Josh Hurst

DANCIN’ ON THE ASTRAL PLANE

Or: Favorites of 2017, a quarter of the way in.

valerie

“Surely a monthly log of worthy new releases is something I can maintain,” I wrote back in February– yet here we are, with me overdue for a March round-up but insufficient time on my hands to do my favorite recent releases any justice.

I’ll make it up to you, I swear– possibly with a mid-April round-up, or maybe just with an epic post at month’s end.

For now, and since it’s About That Time anyway, let me offer some quick recommendations… ten favorites from the year, a quarter of the way into it.

  1. The Order of Time, Valerie June
  2. Close Ties, Rodney Crowell
  3. Windy City, Alison Krauss
  4. Mental Illness, Aimee Mann
  5. Hot Thoughts, Spoon
  6. Stitch of Time, Tift Merritt
  7. Run the Jewels 3, Run the Jewels
  8. Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens
  9. Semper Femina, Laura Marling
  10. Natural Conclusion, Rose Cousins

IT’LL DO NO ONE WRONG

Or: Worthy new releases from February.

windy-city

Some good ones this month, and more coming next go-around; I can already tell you that March’s new release crop includes some tremendous recordings from Rodney Crowell, Valerie June, Spoon, and more. For now, here are nine records I’ve enjoyed spending time with in February.

Alison Krauss, Windy City. For those of us who cut our teeth on the spare, uncluttered production ethos of T-Bone Burnett, and who learned everything we know about country music from Waylon, Willie, and Merle, even the suggestion of lushness is suspect. Then again, no Waylon song cuts to the bone quite like the schmaltzy, string-drenched “We Had It All,” so maybe it’s not surprising that my favorite Alison Krauss album is the one that bypasses bluegrass pyrotechnics in favor of splashy orchestrations and layer upon layer of emotional shading. Windy City captures a side of country music that’s just as “real” as the stripped-down outlaw stance preferred by Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, one that mines the tones and colors of the orchestra for feeling and pathos just as surely as Duke Ellington did, or for that matter Ray Charles in his C&W mode. Produced with Willie’s pal Buddy Cannon, this is a standards collection, albeit one where the selections are mostly less-traveled. And it’s phenomenal, down to every last steel twang, string section flourish, and brass moan. “I Never Cared for You” turns the old Teatro beat into Mariachi exotica; the lushness in the production (piano, strings, pedal steel, hot blues guitar licks, harmony singers, and swirling percussion all carry the chorus home) doesn’t mask the pain, but it does make it go down smoother. The same’s true of her “Poison Love,” which is breezy and wistful where Doug Sahm’s was thorny and raucous. “Gentle on My Mind” sustains delicate beauty even as it gains momentum, layer upon layer of melody and sound. And there’s a great moment on “River in the Rain” where a finger-plucked reverie gives way to the sudden sound of the full orchestra, roaring back to life, raging against the solitude. Man, it’s something. The whole record is fun, touching, and endlessly playable.

Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin once wrote. The second solo album from erstwhile Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens is all about the cyclical narratives that shape and constrain our human flourishing, and about the frail and magnificent vessels that carry the seed of those stories down bloodlines and across generations—folk songs, church songs, campfire songs, protest songs. It starts with one about slavery and rape (you should’ve heard ‘em just around midnight, another singer might offer), and other material tackles events more recent (the Birmingham Sunday bombing of 1963) and, well, much more recent (police brutality). Strict chronology isn’t the issue: the point is that these things are our story, and always have been. Here, they’re dealt with; they’re spoken aloud. Our cruelty is acknowledged, our brokenness illumined, our resilience affirmed. Just as Dylan builds new songs from the old “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ riff and steals lyrics from Charley Patton, Giddens constructs her songs from spare parts—from old ideas and popular problems. It’s heavy, of course, but not depressive: song itself is weaponized here, raw beauty refracted through the prism of heartache, sounding like folk and gospel, R&B and even hip-hop. Tomorrow is My Turn will prove easier to return to, I imagine, but Freedom Highway is more ambitious, and just as essential. “We can’t do much more than to sing you a song,” she says at one point—but she knows good and well that this is no small thing. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

Son of the Velvet Rat, Dorado. I keep thinking of Christopher Walken in the infamous cowbell sketch. “Really explore the space,” he urges, and here’s a band that takes his advice, crafting dusty grooves and high-and-lonesome laments that aren’t soundscapes so much as never-ending vistas, widescreen black-and-white movies shown under cloudless desert sky. These ten songs roll on and on like time and space don’t mean a thing, gripping even with slow tempos and weary bones. Give some credit to producer Joe Henry, who makes these songs sound full without ever sounding busy; there are shakers and maracas, funeral organs and mournful fiddles, endless guitar strumming and the ghosts of mariachi horns, all of it floating into the wind, a kickdrum banging through the whole thing like the creak of the earth spinning on its axis. Give the rest of the credit to singer Georg Altziebler, who rasps his way through fever-dream lyrics about blood red shoes and insatiable needs like they’re campfire ballads; and, to his wife Heike Binder, who does a fair amount of the playing and matches the vividness of the lyrics. “None of us are free/ I’m not without you/ You’re not without me/ That’s what love must be,” one song goes; it’s a treacherous entanglement, and they make it sound sad and comforting at the same time.

Rose Cousins, Natural Conclusion. I really ought to know better than to assume that any song narrated in the first person is an act of autobiography, but it’s hard not to think that the songs here are all true confessions of Rose Cousins. This is the kind of record that pulls you close; the opening song, “Chosen,” starts as a whisper but builds into a mighty ruckus, a trick employed on several of these songs without ever getting old. In other words: You have to lean into this one, but the payoff’s there. Joe Henry produced this one, too, with a cast of sympathetic musicians who mostly stay out of the way but add flashes of color when needed: “Chains” is a grinding electric blues, and “Lock and Key” floats and sways to a jazzy shuffle, piano riding atop finger-popping upright bass. It’s that piano that’s at the center, building into a rhapsody on “Like Trees,” the cling and clatter of Jay Bellerose’s drums and cymbals mirroring the lyric’s dislocation. And these are deep lyrics, in the confessional vein but steeped in religious imagery: On the first song Cousins is a prodigal who’s running from love, not sure if she even deserves to be “Chosen.” Later on she wants to be saved; she fumbles for a map or a guide; she goes looking for grace. There’s restlessness and redemption here; what once was lost may one day be found. And I haven’t even told you about the best part of this record, Cousins’ voice—which you really ought to hear for yourself.

Sampha, Process. This one puts me in the same headspace as the great records of the classic singer/songwriter era—back when Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon were all uniting supple studio craft and writerly ambition with deep expressiveness, and proving that craft could be its own reward. Thing is, the lyrics on Sampha’s record are really just sketches, scaffolding on which he builds monuments to shaking vulnerability; his arrangements say as much as the words do, like on “Plastic 100 °C,” which hums and sighs with delicate stringed instruments. “Kora Sings” is just as trembling and soft, right up to the point where he knocks his drum kit down the stairs and it somehow collapses into a raucous groove. And “Blood on Me” is relentless; you don’t need to hear a single word he says to know that it’s a song about running scared. (I reviewed this one over at FLOOD.)

Elbow, Little Fictions. It opens with an orchestra in full, cosmic swirl around everyman Guy Garvey, who’s singing about a little girl who sees the the world through the eyes of childlike faith and wonder. It’s like a U2 anthem, only it’s actually bigger and more open-hearted, if you can believe it—intimate vulnerability, pitched toward the nosebleed section. It could almost be the quintessential Elbow song—its good-natured optimism too sincere and too hard-won to ever count as schmaltz—but then on the next one, the piano player goes into lounge mode while the drummer taps out a disco beat on pots and pans. “I will fly swift and true straight to you like an arrow,” it begins. And then: “Fall in love with me.” Who could say no? They get me every time. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

Quelle Chris, Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often. “Loving you is complicated,” Kendrick Lamar once declared—and of course, he was talking to himself. This Quelle Chris album spends 17 songs interrogating the idea of self-love (the song called “Buddies” is a look in the mirror), and, as a flipside, self-hate. Of course, The Life of Pablo also turns hip-hop swagger and bravado on their heads, and like that album, this one feels like it runs a little long. Even so, Chris is kind of a kooky guy whose weird sense of humor and hazy Madvillainy production are charming, warts and all. Who wouldn’t love this guy? (I reviewed this one for FLOOD.)

