Whistles Right Past You: Andrew Bird says to hell with this

my finest

“I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster,” sings Andrew Bird on his new album, persuasively titled My Finest Work Yet. “The end just has to be near.” It’s not the first time he’s portended the apocalypse. More than a decade ago, on an album called The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird painted a strangely reassuring picture of societal collapse, even promising there’d be snacks. These days, his outlook is less rosy. “The Earth spins faster, whistles right past you/ whispers death in your ear,” Bird laments. Those whispers come in different keys— gun violence, rising tides, the dead ends of nationalism— but while these 10 new songs are littered with the ruins of empire (“they say Rome wasn’t built in a day/ but it all came down in the month of May”), the larger issue is how the hard work of neighborly love and participative democracy has been replaced by the comfort and convenience of disembodied online rancor. Bird’s distressed but never despairing record is a challenge to log off of Twitter and get back to the grind; it’s both a call to activism and a clarification of what meaningful activism actually entails. “No more excuses, no more apathy,” one song says; the world groans under the weight of indifference, but My Finest Work Yet lights a fire. “We’re gonna turn it around,” Bird pledges, because what other choice do we have? As Flannery O’Connor would say, the life you save may be your own.

Bird underscores the high stakes with some of his most direct writing to date—though such things are always relative. He still rattles off wry tongue-twisters (“for those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn/ you know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice”), and pivots easily to historic allusion (“it feels like 1936/ in Catalonia”). Jokes about J. Edgar Hoover bump up against references to King Ghidora, and just leave it to Andrew Bird to contextualize some of his most straight-ahead topical truisms (“history forgets the moderates”) within a retelling of Greek myth. Sisyphus, legendarily forced to spend eternity rolling a heavy stone up a mountain, has long been an emblem of complacency or addiction, and Bird’s iteration makes sure to acknowledge the collateral damage left in his wake (“had a house down there but I lost it long ago”). But where the Sisyphus of lore remains eternally stuck in his rut, Bird’s character has enough, and becomes a hero just for refusing to push his burden any further. “Did he raise both fists and say, ‘to hell with this’/ And just let the rock roll?” Bird asks, finding holy purpose in noncompliance. The song becomes a wondrous meditation on the blessedness of whole-assing when half measures offer greater comfort: “I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god,” Bird’s Sisyphus thunders, preferring a leap of faith into the abyss over remaining in stasis any longer.

But Bird neither fails nor flails here. My Finest Work Yet does indeed feel like a consolidation of strengths—plucky, funny, sophisticated, tuneful. You’ll only need to listen to these songs a time or two before you’re able to whistle along, something Bird does often, imbuing his songs with just the twist of whimsy or shadow of menace they require. The whimsy is balanced by a jostling physicality; Bird produced the album with Paul Butler, favoring live vocal takes and the crackling energy of a small band—splashes of piano, upright bass, guitar, crisp snare pops and cavernous rim shots from boon drummer Abraham Rounds. Bird’s violin is the anchor, gently plinking out tunes and then cresting into ravishing melody. His music can conjure a full range of motion, and several songs sound like they were made to move bodies: “Proxy War” rises and falls with the buoyant bounce of Motown, while “Don the Struggle” works like a wind-up toy, a stately march suddenly exploding into frenzied dance. Even working in an intimate framework, Bird shows an easy way with dramatic build-up: “Archipelago” has enough whoah-ohs to fuel an Arcade Fire song, while “Olympians” gallops and then sprints on its way to a fist-pumping chorus.

In every way, these are songs of action and idealism, even as they acknowledge inertia’s sweet seductions. “Bloodless,” a slinky cabaret, imagines a moral landscape where the good guys equivocate, the evil are truly evil, and most of us stagnate in the murky middle; we just “hem and we haw,” Bird opines, and you sense that he’d almost rather you goose-step with the fascists than sit on the bench. (“Because you are lukewarm,” a relevant Bible verse says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”) Bird posits that the powerful have a vested interest in sowing division, just so long as it doesn’t bubble over into actual revolt: “They’re banking on the sound and fury,” he observes. “Makes you wonder what it’s all got to do with me.” He answers his own question on “Fallorun,” where gossamer violin notes build into U2-worthy euphoria, and where the state of our union has plenty to do with all of us. “We could have been together/ But you couldn’t stand the weather here,” he mourns, and he could be talking either to a faithless lover, a wayward neighbor, or anyone who’s ever talked a big game but then buckled when the shit hit the fan. The song appeals to those who take a stand without making a sacrifice, channeling all their moral fervor into empty and ego-stoking gestures. “You think you’re making choices,” Bird sings, “But there’s no one really here/ Just tone-deaf angry voices/ That are breathing in your ear.”

Bird’s idealism may initially scan as overly earnest, but what he’s offering here is counterprogramming for a kind of false idealism, the one that says the people who talk the loudest are making the biggest difference. Crucially, for all the album’s concern with bridge-building, My Finest Work Yet doesn’t dispute the existence of injustice, nor does it suggest we acquiesce to it. Enemies are invoked a few times; an oblique reference to an abominable “Man of the Year” entry is the closest Bird gets to naming a particular boogeyman, while on the winding “Archipelago” he suggests that we define ourselves largely by the people we choose to hate. But while Bird spurns fearmongers, he stops short of disdaining them, understanding it to be short-sided and self-destructive to do so: “Now there are no sides,” he moans, democracy’s wreckage strewn at his feet. “Try selling that one to an angry mob.” He understands what James Baldwin was talking about when he said, “what you do to me, you do to you”—that ultimately, we sink or swim together, that violence to the Other is violence to our whole body. That’s why My Finest Work Yet bets everything on the painful and necessary work of incarnation and intimacy; in “Proxy War,” online discourse is contrasted with “real life,” where words have the power to draw blood and stop time. In “Sisyphus,” love is the precipitating force in our hero’s unburdening; “it’s got nothing to do with fate and everything to do with you,” he confesses to an unnamed beloved. And in the closing “Bellevue Bridge Club,” Bird threatens to pull his slumbering partner out of bed and onto the floor, promising paradigm-altering, empathy raising scenes “of life beyond your front door.” There, just across the threshold, opportunity abounds for connection, for justice, for truth and reconciliation—but unless we’re vigilant, it’ll all whistle right past us.

