Josh Hurst

Tag: Joe Henry

SO EASY

Or: Hayes Carll gets further along.

lovers and leavers

“Hey-o, love is so easy when you’re moving slow,” Hayes Carll sings on the next-to-last song on Lovers and Leavers. It’s an album that does indeed move slow down an open stretch of highway, a cool night’s journey through sadness and solitude that arrives—at last—at something like dawn: “Let the world worry/ Cause you and me won’t,” that song says, and though there’s no actual crescendo there—only the slightest lilt in Carll’s voice to suggest what a breakthrough it might be—the line lands like liberation, or at the very least like a well-earned vacation. Following a stormy, searching journey through loneliness and loss, Carll’s narrator emerges on the other side—a soul survivor, the Stones might call him. After songs with titles like “Good While It Lasted” and “You Leave Alone”—both of them more or less about what you’d expect them to be about—the song called “Love is So Easy” is totally believable as the first glimmer of daybreak.

The record opens with a song called “Drive,” where out narrator is already on the road again like Jack Kerouac and Willie Nelson; like very truck-driving song you’ve ever heard, from “Willin’” to “Endless Gray Ribbon” to the collected works of Red Simpson. It’s not actually a song about hauling freight, but then again, neither were any of those: It’s a song about a lover who turned out to be a leaver; a song about solitude as something you invite and abide and in the end are haunted by; a song about the other side of freedom. Carll picks the song out on his acoustic guitar, and he has high-and-lonesome support from Dave Piltch’s upright bass and a spare rhythm from drummer Jay Bellerose, perhaps tapping it out with his hands. When Carll sings, he fights the sound of silence: “Further along/ And down the road/ Burning up your life/ Oh, it’s some place else to go/ Just drive, drive, drive.” It’s not a song about a man who’s headed somewhere in particular; it’s about a man who just needs to move. And every exit sign passes like a promise still to keep.

It’s no accident that the record begins with a lonely trip through darkness, with a driver “like a mustang in the mountainstoo wild to settle down.” That’s what the whole record feels like: A midnight cruise down dusty highways and through desert canyons, a cold cup of gas station coffee in the console, cigarettes on the dash. Occasionally an FM radio station flickers with clarity, and the record broadens in jubilant color; mostly, it’s just the driver alone with his thoughts and the rumble of the engine. What he’s thinking about, mostly, is what he’s left behind, though it would be too easy to call this Carll’s Blood on the Tracks: Loneliness is the consequence of loss here but also the wage of his chosen vocation. After “Drive” comes a tune called “Sake of the Song,” where the troubadour’s solitary pursuit of his muse is elevated to a holy, monastic quest—lonely but important, and besides, what else is a singing man to do?

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This is the fifth Hayes Carll album, and it’s a breakthrough—an album of considerable confidence, refinement, and purpose. His last one, KMAG YOYO, was an irresistible jumble of words and ideas, but it wore its madcap sensibilities in its goofy title. There is nothing on the new album that feels like the beer-soaked sing-along “Hard Out Here,” the subterranean homesick ramble of “KMAG YOYO,” or the punchy jokes and backward come-ons of “Another Like You.” Lovers and Leavers is the sound of fevered Technicolor fading back to the soulful precision and clarity of black and white. Produced by Joe Henry—truly, there is no one better at capturing the strange weather of a singer/songwriter in full bloom—the album is spare, lean, focused; the jokes have been whittled away, and what remains is a confessional song cycle where every word and every note feels essential to the story, to how the whole thing unfolds like a novel or an old movie. Henry frames it like he’s Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles, keeping each shot tight on the narrator, letting the grit in Carll’s voice tell most of the story; occasionally he pans out to allow more action into the frame, and those moments explode with earned joy.

