When We Need a Battle Cry: New album releases from Whitney Rose, Jason Isbell, Hayley Williams

whitney rose we still go to rodeos review

Album of the Month

We Still Go to Rodeos | Whitney Rose

If you’re really lucky, you’ll hear a country-rock album this good, this graceful, this unerring maybe once every five years or so. Whitney Rose’s great sleight-of-hand trick, now well-practiced over a series of fine albums extending back to 2012, is in making everything she does sound effortless, but the rarified company her albums keep proves just how much work it takes, how much craft and consideration are required for music that never sounds like it’s breaking a sweat. You can give a little bit of the credit to producer Paul Kolderie, who’s helmed albums for Radiohead and Uncle Tupelo and Belly, and who situates Rose’s soft-touch songs in well-worn textures and loose, live-band chemistry. His patient, unflashy approach is just right for material that generally maintains a steady simmer; a few songs accelerate into a cheerful gallop, but even the ostensible rockers are more about seduction than raw force. “I’d Rather Be Alone” soars high above the heartland, like a Tom Petty tune if the Heartbreakers had had a banjo player. “You’d Blame Me for the Rain,” the album’s slow blues workout, goes down smooth and slinky. Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine says “Better Man,” a rowdy roadhouse jam, sounds like Carlene Carter fronting Rockpile, and he’s right. But give most of the credit to Rose, whose instincts as a singer and songwriter are unfaltering here; she’s capable of scaling all the big notes but mostly sticks to a conversational tone, so when she does belt it out, the impact is visceral. (“And I don’t know if you can… BE A BETTER MAN!”) She’s similarly sure-footed in her songwriting, which leans on classic country structures without ever sounding self-consciously retro or tropey. In “Believe Me, Angela” she plays the wife of a scoundrel, addressing the other woman with both icy indignation and maternal warmth (“just run away while you still can”); her easeful demeanor is what sells it. “In a Rut” sweetens its desperation with a cheerful juke joint boogie, finding glimmers of grace in dancing in place. “Through the Cracks” builds convincing domestic melodrama through the pileup of casual details. (“After all the times we talked about it, would you believe I finally got a king-size bed?”) The album ends with the sly, shuffling title track, a bit of soft-shoe that eschews wealth and extravagance for modesty and contentment. Rose delivers the song as a subject-matter expert: She knows more than most about small but sustaining pleasures.

Must Hears

Reunions | Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Sobriety was the subject matter of Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough, and it’s been the prevailing attitude of every album he’s made since. Characteristically earnest, Reunions verifies that one of the defining traits of Isbell’s songwriting is his distrust of contentment; no one is better at plucking anxiety from scenes of serenity. Opener “What’ve I Done to Help” acknowledges the beautiful life he’s made with his family but worries it’s pushed him out of touch with those less fortunate. The narrator in “Overseas” remembers waking up beside his bride the morning after their wedding; she “looked scared as hell,” he recalls. And “Dreamsicle,” where childhood memories are clouded by domestic upheaval, is a reminder of just how quickly the rug can be pulled out from under us, serendipitous messaging in the quarantine era. Such anxieties accumulate on Reunions, and Isbell keeps a pretty tight lid on them; the first half of the album is particularly pensive, offering release through Isbell’s blistering lead guitar on “Overseas” but mostly sticking to the moody, textured playing of The 400 Unit, never more painterly than they are here. They get to flex their rock and roll muscle in the album’s back half; “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier” are bracing jolts of energy, the former a carefully-controlled eruption, the second loose and swaggering. Even better are “Letting You Go,” straightforward country storytelling in the vein of Willie Nelson or Billy Joe Shaver, and “River,” where Isbell’s demons are sent scurrying by Amanda Shires’ graceful fiddle accents. Consistently ruminative, Reunions never confuses self-examination for self-pity, which may be Isbell’s greatest gift of all; he leans toward empathy and connection, giving a loved one space to grieve on the gentle “St. Peter’s Autograph,” advising recovering addicts to be patient with themselves on “It Gets Easier.” Here’s hoping he takes his own advice; Isbell’s hard on himself, but the truth is, songs like these help plenty.

Petals for Armor | Hayley Williams

Petals for Armor is the first solo record from Paramore’s Hayley Williams, a distinction that may seem dubious based on a cursory review of the album credits; her former bandmates show up all over this thing, including long-time Paramore member Taylor York, credited here as the sole producer. The lyrics quickly dispel any notion that this could be a rebranded version of Williams’ day job. This is the kind of album publicists like to call “deeply personal,” which is to say starkly confessional, unguarded, explicitly autobiographical. Williams’ songwriting is littered with references to abuse, depression, and divorce, and follows winding trajectories of breakdown, breakthrough, and self-care; if they hand out awards for emotional articulation then Williams should probably win one, though she may need to split the prize money with her therapist, who’s obviously very good. The imagery in the album title shows up in a few songs, positing vulnerability as a kind of protective shield (“wrap yourself in petals,” Williams advises), and if the idea of vulnerability-as-strength is a familiar one, Williams articulates it with convincing specificity; check out “Cinamon,” about decorating a new home following a break-up, creating physical space for solitude, femininity, and comfort. Grounding her songs in such a concrete personal narrative allows Williams to deploy cliches in a context that feels meaningful (“I beat it like a dead horse, I beat it like a drum,” she sings in one song about escaping a toxic relationship.) And, it lets her retain some earthiness in even her most florid conceits; “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” uses a horticultural metaphor to outline a history of female trauma, and it feels anything but theoretical or academic. The emotional rawness lends an edge to what is basically an adult contemporary album, full of polished production, big melodies, and medium tempos. Its formal constraint is occasionally a drawback— some songs feel like they should be a bit more fast and frantic, others slower and more agonizing— but it also makes Williams’ textural experiments more impressive; “Over Yet” has a melancholy core and a confectionary chorus, not unlike Robyn’s sadsack glitter bombs, while “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” has a fog of voices provided by the boygenius trio. Naturally, the songs with live-band muscle and jostling rhythms are the ones that sound most like Paramore. But who can imagine Williams’ regular gig churning out the clattering low end of “Watch Me While I Bloom,” which invites us to behold a woman in full blossom— vulnerability and all?

