Home at Last: Short takes on Natalie Bergman, Dawn Richard

FLOOD Magazine just posted a round-up of the year’s best albums thus far, including a couple of blurbs from yours truly. Both albums I wrote about deal, in some form or fashion, with the concept of home: With Second Line, Dawn Richard refracts her New Orleans upbringing through the prism of individuality. And with Mercy (an impossibly good, utterly beguiling gospel record), Natalie Bergman copes with loss by longing for heaven. Both are worth your time and full attention. And by the way, my own ballot is available here.

At the Half: Top 10 albums of 2021 (so far)

The usual disclaimers apply: These rankings can and will change (though I’d be very surprised if my #1 and #2 looked any different come December). There’s still plenty that I haven’t heard, and a couple of these are still new enough that my assessment of them might change. But for now, if you’re looking for recommendations or just want to catch up…

  1. Allison Russell | Outside Child
  2. Natalie Bergman | Mercy
  3. Jon Batiste | WE ARE
  4. Tyler, The Creator | Call Me If You Get Lost
  5. Olivia Rodrigo | SOUR
  6. Valerie June | The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
  7. Sons of Kemet | Black to the Future
  8. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis | Carnage
  9. Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi | They’re Calling Me Home
  10. Blake Mills & Pino Palladino | Notes with Attachments

Annie Update: Checking in with Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe

At In Review Online, I’ve written short takes on two new projects from the Pistol Annies universe. First, there’s my condensed take on The Marfa Tapes, transporting campfire recordings from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. (The extended version is available here.) And then there’s my investigation of Rosegold, an Ashley Monroe album that qualifies as a bit of a disappointment, though by no means a disaster. (I’ll stan The Blade forever.)

All I Did Was Try My Best: New-and-notables from May and June

SOUR | Olivia Rodrigo

I’m not sure which brings me more pleasure: The thought of so many Enneagram 4 dads using this album to further their post-folklore emotional breakthroughs, or the thought of so many teenagers literally discovering rock and roll through Rodrigo’s snarling pop-punk. (Serious question: When’s the last time guitar-based music lit up the pop charts like this album has?) I think she’s a prodigiously gifted writer, conjuring a rush of emotions with equal parts operatic exaggeration and scalpel precision. She’s funny when she’s being passive-aggressive, funnier when she’s just being aggressive, and devastating in her smart, specific takes on heartache. Not unlike her pal Taylor, Rodrigo captures what it’s like to be young and know everything, cataloging her experiences with bruising finality. Singalong album of the year, though only when my kids aren’t around to soak up the potty mouth.

Hardware | Billy F. Gibbons

With Hardware, the septuagenarian ZZ Top leader has delivered the year’s most irresistible rock and roll record—and, along with The Marfa Tapes, one of its deepest explorations of Texas’ rich musical heritage. Working with a small combo, an endless reserve of guitar tricks , and his own craggy drawl, Gibbons does a lot with a little, offering everything from pulverizing riff rockers to surging power pop, from frenzied surf-rock to spooky spoken-word narration. There’s a vague dirty-old-man-ishness to his lyrics that hinders my enthusiasm just a tad, but any sense of tastelessness is countered by solid jokes (“you’d think I was a highway the way she hit the road”). There’s nothing flashy or hip about it, but boy is it a pleasure. 

Path of Wellness | Sleater-Kinney

There are a few things you won’t hear on the tenth Sleater-Kinney album: The urgency of Dig Me Out. The menacing grandeur of The Woods. The adventurous spirit of The Center Won’t Hold. Janet Weiss. Heck, even Corin Tucker’s glorious banshee wail is notably absent. So what do you get instead? Lots of low end. A reminder that, for as great as they’ve always been with riffs, they’re equally gifted with groove. Eleven songs that seldom rise to the A-level but never drop below a solid B. Proof that a perfectly-fine Sleater-Kinney record would be the envy of most band’s catalogs.

