Bang it, Bite it, Bruise It: Quarantine albums from Fiona Apple, Laura Marling, Sam Hunt

fiona apple fetch the bolt cutters

It’s time for a change.

At least for a season, I’m suspending weekly, in-depth album reviews in favor of what I’m calling a monthly digest. Basically, these longer but less frequent posts will list and loosely rank some of the records I’ve been enjoying lately, and provide a dash of commentary for each.

I’ll be upfront in saying that this change is partially a response to how the pandemic has disrupted my daily schedule and compromised some of my mental bandwidth, but I also think this new format offers some benefits to my readers. I’ll ultimately be covering more albums. I’ll be writing about albums I probably would have avoided in the past, including older albums, re-issues, albums I’m not as keen on, and albums I like but simply don’t warrant longer reviews. Additionally, by ranking and categorizing these albums, I hope to add some more analytical/quantitative thinking to this blog (though I still won’t be offering scores or ratings).

Here’s how it will work. Each digest will highlight my pick for Album of the Month, followed by commentary on some albums deemed Must Hears and/or Worth Listening. I’ll also feature some rotating categories like Re-Issue of the Month, as appropriate, and end each post with some curated, seasonal selections.

One more note is that these posts won’t be too rigid in covering the contents of the previous month; for instance, some albums released in the final week of April won’t get covered until May, allowing me some time to really listen carefully.

I hope you’ll find these posts useful resources, and that they’ll inspire you in guided listening. Now: Let’s dive in.

Album of the Month

Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple

In the movie Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez repeats a familiar aphorism about the cyclical nature of abuse: “Hurt people hurt people.” Maybe Fiona Apple is getting at something similar on her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, when she sings: “Evil is a relay sport/ where the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” The difference, of course, is that Hustlers is content sticking to the language of therapy, while Apple cuts to the cosmological quick, rooting whatever fracture or trauma or sickness people deal with in the soil of human depravity, the dark domain of sin and death. It’s one of countless quotable and complacency-shattering lines on an unerringly bullshit-proof album, one that chronicles cruelty, oppression, abuse, and the persistent dehumanization of women. It’s a work of sustained and righteous outrage, weighing the wretched testimonies of survivors from Christine Blasey Ford to Apple herself, but it’s not just a catalog of grievances; it’s more like a howling psalm of lament for a world where evil is institutionalized, emblazoned on the family crest, feted at every stockholder’s meeting, handed a black robe and entrusted with the launch codes; a world in which abusers climb the ranks of power and privilege, and their victims choke down their own trauma until they metabolize it, and all become perpetrators in the end. Sound bleak? It’s actually pretty good for a laugh. Bolt Cutters is song-for-song one of the heaviest albums you’ll ever hear and joke-for-joke one of the funniest; among all the finely-wrought punchlines here the most hysterical moment might be Apple incanting the word “ladies” 18 times in a row, a shit-eating grin perceptible in her voice as she parrots a smooth-talker’s reassurances that lose their meaning to vain repetition. (Second funniest line: “Check out that rack of his,” delivered in an award-worthy deadpan; she’s talking about a man with a guitar collection, not that it really matters.) Apple’s humor is withering and often shocking, and if it seems like flimsy resistance against a culture of cruelty, her laughter must at the very least constitute some semblance of freedom. Truth be told, you may never hear a singer-songwriter record that sounds freer than this one, even with all the weight that it carries, the scars it proudly displays. Recorded largely in Apple’s home, Bolt Cutters seethes with restless energy, bursting through all formal constraints: You can hear raucous blues, high-stepping cabaret, and bristing punk, and that’s just in one song. The record is saturated with the sounds of Apple’s life, whether that be barking dogs or unpolished Greek choirs that materialize to offer riotous commentary. (“I would beg to dis-a-gree, but begging dis-a-grees with me!”) Bolt Cutters never takes on a clear shape, never settles where you think it will; it’s scuffed-up and smashed-in and bleeding at the edges. It’s also a percussion lover’s dream, and not just from the holy racket of drummer Amy Aileen Woods; you’ll also hear Apple herself banging away on whatever she can lay a hand to. (The liner notes credit her with beating on a chair.) Rough-hewn though it may be, Bolt Cutters is not primitive, amelodic, or anything less than hypnotic: It’s harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated, enough so that NPR’s Ann Powers invokes the rich traditions of the African diaspora while Jenn Pelly compares it to a symphony. Bolt Cutters is unmoored from expectation, not just in its sound but in its compositions; “For Her,” written for sexual abuse survivors who’ve had their testimonies disbelieved, skips from perkiness (“look at how feathered his cocks are! see how seamless his frocks are!”) to confrontation (“you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”) with a nimbleness that Hannah Gadsby must admire. It’s astonishing that any song released in 2020 could feel transgressive or unpermitted in its subject matter, but “Newspaper” does, unspooling a perverse bond formed between two women who were abused by the same man; it has the feel of someone breaching decorum and spilling all the family secrets, and Apple is unflinching. “On I Go” ends the album on a jaunt even as it holds on for mere survival; Apple announces that she keeps moving just to move, but doesn’t for a second expect to find anything like peace or relief. If she experiences any serenity on this album, it’s in the opening song “I Want You to Love Me,” where a moment of stillness is shattered by desire: “And while I’m in this body/ I want somebody to want.” On an album rich in guileless moments, this stark craving for love is particularly resonant. Could it be that these love-starved songs ultimately testify to love’s magnitude? Do the shadows prove the sun? Would Fiona Apple bullshit you?