One of them arrives early, in “Sake of the Song,” where Carll’s voice and guitar are framed by piano, organ, upright bass, and the reliable rattle of Bellerose’s percussion. Here Carll narrates the isolated trudge of everyone who’s ever travelled the world peddling songs. The lyric is dense with images and ideas, yet the effect isn’t the sheer force of words, like on KMAG YOYO or for that matter Blonde on Blonde; instead, Carll feverishly draws circles around his muse like he’s Sonny Rollins in mid-trance. Though he references everything from country to grunge, this isn’t another tedious song about the perils of being a working musician. It’s about the purity of creative pursuit, about song as a spiritual quest. The singer sounds haunted by his muse, and the band’s rowdy blues works into a fever pitch that suggests the muse is hard at work, the singer’s pursuit animated by bigger things unseen.

Storm clouds drift across the edges of “Good While it Lasted,” in the form of spare piano and the low rumble of toms; Carll the troubadour is back in the center of the frame, here with a song about how everything changes and things fall apart. The narrator has put away childish thing, but it’s not enough to keep the hellhound off his trail: “I smoked my last cigarette/ I drank my last drop/ Quit doing all the things/ I swore I’d never stop/ I changed my direction/ Sang a different tune/… Things were going good there for a while/ I tried to straighten out the crooked road that I was on/ It was good while it lasted/ But it didn’t last too long.” It’s a reckoning with how things crumble despite our best efforts to hold it all together; there’s a divorce song lurking in here too, perhaps, but it’s really a song about time, and in the end Carll seems to find peace with it: “Nothing lasts forever/ Time knows that it’s true/ Sometimes a little while’s the best that we can do.”

“You Leave Alone” could almost be the flipside of “Drive.” The protagonist here is another travellin’ man, but he sets down his guitar case the second he finds something better: “Oh, the money was good on the road in the springtime/ But one look from that girl and he settled down.” Carll’s guitar line here is like a fraying tightrope, Bellerose’s tapped percussion a swaying big-top beat, the arrangement spare but nevertheless evocative of that place where whimsy is undercut by melancholy—think the E-Street Band on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”

Carll sings with a coarse Texas drawl, and tips his hat from time to time at Texas greats like Guy Clark, but in the end this is no more a country album than, well, Old No. 1. These aren’t songs for the honky tonk. They’re songs for the campfire, for the long haul, for the wee small hours. None are as desolate as “The Love That We Need,” a song about love dulled by comfort and complacency. This is what it sounds like when love dies with a whimper; when it just fades away: “You say ‘I love you’/ I say ‘me too’/ We don’t think much about it/ It’s just a thing that we do/ We go out walking/ We don’t talk much/ We lie down together/ But our hearts never touch.”  This is another one of those songs where Henry pans out to capture a fuller vista, this time marked by piano, toms, and maracas; there’s a lushness that makes those lyrics harder, and Carll sings from a place of loneliness that’s well past romance or hope.

When “Love is So Easy” rolls around it’s light as a feather, nimble on its feet. Carll sings it like he hasn’t a care in the world, Pitch’s bass pops in all the right places, and a playful little organ figure from Tyler Chester makes it sound like a C&W equivalent of those earliest sides from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. It’s a song about hiding away in a new romance, a moment of pleasure where eros becomes almost Edenic. It’s a weathered love song about second birth; he doesn’t actually sing about taking his lover through misty gardens all wet with rain, but might as well.

Lovers and Leavers feels like a crossroads. The singer has made it through the night, cut up and bloody but still standing. He’s made his choices, and he’s driven through the solitude to a place where new love awaits—not a promise, but a possibility. Who could ask for more? There are sad songs here yet none of them sound like despair: They are reckonings with loss and slippery second chances. A couple, in particular, feel like compass blades, signposts for the journey. “The Magic Kid” was written for Carll’s son, who dreams of becoming a sleight-of-hand man. Here the drivin’ man, the restless troubadour from earlier in the record sees what it is to put yourself out there, to love fearlessly, to stand in the bewitching weather of your song, your magic: “That’s my kid with the cards/ He’s nine years old/ With a head full of wonder/ And a heart of gold/ And there’s not a trick that he can’t figure out/ And he’s never stopped the show for fear of doubt/ Like the rest of us did.” But the record ends with “Jealous Moon,” far less malevolent than Parker Millsap’s “Jealous Sun.” Here the heavens long for everything that’s painful and beautiful about this world: “It breaks her heart that down below/ Rivers fun, flowers grow/ But she can’t feel them bloom.” When the song plays, there’s nothing to do but surrender to this world as a dark marvel, a rebuke to our solitude. Here then is this troubadour’s gift: His song about his nine-year-old is the one that tells you what you need to know about living fearlessly as a grown-up, and his song about the moon is the one that affirms the beauty and humanity in our world of fracture. And he makes it seem so easy.


