NEW RELEASES, 3/15: Hoo boy, we got stuff by STEPHEN MALKMUS, TIM O’BRIEN BAND, and TODD SNIDER in the house!


STEPHEN MALKMUS, Groove Denied (CD/LP)
First off, it’s called Groove Denied because Matador insisted on releasing Sparkle Hard, an album Stephen Malkmus recorded with his mainstay supporting band the Jicks, instead of this electronic-infused record in 2018. This back story was revealed in a May 2018 Washington Post profile of Malkmus by Geoff Edgers, an article that perhaps overplayed the label’s rejection of Groove Denied. Matador maintained that its plan was to have the album appear after Sparkle Hard, which was a better record to re-introduce the ex-Pavement leader into the marketplace after a four-year hiatus. All this hoopla around Groove Denied undeniably makes for a good yarn, but it also tends to oversell the weirdness of the album. Recorded alone by Malkmus with the support of a stack of synths, drum machines, and a handful of guitars, Groove Denied doesn’t fundamentally push at the boundaries of his music. Whatever electronic influence there is here, it’s grounded in a stylized nod toward the pioneering, eerie analog experimentalism of the post-punk era — like a sound that’s remembered more than re-created. The first side of Groove Denied leans heavily into this aesthetic, cresting with the Krautrock pulse of “Viktor Borgia Prime” and culminating with the murmur of “Forget Your Place.” All this heightened tension slides away as soon as the tightly wound “Rushing the Acid Frat” opens the second side. Reminiscent of the skewed pop littered on Pavement B-sides in the mid-’90s, “Rushing the Acid Frat” kicks off a side of songs where the synths are accouterments to guitars instead of the other way around. These five songs are prime Malkmus — lovely, off-kilter pop graced with off-hand lyricism evident in both the lyrics and melody. If he needed to go through the stilted robotic futurism of “Belziger Faceplant” to get to this suite of songs, the whole enterprise was worth the experimentation.


TIM O’BRIEN BAND, Tim O’Brien Band (CD)
You never quite know which Tim O’Brien is going to make an appearance: fiddle slinger, folk singer-songwriter, bluegrass maverick, or Celtic-crosser, half of a dynamic duo or as part of an ensemble such as Hot Rize and (briefly) The Earls of Leicester. With Tim O’Brien Band (no ‘the’, just like Ramones) you get all the Tim O’Briens, and a new band to boot. Much like his satisfying Short Order Sessions—a set of forty singles released monthly over the course of three years—individual tracks may not be consistent sonically, but they hold together based on their common connection—intimate, acoustic performances of songs, new and familiar. Mike Bub (bass), Shad Cobb (fiddle), and Patrick Sauber (guitar/banjo) join O’Brien (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and harmony vocalist Jan Fabricius (mandolin) on this new journey. O’Brien’s voice is front and center, but the bluegrass vets he has chosen to work with are top-notch and bring no shortage of memorable contributions to the album. O’Brien has always been attracted to the Doc Watson way of doing things—Watson was his original inspiration to explore old-time and folk music—and Tim O’Brien Band has the feel of those Folkways Doc Watson Family recordings. One can envision the principals sitting around a front room, sharing songs on Arrow Back chairs. There are songs familiar included, the presentation fresh and varied. The Celtic shade of things is apparent within “Doney Gal” and “Hop Down Reel/Johnny Doherty’s Reel,” the former a maudlin range song, the latter an amalgam of spirited tunes. “Wind,” like “Doney Gal,” contains Celtic connections and a Western theme. Bluegrass is the unifying force, a music that O’Brien favours but which he seemingly approaches from the side. Having a command of traditional music as O’Brien does, he still seldom engages the music fully and completely: his folk, Celtic, old-time, and country shades hold sway. Dirk Powell’s “My Love Lies in the Ground,” the blues standard “Diggin’ My Potatoes,” and a new Dan Auerbach/O’Brien composition “Amazing Love” are all essentially bluegrass songs, but not the Flatt & Scruggs or even Seldom Scene variety. The album’s highlight may be the group’s take on Norman Blake’s “Last Train From Poor Valley;” the lonesome core of this often-encountered, plaintive piece is on full display within this interpretation. Fabricius takes the lead on the breezy “The Other Woman.” O’Brien handles the rest of the leads, with “Beyond,” a Shawn Camp-O’Brien co-write, being a prototypically-strong vocal exercise. The energetic “Crooked Road” appeared, in different form, on O’Brien’s Chameleon album, and “Drunkard’s Waltz” was first heard as an S.O.S. track. I am certain I’ve previously heard O’Brien interpret Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” but the song has seldom been timelier. The group cuts loose on this track, one of the more up-tempo numbers included. Tim O’Brien doesn’t take the conventional route on this album; he seldom has during a recording career that extends back forty-some years. Establishing a new band and path, obstinately bluegrass but with all other flavors mix in, is just the latest bold move made by one of Americana’s most compelling artists.


