Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 274: my morning jacket, ‘the waterfall’

waterfallLouisville’s My Morning Jacket has always been a band of seeming contradictions. It can wail with the bawdiest of arena rockers and then retreat into a Southern smoked psychedelic chill. Ditto for frontman Jim James, who can summon deep earthy moans when his songs call for it or sail into the vocal stratosphere with a soul-soaked falsetto when the music becomes less melodically restrictive.

Such a varied fabric is on rich display throughout MMJ’s new album The Waterfall. At its core, the 10 songs are soaked in varying degrees of heartbreak. Some strive to keep a brave face, others already show signs of renewal. But there is a tinge of sadness to all of them. Well, at least that’s the case lyrically. Musically, The Waterfall is a grab bag of pop-infused reflection alternately full of trippy orchestration, synth-pop simplicity and, yes, some quite entrancing rock ‘n’ roll.

“Roll the dice, set sail the ship and the doors will open on down the line,” James sings with a measure of hesitant hope on the album-opening Believe. While a hearty rockish affirmation breaks loose of a gurgling synthesizer intro, the song never evens out lyrically. It’s as if it finds solace in uncertainty (“Believe, believe, believe, nobody knows for sure”).

In Its Infancy (The Waterfall), however, turns kaleidoscopic. It rocks back and forth between an ominous downbeat passage anchored by guitar, Rhodes piano and a subtle scowl from James and a blast of summery pop bliss colored by a troupe of backup singers and an all-too brief steel guitar break from Carl Broemel. By the time the tune heads down the home stretch, the guitars and synths are flying as if it was 1974 all over again. The song then ends with the same moody rumination it began with.

The highlight of The Waterfall is probably Thin Line simply because of how boldly James plays with pop convention. He bends the titles from one of pop-soul’s greatest hits (Thin Line Between Love and Hate) and a retools it into a blackened verse of separation (“it’s a thin line between love and wasting my time”). As all this transpires, guitar lines morph from breezy pop orchestration into psychedelic deflation.

The seven-minute album-closer Only Memories Remain is about as lyrically and musically streamlined as MMJ gets on The Waterfall. A chronicle of love in the ruins, it balances hope and helplessness with a pop melody that builds to a near cinematic crescendo.

Okay, then. Bogie had As Time Goes By to brood to. Now James has Only Memories Remain. Both are romantic laments of unusual elegance fashioned for different times. It kind of makes you wonder, though, what Bogie would have been like if a trippy rock troupe like MMJ had his back.

critic’s pick 273: todd rundgren, ‘global’

todd global“I want to wrap my arms around the world,” sings Todd Rundgren amid a sea of synths on his new album Global. “And dance.”

On the surface, getting a party on its feet would seem to be priority one for this veteran pop stylist throughout these new tunes. Global blasts off with enough beats, grooves and electro-enhanced propulsion to ignite any dance floor. Even Flesh & Blood, the album’s second song, is a narrative ode to clubbing. But then the party really gets started.

After the oceanic electronica settles in, Global becomes exactly that. The music shifts from world beat to soul balladry to the kind of unabashed pop melodies that have long made Rundgren’s music so striking. Lyrically, the record becomes similarly expansive to address themes of climate change, spiritualism and the struggle (or perhaps balance) between isolation and liberation.

Sound a touch heavy? It isn’t. Sure, Rundgren is blunt when he chooses, as on Blind, a global warming wake-up call (“God is a scientist; He don’t play dice with the universe”). But the lyrics are wrapped in beautifully tempered keyboard orchestration that comes across as a futuristic vision of the blues. Just as fascinatingly textured are the mantra-like countdown to doomsday Rise and the equally apocalyptic Fate.

Such instances, in essence, encapsulate the charm of Rundgren’s work. His gift of gab has always been great. But his command of the pop lexicon, and the subsequent ability to create seemingly endless parades of melodic delicacies from it, continues to be greater.

If your lone references to Rundgren’s music remain the ‘70s hits that once won him radio airplay, then the dance party slant of Global might seem abrupt. But trace his entire recording history (excluding music made with the prog-pop combo Utopia) and you will discover the vast majority of Rundgren’s albums have been one man band affairs with keyboards being the dominate voice.