Ryan Adams, Prisoner. Calling this Adams’ divorce album gives Prisoner a sense of distinction and an air of thematic cohesion that albums like Ryan Adams and Ashes & Fire lacked, though in truth, I think it’s exactly as skillful as those albums, and exactly as good at filtering dislocation and unease through the prism of mopey Morrisey-isms and shambolic heartland rock. Adams makes this kind of thing seem so easy, which may be his blessing and his curse: It’s hard to be bowled over by yet another album of capable craft, so it’s worth noting that not every singer/songwriter who gets his heart broken can make his misery sound so warm and comforting.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Got Soul. The songs here are nothing to write home about, sandbagged by a lot of jam band tropes and clichés, so I don’t mind that Randolph burns right through ‘em, as if they’re nothing but kindling for his Pentecostal fire and steel guitar inferno. I can’t help but think there’s still a classic Robert Randolph album waiting to be made, one where he brings this level of heat to songs that are worthier, but you can’t question his talent, or that this thing sounds great while it’s playing. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

I’LL SAY THIS ABOUT THAT

Or: Worthy new releases from January.

tift

With a third son on the way, a new gig at Slant, the recurring responsibilities of my day job, ongoing work for Flood, and a few other projects on the back end, I’m not sure that I can commit to writing the sorts of long, exploratory record reviews I was writing this time last year. Surely a monthly log of worthy new releases is something I can maintain, however—and hey, with a three-album Dylan set on the way, I wouldn’t be shocked if I found the time to buckle down and really dig into a handful of truly major new albums here and there.

Tift Merritt, Stitch of the World. Tift’s latest collection of earthbound love songs and weary travelogues sounds hard-won: “Heartache is an Uphill Climb,” she tells us on one track, and you can just imagine how “Icharus” turns out. She’s always had a crack in her voice to sell stuff like this, and here it’s backed by a rowdy backing band that shows up ready to roll up their sleeves and tousle their hair; drummer Jay Bellerose shakes, rattles, and rolls his way through “Dusty Old Man,” the grittiest thing she’s ever recorded, and in no small part thanks to his rimshots, tambourine shakes, and booming bass drum. But this is Tift’s album, and she’s always been the real deal; I’m as impressed by her precision with words and melody on “Heartache…” as I am with the lived-in vibe she conjures on “My Boat.” And I haven’t even mentioned that Sam Beam sings on three of these. Even without him, this would likely be her strongest album. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 3. I can’t help but wonder: If Hillary Clinton had won the election, would these guys sound like just a couple of cranks, as opposed to seers and doomsayers who we really should’ve been listening to all along? The third album called Run the Jewels is an extended I-told-you-to, but one that leaves plenty of room for us to join them on the lifeboat; it’s also my favorite of their three albums, the one where there’s the most room to breathe amidst the weaponized profanity, shit-talking, and rage. All of hip-hop’s tropes, including the ones you never knew were political, turn revolutionary here, and thank God Mike and El-P are on the side of the people: When Mike talks about doling out “hurt and despair” to Satan himself, it somehow seems empowering, ennobling to all of us. And anyone who thinks they’re nihilists hasn’t spent much time with “2100,” a funky cut with BOOTS: “Cause I don’t study war no more/ I don’t hate the poor no more/ Gettin’ more ain’t what’s more/ Only thing more is the love/ So when you see me/ Please greet me with a heart full/ And a pound and a hug.” That’s how the resistance starts. (I reviewed this one for FLOOD.)

Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life. They’ve got principles, which means another black-and-white band photo on the cover, another LP with eight songs and lots of whoahs and yeahs. But their principles don’t prevent them from dabbling in some keyboards and drum loops here and there, a shift slightly less seismic than when Jack White put a bass part on “Seven Nation Army,” but still: it’s something you notice. Their great gifts are that, for all their primitivism and simplicity, they sing clearly and write strong melodies, so it doesn’t take long to pick up on what these songs are about. Basically, they’re a little jittery about growing up, getting older, and hanging on to a world that just keeps spinning. But then, who isn’t?

The xx, I See You. Bigger, bolder, fuller, peppier, still pretty sad. (I reviewed this one for FLOOD.)

Rodney Crowell, “It Ain’t Over Yet.” I don’t normally review singles, but I’ll make an exception for what may be my favorite Rodney Crowell song ever, wielding the power of autobiography to embolden a song about failing, and how that doesn’t have to be the end of your story. (You’d think the guy had written a memoir or something.) Consider: For a song about how a woman saved him, how he blew it, how they’ve made peace, and how the lucky dog’s landed another shot with another woman, he actually gets his ex-wife to join him in the back-and-forth. It’s pretty bold, and John Paul White also makes a strong impression as Crowell’s world-weary fellow traveler. They’ve all taken a few licks, but they’ve gotta believe the best is yet to come. I reckon we all do.

By way of teaser, I’ll close by saying that I’ve already heard and enjoyed some good ones from Rhiannon Giddens and Quelle Chris, plus just-released albums from Elbow and Sampha; I imagine I’ll have more to say about these and more in about a month’s time.

ALL FOR THE SAKE OF THE SONG, PART II: Favorite Albums of 2016, 10-1

 

birds

As I may have mentioned, 2016 was a banner year for significant new music, enough so that I could barely whittle my favorites down to a tight Top 40. Today we burrow down further still: What follows are my most treasured albums of the year, the ones I can count on my own 10 fingers. The criteria, as always: Mystery, revelation, vision, humor, entertainment, humanity. These are records that revel in being made by human beings of flesh and blood, telling stories that they and no one else could tell. They delight in incarnation, and point us to bigger things unseen.

  1. Lovers and Leavers | Hayes Carll

lovers and leavers

Carll has always been an ace songwriter, but there is both a new seriousness and a joyous freedom to this latest volume; there are past Hayes Carll songs that you could almost call zany, but the ones here feel like a turning point. The album opens on an open road, a stark black-and-white vision rendered in widescreen vistas, and from there it journeys through elegant monochromes and generous washes of color. The accents are from the crack backing band, assembled by producer Joe Henry, but the depth and character are from Carll’s songs, which invoke heartache, abide solitude, and reach tremblingly toward peace.

  1. The Ghosts of Highway 20 | Lucinda Williams

ghosts of highway 20

She only seems interested in doubles now, which is fine by me: Her two most recent sets are expansive in their imagination, Shakesperean in their scope, and abounding with the sweet and soulful communion of musicians gathered around the table together, and of the singer with her song. This one is a perfectly reasonable pick for the best-ever Lucinda Williams record: A collection of ghost stories and campfire songs, punctuated with glorious childhood remembrances. Like Dylan on Modern Times, Williams writes songs that are formally conservative as a way of underlining their creative audacity: Plenty of songwriters can paint in various shades of country-blues, but only she could have made an album about memory’s grip that is haunted and haunting in the ways that this one is.

  1. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth | Sturgill Simpson

seastories

Sturgill’s hymn to fatherhood opens with a new arrival, and the rush of revelation that attends it: “I should’ve done this years ago—but how could I have known?” It ends with him kicking against the pricks, in a screed against the terrors and uncertainties of this world that could only come from the anxious and lovestruck heart of a new dad.  “The bullshit’s got to stop,” he cries, fretting in the very same way that I have fretted through each day that brings us closer to the dawning of Trump’s America, which is to say that I have fretted for my children’s sake, and not without reason. Simpson’s record—a beautiful suite that’s enlivened by its nautical conceit and by its country/soul touchstones—is an important reminder that the world has always been a dark and beautiful place in which to have children, and that our fear mustn’t outpace our wonder.

  1. Lovers | Nels Cline

lovers

Cline’s long-gestating suite of mood music is made with romance in mind, yet it may prove an odd accompaniment to candlelit dinners or sensual hot-tubbing: This is music that considers intimacy in all its rough and tumble, a patient and idiosyncratic reflection of what it means to love another person with both body and soul, through the heady rush of good times and in the long shadows of bad ones. Masterful in how it sustains its cool, meditative vibe through variations on ambiance and smeared-lipstick Americana, Lovers doesn’t just recall classic albums by Gil Evans, Bill Evans, and Quincy Jones, but it equals them in its use of the full orchestra as a medium of personal expression.

  1. Let Me Get By | Tedeschi Trucks Band

let me get by

Tedeschi, Trucks, and every jam band this side of Lowell George has been building toward this one, a record that manages to be tight and tuneful even as it reveals in its loose electricity, its frayed edges, and its extended codas; a record of fetching gospel harmonies, Stax grooves, bluesy intonations, rusted-over country, and punchy rock and roll. This band is great because of how hard they work to make the listener feel welcome, and few albums in any idiom as as generous in their sensual pleasures as this one is: Everyone from the marquee names down to the horn players and harmony singers exude warmth and big heart throughout. It’s a masterpiece of chemistry: Everyone here is just on, and their good intentions are given over to songs that are worthy of them.

  1. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert

weight

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will (rightly) go down as a masterpiece, and this one as a hot wonder of loose ends and excess—but let me tell you something: I’ve spent a lot of time listening to both albums back to back, and it seems undeniable to me how far she’s come as a singer and as a songwriter. The 2007 album transforms a cartoon character into a real person, but this one exudes humanity in its major songs and its minor ones; it celebrates restraint both in its singing and its lyricism; it masters the double-album form by including both a tight-and-perfect 12-song CD followed by a killer mixtape of bonus features and flights of fancy, and it unites the whole sprawling thing through a series of metaphors (restless movement, endless road-tripping) that make it feel purposeful in its exploration of vulnerability, and in broken-heartedness as a starting point rather than a conclusion. As always, even the cover songs are masterful, and seem tailor-made for the story she’s telling.