Good Souls, Better Angels | Lucinda Williams

Famous for her ability to conjure a strong sense of place, Lucinda Williams fills her best songs with scene-setting, concrete nouns: Lake Charles and John Coltrane; a house in Macon, folks in Jackson. Her new album, the quote-unquote political Good Souls, Better Angels, is big on feelings but light on naming particular people, places, and things, unless you want to count the Devil, who jumps and slinks through a couple of these songs. You won’t need a name drop to determine the subject of “Man Without a Soul,” an unsparing takedown of a greedy wannabe despot whose heart is full of murder and hate. Lacking the specificity to be insightful and the mystique to be her “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the song lands a little bit like your Boomer relative’s latest Facebook screed. But if Williams’ writing is sometimes a little cruder than it used to be, that’s generally the right choice for describing the simultaneous numbness and shock of life in the current phase of American decline. The songs on Good Souls, Better Angels locate an open vein of righteous anger, weary lament, and trembling fear. The wisest ones position our current situation in cosmological terms: “Big Black Train” is a haunted death rattle, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” a good old-fashioned exorcism. These aren’t just Trump roasts; they are epistles from the oppressive domain of sin and decay. And they are all the better for their live-wire energy, which splice blues structures with the muscle and the mayhem of a four-piece garage band. A clutch of howling punk-blues songs toward the end of the record (“Bone of Contention” through “Big Rotator”) sound especially good, as scuzzy and unmannered as anything Williams has recorded in years. Say this about the album: On its strongest songs, it’s riveting. And on its weakest, at least the guitars are turned all the way up.

Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase? | The Soft Pink Truth

Turns out Lucinda Williams isn’t the only one who’s dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Matmos founder Drew Daniel wanted to make an album in response to the ugliness and wanton cruelty of the age, but he was resistant to the idea of making “angry white guy” music— and God bless him for it. So he revived his Soft Pink Truth banner, roped in some game collaborators, and created a seamless suite of music that gets its title from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans; it’s a sparkling blend of low-key jazz, ambient warmth, and cathartic house music that posits gentleness and wonder as answers to rancor and despair. The mostly-instrumental set never rages, but what it does do is glitter, swirl, and turn your quarantine domicile into a temporary cathedral. You might say the looping piano figures are minimal, but the twinkling bells and wordless voices are deployed as generous acts of sensual pleasure; this is a music of restraint and a music of abundance. Recommended for anyone who believes beauty will save the world, or thinks they could ever be persuaded. 

Mutable Set | Blake Mills

As a producer and session player, Blake Mills has worked with everyone from Alabama Shakes to Fiona Apple. He’s also a guitar virtuoso, something you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on while listening to his latest and most accomplished solo album. It’s not that his playing here is suboptimal so much as it’s just beside the point; instead, Mutable Set uses gentle strumming, chilly keyboard tones, and cavernous studio space to conjure a spooky after-hours reverie. The album’s ominous ambience is so effective, its simplicity so deftly deployed, that the echoing thump of a kickdrum on “My Dear One” sounds as frightening as a Bernard Herrman score. But the best special effect of all is Mills’ voice, which never rises above a whisper. Every song is delivered as an illicit secret, and none are more transgressive than “Money is the One True God,” a sinner’s prayer offered to mammon itself, and a prophetic word worthy of Screwtape.

Seasonal Selections

Introducing Wayne Shorter (1959) | Wayne Shorter

RIP drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played on Kind of Blue, the greatest of jazz albums. “When people decide to start listening to jazz today, one of the first people they hear is Jimmy Cobb, floating,” writes Natalie Weiner. You can also hear him on Wayne Shorter’s first album as a leader, released the same year as Miles Davis’ masterwork, and benefitting from the same rhythmic understatement and grace.

The Source (2017) | Tony Allen

Tony Allen will rightly be remembered for his innovations with Fela Kuti, but don’t sleep on his fine jazz albums, including this outstanding release on the Blue Note label; it bends fire and funk to Allen’s righteous purposes, and remakes the history of hard bop in his own image.

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

fiona apple fetch the bolt cutters

It’s time for a change.

