A Seat at the Table: The Highwomen abide multitudes

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Institutionalized misogyny at a glance: In 2019, exactly one woman has had a #1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay charts; that would be Maren Morris and her self-reliance anthem “GIRL.” That’s not quite to say that women have been completely absent from the radio; if nothing else, they have provided fruitful subject matter for many of country music’s most venerated dudes and bros. Jason Aldean had a chart-topping hit with “Girl Like You,” where he assures his beloved that she has lips like cherries, eyes like diamonds, and a “body so gold”— shopworn imagery that does little to distinguish the object of his affection (emphasis on object). There’s also “Good Girl,” a #1 from Dustin Lynch that rhapsodizes his beloved as an “angel,” a “keeper,” and “the kinda thing you gotta lock down.” Such songs make it disturbing plausible that Morris, in addition to being the lone female to summit the charts, is also the only contemporary country hitmaker who has ever actually spoken to a woman before.

This dismaying situation was hardly lost on Amanda Shires, a key player in the Americana scene. Absorbing plenty of country radio from the confines of her tour bus, she was mortified by the gender disparity; so many gifted singers and songwriters ignored, so many everyday stories left untold. She aimed to do something about it, and like many aspiring revolutionaries before her, her plans involved starting a band. The Highwomen, a homegrown problem-solvers caucus, includes Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and, curiously enough, Maren Morris, whose chart success is the exception that proves the rule. Their self-titled debut was produced by Dave Cobb, and features low-key support from the likes of Jason Isbell, Sheryl Crow, and Yola. It’s a handsome set of songs, carefully designed to honor the voices and lived experience of women. If country radio ever gets wind of it, there may be pandemonium at the realization that ladies are more than red lips and diamond eyes. And if it doesn’t, the credible excuses are very limited indeed; surely by intention, The Highwomen have made a record that’s not just pure of heart but unerring in craft. Maybe there’s a good reason not to play this on the radio, but lack of merit ain’t it.

The group’s name references The Highwaymen, a mid-80s posse made up of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, back when each was still on’ry but on the downward slope of their commercial prime. Their theme song, the Jimmy Webb-penned “Highwayman,” mythologized rugged and manly men doing rugged and manly things, like brandishing weapons and working in construction. The Highwomen opens with a revisionist take on the song (co-credited to Webb), where all the macho stuff is replaced with a whispered history of the women who’ve been blotted from the public record— the waterlogged witches of Salem, Freedom Riders gunned down in their prime, traveling preachers with hellhounds on their trail. In robust harmony, the Highwomen declare themselves “the daughters of the silent generation,” standing in solidarity with women of the past whose quiet courage is too often left unsung. It’s obviously meant to be the band’s walk-on music, but at least two additional songs qualify as unofficial manifestos: There’s first single “Redesigning Women,” an unruly singalong where the Highwomen celebrate femininity with equal parts earnestness and jokes, sounding obviously proud of both (“when we love someone we take ‘em to heaven/ and if the shoe fits we’re gonna buy 11.”) You could also make a case for “Crowded Table,” a hymn of union, as the third bullet point in their mission statement; it’s a song about rolling up your sleeves to build the inclusive utopia Sleater-Kinney used to dream of, though the Highwomen cast it in the warmth of domesticity (“I want a house with a crowded table/ and a place by the fire for everyone”).