The only detriment in the modernization of such a design on Global is the near total absence of guitar. Rundgren has always been a powerful and inventive axeman. Too bad that prowess couldn’t have been weaved into Global the way the out-of-nowhere alto sax solo by Bobby Strickland (the only other instrumental contributor on the album) was during Blind.

What we do have, though, is a mountain of expertly constructed tunes, from the girl power salute of Earth Mother to the pop-soul bliss of Soothe to the singular spiritualism within the worldbeat-meets-synth pop charge of Holyland (“no matter where you stand, you’re in the holyland”). Again, the messages ring loud and clear. But what you take away long after Global’s groove-a-thon is over are the hooks, melodies and lyrical appeal of a master pop craftsman still at the peak of his powers.

critic’s picks 272: alabama shakes, ‘sound & color,’ mavis staples, ‘your good fortune’

Separated by two generations, Alabama Shakes vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard and gospel empress Mavis Staples today work as two stylistically different soul music ambassadors united in their goal of a greater artistic good. What makes their two newest recordings so fascinating is how respectfully they wander into each other’s camps.

alabama shakesThe Shakes’ Sound & Color, one of the more eagerly awaited sophomore efforts of recent times, is a complete inferno of a record. Expanding upon the retro reputation of its outstanding 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, Howard and company tantalize with a collar-grabbing mesh of torrential funk, deep pocket grooves and, often, orchestral psychedelia without shedding the music’s roots rock foundation.

Howard again serves as the Shakes’ earthshaker with a vocal fervency that is consistently arresting. Hearing her gather vocal ammo over a chattering guitar intro and a resulting groove of molten funk on Don’t Wanna Fight is like hearing James Brown wind up. The singing slides into action with an exhilarating squeal and then explodes.

Gimme All Your Love, on the other hand, balances suave soul cool with monstrous power chords. Howard’s vocal lead opens with Billie Holiday-like vulnerability before detonating into take-no-prisoners gusto bolstered by a blast of gloriously fuzzed out guitar mayhem.

But there are wonderful dynamics at work here, too, like the finger-popping falsetto Howard employs on This Feeling, the moody soul-blues feel the full Shakes crew creates to orchestrate Gemini (which wouldn’t sound out of place on a ‘90s Prince album) and the whispery confessional Over My Head that eases Sound & Color out with choral like overdubs and the same jazzy reserve that began this extraordinary album 12 songs earlier.

mavis staplesListen to Sound & Color side-by-side with Your Good Fortune, a wonderfully assertive new four-song EP from Staples, and you might actually be convinced you were taking in more of the same recording.

With vocals that roll in like waves during the title tune and production that blurs traditional and modern soul accents together, the resulting music defies time zones. Of course, once that deep and sagely voice enters, which has lost none of it emotive impact at age 75, you remember exactly who you are dealing with.

Staples sounds like a million dollars as she powers her way through a solemn reading of the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues staple See That My Grave is Kept Clean, a modernized reading of father Pops Staples’ 1963 gospel confession Wish I Had Answered and two new tunes by Roots/RJD2 collaborator Son Little, who produced the recording.

Little essentially provides Your Good Fortune the sound of a remix album, but his groove-centric approach is very complimentary to Staples’ earthy vocal command – a sound that still offers a few rootsy shakes of its own.

critic’s pick 271: dwight yoakam, ‘second hand heart’

dwight yoakam“I’ll buy you a ticket to the big time,” beckons Dwight Yoakam near the conclusion of his new Second Hand Heart album. “Might need a loan, but that ain’t nothin’ new.”

How very typical. With a mile high heart and sense of reason that is almost morosely honest, Yoakam again asserts himself as one of the last great hopes of contemporary country music. Now, just how ready a Nashville marketplace obsessed with odes to beer, beaches and pickups will be for Second Hand Heart is a different story.

