Lick and Purr and Give You a Scratch: Tami Neilson goes bananas

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Tami Neilson’s “Bananas” may or may not stand as 2018’s best song about gender inequality. If nothing else, it will almost surely be the one with the highest quality and quantity of dick jokes. Ostensibly riffing on “Tomatogate,” the 2015 scandal in which a leading country radio programmer offered dubious business justifications for the marginalization of female singers, Nielson’s song offers one fruit-flavored double entendre after another in its uproarious dismissal of a male-dominated industry. “Bananas here/ Bananas there/ Seems it’s nothing but bananas everywhere,” Neilson winks—and then she tips the metaphor on its head (so to speak): “It’s banana she want equal pay/ Just for workin’ all night and day.”

It may seem like a novelty, and in fact it almost sounds like one. Nielson’s tune affects the Caribbean lilt of 1950s exotica, calypso roots filtered through Vegas razzle-dazzle. It’s topical, it’s jokey, and it’s sung with a Broadway singer’s performative zeal. But pay attention to how sharp the writing is—not just for how it turns its metaphors inside and out, but for its crisp, canny internal rhymes (“it’ll leave you reeling when you hit the glass ceiling/ Watch your pretty head, take my advice/ Best think twice, just play nice”). And if you listen past the island horns to the high-and-lonesome pedal steel, you’ll hear how the song’s tethered to country traditions. It’s a smart piece of writing, and its wage-inequality protests pack at least as much punch as, say, Margo Price’s similarly themed “Pay Gap,” not least because Neilson’s song has better jokes. Thus it becomes a key to unlocking Sassafrass!, the quietly audacious album to which it belongs—a country album that feels rooted in its craft, yet never held back by conservatism; an album that inhabits many of the conversations the #metoo movement has nurtured, but also feels like it’s made to weather the times and offer enduring appeal.

As a singer, Neilson is a powerhouse, an old-school soul belter who aims for the rafters but never compromises her control, her crisp enunciation, her rounded phrasing. Opener “Stay Outta My Business” is a brassy, retro R&B number; Neilson is coy and commanding, making it clear she could have made an entire career following in Amy Winehouse’s footsteps, though she’s even better on the more ragged, in-the-red rave-up “Miss Jones,” a tribute to Sharon Jones done in the Daptone house style. Neilson handles the quieter moments with similar grace: On the swaying “One Thought of You,” she plays the role of Rosemary Clooney, courting daydreams with slow-burning sensuality. Song after song finds her leaning into character work with an actorly sense of drama: In “A Woman’s Pain” she’s the jaded narrator, trying to keep a cool head despite simmering rage; in “Kitty Cat” she’s a teenage Wanda Jackson, howling and sneering atop woozy rockabilly.

The songs on Sassafrass!—many of them co-writes between Neilson and her brother Jay—run amok with coy, cagy, and often contradictory femininity. When Neilson wonders whether one of her characters is a “damsel in distress” or a “devil in a dress,” she’s playing with archetypes, and the answer is none (or is it all?) of the above. (Somehow it’s reminiscent of Cardi B’s musing: “Is she a stripper, a rapper, or singer?” The whole point is that labels just don’t apply.) Elsewhere, she shows that she can build entire songs from attitude and innuendo, as she does in “Kitty Cat” (“She might… lick and purr and give you a scratch/ but that don’t mean she’s your kitty cat”). She addresses inequality with devastating precision, as in “Stay Outta My Business,” where working moms are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. And, she turns stories and types inside out; listen to how “A Woman’s Pain” flips the account of Adam and Eve into inequality’s origin story: “The moment her lips touched forbidden fruit/ He said, ‘I’ll curse you with pain and a man will rule you.’” “Smoking Gun” dances all around recent headlines, charting the abuses of the Hollywood casting couch without ever feeling like it’s tied to the news cycle; “Diamond Ring,” meanwhile, is ruthlessly efficient storytelling, a novelistic pile-up of little details: “Hit the button, elevator goin’ up/ a black leather shoe jams the door before it shuts.”

