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.

‘Til The Lone Star Light of Day: The simple pleasures of The Marfa Tapes

If I had to live forever with just one “Solitude,” I’d probably pick the one on The Popular Duke Ellington. And if forced to choose a favorite “Amazing Grace,” I reckon it would have to be Aretha’s. But proverbial desert islands notwithstanding, I’m not sure I believe in quote-unquote definitive versions of songs, and I’m not sure that Miranda Lambert does either. On The Marfa Tapes—a reel of non-produced campfire recordings made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall— she sings “Tin Man,” just as she’s probably done at every concert since the song first appeared on The Weight of These Wings. The version here is not radically different from the original, but it does have a slight variance in tone, a casualness that comes with familiarity. She’s not reading it into the public record so much as she’s settling into familiar contours, reacquainting herself with what must seem like a lifetime of memories. At the end of the song, she complains that one of her strings was buzzing, but her pals aren’t here for any self-effacing bullshit. “That was your brain buzzing,” one of them says.

All 15 songs on The Marfa Tapes have a similar looseness. On Wildcard’s “Tequila Does,” the only other familiar tune here, Lambert briefly forgets the words, eliciting giggles. In “Geraldine,” she makes what seems like an impromptu decision to imitate the stutter and skip of a vinyl record (“G-g-Geraldine! Geraldine!”); there is more laughter, and a spontaneous uptick in the song’s bristling energy. Harmony parts sound like they are being worked out in real time. Nearly every song is bookended by jokes, encouragements, or general expressions of enthusiasm from the three performers (the word “fun” comes up a lot), and you can also hear the wind blowing over the microphone, the rustling of trees, the hollow thump of guitars and other gear. This ambiance is crucial to the vibe, creating a connective tissue of warmth and camaraderie that stitches these ragged performances together. Meanwhile, not a single one of these performances sounds like it’s meant to be the definitive take, nor like there is even any interest in achieving a definitive take; The Marfa Tapes is nothing if not a celebration of performance, the way the right song at the right time and in the right company can spark irreplaceable joy. These songs aren’t being immortalized, but savored; not embalmed, but discovered. 

They are all thrillingly low-key, single-take, bare-bones renditions, performed by just the three musicians under the starlight of Marfa, Texas. (Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky describes the album as “somewhere between a demo collection, a live album with no audience, and a lo-fi left turn.”) And if none of the songs sound authoritative, they all sound pretty perfect in their own shaggy way. For most listeners, the standouts will be the big, sad ones: “In His Arms” dreams of the one who got away, while “Waxahachie” traces a post-breakup trail of tears. I’m just as fond of the lighter ones: “Two-Step Down to Texas” suggests that Ingram and Randall share Lambert’s affinity for “old sh!t,” while “We’ll Always Have the Blues” is a breezy shuffle, complete with some rough whistling. Country pros that they are, all three songwriters have a knack for melancholy, chronicling heartache with precision, detail, and economy. (Random line: “I don’t wear my ring no more/ kids and time will learn to love us both.”) But even the saddest songs are played with a palpable sense of joy; they revel in the pleasure of sharing music together, if only for a moment, if just for a night.

Just Tell Me Everything I Want to Hear: 10 for a desert island

Today is my birthday, and what better way to observe it than by writing about my proverbial desert island discs?

01. Tiny Voices | Joe Henry

Among contemporary songwriters, Joe is unparalleled at writing songs that sound like they could have been standards. It is relatively easy to imagine, say, Tony Bennet singing these melodies, though comparatively hard to imagine him singing the lyrics about a godforsaken army lost in a desert, or the ones about third-world revolutionaries burning books to keep the dogs away. It’s harder still to imagine any straight-laced song-and-dance man allowing his band to be quite so loose, to tiptoe quite so close to the edge of chaos, as Joe’s ensemble of rock and jazz studio pros. These reflections on the human preference for self-deception, and on the more demanding and uncomfortable way of love and truth, were written in the days following 9/11, and with each passing year seem to grow wiser, more comforting, and more chilling.

