Bluesmen Next Door: Familiar pleasures from Jimmie Vaughan, The Cash Box Kings

hail to the kings

When Adia Victoria released her album Silences— a chilling, modernistic reworking of Southern blues tropes— she framed it with a simple statement of purpose. “I want to make the blues dangerous again,” she told The New York Times. (Mission accomplished.) You just barely have to read between the lines of that manifesto to find the implicit critique of her chosen idiom, an insinuation that contemporary blues records have largely become comfortable, anodyne, and predictable. 

But what if predictability has its own rewards? Listen to Baby, Please Come Home, the latest album from stalwart bluesman Jimmie Vaughan, and you just might be persuaded. In a relaxed set of quasi-obscurities from the blues canon, Vaughan leads a crack band (complete with brass) through rolling, after-hours ballads and prickly, Chicago-style raves. All of it has the easy flow of a weeknight set at the local juke joint, to the point that you’ll hardly notice when Vaughan slips a couple of live recordings in with the studio cuts. 

It sounds basically like it could have been released at any point over the last 50 years, which happens to be how long Vaughan has been making music. His depth of expertise plays out in songs that follow familiar beats, and where rough edges have been sanded down into smooth contours. That’s not to say the record wants for electricity, but Vaughan is enough of a pro to understand the difference between showmanship and showboating: In the opening title cut, he inserts barbed-wire electric guitar frills between cheerful outbursts from the horn section, his pyrotechnics never threatening the song’s supple groove; when he does erupt into a solo, it’s clean, tuneful, and dexterous. 

This is blues as comfort food: Because you know all the marks well in advance, it’s easy to appreciate how ably Vaughan hits them. And if there’s tremendous power in Adia Victoria’s blues-as-exorcism, there are humble but nourishing pleasures in the way Vaughan transmutes the agony of love and the desolation of heartache into songs so casually, stoically joyful. In “Just a Game,” he’s content to croon rather than wail his blues, a mode he sticks to for most of the album; he’s more at ease playing the seducer than the shaman. In “Midnight Hour,” when he tells you he cried the whole night long, you’ll believe him, but you’ll also believe he’ll get over it. And in “I’m Still in Love with You,” amid humming organ and brushed percussion, he professes romantic devotion in terms that are convincingly ordinary and everyday.

Blues music can be the most conservative of genres, often entangled in ideals of purity and authenticity. But it’s also an idiom that rewards connoisseurship; the more you know the tried-and-true playbook, the more you value refinement of craft when you hear it. Vaughan’s professionalism helps him to smoothly unfurl a catholic vision of the blues, one with enough space for both sly curveballs (simmering organ and crisp snare pops make “Hold It” a soulful instrumental vamp in the “Green Onions” vein) and feats of interpretation (Lefty Frizzel’s twangy “No One to Talk To [But the Blues]” is reimagined as moaning doo-wop). But the most substantial delights come from the warm chemistry of the band, nimbly navigating rhythms they know by heart. The closing “Baby, What’s Wrong” snarls and struts, swings and sways; it exhibits the deftness of bluesmen whose joy just gets deeper with time.

Another album to ratify the familiar pleasures of Chicago-style blues is Hail to the Kings!, roughly the seventh album from the Windy City’s own Cash Box Kings (give or take some live releases). This is a homegrown blues posse that’s happily devoid of mystique; they’re never anything less than friendly and unpretentious, and when they title a song “Bluesman Next Door,” it sounds like the perfect summary of their innate modesty. But don’t take their amiability for toothlessness: Hail to the Kings! is a loud and raucous good time, the beer-soaked, after-hours barnburner to Jimmie Vaughan’s elegant showstopper.

Like Vaughan, the Kings view blues music as the mouth of the river, but are unafraid to trace its various tributaries. Opener “Ain’t No Fun (When the Rabbit Got the Gun)” kicks off with a Church Berry guitar riff that quickly morphs into a jostling jump blues, complete with gritty Little Walter-style harmonica blasts from Joe Nosek; it sounds like both a faithful adaptation and a gentle remix of golden-era Chess Records. But if The Cash Box Kings are respectful of tradition, it’s never at the expense of good humor. Shemekia Copeland stops by for a bawdy duet called “The Wine Talkin,’” where two lovers scramble to make boozy excuses for their questionable decisions. Over the greasy grind and barroom piano of “Smoked Jowl Blues,” singer Oscar Wilson gets frisky about breakfast food, and leans into down-home ad-libs (“it ain’t nothin’ but bacon from a hog’s jaw, baby”). And in “Joe, You Ain’t from Chicago,” a jaunty Bo Diddley jam, Wilson and Nosek compete to see who’s the realest Chicagoan; would it surprise you to know that their points of contention are largely related to the city’s hallowed eating establishments?