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

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

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

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

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

Album of the Month

Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple

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

Must Hears

Song for Our Daughter | Laura Marling

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

Southside | Sam Hunt

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

Heaven to a Tortured Mind | Yves Tumor

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

Future Nostalgia | Dua Lipa

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

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

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

Welcome Surprise

Gigaton | Pearl Jam

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

Seasonal Selections

Motion | Lee Konitz (1961)

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

Out of the Afternoon | Roy Haynes Quarter (1962)

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

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

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

Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission (1999)

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

Felis Catus & Silence | Leo Takami (2020)

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

Peaceful Waters: Leo Takami’s evolutionary ambiance

felis catus and silence review

You are familiar, no doubt, with the nerdiest icebreaker in the book: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one album with you, which one would you choose? The grim tidings of Spring 2020 offer a variant question that’s much less appealing, and far less hypothetical: Suppose you were hunkering down to ride out an unprecedented global pandemic, and had to pick an album to accompany you in quarantine… well? Leo Takami, a guitarist and composer from Tokyo, provides a credible last-minute answer. His Felis Catus & Silence was released on the Unseen Worlds label just as coronavirus brought its spread of decay to American shores. The music is beguiling and beautiful for its own sake, and seems to offer everything the socially-distanced might need right now: It’s quiet enough to drown out the terrors of the outside world. It’s placid enough to reset the pulse and cleanse the mind. It’s almost decadent in its loveliness, unblinking in its modest rebellion against a season of death and despair. And it’s borderless enough that, if your bunker is wired for Spotify, you’ll be pointed down plenty of tributaries worthy of further exploration. 

Takami’s compositions— there are seven of them here, ranging from two-and-a-half to nine minutes— are so delicate in their feel, so elegant in their structure, so unhurried in their pace that you might almost miss how evolutionary they are. It’s evident from the disinfectant cheer of the opening keyboard tones and muted marimbas that Takami is rooted in New Age ambience and Japanese environmental music, idioms noted for their minimalism. And yet the great paradox of Felis Catus is how the music is at once so streamlined and so generous, spring-loaded with fairy dust and wind chimes and babbling brooks and other sensual pleasures, each one its own tiny sanctuary. Minimalism is all about acknowledging negative space, but Takami’s music unfolds with a real sense of abundance, string sections and choral effects magnanimously extended like presents on Christmas morning. That generosity is never more evident than on “Unknown,” the record’s deepest discursion into jazz guitar, where Takami lets loose a geyser of round, clean notes that place him in a lineage with Charlie Christian, Jim Hall, and Pat Metheny. It’s as if he is dead-set on giving you as much jubilance as he can fit in before the song winds down And what about the record’s spiritual kinship with bossa nova? Just listen to the insinuating pulse of “Garden of Light,” its cool, tactile breeze, its subterranean melancholy. The governing concept here is gagaku, a Japanese folk form known for its courtly melodies. It’s the well Takami drinks from as he shapes his subtly progressive music into narratives of fluid grace and unified purpose.

Felis Catus leans toward the pastoral, even the idyllic, but that’s not to say it exists at a complete remove from this world’s rot and corrosion. Takami has expressed an interest in cycles of life and death, which you can hear in almost every song here; midway through the title cut, the floor seems to disappear right out from under it, and for a few moments there’s roaring silence before Takami’s idyll is rebuilt. “Children on Their Birthdays” promises merriment in its title but delivers something considerably more depressive in its melancholy piano notes; think of those scenes in Pixar’s Inside Out where colorful childhood memories fade into adulthood’s doleful shades of grey. The best moment on the album comes in its last song, “Quiet Waters,” an endless cool river that dips, just for a moment, into a brooding apparition. For a season the quiet waters sound troubled, but by album’s end they’re once again flowing in peace and tranquility. It’s oddly provocative. Who dares to believe, in times like these, that trouble might be fleeting? That any beautiful thing could ever carry on?

All I Know is I Loved You: Brandy Clark and the search for story

brandy clark your life is a record review

Brandy Clark’s characters are the heroes in their own stories— and most of them seem to know it. In an older song called “Soap Opera,” Clark cast the everyday affections and indiscretions of small-town America as a serialized daytime drama, each of the locals quite confident that theirs is the starring role. Her new album is called Your Life is a Record, its very title suggesting a similar conceit: “If your life is a record/ people and places are the songs.” Love and loss don’t always present clean narratives, but Clark’s characters turn again and again to familiar structures and storytelling beats, seeking to impose some order and make some sense of life’s mess and sprawl.

With Your Life is a Record, the mess Clark’s trying to make sense of is a break-up. She wrote the album following the end of a longtime relationship, something she acknowledges right from the jump. Wistful opener “I’ll Be the Sad Song” interpets joys and sorrows through the sequencing of classic vinyl; “they’ll all make sense when they’re together,” Clark says, because every devotee of the album format knows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Addressing her ex, Clark mines grace notes from a relationship that ended in disappointment: “I’ll be your sad song/ your ‘good love gone bad’ song/ the part of your heart that’s bittersweet.” 

Not everything on Your Life is a Record is as intensely vulnerable, but even its moments of broad comedy benefit from Clark’s thoughtful deployment of familiar tropes and storytelling structures. Take the movie-quoting “Bigger Boat,” which uses Jaws allusions and a riotous Randy Newman cameo to advocate unity in an era of political fracture: “We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic, but we think it’s the Ark.” It’s only a notch or two subtler than Newman’s classic “Political Science,” but in an era of learned deafness there may be no recourse but the megaphone. 

Newman’s gleeful cynicism is a welcome treat, but his presence on the album also feels symbolic: On Your Life is a Record, Clark dramatizes her sharp songwriting and chiseled short stories with thoughtful orchestrations for strings and brass, grounding the album not just in the countrypolitan lushness of Bobbie Gentry records but also in the orchestral sophistication of Newman classics like Good Old Boys and Sail Away. Produced with warmth by Jay Joyce (Miranda Lambert, Eric Church), Your Life is a Record is as burnished and evocative as a watercolor landscape; horns swell and trill in boisterous swagger on the casually profane “Who Broke Whose Heart,” but more often they are hushed and romantic, whether in the glowing embers of “Love is a Fire” or the mournful billow of “Apologies.”

