Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 319: johnny cash, “out among the stars”

johnny cashLeave it to The Man in Black to consider suicide as acceptable collateral damage for ending a doomed romance. On I Drove Her Out of My Mind, one of 12 aborted ‘80s songs resurrected for the new Out Among the Stars album, he imagines with no small amount of glee, driving himself and his deposed beloved off a mountain side in a fresh-off-the-lot Cadillac (“she’ll see all seven states as we drive to the pearly gates”). The thrill Cash confesses over Billy Sherrill’s lushly arranged vocal backdrop is alone worth the price of the album: “It’s gonna be gaw-geous.”

Save for a pair of tunes from 1981, Out Among the Stars gives new life to unfinished Cash and Sherill sessions from April and May of 1984 (exactly three decades ago). These were hardly Cash’s glory years. At the time, his label (Columbia/Epic) was home to several contemporaries, most notably Merle Haggard and George Jones. All were falling increasingly out of favor with country radio and corporate Nashville, both of which were focusing on younger, more pop-friendly talent. The result was a series of phoned in albums by the vets – recordings marred by dull or desperate production, equally drab material, and, worst of all, vocal performances that sounded like Cash and his cronies had essentially called it a day.

While it’s far from a classic, Out Among the Stars outdistances anything else Cash was committing to vinyl at the time. The record’s most immediate attribute is his singing. Unlike the increasingly frail but tremendously emotive vocals that gave Cash’s final albums with Rick Rubin such sage-like, genre-less brilliance, Out Among the Stars returns us to a voice of comparatively youthful vigor. The singer’s son, John Carter Cash, who co-produced these newly completed recordings, reveals in the liner notes that his father slid back into pill addiction in the early ‘80s but had recovered by the 1984 sessions. That info makes the darker corners of Out Among the Stars seem all the more harrowing.

Leading that pack is the Adam Mitchell-penned title tune, where a Texas liquor store robbery ends in bloodshed and an eerie balance of release and shame. Needless to say, this presents prime fixings for the stoic reverence of Cash’s singing. Hearing modern day Americana greats like Buddy Miller and Jerry Douglas flesh out these recordings ups the thrill even more.

Not everything works. If I Told You Who It Was is pure country corn while an ambient-style Elvis Costello remix of She Used to Love Me a Lot is full of good intentions but comes off as a gimmicky match for Cash’s epic tenor. Enjoy Out Among the Stars instead as a modest vindication for a period in a monumental career that has long been gathering dust.

critic’s pick 318: emmylou harris, ‘wrecking ball – deluxe edition’

emmylou-harris-wrecking-ballIt’s hard to fathom that two decades have passed since Emmylou Harris recast her already regal Americana expertise within the otherworldly ambience Daniel Lanois designed for her extraordinary Wrecking Ball album. A triumph for both artists, the record was a folk project at heart that took music by Neil Young (the title tune), Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Anna McGarrigle, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Julie Miller and others and placed them in spacious soundscapes. There, echoing chimes of Lanois’ guitar work and the far rumble of percussion by U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. made Harris’ vocals sound alternately spiritual and ghostly.

It’s no wonder then that on a new double CD/single DVD anniversary edition, Wrecking Ball retains a country roots sensibility while attaining a sound that is altogether ghostly. You hear it in the way she makes Dylan’s Every Grain of Sand sound like a comforting prayer, but also in how she captures the depth of two varied but devastating portraits of loss in Williams’ Sweet Old World and Earle’s Goodbye.

“It is of inestimable worth when an artist tells the truth,” writes Welch in the liner notes to this new Wrecking Ball deluxe edition. “To my ear, this is a truthful record, and as such, a timeless one. Nevertheless, it would be an omission not to mention how meaningful Wrecking Ball was in the moment it came out, especially for those of us who were casting about Nashville, trying to figure out the possible relevance and face of folk music at the close of the 20th century.”

Such “casting about” is evident on the second disc of this reissue, which offers a baker’s dozen of demo recordings and outtakes from the original Wrecking Ball. The first is a fully completed version of Lanois’ Still Water that reflects the subtle, contemplative but pronounced tone of the entire Wrecking Ball album. One imagines it was left off the record for the sake of balance, as Lanois’ songwriting was already represented by the gorgeously gray album opener Where Will I Be.