The Cash Box Kings are faithful stewards of a lineage, but they also know how to accommodate modernity in ways both clever and courageous. In the former category there’s the album-closing “The Wrong Number,” an old-timey shuffle that chronicles text message (not landline) miscommunication. And as for the latter, listen to “Bluesman Next Door,” a study in not-in-my-backyard syndrome; Wilson bears witness to the hypocrisy of white audiences who celebrate black musicians on stage, but go deaf and blind with regard to real-life injustices that surround them. The song’s documentation of American racism is pointed enough to include the words “plantation” and “slavery.” Most blistering of all is “Jon Burge Blues,” a hometown protest number about a dirty cop who tortured the city’s black residents; it’s withering enough to cast a shadow over the rest of the album, contextualizing the rowdy good times and the downcast numbers alike. It’s why they sing the blues, and evidence enough that even a “predictable” blues album can pack substantive surprises. 

In Times Like These: Troubadour triumphs from Hayes Carll, Todd Snider

what it is

The sixth Hayes Carll album, What it Is, includes a song called “Fragile Men.” It’s about exactly what you think it’s about, and it’s even better than you might hope. “It must make you so damn angry they’re expecting you to change,” he sings, faux-commiserating with the eternally privileged and the permanently embattled. The subtext, of course, is that Carll (much like your humble critic) is a straight white male, the very demographic that’s high-risk for fragility. But God bless him, he’s doing what he can to stop the virus from spreading, using all the tools endowed to him by the folk tradition to put his privilege in its place: satire, storytelling, whimsy, historicity, some good old-fashioned protest tunes and some even better love songs. Does it need to be said that this is the richest Hayes Carll album yet?

He’s not the only member of his genus to inoculate against entitlement and apathy. Todd Snider— roughly the same level of straight, white, and male— draws from a similar battery of folk-tradition tools  on his casually brilliant Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. (Naturally, it’s the first entry in the series, a catalog joke borrowed from the Traveling Wilburys.) Together, these persuasive albums offer a welcome reassurance: There’s still plenty that dudes-with-guitars can do to speak a prophetic word into a world short on sanity. Long live folk singers.

For Carll, What it Is feels like a full flourishing; the snark and wiseassery of his early records are very much present, but they’re tempered with more empathy than ever before. It follows on the heels of Lovers and Leavers, a downcast and introspective divorce album that Carll made with Joe Henry, taken by some fans as a sign that Carll had gone soft; he hadn’t, but you know how people talk. Since then he’s married the singer and songwriter Allison Morrer, who co-wrote many of these new songs and co-produced the album with Brad Jones. It seems like a grounding partnership for Carll, who opens the record with a fiddle-led tune called “None’ya,” where two lovers take cheerful little digs at each other, their gentle jabs betraying obvious affection. It’s not performative happiness, but rather the natural glow of a couple who’ve found at long last a domesticity that suits them. It’s not a red herring, either; “Be There” is even more earnest in its devotion, a country love song that builds into orchestral elation.

There are tributaries of humility and empathy that flow through even the shit-talkingest songs on the album. “Fragile Men,” with its eerie backdrop of junkyard percussion, is Carll’s most strident note of moral witness-beating, and surely it’s no coincidence that it’s followed immediately by a swampy blues called “Wild Pointy Finger,” where the singer deflates his own knack for sanctimony. Elsewhere, on “Times Like These,” Carll rides a driving Chuck Berry groove and tries his best to downplay swiftly-escalating temperatures– maybe literal, maybe symbolic (“it’s sure gettin’ hot around here in times like these”). 

Pitched somewhere between the romantic songs and the topical ones are a couple of bona fide Hayes Carll classics; songs that speak to the times from a place of weary wisdom and battle-tested compassion. In “Jesus and Elvis”– a song way too good for Carll to leave it all for Kenny Chesney– the Lord and the King strike a truce in behalf of all who are heavy-laden, offering sweet salvation in multiple flavors (“so if you need a shot of Dickel or redemption…”). And in “American Dream,” written with Moorer, Carll remembers that beneath all the outrage and all the issues there are people who are just looking to find their slice of heaven, often getting trampled in the process. Carll, like so many dudes-with-guitars before him, sings for them.

Snider doesn’t have a guru like Allison Moorer in his corner, though on at least one of his new songs he gets a supernatural assist from “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.” It’s not as surprising as you might think. After all, Snider recorded Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 in Cash’s old bungalow, and it’s mostly just him singing and plucking at a guitar or a banjo. (Jason Isbell, who recently produced a fine Josh Ritter album, shows up to sing and play on “Like a Force of Nature,” and he and Amanda Shires roll into the hootenanny spirit of the album-closing “A Timeless Response to Current Events.”) The songs crackle with live immediacy, and the set flows with the easeful grace of an impromptu open-mic set, right down to a brief spoken-word “Dedication” for one song and what sounds like an unscripted “Explanation” for another.

The economy of these recordings leaves Snider nowhere to hide: The charm of Cash Cabin Sessions is purely in his formal command, his rich imagination, and his impish humor. You can hear a little of all three on “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a historic survey of how the entertainment industry’s been slowly eroding our ideals and our norms at least since Milton Berle. Snider has it both ways by ratifying a familiar form and also breaking the fourth wall to comment on it; go along with his art-as-criticism and criticism-as-art and you’ll be rewarded with a devastatingly pithy summation of the rise and fall of Michael Jackson (“reality killed that video star”). And if you like that one, just wait til he gets to the part about the 45th President.