  1. You Want it Darker | Leonard Cohen

you-want-it

He could have called it The Long Surrender, were the name not already claimed. This is a sigh of resignation, but not a wave of defeat; on what wasn’t necessarily intended to be his final album, Cohen is weary and wise, cracking bleak jokes and shaking his fist at a god who he may or may not believe in, absconding from our terrestrial plane as though his soul simply can’t bear one more indignity. “Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall,” he bids us—because all will come to ruin eventually. And yet he can’t help but admit his love for this place; “I wish there was a treaty we could sign,” he sings, and it sure sounds nice. Speaking of which, no Leonard Cohen album has ever sounded this fine, this warm or this elegant; and none ever hung together better as a tight, focused, and ennobling tower of song.

  1. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service | A Tribe Called Quest

tribe

“Yo, where Jarobi at?” Q-Tip wonders at one point, and Jarobi’s quick to respond: “Imbibing on impeccable grass.” Why don’t other hip-hop groups do this kind of tag-team rap anymore? Maybe because, Beastie Boys aside, none could ever do it as well as Tribe, though Andre 3000 is ushered into this hallowed fraternity during his delightful back-and-forth with Tip, on a song called “Kids.” This is a record that’s bursting at the seams with pleasures like those, and with the mastery of a group that seems like they’ve reemerged only because they have something important to tell us. The album brings old-school technique up to date and positions the Tribe gang not as godfathers nor as trend-chasers, but rather as the fulcrum of a deep continuum of expression; these songs are knotty and funky, political and frivolous, committed to eccentricity as its own kind of realness and of everyman wit as better than tough. It’s wondrous and strange, mournful and triumphant; it’s one for their legacy.

  1. American Tunes | Allen Toussaint

american tunes

Toussaint’s first Joe Henry-assisted assortment of Americana was named for a river and a Monk tune—The Bright Mississippi—and captured some of that strange delta magic in its spirited shuffles, its mystic blues, its rough and muddy handling of folklore and all its implications. The follow-up, and Toussaint’s final album, captures that same magic but casts a wider net, patching together a weirder and woolier mosaic of American folk song, one where so much of the joy is in the delightful juxtapositions—how elegant classical pieces give way to Toussaint banging away at some lowbrow, barrelhouse blues, and how Rhiannon Giddens swoops in after that to carry the whole thing back to church. This is a songbook for the invisible republic, and a record that is ravishing in how out-of-time it seems. That’s a comfort to me: Things may fall to pieces, but that river’s gonna run.

  1. Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago

birds_of_chicago_cover

I’m surprised, too—but as it turns out, the album I was obsessing over back in February is even better than I first realized. It’s remarkably accomplished in ways that you don’t quite notice at first: In the same year that gave us The Life of Pablo and Coloring Book, this is a music of many voices, a record for singing along in complete abandon; a record that uses gospel music for its shades of blue and its rafter-shaking conviction, but also a singer/songwriter showcase that speaks of the deep, vast mystic in the language of sensuality, and keeps its transcendence dusty and earthbound just like Van Morrison always did—or for that matter, Prince. And all of that is bent into the compact frame of pop music: This is a record where the words matter deeply but there are never too many of them, and where the hooks are as big as skyscrapers.

It’s also a record of apocalyptic fervor; like the Leonard Cohen record, it knows that all of this will end in ruin, and likely sooner than we’re expecting. Real midnight’s gonna come, but this record’s all about how we’ll spend the meantime. “Are you cruel to the one who loves you, because/ you’re tired and you’re scared?/ It’s so easily done,” one song asks, and boy is it ever; it’s so easy to tremble at time’s erasure, to wonder what good there is in building anything here in the land where moth and rust destroy.

But they anyway; they hope against hope, and they live and love more deeply because of time’s advance. The songs their multitudinous, earthbound choir sings here are songs of new parents and jittery lovers; of people who have tasted and seen how sweet all this can be, which is why their hearts sink at the thought of losing it, and why they dance and sing in the long shadow of ruination day. “You never walked away from a good fight/ And you loved this world with all your might,” one song says. It’s cruel and pretty, this place, and nobody keeps anything here. So we hold on tighter. And we love without fear.

ALL FOR THE SAKE OF THE SONG, PART I: Favorite Albums of 2016, 40-11

chance

What the pundit class missed, the creative class saw a mile away: These days are perilous, and any one of them could easily be the last. “Real midnight’s gonna come,” Birds of Chicago promised us, on an album released way back in February, and for some of us 2016 hangs like inescapable darkness. And they weren’t the only prophets of change, decay, time running out: Paul Simon warned us of a werewolf coming; Parker Milsap, that we are in the very last days. Margo Price shook her fists at the cruel hands of time. A Tribe Called Quest readied themselves for a future that could only possibly happen elsewhere, and without them (“no space program for niggas”). “You want it darker,” Leonard Cohen mused, and maybe we did. Be careful what you wish for.

The records of 2016 sound to me like the silver linings of a dark cloud—and, the very best ones, like shelter from the storm. Truthfully, this has been the richest year for new music releases that I can remember, and the Top 40 I’m offering here is cut down from a long-list of more than 100 fine ones. The records I’m honoring here are precious treasures, abundant in revelation, humanity, and humor; pure in their creative expression, robust in their entertainment, deeply moving in their celebration of song and story.

That many of these records offer hymns to the apocalypse is something I’ve already noted—but of course, nothing’s really the apocalypse until the world has ended, and some of my favorite 2016 records bear witness to new beginnings—like Sturgill Simpson’s heart expanding with the joy of fatherhood (“how could I have known/ that the answer was so easy?”), Miranda Lambert’s breaking into vulnerability and then renewal. Indeed, vulnerability has been a precious commodity, and on some records a weaponized one: I am thinking of Solange, Beyonce, Bon Iver, Noname, and Elizabeth Cook, among others. And what about Nels Cline, whose new album is a careful consideration of intimacy? And Birds of Chicago, for that matter, whose eschatological urgency is fueled by earthbound love?

2016’s records also include too many goodbyes, several of which are, in their bittersweet way, redemptive. Phife Dawg raps his ass off on a song that also finds him claiming the nickname “The Donald” for himself, for no other reason other than he can. David Bowie’s final bit of sleight of hand refused to give all his secrets away, and because it abides mystery it stands among his best records. So does Leonard Cohen’s album, which longs for a treaty and a better way, and Allen Toussaint’s, a swan song that adds to his legacy rather than simply resting on it. Nick Cave made an album this year that harbors grief without pretending that it’s all going to be okay; is establishes deep kinship with anyone who’s ever hurt before.

Many other releases from this year drew from a deep well of American songcraft that speaks in no uncertain terms to an invisible republic that has weather plenty of bullshit already, and will last long past the incoming regime; here I could name anyone from Carrie Rodriguez to Childish Gambino, The Bad Plus to Bob Dylan, Charlie Hunter to Willie Nelson.

And I will confess, too, that my spirits are lifted to hear The Rolling Stones play with such conviction, as though they might still outlive us all; Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan in such fine voice; John Legend making his most ambitious music yet; Chance the Rapper becoming a household name; Paul Simon, as restless as ever; Drive-by Truckers, providing a brainy counterpoint to the tangled politics of the South; Lisa Hannigan, finding the words again.

Here are some of the records from 2016 that I will treasure, with the final ten coming later. But first, a few quick accolades.

2016 Superlatives

An album I was surprised to like, from a band I often don’t: Schmilco, by Wilco

Most invaluable session player: An oft-overlooked blues harp player named Mick Jagger.

Most invaluable producer of the year: Joe Henry, whose name credits several albums on my favorites list, but also Adam Cohen, for the warm and organic work on You Want it Darker.

Best song played on the radio this year: “Vice,” by Miranda Lambert (followed by Brandy Clark’s “Love Can Go to Hell”)

Most thrilling performance from a vocalist: I could say either Jagger or Dylan here, but instead will cite Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago, the year’s true star-in-the-making. Check “Kinderspel,” in particular.

Album that’s significantly more enjoyable than its boring cover suggests: The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome.

Most appealing change-up: Childish Gambino’s rap-free and funkadelic “Awaken, My Love!”

Least favorite song of the year: “She’s Got a Way With Words,” by Blake Shelton, who never deserved Miranda and we all know it.

Supergroup I want to hear more music from immediately: Q-Tip and Andre 3000

Trashy throwaway song of the year: “Welcome to Hell,” by Mudcrutch

Best Christmas albums: Holiday Party, She & Him; A Very Kacey Christmas, Kacey Musgraves

Most annoying semantic debate of the year: Mixtape vs. album

Most annoying two-word phrase of the year: “TIDAL Exclusive”

Lyrics that best summarize 2016: Toss-up between “mass unblackening” and “low-flying panic attack.”