The buried lede here is that Brandy Clark has now made a trilogy of albums that are consistent in their clear-eyed, observational songwriting, but distinct from one another in their overall aesthetic: 12 Stories is stripped-down outlaw country, Big Day in a Small Town a pristinely polished bid for the mainstream, Your Life is a Record a canny update of those emotionally nuanced singer-songwriter mainstays to which Clark now turns for solace. These albums work together as companion pieces, attesting to the singularity of her songwriting talent and the breadth of her vision: Each one is undeniably a Brandy Clark album. Each one sounds markedly different from the other two. And each one is excellent. You’d no sooner part with one than you’d toss out a piece from your matching dining room furniture set.

The throughlines are Clark’s affinity for detail and her sense of the high stakes of seemingly trivial moments; you’ll hear both of those things in “Pawn Shop,” one of the peaks of the new album, where a divorced woman and a failed musician both head to the secondhand store (and not just any store, but the one on Charlotte Avenue) to hawk their wedding ring and beat-up guitar— items that once instilled great hope. (“It ain’t stolen, it ain’t hot/ someone told me it cost a lot/ Man, ain’t that the truth.”) There’s also “Bad Car,” where the Check Engine light is as certain as death and taxes, but a mom holds tight to her clunker because of all the good times and bad times it’s carried her through (including the first time her kid ever said a cuss word). Such intimate moments provide grounding for a song like “Long Walk” (as in, “off a real short pier”), where Clark tells off a middle-aged mean girl with bars that would make any battle rapper envious: “Well I’d give you grace but whey even bother/ ‘Cause after all, you can walk on water.”

Clark’s levity is a healthy diversion from the album’s more reflective core, which turns again and again to its romantic postmortem. “Who You Thought I Was” feels like the album’s fulcrum, testifying to how the stories we tell about ourselves can ebb and change and eventually evaporate altogether. When she was young, Clark confesses, she wanted to be a cowboy, a circus performer, the next Elvis Presley; with time she wanted only to be someone worthy of love and devotion. It’s a sweet sentiment, and the brutal set-up for the album’s most gutting twist of the knife: “There’s a lot of things I used to want to be/ til you stopped loving me.” When our narratives so easily go up in smoke, it makes you wonder how useful they really were to begin with. Maybe that’s the point of “Who Broke Whose Heart,” where there are a lot of possible reasons why good love went bad (“was it you were never good enough for my dad/ and I could never live up to your mom?”), and ultimately none of them really seem to matter: “All I know is I loved you/ so fuck the rest.” Sometimes there’s no story you can tell yourself to help things make sense; and yet Brandy Clark’s proven once again that it’s a worthy pursuit just the same.

Let it Break You: The Lone Bellow lay their burdens down

half moon light

One of the central implications of Christian faith and practice is that death doesn’t have the final word. In “The Eastern Gate,” a traditional Christian hymn, believers look forward to the joyful reunions that await them on the other side of the curtain— reunions with Christ, reunions with saints who’ve already crossed over into glory. An instrumental version of this hymn winds like a river through The Lone Bellow’s Half Moon Light, snippets of it appearing as a brief introduction, an album-bisecting interlude, and then as a quiet coda. It threads its way through songs about death, loss, and sorrow, bearing quiet witness; encircling these tenderhearted songs in otherworldly hope, watering them with God’s kindness. 

There is enough heaviness on Half Moon Light to fuel several forlorn singer-songwriter records, not to mention their accompanying press cycles. Two members of the core trio lost grandparents while this album was gestating, and one checked into substance abuse rehab. Oh, and have you turned on the news lately? It seems sometimes like nothing lasts forever, except “The Eastern Gate” wonders if maybe some things do. Perhaps its presence here is to bookend these temporal murmurs with glimpses at the eternal. It’s also worth noting that these instrumental snippets were played by singer/songwriter Zach Williams’ grandmother, at her own husband’s funeral. So maybe their inclusion here is to remind us that pain and loss are what thread us together as people, families, communities. We weather grief, we long for all manner of things to be made well, we do it together. May the circle be unbroken.

Befitting its somber subject matter, Half Moon Light is a quiet record, notably lighter on actual bellowing than any previous Lone Bellow release; Williams mostly sticks to a lower register of whispers and croons, a deep well of understated charisma. The Brooklyn group can still dole out cathedral-ceilinged eruptions of U2-style catharsis, as they do in the volcanic “Count On Me,” but much of Half Moon Light is twilit and slow-burning; there is something of a Cowboy Junkies/Trinity Sessions shimmer to it all, a similar midnight allure. The album was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, whose work is textured but also warm, approachable, consoling. Many songs are built from acoustic guitars, pianos, and loops of wordless vocal harmony; some also have spritely horns and careening drums. The band members themselves (Williams, Kanene Pipkin, Brian Elmquist) soften their folksy austerity with soft-rock hooks and easeful melodies; imagine them as the small-batch, artisanal alternative to Little Big Town’s mainstream populism, both groups approaching acoustic roots music by way of Fleetwood Mac succor. Within the album’s after-hours glow, there exists a wide spectrum of moods: “Good Times” strikes up the horn section and leans into rowdiness, “Just Enough to Get By” is a salty blues. “Enemies” comes on soft as a whisper, and “Wonder” has the gentle sway of a campfire rag.