Not every song is so barbed; “Like a Force of Nature” ennobles the aging process, and the harmonica-puffin’ “Watering Flowers in the Rain” empathizes with an Elvis roadie who dreams of seeing his own name in marquee lights. But the songs that define the album are the ones where Snider brings his wit to bear on the state of our fracture, which happen to be the album’s most formally sophisticated. He plucks away at “The Blues on Banjo” to trace dark money’s influence from the French Revolution through the Iraq War, but also to comment on an American minstrelsy tradition that responds to real evil with artificial sanguinity (“so zippity-doodah, motherfucker, zippity-ay”). “A Timeless Response to Current Events” is a bravura showcase for free-associative rhymes and dense allusions, but it turns out the most eloquent protests are often the simplest: “Ain’t that some bullshit?” goes the sing-along chorus.

These sharp Snider songs may put you right back in Carll’s headspace, and particularly the state of mind he conjures in What it Is standout “If I May Be So Bold.” The title portends bloviation and the jostling rhythm suggests a con man’s hubristic hustle, but actually it’s a straightforwardly aspirational rallying cry for troubadours everywhere. “There’s a whole world out there waitin’/ Full of stories to be told/ And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all/ If I may be so bold.” It’s a statement of purpose that both he and Snider live up to, and it’s never seemed more badly needed than in times like these.

Need to Feel Sad: On the heartache and heartlessness of Lily & Madeleine

canterbury girls

You can tell a lot about someone from the way they wield profanity— especially when they’re discriminating about it. For instance, where some screenwriters are open fire hydrants of vulgarity, the legendary Nora Ephron includes exactly five f-words in her famous script for When Harry Met Sally. They are employed purposefully and judiciously, underscoring scenes about heartbreak and divorce; traumatic words used with traumatic intent. There is a similar economy of cursing on Canterbury Girls, the fourth album from sister act Lily & Madeleine— a single swear word, and they make it count. You can find it in “Pachinko Song,” about the desperation of trying to shake off a toxic relationship. “Quit fucking showing up,” the sisters sing, sweet and breathy harmonies only amplifying the blunt force of their curt dismissal. Maybe they’re addressing the pushy guy who keeps calling, making appearances long after his welcome has worn out; maybe the narrator is chastising herself for allowing him any of her mental bandwidth. Either way, the line lands like a body blow: it’s not senseless crudity, but laser-targeted resolve.

“Pachinko Song” is representative of Canterbury Girls’ 10 originals, most of which carry the sting of disappointment but also a faint flush of excitement. Blame it on their youth: Though the sisters born Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz have been performing together long enough to have shared the stage with Over the Rhine and a record label with Sufjan Stevens, they’re only now hitting their early twenties. Canterbury Girls is suggestive time and again of romantic frustration, but also the sense of possibility that comes with growing up. Its songs document two young women as they learn just who they are and what they’re made of— lessons made precious because they’re so often learned the hard way. You can still catch a whiff of youthful naïveté on the second song, which isn’t about any ordinary heartache but rather a “Supernatural Sadness”— enveloping, eviscerating, and eternal; an aching reminder of how formative heartbreaks always feel cataclysmic and irrecoverable. But you also get the sense that the sisters have taken enough lumps to build up some insulating scar tissue. “Self Care” hinges on a pun— “I can’t make myself care,” they sing in the vocal equivalent of the shrugging emoji— but it’s about exactly what its title says it’s about: Stuck in an increasingly one-sided relationship, the narrator does what she needs to do to safeguard her mental health— even if that means she becomes the heartbreaker, the bringer of someone else’s cataclysm. 

The record’s underlying theme is emotional autonomy– the liberty to either feel deeply or go numb, whichever is more useful for personal growth and self-preservation. (“I need to feel sad,” the sisters confess on “Circles.”)  Pop music is uniquely suited for facilitating such emotional acuity, and with Canterbury Girls Lily & Madeleine have finally made the faultless sweet-and-salty confection previous records have just hinted at. They still weave in and out of harmony with one another, a special effect more dazzling than anything a producer might cook up, and they still write spare, confessional songs of unflinching earnestness. What’s different is that their simple guitar-and-piano setup is now built out with layers of featherweight keyboard effects, offsetting their deep reserves of melancholy with bursts of buoyant joy. “Pachinko Song” races through pulsing synths that feel like they should be soundtracking a climactic John Hughes scene, and “Can’t Help the Way I Feel” deploys the duo’s youth and their sisterly connection to maximum effect in an irresistible girl-group bop. Give some of the credit to producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who helmed album sessions in Nashville. And talk about a buried lede: Tashian and Fitchuck are the same masterminds who presided over Golden Hour, last year’s roséwave masterpiece from the magnificent Kacey Musgraves. They bring a similar twilit glow to Canterbury Girls, their studio effects expressive conduits for the duo’s wistfulness and wonder, and just like on Golden Hour they prove they can do a lot with a little: “Self Care” opens up with the hymn-like austerity of a single piano, but then it’s as if a door opens to a gilded corridor of mirrorballs and glitter. “Just Do It” sounds like a rave-up for xylophones and marimbas; its low-end cred is persuasive enough to justify a thumping club mix from Mr Gabriel, easily findable on the streaming platform of your choice.

