Rattle & Thrum: Guitar heroics from The Messthetics, Nels Cline 4

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Whatever electric guitar pyrotechnics you’re seeking, you’ll find them abounding on The Messthetics’ self-titled debut. Is it riffs you like? Discover a whole compendium of them on “Serpent Tongue,” three and a half minutes of molten licks and spiraling solos, racing a relentless low-end pulse toward certain implosion. Or maybe you prefer your guitar heroes to lay back with some chill ambiance. Try “Your Own World,” just over a minute of shadowy noir; or “Once Upon a Time,” a moody meditation that unfolds with sheets of static and noise. And if you just want to swing, start at square one: On album opener “Mythomania” the guitar snakes through a rolling beat, descending into shards of dissonance before being reset by the drummer’s crisp break. The Messthetics is an exhilarating showcase of virtuosity and technique, made by musicians far too smart to rest on finesse alone: It might have taken them an afternoon’s time to blaze through an album’s worth of solos and loose-limbed jams, but instead they’ve sculpted and shaped their electric thrum into nine exquisite tunes that are awash in melody, powered by groove, and kinetic with the possibilities of chemistry and collaboration. It’s all packaged in an album with a big, clear sound, all three instruments roughly equal in the mix—a tell in and of itself: These songs were performed with jazz dexterity, but engineered to offer gut-punch rock and roll thrills.

The vocal-less power trio comes by their sense of boundaryless, gene-agnostic possibility honestly: Drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally spent the better part of 20 years improvising a rhythmic language all their own within the hardcore trappings of Fugazi. Their rapport is critical but so is the disruptive presence of Anthony Pirog, an ax man with roots in jazz who gels perfectly with his fellow Messthetics even as he seems to keep them ever on a razor’s edge. “Mythomania” captures their high-wire balance of confidence and daring, craft and anarchy: It starts off nimble and swingin’, but the guitars become more discordant, the drummer’s pulse more haywire, until it all abruptly collapses into stomp and squall. There’s a showman’s flair to it, a real bravado in how The Messthetics are relentlessly tuneful yet take us just to the edge of chaos, and the rest of the album plays out with similar panache; between the three of them, these guys have done just about everything, and they’ve sequenced this record to condense decades of guitar innovations into a sleek suite with churning momentum and a seamless sense of mood. Listen to “Quantum Path, your local alt rock station boiled down into four minutes of pummeling, instrumental fury; its mayhem is the perfect set-up for the quick reset of “Your Own World,” followed by the taut ebb-and-flow of “The Inner Ocean,” where the guitars chime like early U2.

They save the biggest fireworks show for the album’s final few minutes: “Crowds and Power” begins as a headbanger’s ball before breaking into a dead sprint of thrash ‘n’ roll—yet even a song that’s meant to pulverize floats into passages of spacy exploration. The comedown, and the album’s lone break from the power trio format, is “The Weaver.” With a rumble of percussion, the hum of acoustic guitar strings, and even the gentle swell of a string section, the song benefits from the “Desolation Row” effect, wherein a record’s lone departure from crackling electricity somehow comes across as its rawest moment and its wildest curveball. Its placement at the album’s end is one final flush of inspiration. These guys clearly have chops, but the triumph of The Messthetics is that it’s a concise and absorbing pop record; virtuosity is never held up as an end unto itself.

They’re not the only ones who are packaging exploratory guitar work in elegant, explosive albums. Few guitarists have enjoyed careers as charmed or as diverse as Nels Cline’s, which includes regular shredding with Wilco but also has an expansive back catalog of noise experimentations. In 2016 he released the big band-buffeted Lovers, a masterpiece of mood music and a heartfelt salute to Gil Evans, Bill Evans, and Quincy Jones. Now comes Currents, Constellations—recorded with a much smaller unit but once more leaning hard into straight jazz, nary a guitar freakout of dissonant patch in earshot. The band, christened the Nels Cline 4, includes Scott Colley on electric bass, Tom Rainey on drums, and Julian Lage matching Cline on guitar. (The two ax men have a buzzing Verlaine/Lloyd chemistry.) The record is all about knotty interplay, yet like The Messthetics, it’s an album that goes beyond virtuosity for its own sake: From its thick, dank sound there emerge gnarled riffs, nervous tension, and a twisted fusion of jazz improvisation with rock and roll energy. Pick any given track and you’ll hear a clear melody laid out with both ravishing beauty and frayed, beastly menace.

