career following in Amy Winehouse’s footsteps, though she’s even better on the more ragged, in-the-red rave-up “Miss Jones,” a tribute to Sharon Jones done in the Daptone house style. Neilson handles the quieter moments with similar grace: On the swaying “One Thought of You,” she plays the role of Rosemary Clooney, courting daydreams with slow-burning sensuality. Song after song finds her leaning into character work with an actorly sense of drama: In “A Woman’s Pain” she’s the jaded narrator, trying to keep a cool head despite simmering rage; in “Kitty Cat” she’s a teenage Wanda Jackson, howling and sneering atop woozy rockabilly.

The songs on Sassafrass!—many of them co-writes between Neilson and her brother Jay—run amok with coy, cagy, and often contradictory femininity. When Neilson wonders whether one of her characters is a “damsel in distress” or a “devil in a dress,” she’s playing with archetypes, and the answer is none (or is it all?) of the above. (Somehow it’s reminiscent of Cardi B’s musing: “Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” The whole point is that labels just don’t apply.) Elsewhere, she shows that she can build entire songs from attitude and innuendo, as she does in “Kitty Cat” (“She might… lick and purr and give you a scratch/ but that don’t mean she’s your kitty cat”). She addresses inequality with devastating precision, as in “Stay Outta My Business,” where working moms are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And, she turns stories and types inside out; listen to how “A Woman’s Pain” flips the account of Adam and Eve into inequality’s origin story: “The moment her lips touched forbidden fruit/ He said, ‘I’ll curse you with pain and a man will rule you.’” “Smoking Gun” dances all around recent headlines, charting the abuses of the Hollywood casting couch without ever feeling like it’s tied to the news cycle; “Diamond Ring,” meanwhile, is ruthlessly efficient storytelling, a novelistic pile-up of little details: “Hit the button, elevator goin’ up/ a black leather shoe jams the door before it shuts.”

Too lively to feel retro and too rooted to be a novelty, Sassafrass! is a record that lives within a historic continuum even as it tangles with the ugly present. Throughout these songs, Neilson is engaged in the work of righteousness, using tropes and tradition, withering humor and simmering indignation to paint a picture of three-dimensional femininity and complex humanity. Maybe that’s why she ends the record with a song of desolate vulnerability (“Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six,” a heartsick road song) and then one of romantic allegiance (“Good Man,” where she clings to love even when it seems like a longshot)—flip sides of the same coin, and emotional anchors on a record that’s far too wise to ever be just one thing.