These sparkling, sadsack jams ratify the importance of blue seasons and low ebbs: “Misery is a blessing,” Lily & Madeleine sing in “Supernatural Sadness,” which looks back on a poisonous relationship with equal parts hurt and gratitude; enduring it was painful, but also clarifying (“realized what I need,” goes one tiny revelation). That clarity pays off in the slow sway of “Analog Love,” where the narrator knows exactly what she wants– a love that’s slow and patient in a world that’s increasingly frantic. But if it’s important to know when to feel, it’s can also be valuable to know when to lean into indifference. Their pals in Over the Rhine know this– “Lord knows we’ve learned the hard way/ all about healthy apathy,” attests one OtR classic– and some of the songs on Canterbury Girls shutter emotion as a way to maintain mental health. “I don’t need this to feel,” they assure in “Self Care,” where ending a relationship is purely transactional. And in the title song– named for a park in their home town of Indianapolis–  they remind us that “Canterbury girls are heartless,” embracing a reputation for callousness. Sometimes the best way to guard your heart is to tell yourself and anyone listening that you’re all outta fucks to give. But of course, these songs know better.

Any Old Way You Choose It: Back to basics with The Black Keys, Titus Andronicus

lets rock

You can’t talk about the state of rock and roll without talking about The Black Keys– a band that bucks every trend, defies every natural law, and does it all with tricks they copped from vintage blues and garage playbooks. Over the last decade, no other guitar rock band has quite matched their bounty of commercial success and critical acclaim; poor Iceage doesn’t have the sales, while much-maligned Greta Van Fleet lags 5.4 points behind on the Pitchfork scale. There are now nine Black Keys albums in the world– a few of them excellent, all of them valuable– and though they vary slightly in terms of how rigidly they stick to the fundamentals, they’re all persuasive that rock’s most appealing when it’s at its most direct and unadorned. 

In a career modeled on a back-to-basics approach, “Let’s Rock” feels like the closest thing the Keys have offered to a reset; their return to recording after a five-year break jettisons the murky psychedelia of Turn Blue as well as the little pockets of glitter that bedazzled El Camino, instead ratifying the enduring pleasure of short-and-fast songs that wail and thump and spin off into dozens upon dozens of earworm guitar riffs, all of them comfortingly familiar and thrillingly off-the-cuff. Only on two of these dozen self-produced songs do Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney approach the four minute mark, and only on “Walk Across the Water” do you get anything that could rightly be called a slow jam; even there, Carney’s drum kit throws a few lumps into the floating disco-ball gait, ensuring some swing in its sway. It’s a particularly unfussy and unpretentious record from a duo that’s seldom let big concepts get in the way of their joyful ruckus, and as such it’s the most endlessly replayable Keys album in a while– a winsome gene splice of Rubber Factory’s chunky, blues-adjacent racket and Brothers’ ragged R&B. 

You could call it a throwback Black Keys record, but to do so ignores some subtle yet substantial leaps forward in their craft; much as they and we might prefer the illusion that these are just two dudes ripping it up in a repurposed Nashville office building, there are multi-layered harmonies and piles of overdubbed riffs hiding just below the crackle of first-take immediacy, adding depth and heft to some of the group’s cleanest writing yet. (Backup singers Ashley Wikcoxzon and Leisa Hans prove themselves mission-critical throughout.) There’s also something to be said for the genre elasticity Auerbach’s forged through his second career as a record producer, which helps explain how “Let’s Rock,” for all the meat-and-potatoes promises of its title, is really a covert exercise in low-key eclecticism; Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls it a “fantasy jukebox,” as good a description as any for an album that moves so swiftly between different flavors of thundering mayhem. “Eagle Birds” is a haywired electric boogie; “Lo/Hi” is a sky-splitting baptism in crackling fuzz; “Sit Around and Miss You” is crinkled country; “Go” stretches a single-syllable vamp into a blast of sing-along power pop. 

Auerbach’s lyrics, always admirable in their concision, mostly hover over matters of love and loss; he’s not too proud to mope (“Sit Around and Miss You” is exactly the kind of song its title promises it’ll be), but just as often he declaims, spinning his lived experience into what sound like weird backwoods proverbs, universal truths expressed through a gnarled vernacular (“every little thing that you do is always gonna come back to you”; “if you wanna make it last forever, maybe get behind the mule”; “don’t nobody wanna be lonely, everybody oughta be loved sometimes”; “no one really knows where it goes from here/ but we all decompose and slowly disappear”). These lyrics aren’t flashy, but they’re honed with precision and effective as a result; perfect tidings from a band whose sweet spot is the intersection of careful craft and disorderly thrills.

