Album of the Month
We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose
If you’re really lucky, you’ll hear a country-rock album this good, this graceful, this unerring maybe once every five years or so. Whitney Rose’s great sleight-of-hand trick, now well-practiced over a series of fine albums extending back to 2012, is in making everything she does sound effortless, but the rarified company her albums keep proves just how much work it takes, how much craft and consideration are required for music that never sounds like it’s breaking a sweat. You can give a little bit of the credit to producer Paul Kolderie, who’s helmed albums for Radiohead and Uncle Tupelo and Belly, and who situates Rose’s soft-touch songs in well-worn textures and loose, live-band chemistry. His patient, unflashy approach is just right for material that generally maintains a steady simmer; a few songs accelerate into a cheerful gallop, but even the ostensible rockers are more about seduction than raw force. “I’d Rather Be Alone” soars high above the heartland, like a Tom Petty tune if the Heartbreakers had had a banjo player. “You’d Blame Me for the Rain,” the album’s slow blues workout, goes down smooth and slinky. Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine says “Better Man,” a rowdy roadhouse jam, sounds like Carlene Carter fronting Rockpile, and he’s right. But give most of the credit to Rose, whose instincts as a singer and songwriter are unfaltering here; she’s capable of scaling all the big notes but mostly sticks to a conversational tone, so when she does belt it out, the impact is visceral. (“And I don’t know if you can… BE A BETTER MAN!”) She’s similarly sure-footed in her songwriting, which leans on classic country structures without ever sounding self-consciously retro or tropey. In “Believe Me, Angela” she plays the wife of a scoundrel, addressing the other woman with both icy indignation and maternal warmth (“just run away while you still can”); her easeful demeanor is what sells it. “In a Rut” sweetens its desperation with a cheerful juke joint boogie, finding glimmers of grace in dancing in place. “Through the Cracks” builds convincing domestic melodrama through the pileup of casual details. (“After all the times we talked about it, would you believe I finally got a king-size bed?”) The album ends with the sly, shuffling title track, a bit of soft-shoe that eschews wealth and extravagance for modesty and contentment. Rose delivers the song as a subject-matter expert: She knows more than most about small but sustaining pleasures.
Reunions | Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Sobriety was the subject matter of Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough, and it’s been the prevailing attitude of every album he’s made since. Characteristically earnest, Reunions verifies that one of the defining traits of Isbell’s songwriting is his distrust of contentment; no one is better at plucking anxiety from scenes of serenity. Opener “What’ve I Done to Help” acknowledges the beautiful life he’s made with his family but worries it’s pushed him out of touch with those less fortunate. The narrator in “Overseas” remembers waking up beside his bride the morning after their wedding; she “looked scared as hell,” he recalls. And “Dreamsicle,” where childhood memories are clouded by domestic upheaval, is a reminder of just how quickly the rug can be pulled out from under us, serendipitous messaging in the quarantine era. Such anxieties accumulate on Reunions, and Isbell keeps a pretty tight lid on them; the first half of the album is particularly pensive, offering release through Isbell’s blistering lead guitar on “Overseas” but mostly sticking to the moody, textured playing of The 400 Unit, never more painterly than they are here. They get to flex their rock and roll muscle in the album’s back half; “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier” are bracing jolts of energy, the former a carefully-controlled eruption, the second loose and swaggering. Even better are “Letting You Go,” straightforward country storytelling in the vein of Willie Nelson or Billy Joe Shaver, and “River,” where Isbell’s demons are sent scurrying by Amanda Shires’ graceful fiddle accents. Consistently ruminative, Reunions never confuses self-examination for self-pity, which may be Isbell’s greatest gift of all; he leans toward empathy and connection, giving a loved one space to grieve on the gentle “St. Peter’s Autograph,” advising recovering addicts to be patient with themselves on “It Gets Easier.” Here’s hoping he takes his own advice; Isbell’s hard on himself, but the truth is, songs like these help plenty.
Petals for Armor | Hayley Williams
Petals for Armor is the first solo record from Paramore’s Hayley Williams, a distinction that may seem dubious based on a cursory review of the album credits; her former bandmates show up all over this thing, including long-time Paramore member Taylor York, credited here as the sole producer. The lyrics quickly dispel any notion that this could be a rebranded version of Williams’ day job. This is the kind of album publicists like to call “deeply personal,” which is to say starkly confessional, unguarded, explicitly autobiographical. Williams’ songwriting is littered with references to abuse, depression, and divorce, and follows winding trajectories of breakdown, breakthrough, and self-care; if they hand out awards for emotional articulation then Williams should probably win one, though she may need to split the prize money with her therapist, who’s obviously very good. The imagery in the album title shows up in a few songs, positing vulnerability as a kind of protective shield (“wrap yourself in petals,” Williams advises), and if the idea of vulnerability-as-strength is a familiar one, Williams articulates it with convincing specificity; check out “Cinamon,” about decorating a new home following a break-up, creating physical space for solitude, femininity, and comfort. Grounding her songs in such a concrete personal narrative allows Williams to deploy cliches in a context that feels meaningful (“I beat it like a dead horse, I beat it like a drum,” she sings in one song about escaping a toxic relationship.) And, it lets her retain some earthiness in even her most florid conceits; “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” uses a horticultural metaphor to outline a history of female trauma, and it feels anything but theoretical or academic. The emotional rawness lends an edge to what is basically an adult contemporary album, full of polished production, big melodies, and medium tempos. Its formal constraint is occasionally a drawback— some songs feel like they should be a bit more fast and frantic, others slower and more agonizing— but it also makes Williams’ textural experiments more impressive; “Over Yet” has a melancholy core and a confectionary chorus, not unlike Robyn’s sadsack glitter bombs, while “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” has a fog of voices provided by the boygenius trio. Naturally, the songs with live-band muscle and jostling rhythms are the ones that sound most like Paramore. But who can imagine Williams’ regular gig churning out the clattering low end of “Watch Me While I Bloom,” which invites us to behold a woman in full blossom— vulnerability and all?