Must Hears

Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling

Laura Marling conceived her seventh album as an epistle to an imagined audience; she hopes any future children she has will find in Song for Our Daughter “a sense of confidence in their own autonomy, decisions, and their experience of how their life can be led.” Perhaps this isn’t so different from any of the six albums that preceded it; Marling has always written about characters, usually women, who aspire to lives of courage even in the wake of trauma and grief. Besides, any folksinger’s offspring will know better than to parse these songs for scrupulously polished memoir, or to expect anything like the sage recitation of maternal advice— though there’s some of that in the title song, which wisely counsels against compromising conscience or integrity to impress men in expensive suits. It may be better to think of Marling’s epistle as a series of parables, which is not to say they lack autobiographical detail. “Fortune” starts with a germ of family history (Marling’s mother long kept a “bolt in the night” fund in case she ever needed to flee home, though she never used it), but builds into a larger meditation on non-rhetorical questions: Is it wiser to commit everything to love and family, or to leave yourself an exit plan? Meanwhile, there is something of a protective instinct in “The End of the Affair,” which takes its name from a Graham Greene novel but skips past the lurid details, lingering instead on the quiet strength required to walk away from a love you know will bring another person to ruin. You’ll notice that several of these songs are set against a backdrop of catastrophe: In “Blow By Blow,” immediately one of the most devastating Laura Marling break-up tunes, the narrator plucks wisdom from sorrow (“sometimes the hardest thing to learn/ is what you get from what you lose”), then curses herself for venturing hope (“I feel a fool, so do you/ for believing it could work out/ like some things do”). Another important throughline is Marling’s refusal to consider her female characters solely in relation to men; “Alexandra” rejoins a Leonard Cohen deep cut by pressing for a richer, more empathetic backstory (“what kind of woman gets to love you?”), and “Only the Strong” offers free songwriting advice (“I won’t write a woman with a man on my mind”). God shows up as a supporting character in two songs: In “Hope We Meet Again” he’s the truth seeker’s terminal destination, and in “For You” the kindness he shows through love and family draws doxology from a disbeliever. These songs are all gems, performed with casualness and warmth by Marling and an unnamed partner; the focus is on her guitar and piano, with the occasional swell of strings supplied by producer Ethan Johns. The one time Song for Our Daughter works up a full head of steam is “Strange Girl,” which splices the deadpan snarl of Blonde on Blonde to the elastic groove of Hejira. “Oh, young girl, please don’t bullshit me,” Marling chides, a reproof offered with insuppressible affection. Will any future Marling children recognize themselves in this song? Or is it just as well for them to assume it’s a song about their mother?