Other delights sport less sheen, like Harris/Lanois demo-style duet versions of Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song and Richard Thompson’s How Will I Ever Be Simple Again – tunes that speak to the spiritual unrest, reserved regret and poetic ambience that surround Wrecking Ball. An alternate version of David Olney’s Deeper Well, served up as a slice of back porch gospel, adds further to the insight provided by the reissue.

As a testament to Harris’ restless, rootsy ingenuity, Wrecking Ball is an unrivaled career peak. As an example of the possibilities presented to and by late 20th century folk music, it remains essential listening.

critic’s picks 329: billy hart quartet, ‘one is the other’ and tord gustavsen quartet, ‘extended circle’

billy hartThree decades and homelands half a world apart separate Billy Hart and Tord Gustavsen. But on two new albums for the ECM label, the two blur the cultural, geographical and even age differences between their visions of modern jazz.

Hart, 73, is a NewJersey/NewYork drummer with a dossier of collaborative credits that range from early fusion with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to magnificent post-bop with McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter and the all-star quartet Quest.

One is the Other  is the second ECM album (and his third overall recording) with a young, ultra tasteful group featuring pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, bassist Ben Street and the resourceful tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.

Hearing the band conjure the gliding melody of Teule’s Redemption from the light rumble of a Hart drum intro and some Coltrane-esque rhythmic assembly is indicative of One is the Other’s unhurried but persuasive music. The ways Turner and Iverson delicately compliment Hart’s brush strokes on a lovingly deconstructed Some Enchanted Evening also fit comfortably within the quartet’ s often impressionistic sound.

The album is perhaps not as atmospheric in texture as Hart’s sublime 2012 ECM debut, All Our Reasons. Still, it stands of an evocative American variation on the trusted subtleties, ambience and mystery that have defined much of the label’s non-classical output since the ‘70s.

tord gustavsenWhere Hart’s music reflects the traditions of multiple American jazz generations, Norwegian pianist Gustavsen, 43, embraces history on his sixth ECM album, Extended Circle. Though the recording relies heavily on spacious, slo-mo soundscapes composed by Gustavsen, there are also bits of group-designed improvs within two variations of Entrance, where the hushed tenor sax of Tore Brunborg sounds initially like a distant cry from the wilderness before serving as a subtle but impassioned conversationalist.

Providing balance to the record’s Nordic solemnity are the traditional Norwegian hymn Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg (A Castle in Heaven), where Brunberg’s entrance over Gustavsen’s stately piano shuffle recalls fellow ECM saxophone stylist Jan Garbarek, and the lovely Gustavsen chorale piece Devotion, which is served as a warm, whispery jazz meditation.

Hart’s record possesses a sound as soulful as it is scholarly while the Gustavsen quartet embraces a sound altogether wondrous and wintry. Such is the global jazz terrain ECM presides over today. This is the music of two cultures that, when listened to side by side, sound downright neighborly.

critic’s pick 328: drive-by truckers, ‘english oceans’

english oceans“Somebody’s gotta mop up the blood,” sings Mike Cooley at the onset of English Oceans, the newest batch of exquisitely literate meat-and-potatoes rockers from Drive-By Truckers. That such a remark is made with non-threatening candor over a Memphis flavored roadhouse groove that recalls the Rolling Stones in all their Exile of Main St. glory should come as no surprise. This is the sound of the Truckers coming to life again and saying “howdy” with an arsenal of vital rock ‘n’ roll misfit songs.

In fact, English Oceans isn’t high on the element of surprise at all. With the departure of bassist Shonna Tucker, the band relies squarely (and, for the first time, equally) on the narrative-heavy songwriting of Cooley and Patterson Hood. Early reviews claim the record to be a more solidly rocking affair, although its most potent tune is Hood’s album-closing Grand Canyon, a eulogy to longtime band ally Craig Lieske. The song indulges in wave after wave of power chord affirmation (“I lift my glass and smile”) before taking a dive into a pool of divine feedback until nothing is left but the scattered yet highly purposeful beat of Truckers drummer Brad Morgan.

Equally un-rockish is the Hood-penned piano lament When Walter Went Crazy, which is frightening not because the song’s namesake character torches his own home, but because family and neighbors look on (“like a crash in slo-mo”) as though the destruction was entirely expected.

Cooley and Hood manage to flee the Truckers’ much beloved “Dirty South” for a few tunes, too. Cooley’s Made Up English Oceans follows a pack of embittered, scripture-quoting politicos with a misty country shuffle that sounds like Marty Robbins laced with Hank III. Then Hood offers The Part of Him, a saga that outrageously rhymes “phoning in” with “Nixonian” as it outlines the blind ambitions of a pandering Southern candidate “indifferent to honesty.”