The menace comes mostly in the record’s steely opening salvo: “Furtive” crashes into being with the ominous splash of cymbals; Colley and Rainey sketch out a nervous, jittery rhythm, and the guitarists dance all around it with curled licks and razor-edged runs. “Swing Ghost ‘59” lurches and thumps like Frankenstein’s monster, its halting cadence suddenly opening up into irresistible mutant bebop in the song’s closing stretch. And speaking of halting cadences, “Imperfect 10” is a tight coil of off-kilter melody and rattling percussion, sounding like a Thelonious Monk tune as reimagined by Marc Ribot. These songs bundle nervous energy and dense guitar interplay into tightly tuneful packages, and their jolt of rickety energy makes it seem as though the whole album’s humming with loose electricity, even when things slow down a bit in the back stretch. “As Close As That” is a hushed continuation of Lovers’ wee small hours ambiance, while the set’s lone cover—Carla Bley’s “Temporarily”—is spectral and spare. Like The Messthetics, Cline’s record has an obvious and delightful outlier: Flowing with a pastoral, Veedon Fleece ambiance, “River Mouth (Parts 1 & 2) is part electric drone, part acoustic reverie—nine minutes of gentle ebb and bottomless tranquility. Just when you think you’ve heard every kind of guitar magic, a master like Cline hits you with another.

Every Moment to the Letter: Amy Helm sheds light

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The phrase, as you’ve probably heard it, is “this too shall pass”—a promise that hardship is fleeting and trials last only for a season. On a ravishing and resplendent new album called This Too Shall Light, Amy Helm schemes a deeper redemption. Supported by a ragged troupe of harmony singers, she lifts up 10 songs of heartache and grieving, world-weariness and weathered hope. With voices smeared together in messy, unkempt community, Helm and her crew turn private sorrows into shared experiences. Their premise is that the hard times aren’t just here to be gotten through, but actually reclaimed; that the whole of our lived reality (“every moment to the letter”) is kindling for joy and catalyst for illumination. Or, if nothing else, as good a reason as any to get together and sing.

This is only the second album Helm has released under her own name, but it reveals the sure-footedness of a veteran. The years and miles she logged with her band Ollabelle are etched into this loose and lived-in set, a community sing-along that casually intermingles gospel, soul, rock, and folk idioms, all of it sparkling with first-take immediacy and the thrill of shared discovery. Helm convened quick, unfussy recording sessions with producer Joe Henry, who’s in the midst of a banner year (see also: Steep Canyon Rangers, Joan Baez, The Milk Carton Kids). It’s a synergistic pairing: Henry has an unbeatable track record in coaxing pantheon-level performances from powerhouse singers (which he does, and which she is). He’s also consummate in his curatorial role; Helm can write but here aligns herself with the interpretive singing tradition, and she and Henry connected over songs that are perfectly pitched for achieving the desired tenor of hard-won hopefulness. One wonders how long Henry kept The Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” in his back pocket before deciding Helm was the right vessel for its desolation and resolve; or how cathartic it was for her to lift up Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” as a prayer for clarity in an era of murk. The ace in the hole is Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind,” not only because it’s one of the greatest songs of all time nor even because it connects the album to the tattered emotion and earthy romance of Rod’s Every Picture…/Never a Dull Moment prime. It’s the album’s beating heart because of how it sneaks up on you: Its protagonist endures coldest winter and darkest night before being surprised by joy, heartened by love’s durability. It embodies the album’s dogged optimism and tested perseverance.