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LIKE THE STORIES TOLD OF OLD

Or: Allen Toussaint Plays Folk Songs

american tunes

Fats Waller’s 1934 recording of “Viper’s Drag” is a dazzling feat of economy; a wonder of concision. In a compact two minutes and 47 seconds, Waller twists a roadhouse blues into a vaudevillian shuffle, then snaps it back into its original shape. It’s a peep show, a night at the opera, and a miracle of modern physics, all rendered with just ten fingers and 88 keys. Allen Toussaint’s American Tunes version adds drums, bass, and about half a minute of total runtime. It dispenses with the quiet-to-loud dynamics of the original, replacing it with rock and roll thrills, sultry Nawlins gait, and razor-edged acoustic trio dynamics that recall nothing so much as the kitchen-sink clang and clatter of the classic Thelonious Monk Trio album on Prestige. (Drummer Jay Bellerose, with his shake rattle and roll, mines his kit for sound effects and swing just as surely as Roach and Blakey did; Dave Piltch, meanwhile, is frankly a better bass player than most of the ones Monk worked with.) Toussaint’s the anchor and the voice, even though he never opens his mouth: His piano has only ever seemed like a conduit for his easygoing humanity, and even when he’s running the board in ruthless imitation of his stride piano heroes his music can only be described as gentle, unfussed over, charming. He’s a natural, and he opens up “Viper’s Drag” like God rending the heavens, humor and blues, swing and surrealism pouring out of it. It, too, feels like a song that suspends everything we thought we knew of time and space and gravity: Toussaint’s trio stretches the song farther than you’d think it might go, ringing every bit of Waller’s cartooniness out of it and transforming it into a symphony in miniature.

This, basically, is what Toussaint does with the American songbook, what he’s done now over the course of two largely instrumental, Joe Henry-produced albums. The Bright Mississippi, released in 2009, was the full flowering of his jazz dream, even if it hardly played like a straight jazz record. Toussaint and his band played songs rooted in a specific piece of real estate—classics by Monk and Ellington, Django and Jelly Roll—that evoked the landscapes of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans while conjuring the ghosts, the real and imagined spiritual and cultural geography of the place that lurked just below the surface. The album felt classical in its structure, even when the band kicked up some dirt, which it did plenty; its clean lines weren’t enough to contain its sense of the mystic, which boiled over in the airy, weightless innuendos of Toussaint’s “St. James Infirmary.” The record’s strange and bewitching magic is still unparalleled, and seems to stem from Toussaint’s treatment of those songs as pieces of folklore—maps and legends, yarns and tall tales passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, stories and rambles in which the virtue wasn’t in any punchline so much as in how every raconteur told them a bit differently. Toussaint told them better than most, and in a way that only he ever could: Nowhere else does New Orleans jazz move so gaily to the simmering groove of elegant R&B.

American Tunes is a more diverse and inclusive album. It’s more eclectic in its source material, its geographic reach, and in the forms it represents. Toussaint is heard here in solo piano, acoustic trio, quintet, and even vocal presentations, each one a tradition with its own implications and baggage, each one engaged and remade in Toussaint’s own image. So are the compositions he plays, which include three Ellington cuts, some Professor Longhair staples, a bit of Earl “Fatha” Hines, the Waller tune, one from Paul Simon, and even a couple of cuts from Toussaint’s own pen, casually assertive of his own place among these assembled luminaries. (It’s worth noting that a duo performance of “Moon River,” featuring Toussaint playing with Bill Frisell, is available only as a “bonus” cut on the LP version, but adds so much depth and context to the record and is a gem in its own right, a sweet and soulful communion that could have fit the classic Bill Evans/ Jim Hall set Undercurrent.)  True to what Jelly Roll used to say about jazz music, American Tunes feels awash with ideas yet it’s too rough and ragged to ever feel cerebral. Its pleasures aren’t brainy; they’re tactile, kinetic.

