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

lets rock

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

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

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

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

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

Map & Compass: Navigating nostalgia with Leo “Bud” Welch and Dee White

angels

The singer and songwriter Sam Phillips once joked that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” She was probably on to something, but two recent albums on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound imprint offer reason to think anew about how we engage with the past. One album finds an octogenarian bluesman singing songs from his childhood, decades of lived experience instilling them with new meaning. The other finds a 20-year-old country singer escaping into a romanticized past he’s far too young to remember, creating an idyll that’s part historic replica and part day dream. Taken together, these records demonstrate different ways in which memory—personal or cultural— can help us make sense of the present.

The bluesman is Mississippi legend Leo “Bud” Welch, whose recording career began when he was 81 and ended just four years later, with his death. The posthumously released The Angels in Heaven Done Signed My Name is only the third album in a tragically slim catalog, yet its scant 27 minutes feel loaded with the wisdom of a lifetime. Welch had to have known his time was running out when he chose these 10 gospel standards, songs rooted deep in the soil of the Christ-haunted South. Most of them will be familiar to anyone who’s ever attended a big tent revival or Vacation Bible School, and Welch himself spent his whole life playing them. And yet, by the sound of this record, they were still teaching him things, right til the end; here he treats his material not as historic artifact but as map and compass for the last leg of his journey home, looking to the songs he grew up with as a way to direct his final steps. What they offer is a model for approaching death with dignity: They emanate Christian assurance (“I Know I Been Changed”), steel against Satan’s advances (“Don’t Let the Devil Ride”), and pine for the nearness of the Shepherd (“Walk with Me Lord”). That they might resonate with an ailing Welch is no surprise, and though he’s never glib about facing mortality, he never sounds rattled by it, either; in “I Come to Praise His Name,” Welch storms the gates of heaven with thanksgiving on his tongue and joy in his heart. He locates a utility in these songs that his younger self couldn’t have grasped, and they give him a personal vocabulary for articulating the dimming of his day with peace and contentment.

That joyful countenance spills over into the performances themselves— quick and loose sessions that crackle with the electric energy of Auerbach’s band The Arcs, a far cry from the po-faced austerity you might anticipate from a twilight-years reflection like this. Though Welch clearly wasn’t in the prime of health when he cut this record, his righteous witness imbues everything with solemn authority; he mumbles with confidence, croaks with conviction, bellows with glee. He and the band blaze and howl and drone through the setlist with an appealing looseness, to the point that you can occasionally hear Welch mutter performance instructions, seemingly to himself. (“I wanna do another fast one, now let’s see…”) As the album’s producer, Auerbach is shrewd enough to leave the focus primarily on Welch’s voice and skeletal guitar work—on the opening “I Know I Been Changed,” the artist is accompanied only by the luminous shimmer of an organ—but he also orchestrates some cheerfully raucous mayhem: “Jesus is on the Mainline” is a big-footed stomp that shakes and rolls with jangly percussion and church piano; “I Come to Praise His Name” is frenzied call-and-response; “Right on Time” is a jocular country shuffle. Welch’s version of the Sunday School favorite “This Little Light of Mine” (here dubbed “Let it Shine”) is about the gnarliest you’ll ever hear; it’s as if the seeds planted in childhood have blossomed into a mighty and weathered oak, its leaves rustling in the wind but its roots as strong as ever.

You could say that Alabama’s Dee White is at the other end of the spectrum in almost every way. Born 60 years after Welch, his interest in the past is one of revival rather than reappraisal; where Welch’s album makes ancient songs sound new again, White’s keen on generating new compositions that sound like lost relics of yesteryear. His yesteryear is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, an era alluringly replicated on the Auerbach-produced Southern Gentleman. Soft and supple, the album ably weds countrypolitan extravagance to the wispy harmonies of Laurel Canyon folk, the booming theatricality of progressive country thrown in for good measure. Recorded with the Easy Eye house band—some of the same Nashville studio pros who played on Yola’s magnificent Walk Through Fire, augmented by luminous harmony singer/White super-fan Alison Krauss—Southern Gentleman is absent grit but hardly absent groove, as evidenced by the opening “Wherever You Go,” soft-touch Dixie funk that almost could have fit on a golden-era Little Feat record. Auerbach and White are fastidious in their attention to period detail, which includes florid orchestrations, finger-picked acoustic guitars, and plenty of high-and-lonesome pedal steel. It’s all anchored by White, a prodigiously out-of-time singer whose honeyed tenor can drop into solemn spoken-word asides just as easily as it crests into clarion falsetto. Auerbach and the Easy Eye gang christened him Boy Orbison for these sessions, which tells you plenty about his vocal purity, his seriousness, and his nose for good melodrama, and it seems unlikely that White would quibble with such an auspicious nickname: He’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide, something you can tell from the sepia-tinged narrative in “Bucket of Bolts,” where he looks back with fondness on his first car and on the “good ol’ pals” of his adolescence. (It can’t be emphasized enough: The dude was 20 when he cut this record.)

