NEW RELEASES, 5/24: MAVIS STAPLES, FLYING LOTUS, JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE and EARTH are all in the house this week!


MAVIS STAPLES, We Get By (CD in-stock now/LP here soon!)
Over half a century after her voice was at the forefront of America’s civil rights era, Mavis Staples is still crying out for Change. The bluesy backbeat opening track of her 12th studio album confronts recent shootings in the US before she concludes, brilliantly, “What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free?” The former Staple Singers icon, who turns 80 in July, is in fearsome, eclectic form here. The title track is a lovely soul song about survival, and Brothers and Sisters is a funk rocker about unity. Where her previous two collections were collaborations with M Ward and Jeff Tweedy respectively, here Ben Harper takes the songwriting-production helm. The minimal guitar/bass/drums line-up gives things a retro, classic feel, but also maintains the focus on Staples’ voice, which has deepened slightly over the years but lost none of its heartfelt power and expression. It’s not hard to guess the subject of such pointed lines such as “Trouble in the land. We can’t trust that man.” Elsewhere, there are songs of loss, need, faith and devotion. The subdued, brooding Heavy on My Mind finds her momentarily burdened by the length and enormity of her struggle. However, she perks up for Sometime before extraordinary closer One More Change finds her holding mortality at bay because she insists she has “one more change to make”. A remarkable woman.


FLYING LOTUS, Flamagra (CD/2xLP/2xLP limited-edition pop-up gatefold)
One of the most inventive forces in modern music, Steven ‘Flying Lotus’ Ellison’s last album ‘You’re Dead!’ fused hip-hop, jazz and electronica to boldly explore the idea that there’s a strange beauty in death. His new album ‘Flamagra’, a spaced-out funk epic that’s much more soothing than its predecessor, proves Ellison has grown as a producer. There’s something very J Dilla about tracks such as ‘Post Requisite’ and ‘Heroes in a Half Shell’, which both share the late producer’s ability to transport listeners into an alien world filled with bouncy hip-hop synths and calming transitions that kick in just as things get too intense. There’s a druggy swirl to this music, with the distorted first part of potent Anderson .Paak duet ‘More’ feeling like it’s filtering through a thick fog of weed smoke. The inventive beat switch, which brings in a bass guitar that cuts right through the beat, is a sleight-of-hand worthy of Frank Ocean and Travis Scott. ‘Takashi’ is dream-like, its psychedelic chimes creating a sense of pure escapism. But this calm is quickly replaced with urgency, thanks to the thrilling burst of electricity that is ‘All Spies’, an IDM track that sounds like the spaceship from Close Encounters (had the jingle-crafting martian on board been tripping on high-grade acid). Ellison is a master at shifting tone, and knows how to take listeners on an exhilarating journey that unites both calm and chaos. He also knows how to inject versatility; this is an album that consistently combines Dr. Dre‘s ‘2001’-esque sun-drenched bass and bold chord progression (particularly on the excellent ‘FF4’) with the kind of inward-looking funk (exemplified on ‘Debbie Is Depressed’) you’d expect to find on a vintage Sly And The Family Stone record. This record is an amalgamation of everything Flying Lotus has ever learned as a musician – dating back to being an intern at Stones Throw all those years ago, through to the raw edge he brought to Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. It’s all welded together to create a piece of art that’s bursting with ideas that impressively compliment one another. High-profile guests include Solange, George Clinton, Thundercat, Toro y Moi, Shabazz Palaces and David Lynch, who spouts trippy dialogue on ‘Fire Is Coming’ (which could easily be taken from the truly surrealistic latest season of Twin Peaks). Yet it’s new rapper Tierra Whack, an artist already threatening to be this generation’s Andre 3000, who soars the highest. Her nutty verse on ‘Yellow Belly’ bottles the vibrant spirit Flying Lotus possesses as a producer, with lyrics such as “I’m so high everyone else looks up to me” feeling like a tribute to his genius. It’s also evocative of the album’s concept, which is apparently based around an eternal flame flickering at the top of a mountain. ‘Flamagra’ is at its best when Ellison embraces his jazz roots (his great aunt and uncle were jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane), as introspective jazzier tracks such as ‘Andromeda’ and ‘Say Something’ really do summon the atmospheric theatrics of being sat high up in the mountains at sunset, looking out onto a vast landscape and wandering what might be possible in life. Judging by this album, Flying Lotus can make just about anything happen.


JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE, The Saint Of Lost Causes (CD/2xLP)
Singer-songwriters such as Justin Townes Earle often get pegged as being self-reflective, and it’s a fair accusation. Earle himself lingered on his own confessional psyche on his last album, 2017’s Kids in the Street, which unearthed all kinds of rocks from his past to see what was squirming underneath them. But it’s always best to remember that Earle is the son of Steve Earle, and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree — and the father’s penchant for social commentary and message music has just as much of a chance of working its way into the son’s songs. Such is the case with The Saint of Lost Causes, Earle’s latest album. Far-ranging and fueled by both empathy and rage, it’s the opposite of myopic. “I was trying to look through the eyes of America, because I believe in the idea of America — that everybody’s welcome here and has a right to be here,” Earle said in a recent press release. Fittingly, The Saint of Lost Causes not only reflects that belief lyrically, but musically. The album’s debut single, “Ain’t Got No Money,” is an upbeat, honky-tonk tribute to being broke and on the road that taps a vein of desperation; it’s a state of despair that runs deeper on “Flint City Shake It” and “Don’t Drink The Water,” one a Western-swing protest and the other a stomping, bluesy cry for justice from the post-industrial middle of America. Earle slips further into character on “Appalachian Nightmare,” a ghost-riddled folk song stripped to the bone and fleshed out with echoes. In it, a criminal details his sordid life and desire for forgiveness in terms that are nearly Springsteen-ian in sprawl. “Over Alameda” paints a portrait an African American family from Mississippi looking for a better life in California in the 1960s as pedal steel drives home a tone of displacement and lonesomeness. And on “Ahi Esta Mi Nina,” Earle scripts a one-sided, country-rock conversation between a Cuban man and his daughter in New York, a monologue rife with tenderness and regret. As evidenced by the video for “Frightened by the Sound,” Earle isn’t afraid of using the most shopworn of songwriting symbols — the rain — and breathing fresh power into it. “Wind is picking up / To a low moaning / Feel the pressure drop,” he sings, conjuring the vertigo at the start of a big change in life, be it on a personal level or something vaster in scope. Is he singing about a relationship? Politics? Climate change? Spirituality? It’s left to the listener to decipher, and that only renders Earle’s husky drawl and sparse guitar that much more potent. It’s the album’s title track, though, that drives the bleakness home. “The Saint of Lost Causes” slinks sinuously through atmospheric folk licks and Earle’s weary observation: “It’s a cruel world / It ain’t hard to understand / You got your sheep / You got your shepherd / You got your wolves amongst men.” It’s as cynical a sentiment as Earle’s ever uttered — but at the same time, he embeds a sliver of redemption: “Ain’t nobody born bad / Takes a whole lot of hurting / Therein lies one of life’s biggest lessons.” It may not be anywhere near as audacious as hope; still, cradled in his homespun warmth, it feels like the darkness before the dawn.


SEBADOH, Act Surprised (CD/LP)
Lou Barlow has been a singer-songwriter — and/or a member of Sebadoh, The Folk Implosion and Dinosaur Jr., among other projects — dating back to the 1980s. Along the way, he’s seen good times come and go: a huge crossover hit with The Folk Implosion; a 25-year marriage that ended a few years ago; a musical partnership with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis that curdled into enmity, only to get nurtured improbably back to life. Barlow has had to rebuild, rekindle and reinvent, all of which requires a fair bit of introspection from a guy who’s never shied away from reflection in his songwriting. Six years ago, that path led to Sebadoh’s first album since 1999. Defend Yourself found Barlow reuniting with Jason Loewenstein and Bob D’Amico for a loose, free-wheeling collection that split the difference between wounded ache and shambling aggression — a perfect combination for a breakup album, and a mix Barlow has been mining effectively, in one way or another, for decades. Now that six more years have passed between Sebadoh albums, the trio returns once again with Act Surprised, a 15-song set crafted by musicians who know they’ve long since cemented their legacy. Not that they phone it in here; far from it. Barlow is still assessing life’s tectonic shifts and conspicuous absences — you could sum up its mission statement in the perspective-laden title of “Celebrate the Void” — but the band around him has finally settled on a clear, consistent sound after decades of albums that jumped frenetically from wrenching ballads to discordant rage. With Act Surprised, Sebadoh kicks off its fourth decade with rare cohesiveness of vision, in a string of spiky, aggressive three-minute rock songs that don’t let their jagged edges obscure the throbbing heart at their center.


