Home at Last: Short takes on Natalie Bergman, Dawn Richard

FLOOD Magazine just posted a round-up of the year’s best albums thus far, including a couple of blurbs from yours truly. Both albums I wrote about deal, in some form or fashion, with the concept of home: With Second Line, Dawn Richard refracts her New Orleans upbringing through the prism of individuality. And with Mercy (an impossibly good, utterly beguiling gospel record), Natalie Bergman copes with loss by longing for heaven. Both are worth your time and full attention. And by the way, my own ballot is available here.

Annie Update: Checking in with Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe

At In Review Online, I’ve written short takes on two new projects from the Pistol Annies universe. First, there’s my condensed take on The Marfa Tapes, transporting campfire recordings from Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, and Jon Randall. (The extended version is available here.) And then there’s my investigation of Rosegold, an Ashley Monroe album that qualifies as a bit of a disappointment, though by no means a disaster. (I’ll stan The Blade forever.)

All I Did Was Try My Best: New-and-notables from May and June

SOUR | Olivia Rodrigo

I’m not sure which brings me more pleasure: The thought of so many Enneagram 4 dads using this album to further their post-folklore emotional breakthroughs, or the thought of so many teenagers literally discovering rock and roll through Rodrigo’s snarling pop-punk. (Serious question: When’s the last time guitar-based music lit up the pop charts like this album has?) I think she’s a prodigiously gifted writer, conjuring a rush of emotions with equal parts operatic exaggeration and scalpel precision. She’s funny when she’s being passive-aggressive, funnier when she’s just being aggressive, and devastating in her smart, specific takes on heartache. Not unlike her pal Taylor, Rodrigo captures what it’s like to be young and know everything, cataloging her experiences with bruising finality. Singalong album of the year, though only when my kids aren’t around to soak up the potty mouth.

Hardware | Billy F. Gibbons

With Hardware, the septuagenarian ZZ Top leader has delivered the year’s most irresistible rock and roll record—and, along with The Marfa Tapes, one of its deepest explorations of Texas’ rich musical heritage. Working with a small combo, an endless reserve of guitar tricks , and his own craggy drawl, Gibbons does a lot with a little, offering everything from pulverizing riff rockers to surging power pop, from frenzied surf-rock to spooky spoken-word narration. There’s a vague dirty-old-man-ishness to his lyrics that hinders my enthusiasm just a tad, but any sense of tastelessness is countered by solid jokes (“you’d think I was a highway the way she hit the road”). There’s nothing flashy or hip about it, but boy is it a pleasure. 

Path of Wellness | Sleater-Kinney

There are a few things you won’t hear on the tenth Sleater-Kinney album: The urgency of Dig Me Out. The menacing grandeur of The Woods. The adventurous spirit of The Center Won’t Hold. Janet Weiss. Heck, even Corin Tucker’s glorious banshee wail is notably absent. So what do you get instead? Lots of low end. A reminder that, for as great as they’ve always been with riffs, they’re equally gifted with groove. Eleven songs that seldom rise to the A-level but never drop below a solid B. Proof that a perfectly-fine Sleater-Kinney record would be the envy of most band’s catalogs.

The Off-Season | J. Cole

I tend to admire J. Cole albums for their storytelling prowess, but this time around, I’m taken by the sheer verbal dexterity and old-head rap thrills. Bar for bar, this may be the toughest, fiercest Cole album yet, and his joy on the mic is infectious. His biggest flex? Recruiting young guns like 21 Savage and Lil Baby, bending their gifts to accommodate his more technical, braggadocious style.

Daddy’s Home | St. Vincent

I grew up listening to albums by David Bowie and the New York Dolls, so I have no problem with artists who revel in artifice. The problem with St. Vincent’s latest metamorphosis isn’t that it’s so obviously a costume, but that it’s an unpersuasive one. Her replication of louche 70s rock is impressive but never immersive; it’s the difference between seeing a stage show that really pulls you into its world, versus one where you simply sit back and admire the wigs. That this belabored cosplay is paired with lyrics that are ostensibly about her own family drama (I’m sure some press release has christened this “her most personal album yet”) is neither here nor there. There are some strong songs, and I’d put “My Baby Wants a Baby” on any best-of playlist, but overall this feels like the least essential St. Vincent album.