White’s commitment to a bygone era means his lyrics slip easily and often into old-timey vernacular (“preacher man;” “give that southern belle a ring;” “swimmin’ in our birthday clothes”),” and his halcyon vision of the South—one absent cell phones or political tension—is wholesome enough that the album’s moments of lustiness generally just consist of references to skinny-dipping. They’re clearly songs of innocence to Welch’s songs of experience, and where the elder performer looks to his past to illuminate an uncertain future, White seems more interested in using the past as a shelter from the treacherous present. That may sound like he’s on the wrong side of nostalgia, and certainly Southern Gentleman toes the line, but anyone who hears the album as pure escapism is overlooking its moments of real turmoil and angst. On “Rose of Alabam,” White narrates a scene of infidelity with flowery prose (“the petals of my daisy hit the floor one by one”), and on “Road That Goes Both Ways” he’s joined by fellow country upstart Ashley MyBryde for a pained duet about two separated lovers. On these songs, he’s not merely replicating or romanticizing the past, but looking to it to for a language he can use to express complicated emotions—not unlike what Welch does with the old standards. But perhaps the greatest validation of White’s stylized nostalgia is that, even as he recreates the sounds of a lost or imagined era, he never sounds painted into a corner. On the contrary, he finds immense freedom of expression across these songs, which are all so unerringly detailed that you’ll have to check the liner notes to determine the lone semi-obscure cover in the bunch: There’s breezy effervescence in the swampy two-step “Old Muddy River,” enveloping melancholy in the sadsack sway of “Oh No,” operatic dejection in the soaring arrangements of “Way Down.” Perhaps what both albums prove is that memory, however slanted, can be a source of empowerment, and that reimagining yesterday can provide signposts for navigating today and tomorrow.

The Unsettled Past: Revisionist histories from Liz Brasher, Yola, & Adia Victoria

silences

The past is unsettled. It’s not recounted so much as interpreted, and on a trio of distinguished albums by dynamic singer/songwriters, interpretation is exactly what you got—three different visions of the rich American roots lineage, all filtered through personal experience and seen through the lens of modernity. Liz Brasher’s Painted Image salutes the music of Memphis in an act of sophisticated synthesis and loving pastiche. Yola’s Walk Through Fire channels country and soul through immaculate studio-craft and stylized arrangements. And Adia Victoria’s Silences kicks the blues tradition down a rickety set of stairs and into a haunted house of her own diabolical invention. In a roots scene that’s sometimes bogged down by questions of authenticity, these albums are refreshing for choosing slanted imagination over historic replica. That all three are made by authoritative women of color—too often excluded from these idioms—is a bonus of considerable magnitude.

You could call Brasher’s album a study in tangled roots. A church singer by training, she grew up in North Carolina but decamped to Memphis for the Painted Image sessions, and the result is a sumptuous consolidation of the city’s robust musical pedigree. The cavernous spaces of Sun, the tight rhythms of Hi, the raucous melisma of the gospel tradition, the wee-small-hours heartache of the blues—all of the pieces are here, but they’re not always arranged in the way you’d expect them to be. Brasher brings an outsider’s love but no binding allegiance to Memphis culture, which frees her to play it straight and play it loose in equal measure. Songs like “Blood of the Lamb,” which opens the album with the hazy hum of an organ, the low moan of a brass section, and the reverberant crawl of an electric guitar, hint at roads not taken, suggesting Brasher could spend a career slinking and belting her way through tightly-framed retro soul. She’s even better on the roiling, string-soaked “Cold Baby,” a song of romantic dissolution so tremulous and fraught, it sounds like the center won’t hold and the whole thing could at any moment implode. These are expressive, emotionally weighty reproductions of classic tropes, but Brasher throws some curveballs with “Hand on the Plow,” which sounds like Willie Mitchell’s percolating grooves as interpreted by Steely Dan, and “Every Day,” where the horns return for a high-and-lonesome Mariachi fanfare—a geographic detour but also an effective accent piece to the atmospheric and forlorn songs that surround it. “Painted Image” closes the album with chamber strings and a Spanish guitar, but rather than offering a genteel denouement, Brasher casts it as an echoing, impressionistic fever dream—woozy immersion in longing and regret.