Where The Bright Mississippi felt clean and purposeful, American Tunes is more of a patchwork mosaic. Recorded in a couple of different sessions—the solo piano stuff was made at Toussaint’s home studio, some full-band arrangements many months later in Los Angeles—the record is winsomely ramshackle. The songs gain power by their intermingling, and the sequencing ensures some thrilling jukebox transitions: Listen to how the bawdy blues “Rocks in My Bed” melts into the opulence of “Danza, op. 33,” how the delicate glide of “Waltz for Debbie” is stopped in its tracks by the barrelhouse pianism of “Big Chief,” how a dreamy remake of “Southern Nights” answers the white-hot intensity of “Come Sunday” with three minutes of Sabbath rest. The cumulative effect of the record is impressionistic: Each song feels like its own stark color, and the big picture is in how they all swirl together.

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Of course the reason to hear this record—the thing that makes it essential to anyone who cares about the rich tapestry of American song—isn’t how deep and wide Henry and Toussaint go in sourcing this material, but rather how completely Toussaint can bend it to his will. This is most evident on the solo piano numbers, the ones that really seem to play fast and loose with motion and space, with light and kinetics. His skill as an interpreter is informed by his craft as a songwriter: He knows how a tune works, how to unravel it without losing sight of its central thread. His take on “Big Chief” is a two-minute concerto that comes barreling out of the gate: He pulls the melody through brawny blues, front-parlor elegance, and then a haunted dream sequence. It ends where it begins, and he bangs on the keys a few times as punctuation. He takes the stride piano prowl out of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and reveals a melody of striking lyrical beauty; it feels like the song you play as the last bits of confetti fall, and your heart quiets in peaceful anticipation of Ash Wednesday’s rest. One of the set’s two original numbers, “Delores’ Boyfriend,” captures the quiet beauty of an evening amble, the dignity of taking a stroll to no where in particular. Its chief pleasure is in how it builds a full head of steam, then simmers back down again.

The trio songs—Toussaint recording with Bellerose and Piltch—may be the heart of the record. There is “Viper’s Drag,” of course, another great showcase for Toussaint’s songwriter’s ear: He doesn’t refashion the tune so much as sketch out all of its rooms, revealing them to be more spacious than Waller’s madcap performance ever suggested. It’s a true dialogue, in particular with Bellerose, who provides the locomotive beat while Toussaint scats across the tracks. The song’s earthiness masks its elegance; it sounds so much like a burlesque that you almost don’t notice it’s really a pocket symphony, played with just three instruments. “Waltz for Debbie,” meanwhile, conjures all the sweet romance and delicate trio action of Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard band—Piltch’s upright bass answers Toussaint’s piano lines, Bellerose adds sublime cymbal dissolves—in such a way that you could almost miss how completely Toussaint overhauls the tune: Note that it never actually shifts into waltz time. “Confessin’ (That I Love You)” traces Pops’ on-the-melody crowd-pleasing through the carefree stroll of Mingus’ “My Jelly Roll Stroll.” All three of those cats knew that the calling card of New Orleans music is how it’s unanswerable to anyone else’s timetable, how it moves freely without every working up a sweat. When the song breaks down into three-way conversation, it reveals what’s best about jazz as a form: How it’s a music of singular purpose but a multitude of individual voices.