JORDI | Maroon 5

I actually harbor some affection for the earliest Maroon 5 albums— back when they actually sounded like a band, and when they traded in a blue-eyed soul style that was somewhat distinctive on the pop charts. This year’s model feels as algorithm-driven as anything by Greta Van Fleet, a mashup of current trends, anodyne lyrics, and cloying guest features that lacks anything resembling a point of view. They have become a band that signifies nothing but populist ambition. Okay, okay: The song with Stevie Nicks on it is pretty catchy. 

Leave My Sorrow and Pain: A little rebirth for Allison Russell

The thing that really brought me clarity about Outside Child was learning that Allison Russell began writing it while on tour with Our Native Daughters. You remember Our Native Daughters, right? The group that proclaimed the rightful place of Black women in the unwritten history of banjo music, and put out a terrific album on Smithsonian Folkways that lingered long over the intergenerational bruises of the Atlantic Slave Trade? My favorite song on that album was Russell’s “Quasheba Quasheba,” which recounted the kidnapping and subjugation of an ancestral grandmother, but also celebrated the generations that have flowered in her wake. It’s a song about violence done to Black bodies, but also about how violent cycles can be broken, and even how they can bear redemptive ends that the abuser never imagined.

The songs on Outside Child are about the same things, only here, the violence is fresher, and closer to home. A song called “4th Day Prayer” outlines Russell’s story with a single harrowing couplet: “Father used me like a wife/ Mother turned the blindest eye/ Stole my body, spirit, pride/ He did, he did each night.” That’s about everything you need to know, save that Russell ultimately ran away from her abuser, living as an orphan and a runaway on the streets of Montreal. (“Montreal” is also the first song on the album, a hymn of gratitude to the city’s nurturing benevolence.) And that, though she is only now telling her story in public, Russell has not been idle; Outside Child tells a story that begins in brokenness but moves toward wholeness, chronicling a lifetime’s healing process. Not for nothing is its penultimate song called “Little Rebirth.”

After listening to the album for the first time, I went back to Real Midnight, an album Russell made in 2016 with her husband JT Nero, who together have a great band called Birds of Chicago. I have listened to that album close to a hundred times, I’d bet, finding kinship in its very relatable set of anxieties; like, how can a person ever feel at peace as a parent or a lover or a spouse when there are real wolves at the door, when nothing lasts forever, when things can end at any moment? (“Once she was born, I was never not afraid,” Joan Didion wrote, referencing her daughter Quintana.) I never knew to contextualize Real Midnight’s struggle in the broader story of Russell’s, but knowing it now makes that album sound sharper, somehow; its worries about the world’s capriciousness are not just theoretical, and neither is its sense of optimism. There is more of that on Outside Child. When Russell declares herself the “mother of the Evening Star,” it is a nod to her own daughter; to the end of one cycle and the beginning of something better.

I should get around to saying that Outside Child sounds earthy and pristine. It was recorded over four days in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler, and bolsters its storytelling with a colorful, porous library of roots music influences. (Birds of Chicago fans, take note: There are some very good Alli clarinet solos here, nearly enough for us to compile a definitive listicle. You might also be happy to know that JT plays on every song and sings on one of them, something I didn’t know I needed to hear until I was hearing it.) “Persephone” is nimble country-rock, comforting in its light touch and gentle gait. “4th Day Prayer” conjures a survivor’s swagger through fecund gospel harmonies. “The Runner” is a minor-key banger, celebrating the same rock-and-roll that Russell identifies as her deliverance from despair and purposelessness. When I hear a song called “The Runner,” I can’t help but assume it to be a song about prodigalism… but where the prodigal son in the Bible eventually wanders home, Russell finds home welling up around her. So, more like a Road to Damascus moment; not a song about finding something, but being found.