TODD SNIDER, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (CD/LP)
Todd Snider’s an ace word guy — his lyrics are razor sharp, unsparing, hilarious, and surprisingly tender — so this bare-bones acoustic LP is a fine idea. Punchlines fly from the get-go (there’s no Vol. 1 or 2), with humanity the usual butt of the jokes, though Trump’s a target, too. Take “Talking Reality Television Blues,” a tribute to Dylan (see “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” “Talking World War III Blues,” etc.) and Woody Guthrie before him that draws a line from Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre through MTV, Fox News and The Apprentice, dissecting the talking blues trope along the way. Snider likes meta: see also “Working On A Song,” an extended koan that frames the life of a Nashville writer from 22-year-old newbie to a greying bard, still staring at a half-empty page. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” conjures an encounter (supposedly true) between Loretta Lynn and the late man in black at Cash’s old mancave, which Rick Rubin helped transform into a studio during the American Recordings sessions, and where this album was cut. The most provocative moments are topical, when Snider takes scalpels to modern cultural cancers and musical histories both. A lean riff on Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” gets repurposed on “A Timeless Response To Current Events,” with variations of the reprise “ain’t that some bullshit?” (In reference to what, you ask? Look at your Twitter feed.) In a similar spirit, if more meta still, is “The Blues On Banjo.” At first it feels uncomfortably like minstrelsy, as the title itself suggests a sly observation on American music’s African roots. Then it upshifts into hydrant-flow indictment of capitalist villainy, invoking the WWII military-industrial end-run Operation Paperclip, various 9/11 ancillaries, and archetypal NRA-owned politicians —the latter conjured with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires in a chorus that testifies “They’re sending out their thoughts and their prayers!” (Or is it “selling out…”?) paced by a Salvation Army tambourine jingle. Border wall hysteria comes to mind as Snider observes “we mistake desperate people for the devil all the time.” And circling back to the opening, he telescopes an interrogative blues dissertation into an offhanded “zip-a-dee-doo-dah, motherfuckers.” Cultural studies majors: have at it. But to be clear, Snider has heart, which is why his wit and erudition virtually never sounds smug, patronizing or overtly self-serving. He’s got hooks, too. See “Watering Flowers In The Rain,” a blues for a former Elvis Presley roadie, who may or may not be bullshitting, though Snider assures us he’s for real in the song’s intro. Either way, the ache and weary resignation feel 100% true. The character is a struggler — like Snider, and a lot of us, too — and his blues are our own.

COMING SOON:

LUTHER DICKINSON, Solstice (3/22)

JENNY LEWIS, On The Line (3/22)

MEGADETH, Warheads On Foreheads (3/22)

 

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

PATTY GRIFFIN, Patty Griffin (CD/LP)
It’s taken Patty Griffin more than 20 years and nearly a dozen albums to issue a self-titled release. There may be no particular reason for the designation, but considering its intensely meditative character, her recently-revealed successful battle with cancer and her dedication to besieged causes like refugees and the environment, it seems like a deliberate choice. Recorded mostly in the Maine native’s Austin, Texas, home studio with longtime collaborator Craig Ross, Patty Griffin varies seamlessly between American folk, Celtic-rooted tunes, chansons and beyond with the excellence and elegance Griffin’s songwriting has deservedly become known for. David Pulkingham’s Mediterranean-style guitar phrases underpin opener “Mama’s Worried,” one of several songs on the 13-track album that include seas, rivers and oceans as symbols of strength, vastness and even justice. “River” may be about a woman who is “ever changing and undefined,” or it could be an ode to an admired waterway with a will of its own. “Coins” is one of two tracks featuring Griffin’s ex-beau Robert Plant, whose harmonies are endearingly subtle and supportive, with his contribution to “What Now” — a yearningly-sketched song of uncertainty with droning tones and Griffin’s mandolin-like guitar and riveting vocals — especially translucent. “Bluebeard,” based on the French tale of the monstrous husband and the curious wife, and “Boys from Tralee,” detailing the dire fates of Irish immigrants, have similar folk approaches, while “Hourglass” slips its yearnings for freedom into a New Orleans trombone pocket. Road song “Luminous Places” covers a wide terrain before an intimate conclusion, and closer “Just the Same” ponders a relationship’s ebb and flow and the consequences of patience and perseverance. Griffin has never sounded any less than fully engaged on any of her albums and now that her name is on the building, so to speak, her commitment is as profound as ever.