Van Dyke Parks shows up a couple of times on the record, pushing the record into still further formal diversity, adding critical squares to its patchwork mosaic. He and Toussaint turn Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Danza, op. 33” into a hot summer night’s dream, Parks’ orchestration and Bellerose’s swirl of cymbals soundtracking stars appearing on by one in the pitch black; it fades away, and is answered by the sly come-ons of “Hey Little Girl,” another great juxtaposition of the record’s sophistication and its sensuality. The counterpart to “Danza” is a two-piano take on “Southern Nights,” which Glen Campbell turned into a country song but Toussaint himself recorded as a good-natured trip. Here the drugginess is dropped for a childhood rhapsody, a summertime reverie. These songs aren’t larks or distractions: As with so many of these songs, they feel modest in their intentions yet crucial to the fabric of the record.

Three Duke Ellington numbers are here, too, and they push the record’s marriage of earthiness and elegance in new directions. “Rocks in My Bed” is what Toussaint’s old pal Lowell George might have called an eloquent profanity, a trashy little backwater blues that’s gussied up for a night on the town. Rhiannon Giddens is on hand to deliver the lyric as a psalm of lamentation, and she sings it like a jilted lover who’s just been dealt one indignation too many. Toussaint, who spent so much of his career in a supporting role, does some of his most spirited and adventurous playing when he’s got a vocalist to take the spotlight, and here he adds all the right set dressing: Blues, swing, and cheerful humor. Bellerose keeps his tambourine shaking, but it’s his kickdrum and rimshots that make the song a banger. The showstopper for Giddens is “Come Sunday.” She steps into the Mahalia Jackson role here, and her precision and formal control have never been more valuable. It’s another song of ascent, a prayer lit up by fire and tribulation; she’s looking for the promised land, and she makes every word land. Duke wrote the song as a spiritual but also a kind of a séance, and here there are several voices called and raised—voices from church songs, slave songs, work songs, freedom songs. It all points to jazz, and Charles Lloyd sends up a sublime sax solo as commiseration and benediction. The song feels like a holy moment where ash and clay are kissed by heaven, though its place on the album could just as easily been occupied by “Freedom for the Stallion,” Toussaint’s own spiritual sequel. “Lotus Blossom” may be the key to this whole thing, a song of such aching, impressionistic beauty that you could almost believe Toussaint wrote it himself. It’s ravishing, and toward the end Frisell offers a direct statement of the melody while Toussaint plucks out a gentle lullaby.

American Tunes is a much-delayed follow-up to The Bright Mississippi; Henry pursued it for years; the sessions finally happened, and days later Toussaint was gone. The burden of the album is that it must stand now as his epitaph and the capstone of his legacy; the glory of it is that it was never intended as such and never sounds like it. Too teeming with life for it to ever sound morbid or self-consciously grave—too awash in good humor, cheerful camaraderie, and sensual pleasure—Toussaint plays the whole record with a kind of stately leisure that suggests he has all the time in the world.  And in that sense, perhaps it is a fitting final chapter—an album that reveals Toussaint as a prism through which so many stripes of American song must pass; as a performer whose softspoken and open-hearted humanity cannot be divorced from the wide mercies and inclusiveness of his music; and as a recording artist and composer whose gift was in how hard we worked to make everything sound easy. American Tunes compresses an entire spectrum of American folk song, and it seems here to exist within Toussaint himself, a man who contains multitudes. He ends it with his lone vocal contribution to the album, on Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” He dreams that he’s dying, and if that’s where he left us the album might be unbearable—but like “Come Sunday,” this one winds down with work left to be done, even the holy vocation of song; even amidst weariness, the record remains ever bright and bon vivant. He leaves us, then, with these songs talking amongst themselves, an endless river ever bending, and so much music still to be made.