And this is one of the remarkable things about Outside Child: It is a rare gift of generosity and courage, and the bravery of Russell’s truth-telling lies in how it refuses to diminish either the darkness or the light. The world of Outside Child is one where abusers prowl like bloodthirsty hunters (real wolves, indeed), and Russell’s candor at times warrants a trigger warning. (“‘These are the best years of your life,’” she muses on one song. “If I’d believed it, I’d have died.”) But it’s also a world of benevolent cities, found family, and the redemptive power of music and art; because she is so honest about the darkness, you trust her when she invites you into a “little rebirth,” or drains the toxicity from a long-lodged poison arrow. There are signs of life everywhere, and often in places you wouldn’t think to look. When I’m listening to an album concerned with sexual abuse and see a title that reads “All of the Women,” my heart sinks; it’s about just what you think it’s about, and it’s a tough one, yet there is something amazing and beautiful in the way Russell finds room in her own story to advocate for others who’ve born abuse.

A few years ago, I was in the audience for a little Q&A session that Russell and Nero gave as part of Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival. I don’t remember the query that prompted it, but at one point Russell admitted to feeling self-conscious about her voice when she was a child, its slight rasp leading some to wonder if she’d come down with something. I’ve thought about that a lot while listening to Outside Child, an album where she never sounds less than confident, and where she renders something lovely from a traumatic history. I think about it when I play “Nightflyer,” a bold reclamation of the self. (It’s sort of her version of the Dylan song “I Contain Multitudes.”) I think about it when I play the cathartic album-ending “Joyful Motherfuckers,” where Russell speaks a word of blessing so surprising and powerful that I immediately began sobbing the first time I heard it, and also let out a string of gobsmacked swear words. And I think about it, and Quasheba, and whether art can really transform pain into something beautiful and redemptive, when I play “4th Day Prayer,” which features this nursery rhyme chorus: “One for the hate that loops and loops/ Two for the poison at the roots/ Three for the children breaking through/ Four for the day we’re standing in the sun.” I think what she’s singing about here is breaking patterns of violence; how it’s a process, potentially one that spans generation, but how it’s possible to achieve wholeness for ourselves and our children and the people who will call us ancestors. And based on all available evidence, I believe her.

Counting Bodies: Sons of Kemet get moving

At FLOOD, I wrote about the tremendous new Sons of Kemet record, Black to the Future.

An excerpt: “… though the undertow of Black to the Future is curdled indignation, let it be said that while the music is thrillingly visceral, it’s never violent. Rather than impose suffering on the listener, this music channels suffering into music of coursing momentum, vibrant interplay, and hip-shaking groove. Shorthanding it as a jazz record feels inevitable, and isn’t wrong, but don’t miss out on just how eclectic the album is in its sense of motion. It occasionally moves like bop, but just as often moves like dub, like hip-hop, like calypso, like highlife. Say, have you heard that this is a dance record?”

Time & Again: Rhiannon Giddens and Taylor Swift make old songs new

At In Review, I’ve written about a couple of albums that feature new versions of older songs. There’s They’re Calling Me Home, new from Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, which uses ancient tunes about death and isolation to help us assess the current moment. (It’s very much a sister album to there is no Other, and nearly as good.) And then there’s Taylor Swift‘s meticulously recreated version of Fearless, which casts songs of innocence as songs of experience, and is pretty close to un-reviewable.