CHATHAM COUNTY LINE, Sharing The Covers (CD/LP)
Sharing the Covers is Chatham County Line’s eighth album, which means fans of this Raleigh-based fourpiece know by now they’ll likely be in for a faultlessly produced and smoothly performed collection of bluegrass music  – and they won’t be disappointed. And given this band’s proven ability to create an entire song’s lyrics  “Ringing in My Ears” out of lines borrowed from Paul Simon, George Harrison, Willie Nelson et al, as well as their having versioned “I Shall Be Released” way back on their second LP, a CCL covers album isn’t such a surprise in itself. What is less predictable the sheer range of  musical influences to which CCL  wish to pay tribute on this latest, 13-track album. OK, I Got You (At The End Of The Century)” isn’t exactly off the Americana radar, though the rip-roaring enthusiasm and pace of their cover  is all CCL’s own doing, and  towards the far end of the album, reworking John Hartford’s “Grand Ole Opry” seems equally reasonable. (Given that Hartford himself once did a bluegrass covers album Retrograss, ’it feels almost like an in-joke). But these are not the tracks that make Sharing the Covers such a powerful celebration of musical diversity. Rather, it’s the  combination of much more improbable tributes –  like, say, their version of jazz guitar giant Johnny Smith’s Walk Don’t Run,”  or I Think I’m in Love” by art popster Beck or Irish soul singer James Hunter’s “People Gonna Talk” – and the care and passion with which they’ve been re-arranged into bluegrass numbers. Put simply, it feels like the Chatham County Liners have chosen a collection of songs that really matter to them, for whatever reason, and then do their utmost to honour them in their own musical style. Somewhere between the two extremes of predictable and surprising cover of “Watching the Wheels Go Round” hits home so hard you wonder why John Lennon didn’t use a banjo for the opening riff. “Girl on the Billboard”  makes you want to re-hear the original too, if only to check that Del Reeves really does have his haplessly lovestruck lorry driver-cum-narrator describe himself as “a double-clutching weasel”. (For the record, he does.)  Furthermore, Tom Petty fans will doubtless approve that the harmonica solo which features in the original  “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is also present here – and just like the original, giving a huge lift to the CCL version. It feels right somehow that rather than get overly experimental in an album that is all about honing very different material into one style, there’s no tracks with, say, drums (which CCL used to great effect in their fifth album, Wildwood”)  or electric guitars. But whilst  the purists can still  (and probably will) quibble at the piano leading the way on “Lay Down My Old Guitar” -a nice musical irony, bearing in mind the song title – it’d be their loss, given  the heart-stoppingly melancholy beauty of  CCL’s version, bringing down the curtain on this fine album in  the finest of styles.


NICK WATERHOUSE, Nick Waterhouse (CD/LP)
Why should Daptone, Eli “Paperboy” Reed and James Hunter have all the fun when it comes to churning out classy contemporary/retro soul? It’s a question Nick Waterhouse might have asked himself back in 2010. Or more likely, why can’t that pie get a little bigger with a shot of blue-eyed R&B from a West Coast bred lover of the kind of ’50s and ’60s sounds Austin Powers used to find “groovy baby”?  Nine years, three critically acclaimed albums and plenty of road work later, Waterhouse has answered that query to everyone’s satisfaction. His music finds the perfect storm where Ray Charles, the Dap-Kings and JD McPherson meet for a shimmy-shimmy-ko-ko bop combination of styles guaranteed to get any dance floor vibrating.  But lyrically, everything is not quite as rosy in Waterhouse’s world. On the hip Motown-infused “Wreck the Rod,” he croons, “Love is a trap/ Love is a lovely suicide pact” as backing singers shout “love” in staccato harmony, a King Curtis-styled tenor sax wails, and Waterhouse howls with abandon. On the slinky, stripped-down “Which Was Writ,” he sings, “I used to trust but I learned that I was wrong” over a feline walking bass, subdued guitar and backing “woo-woos.” He’s angry about televised fakers — be they politicians or preachers — on “Man Leaves Town,” a toe-tapping jazzy garage rocker with the biting lyrics “Man came to town/ came through your TV screen/ convinced you he knew just what you mean.” There are plenty of edgy love tunes too, like the swinging “Urge Coming On,” the disc’s only cover. Here the backing singers bring the churchy Raelettes/Ikettes feel (not surprising since the song’s writer Joshie Joe Armstead was once a member of both those vocal acts) as Waterhouse goes pure Jackie Wilson. And just for fun, he adds an instrumental called “El Viv” that combines the Champs’ “Tequila” with a shot of Booker T. and the MG’s that’s as frisky and lively as watching Pee Wee Herman dancing. Even when the concepts are heavy as in “Song for Winners,” where Waterhouse sings, “I tried listening/ tell you what I hear/ I hear no fearlessness/ only fear,” the garage-soul of the plucky “Shakin’ All Over” lick will keep you boogying like no one is watching.  It’s an all killer-no filler set that’s the culmination of everything Nick Waterhouse has accomplished for the past nine years. He might have plenty bugging him, but with soul music this joyous and exuberant, you’ll be too busy riding the groove to care.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration (CD)
An incredible array of artists and musicians honor one of the world’s most revered artists, Joni Mitchell, on her 75th birthday on Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration. The all-star tribute salutes Mitchell as a boundary-breaking artist highlighting her songs throughout her career. Featured performers include Brandi Carlile; Glen Hansard; Emmylou Harris; Norah Jones; Chaka Khan; Diana Krall; Kris Kristofferson; Los Loboswith La Marisoul, Cesar Castro & Xochi Flores; Graham Nash; Seal; James Taylor; and Rufus Wainwright.

DAVID GRAY, Gold In A Brass Age (CD/LP)

DIDO, Still On My Mind (CD/LP)

MAREN MORRIS, Girl (CD/LP)

WEEZER, The Teal Album (CD)

MEAT PUPPETS, Dusty Notes (CD/LP)

TRILOK GURTU, Spellbound (CD)

 

 

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