Map & Compass: Navigating nostalgia with Leo “Bud” Welch and Dee White

angels

The singer and songwriter Sam Phillips once joked that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” She was probably on to something, but two recent albums on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound imprint offer reason to think anew about how we engage with the past. One album finds an octogenarian bluesman singing songs from his childhood, decades of lived experience instilling them with new meaning. The other finds a 20-year-old country singer escaping into a romanticized past he’s far too young to remember, creating an idyll that’s part historic replica and part day dream. Taken together, these records demonstrate different ways in which memory—personal or cultural— can help us make sense of the present.

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The bluesman is Mississippi legend Leo “Bud” Welch, whose recording career began when he was 81 and ended just four years later, with his death. The posthumously released The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name is only the third album in a tragically slim catalog, yet its scant 27 minutes feel loaded with the experience of a lifetime. Welch had to have known his time was running out when he chose these 10 gospel standards, songs rooted deep in the soil of the Christ-haunted South. Most of them will be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a big tent revival or Vacation Bible School, and Welch himself spent his whole life learning them. And yet, by the sound of this record, they’re still teaching him things; he treats his material not as historic artifact but as map and compass for the last leg of his journey home, looking to the songs he grew up with as a way to direct his final steps. What they offer is a model for approaching death with dignity: They emanate Christian assurance (“I Know I Been Changed”), steel against Satan’s advances (“Don’t Let the Devil Ride”), and pine for the nearness of the Shepherd (“Walk with Me Lord”). That they might resonate with an ailing Welch is no surprise, and though he’s never glib about facing mortality, he never sounds rattled by it, either; in “I Come to Praise His Name,” Welch storms the gates of heaven with thanksgiving on his tongue and joy in his heart. He locates a utility in these songs that his younger self couldn’t have grasped, and they give him a personal vocabulary for articulating the dimming of his day with peace and contentment.

That joyful countenance spills over into the performances themselves— quick and loose sessions that crackle with the electric energy of Auerbach’s band The Arcs, a far cry from the po-faced austerity you might anticipate from a twilight-years reflection like this. Though Welch clearly wasn’t in the prime of health when he cut this record, his righteous witness imbues everything with solemn authority; he mumbles with confidence, croaks with conviction, bellows with glee. He and the band blaze and howl and drone through the setlist with an appealing looseness, to the point that you can occasionally hear Welch mutter performance instructions, seemingly to himself. (“I wanna do another fast one, now let’s see…”) As the album’s producer, Auerbach is shrewd enough to leave the focus primarily on Welch’s voice and skeletal guitar work—on the opening “I Know I Been Changed,” the artist is accompanied only by the luminous shimmer of an organ—but he also orchestrates some cheerfully raucous mayhem: “Jesus is on the Mainline” is a big-footed stomp that shakes and rolls with jangly percussion and church piano; “I Come to Praise His Name” is frenzied call-and-response; “Right on Time” is a jocular country shuffle. Welch’s version of the Sunday School favorite “This Little Light of Mine” (here dubbed “Let it Shine”) is about the gnarliest you’ll ever hear; it’s as if the seeds planted in childhood have blossomed into a mighty and weathered oak, its leaves rustling in the wind but its roots as strong as ever.

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You could say that Alabama’s Dee White is at the other end of the spectrum in almost every way. Born 60 years after Welch, his interest in the past is one of revival rather than reappraisal; where Welch’s album makes ancient songs sound new again, White’s keen on generating new compositions that sound like lost relics of yesteryear. His yesteryear is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, an era alluring replicated on the Auerbach-produced Southern Gentleman. Soft and supple, the album ably weds countrypolitan extravagance to the wispy harmonies of Laurel Canyon folk, the booming theatricality of progressive country thrown in for good measure. Recorded with the Easy Eye house band—some of the same Nashville studio pros who played on Yola’s magnificent Walk Through Fire, augmented by luminous harmony singer/White super-fan Alison Krauss—Southern Gentleman is absent grit but hardly absent groove, as evidenced by the opening “Wherever You Go,” soft-touch Dixie funk that almost could have fit on a golden-era Little Feat record. Auerbach and White are fastidious in their attention to period detail, which includes florid orchestrations, finger-picked acoustic guitars, and plenty of high-and-lonesome pedal steel. It’s all anchored by White, a prodigiously out-of-time singer whose honeyed tenor can drop into solemn spoken-word asides just as easily as it crests into clarion falsetto. Auerbach and the Easy Eye gang christened him Boy Orbison for these sessions, which tells you plenty about his vocal purity, his seriousness, and his nose for good melodrama, and it seems unlikely that White would quibble with such an auspicious nickname: He’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide, something you can tell from the sepia-tinged narrative in “Bucket of Bolts,” where he looks back with fondness on his first car and on the “good ol’ pals” of his adolescence. (It can’t be emphasized enough: The dude was 20 when he cut this record.)