These songs triangulate the band’s politics, but it’s to their credit that The Highwomen isn’t all rallying calls and declarations of intent; they’re just as happy to show as to tell, and their material sticks up for the women who live in the margins of gender politics but don’t have the luxury of thinking about them every second of every day. (Possible summary of the album’s themes: Women have shit to do.)  In “My Only Child” (co-written with GOAT of GOATs and spirit-Highwoman Miranda Lambert), they linger over the particular pain and gratitude of the mother whose table isn’t quite as crowded as she’d like; it’s a quiet-storm tearjerker for the mom who wanted a big family but wouldn’t trade her lone progeny for anything in the world. There’s also Shires’ “Cocktail and a Song,” a fiddle-led wake written following her father’s diagnosis with terminal illness, which captures the particular tenderness between dads and daughters (“you’ve always been your daddy’s girl, nothing’s gonna change that now”). What The Highwomen argues implicitly is that stories like these are legion; so why don’t we hear them more often? As if to assert just how multitudinous the stories of women really are, the record ends with a Carlile number called “Wheels of Laredo,” an Old West set piece that recalls some of the conscious myth-making of The Highwaymen; hearing these women acquit themselves so ably in the hardscrabble outlaw vein almost feels like a victory lap. The song also appears on While I’m Livin, a Tanya Tucker comeback album co-produced and largely penned by Carlile. She’s spoken about wanting the song to become a kind of modern outlaw anthem, one that many different performers can sink their teeth into. The Highwomen literally set their own standards.

Any one of these dozen songs is tuneful enough to be a radio hit. Ironically enough, their fortunes on the charts may be hampered by the fact that they’re so grounded in traditional country craft. The Highwomen studiously resists the gurgling electronics, trap rhythms, and studio sheen that characterize Nashville’s pop vanguard, instead favoring a warm austerity that hearkens back to the values of the outlaw movement; it’s a sound that was mapped out by Hemby, long one of country’s most valued songslingers, and captured in an appealingly organic production from Cobb. “My Name Can’t Be Mama” begins with sawing fiddles that roll into jaunty barroom piano, Western swing with a hard edge; “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” meanwhile, is an amiable, old-timey Gospel sway. These are sturdy constructions, rooted in decades of country record-making, but they aren’t museum pieces; for one thing, they’re too funny to be stodgy. The joke quotient is high, not least on “Don’t Call Me,” an uproarious dismissal where Shires tells her ex exactly where he can lodge any further inquiries or requests (“1-800-Go-To-Hell”). The classicist songwriting makes the one-liners sparkle, and it also helps cast at least some of these Highwomen in a new light; no one benefits from this context as much as Morris, who gets to show sides of herself her fine solo albums only hint at. Her “Loose Change” is one of the record’s understated delights, exhibiting a knack for taking plainspoken cliches and assembling them into something surprisingly barbed (“I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny one day/ instead of rolling around in your pocket like loose change.”)

Their embrace of country formalism makes it all the more striking when The Highwomen tweak the formula a bit, and a few songs pull the rug right out from under you. “If She Ever Leaves Me,” sung by Carlile but written by Shires and Isbell with Chris Tompkins, is a classic country infidelity song with a twist: The dude thinks he’s a couple drinks and a well-placed pick-up line away from sweeping a woman off her feet; he’s too dense to know he’s barking up the wrong tree, something the song’s narrator explains with wry understatement (“that’s too much cologne, she likes perfume”). Step back from it and you can hear the song as a meditation on abiding mysteries and multitudes. “No one you can name is just the one thing they have shown,” an old Joe Henry song posits, and The Highwomen bears witness. Just listen to “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” a tender and funny reminder that a woman is more than the sum of her children. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t want to today,” assures a loving but frazzled mom; just the kind of complicated admission for which The Highwomen have created safe harbor. They’re one of the only groups who would speak such things out loud; but they know as well as you do that they’re not alone.

Won’t Ever Have Another Like Me: On the unflappable Jazzmeia Horn

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What does freedom sound like to you? Maybe it sounds something like “Searchin,’” one of several remarkable originals from the singer Jazzmeia Horn. The song begins with a countoff— the brusque snap of fingers, the rolling cadence of Horn’s one, two, one-two…!— and at first blush the sheer speed of it might strike you as a headfake. But she’s not pulling your leg: For just over three minutes, Horn leads her five-piece jazz combo barreling down a swaying highwire, maintaining poise and precision even at breakneck velocity. Clamorous drum fills and the insistent pulse of the upright bass remind you just how close to chaos the whole thing is, but Horn sustains model unflappability; she is clean and clear even as she alternates between crisply-enunciated lyrics and frenzied scatting. It’s singing of such athleticism, an Olympic medal feels just as appropriate as a Grammy; either way, she doesn’t break a sweat.

