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.