None of these songs go overboard on the rock ‘n’ roll, although the record’s inherent soulfulness plays itself out nicely on the Tom Petty-esque Primer Coat and the Creedence Clearwater Revival meets Wet Willie strut of Hearing Jimmy Loud (both Cooley tunes) as well as the Neil Young-style thud of Hood’s When He’s Gone.

The music is all electric and, yes, rock-worthy. But it’s also structured so that you don’t miss a word of the dark rural tales Cooley and Hood cook up. That’s the real beauty of English Oceans.

critic’s pick 327: the allman brothers band, ‘play all night’

abb 1aA new concert compilation marking the earliest stages of The Allman Brothers Band’s storied annual performance residencies at New York’s Beacon Theatre falls somewhere between a memoir and an epitaph.

As a glance, Play All Night is a powerful representation of the band’s third major incarnation – one that teams co-founder Dickey Betts with a young Warren Haynes to form the twin guitar section that takes the Allmans from their Southern rock beginnings to a new generation of jam band fans.

The two come out swinging on Statesboro Blues and You Don’t Love Me with slide savvy gusto that salutes the spirit of the long departed Duane Allman. But the two quickly stretch out in directions of their own.

Two of Betts’ best known instrumentals, Jessica and In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, define the hearty duality of his playing. Jessica is all riverboat glee, a portrait of Betts at his most jubilant (although it remains an unfinished work without the equally joyous piano rolls Chuck Leavell added to the song during the ‘70s) while Elizabeth Reed is offered here initially as a Santana-like dirge before it explodes with long, sinewy breaks by both guitarists. The 20 minute tune’s eventual collapse into a series of drum solos is Play All Night’s only weakness.

Haynes, who produced Play All Night out of concert recordings made during the 1992 Beacon run by the late, legendary Tom Dowd, asserts himself with a slide solo rampage  that triggers Hoochie Coochie Man, the Willie Dixon blues staple that was a signature stage moment for original Allmans bassist Berry Oakley.

There are loads of other highlights, as well, including the wicked bass lines Allen Woody uses to piledrive the album closing Whipping Post, the scorched vocal charge Gregg Allman lends to the then-new End of the Line and, best of all, a three-song acoustic segment highlighted by a gospel-rific Come On In My Kitchen.

So why is Play All Night also a eulogy? Well, Duane Allman and Oakley died in separate motorcycle crashes in the early’70s, Betts was ousted from the band in 2000, Woody died that same year and Haynes, along with the Allmans’ other mainstay guitarist Derek Trucks, will depart the current lineup at the end of 2014, leaving the band’s future in serious question.

But Play All Night falls between the cracks of those losses to serve as an expert remembrance of the Allmans’ earliest Beacon shows as well as an outstanding document of a band reborn.

critic’s pick 326: lake street dive, ‘bad self portraits’

lake street diveMaybe they just caught me at the right time, but taking in last weekend’s sneak preview of spring with the windows open and Lake Street Dive’s extraordinary new pop party album Bad Self Portraits blasting from the speakers sure made it seem as though winter’s days were indeed numbered.

A quartet of wildly resourceful writers, singers and instrumentalists, the members of Lake Street Dive met as students at the New England Conservatory of Music. They have operated as a band out of Boston and Brooklyn for the past decade. But Bad Self Portraits, a set of sunny, ultra alert tunes steeped in pop and soul tradition that never sound unduly retro, may well prove a career breakthrough.

The most immediately arresting aspect of the band’s sound is the singing of Rachael Price, whose clear and unaffectedly rustic voice sounds like a cross between a young Bonnie Raitt and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. It can elongate with the easy blues-soul strut of Bad Self Portraits’ title tune, wail with vintage girl group command (ably assisted by the band’s roaring, Shirelles-like back-up harmonies) during Stop Your Crying and bark with rhythmic authority over the percussive, Little Feat-style groove of What About Me.

Then we have the songs – 11 in all and not a dud in the bunch. Lyrically, the tunes seem wary and more than a little self effacing. “Another night wasted in my parents’ basement,” howls Price on Rabid Animal (penned by bassist/pianist Bridget Kearney). “Don’t know why I didn’t chase it when I was hot on its trail.”

