Or: Worthy new releases from February.
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.)