Southside | Sam Hunt

The second Sam Hunt album opens with little more than voice, guitar, and desolation. It’s a song called “2016,” named for a date that Hunt finds triggering— though perhaps for a different reason than the rest of us do. “I’d drive a thousand miles to Nashville/ walk in like I walked out/ put the tears back in your eyes,” Hunt pledges, a pithy summation of romantic regrets that he knows can’t be erased. The song’s rock-bottom remorse makes it a perfect prologue for a song cycle that’s all about losing love and then gaining it back, while its structural traditionalism makes it a bit of a head fake for an album that deepens Hunt’s casual inventiveness, the soft touch with which he conjoins past and present. Most of the rest of Southside underpins fiddles, banjos, and weepy pedal steels with stuttering, syncopated beats; it’s an aesthetic that Jon Caramanica christens Yo! Brother, Where Art Thou? Hunt didn’t necessarily create this fluid marriage of country, hip-hop, and R&B, but he is its most graceful and eloquent practitioner. If anything, Southside feels more comfortable in its craft than Montevallo did. Only on “Hard to Forget,” which sits a creaky Webb Pierce sample atop a lurching beat, does Hunt’s music approach “Old Town Road”-style novelty; he’s less interested in gimmicks than in finding a natural center of gravity between seemingly opposite poles. The specter of “Old Town Road” does suggest just how much has changed in the six years Hunt spent crafting this album, how his hip-hop-conversant style has become internalized by the country music industry even if nobody else makes it seem as unforced as Hunt does. The album’s long gestation is also suggestive of complications in Hunt’s personal life. In the wake of Montevallo he forsook his long-time sweetheart to chase country stardom; the two ultimately reunited and are now married. The songs on Southside don’t necessarily play as autobiography, but they do outline a trajectory of reconciliation and second chances, something most notable in the comparative severity of the heartbreak songs: “2016” is legitimately brutal, but back-album highlight “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s,” about the difficulties in cutting ties with someone who still pops up in your Instagram feed, can be appreciated as droll tragicomedy. All the aesthetic and thematic threads of Hunt’s music come together in “Body Like a Back Road,” an impossibly frictionless R&B jam that any aspiring loverman would be lucky to emulate; its sensuality comes not from the flush of first attraction but from the knowing intimacy of two long-time partners who’ve seen their share of hills and valleys. Hunt’s gift is making innovation sound comforting and familiar, but this song flips the script by making familiarity sound exciting and new. 

Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor

Another permutation from a master shapeshifter. If Safe in the Hands of Love was sprawling and ambitious, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is raunchy, punchy, and direct. It’s rock and roll as only Yves Tumor could imagine it, built from buzzsaw guitars, piercing horns, stabbing drums, and acid-wash synths abrasions that somehow coalesce into something majestic. Check out the artist’s preening performance at the mic, and the flop-sweat lyrics about the hazards of love. But mostly keep your ear on the fluid bass lines, which slither and slink and vouch for rock as a kind of dance music. Sounds simple enough— so how does Yves Tumor make it sound so transgressive?

Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa

Eleven unerring disco bangers, released into a plague. “Physical,” about moving your body as though your life depends on it, takes on a bittersweetness in the quarantine era; how many socially-distanced living room dance parties has it soundtracked? Perfect single “Don’t Start Now” conjures post-breakup defiance through precision-honed ultimatums: “If you don’t wanna see me dancing with somebody/ If you wanna believe that anything could stop me/ Don’t show up.” Never a diva but always a great singer, Lipa skips power moves in favor of coy swagger; she draws you in by playing cool, and always sounds like she’s having fun.