White’s commitment to a bygone era means his lyrics slip easily and often into old-timey vernacular (“preacher man;” “give that southern belle a ring;” “swimmin’ in our birthday clothes”),” and his halcyon vision of the South—one absent cell phones or political tension—is wholesome enough that the album’s moments of lustiness generally just consist of references to skinny-dipping. They’re clearly songs of innocence to Welch’s songs of experience, and where the elder performer looks to his past to illuminate an uncertain future, White seems more interested in using the past as a shelter from the treacherous present. That may sound like he’s on the wrong side of nostalgia, and certainly Southern Gentleman toes the line, but anyone who hears the album as pure escapism is overlooking its moments of real turmoil and angst. On “Rose of Alabam,” White narrates a scene of infidelity with flowery prose (“the petals of my daisy hit the floor one by one”), and on “Road That Goes Both Ways” he’s joined by fellow country upstart Ashley MyBryde for a pained duet about two separated lovers. On these songs, he’s not merely replicating or romanticizing the past, but looking to it to for a language he can use to express complicated emotions—not unlike what Welch does with the old standards. But perhaps the greatest validation of White’s stylized nostalgia is that, even as he recreates the sounds of a lost or imagined era, he never sounds painted into a corner. On the contrary, he finds immense freedom of expression across these songs, which are all so unerringly detailed that you’ll have to check the liner notes to determine the lone semi-obscure cover in the bunch: There’s breezy effervescence in the swampy two-step “Old Muddy River,” enveloping melancholy in the sadsack sway of “Oh No,” operatic dejection in the soaring arrangements of “Way Down.” Perhaps what both albums prove is that memory, however slanted, can be a source of empowerment, and that reimagining yesterday can provide signposts for navigating today and tomorrow.

Now That I Know You So Well: Julia Jacklin and the perils of proximity

Crushing

In his song “Right Moves,” Josh Ritter sings about two far-flung lovers, driven apart by what he calls “the comedy of distance” and “the tragedy of separation.” These are two helpful categories for understanding romantic plight, but the songs of Julia Jacklin call for a third one—call it the peril of proximity. On her bruised and thorny album Crushing, the Australian singer and songwriter picks apart intimacy’s inevitable complications. For her characters, love is an act of entanglement, requiring the surrender of privacy, autonomy, and control. They get their toes stepped on, their personal space violated, their sense of identity eroded. Jacklin’s songs—most of them set either just before or just after a breakup—are all about what real vulnerability costs, and about how hard it is to ever fully extricate yourself from love’s briar patch. But while Crushing unfolds against a backdrop of romantic wreckage, it’s not exactly right to say that the album is a document of heartbreak; it’s more like a chronicle of attempted reclamation.

Then again, reclaiming the self isn’t always easy. Take it from the woman in “Body,” which opens the album with a slow burn and the dreadful sense of inevitability. The woman has just broken up with her boyfriend, and panics to remember that he has a compromising photo of her—something he could use to shame her. “Well, it’s just my life/ and it’s just my body,” Jacklin sighs, but the ominous implication is that these things aren’t completely hers at all, and perhaps never will be again; she’s given a piece of herself away and can’t take it back. But if familiarity makes it tough to sever ties, it can also make it painful to stay. “Don’t know how to keep loving you/ Now that I know you so well,” Jacklin sings later in the album. She’s distressed by a romance that’s settled into routine, and while disentanglement can seem wrenching, devotion may be harder still.

On Crushing, love isn’t just a matter of emotions but of flesh and bone and physical space. Sometimes, that’s burdensome. In “Head Alone,” Jacklin sings about wanting to be loved in ways that aren’t just carnal, to have a reprieve from infatuation’s fumbling hands; “I don’t wanna be touched all the time,” she sings. “I raised my body up to be mine.” That word body comes up repeatedly—11 times in the first two songs, Lindsay Zoladz calculates—and more often than not it represents the tension between ceding your autonomy to someone else and claiming ownership of something that’s yours alone. The woman in “Pressure to Party” is urged to hit the club and dance her broken heart away, but she’s not ready; she doesn’t have her “body back,” she says, an alien in her own skin. That same phrase shows up elsewhere, when Jacklin sings that she’s “headed to the city to get her body back,” as if embarking on a holy pilgrimage to rediscover her independent, unentangled self.

Given the incarnational slant of Jacklin’s writing, it’s only fitting that the sound of Crushing is delicate, tactile, physical. Working with producer Burke Reid, she lends these songs clarity and warmth, to the point where you can hear the piano bench creaking in the whispered reverie of “When the Family Flies In,” and the rustling hum of acoustic guitar strings in “Convention.” A few songs work up a rickety rock and roll energy: “Pressure to Party” jangles and pulses with the DIY clatter of 80s college rock, while “Head Alone” chimes and surges like something Lucy Dacus and her boygenius troupe might conceive. “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” the album’s simmering fulcrum, sticks to the low embers of the blues, complete with a grinding electric guitar solo. Though Jacklin’s songs occasionally reach brisk tempos, most unfold slowly and steadily. This, too, feels fitting: These songs bear witness to how easily hearts and lives and bodies can be damaged, and Jacklin’s deliberateness suggests that she knows how important it is to handle delicate things with care.

