Josh Hurst

Tag: Rhiannon Giddens

IT’LL DO NO ONE WRONG

Or: Worthy new releases from February.

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Some good ones this month, and more coming next go-around; I can already tell you that March’s new release crop includes some tremendous recordings from Rodney Crowell, Valerie June, Spoon, and more. For now, here are nine records I’ve enjoyed spending time with in February.

Alison Krauss, Windy City. For those of us who cut our teeth on the spare, uncluttered production ethos of T-Bone Burnett, and who learned everything we know about country music from Waylon, Willie, and Merle, even the suggestion of lushness is suspect. Then again, no Waylon song cuts to the bone quite like the schmaltzy, string-drenched “We Had It All,” so maybe it’s not surprising that my favorite Alison Krauss album is the one that bypasses bluegrass pyrotechnics in favor of splashy orchestrations and layer upon layer of emotional shading. Windy City captures a side of country music that’s just as “real” as the stripped-down outlaw stance preferred by Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, one that mines the tones and colors of the orchestra for feeling and pathos just as surely as Duke Ellington did, or for that matter Ray Charles in his C&W mode. Produced with Willie’s pal Buddy Cannon, this is a standards collection, albeit one where the selections are mostly less-traveled. And it’s phenomenal, down to every last steel twang, string section flourish, and brass moan. “I Never Cared for You” turns the old Teatro beat into Mariachi exotica; the lushness in the production (piano, strings, pedal steel, hot blues guitar licks, harmony singers, and swirling percussion all carry the chorus home) doesn’t mask the pain, but it does make it go down smoother. The same’s true of her “Poison Love,” which is breezy and wistful where Doug Sahm’s was thorny and raucous. “Gentle on My Mind” sustains delicate beauty even as it gains momentum, layer upon layer of melody and sound. And there’s a great moment on “River in the Rain” where a finger-plucked reverie gives way to the sudden sound of the full orchestra, roaring back to life, raging against the solitude. Man, it’s something. The whole record is fun, touching, and endlessly playable.

Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin once wrote. The second solo album from erstwhile Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens is all about the cyclical narratives that shape and constrain our human flourishing, and about the frail and magnificent vessels that carry the seed of those stories down bloodlines and across generations—folk songs, church songs, campfire songs, protest songs. It starts with one about slavery and rape (you should’ve heard ‘em just around midnight, another singer might offer), and other material tackles events more recent (the Birmingham Sunday bombing of 1963) and, well, much more recent (police brutality). Strict chronology isn’t the issue: the point is that these things are our story, and always have been. Here, they’re dealt with; they’re spoken aloud. Our cruelty is acknowledged, our brokenness illumined, our resilience affirmed. Just as Dylan builds new songs from the old “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ riff and steals lyrics from Charley Patton, Giddens constructs her songs from spare parts—from old ideas and popular problems. It’s heavy, of course, but not depressive: song itself is weaponized here, raw beauty refracted through the prism of heartache, sounding like folk and gospel, R&B and even hip-hop. Tomorrow is My Turn will prove easier to return to, I imagine, but Freedom Highway is more ambitious, and just as essential. “We can’t do much more than to sing you a song,” she says at one point—but she knows good and well that this is no small thing. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

Son of the Velvet Rat, Dorado. I keep thinking of Christopher Walken in the infamous cowbell sketch. “Really explore the space,” he urges, and here’s a band that takes his advice, crafting dusty grooves and high-and-lonesome laments that aren’t soundscapes so much as never-ending vistas, widescreen black-and-white movies shown under cloudless desert sky. These ten songs roll on and on like time and space don’t mean a thing, gripping even with slow tempos and weary bones. Give some credit to producer Joe Henry, who makes these songs sound full without ever sounding busy; there are shakers and maracas, funeral organs and mournful fiddles, endless guitar strumming and the ghosts of mariachi horns, all of it floating into the wind, a kickdrum banging through the whole thing like the creak of the earth spinning on its axis. Give the rest of the credit to singer Georg Altziebler, who rasps his way through fever-dream lyrics about blood red shoes and insatiable needs like they’re campfire ballads; and, to his wife Heike Binder, who does a fair amount of the playing and matches the vividness of the lyrics. “None of us are free/ I’m not without you/ You’re not without me/ That’s what love must be,” one song goes; it’s a treacherous entanglement, and they make it sound sad and comforting at the same time.