Musician I’d most like to see become President: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Favorite Records of 2016, 40-11

  1. The Life of Pablo | Kanye West
  1. Black America Again | Common
  1. It’s Hard | The Bad Plus
  1. 22, A Million | Bon Iver
  1. Day Breaks | Norah Jones
  1. Schmilco | Wilco
  1. Shine a Light | Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
  1. HERE | Alicia Keyes
  1. Everyone Has a Plan Until They Get Punched in the Mouth | Charlie Hunter
  1. Telefone | Noname
  1. Lemonade | Beyonce
  1. Exodus of Venus | Elizabeth Cook
  1. Are You Serious? | Andrew Bird
  1. Southern Family | Various artists
  1. At Swim | Lisa Hannigan
  1. American Band | Drive-by Truckers
  1. A Seat at the Table | Solange
  1. Darkness and Light | John Legend
  1. Blue & Lonesome | The Rolling Stones
  1. Big Day in a Small Town | Brandy Clark
  1. Fallen Angels | Bob Dylan

fallenangels

The looser, shaggier sequel to his first pop standards album rolls up its sleeves, leans into an amiable gait, and at times even swings a little. He treats these songs like the pieces of folklore that they are, and delivers them without easy sentiment: These are hymns for hard times; the landscape changes, but these love songs endure. And by the way, he is still a peerless singer.

  1. Lola | Carrie Rodriguez

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Why build walls when you could build bridges? Rodriguez’ first bilingual album is an invitation to empathy, and a profound act of inclusion. It’s got waltzes and blues, ghost stories and love songs; it engages tradition as our common language, and invites us to say something new.

  1. Stranger to Stranger | Paul Simon

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No songwriter of his generation is as committed to making each album sound different from the last as Paul Simon is, and this is one of his buzzing, jostling best: A kaleidoscope of beats and multiculturalism that hones in on the joy of love in the land of the dying.

  1. The Very Last Day | Parker Milsap

very last day

This one always reminds me of a phrase from Over the Rhine: “Pentecostal residue,” which is thick in these songs about religion and the end of the world. I am impressed by how seriously and compassionately these songs are handled. But what do these songs say about religion, you ask? Ah, it’s complicated.

  1. Secular Hymns | Madeleine Peyroux

secularhymns

Casual in its virtuosity, astounding in its resourcefulness, and unimpeachable in its good taste, this selection of cover tunes celebrates the communion of musicians gathered around the table of song. The title is trifling, but the performances go so deep.

  1. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter | Margo Price

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Her achievement would be colossal even if it wasn’t so hard-won: This is a country album that works well as a piece, is steeped in tradition without being beholden to it, and tells a complicated story with a specific perspective. It is also, I should note, hilarious, and masterfully written.

  1. Meridian Rising | Paul Burch

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More of a time machine than a concept album, Burch’s opus tells the story of Jimmie Rodgers without every stooping to parody of Rodgers’ sound: Instead it assembles the sounds and colors of the period, resulting in a kinetic album that’s full of life even as it races toward death. The perfect execution of this almost distracts from the fact that it was such a ballsy idea in the first place.

  1. blackSUMMER’Snight | Maxwell

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An intimacy album for grown-ups—not unlike the Nels Cline one, come to think of it—and my favorite Maxwell yet. He leaves grit to the other guys, instead exerting his mastery of mood in this symphony of cool insinuation and extravagant elegance.

  1. Blackstar | David Bowie

blackstar

Riddles, winks, inside jokes, ghastly innuendos—this is a puzzle that took on more resonance almost immediately after its release, but it’s also an all-time great Bowie album, one that reclaims his discoverer’s zeal after a few albums of careful craft. There is nothing else like it in his catalog or anyone else’s.

  1. Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper

coloring

Well, since he asks, I don’t especially give a fuck about mixtapes, but this sounds like a perfectly complete and visionary album to my ears—one that seizes on both the sound and substance of gospel music, celebrates our shared humanity through a rainbow of voices, and interrogates hip-hip’s materialism from a place of real joy—which, he would probably add, isn’t quite the same thing as happiness.

Coming soon: my picks for the top 10 albums of 2016.

SHE & HYMN

Or: Madeleine Peyroux’s liturgy of joy and sadness.

secularhymns

Whatever bone of contention I have here is strictly with the title. The 10 songs on Secular Hymns mention God about as much as the Book of Esther does, which is to say not at all, though anyone who’s following closely will see exactly whose fingerprints are all over that biblical account just as surely as they’ll note the liturgical aura of these covers, which glow with the sacred act of singing even as they revel in the bawdiness of life among the dust. They were recorded in a church, it’s important to note, and comprise a fitting psalter for anyone who believes every square inch of this world to be beautiful and redeemed, every human who occupies it a dark marvel and an image of the divine. These are songs that unite us in the bond of humanity and the shared love of neighbor, and that’s all good and holy work.

Beyond that? There is nothing to complain about on this program, which finds Madeleine Peyroux—no slouch as a songwriter—at the top of her game as an interpretive singer, pledging her allegiance to the tower of song. The music was all cut live in a trio setting—Peyroux singing and playing acoustic guitar, Jon Herington on the electric, and Barak Mori on upright bass. There is an intimacy to these recordings that’s not unlike Over the Rhine’s homespun Good Dog Bad Dog, or to Cowboy Junkies’ similarly churchly Trinity Sessions: The ambiance is warm and welcoming, the sound clear enough for the sonorous pop of the bass to stand out, for the instruments to bleed into each other in hallowed communion, and for the grain in the singer’s voice to carry the heady implication and hushed innuendo in each song.

The tunes themselves bear witness to a tradition that makes new compositions sound like standards and ancient songs like they were written yesterday; it’s not so different an aesthetic as what you hear on Every Picture Tells a Story, for instance. Barrelhouse blues provide the foundation but there are also songs by Tom Waits, Allen Toussaint, Townes Van Zandt, and even Stephen Foster. Together they lift up the weariness of life during hard times; they raise songs of ascent for better ones. They acknowledge love’s rough and tumble, and they delight in the act of play. Every performance is deeply affirming of what it means—what it must mean—for us to raise our voices together in song.

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Waits’ “Tango Til They’re Sore” is presented here in the best rendition it’s received outside of Rain Dogs, Mori bowing his bass to introduce the song as a randy cabaret. Peyroux delivers it like the monologue in a classic film noir: She’s steely, tough, coy. Her phrasing strips the song of any sense of artifice even as it revels in the truth-telling power of theater: She sings as a character with deep bruises and a heart too hard to be broken, yet there’s something in her singing that suggests a real vulnerability, too. One of the song’s pleasures is in the colloquial lilt of her voice—note how she pronounces it “winda’” instead of “window,” her drawl doing its own kind of character work. And compare that with how she savors her words on “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On),” where she’s singing with a curl in her lip and an eyebrow raised: “I gotta be myself and do my thing/ a little soul can’t do no harm.” Just try and tell me otherwise, she dares us.

That Allen Toussaint song is also great proof of the resourcefulness of this unit; this is a record that easily earns comparisons to Elvis Costello’s Trust or even Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle for the way it takes a familiar format and redefines just how elastic it can be. The thing about the Toussaint thing is that it actually is funky, even without a drummer, and captures effortlessly his smooth, easygoing New Orleans groove. Townes’ “The Highway Kind,” meanwhile, is a tumble of chords and regrets. On Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Shout Sister Shout,” the bass provides the bounce while the other trio members answer Peyroux in a spirited call-and-response; there’s a swingin’ breakdown in the middle and gospel fire throughout, but Peyroux sketches it out like the standard that it is. Most surprising is “More Time,” a reggae tune where the bass is the bedrock and Peyroux chews each word like it’s a piece of saltwater taffy.

The Foster tune, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” feels like an anchor here, a bit of High-Church hymnody amidst a generally grittier, earthier bit of noisemaking; it’s notable that the song calls for an intentional break from sensuality, a moment’s reverie to remember sorrow’s intrusions; it’s a song for reflection, a song for empathy and mercy. Flannery O’Connor conjectured that death and disease and sadness are suspensions of the natural state of things; that they are not the rule, but rather that they break it. The worldview of Secular Hymns seems to be one where sadness is the distortion of joy, and not the other way around. And so the singer pauses to send hard times out the door—but two songs later, she’s pleading for a few more precious seconds to savor the sweet things of this life. The singer’s duty, like the songwriter’s, is to offer a hymn for every occasion. This joyous record has it covered.


Further resources:

SMALL TOWN TALK

Or: Brandy Clark goes for broke.

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“No one you can name is just that one thing they have shown,” sang Joe Henry on Invisible Hour. There is complexity behind every cliché, a tangle of humanity lurking below every obvious label or identifying feature. There are no one trick ponies. The gift of Brandy Clark is how she writes songs that pivot on clichés—as so many great country songs do, hers use archetypes and traditions as their fulcrums and their hinges—but carve out space within them for real people to inhabit. Her songs are about characters you know, and they suggest that the most obvious thing about each character is seldom the most interesting. And so, on Big Day in a Small Town, there is a song about a teenage beauty queen now entering middle age—but really, it’s a song about how things fall apart, and about how youth fails in its grasping of time. There is a song about a philanderer and a womanizer, but really it’s a song about karma, and about how the sins of the father come back around again.  And there’s a song about the stereotypical “Girl Next Door”—complete with a nod to Marcia Brady—but it’s really a song about the inherent beauty in human fracture; about leaning into our imperfections rather than trying to fix them.