They’re not the only band that’s ratifying the fundamentals. An Obelisk, new from Titus Andronicus, is loud, fast, succinct, and electric– all the things the group’s previous record, the divisive acoustic jamboree A Productive Cough, wasn’t. Call it course-correction if you like, though actually, An Obelisk was conceived and written before its predecessor, suggesting the band’s awareness that their hard rock bona fides might need prompt renewal. These 10 new songs fly by in 38 minutes; a leisurely sprawl by hardcore punk standards, but remarkably terse for a band whose stock in trade has always been conceptual epics. They brought in producer Bob Mould, fresh off his own bubbly Sunshine Rock, and he keeps things down and dirty: This is a record that takes all its cues from classic punk albums, the clack of drumsticks counting down choppy riffs and Patrick Stickles’ frantic and sour Joe Strummer slur, all of it captured with just the right levels of tinny, cheap fidelity. “On the Street” is just over a minute of dramatic thrash ‘n’ crash; “My Body and Me” is a little slower but just as crude in its pulverizing electric grind; even when the band really stretches out, as in “Hey Ma,” it’s to salute the big-hearted jubilance and ramshackle folk of The Pogues. An Obelisk bears witness to a deep, full-spectrum love of classic punk, but what makes the album affecting isn’t that it gets the sound right; it’s that it both affirms and critiques its primary texts, taking punk’s anti-authoritarian slant as a springboard for careful self-reflection. An early song called “(I Blame) Society” kicks against the pricks, but the more Stickles thinks on it, the more he wonders if he’s part of the solution or part of the problem. “The Lion Inside” suggests that the true asshole is the inner asshole, while “Tumult Around the World” wonders if one man’s problems amount to a hill of beans when there’s so much trouble to go around. It’s a record that rails against a world gone to ruin, but it takes punk’s street-fighting spirit a step further by throwing a few punches at the man in the mirror and his silent complicity.  It’s rock, rock criticism, and self-criticism all in one– and it’s proof that there are still plenty of big ideas you can conceal just below the din of pummeling drums and ragged guitars.

Breakdowns and Breakthroughs: Buddy & Julie Miller talk it out

breakdown on 20th ave south

During seasons of heartbreak, it’s just like the old song says: We all need somebody to lean on. But what happens when the person you lean on is also the one who did the heartbreaking? Bill Withers didn’t offer a contingency plan, but Buddy and Julie Miller have it covered on a new album called Breakdown on 20th Ave. South. The very title suggests that the 10 years elapsed since their last record haven’t exactly been idyllic, and the songs— many of them thrumming midnight blues, palpable with conflict and unease— offer confirmation. Several gingerly run a finger along domestic wounds still tender to the touch— hurt feelings, stony silences, resentments left on simmer just a little too long. And there beyond the windowsill, the world roars its violence and hums its indifference. It’s enough to make a person want to scream, but who will hear it, and who will care? The Millers voice those questions right from the jump: “In the night/ who hears the words coming out of your mouth?” Heartbreak comes sooner or later, these wise songs counsel– so who do you lean on? Who will receive your complaint, your confession, your psalm of lament? What are you doing to keep the lines of communication open?

It so happens that 20th Ave. South is the couple’s real-life Nashville mailing address, and while it’s generally judicious not to assume too much autobiographical intention from any songwriter, Buddy and Julie have been candid about some of the personal struggles that informed their return to recording. Maybe you know the backstory: For many years the husband-wife duo were among the most prolific and beloved power couples in the Americana scene, lauded both for their solo albums and the music they put out as a pair. (2001’s Buddy and Julie Miller is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.) When the cruel effects of fibromyalgia forced Julie to back away from public life, Buddy eased into a second career as producer for various luminaries, helming rewarding records by Patty Griffin, Richard Thompson, and Solomon Burke; most commendable of all is Robert Plant’s ragged and lovable Band of Joy. But the couple’s musical collaborations dried up, and understandably, Julie felt left-out and adrift. As the Millers tell NPR’s Jewly Hight, it took a little time for Buddy to realize how much distance he’d allowed into their marriage, and for Julie to express how much she felt wounded. The very existence of a third Buddy and Julie record– heralded by fans as borderline miraculous when it was announced earlier this year– attests that their lines of communication ultimately led to a reconciliation, though the songs suggest that it’s all an ongoing process. “Everything is your fault in the whole wide world,” Julie deadpans in one song; perhaps it’s a hyperbolic reenactment of a lovers’ spat, but then again, many a truth is spoken in jest. More assuring is the riotous “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the closest this record comes to the playful energy of classics like “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast.” “You’re gonna love me, even when you think you don’t,” Julie smiles, affirming what every long-married couple knows: that love is as much about action as it is emotion, and on any given day may have little to do with how you’re feeling.