Not everything on Horn’s exemplary second album, Love and Liberation, is quite so throttling or intense, but much of it seems death-defying somehow; perhaps it has something to do with the unforgivingness of the form itself. Vocal jazz rises and falls by the technical skill and personal charm of the singer, and there’s no studio obfuscation or production jujitsu to temper the high stakes. The jazz singer’s somersaults and calisthenics, her feats of dramatization and interpretation, are done on a bare stage and in broad daylight, and if she stumbles it’s all caught on tape. Yet at a mere 28, Horn doesn’t only master an unyielding format; she finds within it ample space for playfulness and personal expression.

It’s tempting to assume she was born for this, but actually, the singer’s genre bona fides aren’t quite as starcrossed as her name suggests. Horn grew up in the gospel tradition, and her jazz destiny didn’t come knocking until she was in her late teens. An encounter with the Sarah Vaughan songbook sent her deep down the rabbit hole, and like many converts, Horn made up for lost time, immersing herself in the holy writ of singers like Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson. 

On Love and Liberation, she boasts high-level technical proficiency, bringing to fruition all the lessons she learned from those vaunted singers of the past: bright countenance, regal bearing, command over the low embers of the blues as well as the cheerful effervescence of swing. It’s an album that more or less plays by the idiom’s established rules: Largely penned by Horn and recorded in warm, analog allure with her regular band, Love and Liberation sounds like it could have been cut at the Village Vanguard in the late 60s, or released on any jazz imprint in the decades sense. There are no obvious feints toward modernity, no fourth-wall-breaking attempts to redefine what a vocal jazz album can be. Yet within a closed system, Horn asserts her right to rearrange the furniture, slap a new coat of paint on the walls, and claim the whole of it as her domain. She’s a freedom-fighter but not an anarchist, and the record is all the more impressive for how it flourishes in symbiosis with her chosen orthodoxy.

You can hear, for example, how she experiments with acceptable speed limits, not just with the blazing momentum of “Searchin’” but also with the metronome pulse of “Time.” Here, the singer pleads with a jittery paramour to slow his roll and give her some room to breath; Horn delivers her lyrics in soft spoken-word, as though leading zen meditation, and the band relaxes into a steady, clockwork gait. It’s not the album’s only track to suggest poetic recitation as a tool in the jazz singer’s toolbox: In “Only You,” a spoken a capella duet, Horn and her drummer Jamison Ross voice two lovers weaving in and out of sync with each other, their criss-crossing lines of dialogue suggestive that harmony isn’t supposed to look like uniformity. It’s a story of romance as two overlapping truths, and a word-picture of what it means to be both an individual and part of a unit.

Jazz is the mouth of the river here, but several songs follow its tributaries: “No More” slinks and growls, a down-and-dirty blues; “Still Tryin’” hollers like gospel but isn’t afraid to let its lyrics get bawdy. Meanwhile, a cover of “Green Eyes,” from Erykah Badu’s unimpeachable classic Mama’s Gun, loses the old-timey winks in the original and instead dives into straight-ahead jazz balladry, the singer surrendering to cascading piano lines from Victor Gould. These songs suggest the virtue in Horn’s roundabout path to jazz singing; a willingness to approach the form reverently while celebrating its porousness. 