Of course, even the most fastidious lovers can find their efforts come to ruin, but another parallel between Jacklin and Dacus is that they both seem less interested in cataloging heartbreak then in considering post-heartbreak narratives. “I’m not a good woman when you’re around,” says the character in “Body,” seizing romantic dissolution as a chance to regain her true identity.  Yet in “Good Guy,” Jacklin gives voice to the corruptor: “I don’t care for the truth when I’m lonely,” she admits, and then assures her partner that he’s “still a good guy,” no matter the compromised circumstances of their union. She’s granting him permission to tell a certain story about himself, no matter how much or how little his actions bear it out. Entering into love’s entanglement means allowing yourself to be changed, your sense of self blurred—which means extrication can offer a blank slate. “Who will I be, now that you’re no longer next to me?” Jacklin wonders in “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” as if hitting her own reset button following a romantic dead end. But the blank slate gives and it takes away. In the haunted closer, “Comfort,” Jacklin hopes the best for an ex-paramour, and wishes she could tell him everything’s going to be okay. “But that’s what you get,” she says to herself. “You can’t be the one to hold him when you were the one who left.” Now unentangled, she can have her body and her self back; she can be who she wants to be. But at what cost?

Through the Gateway: Julian Lage goes exploring

lovehurts

Jazz enthusiasts, like any other religious converts, can often tell you the exact moment they were radicalized. Perhaps it was through early exposure to Kind of Blue; a chance encounter with Time Out; even a soul-shaking rendezvous with Art Blakey’s Moanin’. It’s no knock against guitarist Julian Lage’s crackling, exploratory album Love Hurts to say that it will probably never reach such rarified stature as those venerated classics, yet one of its great joys is the totally reasonable notion that it could be that kind of album for someone—a gateway drug, a point of entry. That’s a distinction it reaches through infectious energy and careful equilibrium. Love Hurts is deep and wide enough that it nobly and effectively evinces the richness of the jazz tradition, yet it’s also tight, tuneful, and seldom demanding—an album that welcomes even the uninitiated with pleasures both visceral and intellectual.

That’s not the only sense in which you could call it a gateway album; it’s a gateway for Lage himself, a wanderer and a roamer for whom improvisational music is the launchpad, not the final destination. On Love Hurts, he uses the jazz tradition as a portal, a trailhead for further explorations; the final chapter in a loose trilogy of guitar trio albums, it codifies his porous, catholic take on the form, one that subsumes the brash rumble of embryonic rock and roll, the clean lines and evocative formalism of the Great American Songbook, and the rustic solitude of folk music. This is the pluckiest entry in a trifecta that also includes the well-regarded Arclight and Modern Lore, and its restlessness may be attributable both to a change of venue and of personnel. Lage cut this set at The Loft—the Chicago studio that’s gestated many a Wilco and Jeff Tweedy joint—and his guitar heroics are anchored by the cool fretwork of bassist Jorge Roeder and the mighty wallop of Bad Plus drummer Dave King. Both share Lage’s zeal for discovery, and King in particular stands unequalled for his complement of nimble swing and blunt-force power. Their natural rapport generates first-take immediacy; indeed, Love Hurts was recorded live in just a day and a half.

The trio’s combustible chemistry is the rocket fuel for these hungry performances. A razor-sharp take on Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow is the Question” trades the original’s brassy buoyancy for cutthroat thrills—a high-speed chase down a tightrope wire. More raucous still is a haywire reading of Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” which sounds like the whole band’s tumbling down a spiral staircase, Lage shredding his way to the bottom and King’s snap crackle and pop illuminating every step along the way. These intuitive experiments in locomotion provide the album with plenty of flash, but Lage also knows when to lay back and let the melodies speak for themselves. A former child prodigy, he learned a long time ago that pure technique only carries you so far, and he brings a hymn-like austerity to the title cut, a song associated the likes of The Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris. Lage lingers over every note, as if probing for maximum anguish and melancholy, and the song finds its cognate in a smoky, album-closing version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” played with the same sparkling clarity. These songs capture the same vast frontier solitude you might here on an album by William Tyler.

They also point to Lage’s standing as a folklorist, a collector of American songs who is untroubled by genre or orthodoxy. He’s interested in songs with rich lineages, and to that end he also uncrumples the dog-eared standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” played with lilting romance and soft-shoe charm. His only writing credit is for a song called “In Circles,” a ghostly ballad that loops back on itself like a serpent eating its own tail. It’s an exercise in discovery, the band feeling their way through the parameters of this unvetted text, and it finds a companion in the album-opening “In Heaven”—a David Lynch fever dream with which Lage claims a certain level of obsession. As Lage unfolds the song’s elegiac melody, his clean guitar lines are caught in a cloud of static smudge—but then the song opens up into the ambling pace of Roeder’s bass, crisp cymbal pops from King, and smoldering blues wrung from Lage’s guitar. Like so much of Love Hurts, it feels like equipoise—familiar sounds enlivened with the thrill of shared discovery; as evocative as it is accessible.

Takes an Army Just to Bend Her: On the ever-changing and undefined Patty Griffin

patty

Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself. Coming 22 years into her recording career, it’s a choice that can’t help but feel consequential, raising the specter of candid autobiography, or at the very least some kind of Rosebud moment. The album’s mosaic of stories, fantasies, dreams, and confessions doesn’t exactly add up to a memoir, but it does offer a robust meditation on the nature of self— on identity as something that’s foisted on us by destiny, but also forged through the decisions we make. “No matter where I go/ I can’t escape who I am— or forget,” Griffin sings on “Where I Come From,” a song about how you can run away from home but you can never escape where you come from. The album is concerned with those parts of the self that can’t be evaded—hardships overcome, scars earned, consequences lived with. As U2 might put it, it’s an album about all that you can’t leave behind.