There are plenty of both of those things in Brasher’s songs, all originals and often with lyrics that are as conflicted as her arrangements are sure-footed. Many of them chronicle inflection points, lovers forced to either grip harder or let go of their fraying bond. (“Don’t you know ‘maybe’ never saved no one?” she asks in “Moon Baby,” haunted pop that shimmers and insinuates.) The songs where she sounds surest happen to be the ones forged in gospel resolve. She’s comfortable enough with her faith vocabulary to spin a few sly jokes (“pillar of salt in my lot”) but also to use it as her compass blade and guiding light: “Laid my life down at the throne/ and I ain’t going back no more,” she sings on “Hand to the Plow,” a song of perseverance and a reminder that you gotta serve somebody. To that end, the Pentecostal clap-along “Living Water” sounds like it’s about Jesus, but the spectral “Heaven and Earth” has its scale tipped terrestrially. Here Brasher longs to love and be loved in both body and soul, and whatever whispered mysticism is there gets swallowed up by the howling carnality. It’s the linchpin for an album that’s anchored in a particular piece of soil but exists to both ennoble and transcend it.

Brasher isn’t the only one whose love of American roots idioms is adoptive. The woman born Yola Carter hails from Britain but carries a torch for classic C&W, which might explain why her debut Walk Through Fire filters extravagant countrypolitan lushness through the baroque constructions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. She made the album with producer Dan Auerbach, who has a knack for scrupulous studio constructions that are richly detailed but also spacious and funky—see also his underacknowledged Dr. John team-up, Locked Down—and Walk Through Fire features a murderer’s row of studio talents that range from bluegrass virtuosos to veteran Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley sidemen. What they conjure here is an airy yet ornate interpretation of classic country/soul, often assembled with the same intricacy and care you’d find in any given frame of a Wes Anderson film. Album opener “Faraway Look” has sighing strings, twinkling harpsichord, chiming bells, even little flecks of brass—and if that sounds a shade too twee, it’s only because you haven’t heard the Richter-scale force Yola can summon when she sings. Pictured on the album cover with an acoustic guitar in hand, her image faintly recalls truth-telling poet-warriors like Odetta and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, perceptions that the album’s soft edges only slightly dispel. She’s a magnetic force, a singer of regal clarity and curlicued precision but also thunderous power; on the verses of “Faraway Look” she plays the calm at the center of the storm, but by the time the supersized chorus sweeps in she’s turned into a tempest. Her magnitudinous boom makes it clear early on that the album’s delicacy won’t scan as anemic gentility, and the rest of the songs bear her out. Each one is a delicate jewel, even (or especially) the ones that work up a little rustic grit: Listen to the sawing fiddles and harmonica on “Walk Through Fire,” little embers of twang that gradually get fanned into an all-consuming flame. Yola has an easy way with a melody, and her lavish arrangements are complimented by tunes that are simple and direct: “Ride Out in the Country” sounds every bit like a breezy car ride on a warm spring day, while “It Ain’t Easier” finds breathing room within layers of fiddle and steel guitar—a wispy country weeper. She also exhibits a vast formal command, easily building “Lonely the Night” from a simmering Delta groove into a gleaming Phil Specter chorus, and packing maximum emotion into a tight package on “Keep Me Here,” a lovelorn saloon song where she gets tears in her beer and a vocal assist from the great Vince Gill.

Just as Yola’s voice holds both gale-force weather and judicious restraint, her songwriting carves space for resonant strength and harrowing vulnerability. There’s no question that this is a heartache album, full of long nights and bitter regrets; Yola’s characters toss and turn in their beds, they talk to shadows, and they desperately try to stave off the ebb of memory. (In interviews to promote the album, she’s been frank about her survival of an abusive relationship.) Her gift is for plainspeak, but her songs are littered with carefully-sprung bear traps; “Ride Out in the Country” sounds at first like a simple confession about going somewhere to forget a broken heart, but of course it’s not so simple at all: “Falling out of love with you/ It’s not an easy thing to do/ But you don’t care about me, baby.” Such knife-twists are manifold, and they’re always deployed with disarming frankness; “That faraway look in your eyes/ is getting harder to disguise,” she sings in the opening song, quietly appraising a love grown cold. But if Walk Through Fire is an album of brokenness, it’s also a catalyst for healing: It was a house fire that turned Yola’s world to rubble and precipitated these new songs, and she turns the experience into a potent metaphor for weathering seasons of intense trial. “The red hot coals are calling/ And I know it’s the only way/ There ain’t no use in prolonging/ The fact that I just can’t stay,” she sings, seeking forward motion even when it’s painful. These aren’t new metaphors, of course, but what makes Yola so compelling is how she makes everything here feel like it’s part of her story, even as she uses the vocabulary of all the firewalkers who have gone before her.