Clark is a masterful songwriter whose gift is for capturing believable human behavior with economy and wit; many of today’s hot Nashville writers lean on product placement and name dropping in order to evoke what life is like in the fly-over states, while their alt-country peers can sometimes be too bent on “authenticity” to even crack a joke. Clark doesn’t need to reference domestic beers to make her scenes life-like, though she does get in a well-earned PBR mention here, and even a song called “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin’” is darkly funny in the same way that Randy Newman’s songs can be funny: At first there is a shock at the narrator’s casual affirmation of her brokenness, then an uncomfortable laugh of recognition as we realize how unshocking it really is. Speaking of Newman, his own 12 Songs is a worthy precedent to Clark’s debut, 12 Stories—and not just because of the similar titles. Both records play out like short story collections, each song a miracle of brevity, a character study without anything excessive or off-point.

If 12 Stories was a short story collection—its presentation mostly stark and austere, the cheeky sound effects on “Stripes” notwithstanding; a songwriter’s showcase through and through—then Big Day is its big-budget, Technicolor film treatment, and proof that Clark can make it not just as a writer’s writer (for indeed, she has penned big hits for folks like Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow) but as a record-maker in her own right. Produced by Jay Joyce, who killed it on Eric Church’s great Mr. Misunderstood, Big Day makes Clark’s songs sound like the radio hits they’ve always deserved to be, and in that way the record could be compared to Over the Rhine’s Films for Radio or Richard Thompson’s Rumour and Sigh—records that got bigger and brighter and more polished without ever sounding like sellouts, accentuating rather than burying what always made the artist special. Big Day in a Small Town gives each song a splash of color, and draws from a palette that includes vibrant percussion, gurgling electronics, all manner of plucked strings, multi-tracked vocal effects, and the occasional weepy pedal steel when things get especially sad. The balance is striking: This works equally well as a singer/songwriter record and as pure pop, where even the transitions between songs (like “Soap Opera” dissolving into a wash of shakers and maracas as “Girl Next Door” enters) help maintain the album’s interest and momentum.

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Speaking of Thompson, his own “Let it Blow” is a touchstone for this record’s conceit: What may seem objectively like a triviality or a mundane interaction is in fact high drama to the people involved, as we all fancy ourselves the leading actors in the stories of our lives. (“Life’s little traumas and courtroom dramas/ Remind me that I’m glad I’m alive,” Thompson offers.) Clark uses a similar device to frame her stories of beauty queens, cheaters, and lovers in hard times; of folks flat-broke, regretful, strung out on love. “Ain’t we all the stars/ Playing the leading part/ In our own soap opera,” she says to open the record, the opening strains gradually washing into place like the beginning of a sitcom theme song. The first verse on “Soap Opera” is about a hairdresser, the second about a bartender, both cast here as town psychiatrist and priest: They’re the ones who hear the confessions, and through their ears we hear the rest of these stories unfold. Clark compresses the hairdresser’s own story into a brilliant two-line exposition: “Sherry shampooed ‘til she got her own chair/ Now she’s playing shrink to every head of hair.” And that’s all it takes: We’re already in the thick of things; already immersed in the action.

The song’s counterpart is the title track, which takes its own cues from a Lambert cut, surprisingly not written by Clark—“Everybody Dies Famous in a Small Town.” The whole song is arranged from gossip and hearsay, off-hand references to big doings in a place where there are no secrets; where we’re all defined by the stories people tell about us, whether rightly or wrongly. Clark ultimately has it both ways here: The record’s big colors and dramatic production allow each character the dignity of made-for-Hollywood storytelling, even as Clark’s incisive lyrics remind us that there’s more to any story than the gossip and the small-town talk.

The one about how things fall apart is called “Homecoming Queen,” where teenage dreams congeal into middle-aged malaise.  Clark is unparalleled in how she details specifically feminine insecurities, and here her protagonist is too weary even to rail against what she sees in the mirror: “28 shouldn’t look this old/ But the last ten years sure took their toll/ On the girl in the picture with the plastic crown/ The sequin dress wouldn’t fit her now.” Her problem isn’t that things have crumbled so much as they haven’t lived up to her big, bedazzled dreams; her marriage “ain’t so bad but it ain’t that good,” and she’s stuck clipping coupons in a town she always though would be her stepping stone to somewhere better. Life ain’t a picnic and it ain’t a parade, but how can youth understand the ravages of time? “When you’re 17/ You don’t know/ That you won’t always be/ Homecoming queen,” Clark offers; like Keith Urban on Fuse, she’s dealing with someone “far too young to know that summers end.”

The song is presented as a big ballad, all tenderness and sighs; the one about karma, on the other hand, is in some ways the most heavily produced thing here, nearly as big a swing as “Stripes” was on the last record. “Daughter” is a hillbilly two-step with steady bass, garage-rock organ flourishes, barbed-wire electric guitar, and even a bit of spritely banjo. Clark writes her own “Rosie Strike Back” here, but instead of bolting in the night her wronged woman lays plans for a bigger payoff down the road: “I hope you have a daughter and I hope that she’s a fox/ Daddy’s little girl just as sweet as she is hot/ She can’t help but love them boys/ Who love to love and leave them girls just like her father.” The narrator here isn’t just banking on the sins of the father coming back to haunt him; she’s begging for it, clinging to the closest thing to justice she can dream of. It’s a riot, but what makes it land is how Clark sings it straight; there’s not an ounce of goofy in the song.

“Girl Next Door” (aka the one about beauty in imperfection) is even more confrontational. Here a woman asks her lover what exactly he was expecting; if it was the perfect woman then brother, she ain’t it, and fuck him for suggesting it. She delivers the song’s brutal kiss-off in a clipped cadence, the song’s fleet, driving pop breaking into throbbing electronic percussion. It’s a big moment, catharsis and consonants: “So baby, if you want the girl next door/ Then go next door and go right now/ And don’t look back, don’t turn around/ And don’t call me when you get bored/ Yeah, if you want the girl next door/ Then go next door.” She knows he’ll never find what he’s looking for, not that it’s any of her concern; her self-possession turns the song into an anthem of empowerment, all the more resonant because she recognizes she’s a mess but sees the folly in thinking someone else could make her whole: “My heart and my head and my bed can get real twisted/ And you wouldn’t be the first to think you could go and fix it.”

A song called “Broke” is the closest the record gets to a novelty; it’s a litany of images reflecting backcountry poverty, all delivered with a smirk and a healthy dose of Dixie Chicken funk. It’s the record’s only song that never quite rises above its own conceit, but it’s still a hoot, and what saves its characters from being clichés is that the premise itself is so believable: “We dig our own ditches, we roll our own smokes/ And we’re secretly wishing that grandma would croak.” Even better is “Love Can Go to Hell,” another of her great country ballads where tenderness and intimacy are cracked open by a big, rousing chorus; the song is ushered in by brushed percussion, banjo, and acoustic guitar, its prettiness accentuating the pain in the love-wrecked lyric: “Love can go to hell/ In a broken heartbeat minute,” she sings, but the narrator’s sadness is bereft of bitterness: “I don’t blame you at all/ No, I don’t hate you at all/ It’s all love’s fault.” It’s affirmation of what Nick Lowe once sang, “Love’s got a lot to answer for.”

Clark writes with wicked humor and even satire, but her jokes are never cruel; she has too much affection for her characters, and too much empathy with their self-inflicted wounds. Big Day in a Small Town goes for broke on the big pop gestures but also takes the time for compassion; check “You Can Come Over,” about a woman who just doesn’t trust herself as far as her ex-lover is concerned. She knows he’s a wolf at the door, and will call it a win if she can keep him there instead of in her bed. There’s no need for much gloss on this one; piano, pedal steel, and a big, weepy chorus do the trick, and make it sound like the kind of tearjerking moment you could expect from most any major label country diva record in the 90s and early 2000s. But the tears are earned, just like all the bright colors that adorn this record. The first time around, Clark proved she could deliver a great set of songs; here she proves she can deliver a great feat of record-making. And if there was any justice, it’d be a blockbuster.


Further resources:

  • Read “Plant a Seed,” my review of Southern Family, which features a great Brandy Clark song.
  • Stream it on Apple Music.
  • Stream it on Spotify.
  • Buy it on Amazon.
  • Ready Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
  • Read Alfred Soto’s SPIN review.
  • Read Ann Powers’ NPR review.