Griffin recently weathered a hardship of her own: She survived cancer to make this album, something that’s never mentioned directly but brings focus to these ruminations on where she’s been and what she’s become. The cloud-bursting piano reverie “Luminous Places” is her moment of Zen: reflecting on a life devoted to song, Griffin is thankful for all the long highways she’s traversed, even as she knows her fate is to become “just another voice in the wind.” Considerably feistier is “Hourglass,” where a punch-drunk brass band punctuates Griffin’s reflections on immortality (“the hourglass never really runs out of sand/ you get to the end and you just turn it upside down again”). And over the stately churn of “River,” she hymns an ancient and mysterious reservoir of feminine strength: “She’s been left for dead a million times/ Keeps coming home, arms open wide/ Ever-changing and undefined.” She could be singing about any or every woman, but there’s comfort in thinking she’s singing about herself, marveling at a resilience she never realized she had in her.

There’s another way in which it feels right for this album to be self-titled: With quiet confidence, it consolidates all the strengths Griffin’s developed as a record-maker. She cut the album in her Austin residence with a small cohort of collaborators—producer Craig Ross, guitarist David Pulkingham, noted harmonist Robert Plant— and though it never strays from its homemade intimacy, it has the feel of a travelogue, an encapsulation of her journey to date. You can hear some of the rawness of her Living with Ghosts era on “River” and “Where I Come From,” two songs that lean into the rustle of acoustic guitar strings and the grain in the singer’s voice. But these songs aren’t retreads so much as refinements: “River” courses and swells through an orchestral undertow learned from Nick Drake albums, while the galloping “Where I Come From” is visited by a spectral choir, haunting Griffin’s thoughts in wordless solidarity. Griffin’s been at this long enough that she knows how much strength there is in doing a lot with a little, and the record’s most atmospheric effects are achieved through simplicity: “Bluebeard” is heavy with ominous storm clouds, conjured with nothing more than the drone and hum of acoustic guitar strumming, while “The Wheel” is a loping blues so limber and live-in, it sounds like it’s caked in Delta mud. There is evocative scene-setting throughout the album, nodding back to the porous Americana of Impossible Dream and Children Running Through: A high-and-lonesome Spanish guitar makes “Mama’s Worried” sound like it was recorded in the same border town where Willie Nelson made Teatro, and “Hourglass” lurches and tips like it’s wobbling down Bourbon Street.

The women in Griffin’s stories grapple with a world that’s vast and capricious, and it’s often symbolized here by nature itself. Rivers flow through these songs, and on “Hourglass,” they represent all the things Griffin’s protagonist is taught to fear. She doesn’t buy in: “I knew all along that that just wasn’t me/ I was swimming in the river with ghosts and debris.” Of course, Griffin has made a career out of diving headlong into the treacherous ebb of memory, but her courage is offset with moments of uncertainty. In the ghostly trance of “What Now,” our narrator seeks counsel and direction from the sea itself, and is met with roaring indifference. But like the preeminent naturalist Neko Case, Griffin seems to favor the idea that the natural world sides with the vulnerable and the oppressed. In the ghastly murder ballad “Bluebeard,” the protagonist takes up with a bloodthirsty brute; when she glimpses the dark abattoir of his heart she speaks up and nearly pays the price, but the ocean itself comes to her rescue, swallowing the evildoer whole. She’s a “maiden no more,” Griffin wryly observes, baptized by fire into a whole new identity.

But not many of the women on Patty Griffin have natural forces come to their aid; most are left to make the most of whatever hand they’re dealt. On several songs, dire situations are forced on them by men, who exist on this album mostly to cause trouble. There’s Bluebeard, of course, but also an unnamed lothario in “What I Remember,” who sweeps our heroine off her feet but then puts something in her drink. Griffin plays it like a tattered page from the Great American Songbook, and narrates the woman’s bleary recollections piece by painful piece. (“Here’s what I remember/ it really was that tender.”) And for the working-class mother in “Mama’s Worried,” men are just the beginning of her troubles; her husband has disappeared, leaving her with bills to pay and mouths to feed. She bears her burden with stoicism and hopes no one sees how much she’s hurting, but her daughter quietly takes it all in. Like Over the Rhine, Griffin reminds us that nothing goes unseen.

These characters are pressed but not crushed, oppressed but not despairing, and the album doesn’t linger on their circumstances so much as it highlights what they make of them. Like Griffin’s titular “River,” each woman here carves a “crooked line,” one equally informed by choice and destiny, and most have epiphanies of their true mettle. (“Takes an army just to bend her,” goes one awestruck line.) The subtlest and most stirring epiphany comes from the narrator in “Had a Good Reason”—a professional singer who, years after the fact, is still wrestling with maternal abandonment. “I used to think it might be who I am,” she admits. “Maybe who I am wasn’t right.” But now she knows better—and though she may still trace her scars, she knows they’re just part of who she is, and who she’s still becoming.

The Light of All We’ve Lost: Over the Rhine gets taken for everything

love and revelation

The first thing you should know about Over the Rhine: All their favorite people are broken. They’ve spent the last decade closing most of their concerts with a song proclaiming as much, and on Love & Revelation— the first new Over the Rhine collection in close to six years— the prognosis doesn’t seem markedly improved. “I can fix anything except for me,” sings Karin Bergquist on the rough and tumble opener, “Los Lunas,” and what follows is a tender, album-length meditation on all things unfixable— broken love, crumbled empires, breached faith, bodies plundered by sickness and death. Love & Revelation is an album buffeted by trials, hounded by loss, stricken by a grim national mood; to the band’s enormous credit, it’s also unflinching and unsentimental. The wisdom of this record is how it chooses to abide sorrow, sitting with it, letting it linger; the aim isn’t to wallow but to acknowledge, to speak pain out loud, perhaps to be surprised by joy and healing. It’s an approach that bears fruit, as these songs are alit with moments of grace. “Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” Bergquist wonders on “May God Love You (Like You’ve Never Been Loved),” the album’s hushed denouement. After 30 years praising the mutilated world, Over the Rhine knows good and well that irrevocable loss is part of the deal; what they have to offer is the small mercy of bearing a terminal diagnosis together, perhaps even holding their hand out and offering a steady sway.