On his second album since re-signing with Reprise Records, the label that co-piloted Yoakam’s career during the ’80s and ‘90s, the Kentucky born, California reared country stylist rocks out with a lean, live sounding set that could have been cut in 1969 instead 2015. Eight of Second Hand Heart’s 10 songs, in fact, are premium blasts of electricity that favor the almighty power chord. It’s like listening to early’70s Elvis cross-referenced with The Who.

“You ought to record this just for kicks,” Yoakam barks into the microphone as the diabolically fun Liar gathers its propulsive wits and rips out of the starting gate. The resulting music, ushered in by howls of delight and a power pop charge weirdly reminiscent of The Monkees is a pure electric hullabaloo. But on She, the darker Byrds-meets-Led Zeppelin reflection Believe, Second Hand Heart’s title tune and the album-opening In Another World, Yoakam honors the guitar riff for a feel both anthemic and immediate.

The show stealer among this mayhem is the record’s lone cover tune, a version of the well worn country roots staple Man of Constant Sorrow refurbished with a heavy dose of cowpunk spunk. The arrangement owes more to Jason and the Scorchers via Chuck Berry than, say, Ralph Stanley. But the rootsy drive of Yoakam’s singing – a mischievous, modern slant on a traditional mountain tenor – allows for a country authenticity that makes the garage rock backdrop glisten.

Second Hand Heart slows only for Dreams of Clay, a mid-tempo mood piece that recalls both the twang of Yoakam’s hit ’80s cover of Honky Tonk Man and the guitar jangle of his ‘90s hit cover of Suspicious Minds, and the orchestral sweep of V’s of Birds, the only tune on the album that tips its hat a touch too deeply to sentimentalism.

Admittedly, there is almost nothing here for country radio to latch onto. Second Hand Heart is too playful and rustic in the way it hotwires country tradition for today’s Nashville to care. But, to be blunt, the record is also too smart. Three decades into the game, Yoakam remains the most daring country ambassador since Merle Haggard. Second Hand Heart is earnest, vital and exquisitely honest proof.

critic’s pick 270: the replacements, ‘the complete studio recordings 1981-1990′

the replacementsFeel like holding an entire rock ‘n’ roll era in your hands? Then grab hold of The Complete Studio Albums 1981-1990, which chronicles the entire recording history of Minneapolis upstarts The Replacements.

Born during the final crest of the punk revolution and a cultural shift that turned the pop landscape of the time into synthesized mush, The Replacements were the black sheep of the ‘80s. Led by the coarse, restless songs of Paul Westerberg, the band was an unknowing and perhaps unwilling architect of a movement that helped shaped indie rock as it exists today.

Such a legacy came at a price, though. There were fallouts along the way. Some were personal splits and casualties within the band, other centered around an eventual commercial breakthrough that bordered on heresy to the punk faithful that first championed the band.

Released in conjunction with a series of semi-reunion shows spearheaded by Westerberg and founding bassist Tommy Stinson, The Complete Studio Albums is a no-frills box set that gathers the eight recordings The Replacements plowed out in a 10 year span.

1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (highlighted by the giddy yet caustic Shiftless When Idle) and 1982’s ultra raw Stink (an EP that bashes through eight songs in 15 minutes) define the band’s punk roots and garage rock sensibility. But it was 1983’s Hootenanny that centralized a boozy charge through nay-saying anthems like Color Me Impressed and the performance immediacy of guitarist Bob Stinson, Tommy’s older brother.

That set the stage for what were arguably The Replacements’ two strongest albums, 1984’s Let It Be and 1985’s Tim. The music retreated from a purely punk stance for power pop gems like Unsatisfied (from Let It Be) and Here Comes a Regular (the closing tune on Tim) that compromised none of Westerberg’s poetically disheveled outcast narratives.

The firing of Bob Stinson (who died in 1995) trimmed the band to a trio for 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, an album full of wonderful surprises (the jazzy Nightclub Jitters) and familiar punk-pop drive (Alex Chilton). 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul then cemented Westerberg’s more streamlined maturity as a writer and enlisted guitarist Slim Dunlap, a tempering, good-natured personality to compliment the band’s modestly retiring new sound. Punk die-hards hated it even though it remains The Replacements’ most fully realized and enduring album.