 Later, during the after-hours Beatlemania of Rental Love (also by Kearney) the mood is similarly resigned as Price works up a brilliant torch song lather (“When we were doing the slow climb, the peak was a foregone conclusion”). And for pure revivalistic fun, there is the brilliantly titled Bobby Tanqueray (written by drummer Mike Calabrese), a pop star renegade anthem Price drapes in layers of deflated infatuation.

For sheer musical ingenuity, Bad Self Portraits hits a homer with Seventeen (another Kearney tune) that operates almost like a suite with three rotating melodies. The third is a brilliant deceleration into a slow burn guitar run by Mike Olson that sets up the song’s weary punchline:”I wish I met you when I was seventeen, before I’d seen the things I’d seen.”

What a worldly resolution for one of the smartest pop parties in ages. Don’t wait for spring, though, to get in on the fun. Crank this one up now.

critic’s pick 325: tinariwen, ‘emmaar’

tinariwenOn paper, the premise seems disastrous. The great Tuareg band Tinariwen, the voice of revolt in its African homeland of Mali, was recording its newest album in California. Could it be so? Was one of the most heralded world music bands of the day going the way of the Eagles?

Rest assured. Emmaar, Tinariwen’s seventh international album, merely trades one desert for another – specifically, the Sahara, where the band members have lived as nomads for decades, for Joshua Tree, the smaller, less primitive desert community in Southern California.

While the new record continues the modest input of American collaborators that began on Tinariwen’s Grammy winning 2011 album Tassili, it is no means an Americanized work. Aside from the spoken English intro by poet/singer Saul Williams, Emmaar (Tuareg for The Heat on the Breeze) is a sampler of chant-like recitations, all sung in Tuareg, revolving around layers of guitar rhythms that emit a wholly meditative aura.

The album notes contain rough English translations of the lyrics to at least guide listeners through their thematic origins and messages. But to domestic ears, the album’s incantatory sound overrides everything. The prayer-like Arhegh Danagh (I Want to Tell), for instance, begins in waves. The opening guitar jangle sounds like distant radio static. But it quickly becomes a casual yet precise harmonic backdrop once Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s vocals enter. Percussion and ensemble singing then color the music before the song fades as mysteriously as it began                                                                                                       

The groove is more pronounced during Timadrit in Sahara (South of the Sahara) and Koud Edhaz Emin (Even If I Seem to Smile) but not in any conventionally American way. This isn’t verse-chorus-verse stuff or even rudimentary dance floor music instigated by a single, sustained beat. The guitars on these tunes move about intricately, as if the music formed a ballet. They establish mood and presence, move effortlessly with considerable grace (and no small element of mystical wonder) and then vanish. What lyricism each song conveys lingers just long enough to lead into the next tune, making Emmaar less like a collection of songs and more like one extended piece with 11 brief movements.

Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplan make up part of the abbreviated guest list, but don’t bother trying to pick them out of this global stew. In the world of Tinariwen, all music is rhythm – a soulful breeze as vast and unyielding as the deserts it calls home.

critic’s pick 315: david crosby, ‘croz’

crozBy the end of Croz, David Crosby’s first studio solo album in over two decades, the folk-rock forefather sounds quietly but assuredly upbeat.

“All the goodness that lies within is just around the bend,” he sings in the Croz-closing Find a Heart over summery saxophone lines and a spacious, jazz-like groove. If the tune reads like the concluding chapter of a self-help manual, so be it. At 72, Crosby has survived the self-destruction of several rock ‘n’ roll lifetimes to earn a fleeting spot in the sun.

But it is very fleeting and Croz is less an affirmation and more of a meditation that often travels along very dark corridors. Its songs seek identity – not for Crosby necessarily, but for those he encounters as he continues to search out a sense of peace that, over the years, has become less socially driven and more personal.

“Who wants to see an abandoned soul?” asks Crosby in the chorus of What’s Broken as he views a rogues gallery of personas that shift from the lonely to the purely desperate. Those sentiments reach a zenith on If She Called, where he views a pack of prostitutes with largely paternal concern. The way these songs lead to the solace of Find a Heart makes Croz double as an album of discovery.

Croz is also a gorgeous listen. Working again with son James Raymond, the album wraps the wary, conversational tone of Crosby’s singing with light, keyboard dominate arrangements that sound less like his fabled work with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash and more like a pensive version of Steely Dan.

A few guests offer fittingly tasteful colors to this mix, like the patient, winding guitar solo that Mark Knopfler weaves through What’s Broken and Wynton Marsalis’ blue-hued trumpet line during Holding On To Nothing that underscores the tune’s uneasy calm as well as the conflicted ghosts that inhabit it (“Even words from a friend can bring back the pain”).