Henry’s go-to engineering guru, Ryan Freeland, captured these loose sessions in all their rafter-shaking power and clarity. It sounds as immediate and as visceral as any album they’ve made together. You can make out every popped snare and rattled tambourine from Jay Bellerose in crackling detail; follow Jennifer Condos’ limber bass as it snakes through the clamor of voices; get lost in the woolly hum of Tyler Chester’s organ and keys. But in an album about singing as a work of redemption, the harmonists are the ones who come in clutch. They include Adam Minkoff along with—crucially—Allison Russell and JT Nero, better known as Birds of Chicago. The most warmly humanistic of bands, their geniality and deep harmonies color everything they lay a hand to. Helm’s miniature cloud of witnesses imbues even the most hardscrabble songs with the lilt of compassion. Listen to how they sow little eruptions of joy through the tough-as-nails title track, a lithe groove where Bellerose’s rolling thunder fades into snapped fingers. And hear them in “Michigan,” all but underwater in dashed romance and Chester’s organ wash—until the chorus comes, roaring in celebration at the freedom to just belt it at top volume.

Community is a big part of what the album’s about, and Helm’s sense of belonging reaches back beyond what’s visible, encompassing even the ancestors. She’s a keeper of the flame, a singer who holds lineage close to her heart—not least the lineage of her legendary father, Levon Helm. His confederate Robbie Robertson has a writing credit here, as Helm swings and swaggers through a wonderfully sweaty R&B number called “The Stones I Throw,” a relic of Levon & The Hawks’ days lighting up bars. But if Helm is buoyed by heritage, she’s not beholden to it; her aim isn’t to live in the past but to remake it in her own image, something she does on a read of Henry’s song “Odetta” (a literal invocation of the ancestors). The original recording featured a high-stepping gospel piano motif, which here spills its sanctified ebullience all over a boisterous bridge; Helm holds it together by her own solemn authority.

This Too Shall Light concludes with two songs that tie it all together. First is T-Bone Burnett’s “River of Love,” haunted when Sam Phillips sang it on her album The Turning but quietly hopeful here; the song sparkles as Helm follows the rivers of grief and struggle, truth and belief back to the origin points, reassured that they were running long before she got here and they’ll keep running long after she leaves. The final song is an acapella read of the traditional “Gloryland,” wonderfully rough and craggy, with an arrangement credit shared between Helm and her father. Here there’s light shed even in death, the true end of suffering and sadness. Those who’ve gone to Heaven shall weep no more, the song promises; and for those of us still breathing, at least we have something to sing about.

Time Couldn’t Move Any Faster: Standing in the threshold with Alela Diane

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Parenthood has a way of bringing everything into perspective—but as any parent will tell you, perspective and certainty are hardly the same thing. Folk singer Alela Diane bears witness to this on her elegant new album Cusp, a song cycle that meditates on motherhood and all its attending paradigm shifts. “Certain things cannot be explained/ Even when you’re on the other side,” Diane sings, and she does sound like someone who’s been through something; now a mother twice over, Diane is cognizant of how time’s changed her, but also keenly aware of how much she still doesn’t know. Across 11 songs of experience, she testifies to her accrued wisdom and lived revelation, but also displays enough humility to simply abide mystery: To love another human with a mother’s ferocity—and to be loved and changed in return—is a depth none could hope to plumb.

Diane’s career has intersected with some of the woolier fringe of the contemporary folk and Americana scenes—she’s performed with Joanna Newsom, Blitzen Trapper, and Fleet Foxes, among others—yet Cusp is a remarkably clean record, exhibiting restraint and formal control. Diane delivers her songs from behind a grand piano or an acoustic guitar, opting for sharp enunciation over wobbly tremolos; working with producer Peter M. Murray and an agreeably low-key studio band, she combines the delicacy of folk music with pop’s melodic robustness. The record’s unostentatious sound allows the lyrics to do the heavy lifting, yet there’s plenty of color along the margins: Stately opener “Albatross” is warmed by the gentle swell of a brass band, while “Never Easy” has a wispy romance that’s close to country-rock. “The Threshold,” opens with flute and hand percussion, mimicking the intimacy and closeness of a bossa nova tune, while “Ether and Wood” has the nimble touch and courtly sweep of a Carole King song. It’s an album of consummate craft and loving detail, and Diane sounds sure-footed even when she’s singing about her life in the whirlwind.

