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


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 thinks of the poet Kay Ryan, whose immaculately-sculpted poems—hymns to concrete particulars, with titles like “Blue China 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, a simple reality with seismic implication. 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.

Let There Be More Kindness: The mundane, the momentous, and The Innocence Mission

sun on the square

Every album by The Innocence Mission is filled with characters who channel the mundane into the momentous; characters who turn the tide and save the day through simple acts of kindness.

There’s “When Mac Was Swimming,” in which a little boy enjoys a day at the pool, blissfully unaware of loved ones scurrying around town, making plans and preparations for his birthday party. (“You’ll never know, darling/ You’ll never know how you are loved,” is the song’s simple and seismic conclusion.)

There’s the friend in “July,” showing up with sparklers in her hands at the end of an arduous day; she delivers light and joy, and has no idea how badly both are needed.

There’s even Fred Rogers, iconic for his empathy and compassion, invoked as both patron saint and kindred spirit on an album called Hello I Feel the Same. In the song, our narrator dreams that she can drive for miles just to see him; for him to smile at her, and tell her how she “could make things better.”

Such humility is befitting for this, the gentlest and most tender-hearted of bands—though they may be selling themselves short. For years they have been making things better for their small yet fervent following. Like the girl in “July,” they always seem to arrive with a gesture of kindness and encouragement just when such things are in shortest supply; and it is possible that they, too, have no idea how badly their joyful witness is needed.

Their elegant new album Sun on the Square is the latest in a long line of records that feel like refuges and oases—records that favor serenity over agitation, sincerity over irony, modesty over ostentation. These albums celebrate friendship, domesticity, and God’s grace—always seen through the prism of the tiniest gestures of love and charity. One of the new song titles, “An Idea of Canoeing”—like “When Mac Was Swimming” before it—conveys something of their flair for turning idle afternoons into mile-markers; this is a band unparalleled at documenting the little moments of grace revealed by hindsight to be formative.

There was a time when The Innocence Mission followed their instincts pop-ward, even feinting toward mainstream success on bubbly, up-tempo albums like Glow. They’ve pared down from a working four-piece to a central husband-wife alchemy—Don and Karen Peris, often but not always joined by longtime collaborator Mike Bitts on upright bass, and now by their string-playing children on select songs—and since 2007’s We Walked in Song they’ve quietly released a series of albums that feel of a piece: modest bedroom recordings that champion simplicity, savoring the warm thrum of acoustic guitar strings; the diaphanous tremor in Karen’s voice; songs that move at an unhurried, autumnal pace; words that glisten with elegance and precision. Sun on the Square both continues and subtly progresses that series, offering another collection of unassuming songs that find new wrinkles within a signature sound.

It’s their most distinguished album since 2003’s Befriended, largely because it’s their most sonically adventurous and casually exploratory. The Perises still write quiet folk songs, but here there’s pure sound bleeding through the edges, making even some of the slowest and softest numbers sound humming and atmospheric. Don’s acoustic guitar remains at the forefront—and his gossamer notes still ring like church bells—but many songs are given a summery ambiance by Karen’s pump and field organs, which hang a kind of hazy mystique over the proceedings, as if suggesting a pervading and enveloping mystery so thick it’s almost tangible.

This is an Innocence Mission record that feels visceral, sensual: Karen has professed inspiration from bossa nova singers like Astrud Gilberto, and maybe that explains “Sun on the Square,” a warm breeze that you can practically feel on your skin. It’s masterful in how it assembles simple components—the acoustic guitar’s hum, a sprinkling of piano, a brisk ride cymbal groove—into something irreducible and breezy. Other songs feel like they hide entire worlds within them, each one a tiny diorama of immaculate detail: “Buildings in Flower” is lo-fi folk, a scratchy basement tape decorated by dancing bells and the jovial swell of a melodica. The dreamy “Shadow of the Pines” surrenders to opulence, losing itself in an oceanic wave of piano, accordion, and harmonica. “An Idea of Canoeing” builds into a cosmic swirl of voice and guitar, closer to shoegaze than to folk austerity.