EARTH, Full Upon Her Burning Lips (CD/LP)
Since Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, Earth’s output has adopted a heavy metal edge. Here, that’s abandoned in favor of a rich warmth, embracing a vintage, full-bodied sound. Full Upon Her Burning Lips is unique among the Earth canon for being suggestive and sensual. ‘Dartura’s Crimson Veils’, ‘She Rides an Air of Malevolence’, ‘Maiden’s Catafalque’ – rarely have Earth evoked these images, colors and themes, bringing a new perspective to their traditional mass-and-volume approach. The clarity of vision is bolstered by removing some of the extra instruments, leaving more space for guitar swoops and trills, percussive flutters and instrumental interplay. Repeat listens uncover gems like the sustained slow-burn melody of ‘A Wretched Country of Dusk’ and the creeping malevolence of ‘The Colour of Poison’. There’s rarely been anything in their catalogue which has tried quite so many cool things, which threatens their commendable attitude towards maintaining minimalism. Fortunately, by stripping away the other instruments, more breathing room is allowed between the guitars and the drums. It’s their busiest record to date, but still revolves around the thunderous plod that does so well to define their sound. Importantly, for a band who did so well to combine heavy metal thunder with academic minimalism, who would have thought they could produce something so lovely? Every note sounds thoroughly gorgeous. For a band whose titling and artwork is so important for the images they conjure, reverting to a tighter focus works for them. Carlson’s guitars, clearly the focus, get to step back from the angular and the lugubrious. Instead, red-lipped riffs flutter over careful and precise percussion, evoking crimson dresses striding down gold corridors. And underneath it all – the star player – Adrienne Davis’s steady, world-eating thud has never sounded better.


COMING SOON:

*repeat repeat, Glazed (5/31)

LUKAS NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL, Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), (6/14)

BUDDY & JULIE MILLER, Breakdown On 2oth Ave. South (6/21)

 

 

And don’t forget these STILL-NEW platters that matter!

THE NATIONAL, I Am Easy To Find (CD/2xLP clear vinyl/3xLP multi-colored vinyl)
Do the National do a lot with a little, or a little with a lot? On the one hand, theirs is a lush, grandly developed sound, in which every element fits into place, where textures and tones brush up against each other to create an effect that’s often overwhelming. On the other hand, their desire to never be obvious means the National’s catalog is hardly replete with bangers: they’ve created a musical universe that, while richly melodic, is more about mood and texture than big hooks. All of which comes to mind strongly on their eighth album, which is rich with lyrical references to artists whose reputations were built on big hooks: the title track quotes from “Echos Myron” by Guided By Voices. “Not in Kansas” refers to “the first two Strokes”, to “listening to REM again / Begin the Begin over and over”, and then quotes “The Flowers of Guatemala.” “Not in Kansas” is a startling, brilliant song, one that seems to be trying to locate a cultural and geographical home. “Ohio’s in a downward spiral,” Matt Berninger sings, “Can’t go back there any more / Since alt-right opium went viral.” All he can be sure of is that, like Dorothy, he’s not in Kansas: “Where I am, I don’t know where.” It’s set to a gorgeous, limpid, understated melody and arrangement that serves to highlight the emotional intensity of the lyrics. The whole record works best less as a collection of songs than a sustained mood piece: its moves uptempo (“Where Is Her Head,” “Rylan”) are tempered by the stillness that surrounds them. The music burbles, without ever insisting. The lyrics (credited to Berninger, his wife Carin Besser, and Mike Mills, the film director who’s also listed as a co-producer) are both allusive and grounded – in “The Pull of You,” the dichotomy in this desperate pinballing between engagement and distance is pinpointed in a single couplet: “I’m either at the bottom of a well / Or spinning into somebody’s outdoor glass furniture.” It’s an album you can come away from unable to hum a single bar, but so captivating you want to return to it immediately.


NICK LOWE & LOS STRAITJACKETS, Love Starvation/Trombone (LP)
When Nick Lowe was addressing the audience about what they were about to hear at a show during his recent tour, he cautioned there would be a few new songs sprinkled into the set list. But, in typical self-deprecating Lowe fashion, he reassured the audience that a) they would be short and b) they sound just like the old songs anyway, so not to worry. He was right on both counts. The second Lowe/Los Straitjackets studio collaboration EP features only four selections, running a total of 14 minutes. Three are new Lowe originals that, well, sound like others of his tunes, and the fourth, “Raincoat In The River,” is an obscure Phil Spector cover, initially recorded by the little known Sammy Turner. Ricky Nelson also did a version, but with its hummable and strummable pop melody, it seems like something Lowe would write. The title track, “Love Starvation,” is jaunty pure-pop-for-now-people. The lyrics, telling of a man who needs love, are more melancholy than most of Lowe’s, sung over Los Straitjackets’ Rockpile-styled rockabilly groove. Ditto for “Trombone” about “good love gone wrong,” with the protagonist singing, “I should be on the road to glory/Not this barren, bleak terrain/I pray I’ll never be this way again,” over, you guessed it, overdubbed trombones. It hews a little close to Neil Diamond but Lowe’s amiable vocals save it from getting schlocky. As its title implies, “Blue on Blue” is another lost love tune—that’s a theme here—as Lowe downshifts into sweet ballad mode with wry lyrics “In my mind/I’m on the end of a ball of twine/That she jerks from time to time.” The quartet of tracks is short—too short—and sweet. It’s hard to say if we’ll ever see a new full-length Nick Lowe album again, but if he can squeeze out four songs a year as sturdy as these, that might satisfy fans who would surely like to hear more from a veteran singer-songwriter whose music, like his voice, never seems to age.