Mars left and was replaced prior on 1990’s fractured swan song record All Shook Down, the closest thing the band did to an incidental record, by Steve Foley (who died in 2008). The Replacements called it a day in 1991.

Now that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson have at least temporarily reassembled the band for a new generation, we have eight reminders, all packed together, of how The Replacements put a glorious hurt on the ‘80s.

critic’s pick 269: billie holiday centennial

Today would have marked the 100th birthday of Billie Holiday, the jazz legend whose singing has all but defined the genre. Though she only lived to be 44, she shared a voice with the world that celebrated romance and the blues with rapturous depth – a depth that only suggested the very real life blues of her own existence.

Three new albums surface today to honor the centennial as well Holiday’s remarkable legacy. Two are wildly different re-imaginings of her music while the third is a fine refresher record from Lady Day herself.

Cassandra-WilsonComing Forth by Day is an astounding and heavily atmospheric tribute from Cassandra Wilson, a singer who has spent the last 25 years of her career discovering earthy, ambient links between jazz and blues. Not surprisingly, the deep, whispery huskiness of her singing in no way approximates Holiday, nor do the echoing colors of guitar and percussion that figure so highly in the soundscapes created by Nick Cave/Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Arcade Fire producer Nick Launay. As such, Crazy He Calls Me becomes an enchanting guitar hangover until the lustrous glow of Wilson’s singing and Van Dyke Parks dreamlike strings breakthrough to emphasize the song’s almost reluctant optimism (“the impossible will take a little while”).

josé-james-New generation singer Jose James plays matters relatively straight on Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday by slimming nine Holiday gems down to quartet settings with a troupe of jazz all-stars (pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland). That allows Good Morning Heartache to stand as a refreshed meditation and God Bless the Child to move with a tastefully urbanized groove under James’ robust baritone.

billie holidayThe Centennial Collection lets Lady Day speak. It’s a new 20 song anthology from Columbia/Legacy than runs from recordings made with Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra in 1935 to music cut under Holiday’s name as a leader in 1944. Though hardly a definitive representation for longstanding fans, the set serves as a fine primer for newcomers.

Curiously, the song that leaves the greatest mark here and presents the most width for interpretation is Strange Fruit. One of only two tunes featured on all three recordings (What a Little Moonlight Can Do is the other), it’s a sobering account of a Southern lynching.

Wilson sings it with hushed gravity under gusts of guitar ambience and strings. James transforms it into a gospel-esque prayer with only multi-tracked vocals and handclaps. Lady Day’s 1939 version, unsurprisingly, cut to the chase. She sings the lament as naturally as any other song that poured from her lips – with bucket loads of soul and a shattered heart.

critic’s pick 268: joe pug, ‘windfall’

joe pug windfall“I can see it in the whites of your eyes if you’re in it to survive.”

Such is the affirmation offered by Joe Pug during the title tune of his fine new Windfall album. Sure, the song might seem like a survivalist anthem to some, especially given the more jagged folk turns of his two previous albums (and, to a lesser extent, the pair of EP discs preceding them that complete his discography). But breathe all of Windfall in and you’re hit by two things: an overall hopeful narrative character and a matured, more complete musical backdrop that a few Lexington hands had a say in.

A Maryland native now working out of Austin, Tx., Pug has been a tireless touring artist over the past six years both on his town and as opening act for songsmiths like Steve Earle. Onstage as well as on record he came across as an earnest Americana folkie fighting to contain the heartland rocker within. Perhaps that’s why so many songs on his last album, 2012’s The Great Despiser, seemed to follow folk intuition, especially in their more reflective moments, but suggested a Dylan-esque (or even Earle-esque) combustibility.

That doesn’t mean things boil over on Windfall. In fact, all 10 songs reveal a far warmer cast than The Great Despiser. But the new record is more musically realized thanks to the dexterity shown within basic tracks by his touring band (especially guitarist Greg Tuohey and bassist Matt Schuessler) as well as a crew of Lexington pros brought in by producer Duane Lundy, who recorded Windfall locally at his Shangr-La Productions studio. The local guest list includes pedal steel guitarist Tom Hnatow and percussionist Emily Hagihara along with expatriate vocalist/song stylist Mark Charles Heidinger (better known to indie audiences as Vandeveer) and Louisville violinist/songstress Cheyenne Mize.