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NOBODY KEEPS ANYTHING

Or: Birds of Chicago get real gone.

 birds_of_chicago_cover

Inspirational thinking and basic chronology reassure us that midnight is where the day begins—only what if, one day, it isn’t? What will become of the love we’ve made, once the final curtain falls and to dust we all return? Will our strange affections for one another light up the night sky like so many constellations—or will we be left looking likes fools, standing amidst collapsing sandcastles and crashing waves? These are the questions raised by a tough and soulful young band called Birds of Chicago on their breakthrough album Real Midnight, which might as well be called Final Midnight. It’s an album of eschatological hoedowns, campfire songs for the last night on earth. It’s a record of bruised and purple hearts, though not strictly speaking a breakup record; it’s an album of ticking clocks and rising tides, but not really an album about death. These eleven songs inhabit a moment of holy waiting, tentative joy, and dread anticipation: The moment when we might summon our every breath to exhale a cosmic love song even though we know it may soon fall silent; the moment when we might pledge to the beloved that we’ll love them ‘til the end of time, even as we wonder it that’ll be a thousand years from now or sometime before lunch tomorrow.

It’s an album of everyday apocalypses—sky full of fire, pain pouring down. The future is a time bomb, a death sentence for everything you’ve loved and built; and in the past there’s no solace—just the specter of all the things we’ll never get back. In the first song on the album, “tomorrow’s on you like a pack of wild hounds”—or, as another guy once put it, “time is a lion and you are a lamb.” On the song that follows, we meet a young man who’s trapped “alone in his room with the ghosts of past summers.” On “Pelicans,” the album’s keynote and benediction, there is only now: “I am a pelican/ in the eye of a hurricane/ Nothing good behind me/ Up ahead is pain.” In this harrowing chronology, a refrain like “I believe in yesterdays” feels like a taunt, “the times they are a-changin’” a threat. But here is the staggering and miraculous thing about the album: For all its heaviness, this isn’t a morbid song cycle. It’s not about being trapped in a corner, though most of its characters are; it’s about punching your way out, knowing that even if you go down swinging there was something sacred in your struggle. Real Midnight is about loving through the black eyes and the bruises, building something that may last forever even if you doubt there could be any such thing. It’s about moments of active, decisive engagement with another human, made meaningful by the long odds and ticking clocks. How does the pelican’s song conclude? “Let’s drift a while and feel the sun/ And oh, by god, you’ll know my love/ And I will know your love.” It’s a lover’s hymn from the eye of a hurricane; it’s delivered as a whisper, atop a pillow of fingerpicked strings and piano, but it’s got the roar of a battle cry.

The Birds of Chicago are, primarily, a husband and wife combo; JT Nero writes most of the songs and sings a couple of them in a coarse, whisky sour voice. Allison Russell writes a couple and sings even more, her own voice soaring and soulful. The record was produced by Joe Henry; he discovered the band through Rhiannon Giddens, their long-time champion, who also sings and plays throughout. There is deep cosmic significance to the recording of this album: As it happens, it was the very last album to be recorded in The Garfield House, Joe Henry’s famed home studio that birthed Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, several of Joe’s own albums, and at least a dozen other classics besides. As a For Sale sign went up over the Garfield’s door, this crew kicked up a mighty ruckus in the room below; a chapter was closed and a story ended, all wrapped up with fierce and fiery singing. Thus, ontologically, the album proves its own point.

Henry’s production is perfect for this band—an “Americana” roots group, by most contemporary classifications, whose arsenal here includes piano, organ, ukulele, guitar, banjo, clarinet, and voices lifted up in gospel choir effects. Yet the sound of the album doesn’t resemble any other Americana album you could name, at least not from recent years; there’s no fetishization of “twang” or “grit” here, none of the analog authenticity that T-Bone Burnett might have brought to these sessions. It sounds more like the musicians were playing together in real time and in close proximity, their instruments filling the basement space, spilling over into one another, creating a thick, warm sound that often swells to foundation-shaking heights. “Secular gospel” is a term the Birds like to use, and what’s here does indeed sound like a joyful noise; church music traditions shape everything here, making each song sound like a communal sing-along, the cumulative impact a wild yowl. The songs may be non-denominational, but their sound is one of affirmation, empathy, and inclusion; they are “secular” only if you deny humanism as its own kind of liturgy.