These songs investigate different ways of coping with grief, though they never wallow in it. Along with recent albums like Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation and Elbow’s Giants of All Sizes, Half Moon Light is fundamentally concerned with processing, and it balances the heaviness of its witness-bearing against moments of light and grace. And so you have a song like “Count on Me,” where tribulation is the refiner’s fire (“let it break you/ let it help you lay down what you held on to”) and friendship is more valuable than silver and gold (“you can count on me if I can count on you”). And “Just Enough to Get By,” where Kanene Pipkin grits her teeth and voices feminine stoicism through mirthless jokes (“if silence is golden/ I know a lot of wealthy women”). You also have “Good Times,” which spins tall tales as a way to rhapsodize life lived in its fullness; it’s a song written for a season of mourning, reminding us that there’s also a season for revelry (“let no good time slip away”). Though the world of Half Moon Light is darkened by death and decay, rumors of glory are whispered along its periphery; in “Wonder,” Williams surrenders the hopelessness he’s harborded in his heart (“take the sorrow and the poison, I dreamt that I might need”). If despair is bondage, this song is a dream of freedom. The wispy, featherweight “Martingales” is even more direct in its prescriptive advice: “If yesterday’s too heavy, put it down.”

Half Moon Light is introspective, but that’s not to say that it’s insular. In “Illegal Immigrant,” which combines “Where the Streets Have No Name” atmospherics with dusty harmonica, Piper voices a mother’s quiet promise to find the child from whom she was taken; its a gentle witness to our evil days of border separations, and also to the more universal feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. But the record’s deepest well of compassion comes in “August,” a bleary-eyed gospel song written for the late Scott Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit. He was a friend of the Lone Bellow crew, and the song wrestles to make sense of his shocking death: “Woke up and my mouth was dry/ Gotta get to the bottom of this.” It’s a song laid bare by grief, its only consolation the thin promise that “there is love all around you.” All that’s left after that is the sound of a piano playing an old Christian hymn; sorrow and hope, echoing through time.

To Love the Mystery: The Innocence Mission’s bigger things unseen

See You Tomorrow

See You Tomorrow, the twelfth album from The Innocence Mission, opens with a song called “The Brothers Williams Said,” which captures one of the ultimate introvert dilemas: When your nature is to be shy and reserved, how do you convey your love and affection to the people around you? The song’s protagonist moves quietly through life offering small gestures of warmth and charity; a smile on the streets, a friendly wave to passersby. Such grace notes are lost on the fellows who give the song its title (“The Brothers Williams said/ you don’t ever talk”), but they are not lost on the narrator, who speaks words of encouragement and gratitude: “The kindness of your face/ does not go unrecognized/ has not refused to shine/ in this most difficult time.”

This is about as Innocence Mission-y as a song can get. They have arguably never written anything more on-brand, except perhaps for deep cut “When Mac Was Swimming,” about a little boy lost at play, unaware of the loved ones scurrying about to make his birthday celebration special. Songs like these speak to what makes The Innocence Mission one of the most irreplaceable of bands: There are few songwriters who would be as sensitive in capturing the shy person’s plight. And there are none who have amassed such a treasure trove of songs that find holy wonder and simple beauty in everyday acts of connection. If The Innocence Mission was special for no other reason, they would be special for their recurring subject matter: Kindness. Humility. Mercy. Compassion. Our shared need to be seen. To show others that we see them.

There is a reasonable criticism to be made that the band returns to the same well over and over, not just in content but in sound. It’s true that their albums since We Walked in Song have all felt of a piece. They are all lovingly crafted basement recordings made by the Peris family— Karen and Don, occasionally joined by their string-playing children or bassist pal Mike Bitts. Karen fills each album with delicate singing and carefully-stanzaed lyrics that draw deeply from poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Don provides the gentle rustle of acoustic guitar strings, as clarion as cathedral bells, and the occasional smudge of shoegaze atmospherics. These recordings are simple but sound lush; you can often hear the crack and hiss of the tape rolling, romantic swells of pump organ, accordion, and creaking piano. They are quiet, too, except when they are loud: When a drum kit enters toward the end of “We Don’t Know How to Say Why,” a highlight of the new album, it sounds like thunder. See You Tomorrow is enchanting for all of the same reasons that Sun on the Square was enchanting, but there’s a difference between a band that’s directionless and a band that’s faithful to a very particular muse. The Perises stand alone in their attentiveness to this niche of beauty, this reservoir of quiet, this oasis of kindness and vulnerability.

Their masterpiece of storytelling remains Birds of My Neighborhood, which aches with lamentation and hope during a difficult season. But since then, Karen’s writing has become even more impressively succinct and incisive. On song after song she imbues the mundane with meaning, and a lot of See You Tomorrow is spent gently kneading the wordless and ineffable into beautiful, precise language. Listen to the sensitivity with which she sketches a character in “We Don’t Know How to Say Why,” who only wants “to be loved as much as anyone,” then bursts into tears from an undefinable longing. “At Lake Maureen” uses an afternoon hiking and sailing to meditate on the mysteries of time’s passage (“I feel something new about you/ every day of the world”). In “St. Francis and the Future,” the narrator wants only to stay where she is with her loved ones, and to keep change and uncertainty as far-off as possible (“Oh, make the future small”). And who can’t relate to the voice at the center of “The Brothers Williams Said,” who wishes she could “love the mystery/ and have no tears that there can be no better understanding.” These songs live in the peculiar glow of all the things we can never fully understand or articulate, but are caught up in nevertheless; what Joe Henry calls the “bigger things unseen.”

