ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO, The Crossing (CD/LP)
For many music fans, two of the most wince-inducing words are “concept album.” Add “cinematic” along with “orchestration” and the nightmares begin. And yes, this new disc from redoubtable Texas based singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo proudly boasts that somewhat lofty description in its promotional literature. But don’t flee screaming in fear. Escovedo is too much of a veteran and established pro to get bogged down pushing some convoluted narrative in lieu of quality songwriting. Rather these 17 tracks examine the hot-button political topic of immigration; telling of two men, one from Mexico, one from Italy, and their trials and tribulations entering the U.S. Escovedo often uses the first person as a narrator which makes the account feel more individual. While there are plenty of — arguably too many — lyrics setting the scene, the songs are strong enough to carry the story without buckling under the “concept” pressure. Tracks like the tough-strutting riff rocker “Outlaw For You” that name checks Johnny Thunders, James Dean, Allen Ginsberg and other iconic figures, and the bluesy mid-tempo “How Many Times,” don’t seem to have a direct connection to the story. The music was recorded in Villafranca, Italy with an instrumental ensemble named Don Antonio. Yet the sound isn’t far removed from previous Escovedo releases recorded closer to home. Guest vocalists Joe Ely (who provides an eerie spoken word part on the well, cinematic, sprawling title track) and Peter Perrett (from UK post-punkers The Only Ones on the pop rocking “Waiting for Me”) also appear to add diverse textures. The album is split in half by the instrumental “Amor Puro” which sounds like a Los Lobos B side. And even though the angry, blistering rocker “Fury and Fire” (“I can’t believe they want to take my dad away … they call us rapists/ so we build a bigger wall/ We’re gonna tear it down”) and the raw, distorted guitar driven Tom Waits-styled “MC Overload” appear later in the program, the momentum dissipates slightly in the disc’s final third. Freddie Trujillo’s spoken word story “Rio Navidad” about a confrontation with a racist is interesting once but it slows things down and isn’t something you’ll likely play twice. A cameo from the MC5’s Wayne Kramer on first single “Sonica USA,” with its twisted sax and grinding guitar, is another highlight on this hour-long, widescreen venture. Escovedo is in fine, emotional voice throughout, especially on ballads like the lovely “Cherry Blossom Rain.” As with the best concept sets, you don’t need to follow the story, or even know there is one, to enjoy these songs, since most stand on their own. This is one of the most passionate, relevant, politically charged and personal projects he has released in a career pushing 40 years; it’s injected with fire, fury and a thoughtful treatise of the immigrant issue from firsthand experience. But most importantly, he puts the music first, as it always should be.
RICHARD THOMPSON, 13 Rivers (CD/LP)
Richard Thompson has been part of the musical landscape for more than 50 years – as a founding member of seminal folk band Fairport Convention, as a singer/songwriter duo with his (now) ex-wife Linda, and as a highly prolific solo artist. With that in mind, it’s oddly assuring that his latest album, the brilliant, engaging 13 Rivers, manages to eschew any kind of gilded production techniques or fussy concepts. It’s further proof – as if we needed any – that Thompson’s songs and stellar guitar playing speak for themselves. 13 Rivers is Thompson’s first self-produced work in more than ten years, recorded on analog equipment in just ten days. Joined by his faithful sidemen Michael Jerome (drums), Taras Prodaniuk (bass) and Bobby Eichorn (guitar), Thompson plugs a baker’s dozen of excellent new songs into this stripped-down lineup, and the results are loud, potent and visceral. There’s a reassuring power to the music, an affirmation that this 69-year-old legend is not phoning it in or going the nostalgia route. He still has a great deal of good music left to share. The album begins not with a bang, but a simmer – “The Storm Won’t Come” is powered by minor keys and a propulsive Bo Diddley drum beat, with lyrics that anticipate and welcome change but realize that it’s a natural process. “I’m longing for a storm to blow through town,” Thompson sings, “And blow these sad old buildings down / But the storm won’t come.” On “Rattle Within”, he channels some noisy Tom Waits-style percussion and pairs it with plenty of raucous guitar soling (if there was any doubt as to the current state of Thompson’s legendary guitar skills, rest assured – the playing on this album is typically fantastic, and the soloing is vast and plentiful). Lyrically, Thompson has often been fascinated – some might say obsessed – with darkness and morbidity, even if the music doesn’t always reflect that. “Bones of Gilead” pairs a caffeinated, quasi-rockabilly vibe with allegoric subject matter (“What’s my name / Just call me Micah / Micah like the Bible says / I can’t help it, it’s within me / Runes are written on my face”). Likewise, the tight, funky “Trying” almost sounds like Thompson’s vying for a freak mainstream hit – the addictive hooks of the chorus certainly help – but the underlying darkness would seem (thankfully) out of place alongside today’s carefully marketed pop stars.While 13 Rivers is promoted in the press materials as “a bare-bones” affair “with no filters”, there are moments when the rawness is adorned with an additional sonic layer or two. But it’s very much in keeping with Thompson’s style. “Oh Cinderella” is a mandolin-fueled waltz tempo singalong that wouldn’t sound out of place on his acclaimed 1991 Rumor and Sigh album. “You Can’t Reach It” has chunky riffs and soaring melodies that almost resemble American heartland rock (a rare and enviable feat for the positively British Thompson). But for the most part, 13 Rivers is an album that sticks close to a vision of darkness, gloom, and noise. Thompson has written his usual share of memorable songs and his small, dedicated band attack the compositions with relish. With razor-sharp wit, a seemingly endless reservoir of imaginative guitar-playing, and a restless sense of musical adventure, Richard Thompson is still blowing away the competition, even those more than half his age.