I DREAMED I WAS LOLA

Or: Carrie Rodriguez builds bridges.

lola

“Love is omni-inclusive, progressively exquisite, understanding and compassionately attuned to other than self,” Buckminster Fuller once wrote; and if we take him at his word, we can hear Carrie Rodriguez’ Lola as an album full of border-crossing love songs, tales of closeness and of separation, of humanity as a verb and love as something outward-looking, self-preserving by implication but not by intention. Here, as per Ralph Ellison, politics is an expression of love, and vice versa. Mercifully, Lola is rarely explicit about public policy because it doesn’t have to be. It’s an album that champions unity by celebrating diversity. It affirms human dignity as it’s expressed by music and culture. For its inspiration is claims ranchera, a Mexican country music idiom that’s earthy, passionate, and visceral, proud of its lineage without any great need to make a stink over it. The language here is blended, sometimes Spanish and sometimes English but more often than not both in the same song or even the same sentence. The setting is a border town where rituals and folklores can’t help but bleed together, and where it’s always easy enough to slip under a fence to get closer to the music. We are alike, this music tells us, in our shared fracture; in our dignity in the face of it, whether we realize it or not. There’s no particular need to spell out the politics of any of this; nothing to be gained by shifting the focus from humanity to sloganeering, because humanity is entirely the point. And so Lola gives us broken love songs, tragedies of separation, weathered romances about how hard and how good it is to be together. The record carries great hurt, and finds joy in it; it channels resilience from sorrow.

Rodriguez crowdfunded this recording. It’s a labor of love and a testament to all that she is and everything she can do as a recording artist. That she can fiddle her ass off doesn’t need further proving; check any of her past recordings, either with Chip Taylor or as a solo artist, especially Give Me All You Got. There’s some of that here, too, of course, but also a voice that can carry scars, defiance, whimsy, humor, and history both personal and cultural within its grain; a record maker who can merge originals and standards, exert tight formal control before blowing it wide open, and allow plenty of color and texture into her music while maintain locomotive beats and spontaneous combustion; a writer and curator of songs who, like Doug Sahm before her, plays quintessentially Texas music while knowing full well that it holds cosmic sway and an expansive vocabulary for human story and emotion. She bottled this one in Austin, with producer Lee Townsend and a backing band called the Sacred Hearts—Bill Frisell just one of the three guitarists assembled here. The focus throughout is on shading and texture, not just riffs; the music conjures dusty back roads and old-time radio booths padded with velvet, yet every song packs a punch: Nothing here sounds like a museum piece. The record is named for Lola Beltran, a luminous ranchera figure who is called and raised in a kind of séance, the guiding light for a record that’s born of a particular tradition but seems also to exist out of time altogether. Eva Garza—Rodriguez’ great-aunt, and herself an international singing sensation from the 1940s—isn’t called by name but her presence is central to what makes the record work: Rodriguez isn’t playing a tourist here, but rather is dressing herself in everything that this music and its inclusive, cross-border implications mean to her as a matter of birthright, lineage, the particularities of her own time and place.

Lola also happens to be a great deal of fun; there’s no better way to explain the way “Perfidia” begins the record as a slinky little tango before casting off those rhythmic constraints to become a loping, steel-drenched country music with nylon guitar plucking in the foreground. Rodriguez sings it in Spanish but you don’t have to understand a word of it to understand that this is a love song made for stormy weather: Glenn Miller once recorded this song as a swaying slow dance and Nat King Cole did it as conga-driven exotica, both versions tender paeans to intimacy even amidst hardship. Rodgiruez’ version is more ragged than either of those but it still channels romance through the sound of fingers on strings; there is something sensually pleasing, almost tactile in its lilt, and something significant in its warmth and affection. Not for nothing does Rodriguez open her album about false borders and artificial division with a song that longs for caress; a song that pleads for closeness and communion with the beloved. Raul Malo is here to sing harmonies—his voice lifted up in perfect unity, maybe just across the dance floor, maybe half a world away.

Also fun is a Rodriguez original, “Z,” which is born of personal experience. The subtext to this one is that a lifetime of accomplishment can be washed away by ignorance and indifference, as Rodriguez testifies to her own righteous fiddle skills—“Been breaking it down ever since I was little,” she says, her musical vocabulary wide enough to encompass opera and honky tonk in the same line—and then to showing up for gigs in the white bread world of American country music (and that includes “alt” country, one imagines) just to see her name misspelled on the marquee. To struggle with spelling “Rodriguez” is to not really be trying, the song suggests, and she tells country music where it can stick its Z. It’s a riot, but there’s a rallying cry underneath—a wish for more country marquees to be alit with names that aren’t straightforwardly Anglo-Saxon in their origins. What makes it kick is how the chorus comes barreling out of the gate like solid gold honky tonk, all sawing fiddle and popping drum breaks; and how the lyric is framed as grandmotherly wisdom. Her advice? Don’t back down: “Never meet ‘em in the middle/ It’s better when you’re older if you don’t learn to settle/ Doors are gonna open if you want them to/ But you might have to knock ‘em down.”

Much of the album’s appeal is in how it condenses its sophistication into something visceral and earthy; how its virtuosity serves juke joint anthems and gutbucket blues. The message is in the medium; the populist jams here don’t acknowledge borders or elitist distinctions any more than the lyrics do, and there’s no compromise to any of it. “Llano Estacado” gets low-down, Frisell’s guitar growling and Brannen Temple’s drums conjuring scrap-heap cling and clatter. His work brings a spindly, ramshackle quality to the entire record; every beat from the snare seems to have a tambourine clattering along with it, a cymbal whoop following close behind. The song itself is a ghost town, still haunted by the stories of immigrant families who have come and gone. These are the characters who populate Rodriquez’ songs just as factory workers and Jersey Shore bums line up in Springsteen’s—though unlike his, hers never give into despair. They’re wounded but proud; they recognize their own dignity even when no one else does.

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They also tell stories that have broader resonance, without ever slipping over the line into allegory. A tune like “La Ultima Vez” is pregnant with implication even as it seems at every possible angle to skirt metaphor. Rodriguez sings from the perspective of a wife who’s been intruded upon, imposed upon, insulted and in the end ignored; it’s not her version of “Rosie Strikes Back”—it’s measured and steely where that Rosanne Cash classic is explosive and raging—but it does sound like a summoning of strength and a finding of voice. Rodriguez sings it with rawness and resolve, while guitars and fiddle circle all around the melody.

“The West Side,” an original song, is the closest the record gets to topicality—though even here it joins a tradition of other-side-of-the-tracks anthems that go back at least as far as Johnny Rivers and “Poor Side of Town.” It’s really another human story, though—a remembrance of growing up in a wealthier part of town and having poor Latino kids bused in to get something like a decent schooling. It’s a song where guilt wrestles with privilege: “Mama says that life ain’t fair/ We were born over here and you over there/ We can help you out but you ain’t our cross to bear/ Not that we don’t care.” Compassion is measured out in spoonfuls. Our shared humanity is affirmed with reluctance, our differences kept the priority and the focus.

“Que Manera De Perder”—a ranchera standard by Cuco Sanchez, with a title that translates to “What a Way to Lose”—is another broken love song, presented not with despair but with wistfulness. It’s got a shuffling gait and an electric guitar twang that both come from outlaw country, and a resigned duet vocal from Luke Jacobs, bearing weary witness to brokenness as the very thing that binds us: “Heartache happens all the time/ You’ve got yours and I’ve got mine/ What is love without the losing?/ What is life without the choosing?” His verse is an answer to Rodriguez, who voices the other lover entirely in Spanish. There’s a separation here too wide to bridge; a fracture that can’t be mended, but must be affirmed.

Ancestry is important to this record, as Rodriguez stands in the strange and howling weather of culture, folk song, and blood; connective tissue that spans our fissures and holds together our fraying humanity. She engages it directly on “Si No Te Vas,” the record’s truest and purest ranchera number, presented first in an instrumental version and then in a vocal reprise. Max Baca guests on the latter, playing bajo sexto; there’s a wistful mariachi sway to the piece, but Rodriguez pushes her vocal to a nearly operatic level; she goes for broke, as she does throughout the record, keeping these traditions from rusting over. “I Dreamed I Was Lola Beltran,” meanwhile, is a slippery folk song. It comes on like a black-and-white memory slowly bursting into full-on Technicolor. Here a crooner and a diva find love in the radio booth—and the song’s narrator is left to dream, emboldened by her vision of love—out there for floating in the airwaves; up for grabs, and free for the taking.


Further resources:

SO EASY

Or: Hayes Carll gets further along.

lovers and leavers

“Hey-o, love is so easy when you’re moving slow,” Hayes Carll sings on the next-to-last song on Lovers and Leavers. It’s an album that does indeed move slow down an open stretch of highway, a cool night’s journey through sadness and solitude that arrives—at last—at something like dawn: “Let the world worry/ Cause you and me won’t,” that song says, and though there’s no actual crescendo there—only the slightest lilt in Carll’s voice to suggest what a breakthrough it might be—the line lands like liberation, or at the very least like a well-earned vacation. Following a stormy, searching journey through loneliness and loss, Carll’s narrator emerges on the other side—a soul survivor, the Stones might call him. After songs with titles like “Good While It Lasted” and “You Leave Alone”—both of them more or less about what you’d expect them to be about—the song called “Love is So Easy” is totally believable as the first glimmer of daybreak.