At first blush, the albums of The Innocence Mission can sometimes sound like they belong to another world entirely, one where beauty is savored and where people are more decent. But there is no Thomas Kinkade-style idyll, no denial of this world’s hardship. You certainly hear it in Birds of My Neighborhood, an album that attests to disappointment, barrenness, and sorrow. As for See You Tomorrow, perhaps it’s a noteworthy coincidence that the album was released around the same time as the Drive-by Truckers record The Unraveling, which chronicles contemporary malaise with diaristic precision (song titles include “Babies in Cages” and “21st Century USA”) and basically amounts to a nihilistic howl. It’s a lament from a slipstream far beyond our control; See You Tomorrow, with its songs about time and uncertainty and fickle emotion, is not entirely dissimilar. But into the wild and the uncontainable, the Peris family offers a tender gift of grace, peace, and kindness; proof that these, too, are among the bigger things unseen.

Pieces of a Man: On the run with Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven

we're new again review

Was there ever really a home for Gil Scott-Heron? Throughout his abbreviated life he seemed to pine for one, even as he harborded disbelief that such a place could ever exist. In his seminal albums from the 1970s— outpourings of conscience and lament— the poet-singer bore witness against racial and economic injustice like a wild voice in the wilderness; a citizen of the promised land who knew he’d be forever estranged from its abundance. He was alienated not just from his country, but from himself. One famous song posited that “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” an admission that for a lifelong addict there’s no haven to be found; no shelter from the treacheries of the flesh. Home sounded equally unattainable some 40 years later, when an album called I’m New Here reflected on a life spent on the run. (“Not running for cover/ because if I knew where cover was/ I would stay there and never have to run for it,” he reasoned.) Much of that album was devoted to the strong women who raised him, gave him peace and shelter, provided him with light unto his path and a foundation of love and support. But still he ran. A year later, he was dead from the complications of HIV and years of substance abuse. A perpetual prodigal, a lifelong exilee. Did he ever find cover? Did he ever find home?

The sense of displacement Scott-Heron embodied in life— and the unsettledness he conjured in his music— makes him a strangely perfect candidate for a project like We’re New Again, which marks the third distinct presentation of his I’m New Here material. The original album was made in tandem with producer Richard Russell, who adorned Scott-Heron’s creaky intonations in spectral electronics. We’re New Here, an album-length remix from Jamie xx, was released just a year later. We’re New Again is the latest tribute to Scott-Heron as a man fraying at the edges; a scruffy character whose life and work were proudly unvarnished and unfinished, and whose legacy exists not as settled business but as a set of open questions ripe for relitigation. At the helm this time is drummer/composer Makaya McCraven, one of our great jazz visionaries. It’s not quite right to call McCraven’s album a remix. It’s a full reimagining, using the late poet’s final recorded words as building blocks but stacking them against a rich backdrop of live performance and convincing post-production effects. One of the most famous Gil Scott-Heron records is called Pieces of a Man, and that’s still what’s on offer today: Shards of a beautiful man and a broken life, submitted to us as runes to be reassessed and reassembled. 

As Mark Richardson notes, “McCraven brings Scott-Heron’s work down to earth and situates it in a milieu the elder artist would have recognized,” running the gamut from spirited soul-jazz to lived-in blues. It feels more in-tune with Scott-Heron’s black music affinities than either of the albums that preceded it. And yet, in McCraven’s splicing, dicing, sampling, and imaginative recontextualizations, it also bears witness to Scott-Heron as a forward thinker and hip-hop originator. It’s a smart positioning for Scott-Heron’s legacy, and it’s an advantageous setting for McCraven. He’s all but unmatched at weaving together grooves and textures and micro-moments into immersive suites of sound, an approach he blew up to epic lengths on Universal Beings. We’re New Again allows him to make similarly evocative music, but with Scott-Heron’s words as a focal point. McCraven and his collaborators (including Jeff Parker) rise to the occasion with both narrative clarity and disorientation: “Where Did the Night Go” is a trippy nightmare of trilling flutes and drum kit bluster, as gently unmooring as the Heffalumps and Woozles dream sequence from Winnie the Pooh. “Running” is set to an insistent hip-hop beat, McCraven’s timekeeping cruel and unrelenting. “I’ll Take Care of You,” Scott-Heron’s turn as a piano crooner, is presented in all its parched vulnerability; a declaration of fidelity that’s really an admission of raw need.

McCraven gives us stirring music and high drama, alternating between fleshed-out songs and fragmented soliloquies. But there is a real sense of thematic development here, empathy for Scott-Heron’s life spent on the lam. “Running” still feels like a thesis statement (“because the thing I fear cannot be escaped”). There’s also “The Crutch,” presented here as a distorted electric blues, a song for men who carefully evade the kindness of God or the universe (“when the world reached out, they chose to flee”). On I’m New Here, Scott-Heron gave us a tender reflection on the grandmother who raised him (“absolutely not your mail order, room service, typecast black grandmother”). McCraven divides it into four separate tracks, left scattered throughout the album like breadcrumbs. There’s also the “I’m New Here” theme, recurring on multiple songs as a reminder that there’s never any wanderer who’s strayed too far (“no matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around”). But McCraven gives the last word to “Me and the Devil,” Scott-Heron’s take on Robert Johnson. Amidst gnarled guitars and swaggering brass, Scott-Heron warns against the Evil One. There is always something to run from.

