After Midnight: Birds of Chicago give a little more

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“There’s time for it all/ But no time to lose,” sings JT Nero on Love in Wartime, the second Birds of Chicago album in a row to be concerned with ticking clocks and the fierce urgency of now. It might as well be the album’s mission statement: Always fiercely empathetic and alluringly big-hearted, the Birds of Chicago wield their warm humanism with pugilistic fervor here, championing engagement in a world increasingly prone to despondency and drift. In their grittiest and most visceral album yet, they declare a state of emergency: We’ve only got so much time on this earth to fight for peace, love, and understanding. There’s no excuse to check out just because times have gotten tough.

The Birds– Nero and his wife/co-conspirator/vocal powerhouse/multi-instrumentalist Allison Russell–  make music that bridges pop hooks, folk earnestness, rock and roll energy, and gospel’s big-tent inclusivity. Their big break was 2016’s Real Midnight, an album forged in the fires of new parenthood and all its attending anxiety. The record portended wolves at the door, reminding us that the lives we build together all come with an end date. Nero and Russell greeted apocalypse with party tunes, vowing love amidst frailty, real commitment in a world where nothing lasts and nobody keeps anything.

Two years later, they’re releasing new music into a different world, one where it might feel to many as though real midnight’s come at last. Here’s an album for the morning after: Love in Wartime is about picking up and carrying on; it’s a soundtrack to the struggle, for love and for peace, for vision and for sanity. Though it’s not a concept record, it’s structured very much as an interconnected suite, opening with a brief instrumental prelude and doubling back on recurring themes—wake-up calls, resurrection, sojourners making their way through a world that’s not their home—and all the while it quietly rages against complacency. “We sat there and tried to remember our dreams,” the duo sings, their positivity rattled but not shattered. “No such luck, no such luck/ So then what, so then what/ There are songs to find and oh yeah, a baby to feed.” When idealism fails you, there’s still work to be done—life to live, neighbors to love— and any time spent moping is a luxury and a waste. So they’ve cranked the party tunes even louder.

The album feels conjoined to its predecessor, but also distinct. Real Midnight was cut with producer Joe Henry and his gang of ringers, its focus on the band’s cascading gospel harmonies, their rich command of pop and folk music vernaculars, their gentleness and generosity. Love in Wartime, recorded with the full Birds touring company and produced by Nero and Luther Dickinson, finds those harmonies sounding a little more ragged, the performances a little more kinetic and band-oriented, yet the album exhibits the same intimacy and candor that made Real Midnight catch fire. It’s a companion piece from a group that’s been put through its paces, their congeniality all the more convincing for how weathered it now sounds. This is a record built for the road, and the tightness in these performances reveals all the miles and all the shows that helped birth it. Indeed, the Birds have never sounded nimbler than here, hotwiring their songs to locomotive beats and florid keyboard grooves, always making it a point to keep moving: “Love in Wartime” rises from an organ’s conversational hum to a big sing-along chorus; “Travelers” is galloping folk that breezes through tight couplets with graceful efficiency; “Lodestar” rises from a whisper to a roar, one of several tunes where Nero’s words ultimately give way to the band’s mighty swell; album closer “Derecho” shimmies and sashays to a Mardi Gras beat.

The muscle and the directness in these songs mirrors the record’s themes of love as daily action and responsibility, even amidst disillusionment. It’s fitting, then, that the album’s first two singles are both swift kicks to the ass for anyone indulging in despair. “Never Go Back” is a scant two minutes of scruffy guitar riffs and sunny keyboard groove, punkish enough to stop with just a verse and a chorus, loose enough to include plenty of spirited woos and spoken French asides. Nero sings lead, and demands all or nothing—full-bodied engagement with the world in all its tattered beauty, or else what’s the point? (“I want all of your senses,” he sings. “C’mon, give ‘em to me!”) “Roll Away” is even punchier, and nearly as terse—rumbling country-rock with a handclap rhythm and thick harmonies. “I remember afternoons just waiting around to die,” it goes—but Love in Wartime is an album where the defeated find second chances: “I am not who I was and this is not that time now, cousin.” On other songs, the kick in the ass isn’t as swift, but it lands just as heavy. Listen to how the guitars scrape and moan throughout “Try,” a pained intervention for someone who’s thrown in the towel. “Try a little harder/ Give a little more,” the Birds sing, as though everything depends on it.