The Off-Season | J. Cole

I tend to admire J. Cole albums for their storytelling prowess, but this time around, I’m taken by the sheer verbal dexterity and old-head rap thrills. Bar for bar, this may be the toughest, fiercest Cole album yet, and his joy on the mic is infectious. His biggest flex? Recruiting young guns like 21 Savage and Lil Baby, bending their gifts to accommodate his more technical, braggadocious style.

Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent

I grew up listening to albums by David Bowie and the New York Dolls, so I have no problem with artists who revel in artifice. The problem with St. Vincent’s latest metamorphosis isn’t that it’s so obviously a costume, but that it’s an unpersuasive one. Her replication of louche 70s rock is impressive but never immersive; it’s the difference between seeing a stage show that really pulls you into its world, versus one where you simply sit back and admire the wigs. That this belabored cosplay is paired with lyrics that are ostensibly about her own family drama (I’m sure some press release has christened this “her most personal album yet”) is neither here nor there. There are some strong songs, and I’d put “My Baby Wants a Baby” on any best-of playlist, but overall this feels like the least essential St. Vincent album.

JORDI | Maroon 5

I actually harbor some affection for the earliest Maroon 5 albums— back when they actually sounded like a band, and when they traded in a blue-eyed soul style that was somewhat distinctive on the pop charts. This year’s model feels as algorithm-driven as anything by Greta Van Fleet, a mashup of current trends, anodyne lyrics, and cloying guest features that lacks anything resembling a point of view. They have become a band that signifies nothing but populist ambition. Okay, okay: The song with Stevie Nicks on it is pretty catchy. 

Leave My Sorrow and Pain: A little rebirth for Allison Russell

The thing that really brought me clarity about Outside Child was learning that Allison Russell began writing it while on tour with Our Native Daughters. You remember Our Native Daughters, right? The group that proclaimed the rightful place of Black women in the unwritten history of banjo music, and put out a terrific album on Smithsonian Folkways that lingered long over the intergenerational bruises of the Atlantic Slave Trade? My favorite song on that album was Russell’s “Quasheba Quasheba,” which recounted the kidnapping and subjugation of an ancestral grandmother, but also celebrated the generations that have flowered in her wake. It’s a song about violence done to Black bodies, but also about how violent cycles can be broken, and even how they can bear redemptive ends that the abuser never imagined.

The songs on Outside Child are about the same things, only here, the violence is fresher, and closer to home. A song called “4th Day Prayer” outlines Russell’s story with a single harrowing couplet: “Father used me like a wife/ Mother turned the blindest eye/ Stole my body, spirit, pride/ He did, he did each night.” That’s about everything you need to know, save that Russell ultimately ran away from her abuser, living as an orphan and a runaway on the streets of Montreal. (“Montreal” is also the first song on the album, a hymn of gratitude to the city’s nurturing benevolence.) And that, though she is only now telling her story in public, Russell has not been idle; Outside Child tells a story that begins in brokenness but moves toward wholeness, chronicling a lifetime’s healing process. Not for nothing is its penultimate song called “Little Rebirth.”

After listening to the album for the first time, I went back to Real Midnight, an album Russell made in 2016 with her husband JT Nero, who together have a great band called Birds of Chicago. I have listened to that album close to a hundred times, I’d bet, finding kinship in its very relatable set of anxieties; like, how can a person ever feel at peace as a parent or a lover or a spouse when there are real wolves at the door, when nothing lasts forever, when things can end at any moment? (“Once she was born, I was never not afraid,” Joan Didion wrote, referencing her daughter Quintana.) I never knew to contextualize Real Midnight’s struggle in the broader story of Russell’s, but knowing it now makes that album sound sharper, somehow; its worries about the world’s capriciousness are not just theoretical, and neither is its sense of optimism. There is more of that on Outside Child. When Russell declares herself the “mother of the Evening Star,” it is a nod to her own daughter; to the end of one cycle and the beginning of something better.