But Crosby’s prime co-hort remains Raymond, who helps construct Croz not as the confession of a folkie elder but as the work of a vital, worldly and very adult songsmith happily reaching out of his comfort zone. Alternately contemplative and uneasy (which inadvertently gives this music a wintry appeal), Croz is a quietly bracing work that balances familiarity and invention.

critic’s pick 314: rosanne cash, ‘the river & the thread’

rosanne cash“There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past,” sings Rosanne Cash over a slight but slinky groove at the onset of her fascinating new album The River & The Thread. Perhaps that’s why the record, inspired by a view of the South that is both personal and illusionary, boasts a snapshot of the singer peering over the Tallahatchie Bridge in Mississippi as its cover art.

The bridge’s symbolism, whether intentional or not, is twofold. Like The River & The Thread, it represents a literary country music past (it’s the focal point of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe) and a guidepost to the Tallahatchie River that runs through Mississippi, where the spirits of everything from the birth of the blues to the civil rights movement mingle.

Cash, a Memphis native, is seldom that literal or linear in the songs she penned for the record with husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal. Nor do the Southern regions outlined in the music always seem accepting to the probing eyes of an outside world. “You’re not from around here,” she sings in World of Strange Design. “You’re probably not our kind.” Typically astute and intuitive slide guitar colors from Derek Trucks accentuate the tune’s wary tone.

But as is always the case with Cash’s best music, there is also abundant (though often unanticipated) warmth throughout The River & The Thread. Redemption comes calling through the Sunday airwaves (“a new old desire”) during 50,000 Watts. That leads into the Civil War-era love story When the Master Calls the Roll, where salvation is sought not only sought for a soldier killed by a cannon blast but for an entire embattled nation.

Cash returns to the Tallahatchie on the album-closing Money Road, a rolling blues-accented meditation where salvation is meditated upon in more personal but remote terms (“I was dreaming about the deepest blue, but what you seek is seeking you”).

Such confessional and contemplative views are colored beautifully by Leventhal throughout the record with melodies and production that sound like a blues-country séance. But Cash is the true adventurer here, exploring a South she seems so purposely removed from yet forever tied to. Her resulting journey makes for the first truly great record of 2014.

critic’s pick 313: bruce springsteen, ‘high hopes’

High HopesThe first thing you notice about High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen’s18th studio album, is its title. It sounds inspirational enough – prophetic, even. But the Springsteen of today has largely bid adios to the leather jacketed romantic who was born to run years ago. The Boss has become more of an iron fisted elder, an activist adjusting – and heavily reacting – to the world around him. And what he witnesses, especially within the darkest creases of 2007’s underrated Magic and the mighty 2012 requiem Wrecking Ball often isn’t pretty.

So is High Hopes a wish for better fortunes, modest though they may be? Essentially, yes. But don’t pass out the party hats just yet. The opening title track, penned by The Havalinas’ Tim Scott McConnell and initially cut by Springsteen as far back as 1999, is a measure of just how small the victories are. “Give me love, give me peace,” barks The Boss over an E Street Band brass attack that rocks like a voodoo rhumba. “Don’t you know these days you pay for everything?”

Such purposely retooled frenzy is what High Hopes is all about. At heart, the album is a clearinghouse project. Assembled during and between legs of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour, the record consists of cover tunes, unreleased works that stem back well over a decade and reimagined versions of songs he has been performing live for years. To that, he adds the augmented 18-member incarnation of the E Street Band that has been by his side onstage for much of the last two years and a new alliance with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

What emerges is an album that bears much of the musical might that fortified Wrecking Ball. A few patches of light seep in, like the youthful and fraternal Franklie Fell in Love and a wide-eyed cover of The Saints’ Just Like Fire Would, which serve as bright backwards glances to a glorious youth. But when High Hopes storms no one is spared. Harry’s Place, an evil twin to The Rising’s Mary’s Place, takes us via a relentless synth and wah-wah groove and Springsteen’s vocal grumble, to the coldest corners of the underworld while American Skin (41 Shots) is given, some 13 years after being introduced on the road, proper studio treatment that enforces its all-too-topical urgency.

A rockish reworking of The Ghost of Tom Joad, which sinks under the weight of Morello’s surprisingly static soloing, is the only misfire. Otherwise, High Hopes uses fragments of The Boss’ musical past as kindling for the fires that continue to burn boldly on E Street.

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