Love in Wartime resists cynicism, but it does acknowledge it. “We shook our heads in disbelief,” one song goes “as if there’s no blood in our streets/ as if there’s none of that old poison/ Hot in our veins.” The antidote is vulnerability. “Lord let me die before my child/ Prayed every mother far and wide,” Russell sings on “Superlover,” her voice frayed and her defenses down. It’s a spindly hymn that connects the album back to Real Midnight’s parental jitters, grounding the record’s uncertainties in something concrete and embodied. But a mother’s nervous, all-consuming love is a superpower, not a liability: “That’s a super love/ I’m a super lover,” Russell declares, finding strength in tenderheartedness and candor. And on the title track, she and Nero echo Kacey Musgraves’ indescribable wow: “You and I are here right now/ do you ever wonder how/ Many stars died just so that could be?” To be awake and alive, here and together is no small miracle—even in treacherous times. More than once, Love in Wartime references derechos, lines of intense storms that leave carnage in their wake. Nero and Russell sing like they’ve been through some storms before, and have learned to be joyful as a matter of intention, not circumstance. And so they stand with arms wide open: “Namaste, my derecho.” Even as the clock strikes real midnight, there are songs to be found, work to be done.

Out of the Past: Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow, reviewed

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If anyone’s going to make a countrypolitan record in 2018, let it be Ashley Monroe—who, as a singer, songwriter, and record-maker, is unparalleled at finding common ground between country traditionalism and country modernism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of her age. At 31, Monroe is much too young to be a first-generation fan of Willie or Loretta, let alone Hank; she makes records that suggest she came by her inclusivity honestly, immersing herself in the hard stuff (Waylon and Merle), the pop stuff (Bobbie Gentry and Glenn Campbell), and the contemporary stuff (Shania and the Dixie Chicks, let’s say) all at once, and has no interest in acknowledging any hierarchies or demarcations therein. Her 2015 album The Blade remains a master class in time travel, a record where bubbly country-pop hooks happily coexist with austere C&W, and Sparrow is a more subtle and sophisticated record still. Working with producer Dave Cobb, Monroe both upholds tradition while reshaping it in her own image, wielding countrypolitan’s brazen, string-laden emotionalism—big, sweeping arrangements made to haul buried feelings to the surface—with therapeutic precision: Her aim is excavation, not pageantry, and she uses the colors of the orchestra to illuminate the contours of the human heart. She’s just the right songwriter to tackle a record like this—one that’s deeply felt but never saccharine or maudlin—and she’s also just the right singer: A veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe can be performative without being showy; she inhabits her characters without chewing the scenery. Her nuance and precision bring these songs everywoman appeal: She convinces us that these stories are he own, but also makes it easy for us to hear ourselves in them.

It’s fortuitous timing that, just as Kacey Musgraves situates country’s pop inclinations within the broader tradition of honky-tonk plainspeak, Monroe resurrects its opulent and theatrical side for an album that’s haunted by trauma, blood inheritance, and loss. The opener, “Orphan,” uses orchestral bombast as emotional ballast, and recalls the pomp and sentiment of a classic Isaac Hayes or Scott Walker arrangement. It turns out to be a little bit of a red herring: Proving early on that they can pull off an old-school weeper, Monroe and Cobb mostly apply a light touch to these 12 songs, using lush orchestrations to rich and varied effect. They bring an expressionistic verve to “Wild Love,” which drips with romantic opulence, as if to mirror the insatiable desire in the lyrics, and they conjure the dusty, widescreen pop of Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection on songs like “Rita.” “Hands on You” deftly deploys orchestral accents atop its slinky R&B groove, connecting Monroe’s music to country-soul. “Paying Attention” is country music dressed up as chamber folk, subtle string accents recalling albums like Beck’s Sea Change as much as they do Bobbie Gentry’s records. Both direct and multi-layered, Sparrow has the sturdy craft of a classic and a casual eclecticism born of the streaming age; it feels timeless but never retro, born of a particular lineage but never beholden to it.