The two band approach never sounds busy. In fact, it presents an elegiac, electric vitality to The Measure and the far more plaintive Pair of Shadows. Another guest, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, adds a touch of mellotron to If Still It Can’t Be Found’s elegant but bittersweet orchestration (“If still it can’t be found, it’s probably for the best”).

But the unhurried solemnity of Pug’s songs quietly drives Windfall. The lyrics to the record’s highlight tune, Great Hosannas, are recited with almost deadpan urgency as echoing percussion, piano and beautifully arid harmonica sweep about Pug’s singing like a twister. It’s a four minute stroll through an ambient folk purgatory reflective of Joe Henry’s late ‘90s records

Patch this fascinating, artful quilt of songs and sounds together and you have the full arrival of a Texas talent solidifying his identity with some loving, local help.

critic’s pick 267: mark knopfler, ‘tracker’

trackerThe cover photo to Tracker largely sums up Mark Knopfler’s view of his own celebrity status. It depicts the guitarist in a field under a (presumably) summer sky. But he is standing so far in the distance as to be indistinguishable from the elements except for one detail. He has his back to the camera.

There are two clearer shots within the album notes. One looks like it is from Knopfler’s teen years. The other is a performance shot with Bob Dylan during the guitarist’s commercial heyday with Dire Straits, which means it’s around 30 years old. Pretty telling stuff, eh?

The music within is only modestly more revealing. There are snapshots from younger days, a few quintessentially British remembrances, novel-esque story songs and love reflections both mad and mournful. As for the white hot finger-picking that bolstered the Dire Straits sound of old… well, all that has caught the last coach out of town. On Tracker, guitar is used sparingly, along with the keyboards of longtime co-hort Guy Fletcher, to orchestrate rather than lead on the album’s 11 tunes (which jumps to 15 or 17 songs on various deluxe versions of the recording).

All of this probably makes Tracker sound like the work of a rocker who is more than a little long in the tooth. But at 65, Knopfler is something of a master craftsman when it comes to his songs. While Tracker may be the most clearly subdued record of his career, it also sounds like a million bucks – from the mix of Dave Brubeck-like swing and Northumbrian fancy on the youthful memoir Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes that opens the album to the lullaby-like duet Wherever I Go, sung with gorgeously subtle grace alongside Ruth Moody of the Wailin’ Jennies, that closes it.

In between are all kinds of exquisitely detailed but heavily understated delights. Broken Bones locks itself into the sort of steadfast blues groove that recalls the finer work of the late Okie song stylist J.J. Cale while Lights of Taormina fashions a Dylan-esque song structure to a neo-tropical groove. But the Celtic sway of Mighty Man, along with an ode to British poet Basil Bunting (Basil) whose curmudgeonly profile (“too old for the job, bored out of his mind”) could be viewed as a parallel to Knopfler’s, best typlifies Tracker’s lean beauty.

Then again, this is in no way a rock ‘n’ roll album. Those hoping for a reawakening of Dire Straits should wait for another train. Tracker is instead the work of an unapologetically grizzled pop journeyman, joyfully detached from rock stardom, who stills luxuriates in the construction of a good musical yarn and, even more so, the time it takes to share it.

critic’s picks 266: led zeppelin, ‘physical graffiti (deluxe edition)’

led-zeppelin-physical-graffitiEver since the re-issue campaign of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums commenced last year, the anticipation of a reconstituted Physical Graffiti began to mount.

That was largely due to the involvement of Zep guitarist Jimmy Page, who doubled as a producer for all the band’s recording sessions. Having the prime architect of Zep’s mammoth sound at the helm of its remastering process – in essence, its restoration – revealed one of rock ‘n’ roll’s more cherished catalogues was in the most learned and sympathetic of hands.

Page didn’t disappoint, either. The newly uncovered clarity he brought to the band’s records (especially, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin III) thrilled even die-hard fans – not an easy task considering how wildly familiar this music was. Let’s face it, by the time the double album version of Physical Graffiti surfaced in February 1975, Zep ruled FM radio. Fans got to experience the thrust of the band’s songs by the mere run of the radio dial.