02. Love & Theft | Bob Dylan

I think this is the best Bob Dylan album— by which I mean it’s the funniest, and the one where it sounds like Bob is having the most fun. We could all name a Dylan album or two where it frankly sounds like he doesn’t give a shit, but he is fully in the moment here, investing the full weight of his stature and experience into the romantic parts, the prophetic bits, and especially the gags. Two decades since hearing it for the first time, I remain delighted that Bob would include both a knock-knock joke and a Groucho Marx routine within his endlessly complicated narratives. This also happens to be one of the most comprehensive summaries of his many crossed paths: The rural mystique of John Wesley Harding, the myth-making of The Basement Tapes, the careening energy of Highway 61 Revisited, and a few subtle reminders that his Born Again era was no joke at all. 

03. The Birth of Soul | Ray Charles

A superhero origin story. There are maybe two or three of these 53 songs where it seems as if Charles is sitting at his piano bench, holding the threads of jazz and blues and church music in his hands but unsure of how to connect them. He figures it out quickly, and immediately makes it sound effortless. This is the birth of a sound and of a persona, rollicking and jubilant even in its midnight laments, and it is impossible to be unhappy while listening to it.

04. Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission

No other band conveys tranquility, and no other band writes lyrics that work as well as standalone poetry, as The Innocence Mission. Their masterpiece is an autumnal chronicle of infertility, disappointment, dreams deferred, and the struggle to maintain a hopeful countenance through a trying season. It is also an album about long-expected children, meaning it’s not just one of the most beautiful and perfect folk albums ever made, but one of the most fitting for Advent. And not for nothing: At the scariest moments of the pandemic, this was the music my heart longed for, the life preserver I kept within reach.

05. The Bright Mississippi | Allen Toussaint

Anytime I need a shot of pure joy, this is the album I play: A dozen songs associated with the City of New Orleans, played with an easygoing joie de vivre by one of the city’s most distinctive pianists. The full-band performances crackle with a sense of discovery, and while they are informed by the jazz tradition, I hear this mostly as folk music: Toussaint relishes the chance to make these songs his own even as he takes seriously the broader conversation he’s stepping into. 

06. Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu

An R&B album that hits every note just perfectly, from the beats to the singing to the unstoppable momentum of the album sequencing. Its analog sound may be old-school, but there’s way too much personality and imagination for this music to ever signify as retro or nostalgic. Conveying vulnerability from beneath bravado, this is an album that requires all 70 of its minutes to fully articulate its complex emotions; I probably listened a dozen times before it dawned on me that this is low-key a breakup album.

07. The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine has been my favorite band for about two decades, and they have at least half a dozen albums that could occupy this space. I come back to The Long Surrender because it’s the one that comes closest to summarizing all the things they do well, including their sense of humor, their knack for spiritual autobiography, and their penchant for finding grace notes in sad songs. These particular sad songs are about lifelong pursuits, creative or religious or maybe both, and they explore the two big paradoxes: Failure as a conduit for grace, brokenness as a catalyst for beauty. 

08. The Popular Duke Ellington | Duke Ellington

If this isn’t your favorite Duke album, then it’s either the Duke album you’ve been searching for, or the Duke album you never knew you needed. Deep into the LP era and decades removed from his cultural prime, America’s greatest composer got the band together to play the hits, if only to ensure they got immortalized in the long-player format. The resulting “greatest hits” album is a perfectly sequenced and pristinely recorded tribute to Ellington’s ravishing sense of melody, his prevailing sense of play, and the instantly-identifiable cast of characters assembled in his orchestra. Where so many jazz albums are marked by their sense of discovery and spontaneity, this one mines immense pleasure from familiarity. Every second is packed with delight.

09. Black Messiah | D’Angelo

Bears the unique distinction of being both long-gestated and rush-released: Its deep textures and lived-in funk suggest the culmination of 14 years’s careful craft, while its unyielding affirmations of dignity always remind me that it was dropped on the world as a response to violence against Black bodies. More song-oriented than the canonized, groove-heavy Voodoo, Black Messiah has everything: Raw dissonance and delicate beauty, prayers and protests, love songs and laments.

10. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert

Leave it to Miranda to highlight the full breadth of country music’s storytelling potential. Her divorce album skips tabloid confession in favor of metaphors (the one about the getaway driver), non-metaphors (the one about her pink sunglasses), aphorisms (“if you use alcohol as a sedative, and ‘bless your heart’ as a negative”), soul-searching, a few jokes, and a unifying concept (the prodigal’s endless highway) that pulls it all together. 

Noise So Wonderful: A rock ‘n’ roll round-up feat. Dinosaur Jr., The Armed, & The Hold Steady

Rock and roll!

Sweep It Into Space | Dinosaur Jr.

Who would have predicted the sustained pleasure of Dinosaur Jr.’s second act? If forced to choose, I would probably still name the rip-roaring Beyond as my favorite record of their comeback era, which has now proved far more durable than their first go-around. But all of the Mach II albums have been good, and the Kurt Vile-assisted Sweep It Into Space may be the one that sounds most effortless. The critical buzzword is “breezy,” and sure enough, the group has never sounded less strained as it rattles off guitar heroics, garage-rock clatter, and relaxed drawl. A full four songs start with the word “I,” attesting to the loose, conversational tone; my favorite is the gleeful “I Met the Stones,” sadly not a fan encounter between J. Mascis and Keith Richards, though its abundance of riffs suggest it might have been a fruitful summit for both parties. After a few listens, I have even grown fond of “Garden,” an endearing jam-bandy turn from Lou Barlow. Throughout the album, these guys sound like they’re having a blast; like they could keep doing this forever.

ULTRAPOP | The Armed

I’m mostly a dummy when it comes to hardcore music. When last I spent any extended time in this space, it was because of the bruisingly good Turnstile record released in early 2018. The acclaimed new album from The Armed is bruising-er still, a 38-minute pummeling of screams and wails, what sounds like a dozen guitars and at least half as many drum kits. But while the music is cacophonous, it never feels undirected: At times the noise congeals into mutant pop melodies, and even at their rowdiest these noisemakers move with a certain fluidity of sound and unity of purpose. I’ve been playing it as ambient music: Its ripples of maximalist energy signify as sheer exuberance, and who couldn’t use some of that?

Open Door Policy | The Hold Steady

Their best album at least since 2008’s Stay Positive, and maybe even since the classic Boys and Girls in America. Granted, that’s a low bar. America’s bar band realized long ago that they couldn’t maintain their piledriving momentum forever, but it took several so-so albums for them to come up with a worthy substitute. Open Door Policy is it, a slower but by no means enervated collection of textured, colorful rock and roll. It’s orchestrated with drama and a real sense of narrative flow, which is the perfect kind of accompaniment for Craig Finn’s loquacious character studies, each one an exercise in empathy. In fact, Open Door Policy feels like a bridge between early Hold Steady and Finn’s solo work: It’s as painterly as I Need a New War, but with the kind of effortless flexing that only a veteran band can deliver.

It Ain’t Wrong for You to Play Along: Jon Batiste’s coming-of-age blockbuster

Jon Batiste has referred to WE ARE as a culmination, a bold claim for someone whose career has already proven so fruitful and unpredictable; in addition to his tenure with Stephen Colbert and his venerated association with Pixar, a quick scan of Spotify reveals 10 projects credited to his name, including the handsome, T-Bone Burnett-produced Hollywood Africans and a pair of live jazz recordings from 2019. But even a cursory listen to WE ARE proves that he is telling the truth. The album proceeds with a  purposefulness, confidence, and vision that suggest Batiste has effectively been apprenticing, honing skills that he’s only now summoning into the service of a fully-formed statement. Elsewhere, Batiste has christened WE ARE a “Black pop masterpiece,” another comment requiring some contextualization. It’s not a statement of hubris nor even an assessment of the album’s quality so much as a simple acknowledgement that he’s drawing from some particularly deep wells, synthesizing a variety of traditions into something that feels modern, lively, and accessible. This is one of those albums that sounds like it’s in dialogue with the ancestors, bringing history to bear on the concerns of the present. Indeed, Batiste recorded much of the album in quarantine, and wrote some of the material following a series of jazz marches and peaceful protests against the continued violence against Black bodies; it is a document of the George Floyd summer but also a reminder of all the historical ghosts we’ve yet to really reckon with. Conveying urgency in its sound and its steady momentum, WE ARE attests to its gestation in a pressure cooker… but it meets the moment with a graceful poise, a hopeful heart, and irrepressible joy. It’s hard to overstate the confident bearing of this record; its clarity of mission.