We Are Sent Here by History | Shabaka & the Ancestors
Rejoice | Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela 

A couple of recent albums marry African rhythms to kinetic jazz. Shabaka & the Ancestors is a rambunctious pan-cultural octet, led by the eschatology-obsessed Shabaka Hutchings (The Comet is Coming) and a squad of South African sidemen. Their album We Are Sent Here by History plays out like a bible of human experience: Spoken word pieces spin dystopian prophecies of cultural decay and economic collapse, while raging horns and rapturous voices raise psalms of lament, ascent, and supplication. But mostly, the framework is apocalyptic: Hutchings’ music hopes for a new world to be born once this one finally reaches its breaking point. Meanwhile, an album called Rejoice— from Afrobeat innovator Tony Allen and the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela— leans into low-key blues, grooves, and chants, reveling in simple pleasures: Allen’s rumbling polyrhythms, Masekela’s clean, clear phrasing. It makes a persuasive case that the world as we know it is hardly without its charms.

Welcome Surprise

Gigaton | Pearl Jam

Who would have imagined that calendar year 2020 would bless us with a new Pearl Jam song called “Superblood Wolfmoon”? That it would be… almost funky? That it would be… unexpectedly fun? If these are not the words you’d normally associate with Pearl Jam, send your respects to producer Josh Evan, who was brought in to loosen up a perennially straight-laced band, and frequently succeeds. Behold Eddie Vedder growling and cracking jokes (“I love clairvoyants cuz they’re out of this world”) amidst the disco pulse of “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” Check out Mike McCready churning out trashy riffs on “Take the Long Way,” one of the band’s best forays into power pop delirium. Of course, Vedder & Co. are famously set in their ways: They still rage against circumscribed freedoms, plead for better environmental stewardship, and fill the back half of the album with ballads. Pearl Jam will be Pearl Jam, but if Gigaton is any indication, that may mean more than you’d think.

Seasonal Selections

Motion | Lee Konitz (1961)

RIP to a legend. In a daunting discography, Motion is the one. Ethan Iverson says, “After Charlie Parker, any list of the most studied and transcribed alto solos must include the original five tracks on Motion.”

Out of the Afternoon | Roy Haynes Quarter (1962)

Listen for the snap, crackle, and pop of Haynes’ drum kit; for the strange flutter of flutes, kazoos, and bird calls from Roland Kirk. And listen for the supple swing from bass man Henry Grimes, an unsung hero of jazz and another cruel casualty of COVID-19.

John Prine | John Prine (1971)
Sweet Revenge | John Prine (1973)
In Spite of Ourselves | John Prine (1999)
The Tree of Forgiveness | John Prine (2018)

Start at the beginning. The self-titled debut plays like a greatest hits album, emanates empathy (“there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”), and sparkles with dad jokes (“I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve”). From there, sample the scruffy charm of Sweet Revenge, which prompts Alfred Soto to observe: “I love John Prine because he treated the ditties and goofball tunes on Bob Dylan’s country experiment Nashville Skyline and country-tinged New Morning like other performers did ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.’” In Spite of Ourselves finds one of America’s greatest songwriters in interpretive mode, enlisting A-list support for boy-girl duets and proving that he loves country music for all the right reasons. (Come for the heartache, stay for the jokes!) The Tree of Forgiveness probably wasn’t intended as a final manifesto, but plays like one now— which is to say, wry, scrappy, cynical, hopeful, rural, Midwestern, full of wonder, endlessly lovable. Tell me: Who else is like John Prine?

Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission (1999)

I heard someone remark that this year’s Lent was “the Lentiest Lent ever.” Through a season of pandemic-induced suffering and sorrow, no album has fortified me like this masterpiece from Don and Kerin Peris. They wrote these hushed, wintery ruminations in the midst of their own season of disappointment, frustration, and divine discontent; surely there is no other album that speaks as achingly about miscarriage and infertility. These songs are beset by lament, but lament never overcomes them. Hear the Gospel according to The Innocence Mission: “The world at night has seen the greatest Light/ too much Light to deny.”