In short, what Page accomplished on remastered editions of the band’s first five albums was making some of the most familiar rock music in the world seem new again.

That happens again at the onset Custard Pie, the tune that opens a new triple CD edition of Physical Graffiti. Curiously, it involves not the meat-and-potatoes riff Page cooks up. It’s not even the watch-setting precision and thud of drummer John Bonham or the mile-wide wail of vocalist Robert Plant. Thrilling as all that is, what hits you is a simple but potent clavinet line by bassist John Paul Jones. It’s always been there. But Page’s remastering on this new Graffiti edition makes such a lean little riff feel like someone is tapping on your shoulder.

Of course, the album’s epic accents are similarly enhanced, from the swelling Eastern orchestration of Kashmir to the wacked out Celtic/synth colors of In the Light. But it’s also a riot to rediscover the album’s looser pleasures, like the country-esque sway of Down by the Seaside, the pressure-cooker economy of The Wanton Song and the piano-driven roots rattle of Boogie with Stu..

As with the first five Zep remasters, Page augments the original recording with a full “companion” disc of outtakes and alternate mixes. Here, the excavated treasures include an instrumental blueprint of Graffiti’s finale tune Sick Again, which offers a crash course in Page’s guitar invention and efficiency, and a wholly different reading of In the Light (titled Everybody Makes it Through) that recalls the dark fancy of Zep’s late ‘60s music.

Place all this within packaging that replicates in miniature the artwork of Graffiti’s original LP incarnation and you a have a comprehensive portrait of a rock institution at its most boastful and brilliant.

critic’s pick 265: the staple singers, ‘freedom highway – complete’ and pop staples, ‘don’t lose this’

staples-freedom-highway-original“We’re not here to put on a show,” remarked Roebuck “Pops” Staples on the night of April 9, 1965 before a congregation at Chicago’s New Nazareth Church. The mission of this iconic gospel stylist was to hold a service. But with the Civil Rights Movement at a boil thanks to the three historic marches in Selma, Ala. just few weeks earlier, Staples also had a message for the world.

So tucked in alongside the spirituals Help Me Jesus and Precious Lord, Take My Hand were We Shall Overcome and a tune Staples penned in honor of the marches, Freedom Highway. A mix of pure gospel jubilation, sagely solace and the exquisite guitar tremolo that gave the Staple Singers the most distinctive crossover sound of any gospel group before or since, Freedom Highway became the title tune of a concert recording that, like the Selma marches, is being revisited on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

Curiously, the reconstituted album, Freedom Highway – Complete, comes to us on the heels of Don’t Lose This, a collection of Staples’ final – but, until recently, unfinished – recordings that have been lovingly completed with some celebrity assistance.

Staples’ desire that Freedom Highway be viewed as church service is now fully realized. The 30-plus minutes of bonus material gives us everything, right down to the benediction and audio of a pass-the-plate offering that failed to raise even $100 to pay the Staple Singers on its first go-round. But there is also glorious music, like a brief Build on That Shore that highlights the effortlessly soulful harmonies of Staples and his children, including a 25 year old Mavis Staples, and a volcanic Tell Heaven that fully lets Mavis loose after some serious father-daughter testifying.

pops staples-don't lose thisMavis co-produced with her father the initial 1998 sessions for Don’t Lose This before the latter’s death in 2000. But it took the help of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, a collaborator and producer on albums that helped reboot Mavis’ solo career, to bring Don’t Lose This to completion.

As with the vintage records of the Staple Singers, the gospel intensity simmers quietly around Pops’ whispery singing and the sinewy lines of his guitarwork. Both are highlighted beautifully on an unaccompanied version of Nobody’s Fault But Mine that gives this music a strong roots-blues feel. Then again, No News is Good News and Somebody Was Watching, which reunite the all three Staples sisters, rocks with the same freshness that stirs the swing behind the album-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.

It makes for a fascinating epilogue to a steadfast gospel career that never strayed from the Freedom Highway.

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