Rose Cousins, Natural Conclusion. I really ought to know better than to assume that any song narrated in the first person is an act of autobiography, but it’s hard not to think that the songs here are all true confessions of Rose Cousins. This is the kind of record that pulls you close; the opening song, “Chosen,” starts as a whisper but builds into a mighty ruckus, a trick employed on several of these songs without ever getting old. In other words: You have to lean into this one, but the payoff’s there. Joe Henry produced this one, too, with a cast of sympathetic musicians who mostly stay out of the way but add flashes of color when needed: “Chains” is a grinding electric blues, and “Lock and Key” floats and sways to a jazzy shuffle, piano riding atop finger-popping upright bass. It’s that piano that’s at the center, building into a rhapsody on “Like Trees,” the cling and clatter of Jay Bellerose’s drums and cymbals mirroring the lyric’s dislocation. And these are deep lyrics, in the confessional vein but steeped in religious imagery: On the first song Cousins is a prodigal who’s running from love, not sure if she even deserves to be “Chosen.” Later on she wants to be saved; she fumbles for a map or a guide; she goes looking for grace. There’s restlessness and redemption here; what once was lost may one day be found. And I haven’t even told you about the best part of this record, Cousins’ voice—which you really ought to hear for yourself.

Sampha, Process. This one puts me in the same headspace as the great records of the classic singer/songwriter era—back when Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon were all uniting supple studio craft and writerly ambition with deep expressiveness, and proving that craft could be its own reward. Thing is, the lyrics on Sampha’s record are really just sketches, scaffolding on which he builds monuments to shaking vulnerability; his arrangements say as much as the words do, like on “Plastic 100 °C,” which hums and sighs with delicate stringed instruments. “Kora Sings” is just as trembling and soft, right up to the point where he knocks his drum kit down the stairs and it somehow collapses into a raucous groove. And “Blood on Me” is relentless; you don’t need to hear a single word he says to know that it’s a song about running scared. (I reviewed this one over at FLOOD.)

Elbow, Little Fictions. It opens with an orchestra in full, cosmic swirl around everyman Guy Garvey, who’s singing about a little girl who sees the the world through the eyes of childlike faith and wonder. It’s like a U2 anthem, only it’s actually bigger and more open-hearted, if you can believe it—intimate vulnerability, pitched toward the nosebleed section. It could almost be the quintessential Elbow song—its good-natured optimism too sincere and too hard-won to ever count as schmaltz—but then on the next one, the piano player goes into lounge mode while the drummer taps out a disco beat on pots and pans. “I will fly swift and true straight to you like an arrow,” it begins. And then: “Fall in love with me.” Who could say no? They get me every time. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

Quelle Chris, Being You is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often. “Loving you is complicated,” Kendrick Lamar once declared—and of course, he was talking to himself. This Quelle Chris album spends 17 songs interrogating the idea of self-love (the song called “Buddies” is a look in the mirror), and, as a flipside, self-hate. Of course, The Life of Pablo also turns hip-hop swagger and bravado on their heads, and like that album, this one feels like it runs a little long. Even so, Chris is kind of a kooky guy whose weird sense of humor and hazy Madvillainy production are charming, warts and all. Who wouldn’t love this guy? (I reviewed this one for FLOOD.)

Ryan Adams, Prisoner. Calling this Adams’ divorce album gives Prisoner a sense of distinction and an air of thematic cohesion that albums like Ryan Adams and Ashes & Fire lacked, though in truth, I think it’s exactly as skillful as those albums, and exactly as good at filtering dislocation and unease through the prism of mopey Morrisey-isms and shambolic heartland rock. Adams makes this kind of thing seem so easy, which may be his blessing and his curse: It’s hard to be bowled over by yet another album of capable craft, so it’s worth noting that not every singer/songwriter who gets his heart broken can make his misery sound so warm and comforting.

Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Got Soul. The songs here are nothing to write home about, sandbagged by a lot of jam band tropes and clichés, so I don’t mind that Randolph burns right through ‘em, as if they’re nothing but kindling for his Pentecostal fire and steel guitar inferno. I can’t help but think there’s still a classic Robert Randolph album waiting to be made, one where he brings this level of heat to songs that are worthier, but you can’t question his talent, or that this thing sounds great while it’s playing. (I reviewed this one for Slant.)

LIKE THE STORIES TOLD OF OLD

Or: Allen Toussaint Plays Folk Songs

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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.

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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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