Loosely sequenced as a kind of bildungsroman, WE ARE posits Batiste’s coming-of-age in New Orleans as a model for collective awakening and engagement. The album journeys through blues, early rock and roll, R&B, and Black church music, with connective tissue provided by Batiste’s Soul-ish piano interstitials and grainy field recordings from his hometown. To list every Curtis Mayfield-styled string arrangement or diamond-cut James Brown groove might give the wrong impression— this is a work of synthesis and evolution, not pastiche— though it is at least worth mentioning how much the structure of the album resembles the imaginative, socially-conscious pop records of Stevie Wonder’s golden age. A student of history but by no means a stodgy traditionalist, Batiste understands you can’t celebrate Black music (nor the music of the South) without acknowledging hip-hop, which he does with surprisingly persuasive trap beats on the muggy, hometown-repping “BOYHOOD.” That he proves himself a nimble rapper is no surprise given how much this album celebrates Black voices, literally and figuratively: You’ll hear Batiste the hype man, the husky soul belter, and the smooth-talking loverman, plus the beaming voice of Mavis Staples as the oracle of ancestral wisdom. Indeed, one of the triumphs of the album is how much it signifies through pure sound. “CRY” gets around to acknowledging the plight of migrants and immigrants, but the lyrics are almost unnecessary; everything from its form to its solemn gait attests to an unspoken history of lament, in much the same way that “WE ARE” carries so much culture and context in its crisp marching band rumble. These sounds articulate above and beyond written language.

In fact, Batiste’s lyrics are the only component of the album that ever feel anything less than sure-footed, mostly when his efforts to balance autobiography with universality coalesce into generalization. “SHOW ME THE WAY” has a sweet premise— the singer is inviting a woman home with him for the chaste yet intimate act of spinning some records together—  but Batiste’s laundry list of luminaries, including the Beatles and the Stones, skews a little too generic. (A reference to jazz flutist Hubert Laws is the one really fascinating insight into Batiste’s own stacks of wax.) He sounds much more confident in “BOYHOOD,” where even his references to the most touristy of New Orleans haunts are delivered with hometown pride and familiarity. And maybe in the end, Batiste’s attempts to make WE ARE as broad as possible are part of its point, and key to its charm. Listening to the album over and over again, I thought a few times of Prince, another Black music polymath who gave the impression he could do anything, and whose superhumanity was often in service of weirdness, cheerful transgression, and kink. By contrast, Batiste’s vibe is wholesomeness. (“ADULTHOOD” reminds us all to go to church on Sunday; “BOYHOOD” features a fatherly voice declaring that he’s proud, just in case any listener needs to hear it.) When he creates loose-limbed, hip-shaking funk, as he does on “FREEDOM,” it’s not narrowly erotic so much as it’s broadly affirming of Black dignity, and suggestive of an entire range of human experience. When he sings “I just need you,” which he does on the inhibition-slaying “I NEED YOU,” he could be addressing anyone, but he is definitely addressing you, the listener. WE ARE is doggedly inspirational and clearly quite serious in its premise of unity, forward motion, and hope. And because it’s also clear-eyed in its lament, that premise feels credible. This album is good enough to make true believers out of just about anyone.

In Dreams: A breakthrough for Valerie June

A Valerie June fan of many years, I can say without hyperbole that The Moon and Stars is the kind of album I always dreamed she would make. I wrote about it for In Review. A teaser: “The Moon and Stars is arresting in its confidence and vision, pure bravado in the way June draws from folk forms but then bursts them at the seams with sound, imagination, and color.”

Serenity Now: The disciplined beauty of Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra

Speaking of the great and the jazz-adjacent, I wrote about Promises, new from Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I didn’t listen to the album until after it had been anointed by other prominent critics, and confess to being initially underwhelmed by the music’s simplicity and repetition. Suffice to say, it has won me over in a big way, and I have returned to its unpretentious elegance more than a few times. Would recommend.