PAUL WELLER, True Meanings (CD/LP)
Paul Weller’s 40-odd-year career and ever-changing moods have taken him from the Jam to the Style Council to solo, via punky R&B, funk, soul and house to the genre-shifting experimentalism of the last decade. His gentler acoustic side surfaced as long ago as 1978’s English Rose, but he’s never done an album in that mould, as he does here. The voice, guitar and subtly orchestrated arrangements recall Nick Drake’s work with Robert Kirby, or Weller’s own Above the Clouds. On turning 60, the reluctant nostalgist finally allows time for some reflection, with a set of dreamily autumnal, wistful, even melancholy songs. The humbling Glide finds him passing “through a portal to my youth” to “see the memories unfold”, while the delicately, T Rex-ily soulful Mayfly glances backward and urges: “Let me feel the same way.” Wishing Well distantly echoes Neil Young’s Old Man. Old Castles and Bowie ponder change, self-doubt and mortality. Guests from Lucy Rose to, predictably, Noel Gallagher (unpredictably, on harmonium) can’t clutter songs full of space and air. Love features predominantly, along with lust in Come Along, featuring folk giant Martin Carthy. Unusually, the lyrics aren’t all Weller’s. Villagers’ Conor O’Brien pens the restless Soul Searchers and Erland Cooper provides words to three songs including the standout, White Horses – but Weller inhabits the latter’s musings on parenthood and family beautifully.
WILLIE NELSON, My Way (CD/LP)
My Way, Willie Nelson’s new studio album, explores his admiration and connection to Frank Sinatra’s art and artistry across 11 fresh, intoxicating takes on songs made famous by the Chairman of the Board. Recorded in the tradition of 1978s legendary Stardust and 2016s Grammy Award-winning Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, My Way is a warm and personal nod from one icon to another. Included are Willie’s takes on timeless tunes like “Summer Wind,” “It Was A Very Good Year,” “I’ll Be Around,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “What Is This Thing Called Love” (cast as a duet with fellow Grammy winner Norah Jones) and, of course, the anthemic “My Way.” Add Willie’s stalwart backing band plus lush arrangements for full string and horn sections – all produced by Grammy winners Buddy Cannon and Matt Rollings – and you’ve got an album that’s as cool as it gets.
APHEX TWIN, Collapse (CD/LP)
Despite his semi-reclusive life and bafflingly obtuse music, Aphex Twin is something of an otherworldly superstar. Case in point – the internet hysteria when the ‘Collapse’ EP was teased with a series of stunning posters around the globe. Met with the kind of fervent adoration usually reserved for pop behemoths, the Cornish enigma has clearly lost none of his appeal since returning from a 13-year hiatus with a patchy trio of official releases and a series of Soundcloud dumps (which ranged from leftover beats and noises to ideas that could realistically be considered full Aphex songs). ‘Collapse’ is Aphex Twin at, arguably, his most interesting – as a mutating electronic mastermind, his work at once intricate and immediate. Perhaps it’s those aforementioned Soundcloud dumps clouding the timeline, but it also feels like his most essential release in years. Take ‘T69 Collapse’, the first track shared from the EP (alongside a dizzying, epilepsy-inducing video). On the surface, it’s a clattering, propulsive cut fit for a techno night – one that clearly draws upon his recent big-name slots at festivals such as Field Day, where he played to tens of thousands of rave-ready punters. Dig deeper, though, and there are smarts that other producers would balk at: at the track’s titular, mid-point collapse, there are 150 BPM shifts crammed into mere seconds of song. Of course, Aphex Twin isn’t one to settle into the slow pace of a conventional dancefloor filler. ‘1st 44’ is less elastic and more full-on Flubber, impossible to discern as it warps around an almost ’80s new wave melodic backbone, while ‘MT1 t29r2’ brings back the rickety beatwork of the record’s opener, this time fusing it with bells and acidic melody – to highly hypnotic effect. The overriding feeling of ‘Collapse’ comes from the parts that – perhaps more than ever before – sound written for the footwork-packed dancefloors of modern clubs. On ‘abundance10edit[2 R8’s, FZ20m & a 909]’, perhaps the most straightforward of ‘Collapse’’s constructions, a spacey acid synth line sluices over the breakbeat rhythms that propel its former half, creating something altogether more languid. It’s that most unlikely of prospects: an Aphex Twin track that sounds almost humanist. It’s also a welcome breather before bonus track ‘pthex’ brings back the skittering percussion that’s dwarfed the rest of the release. Throughout it all, though, there’s a deconstructionist feel to even ‘Collapse’’s danciest numbers. It’s music for Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic parties, rather than your aunt Maureen’s 60th – a mad-hatter’s box of tricks, blown up and reconstructed. Unlikely to sway anyone not already on board with Richard D. James’ weirdo-funk, ‘Collapse’ is nevertheless a brilliant, warped addition to a canon like no other.