Monroe wrote these songs (with a murder’s row of co-authors, among them Anderson East) while pregnant with her first child, and on the heels of therapy. She was just a teenager when she lost her father, and her mother flitted in and out of her life, two realities that factor prominently on an album that opens with a song called “Orphan” before moving into “Mother’s Daughter” and eventually “Daddy I Told You.” This is an album concerned with lineage and blood, with how the past shapes us and scars us. And so the great tragedy of “Mother’s Daughter”—a song for lovers, leavers, and drifters—isn’t that the mother is a wandering spirit, but that the daughter fears it’s a family trait. “Orphan” pulls out all the stops, not only with its lush orchestration but with its lyrics, gently touching on country and gospel tropes to convey the feeling of being totally rudderless in a world darkened of guiding lights. (God’s eye is on the sparrow, an old spiritual tells us, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a comforting or an ironic evocation in a song that feels so utterly alone.) Even the Belle de Jour daydream “Hands on You” tangles with the past and its reverberations, idly grasping at a missed opportunity. And on “Hard on a Heart,” Monroe plays the wayfaring stranger, giving her traveling companion a pep talk: “I know there’s no turnin’ back/ The damage is done/ You know all we’ve gotta do, me and you/ We’ve gotta move on.” The twist is that she’s talking into a mirror, and indeed, the key to Sparrow is that it’s not a breakup or heartache record: It’s a reckoning with the self, and a portrait of the artist as the sum of all her tragedies and her triumphs, the battles she’s lost and the scars she’s won, the sins of her parents and her own road to redemption. It ends with “Keys to the Kingdom,” a dream of heaven, where Elvis is singin’ ‘bout Jesus and there’s rest for all the weary sinners. It’s a song that looks forward in hope: Here the singer’s moving out of the past, and she’s on to something good.

Surprised by Joy: Kacey Musgraves’ indescribable wow

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There aren’t words enough for the rich, specific emotions Kacey Musgraves chronicles on Golden Hour, a record every bit as joyful as its reputation suggests but by no means simple or one-note. Musgraves is a songwriter who values precision enough to work the word “chrysalis” into her song about butterflies and to execute tight U-turns within the span of a single Sly Stone pun (“you can have your space, cowboy”), yet there are multiple times on the record where she opts for multiple words when it seems like one might have sufficed. “Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight?” she asks in one of the album’s many guileless, artifice-free moments, as if she’s narrating her own writing process, stitching her thoughts together in real time. “Happy and sad at the same time” is what she comes up with, and it’s as good a descriptor as any. Elsewhere on the album, she imbues the most general of observations with the full weight of holy wonder: “These are real things,” she marvels, as if suddenly gobsmacked by the very fact of existence. There may be a more flowery version of the same idea, but probably not a better one: Generally avoiding abstraction and metaphor in favor of emotional directness, Golden Hour is a masterpiece of plainspeak, cherishing mystery without harboring ambiguity. It’s an album about being awake and alert enough to practice active, in-the-moment gratitude, and letting your guard down enough to be seduced by love, surprised by joy. “Oh what a world,” Musgraves enthuses on one song. “And then there’s you.”  Maybe this is what Sam Phillips was talking about when she named an album The Indescribable Wow.

Her sense of wonder is channeled into a remarkable suite of songs that maintains perfect shape, tone, and momentum; co-produced by Musgraves and Daniel Tashian, Golden Hour just glows. Sumptuous and sparkling, album opener “Slow Burn” unfolds delicately, twinkling banjo notes surrounding the singer’s dawning sense of possibility; words pieced together in leisurely stream-of-consciousness, Musgraves dashes off some autobiography before her attention shifts to the world outside her (“In Tennessee, the sun’s goin’ down/ But in Beijing, they’re heading out to work”). And in just that moment, the track’s gossamer simplicity is awash with the brilliant Technicolor effects of pedal steel and keyboard, as it conveying a broader mindfulness being born inside her. Dazzling color adorns the album, allowing its generally amiable mood to feel nuanced and textured: Vocoder effects in “Oh What a World” add sublime voicing to Musgraves’ earthly awe; “Space Cowboy” has cavernous beats that set it in a place of welcoming solitude; and on “Butterflies,” psychedelic flourishes create the cloud her head’s stuck in. It’s impossible to imagine these songs being any more vulnerable or affecting with a traditionalist’s Spartan arrangement, so closely are the color schemes matched to the singer’s interior monologues. The voice-and-piano sketch “Mother” feels like both a sonic and thematic outlier, yet even in its wistfulness it embodies Musgraves’ unfiltered emotional acuity as well as her musical precision. The lyrics express age-old human feelings—distance, separation, longing—as though they’re fresh revelations, and the song cuts out just at the point where it would turn into a boring area-filling ballad on anyone else’s album, leaving us with something fleeting and haunted. Its austerity throws the rest of the album’s vivid hues into context. In a time when country music “authenticity” is closely tied to analog simplicity—think of the fine, meat-and-potatoes records by the likes of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, both of whom work largely in sepia shades— Musgraves makes a case for country as omnivorous and all-encompassing, ornate and fun; she’s spoken of her allegiance to the outlaw sound but also her fondness for Tame Impala, and on Golden Hour she wears country music’s ongoing dalliance with pop as a badge of honor, even as she upholds the genre’s reputation for emotional candor. The hard stuff, the fluffy stuff, yesterday’s C&W and today’s crossovers—all of it can coexist as “real” country.