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In Nero’s lyrics, pop songs are treated as folklore, little bits of them quoted throughout—the common vernacular for lovers in dangerous times. There are snippets of The Beatles here, “St. James Infirmary” there—so when one song title exhorts us to “Remember Wild Horses,” we do so: The weary, lived-in vibe of that Rolling Stones classic is a perfect touchstone for these weathered reflections. Russell and Nero trade verses, sketching out characters who believe in yesterday, even when it’s to their detriment. Nero’s verse is the most pointed: He runs into an old buddy who breaks into mirthless laughter: “I said man what’s so funny?/ He looked up at me like he wanted to punch me/ He said, ‘Nothing’s funny, not one damn thing is funny.’” (See also: “When you asked me how I was doing/ Was that some kind of joke?”) The man’s whole story tumbles out in two scant lines: “I loved her so long I believed that she loved me/ I promised her, she promised me.” When the chorus erupts and the two singers join their voices—his wounded, hers soaring— it becomes the kind of song designed to break down inhibitions and provide instant catharsis. “Remember wild horses running on with the morning in their eyes/… You don’t have to wipe away your tears, go on and let ‘em fall/ You’re just remembering wild horses is all.” It’s a song about pining; a song about how our fractured love so suddenly turns into memories that haunt. Like so many songs on this album, it seems to be sung from somewhere deep within a thundercloud, bass and drums bleeding into each other to form an ominous background rumble—the singers singing loud to overpower it.

But time is a dare, and love an act of resilience— even defiance. “Barley” has the feel of a spiritual, and offers one survivor’s metaphor after another: “The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me.” “The rain that floods the valley will not drown me.” “The fire that takes the kindling will not take me.”  Of course every kindling has its day, but the song itself is a redemptive act, the singing a feat of courage. And it’s presented starkly: Russell sings it a capella for a couple of verses before before handclaps and percussion add their assent. The arrangement is stark, but the feel robust, humane. It’s a music of many voices rising into something collective; it’s a riot scene.

Russell is a singer of huge presence, and—like Giddens—she draws her power from restraint. Her star-making turn here is “Kinderspel,” where she wears naked desire in the raggedness of her voice—but listen for how she digs deep into her gut for the final chorus. It’s a big moment that’s earned by the song’s patient build. The lyrics address a lover from a place of hurt, and of need; they’re stark but hypnotic in their repetition: “You, you cared for me/ You, you cared for me/ Smelled like a wild sea/ Tasted just like a wild sea/ You were hungry, yeah you were hungry/ You were hungry so you took me/ You were hungry so you took me/ You took me ‘cause you were hungry.” A fleet piano solo carries the bridge, Jay Bellerose’s bass drum and cymbals provide dramatic accents, and then in the final verse Russell delivers what could be the album’s keynote: “Nobody keeps anything/ Nobody gets to keep anything.” Like Lucinda Williams, even her thoughts turn to dust, to transience—yet that’s just where her voice starts to soar. This is a song for the morning after real midnight; a song for picking up the pieces.

Nero, meanwhile, takes center stage on “Estrella Goodbye,” the last dance on the deck of the Titanic; a string-band throw-down for the very last days. It sounds like a party song, banjos plucking, drums building momentum, Russell’s gospel harmonies swooping in and out of the song, and Nero issuing a call for joy without inhibition. The temporary nature of things gives it its urgency: “Tomorrow’s gonna come and kill tonight/ Least you could do is put up a fight.” Or, as Joe Henry put it on Tiny Voices: “All manner of abandon is just the thing we need.”

The title song is a soulful number, performed with everyone huddled around the piano; it’s like a Van Morrison song in how it seems somehow to bottle the strange weather of the soul. Real midnight’s gonna come; there are real wolves at the door. But as Nero offers grim warnings, Russell’s singing about tender kisses. It might all end badly—or then again, it might not: “Real midnight’s gonna come/ But yeah, that’s alright/ We will be as the stars/ And put holes in the night/ In 10,000 years/ They’ll see how our love shines/ When they’re lying on their backs/ Looking up through the pines.” Maybe our love will last; maybe the ending of things is immaterial. What Real Midnight affirms is that every moment carries the possibility of redemption; it’s just a leap of faith, an act of joy away.


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