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.

A Seat at the Table: The Highwomen abide multitudes

highwomen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always Been in My Nature: Josh Ritter’s history of violence

fever breaks

Like Martin Scorsese and Cormac McCarthy, Josh Ritter is drawn to histories of violence. In songs about misbegotten wars and gun-toting vigilantes, he’s traced the gnarled roots of American bloodshed, untangling the particular strains of solitude and exceptionalism that give birth to sainted renegades and self-justifying killers. These themes are well-documented in the folk tradition, and Ritter presents them in all their dread and allure. Consider a song like “The Temptation of Adam,” where two lovers fumble to make a life together in the shadow of the atom bomb, its imagery suggesting that the instinct to unleash carnage looms large over even our best intentions and purest inclinations; it’s emblematic of Ritter’s dogged chronicle of our collective heart of darkness. Consider also a composition from his album So Runs the World Away, where Ritter rummages through the haunted graveyard of American song and story for scenes of brutality and vengeance, assembling them into stomach-churning pastiche. The title of the song: “Folk Bloodbath.” In it, Ritter sounds like Indiana Jones coming face to face with the flesh-melting power of the Ark of the Covenant: A committed scholar and folklorist, he’s dug too deep and seen too much to return unrattled to the land of the living.

Fever Breaks—Ritter’s 10th studio album—opens with the kind of song he was born to write; not merely a continuation of his excavations, but one of the deepest digs yet. “Ground Don’t Want Me” is a gunfighter ballad, belonging to a folk lineage that encompasses both Marty Robbins’ big-iron epics and Guy Clark’s wistful revisions. Ritter inhabits a man living under a curse (“you’ll never get to heaven, son, so go to hell real slow”), fated to roam the Earth as an unbeatable quick-draw. No matter how many impossible, hopelessly outgunned situations he puts himself in, he somehow always blazes his way out and leaves a pile of bodies in his wake (“for every man a box, for every hole a rose”). He becomes a kind of ghost, wandering from town to town weighed down by his murderous guilt, envying the many men he’s sent to peaceful rest but unable to find it himself. The song reveals a writer who’s all but unequalled at finessed metaphors (“I’ve stacked the deck, I’ve held a dead man’s hand so many times”) and mordant prose (“in every town the brokenhearted rang their steeple bells”), but it’s his moral clarity that cuts deepest; Ritter’s gunfighter is being eaten alive by sin and shame, and he’s resigned to the fact that his past has prescribed his future, that the blood he’s shed has stained his soul. (Devotees may find it rewarding to imagine that this is the same boastful gun from 2007’s “Mind’s Eye,” brought low by time and conscience.)  Later in the album, Ritter reckons with an even ancienter tradition in his hardscrabble performance of “Silver Blade,” a song he originally wrote for Joan Baez; it’s a murder ballad about a maiden who escapes her villainous captor only by lodging a knife between his ribs, then using the same blade to dig the man’s unconsecrated grave. The lyrics include an insouciant forensic account of the deceased’s worm-ridden body, corporeal evidence of a toppled tyrant and lawless justice. It’s a mythology of violence rendered in flesh and bone; it establishes Fever Breaks as another folk bloodbath.

It might almost be unbearable were it not also exhilarating—a robust and freewheeling record that’s unlike any he’s made before. For that you can give much of the credit to folk hero/rock and roll warrior Jason Isbell, who produced the record in Nashville and plays on it with his well-decorated band the 400 Unit. Their most obvious contribution is muscle, and in “Old Black Magic” they provide the headliner with the most raucous moment of garage-rock mayhem in his entire catalog; he sings himself ragged just to be heard about the din of the guitars and the bleat of an organ. Yet Isbell and his troupe are as much about brains as brawn, and what makes them so symbiotic with Ritter is how nimbly they can adapt to the needs of his rich, varied songwriting: The 400 Unit crunches and grinds on “Losing Battles,” skips and gallops across “On the Water,” conjures dark storm clouds and ominous flashes of lighting on the sinister and dramatic “The Torch Committee.” Boon accompanist Amanda Shires, a blessing to every record she’s on, gives “Silver Blade” its sharp edges through flinty fiddle playing, while the band digs deep for both groove and twang on the loping “A New Man.” For all the ground covered here, Isbell’s most critical effect is to bring focus: Fever Breaks feels clean and compact with its 10 songs in 45 minutes, almost the opposite of Gathering’s rambling generosity.

The depth and breadth of these performances are the backdrop for wide-ranging Ritter originals that interrogate folk forms and elucidate all the lessons he’s learned about our appetite for destruction—one of the most significant lessons being that the true violence is the inner violence, the most rancorous battle the battle against the self. Ritter pines for rebirth in “A New Man,” and over the din of “Losing Battles” he casts the pursuit of justice as both a noble calling and a fool’s errand (“sometimes the righteous win,” he sings—but most times…). That same song suggests a history of violence encoded in human DNA, situating these calamitous mythologies under the Mark of Cain; “it’s always been in my nature to be the beast,” Ritter admits, facing down the man in the mirror like Nick Lowe did in “The Beast in Me” or Richard Thompson in “The Rattle Within.” Elsewhere, Fever Breaks studies the violence of separation. “I Still Love You (Now and Then),” one of Ritter’s most brutally understated divorce songs, finds a lovesick man chronicling the wreckage of his life as though describing the ruins of a battle field. But perhaps the greatest lesson of Fever Breaks is that violence to others is always, ultimately, violence to the self. “The Torch Committee” is the album’s dramatic fulcrum, a political allegory narrated in detached deadpan and outlining step-by-step the ways in which fear is weaponized to divide a people from itself (“sadly it’s the awful truth/ it’s them or us, it’s them or you”). And in “All Some Kind of Dream,” Ritter surveys the state of our crumbling ideals through the eyes of the immigrant and the refugee; the wayfaring stranger and the kids in the cages: “There was a time when we held them close/ and weren’t so cruel, low, and mean/ And we did good unto the least of these/ or was it all some kind of dream?” It’s a psalm of lament for a country that’s lost itself in an abattoir of its own making, but in the closing “Blazing Highway Home,” Ritter dares to dream there’s a road to peace somewhere, in this world or the next. It’s not much to go on, but when even hope can seem like a losing battle, it may be just enough for now.