Boldest of all is Silences, from the startlingly visionary and self-assured poet, singer, guitarist, and blues insurrectionist Adia Victoria. She’s spoken openly about how the blues idiom was the prototype for punk and about how her mission is to restore its sense of danger, talking points she shares with many an old-timey twelve-bar revivalist—only she actually means it, and proves in on this uncompromising set of music. She enlisted The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce, and together they transmute Skip James’ haunted austerity, Robert Johnson’s ghost stories, Howlin’ Wolf’s ribald exuberance, and Ma Rainey’s rural vernacular into something bracingly contemporary. On paper it may not read much like traditional blues, yet as it plays it never sounds like it could be anything else: Bernard Herrmann string cues, chilly electronics, woodwind thrum, shards of electric guitar fuzz, and sinister trip-hop beats work together to lurch and howl, lull and menace. You can hear a few quick bars of finger-picked acoustic guitar at the start of “Bring Her Back,” but that droning loop quickly builds into a heady swirl of drums, skronking brass, and alien keyboard effects. It’s merely one of the most obvious bridges between past and future, and its counterpart is the roaring late-album highlight “Dope Queen Blues,” where a clenched stride piano motif is torn and frayed by hissing electronics and spritely horns. Victoria knows the blues well enough that its morbid bent is offset by a defiant lust for life, and there’s an unsettling glee to the spiked cabaret number “Devil is a Lie.” But she can also burrow deep into anguished introspection, as she does in the chilly, wide-open soundscape of “Cry Wolf.” In an album that consistently tilts and disorients, Victoria is the gravitational force that holds everything together. Though she has a storyteller’s performative zeal, she mostly passes on big gestures in favor of the low embers of her voice, pitched somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Valerie June with just a bit of Fiona Apple’s tremulous quiver. She projects total calm even in the songs that are most harrowing, an aesthetic choice that ratchets up the tension considerably.

Hers are songs that could only be fermented by the blood and soil of the American South, here presented as a landscape peppered with Jesus Saves signs and strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Victoria’s another Carolina girl who was raised in church—hooked on eternity and other drugs, as David Bazan might say—and whose early adulthood has been a reckoning with various kinds of oppression and internal friction. That she’s shaken off the faith of her fathers is something she makes clear in the grim opener “Clean,” where it’s midnight in the garden of good and evil and she’s a kind of deicidal Van Helsing, stalking the Almighty and ultimately plunging a knife in His chest.  It’s a macabre fantasy that’s immediately followed by “Bring Her Back,” sung from the perspective of a dead girl who spoke out when she shouldn’t have and paid the price. The specter of lynching looms large, and whatever metaphysical reverie Victoria abides is shattered by the blunt-force trauma of the N-word, deployed just once to situate these songs not in ether or abstraction but in actual human bodies, bruised and bloodied.

Victoria is drawn to the grotesque, a form she uses to paint human malice and divine discontent in the starkest terms possible. It’s a trait she shares with sage-of-sages Flannery O’Connor, to whom she is an avowed devotee, and who famously distinguished between the Christ-centered and the Christ-haunted. Silences is decidedly the latter, though really it’s not even the ragged fugitive Jesus who haunts Victoria so much as the hellhounds on her trail. The devil is all over this record, presented as both living entity and as manifestation of personal demons—and either way, his presence is tormenting. There are the makings here of a grand, gothic drama, a battle for the singer’s soul: On “Devil is a Lie” the Prince of Darkness brings all her plans to ruin, yet on “Pacolet Road” it’s her faith that makes a fool of her. Forces of good and evil give Silences its dramatic framing, but her metaphysics are enfleshed by personal experience. You get the sense that the howl and snarl of Victoria’s music are designed to drown out the unholy clamber of what Richard Thompson calls “the rattle within,” and on “Cry Wolf” Victoria begs and pleads and promises to be good, knowing full well that she’s broken such promises before. “Nice Folks” hears that death rattle emanating from just below the white-washed gentility of Southern manners (the folks O’Conner might call “good country people”), and you wouldn’t be crazy to think of Dr. King and his castigation of political moderates—evil’s most reasonable and well-intentioned bedfellows. “Heathen” is a song about recalcitrant women (and the men who love them), making the most of an ungovernable spirit; amidst smoky jazz, Victoria offers a cheerful fuck-you to anyone who wants her to compromise or to crawl. These songs suggest isolation, but the closing “Get Lonely” reaches out for union. Over a cavernous trance beat, she coos to a partner: “I want to get lonely with you.” It’s the desolate love song of two heathens who reckon they might yet be redeemed.