The record opens with a song called “Drive,” where out narrator is already on the road again like Jack Kerouac and Willie Nelson; like very truck-driving song you’ve ever heard, from “Willin’” to “Endless Gray Ribbon” to the collected works of Red Simpson. It’s not actually a song about hauling freight, but then again, neither were any of those: It’s a song about a lover who turned out to be a leaver; a song about solitude as something you invite and abide and in the end are haunted by; a song about the other side of freedom. Carll picks the song out on his acoustic guitar, and he has high-and-lonesome support from Dave Piltch’s upright bass and a spare rhythm from drummer Jay Bellerose, perhaps tapping it out with his hands. When Carll sings, he fights the sound of silence: “Further along/ And down the road/ Burning up your life/ Oh, it’s some place else to go/ Just drive, drive, drive.” It’s not a song about a man who’s headed somewhere in particular; it’s about a man who just needs to move. And every exit sign passes like a promise still to keep.

It’s no accident that the record begins with a lonely trip through darkness, with a driver “like a mustang in the mountainstoo wild to settle down.” That’s what the whole record feels like: A midnight cruise down dusty highways and through desert canyons, a cold cup of gas station coffee in the console, cigarettes on the dash. Occasionally an FM radio station flickers with clarity, and the record broadens in jubilant color; mostly, it’s just the driver alone with his thoughts and the rumble of the engine. What he’s thinking about, mostly, is what he’s left behind, though it would be too easy to call this Carll’s Blood on the Tracks: Loneliness is the consequence of loss here but also the wage of his chosen vocation. After “Drive” comes a tune called “Sake of the Song,” where the troubadour’s solitary pursuit of his muse is elevated to a holy, monastic quest—lonely but important, and besides, what else is a singing man to do?

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This is the fifth Hayes Carll album, and it’s a breakthrough—an album of considerable confidence, refinement, and purpose. His last one, KMAG YOYO, was an irresistible jumble of words and ideas, but it wore its madcap sensibilities in its goofy title. There is nothing on the new album that feels like the beer-soaked sing-along “Hard Out Here,” the subterranean homesick ramble of “KMAG YOYO,” or the punchy jokes and backward come-ons of “Another Like You.” Lovers and Leavers is the sound of fevered Technicolor fading back to the soulful precision and clarity of black and white. Produced by Joe Henry—truly, there is no one better at capturing the strange weather of a singer/songwriter in full bloom—the album is spare, lean, focused; the jokes have been whittled away, and what remains is a confessional song cycle where every word and every note feels essential to the story, to how the whole thing unfolds like a novel or an old movie. Henry frames it like he’s Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles, keeping each shot tight on the narrator, letting the grit in Carll’s voice tell most of the story; occasionally he pans out to allow more action into the frame, and those moments explode with earned joy.

One of them arrives early, in “Sake of the Song,” where Carll’s voice and guitar are framed by piano, organ, upright bass, and the reliable rattle of Bellerose’s percussion. Here Carll narrates the isolated trudge of everyone who’s ever travelled the world peddling songs. The lyric is dense with images and ideas, yet the effect isn’t the sheer force of words, like on KMAG YOYO or for that matter Blonde on Blonde; instead, Carll feverishly draws circles around his muse like he’s Sonny Rollins in mid-trance. Though he references everything from country to grunge, this isn’t another tedious song about the perils of being a working musician. It’s about the purity of creative pursuit, about song as a spiritual quest. The singer sounds haunted by his muse, and the band’s rowdy blues works into a fever pitch that suggests the muse is hard at work, the singer’s pursuit animated by bigger things unseen.

Storm clouds drift across the edges of “Good While it Lasted,” in the form of spare piano and the low rumble of toms; Carll the troubadour is back in the center of the frame, here with a song about how everything changes and things fall apart. The narrator has put away childish thing, but it’s not enough to keep the hellhound off his trail: “I smoked my last cigarette/ I drank my last drop/ Quit doing all the things/ I swore I’d never stop/ I changed my direction/ Sang a different tune/… Things were going good there for a while/ I tried to straighten out the crooked road that I was on/ It was good while it lasted/ But it didn’t last too long.” It’s a reckoning with how things crumble despite our best efforts to hold it all together; there’s a divorce song lurking in here too, perhaps, but it’s really a song about time, and in the end Carll seems to find peace with it: “Nothing lasts forever/ Time knows that it’s true/ Sometimes a little while’s the best that we can do.”

“You Leave Alone” could almost be the flipside of “Drive.” The protagonist here is another travellin’ man, but he sets down his guitar case the second he finds something better: “Oh, the money was good on the road in the springtime/ But one look from that girl and he settled down.” Carll’s guitar line here is like a fraying tightrope, Bellerose’s tapped percussion a swaying big-top beat, the arrangement spare but nevertheless evocative of that place where whimsy is undercut by melancholy—think the E-Street Band on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”

Carll sings with a coarse Texas drawl, and tips his hat from time to time at Texas greats like Guy Clark, but in the end this is no more a country album than, well, Old No. 1. These aren’t songs for the honky tonk. They’re songs for the campfire, for the long haul, for the wee small hours. None are as desolate as “The Love That We Need,” a song about love dulled by comfort and complacency. This is what it sounds like when love dies with a whimper; when it just fades away: “You say ‘I love you’/ I say ‘me too’/ We don’t think much about it/ It’s just a thing that we do/ We go out walking/ We don’t talk much/ We lie down together/ But our hearts never touch.”  This is another one of those songs where Henry pans out to capture a fuller vista, this time marked by piano, toms, and maracas; there’s a lushness that makes those lyrics harder, and Carll sings from a place of loneliness that’s well past romance or hope.

When “Love is So Easy” rolls around it’s light as a feather, nimble on its feet. Carll sings it like he hasn’t a care in the world, Pitch’s bass pops in all the right places, and a playful little organ figure from Tyler Chester makes it sound like a C&W equivalent of those earliest sides from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. It’s a song about hiding away in a new romance, a moment of pleasure where eros becomes almost Edenic. It’s a weathered love song about second birth; he doesn’t actually sing about taking his lover through misty gardens all wet with rain, but might as well.

Lovers and Leavers feels like a crossroads. The singer has made it through the night, cut up and bloody but still standing. He’s made his choices, and he’s driven through the solitude to a place where new love awaits—not a promise, but a possibility. Who could ask for more? There are sad songs here yet none of them sound like despair: They are reckonings with loss and slippery second chances. A couple, in particular, feel like compass blades, signposts for the journey. “The Magic Kid” was written for Carll’s son, who dreams of becoming a sleight-of-hand man. Here the drivin’ man, the restless troubadour from earlier in the record sees what it is to put yourself out there, to love fearlessly, to stand in the bewitching weather of your song, your magic: “That’s my kid with the cards/ He’s nine years old/ With a head full of wonder/ And a heart of gold/ And there’s not a trick that he can’t figure out/ And he’s never stopped the show for fear of doubt/ Like the rest of us did.” But the record ends with “Jealous Moon,” far less malevolent than Parker Millsap’s “Jealous Sun.” Here the heavens long for everything that’s painful and beautiful about this world: “It breaks her heart that down below/ Rivers fun, flowers grow/ But she can’t feel them bloom.” When the song plays, there’s nothing to do but surrender to this world as a dark marvel, a rebuke to our solitude. Here then is this troubadour’s gift: His song about his nine-year-old is the one that tells you what you need to know about living fearlessly as a grown-up, and his song about the moon is the one that affirms the beauty and humanity in our world of fracture. And he makes it seem so easy.


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LIKE THE STORIES TOLD OF OLD

Or: Allen Toussaint Plays Folk Songs

american tunes

Fats Waller’s 1934 recording of “Viper’s Drag” is a dazzling feat of economy; a wonder of concision. In a compact two minutes and 47 seconds, Waller twists a roadhouse blues into a vaudevillian shuffle, then snaps it back into its original shape. It’s a peep show, a night at the opera, and a miracle of modern physics, all rendered with just ten fingers and 88 keys. Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes version adds drums, bass, and about half a minute of total runtime. It dispenses with the quiet-to-loud dynamics of the original, replacing it with rock and roll thrills, sultry Nawlins gait, and razor-edged acoustic trio dynamics that recall nothing so much as the kitchen-sink clang and clatter of the classic Thelonious Monk Trio album on Prestige. (Drummer Jay Bellerose, with his shake rattle and roll, mines his kit for sound effects and swing just as surely as Roach and Blakey did; Dave Piltch, meanwhile, is frankly a better bass player than most of the ones Monk worked with.) Toussaint’s the anchor and the voice, even though he never opens his mouth: His piano has only ever seemed like a conduit for his easygoing humanity, and even when he’s running the board in ruthless imitation of his stride piano heroes his music can only be described as gentle, unfussed over, charming. He’s a natural, and he opens up “Viper’s Drag” like God rending the heavens, humor and blues, swing and surrealism pouring out of it. It, too, feels like a song that suspends everything we thought we knew of time and space and gravity: Toussaint’s trio stretches the song farther than you’d think it might go, ringing every bit of Waller’s cartooniness out of it and transforming it into a symphony in miniature.