CHRISTONE “KINGFISH” INGRAM, Kingfish (CD)
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram grew up in Clarksdale, Miss., a town sometimes called the “cradle” of the blues. Nearby is the plantation where Muddy Waters spent his childhood, as well as the mythic crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil. If you’re a young musician aspiring to join the blues conversation, Clarksdale is a good cred-conferring hometown to have. Yet Ingram, a 20-year-old phenom, opens his debut album by declaring that he’s ready to cut loose. He knows there’s life outside of his town, he sings, and he’s hitting the road to go find it. Taillights are mentioned. Vows that strangers will one day know his name are said. The tune, “Outside of This Town,” is a hard-swinging shuffle with a bit of Stevie Ray Vaughan snarl to it. Ingram sings with relatable conviction, but the whole thing seems fairly businesslike until around 1:44, when there’s a brief guitar solo. Then and there, Kingfish – who was a featured performer in the Netflix series Luke Cage– shows that he is, in fact, ready for bigger stages. His tone all blazing brightness, Ingram soars through a few pitch bends, then dispatches tricky triplet phrases, then quotes “It Ain’t Necessarily So” with an arresting rhythmic precision. It’s almost like he’s singing through the guitar: Every utterance, every little ghost phrase, is rendered with exactitude. He might be landing on the low-down dirty notes, but he’s hitting them cleanly. In a way that breathes mighty new life into worn-out guitar-showman cliches. This emphasis on crisp execution makes literally every Ingram solo on the album a dramatic event. On the up-tempo stuff, he tears through blistering lines with the easygoing assurance of a road-dog veteran. Then when it’s slow-blues time, he makes the guitar moan: Check “Believe These Blues” to hear him underscore his observations on human suffering with a guitarspeak built from anguished long tones, storm clouds and bacon grease. And for a gauge of just how developed Ingram’s playing is, check the slow blues “Fresh Out,” which features his mentor, blues legend Buddy Guy. Ingram takes the first solo, and serves up a marvel of sharp syncopated rhythm; Guy follows by landing on and holding a single-note roar, as if to suggest that his other options had been already covered. The blues is a mature form. As Guy noted in a New Yorker profile earlier this year, it doesn’t exactly have a deep bench of young renegades. It does, however, have a few up-and-coming stars like Ingram, who appreciate the blues as a lifeline, a malleable language, a way of being in the world. Several times on Kingfish, Ingram describes himself as an “old soul.” But he really didn’t have to – his astounding playing says as much, over and over again.


JIMMIE VAUGHAN, Baby, Please Come Home (CD/LP)
If you ask Jimmie Vaughan why he hasn’t composed any original material over the past decade or so, he’d probably tell you that all the best blues songs have already been written … or something to that effect. So it’s no surprise that the singer and guitarist reaches back once again to dust off 11 obscure blues gems on his first (mostly) studio album in eight years.  This is nothing new for the ex-Fabulous Thunderbirds axe-man. He’s been excavating cool material to reprise, if not necessarily update, in a frills-free fashion since the Thunderbirds’ first release back in 1979. And on his previous studio collections from 2010/2011 (two volumes of the appropriately titled Blues, Ballads & Favorites), Vaughan took the same approach. On this short but sweet collection of 11 covers, he employs a horn section featuring some old members of Roomful of Blues to fatten the sound and bring old-school, retro-honking to the table.  Although a few of these writers such as T-Bone Walker, Fats Domino, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Lloyd Price might be familiar to casual roots/blues music fans, it takes diehards to have heard the selections Vaughan unearths here. Kicking off with Price’s title track, the guitarist and his band are fired up, churning out fast, slow and medium tempo shuffles, and lots of jump blues, with as much and arguably more energy as the initial artists. There aren’t a lot of deep lyrical concepts as titles such as “Be My Lovey Dovey” or “I’m Still In Love With You” indicate. But no one is arriving to this party platter for spiritual enlightenment on the meaning of life. They come for a swinging great time which is just what they get as Vaughan and his crew sound like kids in a musical candy store playing their favorites with no consideration of any commercial prospects. While the guitarist doesn’t have the best vocal chops, his understated singing works well with his similarly unfussy yet punchy leads. Vaughan once worked with Omar Kent Dykes on an album of Jimmy Reed tunes, so it’s little surprise he reprises the particularly spirited Reed penned “Baby, What’s Wrong” to close this set. Now pushing 70, Vaughan isn’t out to be the next flavor of the month — he never was — but he revives these blues corkers with class, restraint and a vibrant sense of love for his chosen genre that shines through on every cut.

INTERPOL, A Fine Mess (CD/LP)

PERPETUAL GROOVE, Perpetual Groove (CD/LP)

THE HEAD & THE HEART, Living Mirage (CD/LP)

 

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