A second thing to know about Over the Rhine is that they are specialists. With a few charmingly offbeat exceptions— the Technicolor dreams of Films for Radio, the buoyant brass in The Trumpet Child— they make records hallowed with slow, sad songs. The gamble of this self-produced album is that it leans into that aesthetic perhaps more than any other Over the Rhine record. That’s a feature, not a bug, and what you’re hearing is familiarity, not formula. Some of these songs they’ve been stretching out in their live concerts for years, and the resulting recordings feel as comfortable and lived-in as a favorite pair of blue jeans, all the stiffness long worn away. It’s not hard to imagine an embryonic version of “Los Lunas” that was tighter and stiffer in its spiked country-rock; the version here doesn’t rock so much as it rolls, its dusty drawl assured and endlessly appealing.

Though Over the Rhine has long pared down to the central chemistry of Bergquist and husband Linford Detweiler, this marks their third record in a row supported by their Band of Sweethearts posse— synergistic studio pros Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Patrick Warren (keys), and multi-purpose guitar heroes Greg Leisz and Bradley Meinerding. Sensei Joe Henry, the original convener of the Sweethearts, is absent in body but present in spirit, and it’s to him that the album’s title is attributed. Detweiler’s piano, the anchor of so many classic Over the Rhine records, largely cedes the spotlight to the quiver and thrum of the guitars, which fill these lonely rooms with whispered memory and ghostly glimmers. You can practically feel those ghosts roaming through you on the spectral “Given Road,” where the pedal steel’s high-and-lonesome moan sends shivers and chill bumps. “Making Pictures”— the photo negative to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”— comes on as warm and gentle as spring’s thaw, while “Rocking Chair” lives up to its title with an easygoing front-porch gait. These songs are crafted so carefully and played with such gentleness and affection they sound like lost Over the Rhine classics, and Bergquist—with so many show-stopping vocal pyrotechnics already on her resume—mostly sticks to small gestures, quiet blues, magnetic intimacy; she’s the low-key MVP. There are some winsome surprises on offer, too: Detweiler and Bergquist blend their voices with sumptuous strings on “Let You Down,” wistful pop that’s as consoling as a favorite afghan. The title cut, where Bergquist sings over a cool rumble from Bellerose and Condos, hints at an alternate universe where Over the Rhine made it big as a drum n’ bass duo.

“Love & Revelation” is an outlier in another way, too: Amidst songs of experience, it sounds more like a song of resistance, Bergquist pledging her sedition from a semi-automatic Jesus (“they’d arm him to the teeth, but that’s not my belief”). The song suggests waywardness among the Good Shepherd’s sheep, making it an effective keynote for a record about holy and consecrated things gone to spoil—covenants broken, the human frame ravaged by time. Time does what it does on “Leavin’ Days,” and Bergquist lodges a psalm of lament born from saying one too many goodbyes (“I don’t like these leavin’ days”). Grief hangs heavy over “Given Road” (“I just miss the one that loved me”) and “Broken Angels” (“I want to take a break from heartache/ drive away from all the tears I’ve cried”), while “Let You Down” wrestles with things falling apart (“everything feels lost/ so lost it never can be found”). Bergquist cries a trail of tears on “Los Lunas,” a goodbye that’s wry with both acceptance (“one of us had to be gone”) and regret (“should’ve moved to Pasadena when we had the chance”).

These songs are plainspoken in their sorrow, but there is a third thing you should know about Over the Rhine: While they’ve never promised the leavin’ days weren’t going to come, they have long emphasized that none of us have to face them alone. They ratify their fellowship and solidarity again on Love & Revelation, tapping into a deep reserve of empathy that only comes through years of paying dues and saying goodbyes. “You can bet I’ll stick around,” offers Detweiler on “Let You Down,” and it’s a commitment made with eyes fully open; there are no delusions here about just how deep in the shit you can be. But if Over the Rhine’s body of work proves anything, it’s that deep shit can be a conduit for amazing grace; the album’s other Detweiler-led song, “Betting on the Muse,” unpacks the artist’s toolbox for turning darkness into light. Here’s what you’ll need: Eyes open to “all this blinding beauty” around you, a capacity for astonishment, a childlike sense of wonder, the laughter of recognition, and strength enough to weather whatever drubbings come your way. (“You’ve got to get taken for everything/ to have anything to give,” Detweiler notes; is this the opposite of Bono’s truism that “every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief?”). Meanwhile, in “Making Pictures,” Bergquist pledges that “nothing goes unseen”—a reminder, perhaps, that pain isn’t wasted and everything exists within the scope of redemption. (Amy Helm paraphrase: “This too shall light.”) The album wraps up with a pronouncement of blessing, a frayed and whispered Detweiler composition called “May God Love You (“Like You’ve Never Been Loved).” It’s a bruised benediction for Over the Rhine’s favorite people: “We’re not curable, but we’re treatable/ and that’s why I still sing,” confesses Bergquist. So maybe Love & Revelation isn’t going to fix what’s broken; but at the very least, it finds some light in all we’ve lost.