Too lively to feel retro and too rooted to be a novelty, Sassafrass! is a record that lives within a historic continuum even as it tangles with the ugly present. Throughout these songs, Neilson is engaged in the work of righteousness, using tropes and tradition, withering humor and simmering indignation to paint a picture of three-dimensional femininity and complex humanity. Maybe that’s why she ends the record with a song of desolate vulnerability (“Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six,” a heartsick road song) and then one of romantic allegiance (“Good Man,” where she clings to love even when it seems like a longshot)—flip sides of the same coin, and emotional anchors on a record that’s far too wise to ever be just one thing.

Show Us the Way: Kamasi Washington’s psalm of ascent

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Some songwriters are celebrated for saying a lot with a little. Kamasi Washington’s whole thing is saying a lot with a lot. The saxophonist/composer’s first album as a leader was The Epic, which he followed with the ideologically robust The Harmony of Difference EP, heftier than many full-fledged long-players. His new Heaven and Earth wears grandiosity in its title, and contains multitudes within its luxurious spread. Its two generous portions tower, its songs sprawl, and everything is writ large: This is an album about generational struggle, about narratives of oppression, resilience, and jubilee that are as old as time, as fresh as this morning’s headlines, told in the vernaculars of those who’ve gone before us.

Like The Epic, Heaven and Earth is loaded up with choirs and strings, rambunctious solos weaving in and out of the large-group ruckus. It’s an album built for bulk, designed to dazzle. And it does dazzle, even if it occasionally fatigues. Somehow, though, self-editing feels antithetical to Washington’s true gifts; indeed, if Duke Ellington was the premiere jazz miniaturist, Washington is one of its most proficient maximalists, and he generally makes smart use of his large canvases. He can create and sustain tension, as he does on an updated Bruce Lee theme, “Fists of Fury,” which packs one explosive blast after another into its tightly-coiled 10 minutes. He also knows how to give form and shape to symphonic drift; “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” speaks itself into being through one unfurled wash of melody after another, cosmic ambiance that feels like an alternate soundtrack to Malick’s Tree of Life.

The album’s wide enough to host legions of touchstones, and it’s awash in shared history and cultural memory. Washington draws on the sounds and signifiers of the Civil Rights era and jazz’s deepest immersions in Afrocentrism. It recalls Curtis Mayfield’s elegant fight songs and Alice Coltrane’s cosmic excursions; Marvin Gaye’s seductive opulence and Max Roach’s protest suites. “Fists of Fury” uses congas, strings, and wind chimes to affect a breezy groove in the Curtis vein, even as its kung fu rhythms land one sucker punch after another. “Vi Lua Vi Sol” soars with an autotuned vocal hook that recalls the earnest supplications of Stevie Wonder. “Street Fighter Mas” is roiling G-funk, and the entire record throbs with the speaker-rattling pulse of electric bass, much of supplied by Thundercat. Of course, Washington’s allegiance to jazz lore is unshaken: He once again finds creative ways to bring standards into his program, here turning Freddie Hubbard’s rickety “Hub-Tones” into immersive, full-throated soul-jazz.

These are artifacts, but they’re also signposts along Heaven and Earth’s long and winding road—its journey from injustice to supplication, from oppression to enlightenment; a journey that takes us from the mean streets to the throne of God, then drops us back on Earth where there’s still work to be done, and where making righteous fists of fury can be a prayer language unto itself. These are big themes to match the record’s big sound– nothing less than the intersection between shared struggle, personal religiosity, and collective activism. The Earth disc is a psalm of lament. It rages against inequity, and even opens on an imprecatory note, vocalists Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible vowing to turn open palms into implements of wrathful justice. The songs that follow are concerned with working out conflict, largely through instrumental numbers: “Can You Hear Him” builds from its punchy groove and call-and-response horns into an uncharacteristically combative synth solo, while “The Invincible Youth” opens with a horn section knotted up with tension and discord. These are songs that search and struggle; they wrestle the angels and kick against demons.