‘Til The Lone Star Light of Day: The simple pleasures of The Marfa Tapes

If I had to live forever with just one “Solitude,” I’d probably pick the one on The Popular Duke Ellington. And if forced to choose a favorite “Amazing Grace,” I reckon it would have to be Aretha’s. But proverbial desert islands notwithstanding, I’m not sure I believe in quote-unquote definitive versions of songs, and I’m not sure that Miranda Lambert does either. On The Marfa Tapes—a reel of non-produced campfire recordings made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall— she sings “Tin Man,” just as she’s probably done at every concert since the song first appeared on The Weight of These Wings. The version here is not radically different from the original, but it does have a slight variance in tone, a casualness that comes with familiarity. She’s not reading it into the public record so much as she’s settling into familiar contours, reacquainting herself with what must seem like a lifetime of memories. At the end of the song, she complains that one of her strings was buzzing, but her pals aren’t here for any self-effacing bullshit. “That was your brain buzzing,” one of them says.

All 15 songs on The Marfa Tapes have a similar looseness. On Wildcard’s “Tequila Does,” the only other familiar tune here, Lambert briefly forgets the words, eliciting giggles. In “Geraldine,” she makes what seems like an impromptu decision to imitate the stutter and skip of a vinyl record (“G-g-Geraldine! Geraldine!”); there is more laughter, and a spontaneous uptick in the song’s bristling energy. Harmony parts sound like they are being worked out in real time. Nearly every song is bookended by jokes, encouragements, or general expressions of enthusiasm from the three performers (the word “fun” comes up a lot), and you can also hear the wind blowing over the microphone, the rustling of trees, the hollow thump of guitars and other gear. This ambiance is crucial to the vibe, creating a connective tissue of warmth and camaraderie that stitches these ragged performances together. Meanwhile, not a single one of these performances sounds like it’s meant to be the definitive take, nor like there is even any interest in achieving a definitive take; The Marfa Tapes is nothing if not a celebration of performance, the way the right song at the right time and in the right company can spark irreplaceable joy. These songs aren’t being immortalized, but savored; not embalmed, but discovered. 

They are all thrillingly low-key, single-take, bare-bones renditions, performed by just the three musicians under the starlight of Marfa, Texas. (Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky describes the album as “somewhere between a demo collection, a live album with no audience, and a lo-fi left turn.”) And if none of the songs sound authoritative, they all sound pretty perfect in their own shaggy way. For most listeners, the standouts will be the big, sad ones: “In His Arms” dreams of the one who got away, while “Waxahachie” traces a post-breakup trail of tears. I’m just as fond of the lighter ones: “Two-Step Down to Texas” suggests that Ingram and Randall share Lambert’s affinity for “old sh!t,” while “We’ll Always Have the Blues” is a breezy shuffle, complete with some rough whistling. Country pros that they are, all three songwriters have a knack for melancholy, chronicling heartache with precision, detail, and economy. (Random line: “I don’t wear my ring no more/ kids and time will learn to love us both.”) But even the saddest songs are played with a palpable sense of joy; they revel in the pleasure of sharing music together, if only for a moment, if just for a night.

It Ain’t Wrong for You to Play Along: Jon Batiste’s coming-of-age blockbuster

Jon Batiste has referred to WE ARE as a culmination, a bold claim for someone whose career has already proven so fruitful and unpredictable; in addition to his tenure with Stephen Colbert and his venerated association with Pixar, a quick scan of Spotify reveals 10 projects credited to his name, including the handsome, T-Bone Burnett-produced Hollywood Africans and a pair of live jazz recordings from 2019. But even a cursory listen to WE ARE proves that he is telling the truth. The album proceeds with a  purposefulness, confidence, and vision that suggest Batiste has effectively been apprenticing, honing skills that he’s only now summoning into the service of a fully-formed statement. Elsewhere, Batiste has christened WE ARE a “Black pop masterpiece,” another comment requiring some contextualization. It’s not a statement of hubris nor even an assessment of the album’s quality so much as a simple acknowledgement that he’s drawing from some particularly deep wells, synthesizing a variety of traditions into something that feels modern, lively, and accessible. This is one of those albums that sounds like it’s in dialogue with the ancestors, bringing history to bear on the concerns of the present. Indeed, Batiste recorded much of the album in quarantine, and wrote some of the material following a series of jazz marches and peaceful protests against the continued violence against Black bodies; it is a document of the George Floyd summer but also a reminder of all the historical ghosts we’ve yet to really reckon with. Conveying urgency in its sound and its steady momentum, WE ARE attests to its gestation in a pressure cooker… but it meets the moment with a graceful poise, a hopeful heart, and irrepressible joy. It’s hard to overstate the confident bearing of this record; its clarity of mission.