In fact, Golden Hour goes down easy at least partly because of how it synthesizes many recent ideas about what country music ought to be, particularly in relation to pop. “Slow Burn” is pitched somewhere between a campfire song and Seven Swans-era Sufjan Stevens, while another banjo-led track—the sleek, propulsive “Love is a Wild Thing”—is the kind of rootsy pop that might have populated an early Taylor Swift record. The island vibe on “Lonely Weekend” cannily captures some of the beach-ready tropicalia of Kenny Chesney, but turns it on its head: Here country’s good-times Jimmy Buffet fixation is used to champion solitude, the bright production given weight and grit by the lyrics’ melancholy undercurrents. The disco thumper “High Horse” could be another throwback to the soft rock era, but only if you want to leap frog over Shania Twain to get there. And here again, a subversion: For the album’s boldest turn toward pop sounds, Musgraves sprinkles in more cowboy movie and horse references than you’ll hear in any 10 songs on today’s country charts. It’s country’s earthiness wrapped up in country’s glam.

As a songwriter, Musgraves has always had a penchant for smirk and irony, but Golden Hour marks the point where her sharp writing settles into something unguarded, the winks giving way to songs of ravishing affection. She comes by her joy honestly—these songs were inspired by her new marriage—but it’s more a matter of intention than of disposition: “I’m the kind of person who starts getting nervous/ When I’m having the time of my life,” she admits on “Happy & Sad.” Her cynicism runs deep enough that she occasionally finds contentment to be ill-fitting, but those fleeting worries go a long way toward selling her earnestness elsewhere. It also helps that Golden Hour feels like a record about real, grown-up relationships—infatuation that deepens into commitment. “Wonder Woman” sets boundaries and manages expectations; there’s a lot of things she can do for her man, but saving him ain’t one of them. “Lonely Weekend” upholds the value of solitude within a relationship, and even the songs that cast their eye outside the marriage (“Mother,” “High Horse”) make the love songs feel more authentic and complete: These are real people with identities and relationships beyond each other. They have wild edges. They are unpredictable, and they’ll both make mistakes. The record doesn’t deny any of this, but it does find the singer moving forward with eyes open, ready to engage joyfully in whatever she encounters. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore, no.” Of course, the world hasn’t changed—love and sadness still grow wild and free. It’s the singer who’s changed: She’s awake to the marvels words can’t express.

B for Bullshit: Truth, nonsense, and Jack White

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An avowed Orson Welles obsessive, Jack White pinched an entire Citizen Kane monologue for his early White Stripes song “The Union Forever,” claiming at the time that he’d seen the film more than three dozen times; he’d go on to name both a record label and a publishing house after The Third Man, the film that gave us Welles’ famous cuckoo clock speech. Now comfortably into middle age and past the auteur-prodigy stage of his career, White has made his equivalent of F for Fake, the final movie Welles completed in his lifetime. The film—ostensibly about art forgers and the meaninglessness of “authenticity”—is a masterpiece of stylish misdirection. It is colorful, kinetic, and oddly charismatic. It’s also mostly bullshit, a film about fakers that relies heavily on smoke and mirrors. Throughout, Welles inhabits a spectral editing room, exposing us to all the seams and frayed edges as he assembles footage seemingly drawn from two or three unfinished features, filling in the blank spaces with magic tricks and recitations of Kipling, rhapsodizing about the romance of charlatanism even as his sleight-of-hand diverts our attention from the scrappiness of his narrative. Welles’ attention never settles anywhere long enough for the film to make a cogent argument, yet it’s not ineffective: Its round-about garrulousness and patchwork construction somehow feel like appropriate vehicles for Welles’ broader skepticism concerning canon, expertise, and the slippery concept of what’s “real.” Its style is its substance, and the movie manages to be evocative even when it isn’t entirely articulate.