Motherhood is sometimes the object but always the precipitating action in these songs, and one of Cusp’s most valuable yields is its industrial-strength empathy. The parent’s selfless service is an antidote to narcissism, and Diane flexes her broadened moral imagination in songs that joy in seeing things from alternate points of view. “Song for Sandy” is a woebegone tribute to the late Sandy Denny (her voice, “like water from a snowmelt stream,” is a common aesthetic touchstone for Diana herself). It looks back on her death from the vantage point of the daughter she left behind, and quietly rages at the world’s dark fatalism. “Nothing could be done,” Diana sings, a surge of anger roiling the song’s good manners, sending tremors through its pensive reserve. The flinty “Émigré,” quietly propulsive, considers the dangers in the refugee’s plight, all from the vantage point of mothers risking all to give their sons and daughters a better life. But the most seismic revelation is closer to home: In the windswept “Never Easy,” Diane admits to the friction that sometimes exists between mothers and daughters, then acknowledges how having a daughter of her own helps her cherish her mother’s imperfect affections even in retrospect. Cusp is not an album with jokes or one-liners, but this song has at least one time-stopping admission of holy insight: “Oh, my mama, I understand now/ That you’ve always loved me more.”

Such riches of compassion can only be forged by time and struggle, and that’s really what Cusp is about—even its title suggesting a singer who’s straddling past and present, ever in mid-transformation, on the verge of a bigger world and a wiser self. Glen Hansard’s most recent album posits time as a healer, but on Cusp time is something like the prime mover, a crucible for newness and growth. “The Threshold” is a time machine; its narrator stands “in the threshold of two white rooms,” one filled with images of her past, the other visions of the future. (Each room represents “something I hold true,” Diana says.) It’s a song about becoming, about how we’re the sum of our histories as well as our destinations. And yet the album also longs to be free from regret, from lineage, from the places we’ve come from; “Don’t ask me ‘bout the places I’ve been,” she offers on “Albatross,” wishing she could soar high above the “tailwinds” of memory.

There’s humility behind Diane’s insights—she’s discovering, not disclaiming—and her slant toward metaphysics is grounded in songs about motherhood’s concrete particulars. “So Tired,” a chamber folk song tailored with unpropitious string accompaniment, is a report from the front lines, and immensely rewarding for its representational value alone; how many other songs can you name that chronicle the physical fatigue that new moms face, while also celebrating their willingness to give so much and so freely of themselves? “You call for me in the dead of night and I come,” she sings, sounding weary but purposeful. And “Wild Ceaseless Song,” a buoyant turn behind the piano, is the record’s perfect capstone. Here, Diane confronts eternity’s roar; she’ll come and go, and what passes in between will pass all too quickly. “And the days move slow/ But the years do know/ That time couldn’t move any faster,” she sings. It’s a sentiment we’ve all heard, but only a mother could really know.

The Same Old Sin: On Mitski’s alternate realities

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Mitski Miyawaki is not a science fiction writer, but you may as well put her albums on the same shelf beside the collected Philip K. Dick or Ursula Le Guin—all three of them purveyors of alternate reality. Her sixth and sharpest album, Be the Cowboy—cheeky and devastating, immaculate and exhilarating—is largely concerned with what might be and what might have been; characters either pine for a different world, or rue the one they let slip through their fingers. Just consider the bookend tracks. The opening “Geyser” is a coil of potential energy; it simmers with desire and then erupts with longing: “You’re my number one/ You’re the one I want/ And I’ve turned down every hand/ That has beckoned me to come.” It’s a song born of pure, single-minded yearning; like her former tourmate, Lorde, Mitski revs for the green light, burns for the chance to race ahead for the thing she wants most. But if that song’s all promise, the closing “Two Slow Dancers” studies a dream deferred. Here, two ex-flames linger at a high school reunion, and wonder together about roads not taken. This is an album that chronicles all the what-ifs and if-onlys; its characters wish they were different, nurse disappointments that were either doled out by fate or achingly self-inflicted, and daydream of a parallel universe where—for all they can imagine—everything worked out perfectly.