It’s a fitting aesthetic for songs that assert personal autonomy and individuality amidst personal limitations and external constraints. Many of them voice steely, confident women who insist upon love and romance on their own terms; “No man owns me, I belong to God,” Horn declares on “No More,” pledging her autonomy but not forgetting where it came from. The skittering “Out the Window” reclaims the mean ol’ devil woman trope from the Delta blues; you can hear the simpering smile plastered to Horn’s face when she cheerfully announces that, if push comes to shove, she’s perfectly capable of discarding her decorum and civility real quick. In the ribald  yarn “Still Tryin,’” she’s waylaid by a man who’s only interested in one thing; she rebuffs him a few times and ultimately concedes a dance, but it’s pretty clear who’s in control of the situation (“not too fast, now, Johnny/ ‘cause you’re still trying to get in my pants”). The flinty “When I Say,” a preschooler’s power trip, suggests that there are lessons to be learned from kids who know what they want and voice it without inhibition. “You won’t ever have another like me, so I shouldn’t have to beg and plead,” the song goes, an endearing crisscross of pride and petulance.

Amidst these sharp originals there’s just one songbook standard; Horn sings “I Thought of You” to end the album, accompanied only by upright bass, her bubbly scatting as buoyant as a full horn section, her command of molasses drawls and gentle coos as expressive as an orchestra. She sings it because she can; standing on the shoulders of giants, she sounds like nobody but herself.

Big Complication: Taylor Swift learns to trust the process

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“How many days did I spend thinking/ ‘Bout how you did me wrong, wrong, wrong?” asks Taylor Swift at the beginning of her seventh album, Lover. The math, it turns out, isn’t especially flattering. It’s now been two years since she chided a bully for his “little games” and “tilted stage” in a song called “Look What You Made Me Do,” widely perceived to be a diss of Kanye West. And it’s been close to nine years since “Dear John,” a quietly brutal rejoinder to an older paramour (“don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?”), generally assumed to be John Mayer. But Swift’s question is probably a rhetorical one; long notorious for her clapbacks and her kiss-offs, the Swift of Lover sounds like she can scarcely believe the time and bandwidth she’s wasted nursing grievances.

The new album opener, a cheerfully antiseptic groove called “I Forgot That You Existed,” sounds like a hard reset following the cloistered defensiveness of Swift’s previous album, 2017’s complex and combative Reputation. Call it an exercise in charitable indifference; a moment of zen; an example of what Over the Rhine calls “healthy apathy.” “Lived in the shade you were throwing/ till all of my sunshine was gone,” Swift acknowledges, with what might as well be the sound of a stone being rolled away, a wind of goodwill blowing down doors and loosening shutters. The Taylor Swift you hear on Lover seems like she’s just been roused from a deep funk. No wonder she nearly titled this album Daylight.

Swift has become famous for the diaristic candor and emotional precision with which she writes about relationships, so to explain Lover as a study in the various iterations of romance, from the first flush of infatuation to the wreckage of a breakup, may seem nondescript. What’s most disruptive about these songs is the grace Swift extends to partners both current and past; and for that matter, the gentleness with which she handles her own shortcomings. The writer David Dark observes that “to love a person is to love a process,” and that could almost be Lover’s epigraph. “My heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue,” she sings in the title song, twisting the imagery of picture-perfect matrimony into an acknowledgment that we all bring baggage into whatever covenants we enter. “All’s well that ends well to end up with you.” Multiple songs on Lover reference the rolling of dice, and Swift emanates a stoic risk tolerance; all of us are works in progress, these songs suggest, mostly just improvising as we go. Love demands that we take the rough with the smooth; that we be forebearing with one another, and patient with ourselves.

It’s a liberating paradigm shift, and you can hear it in the way this album sounds. Following the chilly, stainless-steel synths of 1989 and the dour monochrome of Reputation, Lover is an album that abounds with bright hues and convivial spirits. The difference seems entirely one of Swift’s countenance: She is once again working with studio architect Jack Antonoff, her closest collaborator since ditching any kind of live-band pretense after the brambly, transitional Red. But where the previous album felt pallid, this one glories in color, detail, and texture. Not since “Love Story” has she written anything as irrepressible as “Paper Rings,” sparkling pop-punk that borrows its sing-along chorus from Grease. In “I Think He Knows,” Swift nurses a secret crush, trying to tamp down her obvious buoyance even as the music stutters and stammers with goofy glee. At 18-songs-in-61 minutes, Lover is generous in its sprawl, and finds time enough for loose ends and experiments: “London Boy,” transatlantic romantic doggerel, is the kind of lark that gives the weightier material some breathing room; “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” a wintry interlude, suggests Swift could have a second career in outsider folk. Of all the albums she’s made in her imperial pop era, this one is the most robust, the most accomplished, and the easiest to love.