Mama Gotta Hustle: Tami Neilson redefines retro

tami neilson chickaboom

Everything about Tami Neilson is a throwback— from her beehive hairdo to the faded glam-shot artwork of her new album, CHICKABOOM! Even the ad copy that appears under the album title, anointing her “The Hot Rockin’ Lady of Country, Rockabilly & Soul,” seems to promise something like an old-timey magic trick; a costumed conjuring of something you’d typically only see at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But anyone expecting museum memorabilia or nostalgic wish fulfillment has never heard the hot rockin’ lady sing. While it’s true that CHICKABOOM! dazzles in its retro chic, at times suggesting a stylish soundtrack to an imagined Quentin Tarantino film, the music is just too loud, too raucous, too electric to ever sound like a relic. Wherever Neilson does her thing, no dust can settle, no cobwebs can form.

CHICKABOOM! isn’t a nostalgia play so much as a reinvigoration of classic tropes— a combustible cross-pollination of Wanda Jackson riffs, Patsy Cline waterworks, Bo Diddley thunder, and, on “Any Fool with a Heart,” soft-touch uptown pop. All of it’s presented not with an archivist’s academic caution, but with a stage actress’ dramatic flair and a garage band’s appetite for destruction. It feels very much like the right kind of album for Neilson to make following 2018’s superb SASSAFRASS!, which went deep and wide and showed the full range of what she’s capable of. Her virtuosity indisputable, Neilson can now turn her attention to just blowing shit up, which is kinda what CHICKABOOM! feels like: A box of fireworks, where the singer lights one short fuse after another and lets these songs burn fast and bright in a blaze of snarling guitars and crackling drums. It’s almost like a jukebox singles record, where there’s never a dull moment and only a couple of songs that push past three minutes; in the longest, “When You Were Mine,” Neilson uses the full three-and-a-half minute runway to mine maximum existential anguish from her Muscle Shoals hotbox. More representative of the album’s spring-loaded mayhem is “Hey Bus Driver!,” a concentrated dose of thumping toms, barbed-wire guitar riffs, and punchy Sun Records primitivism. 

Neilson grew up touring and singing in a family band, showbiz experience that’s always been her secret weapon: She’s got obvious natural talent but also knows how to sing with clarity and precision, how to hit her marks, how to work a crowd. “When You Were Mine” is the showstopper, the one where Neilson starts in the low embers of the blues and builds to in-the-red catharsis, putting her vocal cords straight through the shredder as she howls in anguish. It’s a controlled eruption, and a stark contrast to the nonchalant opener “Call Your Mama,” where Neilson sends an unworthy dude packing, brandishing sneers and snarls like a showboating gunslinger. She’s also unafraid to ham it up sometimes, cackling her way through “Ten Tonne Truck,” about a successful woman laughing all the way to the bank. (“HA HA HA!”)

The album’s 10 little bottle rockets— originals, once again written with brother Jay, who also sings and plays on the album— address concerns that never go out of style: Love, heartbreak, hard work, the open road, money and its absence. The heartbreak songs are imaginative: “16 Miles of Chain” is a hardscrabble drama where love is literal imprisonment, while “You Were Mine” looks to a formative loss as an event that cleaved time in two. But Neilson is at her best, her toughest, her prickliest when she’s singing about her hustle, as she does in “Ten Tonne Truck,” about the alchemic formula of luck and grit required to make big bucks in Nashville. Speaking of which, it wouldn’t be a Tami Neilson album without a few choice words about the absence of women on today’s country charts, something she takes care of with mirthless one-liners in “Queenie, Queenie.” The same song gets to another of her core strengths, which is embodying a feminism that ennobles domesticity and leaves plenty of room for working mothers. “What’s a stay-at-home mom do with all that time?” she deadpans as the bills and dirty dishes pile up, drums clattering like a ticking timebomb or a Jeopardy! buzzer. That song is a pressure cooker, but there’s release in “Sister Mavis,” a pentecostal rave-up where Neilson rides high atop handclaps and jangling tambourines, espousing a holy canon where synoptic gospels share space with Mavis Staples, Sister Rosetta, and Mahila Jackson. There’s nothing stuffy or forced about its hero worship: Like the rest of CHICKABOOM!, it uses the past as a powder keg; the first spark of a righteous ruckus. 

Objects of Affection: Jeff Parker’s sweet specificity

suite for max brown

Jazz guitarist Jeff Parker wrote and recorded Suite for Max Brown in dedication to his mother, whose image graces the album’s cover. You don’t actually have to know that in order to enjoy the largely instrumental album, which offers much to savor with or without the backstory. But when you do know it, it brings this curious piece of music into clearer view. Parker’s intentions explain why the music sounds so lovingly detailed without sounding fussy or overworked; how Suite for Max Brown is such a delicate and particular object of affection, like a Mother’s Day card made with macaroni and glue. 

Maybe that description makes the album sound small, which it is. While some records impress with their scope and their sprawl, Suite for Max Brown is an intimate collection of humble pleasures, derived from laid-back jazz, electronic beat-making, and ambient tranquility; it’s a mosaic of textures, colors, and grooves that extol specificity and warrant close attention. (The album’s modesty makes it a surprising but not unworthy choice for Pitchfork’s first “Best New Music” designation of the decade.) It’s no accident that the album’s lone vocal number, “Build a Nest,” finds Parker’s daughter Ruby espousing the virtues of slowing down, eschewing hustle and bustle, and assiduously constructing something that’s made to last. While Suite for Max Brown flits from one micro-moment to the next, each of those moments feels like it’s been placed with care, imbued with affection, and offered as a focal point for obsession; the music covers a lot of ground but somehow feels unhurried. Its grace is most evident in a glowing rendition of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” a moment of zen that revels in mind-clearing languor and pace-setting deliberation. 