While the group’s sound has seldom been so expansive, Karen’s lyrics are more economical than ever; in tight, uncluttered stanzas, she expresses the openness and vulnerability of characters who choose generosity over insularity. In “Records from Your Room,” the sound of old vinyl wafts through the windows and out into the street, a reminder to passersby of common grace, “the depths of belief, the kindness of strangers.” The genial waltz “Look out from Your Window” celebrates connection amidst separation and noise: “Look out from your window now/ Can you see me cheering for you, up and down?” Meanwhile, the hymn-like “Star of Land and Sea”—the only song here sung by Don—is a benediction into peace-making and neighborly love: “Be a light to all/ You shine/ Into darker lands/ You shine.” Maybe it’s an answer to the title song, a prayer lifted up in troubled times: “Let it ring into the air/ Let there be more kindness in the world.”

To pray for more kindness, of course, is to acknowledge the indecency of the world we live in; how often it feels bent toward cruelty. Dark edges aren’t totally foreign to this good-natured group, yet even on 1999’s Birds of My Neighborhood—their Sufjan Stevens-endorsed landmark, about a prolonged season of sorrow and doubt—there’s a sense of looming mercy and unseen hope: “The world at night has seen the greatest light,” one song says, maybe or maybe not referencing the Nativity. They’ve been reflecting that light ever since, on one album after another that proves its own point just by existing—delicate and brave, ringing with mundane and momentous kindness.

Rooted and Restless: Acoustic travelogues from Steep Canyon Rangers, I’m With Her

see you around

American folk music is rife with restlessness; its backroads and byways are well-trod by lonesome hobos and wayfaring strangers; by ramblers, drifters, lovers and leavers. On two new albums, restlessness is both a theme and an aesthetic. Steep Canyon Rangers’ Out in the Open and I’m With Her’s See You Around are both travelogues, full of weary and weathered but ultimately hopeful songs about change, transition, and movin’ on. And, both albums embody roots music idioms while also subtly pushing at the boundaries. These records are respectful of tradition without ever being beholden to it; they are eager to offer an expansive and subtly progressive take on familiar forms.

Few bands have done more to expand bluegrass’ cultural cache than the Rangers, a fleet-fingered North Carolina troupe now well-decorated for their work in support of Steve Martin. Martin doesn’t appear anywhere on Out in the Open, which means there’s more air time for singer/guitar player Woody Platt and singer/banjoist Graham Sharp. It also means there’s room in the fold for another renaissance man, this time producer Joe Henry, who’s got an extensive track record working with artists who both embody and elaborate the grammar of folk music. (Give a listen to his albums with Hayes Carll and Joan Baez, among others.) Henry gives the Rangers room to roam, which happens to be one of the things bluegrass is really great for: On up-tempo songs with locomotive rhythms, the Rangers sound like they’re racing into open horizons, sketching the invisible boundaries of an untamed frontier. “Let Me Out of This Town,” the most locomotive of the bunch, is the jittery confession of a man bursting to escape from small-town monotony, set to a frenzy of banjo notes that sound like a train hellbent on careening off the tracks. Escape isn’t an option for the narrator in “Can’t Get Home,” a deceptively rollicking tune about a soldier imprisoned in his own memories. Songs like these and “Roadside Anthems”—where nimble mandolin work weaves through galloping banjo and loping fiddle—offer familiar bluegrass pyrotechnics, speed and virtuosity in service of melodic purity. Yet there are just as many moments that prove how pliable bluegrass orthodoxy can be. A campfire lullaby called “Going Midwest”—where a man packs his bags and says goodbye to everything he’s ever known—is carried by acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies; it’s spectral and spare, singer/songwriter introspection that recalls no one more than The Milk Carton Kids. The title song, a rickety construction of puffed harmonica and steady-thumping kick drums, is a shambolic delight, sounding like it’s constantly on the verge of collapsing but staying upright through sheer whimsy and will. Its good-natured goofiness is eclipsed only by “Shenandoah Valley,” where the Rangers slow things down considerably for a bit of old-timey soft-shoe, rhapsodizing about a romantic dalliance with the power to stop time.