Good Souls, Better Angels | Lucinda Williams
Famous for her ability to conjure a strong sense of place, Lucinda Williams fills her best songs with scene-setting, concrete nouns: Lake Charles and John Coltrane; a house in Macon, folks in Jackson. Her new album, the quote-unquote political Good Souls, Better Angels, is big on feelings but light on naming particular people, places, and things, unless you want to count the Devil, who jumps and slinks through a couple of these songs. You won’t need a name drop to determine the subject of “Man Without a Soul,” an unsparing takedown of a greedy wannabe despot whose heart is full of murder and hate. Lacking the specificity to be insightful and the mystique to be her “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the song lands a little bit like your Boomer relative’s latest Facebook screed. But if Williams’ writing is sometimes a little cruder than it used to be, that’s generally the right choice for describing the simultaneous numbness and shock of life in the current phase of American decline. The songs on Good Souls, Better Angels locate an open vein of righteous anger, weary lament, and trembling fear. The wisest ones position our current situation in cosmological terms: “Big Black Train” is a haunted death rattle, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” a good old-fashioned exorcism. These aren’t just Trump roasts; they are epistles from the oppressive domain of sin and decay. And they are all the better for their live-wire energy, which splice blues structures with the muscle and the mayhem of a four-piece garage band. A clutch of howling punk-blues songs toward the end of the record (“Bone of Contention” through “Big Rotator”) sound especially good, as scuzzy and unmannered as anything Williams has recorded in years. Say this about the album: On its strongest songs, it’s riveting. And on its weakest, at least the guitars are turned all the way up.
Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? | The Soft Pink Truth
Turns out Lucinda Williams isn’t the only one who’s dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Matmos founder Drew Daniel wanted to make an album in response to the ugliness and wanton cruelty of the age, but he was resistant to the idea of making “angry white guy” music— and God bless him for it. So he revived his Soft Pink Truth banner, roped in some game collaborators, and created a seamless suite of music that gets its title from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans; it’s a sparkling blend of low-key jazz, ambient warmth, and cathartic house music that posits gentleness and wonder as answers to rancor and despair. The mostly-instrumental set never rages, but what it does do is glitter, swirl, and turn your quarantine domicile into a temporary cathedral. You might say the looping piano figures are minimal, but the twinkling bells and wordless voices are deployed as generous acts of sensual pleasure; this is a music of restraint and a music of abundance. Recommended for anyone who believes beauty will save the world, or thinks they could ever be persuaded.
Mutable Set | Blake Mills
As a producer and session player, Blake Mills has worked with everyone from Alabama Shakes to Fiona Apple. He’s also a guitar virtuoso, something you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on while listening to his latest and most accomplished solo album. It’s not that his playing here is suboptimal so much as it’s just beside the point; instead, Mutable Set uses gentle strumming, chilly keyboard tones, and cavernous studio space to conjure a spooky after-hours reverie. The album’s ominous ambience is so effective, its simplicity so deftly deployed, that the echoing thump of a kickdrum on “My Dear One” sounds as frightening as a Bernard Herrman score. But the best special effect of all is Mills’ voice, which never rises above a whisper. Every song is delivered as an illicit secret, and none are more transgressive than “Money is the One True God,” a sinner’s prayer offered to mammon itself, and a prophetic word worthy of Screwtape.
Introducing Wayne Shorter (1959) | Wayne Shorter
RIP drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played on Kind of Blue, the greatest of jazz albums. “When people decide to start listening to jazz today, one of the first people they hear is Jimmy Cobb, floating,” writes Natalie Weiner. You can also hear him on Wayne Shorter’s first album as a leader, released the same year as Miles Davis’ masterwork, and benefitting from the same rhythmic understatement and grace.
The Source (2017) | Tony Allen
Tony Allen will rightly be remembered for his innovations with Fela Kuti, but don’t sleep on his fine jazz albums, including this outstanding release on the Blue Note label; it bends fire and funk to Allen’s righteous purposes, and remakes the history of hard bop in his own image.