So while Parker’s songs are generous with memorable melodies and robust performances, you’re just as likely to latch onto the droning keyboard tone that sounds through “Fusion Swirl,” as if it’s suspended in zero gravity; the loose rattle of Jay Bellerose’s tambourine on “3 for L”; the bright chimes and ringing bells of “Metamorphoses.” Parker curates these micro-moments for their sensual pleasures, their tactility, their instant earworm-ability. That doesn’t leave a ton of space for him to shred— if it’s guitar heroics you’re after, try Julian Lage or The Messthetics— but he does dole out clear, supple licks on the strolling “3 for L,” and on “Go Away,” a full studio band works up a full head of steam, locking into a roiling Afrobeat groove.

One of the album’s most precious curios is “C’mon Now,” a 20-second loop of Otis Redding’s vocal exhortations. It functions as an interlude, yet feels like so much more. It positions Parker’s music on the same continuum with Makaya McCraven, Flying Lotus, and the late J Dilla, auteurs whose work bridges the divide between jazz improvisation and hip-hop splicing-and-dicing. (McCraven also plays on a few of these songs.) In other words, it’s a small gesture toward the big picture. But there are other ways to receive these Otis grunts and incantations: Perhaps they are here to remind us that every moment, every syllable is an opportunity for close attention; or perhaps simply because Jeff Parker knows somebody who loves hearing Otis Redding sing.

 

Playing the Long Game: Bold moves from Della Mae

headlight

Della Mae’s “Headlight” is at least the second noteworthy song to be inspired by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s historic Senate testimony. Last year, Sleater-Kinney’s “Broken” articulated Dr. Ford’s account (and what felt like its dismissal) as an inflection point; a beacon of hope, abruptly extinguished. The Della Mae song registers momentary defeat but considers it in light of long-term gains: By their telling, Dr. Ford’s public courage offered a spark; a solitary candle lit in darkness, and an invitation for others to follow.

That’s just what the band does on their fourth album, also called Headlight, which opens with their song to Dr. Ford but is by no means confined to topical songwriting. Rather, it’s an album that encourages big-picture thinking. The fight for justice and dignity is a marathon and not a sprint; if it’s won it will be through incremental acts of courage, and sustained by people who live with joy, hope, and tenacity. It’s not for nothing that Headlight has a song about playing “The Long Game.” These songs encourage building on previous generations of advocates and freedom fighters (“walking in the footsteps of a woman I don’t know”), providing the scaffolding for the next generation to build something even better (“don’t let them ask you why you didn’t speak up”).

The subtext is that Della Mae has been playing something of a long game themselves. Their first record came out less than a decade ago, hardly the distant past, yet it was cause for comment and commendation that an all-female bluegrass band would display such a high level of virtuosity. They’ve pared down from a quintet to a trio but planted plenty of seeds along the way, both representationally and creatively; they are not only one of the most technically accomplished bluegrass groups but also one of the most interesting, and they’ve been so consistent for so long that they’re earned some leeway to expand their sound. There’s no question that they know how to play, even if all you’ve heard is last year’s skillful Butcher Shoppe EP; what Headlight proves is that they also know how to cast a vision, to experiment and explore.

To that end, Headlight is a broader, more eclectic album than any they’ve made in the past. They recorded it in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler (who helmed a lovely Caroline Spence album last year), and he captures the interplay of their voices, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar with clarity and warmth. He also helps them flesh out their sound with pianos, thumping percussion, and, on three songs, Pentecostal fervor from the McCrary Sisters. But Knobler’s greatest contribution may be how he helps streamline these compositions, measuring out what feels like a perfect dose of pure bluegrass without getting too lost in virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake: Several songs erupt into breakdowns, hoedowns, and throwdowns, solos that work up a full head of stream but never overstay their welcome.

“We are bolder than ever,” the band boasted in a recent Instagram post, and Headlight bears that out in colorful arrangements, soulful performances, and assertive songwriting. Though Dr. Ford provides the album with its north star, these are not songs with revolutionary intentions; rather, they’re about the value in mundane acts of valor; about speaking truth and facing darkness with courage, not just at Senate testimonies and Women’s Marches but on all the ordinary days, too. It can’t be a coincidence that the three songs baptized in the McCrary Sisters’ gospel harmonies are the ones that ennoble everyday, vocational integrity: “It’s About Time” advocates for plainspoken truth-telling, while “Change” rewrites the most famous of Sam Cooke songs, daring to believe the arc of the universe is bending closer and closer toward justice. “Working,” a Stax groove stretched rope-taut, makes a case for setting nose to grindstone and trusting in the nobility of work itself.

Together, these songs form a mosaic of women living their lives unflinchingly, sometimes in big moments but more often in little ones. They are enriched by the presence of “Wild One,” a raucous and hard-stomping celebration of feminine nonconformity, and by “I Like it When You’re Home,” a rapturous zydeco that delights in domestic pleasures. But in the end, Headlight is defined not just by the sainted presence of Dr. Ford but also by the unnamed woman in “First Song Dancer,” who may as well be the album’s mascot. It’s a song that celebrates the nerve required to bound onto the dancefloor as soon as the music starts to play, as everyone else sits timid and inhibited. Perhaps the first step in any long game is just being willing to get up and get moving.