You won’t hear its jovial spirit shine any brighter than on “ME!,” the divisive lead single that pairs Swift with Panic! At the Disco singer Brendon Urie. Here she commands the razzle-dazzle fanfare of a full marching band, leading call-and-response chants that invert a laundry list of personal shortcomings (“I know that I’m a handful, baby) into a celebration of individuality (“I’m the only one of me/ baby that’s the fun of me”). Its Mr. Rogers-ready messaging may seem childish, but it’s the kind of childishness that a lot of grown-ups would give anything to recapture, a Rosebud moment happily arriving while the recipient is still in her full vigor. It’s difficult to imagine the song on any previous Taylor Swift album; it’s as though she had to endure some dark years and some growing pains before she found the value in not taking herself too seriously; before she was confident enough to be ridiculous. 

This is the freest she has sounded in a long time, evident not just in the serenity of her lyrics and the vividness of the productions, but perhaps most crucially in the way she sings. That Swift contains multitudes is one of the album’s underlying points, and she literalizes it with a full spectrum of voices. “Cruel Summer” is a hot house of anguished desire, written with the very busy St. Vincent; Swift coos the choruses in operatic falsetto, them delivers the melodramatic punchline in a blood-curdling scream. In “Paper Rings,” she hams it up, channeling her shopworn petulance into defiant joy. And in “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” she croons with the earnestness of a born country singer, which of course she is.

It’s not the only moment on the album that suggests Swift maintains some affinity for country music, though it’s sufficiently convincing in its plainspoken heartache to make you hopeful for a hardscrabble Ashley Monroe cover. There’s also “Soon You’ll Get Better,” equal parts pep talk, intercessory prayer, and whispered confession, delivered by Swift at the bedside of her ailing mother. The Dixie Chicks show up to harmonize, and the song’s acoustic hush becomes another sharp color on Swift’s palette. Earlier in the album she admits that she’s the sum of all her “exes, fights, and flaws,” and you can almost hear these country incursions in similar terms: They are old flames for which she still carries a torch; essential strands in her DNA.

When Swift and Antonoff do return to the gauzy synths of Reputation, it’s with a distinctly different tone. “The Archer,” conjures the same soft ecstacy of Robyn’s Honey, a warm cocoon in which a peacetime Taylor no longer feels the need to explain or defend herself; instead she studies the heavy cost of her prior pugilism. “And I cut off my nose just to spite my face/ Then I hate my reflection for years and years.” It’s a revelation born of trauma; like the freedom you hear in “ME!,” the contrition of “The Archer” sounds like it could only have come through Reputation’s curtain of darkness.

What makes Swift’s humility especially commendable is Lover’s covert thesis: We are what do, and are known by the things we enshrine in our hearts and ratify with our actions. “I wanna be defined by the things that I love,” Swift intones in “Daylight,” the cloud-clearing album closer. The intentional hopefulness of this record is a conscious act of self-construction; a dream of being better by doing better. She makes the point even more explicitly in “False God,” a sax-caressed slow jam that posits embodied love as a mirror of spiritual devotion. “Your religion’s on your lips,” Swift whispers. Our orthodoxy is our orthopraxy.

Swift’s readiness to brave love’s rough and tumble is not naive. She’s written enough breakup songs. She knows covenants between two baggage-burdened people, works in progress, are always going to be fluid situations. Some of the record’s most affecting songs weigh the cost of entanglement with another human being. In “Cornelia Street,” Swift’s haunted by loss before the relationship even begins; “I’d never walk Cornelia Street again,” she vows of a potential rupture, her love so consuming that to lose it would tarnish everything in its orbit. In “Cruel Summer,” she writhes in recognition of an impossible romance: “I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” she croaks. The only promise love makes is that nobody emerges from it unchanged.