Felis Catus & Silence | Leo Takami (2020)

File under: Quarantine Essentials. Sanity Savers. Pace Stabilizers. Mind Relaxers. Joy Machines. It’ll all seem so simple the first time you play it, but don’t let that fool you.

Heaven Can Wait: Songs of experience from John Prine, Willie Nelson, Oak Ridge Boys

tree of forgiveness

By the end of his witty and wistful new album, Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine has managed to squeak his way into Heaven, where he proceeds to play songs, smoke cigarettes, and forgive everyone who ever wronged him. It’s a happy ending, and it’s well-earned: Prine is nothing if not a survivor, and Tree of Forgiveness feels scrappy and hard-won, both in its sound and in its form. It’s been 13 years since the last set of original tunes from Prine, and this new collection is endearingly tattered and terse: Its 10 songs—with copyright dates that span decades—barely comprise half an hour of music, and something like “I Have Met My Love Today,” at under two minutes long, feels like a precious fragment, the dog-eared remnant of some holy text that Prine’s been carrying around in his wallet through periods of creative drought and bad health. Throat surgery and cancer both left their marks on his voice, never frailer and never more expressive than here, the perfectly weathered instrument for a songwriter who remains a bemused participant in life’s tender mercies and tragicomic indignities. His gristle brings the weight of wisdom to “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” a song for the discarded and the forgotten that hinges on the revoked planetary status of Pluto, which Prine knowingly says “never stood a chance no how,” and his droll detachment keeps the minor-key “Caravan of Fools” from congealing in its own despair; his off-handed disdain for the crimes of the plutocrats suggest that there’ve always been hard times, and so far we’ve always found a way to live through ‘em. Prine’s lyrics are hardscrabble and plainspoken, but never at the expense of local color; on “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” his rural vernacular is as commanding as Lucinda Williams’: “I was in high cotton, just a-bangin’ on my six-string/ A-kickin’ at the trash can, walkin’ skin and bone.” Meanwhile, the whole album bears a sympathetic Dave Cobb production, one that prizes simplicity but lights up with color when the songs call for it: “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” is roughed-up, ramshackle blues, “When I Get to Heaven” is a whimsical jamboree, and “Summer’s End” is buoyed by understated, cinematic strings. Some of the songs sound like trifles at first, but the weightier songs give context to the slight ones, until you realize they’re not so slight at all: Prine is the pilgrim making progress, winding his way through sickness and death, the Caravan of Fools and the lonesome plight of Pluto, all the while aware that he’s in his twilight years. The key song here is “Summer’s End,” which grounds everything else in a certain eschatological urgency; “summer’s end came faster than we wanted,” Prine admits. It always does—but knowing how things end brings focus and perspective. “Boundless Love” takes on a hymn-like quality, and “God Only Knows” turns regret into something more like penitence and contrition. It’s as though he’s condensed all the ragged wisdom and experience of his lifetime into these hard-boiled tunes, and chiseled away anything superfluous. We’re left with the stuff that really matters: “Come on home,” Prine pleads on “Summer’s End.” “You don’t have to be alone.” Even on this side of heaven, boundless love is there for anyone seeking it.

