Archive for July, 2016

critic’s pick: sarah jarosz, ‘undercurrent’

sarah jaroszThe curious photograph within the artwork of Sara Jarosz’s fine new Undercurrent album would almost seem a contradiction at first. Open up the CD jacket, and there sits a photograph of the Central Park reservoir, an expanse of serenity within an unwieldy metropolis. But in a way, the shot mirrors at least some of the intent fueling the album’s 11 songs. The product of Jarosz’s recent relocation to New York, the tunes are largely folkish miniatures – stories of intimacy and conversational reflection performed with refreshingly understated candor. While they may be products of big city experience, they sound like stories shared in a parlor room.

The mood of Undercurrent is framed by the two songs that beautifully bookend the album. The first, Early Morning Light, is a portrait of romantic aftermath sung with no accompaniment other than Jarosz’s acoustic guitar. It’s a stark coming-to-terms tale that approaches it sense of loss with wistful expectation (“All my troubles just begun, you and me, the troubled ones”) even though the inevitable breakup is no less traumatic. In contrast is Jacqueline, which is also sung solo but with electric guitar as the lone orchestration. The despondency is just as profound, even as Jarosz seeks to summon an era-defining spirit for solace (“I cried my tears and they fell on down into your dark and misty blue”). Both songs bluntly define their sense of sadness, seek different forms of comfort and employ different shades of stark musicality for expression.

It should also be noted that in an album full of collaborative songwriting – Parker Milsap, Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Americana priestess Aoife O’Donovan help out – Early Morning Light and Jacqueline were penned by Jarosz alone.

What sits between the songs is rather splendid, too. Far lighter in tone and intent is Green Lights. Co-written by Luke Reynolds of Guster, the music is more atmospheric with a smidge of reverb accenting Jarosz’s singing to make it more modestly fanciful. The song doesn’t dispense with grimness, but its intrusion is more worldly than personal. Perhaps, the misery-loves-company approach keeps the heavier demons at bay. It certainly seems that way as Green Lights’ more dream-like disposition unfolds (“The song in my head keeps me marching on”).

There are also twists down other paths, as in House of Mercy, a Julie Miller-style blast of antique spiritualism with an incantatory feel, and the accusatory Lost Dog, whose shattered sentiments are reflected in the brittle strains of banjo Jarosz colors the tune with. Collectively, such scrapbook reveries add up to a beautifully unadorned folk attitude, one with an uneasy grace that fuels Undercurrent’s quiet but beautiful urgency.

Sarah Jarosz performs at 3 p.m. July 16 as part of Forecastle at Waterfront Park in Louisville.

josh ritter leaves the beast behind

josh ritter.

josh ritter.

Most contemporary artists shy away from labels designed to market and promote their music, viewing them as stylistically restrictive. Josh Ritter is not among them. It’s just that he has come up with his own label, and it’s rather specific – messianic oracular honky-tonk.

Come again?

To comprehend that tag and Ritter’s need for it, one had to start with other labels. After 2013’s stripped down, primarily acoustic The Beast In Its Tracks, a record written in the aftermath of his divorce from songsmith Dawn Landes, Ritter decided to return to the outside world of inspiration that gave his early recordings comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan for their removal from direct, auto-biographical lyrics. But Ritter also amped up the groove along with the scope of his songs. When he was done, he was surprised at the amount of religious imagery the resulting music contained. Hence, a genre of his devising was born.

“When you’re writing, you never really get a chance to think about the themes of the record, and I think that’s good,” said Ritter, one of the featured artists at this weekend’s Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. “It’s always good to be writing in the dark because I never want to write towards a goal.

“As I was wrapping up the record, I started to notice all this strange American imagery –  kind of mystical but very earthy, very feet-of-clay stuff about how people we know match up against the expectations we’re supposed to live up to in religion and just about how those things cause friction. For that reason, I thought the rambunctiousness of the music and the rambunctiousness of the statements needed a real flesh-and-blood term. Messianic oracular honky tonk just sounded like such a fun way of thinking about music.”

More than the label itself, Ritter said, came a need. With The Beast In Its Tracks drawing the emotional intent of his music unexpectedly inward, he felt a need for expansion. Being autobiographical, it seemed, did not suit him.

“One of my pet peeves has always been autobiographic information. I don’t care for it. I don’t care for songs that are just about me, me, me. I’ve always stayed away from that. The Beast In Its Tracks was an impossibility. I was writing about a divorce. I was cataloging it and dissecting it myself. It felt like it was an important thing to get down. It was a huge life experience that was important for me to look at from all angles to see what it was. The Beast In Its Tracks was about divorce and everything that came after.

“That having been done, I definitely felt like now was the time for me to get back to my outward looking writing, about writing that isn’t necessarily about me. It’s about other things. It was about a girl in a small town who is trying to make an awful decision or a tent preacher working his way across Ohio. These songs are definitely outward looking just because I felt like I had already allowed myself a pass to do a record about myself.”

Ritter’s writing hasn’t been limited to music, either. The Idaho native’s 2011 novel Bright’s Passage became a New York Times best-seller. It also renewed his appreciation for concise narrative storytelling that is essential to songwriting.

“It gave me respect for all forms of writing as well as a deeper respect for my own songwriting. I’ve always been a voracious editor. Nothing doesn’t get polished down. I believe in the idea being good enough for getting all you can get out it. When you’re writing a book, it’s still about being concise, about saying exactly what you want to say and saying no more.

“That’s also what is so attractive about songwriting, although the performance isn’t there when a person sits with a book and reads in a room. That’s a much lonelier life, I feel.

At the end of the day, the difference between the two is that with songwriting, I can go onstage and get a bunch of applause.”

Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform at 8 p.m. July 9 for the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. Tickets are $65 for weekend admission. Call 888-810-2063 or go to mastermusiciansfestival.org.

go big ‘blue’: leann rimes at 33

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

LeAnn Rimes has grown up in public, although she is hardly the first celebrity to do so. Still, it seems something of revelation that, at age 33, she is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of her breakthrough hit.

Seriously. Remember Blue, the Patsy Cline-style crooner of a country hit Rimes shook the world with two decades ago this month? It was the kind of worldly tune – both in sentiment and rich, regal vocal design – that even a practiced singer would struggle with when in came to conveying the kind of natural ease Rimes exhibited. The kicker, of course, is that Rimes was 13 when the song was a hit. Turns out, though, she was even younger when it was first recorded.

“I first cut Blue when I was 11 and then I re-recorded it when I was 13,” said the veteran singer who performs this weekend at Renfro Valley. “But the version that you heard, and the one you still hear today, is the recording I did as an 11 year old. The vocals were switched accidentally, and the 11 year old recording was released. So what you’re hearing is me at 11.”

“I haven’t actually listened to the whole album (the same-titled recording that became Rimes’ debut major label album in 1996) in a really long time, but it definitely defines a moment in time. For Blue itself, it really is still such a timeless song.”

With Blue celebrating its 20th birthday, one has to ponder the obvious. How does an artist, even one with the performance authority and vocal chops of a practiced adult, address stardom at the dawn of their teen years?

“I don’t know if anybody knows how to handle that kind of success at that age,” Rimes said. “It was so instant and so big. I was so young that I don’t think I ever really understood how it could be such a pivotal moment. Still, that time really defined my career.”

Unfortunately for Rimes, so did the tabloid-ready adventures that came with stardom in subsequent years. The hits continued to pile up – especially crossover smashes like How Do I Live, I Need You and Can’t Fight the Moonlight. But so did all the offstage turbulence – lawsuits, divorce, family strife – that made Rimes as much of a sensation with the tabloids as her music.

“There are good things and bad aspects to success,” she said. “I want to give myself a little bit of credit here, because I’ve been very honest about the ups and downs in my life and hopefully through a lot of that I’ve been able to help people. Of course, there are a lot of people who think they know something about you when they’re reading something in a magazine in the grocery line. At the same time, that’s given me a real understanding and even sympathy for other human beings and what they go through.”

Today, however, Rimes sees her life and career from calmer turf. She recently signed a recording contract with RCA/UK in Europe and has begun work on a new album. Her current overseas single is a cover of The Story. The song was a single for folk/rock song stylist Brandi Carlile but became a bigger hit when re-cut by actress/singer Sara Ramirez in 2011 for the television drama Grey’s Anatomy (which features Ramirez as a cast member).

“There will be a completely different single in this country in the next few months, but I love The Story. I first heard it on Grey’s Anatomy and thought, ‘What’s that?’ But I’ve been a fan of Brandi for many years, too.”

Rimes said the anniversary of her earliest chart success together with the next chapter of her recording career has proven an invigorating combination.

“I feel very grounded. I’m at a good place right now.”

LeAnn Rimes performs at 8:30 p.m. July 9 at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, 2380 Richmond St. in Mt. Vernon. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 800-765-7464 or got to renfrovalley.com.

critic’s pick: neko case, k.d. lang and laura viers, ‘case/lang/viers’

case-lang-viersThe trouble with most pop vocal trios, especially all-star amalgamations of previously celebrated solo artists, isn’t the singing. If the harmony wasn’t there, the teaming would have never caught fire in the first place. No, the kinks usually surface in the writing. As such collaborations are of often designed as exhibitions of star power, the songs handed to the artists involved are either perfunctory tunes offered to capitalize on the harmonies or pop covers cut to insure the product’s accessibility.

It should comes as little surprise that case/lang/viers, an absolutely sumptuous session of elegant turbulence, quiet provocation and blissful singing doesn’t adhere to any of the expected supergroup prototypes. Formed at the behest of Canadian cross-genre chanteuse k.d. lang, the trio pens 14 tunes of their own, covering everything from tales of rapturous and shattered romance to startling eulogies. The singing? Well, it’s sterling throughout. That’s kind of a given that the remarkable songstresses Neko Case and Laura Viers round out the trio. But it’s the songs on case/lang/viers that really grab you. To say they compliment the harmonies doesn’t begin to cut to the core of the album’s serene glow.

For many, lang is the marquee name here. For anyone who has lost touch with the clarity and emotional potency of her singing as well as the often exquisite longing of her best compositions, look no further than Honey and Smoke, a breathtaking love song of distant unrest that any singer would (or at least ought to) kill for. But pair that with the satin-rich voice that reveals not one iota of a blemish from a career that has railed on for over three decades, along with the hushed girl group vocals Case and Viers supply (an integral component to Trevor Martine’s lustrous production) and the sparks begin to regally fly.

Case, not surprisingly, turns such stately pop tradition on its ear during Delirium with an equal measure of defiance and distance (“I kissed you in the morning, but only in my mind’s eye”) and blurrier, neo-psychedelic backdrops that twist new shapes out of familiar girl-group pop in much the same way R.E.M.’s later records embraced softer, more ambient flavored variations of its earlier elemental sound.

Viers may be – comparatively, at least – the least established of the three trio members (she opened a Decemberists concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts in 2009). But she maintains the most visible songwriting presence on the album, running from the spry, summery requiem for the doomed ‘60s songstress Judee Still (Song for Judee) to the dizzying, orchestral rumination Best Kept Secret.

Throw all that in the same pop neighborhood and you have what may be the most articulate and sonically satisfying pop album of the summer.

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