Heaven, then, is the psalm of ascent—an interstellar pilgrimage to an entirely different astral plane. “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” pans out for perspective, peace, and bliss; later, “Journey” brings gospel into the picture with a moanin’ church organ. “The Psalmist” implores through its Love Supreme peals, and “Show Us the Way” and “Will You Sing” end the album with some of Washington’s most exultant playing. Washington lets his imagination run wild in these tunes, but it always runs through the prism of our collective history. Heaven and Earth’s rootedness reminds us that struggle endures, from generation to generation—but so, too, does our capacity  to address it with resilient hope and joyful noise-making.

Make Me Another Promise: The Milk Carton Kids sing American tunes

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At 14 words, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do is an album title calling out for a shorthand. Consider a helpful phrase from the accompanying press release, “waltzing into disaster,” which captures well the album’s spirit of whimsy and foreboding. Its dozen songs, clear-eyed and bruised, reflect an older, more weathered version of The Milk Carton Kids, hobbling forward in the wake of disasters both personal and cultural. It’s an album whose margins are haunted by remembrances of runaway lovers and a nation that’s all but vanished; its narrators still remember how thing used to be, and sigh in the opening lines: “Just look at us now.” And, it’s an album that dreams a highway through the backwoods and byways of American folk song, employing canonical forms for their emotional directness and uncluttered sense of narrative. These are—to borrow another recently-popular title—songs of experience, tattered but true.

The Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, both of whom play acoustic guitar, sing in close, single-mic harmonies, and dodge comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel (and also Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings) that have never felt quite right; as songwriters, Ryan and Pattengale are engaged with an older school of parlor songs and soft-shoe routines that convey deep melancholy through wistful, romantic melodies. These new songs of experience, all of them originals, are their best work to date, conveying the emotional acuity and formal control of the great American songbook. They are plainspoken, and they contain multitudes. “Mourning in America,” a state of the union in the Rhymin’ Simon vein, reflects political dislocation through street-level detail and a sense of mundane weariness; “You Break My Heart” is a song about every heartbreak, even though it was pretty clearly written about a particular one.

This is the first Milk Carton Kids album to be recorded with outside musicians, and to guide them through this new adventure Ryan and Pattengale enlisted Joe Henry, a producer who’s developed a strong catalog of albums that wring spontaneity and joyful abandon from hallowed folk forms (for examples, see his work with Allen Toussaint, Aaron Neville, or his own recent Thrum). Henry presided over Nashville sessions that brought in a rich cast of supporting players. Levon Henry’s clarinet snakes through the fleet-footed “Younger Years,” while Russ Pahl’s pedal steel sounds like a high-and-lonesome train whistle in the background. Brittany Haas’ fiddle leads off “Big Time,” something like a last waltz crossed with a barn-burning hootenanny. Spectral, lovelorn ballads like “I’ve Been Loving You” have their edges frayed by ghostly piano and steel guitar, while “Blindness,” a haunted house of a song, seems to be dissolving as it plays, an apparition fading back into shadow. There are subtly cinematic effects in every song here, and none as good as the harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids themselves; the genius of this record is how it broadens their scope while maintaining the centrality of their chemistry. It never doesn’t sound like a Milk Carton Kids album.

The result is an album that takes cues from some of the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes; the well-worn, second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons; the casual virtuosity with which Willie Nelson synthesizes roadhouse roots into something seamless and supple, with Pattengale’s ragged lead guitar ably filling in for Trigger. The album’s centerpiece is “One More for the Road,” an impressionistic epic that stretches Sinatra’s wee-small-hours desolation across the broader canvas of the American frontier, a saloon song by way of a campfire rag.  “Nothing is Real” is weary juke joint R&B, swaying in place to its dawning disillusionment. “Younger Years” recalls the wispy cowboy songs of Marty Robbins, while “You Break My Heart” is a lovelorn standard, thread-bear ruminations from a spectral Cole Porter. “I’ve Been Loving You” marries songbook formalism to country twang so ably, it sounds as though it should have been included on Stardust.