There’s a strange weather bottled here– the particular air of a couple who have hurt and healed together, and who’ve been reminded that sustaining a marriage requires daily engagement. Even the record’s sound bears witness to this. To accomodate Julie’s poor health, Buddy set up equipment in the couple’s bedroom, meaning the low-key, homemade feel of these songs is no put-on. Where previous Buddy and Julie albums have come with just the right amount of polish, and supple support from studio pros, this one’s all the Millers, leaning into an intimate simplicity. “Unused Heart” and “Breakdown on 20th Ave. South” both stick to the low embers of the blues, conjured by little more than the hiss and fuzz of Buddy’s electric guitar. There’s some percussion overdubbed here and there, but not the crisp pop of a snare drum or the ring of a hi-hat; on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” the muffled thump could almost be someone knocking against a bedframe or a dresser drawer. The record hums with an appealing domesticity, and at times its crude clatter also suggests something of the caustic emotions that swirl around the album’s edges. Listen to the guitar strings and rattling tambourine bleeding into each other on “Feast of the Dead,” a grey smear of mourning. Of course, the highlight of this and any other album from the Millers is the blend of voices; Buddy’s cowboy croon remains a perfect foil to Julie’s impish energy and free spirit. In other words: They were made for each other, and their harmonies inject clinical-strength joy amidst the album’s sorrows.

One possible comparison is to the Over the Rhine album Drunkard’s Prayer: Both records find musical couples giving a long hard look at a relationship they may have been taking for granted, and at least glancing at the possibility that all of it could crumble. And, both records chronicle breakdowns but persist into breakthroughs, talking things out and laying the groundwork for reconciliation. Indeed, Breakdown is remarkable in its candor, and though the Millers have always favored plainspeak, they’ve never recorded songs as disarming or as brutal as some of the ones here. Most disarming: The mournful “Secret,” Buddy’s breakup backup plan, where he hopes he can at least hang on to his privacy (“don’t betray my confidence,” he pleads). Most brutal: The spare and spectral “Unused Heart,” where Julie cries out in the night and finds an emotionally distant partner by her side (“you might as well be made out of wood,” she smirks). “Nothing can be possessed but the struggle,” Flannery O’Connor once advised, and by taking ownership of their hardship the Millers create a meaningful context for their songs of union: “Spitting on Fire” affirms a love that can be as gentle as a spring rain or as ravenous as a hurricane, while “Til the Stardust Comes Apart” is a song of devotion so crisp and clean it could pass for a songbook standard.

Speaking of context, there are a handful of songs on the record that look beyond the Millers’ scenes-from-a-marriage to survey what’s happening in their neighborhood– and sometimes what they find is a world imploding on itself. That’s certainly the implication of “War Child,” where the next generation’s only inheritance is bloodlust and despair; the song is punctuated with the militant rumble of a snare drum. Amidst the jingle-jangle of “Feast of the Dead,” Julie sifts through the ash and dust of a dying planet, finding glimmering slivers of wisdom (“may we love while we’re in the light,” she urges, because time’s a-wastin’). The most evocative scene-setter of all is “Underneath the Sky,” where Julie hungers and thirsts for righteousness– “hard to find in a place like this,” she admits. Like Nick Cave, she’s singing the abattoir blues, and like Bob Dylan her heart’s already in the Highlands; “I want you to take me somewhere that truth and justice kiss,” she sighs, a simple and effective prayer language. It’s an important framing for the marriage songs, highlighting the high stakes and real danger of a world where moth and rust destroy, and where anything and everything falls apart.

These are heavy concerns, but Julie Miller’s never been involved with a record that she didn’t enliven with buoyant Christian witness– and here the writer of “All My Tears” offers one of her most striking spirituals yet. Amidst Dylan-esque folk chords, “Thoughts at 2am” awakes with worry but finds comfort in the everlasting arms. “The Author of compassion has our pain beneath his skin/ and so the whole wide world upon his fingertip does spin,” Buddy and Julie sing together; like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand. We all have a midnight breakdown sooner or later– but what this song supposes is, maybe there’s always someone listening after all?

Self-Portrait in Jazz: On the evolving Linda May Han Oh

aventurine

There’s a lifetime of music contained in Linda May Han Oh’s Aventurine. No, that’s not a commentary on the album’s length; at 74 minutes, the program is generous and immersive, abiding discursions without ever feeling unfocused. There’s nothing on it that isn’t necessary to the big picture. Rather, it is a reflection of how Oh has quite literally been working toward this album her whole life. The material includes a few curated selections that sound like they’ve been seeded into her genetic code, revealing the lineage in which Oh situates herself: Chinese folk music to reflect her cultural upbringing, recalibrated jazz standards to ratify her chosen tradition. These songs are surrounded by original compositions, some of which are relatively new but several of which Oh has been playing, adjusting, and refining for over a decade, plumbing their depths and mastering their contours. Thus, Aventurine is an album about roots but also evolution; it adds up to a thesis statement, a synthesis of where Oh comes from and how it’s made her who she is. It is– to tweak a Bill Evans expression– a self-portrait in jazz.