These are all subtle shake-ups that reveal a musical tradition in constant dialog with itself, in service of songs that grope for solid ground in a world gone topsy-turvy. “Farmers and Pharaohs” is a mirrored hall of romantic regrets, given folksy flourishes by Nicky Sander’s swooping fiddle. “I learned the hard way/ Now it’s too late/ If I could take back that very day,” the song goes, and you hardly need the clause completed: It’s the worst moment of a man’s life, captured in amber, a talisman and a mile-marker born of wisdom and rue. Similarly, “When She Was Mine” tells one of the oldest stories in the world, and it tells it all right there in its title. The ringer in the bunch is “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” a Dylan cast-off-turned-standard, here adorned with mossy harmonies that make it sound ancient. It’s a soldier’s windswept lament; he knows he can’t escape death, but at least he can go out with dignity. He fits in well on Out in the Open, an album that ennobles tradition by leaning into change.

The same could be said of See You Around, the debut album from I’m With Her, just about the super-est group imaginable within today’s acoustic roots scene. A working unit since 2014, the all-ladies band is so named for their embrace of collaboration and camaraderie, values they uphold throughout this ego-free set. The group—Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan—discovered an easy chemistry through back-stage jams at various concert halls and festivals; wrote the lion’s share of their album together, save for a stray Gillian Welch cover; and convened with producer Ethan Johns, who gives the album a clean, spare production—mostly just voice, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle— that leaves them no room to hide. (So unembellished is the production, the introduction of electric fuzz in “I-89” feels just slightly less disruptive than Jack White’s adoption of a bass line in “Seven Nation Army,” all those years ago.) Rather than embalming the album in austerity, though, Johns’ tidiness highlights the band’s sophistication and allure—the melodic precision and emotional acuity in their songs; the casualness with which they blend bluegrass, folk, and country traditions; and the way the three of them only ever sound like one person, whether trading verses or harmonizing together. If the Steep Canyon Rangers are a band built for speed and showmanship, I’m With Her trades in sly seduction—songs that are winsome both in their earthiness and in their seamless virtuosity. Listen to how “Game to Lose” rises from doleful, fiddle-led verses to a hard-strummed, staccato chorus, reminiscent of the progressive string band music Watkins innovated in her Nickel Creek days; or, to the hazy hypnosis in “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” a loping and languid tryst that turns southern sultriness into something atmospheric and enticing.

See You Around—its very title suggesting movement and separation—is a scrapbook of stories, many of them involving travel and transition. It’s an appropriately frayed collection, full of loose ends and spritely invention—consider the weightless harmonies that hold “Wild One” aloft, or the easygoing spontaneity of “Waitsfield,” an instrumental rag—yet it also feels like it adds up to something complete, a lifetime of experience and regret, seen from a vantage point that’s clear-eyed without being callous. World-weariness fleshes out even the most archetypical tales: “Overland” is a railroad song that finds relief in the turned page: “Oh I’ve lived through more than I could tell/ I’ve sold all that I could sell/ Finally leaving it behind, goodbye, farewell.” And it’s not the only wayfaring tune here; “I-89,” built from layers of delicate picking and wheezing blues, imagines wanderlust as a survival instinct: “If there was another way out I’d take it/ If there was another way down I’d go.” Feminine agency animates romantic arrangements of all varieties, even as the songs reflect just how much these entanglements change and shape us: “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree)” is about a dalliance in the orchard, told with just the right blend of discretion and lustiness, while “Close it Down” is about a barroom fling with a married man, one in which both parties see things for what they are, and even extend empathy to the wife who’s back home. And then there’s “Ain’t That Fine,” a song of experience that’s all about accepting mistakes and moving on, told with wistful humor (“I can’t believe the things I put my mother through”) and hard-won contentment (“Some folks have it better/ But oh, we’ve got it good”). There are bruises aplenty here, but I’m With Her never stops to count them: See You Around is concerned with the events that push us forward, not the ones that hold us back; it’s a document of evolution, and the travelogue of pilgrims making progress.