I should get around to saying that Outside Child sounds earthy and pristine. It was recorded over four days in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler, and bolsters its storytelling with a colorful, porous library of roots music influences. (Birds of Chicago fans, take note: There are some very good Alli clarinet solos here, nearly enough for us to compile a definitive listicle. You might also be happy to know that JT plays on every song and sings on one of them, something I didn’t know I needed to hear until I was hearing it.) “Persephone” is nimble country-rock, comforting in its light touch and gentle gait. “4th Day Prayer” conjures a survivor’s swagger through fecund gospel harmonies. “The Runner” is a minor-key banger, celebrating the same rock-and-roll that Russell identifies as her deliverance from despair and purposelessness. When I hear a song called “The Runner,” I can’t help but assume it to be a song about prodigalism… but where the prodigal son in the Bible eventually wanders home, Russell finds home welling up around her. So, more like a Road to Damascus moment; not a song about finding something, but being found.

And this is one of the remarkable things about Outside Child: It is a rare gift of generosity and courage, and the bravery of Russell’s truth-telling lies in how it refuses to diminish either the darkness or the light. The world of Outside Child is one where abusers prowl like bloodthirsty hunters (real wolves, indeed), and Russell’s candor at times warrants a trigger warning. (“‘These are the best years of your life,’” she muses on one song. “If I’d believed it, I’d have died.”) But it’s also a world of benevolent cities, found family, and the redemptive power of music and art; because she is so honest about the darkness, you trust her when she invites you into a “little rebirth,” or drains the toxicity from a long-lodged poison arrow. There are signs of life everywhere, and often in places you wouldn’t think to look. When I’m listening to an album concerned with sexual abuse and see a title that reads “All of the Women,” my heart sinks; it’s about just what you think it’s about, and it’s a tough one, yet there is something amazing and beautiful in the way Russell finds room in her own story to advocate for others who’ve born abuse.

A few years ago, I was in the audience for a little Q&A session that Russell and Nero gave as part of Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival. I don’t remember the query that prompted it, but at one point Russell admitted to feeling self-conscious about her voice when she was a child, its slight rasp leading some to wonder if she’d come down with something. I’ve thought about that a lot while listening to Outside Child, an album where she never sounds less than confident, and where she renders something lovely from a traumatic history. I think about it when I play “Nightflyer,” a bold reclamation of the self. (It’s sort of her version of the Dylan song “I Contain Multitudes.”) I think about it when I play the cathartic album-ending “Joyful Motherfuckers,” where Russell speaks a word of blessing so surprising and powerful that I immediately began sobbing the first time I heard it, and also let out a string of gobsmacked swear words. And I think about it, and Quasheba, and whether art can really transform pain into something beautiful and redemptive, when I play “4th Day Prayer,” which features this nursery rhyme chorus: “One for the hate that loops and loops/ Two for the poison at the roots/ Three for the children breaking through/ Four for the day we’re standing in the sun.” I think what she’s singing about here is breaking patterns of violence; how it’s a process, potentially one that spans generation, but how it’s possible to achieve wholeness for ourselves and our children and the people who will call us ancestors. And based on all available evidence, I believe her.

Counting Bodies: Sons of Kemet get moving

At FLOOD, I wrote about the tremendous new Sons of Kemet record, Black to the Future.

An excerpt: “… though the undertow of Black to the Future is curdled indignation, let it be said that while the music is thrillingly visceral, it’s never violent. Rather than impose suffering on the listener, this music channels suffering into music of coursing momentum, vibrant interplay, and hip-shaking groove. Shorthanding it as a jazz record feels inevitable, and isn’t wrong, but don’t miss out on just how eclectic the album is in its sense of motion. It occasionally moves like bop, but just as often moves like dub, like hip-hop, like calypso, like highlife. Say, have you heard that this is a dance record?”

Time & Again: Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Swift make old songs new

At In Review, I’ve written about a couple of albums that feature new versions of older songs. There’s They’re Calling Me Home, new from Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, which uses ancient tunes about death and isolation to help us assess the current moment. (It’s very much a sister album to there is no Other, and nearly as good.) And then there’s Taylor Swift‘s meticulously recreated version of Fearless, which casts songs of innocence as songs of experience, and is pretty close to un-reviewable.