If you don’t know Oh, now is a boon season for making her acquaintance. She plays upright bass with her husband, the pianist Fabian Almazon, on his new This Land Abounds with Life— another deep-dive into upbringing, culture, and identity, specifically his Cuban heritage. It’s an auspicious platform for Oh’s skill as an instrumentalist; listen to her fearless wayfinding on “The Everglades” for just one example of her style– nimble, tactile, molasses-thick. But it’s on Aventurine that you can witness her depth and imagination as a composer and a conceptual thinker. She recorded it with the dauntless ensemble of Greg Ward on saxophone, Chess Smith on drums, and Matt Mitchell on piano. Jazz improvisation provides its engine, but an air of classical refinement shimmers around the edges; both a string quartet and the Australian vocal group Invenio are featured throughout, the latter adding worldless evanescence not unlike the cloud of witnesses on Brad Mehldau’s Finding Gabriel.

Aventurine gets its name from a green-hued quartz, variously described as opaque and translucent. It’s fitting imagery for a sparkling suite of songs that feels both accessible and coy; emotionally direct but stylistically unclassifiable, constantly reshaping itself in real time. Certainly Oh and her band don’t want for swing, and some of the record’s most persuasive moments come when they cut through the air of gentility with a brash, low-end rumble; in “Lilac Chaser,” the string section sounds like they’re soundtracking a summer garden party, right up until Oh and her rambunctious rhythm team start kicking up dirt, dissolving the song’s elegant veneer into a combustible groove. Other songs are just as kinetic, but unconventionally so: “Kirigami,” named for a particular strain of the origami tradition, folds ever inward, until all that’s left is a delicate solo from Oh; then it unfurls itself again, blossoming back out into orchestral opulence. Like the paper artistry that gives it its name, the song embodies precise workmanship and careful attention.

A few selections from the jazz canon reveal a composer who cherishes her roots, mostly insofar as they give her the right bearings for forward motion. Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave” reimagines the frenetic energy of bebop through knotty bass, anxious strings, and a whiplash dialogue between piano and sax. An album-ending take on Evans’ “Time Remembered” translates the song’s brazen romance into an extended showcase for the string section. There’s also the Chinese folk song “Song Yue Rao,” which uses a simple melodic framework as scaffolding for skittering improvisation; its presence here is one of the most striking examples of Oh’s overlapping allegiances and ideologies, her family origins intersecting with her discipleship in jazz. The original compositions are just as revealing. In the glistening “Ebony,” stuttering rhythms build tension, then erupt into rapturous dance. “The Sirens are Wailing” is part tone poem, part historic epic, winding through ghostly atonalities and ravishing melodies with clear emotional logic and narrative sense. In “Rest Your Weary Head”– a two-parter that Oh wrote for her nieces– the string section creates a murky undertow, and vibraphones sound like depth charges; the piece builds from a lullaby into a knobbly, resilient groove. And in the cosmic swirl of “Aventurine,” the strings, piano, and voices enter one at a time, each registering something like awe and wonder. It sounds like real-time self-discovery; like nobody but Linda May Han Oh.

Guess it Was Something I Shouldn’t Have Done: Bruce Springsteen and the hunger of a lifetime

western stars

In “Western Stars,” the title song from his nineteenth studio album, Bruce Springsteen introduces us to a grizzled character actor. In his glory days, the man was a staple of cowboy pictures, back when there was still an appetite for such things; he even shared a scene with John Wayne. Now, he mostly catches checks by appearing in commercials, hawking credit cards and “that little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again.” But the unspoken tragedy of Western Stars is that nothing’s coming back to anybody; that things will never again be as they were. The shambling daredevil in “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” will never walk without a hobble. The runaway in “Chasin’ Wild Horses” can never return to the home he abandoned. The  country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” transmuted love into heartache and heartache into a tune, but there’s no alchemy in the world that can reverse the process and give him back what he lost. You get the sense that none of Springsteen’s weary men could join Bono in his paraphrase of the sinner’s prayer: “Reach me/ I know I’m not a hopeless case.” And they would likewise find little comfort in the haunted hymnal of Over the Rhine, who dare to hope that they’re “not too far gone” to get “undamned.” For Springsteen’s men, redemption is no longer a live option on the table. They have spent the prime of their life courting restoration; now in their twilight, they have to learn to make peace with their cavernous hollow. 

The political allegory writes itself. There is a palpable sense of irrevocable loss here, the dashed dreams these characters wrestle with suggestive of the vanishing American life Springsteen’s been lamenting almost since the beginning, never feeling less like a memory and more like a mirage than it does here. “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” sang Springsteen on a bleak album called Nebraska— but that was 25 years ago; and while Western Stars doesn’t sound as stark, its eschatology is just as unforgiving. Here Springsteen ends the album with a song called “Moonlight Motel,” named for what was once the site of a holy rendezvous between two young lovers. Now one of them visits the parking lot of the long boarded-up hotel by himself, drinking two shots of whisky and pouring a third one on the cold earth. Both the union and the site of its consummation are long gone, and they’re not coming back any more than the cowboy pictures, the American Dream, the middle class, the civilization we all thought would outlast us. (The burning question, same as ever: Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?)