Grind and Scream, Laugh and Cry: New highs from Low Cut Connie

dirty pictures part 2

Low Cut Connie’s Dirty Pictures (Part 2) opens with an anti-drug song, though not necessarily in the way you might think. In “All These Kids are Way Too High”—a howling boogie in the Mott the Hoople vein, first chugging and then barreling atop pounded pianos and buzz saw guitars—singer Adam Weiner imagines himself a song and dance man, peddling party tunes to a local frat. He’s hopeful for an evening’s wild abandon—it’s been a “rough fuckin’ week in America,” he understates, and a little good-natured carousing might do us all some good. Problem is, the frat kids are all too plastered for any kind of embodied, in-the-moment experience. “They wanna grind and scream, they wanna laugh and cry/ But they’re standin’ around because they’re too damn high,” snarls Weiner, in a song that subverts the music of teenage rebellion to indict youthful ambivalence, all the while celebrating the ragged, contagious joy of unostentatious rock and roll. That’s the album’s calling card and its thesis statement: Minute for minute and song after song, Dirty Pictures (Part 2) serves up one damn high after another. It is mind-altering in its euphoria, intoxicating in its kinetic energy. It invites the listener to shake off anything holding them back from ecstasy and release.

Total naturals at no-frills rock and roll firepower, Low Cut Connie is a group of working-class road dogs from Philly—a bar band by any other name, or at least they would be if they weren’t so stacked with swing and swagger, heart and humor. You’d need a dream team of era-spanning hall-of-famers to approximate the gutbucket flair of Weiner and his crew, who filter the primitive fury of early Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis through the arena-swelling bravado of the E-Street Band, the cheerful unpretentiousness of Nick Lowe and Rockpile, and the lo-fi rush of The Replacements. Weiner shimmies and sashays atop big fists of piano chords with all the vulgar grace of David Johansen, all while the band’s dual guitarists capture the nervy buzz of Johnny Thunders. And then there’s the rhythm section, relentless with their galloping back-beats: A twitchy kickdrum gives “Oh Suzanne” its addictive pulse, while a flurry of crash cymbals adds fizzle and panache to the live-wire “Please Do Not Come Home.”

Not one but two of these songs are named for girls—“Beverly” and “Oh Suzanne,” both sounding like titles plucked from the Chuck Berry catalog—and the album’s lone protest tune wears its topicality in its title (“Desegregation”; the Connies are for it). These are gestures at a certain old-time rock orthodoxy that prefers things loud, fast, and out of control—a missive Weiner and his team live up to in a howling cover of Alex Chilton’s “Hey! Little Child!” Theirs is a rock and roll that’s made for the dance floor, and they bring plenty of low-end thump to their boogie-woogies, but there’s alluring physicality even to songs like “One More Time,” back-country doggerel that’s seductively simple and swaying. For a band that’s so often described with words like greasy and sweaty, there’s real sophistication to the way they sculpt their tunes and treat all of rock’s eras as equal, pulling inspiration from disparate sources and putting them together in a way that feels natural. “Every Time You Turn Around,” the closest thing they’ve got to a piano ballad, is roadhouse R&B festooned with Queen-ly harmonies. “Oh Suzanne” exudes slapdash energy, but underneath it there’s a canny construction, one that builds from clipped verses to a roaring chorus in no time flat. And in “Please Do Not Come Home” Weiner shows that he can write pure power pop with bracing earnestness.

Every song on the album offers a good time, but these are good times born of weariness and desperation. Weiner’s characters are guys who’ve taken a few licks, dudes increasingly aware that they’re also-rans or has-beens—like the narrator of “Hollywood,” the album’s only song to abandon rock and roll altogether in favor of straight singer-songwriter fare. “Oh Hollywood, don’t break my balls/ I’m not a real bad guy after all,” Weiner croons, his confession sounding scruffy and vulnerable; it’s an anthem for anyone who harbors big dreams, but also knows how easy it is to get chewed up and spit out. Maybe the narrator is the same guy from “All These Kids are Way Too High,” a true believer who sings his ass off every night whether it gets the kids dancing or not; he may never be a star, no matter how many climactic highs he has to offer. And “Master Tapes,” opens with a cavalcade of vulgarity, but it’s profanity without bravado—the quick-fire cursing of a guy who’s talking tough even as he feels scared and broken inside, trapped in his own memories and regrets. Weiner’s spare, economical writing finds lovability in these sad-sack ruminations. Even when writing from abysmal lows, he and the Connies produce glorious highs, open to anyone who’s willing to sweat and grind and dance along with them.