How daring is it, then, that two of the album’s key songs employ the language of weddings, suggesting the courage of commitment despite long odds? “I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover,” Swift solemnly swoons in the title song, a candlelit romance that stands tall as one of her indisputable masterpieces. (Worth noting: It’s also a solo writing credit for Swift, her first in a while.) And in “Paper Rings,” she invites her man to jump into the car and race with her to the nearest altar, knowing full well they’ve both got baggage enough to fill the back seat and spill into the trunk. “I want your complications, too,” she assures him. Love is all or nothing; the best any of us can do is learn to trust the process.

Shattered but Strong: Sleater-Kinney dips a toe into chaos

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Maybe it was never if, but when. Almost from the beginning, Sleater-Kinney’s breakneck speed and throttling urgency have portended collapse; in terms both romantic and political, the band has warned us that stability is transient, that sooner or later things always fall apart. In their famous song “One More Hour,” they voice two lovers who’ve long given up on eternity; in a world of impermanence, they’ll settle for a few precious minutes. And throughout the War on Terror-era One Beat, they remind us how quickly the moral calculus can change for a country on the brink of the abyss. The arrival of a new album called The Center Won’t Hold feels less like a warning than a prophecy fulfilled. After so many years of staving off entropy and erasure, there’s a notable shift in Sleater-Kinney’s apocalyptic outlook. Call it acquiescence to the inevitable. “And if the world is ending now/ then let’s dance the bad dance/ we’ve been rehearsing our whole lives,” one song suggests. This is the explosive finale they’ve been preparing us for. Least we can do is hit our marks and remember our cues.

As for what’s setting off their alarm bells, you can probably hazard a guess. The 45th President looms large over the album, even if he’s never mentioned by name; there is nothing here as courageously specific as One Beat’s valiant “Combat Rock,” but also nothing as schlocky as the Trump-baiting songs Corin Tucker wrote with her other band, Filthy Friends. The writing here is more impressionistic in nature, a blur of images and feelings to suggest a loss of social cohesion and a general sense of things coming unmoored. The title song almost sounds like a narcotic update to “Dig Me Out,” but where that earlier anthem wailed for transcendence, “The Center Won’t Hold” lurches toward a quick fix, be it money, drugs, or “something holy,” whichever is closest at hand. And in “The Future is Here,” Tucker summarizes the current state of disorientation: “Never have I felt so goddamn lost and alone.” Call it a wartime prayer. A song of lament.

Sleater-Kinney proves their own point about entropy, allowing a certain level of unpredictability into their creative process. Certainly the album is distinct from the athletic No Cities to Love, in which the world’s most essential punk band ratified their muscularity and terseness after a decade of silence. But if that record consolidated the fundamentals, The Center Won’t Hold scuttles them for spare parts. There are still molten blasts of raucous fury here, but they’re interspersed between icy synth-scapes, heavy-machinery beats, disembodied voices, and guitars that thrum like buzzsaws. It’s their Achtung Baby moment, and in the title song they hurtle headlong into Zoo Station, the creak and clamor of industrial percussion building into a cathartic jolt of three-piece electric mayhem. “RUINS” totters through a haunted house of trip-hop beats and flickering, low-rent static and fuzz. “Bad Dance” sounds like musical theater that’s rusted over, kitsch that’s congealed into something hard and mean. “Reach Out” combines the spiked pop of Cyndi Lauper with echo effects worthy of The Edge. “Dip your toes into the chaos,” one song counsels. Let it never be said that Sleater-Kinney can’t take their own advice.