The Unsettled Past: Revisionist histories from Liz Brasher, Yola, & Adia Victoria

silences

The past is unsettled. It’s not recounted so much as interpreted, and on a trio of distinguished albums by dynamic singer/songwriters, interpretation is exactly what you got—three different visions of the rich American roots lineage, all filtered through personal experience and seen through the lens of modernity. Liz Brasher’s Painted Image salutes the music of Memphis in an act of sophisticated synthesis and loving pastiche. Yola’s Walk Through Fire channels country and soul through immaculate studio-craft and stylized arrangements. And Adia Victoria’s Silences kicks the blues tradition down a rickety set of stairs and into a haunted house of her own diabolical invention. In a roots scene that’s sometimes bogged down by questions of authenticity, these albums are refreshing for choosing slanted imagination over historic replica. That all three are made by authoritative women of color—too often excluded from these idioms—is a bonus of considerable magnitude.

***

You could call Brasher’s album a study in tangled roots. A church singer by training, she grew up in North Carolina but decamped to Memphis for the Painted Image sessions, and the result is a sumptuous consolidation of the city’s robust musical pedigree. The cavernous spaces of Sun, the tight rhythms of Hi, the raucous melisma of the gospel tradition, the wee-small-hours heartache of the blues—all of the pieces are here, but they’re not always arranged in the way you’d expect them to be. Brasher brings an outsider’s love but no binding allegiance to Memphis culture, which frees her to play it straight and play it loose in equal measure. Songs like “Blood of the Lamb,” which opens the album with the hazy hum of an organ, the low moan of a brass section, and the reverberant crawl of an electric guitar, hint at roads not taken, suggesting Brasher could spend a career slinking and belting her way through tightly-framed retro soul. She’s even better on the roiling, string-soaked “Cold Baby,” a song of romantic dissolution so tremulous and fraught, it sounds like the center won’t hold and the whole thing could at any moment implode. These are expressive, emotionally weighty reproductions of classic tropes, but Brasher throws some curveballs with “Hand on the Plow,” which sounds like Willie Mitchell’s percolating grooves as interpreted by Steely Dan, and “Every Day,” where the horns return for a high-and-lonesome Mariachi fanfare—a geographic detour but also an effective accent piece to the atmospheric and forlorn songs that surround it. “Painted Image” closes the album with chamber strings and a Spanish guitar, but rather than offering a genteel denouement, Brasher casts it as an echoing, impressionistic fever dream—woozy immersion in longing and regret.

There are plenty of both of those things in Brasher’s songs, all originals and often with lyrics that are as conflicted as her arrangements are sure-footed. Many of them chronicle inflection points, lovers forced to either grip harder or let go of their fraying bond. (“Don’t you know ‘maybe’ never saved no one?” she asks in “Moon Baby,” haunted pop that shimmers and insinuates.) The songs where she sounds surest happen to be the ones forged in gospel resolve. She’s comfortable enough with her faith vocabulary to spin a few sly jokes (“pillar of salt in my lot”) but also to use it as her compass blade and guiding light: “Laid my life down at the throne/ and I ain’t going back no more,” she sings on “Hand to the Plow,” a song of perseverance and a reminder that you gotta serve somebody. To that end, the Pentecostal clap-along “Living Water” sounds like it’s about Jesus, but the spectral “Heaven and Earth” has its scale tipped terrestrially. Here Brasher longs to love and be loved in both body and soul, and whatever whispered mysticism is there gets swallowed up by the howling carnality. It’s the lynchpin for an album that’s anchored in a particular piece of soil but exists to both ennoble and transcend it.

***

Brasher isn’t the only one whose love of American roots idioms is adoptive. The woman born Yola Carter hails from Britain but carries a torch for classic C&W, which might explain why her debut Walk Through Fire filters extravagant countrypolitan lushness through the baroque constructions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She made the album with producer Dan Auerbach, who has a knack for scrupulous studio constructions that are richly detailed but also spacious and funky—see also his underacknowledged Dr. John team-up, Locked Down—and Walk Through Fire features a murderer’s row of studio talents that range from bluegrass virtuosos to veteran Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley sidemen. What they conjure here is an airy yet ornate interpretation of classic country/soul, often assembled with the same intricacy and care you’d find in any given frame of a Wes Anderson film. Album opener “Faraway Look” has sighing strings, twinkling harpsichord, chiming bells, even little flecks of brass—and if that sounds a shade too twee, it’s only because you haven’t heard the Richter-scale force Yola can summon when she sings. Pictured on the album cover with an acoustic guitar in hand, her image faintly recalls truth-telling poet-warriors like Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perceptions that the album’s soft edges only slightly dispel. She’s a magnetic force, a singer of regal clarity and curlicued precision but also thunderous power; on the verses of “Faraway Look” she plays the calm at the center of the storm, but by the time the supersized chorus sweeps in she’s turned into a tempest. Her magnitudinous boom makes it clear early on that the album’s delicacy won’t scan as anemic gentility, and the rest of the songs bear her out. Each one is a delicate jewel, even (or especially) the ones that work up a little rustic grit: Listen to the sawing fiddles and harmonica on “Walk Through Fire,” little embers of twang that gradually get fanned into an all-consuming flame. Yola has an easy way with a melody, and her lavish arrangements are complimented by tunes that are simple and direct: “Ride Out in the Country” sounds every bit like a breezy car ride on a warm spring day, while “It Ain’t Easier” finds breathing room within layers of fiddle and steel guitar—a wispy country weeper. She also exhibits a vast formal command, easily building “Lonely the Night” from a simmering Delta groove into a gleaming Phil Specter chorus, and packing maximum emotion into a tight package on “Keep Me Here,” a lovelorn saloon song where she gets tears in her beer and a vocal assist from the great Vince Gill.