Loosely sequenced as a kind of bildungsroman, WE ARE posits Batiste’s coming-of-age in New Orleans as a model for collective awakening and engagement. The album journeys through blues, early rock and roll, R&B, and Black church music, with connective tissue provided by Batiste’s Soul-ish piano interstitials and grainy field recordings from his hometown. To list every Curtis Mayfield-styled string arrangement or diamond-cut James Brown groove might give the wrong impression— this is a work of synthesis and evolution, not pastiche— though it is at least worth mentioning how much the structure of the album resembles the imaginative, socially-conscious pop records of Stevie Wonder’s golden age. A student of history but by no means a stodgy traditionalist, Batiste understands you can’t celebrate Black music (nor the music of the South) without acknowledging hip-hop, which he does with surprisingly persuasive trap beats on the muggy, hometown-repping “BOYHOOD.” That he proves himself a nimble rapper is no surprise given how much this album celebrates Black voices, literally and figuratively: You’ll hear Batiste the hype man, the husky soul belter, and the smooth-talking loverman, plus the beaming voice of Mavis Staples as the oracle of ancestral wisdom. Indeed, one of the triumphs of the album is how much it signifies through pure sound. “CRY” gets around to acknowledging the plight of migrants and immigrants, but the lyrics are almost unnecessary; everything from its form to its solemn gait attests to an unspoken history of lament, in much the same way that “WE ARE” carries so much culture and context in its crisp marching band rumble. These sounds articulate above and beyond written language.

In fact, Batiste’s lyrics are the only component of the album that ever feel anything less than sure-footed, mostly when his efforts to balance autobiography with universality coalesce into generalization. “SHOW ME THE WAY” has a sweet premise— the singer is inviting a woman home with him for the chaste yet intimate act of spinning some records together—  but Batiste’s laundry list of luminaries, including the Beatles and the Stones, skews a little too generic. (A reference to jazz flutist Hubert Laws is the one really fascinating insight into Batiste’s own stacks of wax.) He sounds much more confident in “BOYHOOD,” where even his references to the most touristy of New Orleans haunts are delivered with hometown pride and familiarity. And maybe in the end, Batiste’s attempts to make WE ARE as broad as possible are part of its point, and key to its charm. Listening to the album over and over again, I thought a few times of Prince, another Black music polymath who gave the impression he could do anything, and whose superhumanity was often in service of weirdness, cheerful transgression, and kink. By contrast, Batiste’s vibe is wholesomeness. (“ADULTHOOD” reminds us all to go to church on Sunday; “BOYHOOD” features a fatherly voice declaring that he’s proud, just in case any listener needs to hear it.) When he creates loose-limbed, hip-shaking funk, as he does on “FREEDOM,” it’s not narrowly erotic so much as it’s broadly affirming of Black dignity, and suggestive of an entire range of human experience. When he sings “I just need you,” which he does on the inhibition-slaying “I NEED YOU,” he could be addressing anyone, but he is definitely addressing you, the listener. WE ARE is doggedly inspirational and clearly quite serious in its premise of unity, forward motion, and hope. And because it’s also clear-eyed in its lament, that premise feels credible. This album is good enough to make true believers out of just about anyone.

In Dreams: A breakthrough for Valerie June

A Valerie June fan of many years, I can say without hyperbole that The Moon and Stars is the kind of album I always dreamed she would make. I wrote about it for In Review. A teaser: “The Moon and Stars is arresting in its confidence and vision, pure bravado in the way June draws from folk forms but then bursts them at the seams with sound, imagination, and color.”