The songs were born of fracture and chaos—break-ups and relocations, health scares and a declining national mood. They sound suitably beleaguered and wary in their evocations of wayward countries and faithless lovers, and it is occasionally hard to tell whether a given line is meant to reflect personal crisis or the broader tragedies unfolding around us. (For that particular synthesis, there remains no better model than Joe Henry’s 2007 album Civilians, a singular songwriting achievement of such elegant and alluring metaphors, it can’t help but be seminal for younger writers like Ryan and Pattengale.) “Just Look at Us Now,” chronicles the curdling of youthful idealism: “We wanted to prove we were something, we were special/ We knew in our hearts we weren’t the only ones,” the song goes, and it could just as easily be a story of fated lovers or of an exceptional empire’s slow crumble. “Make me another promise if you dare,” Ryan sings, hard-won skepticism from someone who’s been through the ringer. “Mourning in America” allows for less ambivalence, capturing a disheartened trudge through an atmosphere of malaise. Later, when Ryan and Pattengale sing “I’ve been loving you all wrong,” it could be either the patriot’s boondoggle or the fool’s sad revelation; either way, they sing it like it’s too little, too late. “Unwinnable War” imagines love as a battlefield, though there’s always the outside chance it’s just about the battlefield as a battlefield; even “Big Time,” ostensibly a party jam, masks a menacing eschatology: “This’ll be the last time/ we’re gonna have a big time.”

These are all familiar lessons from the Songbook, learned anew with each new generation: The times, they change. Things fall apart. We come, in the age’s most uncertain hour, singing American tunes. The Milk Carton Kids end their album with a great one. “All the Things…,” performed by Pattengale with haunting vulnerability, is a divorce song, written from a place of reflection and regret. But for its bridge, the spare arrangement suddenly breaks open into a full-color dream sequence, Ryan joining in and the two of them daring to imagine something like peace and reconciliation. They sound like they know they’re not the first to wake up and find their house in shambles; to lift up a song for better days.

Stories We Tell: Myths and memories from Lucy Dacus, Neko Case

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On “Nonbeliever,” one of the 10 generously detailed and finely chiseled songs on her second album Historian, Lucy Dacus renounces the faith of her parents: “You threw your books into the river/ Told your mom that you’re a non-believer.” On a later song, “Pillar of Truth,” she sings from the perspective of her ailing grandmother, offering a deathbed prayer: “Lord, have mercy/ On my descendants/ For they know not/ What they do.” It’s a trick of time and a gift of perspective that allows Dacus to connect the dots between these two stray lines of dialogue, turning a set of personal reflections into a more complicated story that spans generations, allowing small reckonings with faith and doubt to suggest a more expansive interrogation of loss, inheritance, and belonging.

It’s that sort of narrative sculpting that Historian is concerned with; this is an album about how we are all our own chroniclers and biographers, seeking resonance in the stories we tell, the organization we impose on our lives and our crossed paths. The songs are all about the benefit of hindsight; opener “Night Shift,” majestic and confessional, uses romantic dissolution as its premise, but Dacus is almost more concerned with how she’ll deal with the love songs she wrote, how the meaning of these relics will change with time and experience. (“In five years I hope the songs feel like covers/ Dedicated to new lovers.”) The almost-title track “Historians,” performed as a string-swept denouement, goes beyond self-mythologizing, wondering about the role we can play in telling one another’s stories: “I’ll be your historian/ And you’ll be mine/ And I’ll fill pages of scribbled ink/ Hoping the words carry meaning.” It’s storytelling as collaboration, and intimacy as a creative act.

Dacus is a miniaturist who gets the details right, something that yields her some pantheon-level opening lines (“The first time I tasted someone else’s spit/ I had a coughing fit”) and evocative snatches of conversation (“You talk like you don’t know/ the walls are thin”).  Over the course of Historian, those details form a patchwork mosaic—a portrait of the artist seeking meaning in disruptive loss, forging an identity that’s equally informed by genealogy and her own agency. She’s paired her pliable melodies to muscular rock arrangements that similarly balance little details with grand flourishes. Save for the final benediction, the entire album is played with the hum of electricity—as if to simulate the brain’s after-hours buzz, flitting between ideas when it ought to be getting some rest—and Dacus confidently leads her band through plenty of stomp and fuzz, minor-key strumming exploding into winding, cacophonous solos. Even in the din, these songs all sound immaculately formed, and Dacus tucks plenty of texture inside—peppy horns in “Addictions,” a lazy country ramble in “Yours & Mine,” both crawling blues and industrial grind in “Timefighter.”