It’s an exacting account of insecurities and regrets; an anthology of heavy emotional blows, mundane realizations with shattering consequences. Take the character in “Lonesome Love,” offering a plainspoken confession that spends just four terse lines moving from self-confidence to total deflation: “Walk up in my high heels/ All high and mighty/ And you say, ‘Hello’/ And I lose.” There’s a level of clarity required in documenting such complicated emotional arcs so precisely, and that’s something Mitski has in abundance. Both as a singer and as writer she sticks to clean contours and crystalline presentation; there’s nowhere for her or her characters to hide, not even when they duck behind metaphor. “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart/ Baby, bang it up inside,” one song says, embracing someone else’s filthy laundry even while acknowledging the damage done. The album’s quintessence is another line from “Lonesome Love,” which feints toward a corrosive relationship but circles back to self-destruction: “Nobody butters me up like you, and/ Nobody fucks me like me,” Mitski sings.

Mercifully, her clarity cuts both ways: It makes the songs more gutting but it also makes the album more absorbing, the seamlessness in her craft impossible to miss. Possessing an ear for hooks, an easy way with melody, and an unassuming eclecticism, Mitski is a pop writer from the same school as Elvis Costello and Aimee Mann, carefully stitching together lyrics for maximum momentum and pairing them with cheerful tunes that don’t quite mask the underlying desperation. Her tunefulness is married to punk economy, with only two of its 13 songs cresting past three minutes. (Generally speaking, this tilt toward hardcore brevity is a welcome break from streaming-era bloat.) Within those tight parameters, she and her long-time producer Patrick Hyland offer a kaleidoscopic take on singer/songwriter classicism. The electric thrum that marked Puberty 2, her 2016 breakout, is pared down for a more keyboard-based sound, though she still kicks up a few mighty squalls on songs like the clenched rocker “Remember My Name,” providing a sonic link between her alternate realities and Lucy Dacus’ curated histories. “Geyser” settles her pure pop bona fides early on, setting a sweeping hook to big, chunky power chords in a way that almost guarantees a straight-faced Weezer cover version. Those songs brush up against the loping country gait of “Lonesome Love,” the honeyed melancholy of “Old Friend,” even the appealingly stiff, robotic funk of “Washing Machine Heart,” which splits the difference between Devo and Dirty Mind. “Nobody” tips its hat to Mitski’s soft rock dreams, opening with pensive piano before settling into a genial disco thump, but the biggest tell may be the nimble domesticity of “Me and My Husband,” a song that recalls no one so much as Paul McCartney—an artist with whom Mitski shares her knack for melodic and emotional directness.

The latter is a song so convivial, it may take a listen or two to realize that the singer is suffocating. “Me and my husband, we are doing better” she feebly offers, leaving the what-ifs and if-onlys painfully unspoken. Mitski has described the song as one of acceptance—a coming to terms with a marriage, a life, a sense of self that wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. “I bet all I have on that furrowed brow,” she admits, no longer enthralled by her steady marriage but also seeing no alternative, living and dying by the choices she’s made. And if that character’s trying to talk herself out of admitting heartache, the one in “A Pearl” takes the opposite approach, cherishing toxicity until it becomes her identity: “It’s just that I fell in love with a war…/ And it left a pearl in my head/ And I roll it around.” This self-awareness is a bracing counterpoint to the self-deceptions found elsewhere on the album, and if there’s any silver lining to these sad songs, maybe it’s that disillusionment is the first step toward healing. One of the album’s most visceral reality checks comes early on: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” charges ahead, squelchy synths building to peppy horns, as the singer acknowledges her part in a failed relationship—and wonders why her partner didn’t save her from herself. “I know that I ended it, but/ Why won’t you chase after me?” she sings. She has no one but herself to blame for the reality she’s been left with; as she says in another song, “I thought I’d traveled a long way/ But I had circled the same old sin.” To build a better world, a better self, requires clear-eyed recognition of the current one; and nobody promised it wasn’t gonna hurt.

Circling Back: The endless possibilities of Eddie Palmieri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

whackworld

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

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

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

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