This, basically, is what Toussaint does with the American songbook, what he’s done now over the course of two largely instrumental, Joe Henry-produced albums. The Bright Mississippi, released in 2009, was the full flowering of his jazz dream, even if it hardly played like a straight jazz record. Toussaint and his band played songs rooted in a specific piece of real estate—classics by Monk and Ellington, Django and Jelly Roll—that evoked the landscapes of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans while conjuring the ghosts, the real and imagined spiritual and cultural geography of the place that lurked just below the surface. The album felt classical in its structure, even when the band kicked up some dirt, which it did plenty; its clean lines weren’t enough to contain its sense of the mystic, which boiled over in the airy, weightless innuendos of Toussaint’s “St. James Infirmary.” The record’s strange and bewitching magic is still unparalleled, and seems to stem from Toussaint’s treatment of those songs as pieces of folklore—maps and legends, yarns and tall tales passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, stories and rambles in which the virtue wasn’t in any punchline so much as in how every raconteur told them a bit differently. Toussaint told them better than most, and in a way that only he ever could: Nowhere else does New Orleans jazz move so gaily to the simmering groove of elegant R&B.

American Tunes is a more diverse and inclusive album. It’s more eclectic in its source material, its geographic reach, and in the forms it represents. Toussaint is heard here in solo piano, acoustic trio, quintet, and even vocal presentations, each one a tradition with its own implications and baggage, each one engaged and remade in Toussaint’s own image. So are the compositions he plays, which include three Ellington cuts, some Professor Longhair staples, a bit of Earl “Fatha” Hines, the Waller tune, one from Paul Simon, and even a couple of cuts from Toussaint’s own pen, casually assertive of his own place among these assembled luminaries. (It’s worth noting that a duo performance of “Moon River,” featuring Toussaint playing with Bill Frisell, is available only as a “bonus” cut on the LP version, but adds so much depth and context to the record and is a gem in its own right, a sweet and soulful communion that could have fit the classic Bill Evans/ Jim Hall set Undercurrent.)  True to what Jelly Roll used to say about jazz music, American Tunes feels awash with ideas yet it’s too rough and ragged to ever feel cerebral. Its pleasures aren’t brainy; they’re tactile, kinetic.

Where The Bright Mississippi felt clean and purposeful, American Tunes is more of a patchwork mosaic. Recorded in a couple of different sessions—the solo piano stuff was made at Toussaint’s home studio, some full-band arrangements many months later in Los Angeles—the record is winsomely ramshackle. The songs gain power by their intermingling, and the sequencing ensures some thrilling jukebox transitions: Listen to how the bawdy blues “Rocks in My Bed” melts into the opulence of “Danza, op. 33,” how the delicate glide of “Waltz for Debbie” is stopped in its tracks by the barrelhouse pianism of “Big Chief,” how a dreamy remake of “Southern Nights” answers the white-hot intensity of “Come Sunday” with three minutes of Sabbath rest. The cumulative effect of the record is impressionistic: Each song feels like its own stark color, and the big picture is in how they all swirl together.

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Of course the reason to hear this record—the thing that makes it essential to anyone who cares about the rich tapestry of American song—isn’t how deep and wide Henry and Toussaint go in sourcing this material, but rather how completely Toussaint can bend it to his will. This is most evident on the solo piano numbers, the ones that really seem to play fast and loose with motion and space, with light and kinetics. His skill as an interpreter is informed by his craft as a songwriter: He knows how a tune works, how to unravel it without losing sight of its central thread. His take on “Big Chief” is a two-minute concerto that comes barreling out of the gate: He pulls the melody through brawny blues, front-parlor elegance, and then a haunted dream sequence. It ends where it begins, and he bangs on the keys a few times as punctuation. He takes the stride piano prowl out of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and reveals a melody of striking lyrical beauty; it feels like the song you play as the last bits of confetti fall, and your heart quiets in peaceful anticipation of Ash Wednesday’s rest. One of the set’s two original numbers, “Delores’ Boyfriend,” captures the quiet beauty of an evening amble, the dignity of taking a stroll to no where in particular. Its chief pleasure is in how it builds a full head of steam, then simmers back down again.

The trio songs—Toussaint recording with Bellerose and Piltch—may be the heart of the record. There is “Viper’s Drag,” of course, another great showcase for Toussaint’s songwriter’s ear: He doesn’t refashion the tune so much as sketch out all of its rooms, revealing them to be more spacious than Waller’s madcap performance ever suggested. It’s a true dialogue, in particular with Bellerose, who provides the locomotive beat while Toussaint scats across the tracks. The song’s earthiness masks its elegance; it sounds so much like a burlesque that you almost don’t notice it’s really a pocket symphony, played with just three instruments. “Waltz for Debbie,” meanwhile, conjures all the sweet romance and delicate trio action of Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard band—Piltch’s upright bass answers Toussaint’s piano lines, Bellerose adds sublime cymbal dissolves—in such a way that you could almost miss how completely Toussaint overhauls the tune: Note that it never actually shifts into waltz time. “Confessin’ (That I Love You)” traces Pops’ on-the-melody crowd-pleasing through the carefree stroll of Mingus’ “My Jelly Roll Stroll.” All three of those cats knew that the calling card of New Orleans music is how it’s unanswerable to anyone else’s timetable, how it moves freely without every working up a sweat. When the song breaks down into three-way conversation, it reveals what’s best about jazz as a form: How it’s a music of singular purpose but a multitude of individual voices.

Van Dyke Parks shows up a couple of times on the record, pushing the record into still further formal diversity, adding critical squares to its patchwork mosaic. He and Toussaint turn Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza, op. 33” into a hot summer night’s dream, Parks’ orchestration and Bellerose’s swirl of cymbals soundtracking stars appearing on by one in the pitch black; it fades away, and is answered by the sly come-ons of “Hey Little Girl,” another great juxtaposition of the record’s sophistication and its sensuality. The counterpart to “Danza” is a two-piano take on “Southern Nights,” which Glen Campbell turned into a country song but Toussaint himself recorded as a good-natured trip. Here the drugginess is dropped for a childhood rhapsody, a summertime reverie. These songs aren’t larks or distractions: As with so many of these songs, they feel modest in their intentions yet crucial to the fabric of the record.

Three Duke Ellington numbers are here, too, and they push the record’s marriage of earthiness and elegance in new directions. “Rocks in My Bed” is what Toussaint’s old pal Lowell George might have called an eloquent profanity, a trashy little backwater blues that’s gussied up for a night on the town. Rhiannon Giddens is on hand to deliver the lyric as a psalm of lamentation, and she sings it like a jilted lover who’s just been dealt one indignation too many. Toussaint, who spent so much of his career in a supporting role, does some of his most spirited and adventurous playing when he’s got a vocalist to take the spotlight, and here he adds all the right set dressing: Blues, swing, and cheerful humor. Bellerose keeps his tambourine shaking, but it’s his kickdrum and rimshots that make the song a banger. The showstopper for Giddens is “Come Sunday.” She steps into the Mahalia Jackson role here, and her precision and formal control have never been more valuable. It’s another song of ascent, a prayer lit up by fire and tribulation; she’s looking for the promised land, and she makes every word land. Duke wrote the song as a spiritual but also a kind of a séance, and here there are several voices called and raised—voices from church songs, slave songs, work songs, freedom songs. It all points to jazz, and Charles Lloyd sends up a sublime sax solo as commiseration and benediction. The song feels like a holy moment where ash and clay are kissed by heaven, though its place on the album could just as easily been occupied by “Freedom for the Stallion,” Toussaint’s own spiritual sequel. “Lotus Blossom” may be the key to this whole thing, a song of such aching, impressionistic beauty that you could almost believe Toussaint wrote it himself. It’s ravishing, and toward the end Frisell offers a direct statement of the melody while Toussaint plucks out a gentle lullaby.

American Tunes is a much-delayed follow-up to The Bright Mississippi; Henry pursued it for years; the sessions finally happened, and days later Toussaint was gone. The burden of the album is that it must stand now as his epitaph and the capstone of his legacy; the glory of it is that it was never intended as such and never sounds like it. Too teeming with life for it to ever sound morbid or self-consciously grave—too awash in good humor, cheerful camaraderie, and sensual pleasure—Toussaint plays the whole record with a kind of stately leisure that suggests he has all the time in the world.  And in that sense, perhaps it is a fitting final chapter—an album that reveals Toussaint as a prism through which so many stripes of American song must pass; as a performer whose softspoken and open-hearted humanity cannot be divorced from the wide mercies and inclusiveness of his music; and as a recording artist and composer whose gift was in how hard we worked to make everything sound easy. American Tunes compresses an entire spectrum of American folk song, and it seems here to exist within Toussaint himself, a man who contains multitudes. He ends it with his lone vocal contribution to the album, on Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” He dreams that he’s dying, and if that’s where he left us the album might be unbearable—but like “Come Sunday,” this one winds down with work left to be done, even the holy vocation of song; even amidst weariness, the record remains ever bright and bon vivant. He leaves us, then, with these songs talking amongst themselves, an endless river ever bending, and so much music still to be made.


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