The latter song also reveals Dacus’ gift for deadpan, her pithy summation of human mortality suggesting little point in trying to overcome it: “I fought time/ It won in a landslide.” Death comes up more than once on Historian, and on “Pillar of Truth” it’s the loss of her grandmother that makes the singer question all the things she thought were unshakable: “I’m looking at you/ a pillar of truth/ turning to dust.” Amidst crumbling certainties, Dacus seeks refuge in inherited memory: “Raised in the age of the milkman/ I can’t claim to understand.” She’s telling her grandmother’s story—and in a season of doubt, it aligns her to something transcendent and true.

She’s not the only songwriter who’s thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves and about each other. Hell-On is the first Neko Case album in five years, and the best yet at marrying her tall tales and florid prose to suitably wrinkled, knotty musical backing. She favors impressionistic metaphor and dense imagery to Dacus’ stark confessions, but much of her album is similarly concerned with human agency as exerted through storytelling. “Halls of Sarah” interrogates the blurry line between inspiration and exploitation, remembering all the women who’ve served as muses, only to have their lives cannibalized for art: “You see our poets do an odious business/ Loving womankind as lions love Christians.” Meanwhile, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a hazy and slanted autobiography that winds through memory and regret—diary entries and shaky reminiscences turned into personal legends.

Case made Hell-On with producer Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn, and John fame—an expert in literal bells and whistles who gives Case the most exquisitely detailed and lived-in production of her career, sounding at once dingy and ornate. She’s never sounded further from alt-country orthodoxy than she does on “Hell-On,” which opens with dancing marimba and clattering percussion that sound stolen from Tom Waits’ junkyard. Faded synths fray the edges of “Last Lion of Albion,” fueling the song’s sense of corrosion and decline. Even the liveliest moments feel well-worn: The sighing guitars on “Gumball Blue” make its power pop feel rust-covered, while handclap rhythms and girl group harmonies shake dust off of “Bad Luck.” But the record’s most leathery effect is the voice of Mark Lanegan, who brings a drifter’s uneasy gravitas to “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”

Finally, we have a Neko Case album that sounds as gnarled and immersive as her songwriting. And she rises to the occasion with some of the most supple, allusive writing of her career. Hell-On certainly packs some winningly skewed Neko-isms, from winking self-deprecation in “Bad Luck” (“trying to pass riddles as poetry”) to a succinct gesture at oppressive masculinity in “My Uncle’s Navy” (“bullies are not born, they’re pressed into a form”), but its biggest narrative coup is how it both broadens and deepens the vernacular Case has been building her entire career. Case opened her last album with a song about “fighting to be wild,” and the one before that with a comparison of desire to a runaway tornado; she’s drawn to the natural world in its savage beauty and alluring danger, and Hell-On is full of references to rivers and shorelines, wildlife and unfurled stars. In Case’s songs, nature is dangerous yet vulnerable, something to be feared and nurtured all at once. When Case tells us to “be careful of the natural world,” it’s both a request for tenderness but also a word of warning. “Halls of Sarah” paints a picture of appropriation and abuse: “Men build their industries around you/ Diverting rivers in your hair/ They’re looking for their own reflection/ You’re left to die of exposure, Sarah.” There is an ominous undercurrent throughout the record, a feeling that the delicate things will only endure our mistreatment of them for so long.

But is Case singing about nature as nature—or nature as femininity? There’s no reason it can’t be both, though recent profiles, documenting how Case’s own story has been hijacked by powerful men, suggest that there’s autobiography lurking not too far inside these dense images. In other words, she’s doing the same thing as Lucy Dacus—crafting a personal mythology as a way to cope with uncertainty and doubt. In the last song, “Pitch or Honey,” she sings: “I love you better when you’re wild/ Suits you better if I say so.” It’s a line that echoes back through her entire body of song—a reminder that she’s still following her narrative thread, still engaging us in the story of her life.