White’s Boarding House Reach shares many of these same traits; it is indeed colorful, kinetic, and oddly charismatic, and it employs plenty of smoke-and-mirror tricks of its own. For his third solo album, White took to his own version of Welles’ haunted editing room, allowing himself the modern indulgence of ProTools for the first time in his career. He’d previously written off such technological extravagances as “cheating,” a pout that Welles likely would have found childish. (“What we professional liars hope to serve is truth,” Welles says in F for Fake. “I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art.”) Any form of artistic “cheating” is merely a tool of the trade and a means to an end, and it’s impossible to imagine this particular Jack White album without a little behind-the-scenes cutting and pasting: Boarding House Reach is very much a patchwork, stitched together from disparate sources (some songs date back to his days in the little room with Meg; others to an abandoned collaboration with Jay Z) and cobbled together to offer a blur of sounds and ideas, lively and less interested in linear meaning than any previous Jack White project. Like Welles, he keeps things moving forward at all times, smoothing over the album’s loose ends with a confidence man’s fast-talking charm. The closest thing to a traditional Jack White song—a snarling rocker called “Over and Over and Over,” not coincidentally a song he’s been kicking around since the White Stripes days—collapses into the strange musique concrete of “Everything You’ve Ever Learned.” “Ice Station Zebra” has pounding pianos and cymbal splashes right out of Get Behind Me Satan, but it also has White speak-singing in a jittery hip-hop cadence spun from Odelay-era Beck. “What’s Done is Done” feels like a traditional country ballad while the organ-drenched “Why Walk a Dog?” scans as a mopey blues parody. “Corporation” and “Hypermisophoniac” are both swaggering grooves stitched together from congas, drum loops, keyboard effects, and eruptive guitar solos. Indeed, the entire record feels as though it’s vamping just to stay afloat, churning out nonsense, artifice, and sincerity to the point where it’s hard to tell if any of this is serious or if the whole thing’s just a put-on.

But if the Welles film proves anything, it’s that evasion and misdirection have their uses.  Like F for Fake, Boarding House Reach employs obfuscation for both functional and thematic purposes. The record’s restless momentum helps distract from its loose ends and its lack of center, making it seem like much less of a hodgepodge than it really is, while the jarring juxtapositions of modern effects and old-timey conceits offer a clean break from White’s reputation as a traditionalist and a curmudgeon. The willful difficulty of these songs feels important, too. White’s lyrics writhe and seethe toward some kind of human connection, craving the freedom found in creative expression even as they wrestle with their own confused, tongue-tied narratives. They can scan as bullshit, yet the whole point of the record seems to be finding sense in the nonsense, affirming our human need for understanding amidst our contradictions and our misconnections. So, something like the odd spoken word recitation “Abulia and Akrasia” works on a meta level: Its winding prose and dead-end punchline may scan as mere rubbish, but then again they may also suggest an artist struggling against his own fancifulness just to make a plainspoken request. And if you buy that (as Welles might say) you might also buy that “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” is the frustrated outburst of an artist who’s tired of playing to a sea of cellphones. (The song describes an audience whose “faces to their gadgets fall south.”) “Why Walk a Dog?” seems earnest in its anti-pet messaging, but it could also be taken as another parable of creative discontent; “These cats seem to blow/ Everyone’s mind but mine,” White sings, hands thrown up in exasperation. The bizarre genre mash-up in “Ice Station Zebra” proves its own point about the insufficiency of language to explain creative expression: “Hear me out, it ain’t easy but I’ll try to explain/ Everything in the world gets labeled and named/ a box, a rough definition, unavoidable/ Who picked the label doesn’t want to be responsible.” And then there’s “Corporation,” an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em anthem of dehumanization: “Yeah I’m thinking about starting a corporation,” White howls. “Nowadays that’s how you get adulation.” It’s a letter of resignation from a man who’s tired of his humanity going undervalued by the faceless conglomerates of the world. His music can baffle, befuddle, and lean into misdirection, but at least he’s trying to connect—and with music far too strange to bear the fingerprints of corporate meddling.

As for Welles, there’s a moment in F for Fake where he invokes no less an artistic authority than Pablo Picasso, saying, “Art is a lie—a lie that makes us realize the truth.” Boarding House Reach may cheat, it may bullshit, and it may not always make sense—but White’s stylish sprawl offers its own kind of truth-telling.