Prine’s not the only grizzled pro who’s singing about matters of life and death. At 85, Willie Nelson has certainly earned the right to enter the sepia-toned phase of his career, and his new Last Man Standing is at least his third album in a row to confront mortality head-on: For the Good Times paid tribute to his late friend Ray Price, and God’s Problem Child found him tackling old age through a series of remembrances, autobiographical sketches, and sly jokes. Last Man Standing ups the joke content considerably, allowing Willie to confront his twilight years with a light touch, an amiable chuckle, and just a hint of sentimentality thrown in for good measure. The latter comes mostly in the form of “Something You Get Through,” a tender ballad about saying goodbye to someone you’ve loved a long time; the pain never subsides, Willie reckons, but maybe it makes you tougher. More characteristic of the album’s playful streak is “Bad Breath,” a surprisingly philosophical ode to halitosis: “Bad breath is better than no breath at all,” Willie sings. And then there’s the wistful second-guessing of the title track: “I don’t wanna be the last man standing/ Wait a minute, maybe I do.” To outlive your contemporaries is a lonesome achievement, but have you considered the alternative? Willie wrote all 11 of these songs with Buddy Cannon, who also produced the set—and if the red-headed stranger doesn’t mix his American music idioms with the same staggering virtuosity he showed in the days of Stardust and Shotgun Willie, he remains casually eclectic, seamless and smooth in his intermingling of folk forms. Last Man Standing is very much a roots record, one that’s equally charming when it offers burnished blues (“Bad Breath”), Texas swing (“Ready to Roar”), rollicking honky-tonk sing-alongs (“Don’t Tell Noah”), and smooth, folksy shuffles (“Me and You.”) For all its amiability, the record isn’t without some prickliness; John Prine may make it into Heaven, but Willie’s aware that “Hell is a-waitin’ there too.” Of course, he’s spent his career writing tough songs that sound smooth and easygoing; that’s the achievement of Last Man Standing, and it’s the achievement of his lifetime.

17th Avenue Revival, new from the Oak Ridge Boys, has a couple of through-lines to the John Prine and Willie Nelson albums. Like Tree of Forgiveness, this nine-song collection was helmed by Dave Cobb, an in-demand country and roots producer whose reputation for traditionalism undersells his breadth and variety. This year alone, he shepherded the scrappy charm of Tree of Forgiveness, brought string-swept melodrama to Brandi Carlisle’s By the Way, I Forgive You, and helped Ashley Monroe revitalize emotive countrypolitanism on her sublime Sparrow. Here, he connects the Oak Ridge Boys to the spirit of the Million Dollar Quartet, bringing grit and immediacy to their southern gospel. 17th Avenue Revival also fits with Tree of Forgiveness and Last Man Standing for how it finds grizzled veterans offering song of experience, ragged wisdom for summer’s end. “Brand New Star,” the opening song, forgoes Prine’s sly wit and Willie’s deadpan jokes in favor of pure sentimentality; the song reckons that a lost loved one has been turned into a celestial body, an idea that’s not found anywhere in the Bible but does fit with a certain cultural evangelicalism. The schmaltz is balanced out by a seemingly sincere read of Brandy Clark’s “Pray to Jesus”—a tune where desperation points to either religion or gambling, whichever saves you faster—and what’s more, it lands with visceral impact thanks to Cobb’s stripped-down production: It’s just the sound of four guys harmonizing in real time, keeping the beat through snapped fingers and the occasional hand clap, Cobb’s acoustic guitar the only instrumentation. There’s also the pummeling rockabiliy of “God’s Got It,” which sells its message of divine sovereignty through sheer barreling momentum, and an album-ending performance of “Let it Shine On Me” that builds to a sanctified hootenanny. The record is thick with the snap of the upright bass, the lingering dissonance of pounded pianos, and the rattle of tambourines—but on slower songs, like the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” the Oak Ridge Boys supply all their own special effects through those well-worn harmonies. Because he aligns these songs with the aesthetics of rock, country, and blues, Cobb rightly places Southern Gospel within the continuum of American folk traditions—and indeed, 17th Avenue Revival sidesteps pageantry in favor of austere reflections on faith and devotion, its hopefulness in the Lord feeling tested and sincere. “Joy comes in the morning/ And outshines the darkest of nights,” one song says. They know as well as Prine does that summers end—but maybe that’s not the end of the story.