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.

Blues & Roots: On the crossed paths of Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams

vanished

There is no need for Lucinda Williams to prove anything to us by making a quote-unquote jazz album; for decades now, she has exhibited formal command of an American roots mélange that’s borderless and boundary-free. She’s beyond category, and—in the cool tones of West and the limber jams of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone—she’s convincingly jazz-conversant. And there is certainly no need for Charles Lloyd to prove his country-blues bona fides; now well into his 80s, the guru-level sax master has developed a signature sound that’s earthbound and ecstatic at the same time, jazz improvisations shaded and textured by rustic folk vernaculars. The achievement of Vanished Gardens—their first on-record collaboration, released on the Blue Note label—is something far more rarified, its ambition far more sophisticated, than any exercise in the mechanics of genre. What this album proves is the insolubility of American song; it embodies traditions that have only ever existed in conversation with one another, whose threads can never be fully untangled.

Its crossed paths and cross-pollinations extend to the players themselves: Lloyd and Williams share a common language in the Bob Dylan songbook (Lloyd and his Marvels played an ebullient “Masters of War” on 2016’s I Long to See You; Williams has been performing that same song for decades). They share a few other commonalities, as well—including a couple of guitar players, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, who fill Vanished Gardens with electric thrum and ghostly twang. More than anything, they share an affinity for earthy music that borrows indiscriminately from American song styles. Their summit meeting on Vanished Gardens is equally split between instrumental numbers and Williams showcases; it includes new songs, standards, and reimaginings of the Williams songbook; and it’s powered by The Marvels (Frisell, Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers, drummer Eric Harland), a loose and rangy troupe whose jazz credentials just happen to include collaborations with fellow category-killers Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. Together, they play music steeped in southern soil, but abloom with the questing, exploratory spirit of jazz. Put it on the shelf with Nelson’s Stardust, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, even Dylan’s Triplicate—jubilant excavations that embrace American music traditions for their emotional precision and abiding mystery, upholding folk forms even while bursting them at the seams.

Presupposing that the past is never truly past, Lloyd and Williams reopen several pages from the communal songbook. The Marvels offer a delicate reading of “Monk’s Mood,” emphasizing its wistful romance over its whimsy, the guitarists adding cowboy licks while Lloyd goes full Johnny Hodges in his rhapsodic solo. There are also relitigations of old Williams tunes—all of them chosen by Lloyd, it should be noted, with whom they proved resonant. These performances capture one of the chief delights of American folk music—the eagerness with which it reshapes and retells its stories time and time again. This rambler’s spirit animates “Ventura,” which bears witness both to Williams’ elegant formalism—the song’s as sleek and as plainspoken as a standard—but also to The Marvels’ interpretive gifts; they convey the desolation of the original, but allow the chorus to open up with hope and desire. Meanwhile, “Dust,” which chronicles the ravages of dementia, is played with verve, connecting it to the great blues tradition of resolute joy in the face of eternity. “Even your thoughts are dust,” Williams warns, and Lloyd howls his rebuttal into the void.

Vanished Gardens also upholds the folk tradition of topicality. The one new Williams composition here, “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around,” opens with wordless supplication from Lloyd before transforming into a kind of updated Staples Singers number; it’s a Civil Rights song born of gospel hope, clear-eyed both in its measure of progress and in its reckoning with the devil who still sits at our table. Lloyd’s sax solo toward the song’s end sounds as though it’s wafting down the hall from Charles Mingus’ Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, and Harland’s drumming, all pops and crashes, imbues crackling electricity. It’s of a piece with the opening instrumental, “Defiant,” where Lloyd builds a searching, Sonny Rollins-style solo from the ground up, then lets it snake through a thicket of high-and-lonesome pedal steel from Leisz. By maintaining its clarity of vision and its purposeful momentum through every twist and turn, the song reiterates an important civics lesson from the American canon: Keep your eye on the prize.

The band’s archivist spirit is balanced by their explorer’s zeal; they’re not here to recite but to discover, something you can hear in their burnished reading of the standard “Ballad of a Sad Young Man,” where country-Western guitars adorn a deep midnight blues, stretched out to something so sumptuous and slow it almost qualifies as ambient music. (It captures some of the same strange weather as The Milk Carton Kids’ “One More for the Road”—a hushed saloon song turned into an impressionistic American epic.) If that song maps out the solitude implicit to so much American folklore, the original instrumental “Blues for Langston and LaRue” captures the inverse, Lloyd summoning Rat Pack nonchalance as he walks his flute atop an ambling beat, careless and cool. And then there are times when everyone just loses themselves in the music. It happens in the title song, mutant bebop that lurches and howls before settling into a trance-like cool-down. And it happens most epically on “Unsuffer Me,” six minutes when Williams first recorded it on West but 11 here, an extended vamp where Williams begs and pleads, then leaves it to the guttural articulations of Lloyd’s horn to say what she can’t. Together, the players lift up one of the most hallowed and ancient set-ups of all—the yearning for redemption. All our crossed paths lead back to it eventually.