Springsteen uses a musical shorthand to underscore these songs of time and its ravages, hearkening back to an era– was it real or imagined?– when popular music could be nakedly sad, unfold at a leisurely pace, and bear the warm countenance of luxuruous string sections and acoustic instruments. Replacing the muscle and majesty of the E-Street Band with the splendorous melancholy of a string section, Springsteen has made an album quite unlike any he’s made before, one that’s equally indebted to the crisp formalism of Burt Bacharach and the lush country of Glen Campbell. He counts a few familiar names among his list of collaborators– wife and harmonist Patti Scialfa, long-time fiddle accompanist Soozie Tyrell, producer Ron Aniello–  but the lyric sheet’s biggest tell is the name Jon Brion, who decorates several songs with drums and farisfas and celestes, recalling something of the gentle sparkle and easygoing opulence he’s brought to albums by Kanye West, Fiona Apple, and Brad Mehldau. The gentleness is key: Some albums are overwhelmingly disconsolate, but Springsteen’s melancholy is always warm, welcoming, and alluring; it envelopes you just like a Nick Drake record might, channelling an impressionistic vision of American vistas whose vivid Technicolor is slowly fading into washed-out pastel. In “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe,” Latin rhythms are ironed out into easy-listening exotica. “The Wayfarer” lilts and glides across luxuriant strings and chattering castanets. In “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the string section creates a canopy of stars, while the high-and-lonesome steel guitar of boon sideman Greg Leisz keeps it earthbound and dusty. “Sundown” revisits the symphonic pomp of Born to Run’s Phil Spector-isms– and in what may be the album’s biggest surprise of all, Springsteen convinces that he’s actually gotten better at handling those big Roy Orbison operatics. 

Springsteen has spent close to 50 years mastering perspicuous metaphors for male malaise– many of them automotive!– and he’s gotten them so streamlined, so close to the bone that they just barely register as metaphors anymore. “I got two pins in my ankle and a busted collarbone,” sings the weathered narrator of “Drive Fast (The Stuntman).” “A steel rod in my leg, but it walks me home.” He’s a broken man; a man being held together. Other songs employ the language of prodigal sons. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend,” says the drifter in “Hitch Hikin.’” “When I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head,” admits “The Wayfarer,” restless any time he’s not in flight. In “Tucson Train,” a heartbroken man waits at the station for his lover finally to return, years of separation giving way to possible jubilee. It’s the most brazenly hopeful song on the record, unless of course it’s really a study in self-delusion. Surely it is ominous that the song has the same premise and the same locomotive sound effects that conclude Frank Sinatra’s classic downer Watertown, where a possibly-crazy, probably-misguided fellow similarly waits for salvation coming down the rails. Both Springsteen and Sinatra allow their songs to fade to black before telling us how things turned out.

It is hard to think of many writers who capture men– their fracture and their resilience– with the same tenderness and specificity that Springsteen does. (Richard Russo?) He is clear-eyed in assessing their wretched estate, but invariably chooses affection and empathy over pity. “Guess it was something I shouldn’t have done,” understates the narrator in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the latest in a long line of Springsteen characters who went out for a ride and never came back. This is just the delicacy with which an old man might rue the mistakes of his youth: He’s candid about his regret but also careful not to make too much of it, lest his entire sense of self shatter like glass. The country songwriter in “Somewhere North of Nashville” isn’t so zen; he spends sleepless nights replaying the biggest mistakes of his life on an endless loop. “I traded you for this song,” he says into an empty room. Again you might think of a U2 line: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ First they kill their inspiration, then they sing about the grief.” And for what? “All I’ve got’s this melody and time to kill,” Springsteen sighs.

Of course, this character is no stretch for Springsteen, who’s been writing about men like this all his life. What distinguishes Western Stars is its sense of hard-earned wisdom. In “There Goes My Miracle,” a man sees his last chance at happiness walking out on him, never to return– and he’s been battered and bruised enough to call it for what it is rather than cushion the blow with florid prose. “Heartache, heartbreak/ Love gives, love takes,” goes one line, its moon-June rhymes suggesting a kind of wizened plainspeak. The narrator in “Hello Sunshine” is more enlightened still. “You know I always liked my walking shoes/ But you can get a little too fond of the blues,” he sings, the prodigal realizing that he’s wandered long enough. It’s a song about choosing hope as a matter of intention, and it resonates all the more for the many years Springsteen’s characters have stared into the abyss. Indeed, his catalog teems with young men who rant and rail, who roam far and wide looking for the missing piece, satisfaction for their hungry hearts. For the old men of Western Stars, there’s no piece to be found, no satisfaction good enough; slim odds at best for a third-act miracle or surprise salvation. If they find redemption, it’s in the peace they make with their fracture; the realization that the hunger lasts a lifetime. Maybe none of them find restoration, but at least some of them find rest.