Just as Yola’s voice holds both gale-force weather and judicious restraint, her songwriting carves space for resonant strength and harrowing vulnerability. There’s no question that this is a heartache album, full of long nights and bitter regrets; Yola’s characters toss and turn in their beds, they talk to shadows, and they desperately try to stave off the ebb of memory. (In interviews to promote the album, she’s been frank about her survival of an abusive relationship.) Her gift is for plainspeak, but her songs are littered with carefully-sprung bear traps; “Ride Out in the Country” sounds at first like a simple confession about going somewhere to forget a broken heart, but of course it’s not so simple at all: “Falling out of love with you/ It’s not an easy thing to do/ But you don’t care about me, baby.” Such knife-twists are manifold, and they’re always deployed with disarming frankness; “That faraway look in your eyes/ is getting harder to disguise,” she sings in the opening song, quietly appraising a love grown cold. But if Walk Through Fire is an album of brokenness, it’s also a catalyst for healing: It was a house fire that turned Yola’s world to rubble and precipitated these new songs, and she turns the experience into a potent metaphor for weathering seasons of intense trial. “The red hot coals are calling/ And I know it’s the only way/ There ain’t no use in prolonging/ The fact that I just can’t stay,” she sings, seeking forward motion even when it’s painful. These aren’t new metaphors, of course, but what makes Yola so compelling is how she makes everything here feel like it’s part of her story, even as she uses the vocabulary of all the firewalkers who have gone before her.

***

Boldest of all is Silences, from the startlingly visionary and self-assured poet, singer, guitarist, and blues insurrectionist Adia Victoria. She’s spoken openly about how the blues idiom was the prototype for punk and about how her mission is to restore its sense of danger, talking points she shares with many an old-timey twelve-bar revivalist—only she actually means it, and proves in on this uncompromising set of music. She enlisted The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce, and together they transmute Skip James’ haunted austerity, Robert Johnson’s ghost stories, Howlin’ Wolf’s ribald exuberance, and Ma Rainey’s rural vernacular into something bracingly contemporary. On paper it may not read much like traditional blues, yet as it plays it never sounds like it could be anything else: Bernard Herrmann string cues, chilly electronics, woodwind thrum, shards of electric guitar fuzz, and sinister trip-hop beats work together to lurch and howl, lull and menace. You can hear a few quick bars of finger-picked acoustic guitar at the start of “Bring Her Back,” but that droning loop quickly builds into a heady swirl of drums, skronking brass, and alien keyboard effects. It’s merely one of the most obvious bridges between past and future, and its counterpart is the roaring late-album highlight “Dope Queen Blues,” where a clenched stride piano motif is torn and frayed by hissing electronics and spritely horns. Victoria knows the blues well enough that its morbid bent is offset by a defiant lust for life, and there’s an unsettling glee to the spiked cabaret number “Devil is a Lie.” But she can also burrow deep into anguished introspection, as she does in the chilly, wide-open soundscape of “Cry Wolf.” In an album that consistently tilts and disorients, Victoria is the gravitational force that holds everything together. Though she has a storyteller’s performative zeal, she mostly passes on big gestures in favor of the low embers of her voice, pitched somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Valerie June with just a bit of Fiona Apple’s tremulous quiver. She projects total calm even in the songs that are most harrowing, an aesthetic choice that ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hers are songs that could only be fermented by the blood and soil of the American South, here presented as a landscape peppered with Jesus Saves signs and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Victoria’s another Carolina girl who was raised in church—hooked on eternity and other drugs, as David Bazan might say—and whose early adulthood has been a reckoning with various kinds of oppression and internal friction. That she’s shaken off the faith of her fathers is something she makes clear in the grim opener “Clean,” where it’s midnight in the garden of good and evil and she’s a kind of deicidal Van Helsing, stalking the Almighty and ultimately plunging a knife in His chest.  It’s a macabre fantasy that’s immediately followed by “Bring Her Back,” sung from the perspective of a dead girl who spoke out when she shouldn’t have and paid the price. The specter of lynching looms large, and whatever metaphysical reverie Victoria abides is shattered by the blunt-force trauma of the N-word, deployed just once to situate these songs not in ether or abstraction but in actual human bodies, bruised and bloodied.

Victoria is drawn to the grotesque, a form she uses to paint human malice and divine discontent in the starkest terms possible. It’s a trait she shares with sage-of-sages Flannery O’Connor, to whom she is an avowed devotee, and who famously distinguished between the Christ-centered and the Christ-haunted. Silences is decidedly the latter, though really it’s not even the ragged fugitive Jesus who haunts Victoria so much as the hellhounds on her trail. The devil is all over this record, presented as both living entity and as manifestation of personal demons—and either way, his presence is tormenting. There are the makings here of a grand, gothic drama, a battle for the singer’s soul: On “Devil is a Lie” the Prince of Darkness brings all her plans to ruin, yet on “Pacolet Road” it’s her faith that makes a fool of her. Forces of good and evil give Silences its dramatic framing, but her metaphysics are enfleshed by personal experience. You get the sense that the howl and snarl of Victoria’s music are designed to drown out the unholy clamber of what Richard Thompson calls “the rattle within,” and on “Cry Wolf” Victoria begs and pleads and promises to be good, knowing full well that she’s broken such promises before. “Nice Folks” hears that death rattle emanating from just below the white-washed gentility of Southern manners (the folks O’Conner might call “good country people”), and you wouldn’t be crazy to think of Dr. King and his castigation of political moderates—evil’s most reasonable and well-intentioned bedfellows. “Heathen” is a song about recalcitrant women (and the men who love them), making the most of an ungovernable spirit; amidst smoky jazz, Victoria offers a cheerful fuck-you to anyone who wants her to compromise or to crawl. These songs suggest isolation, but the closing “Get Lonely” reaches out for union. Over a cavernous trance beat, she coos to a partner: “I want to get lonely with you.” It’s the desolate love song of two heathens who reckon they might yet be redeemed.