Assisting in their industrial revolution is producer Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, on hand with plenty of arthouse effects that sound like they could have fit on her own 2017 MASSEDUCTION (merely one of the most gloriously dark, demented pop records of the last decade). Her involvement proved divisive before The Center Won’t Hold was even released, but what’s most striking about the sound of these recordings is how acutely Clark understands what makes this band special. She wrestles their innate queerness into some of the most playful, borderline-campy material in the Sleater-Kinney canon; listen to “Can I Go On,” a frazzled showtune with a New Wave pulse. Elsewhere, she pushes them into some of the extremes of the Sleater-Kinney sound— “Restless” is their best (only?) slow song since “Modern Girl,” and the five-minute “RUINS” is relatively loose and jammy— but even scuffed up with weird sounds, these songs all have their finger on the Sleater-Kinney essence: They’re tightly-coiled and razor-edged; they bristle with tension that never quite abates, no matter how many times they erupt. It’s arguably less revisionist than The Woods, which ransacked the classic rock playbook to turn those taut little Sleater-Kinney songs into widescreen features. This one feels closer in spirit to the band that made Dig Me Out, albeit dressed up in fancy new duds. 

The Center Won’t Hold apprehends the void, but it doesn’t surrender to it. These performances are too hungry, too ferocious to feel like Sleater-Kinney has thrown in the towel; a band that can wrest existential anguish into howling vaudeville (“Bad Dance”) or sweet-and-salty synth-pop (“LOVE”) clearly hasn’t given up on punk’s street-fighting spirit. As critic Alfred Soto notes, Sleater-Kinney has long taken a position of “contempt for ‘centers,’” and maybe that explains the thread of anarchic glee that runs through these raucous recordings: Having seen just how far the monoculture has gotten us, the band isn’t entirely heartbroken to see it implode. 

Still, there’s real darkness. Like Titus Andronicus on An Obelisk, Sleater-Kinney turn the genre’s rabble-rousing inclinations inward, not just lamenting society’s collapse but also the rot of human depravity. “My heart wants the ugliest things,” Tucker sighs on “Restless,” an admission that trouble on the outside usually points to trouble on the inside. And in “RUINS,” she and Carrie Brownstein realize too late that they offered safe harbor to a monster who’s outgrown his cage, and hulks before them now as an unstoppable evil: “You’re a creature of sorrow/ You’re the beast we made/ You scratch at our sadness/ ‘Til we’re broken and frayed.” What these songs suggest is that we’ve nobody to blame but ourselves for the decay we see. The Center Won’t Hold teems with whirlwinds reaped; chickens come home to roost.

The principalities they name here aren’t necessarily political agendas nor even world leaders, but rather the slow creep of dehumanization. That’s certainly the vibe in “Hurry on Home,” a harrowing slice of devious kink. Over the clank and grind of what sound like haywire kitchen appliances, Brownstein sets a grisly domestic scene punctuated with monotonous violence (“you know I’m hair-grabbable, grand-slammable”). In Tucker’s “Reach Out,” salvation is framed both as physical autonomy (“my body is my own again”) and as validation from someone else (“reach out and see me, I’m losing my head”). It’s a song made sweeter, more powerful by its grounding in Sleater-Kinney’s long-standing commitment to indefatigable yet inclusive feminism: They have done the hard work of defining for themselves what a nourishing, empowering community looks like. They’ve never needed it more, and neither have we.

Alas, as critic Carl Wilson notes, even Sleater-Kinney’s skillfully-cultivated feminist utopia is subject to collapse; shortly before the release of The Center Won’t Hold, boon drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band, citing creative differences and casting a shadow over the album’s release. It’s hard now not to think of Sleater-Kinney as another casualty of entropy, but they soldier on. The album ends with “Broken,” the most unswerving piano ballad they’ve ever put on a record. It’s a song of solidarity with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in whose plight Brownstein and Tucker discover new depths of indignation and despair. “I thought I was all grown up right now,” admits Tucker. “But I feel like I’ll never be done.” Maybe we’re never supposed to reach a point where this world’s cruelties make sense; maybe persistent revulsion is a sign of conscience at work. Thank God for Sleater-Kinney, who even in fracture show us what it looks like to feel shattered and still be strong.

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

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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.