WAYNE SHORTER, Emanaon (3xCD/graphic novel)
Wayne Shorter is starting to stretch out all over again. The turn of the century was a dry time for the saxophone legend, at least on the recording front. Shorter released only two albums in the ’90s; one was a duet recording with Herbie Hancock. The following decade wasn’t that much more impressive, with two live albums and one studio album that did little to creatively advance Shorter’s long career or jazz music in general. It took 12 years for him to make his next move with the 2013 Blue Note release Without a Net. It was around this time when I had expected Shorter would wile away his golden years by playing the same sort of post-bop that he was tooting while earning paychecks from Miles Davis half a lifetime ago. Despite this meager activity, people continued to proclaim him as the Greatest Living Jazz Composer because 1) he wrote “Footprints”, and 2) he was still alive. News that Shorter had teamed up with a graphic artist and a chamber orchestra for the release of his triple album Emanon caught my attention but did not raise my expectations. We can’t go handing great reviews to Wayne Shorter just because he’s Wayne Shorter; he has to prove that he can deliver the goods all over again. With Emanon, he has. Shorter, who has been a long time fan of comic books, reached out to artist Randy DuBurke and writer Monica Sly to create a sci-fi story to accompany this adventurous new music he had been developing. Emanon‘s first disc features four lengthy compositions performed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra alongside Shorter’s quartet featuring Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. The second and third discs are live recordings of the same quartet playing variations of the Emanon material alongside some other selections. The combined length of these two CDs is 76 minutes, meaning that Emanon could have been released as a double album, but a triple album looks far more impressive. Packaged with the Emanon graphic novel means that this thing is destined to become a collector’s item. As of this writing, there isn’t even any plan for a digital release of the music. Talk about your throwbacks! Musically, Emanon (“No Name”backward and the title of a Dizzy Gillespie song, in case you were wondering) isn’t exactly the third-stream breakout that will blaze new paths in the forest, but it’s still a very good listen. The 34-piece orchestra pulls double-duty by being a primary vehicle for the music while giving it extensive shading for those moments when things are more focused on the quartet, Danilo Perez’s elegiac passages in particular. The nature of the music itself is highly dramatic, kicking forth enough flair to keep a hero’s cape forever billowing in the wind as they stand on top of their victorious wreckage. Once you are beyond the initial surprise of Wayne Shorter combining jazz and classical so easily, Emanon‘s four anchor pieces become less of a shock. “Pegasus” clears the way, “Prometheus Unbound” and “Lotus” peruse the valleys and caves, and “The Three Marias” combine traits from all three. The live rendition of “The Three Marias” takes even more liberties with Perez doing a great deal of the musical stretching over the course of 27-plus minutes. The one break in the sci-fi third-stream action is “She Moves Through the Fair”, splitting the difference between Emanon‘s current ambitions and tried-and-true post-bop. The graphic novel follows a protagonist soldier named Emanon who fights bad guys. And he does so by hopping dimensions… I think. DuBurke’s artwork is very hazy in nature, not so clearly defined by hard lines and deep colors. Instead, everything is dreamlike yet still bright. The final pages impart this text: “As a consequence: Everyone was destined to wrestle with direct circumstances until they realize that the means to becoming the producer, director, and actor in the story of ones [sic] life lies within one’s self-potential. The task at hand is to find a way to unlock the inherent storehouse of one’s life which contains the knowledge, wisdom and will to take action with… the courage of a Pegasus!” This is only slightly less turgid than Esperanza Spalding‘s bloated introduction, which proclaims that “in our hustle from one task to the next, the subtle waves emanating from these unseen dimensions rarely penetrate our perception.” That’s one of her least insufferable sentences, believe it or not. If Emanon were slimmed down to just its first CD and no graphic novel, it would still be a welcome addition to Wayne Shorter’s discography. And if you don’t mind mixing metaphors, the two live CDs are gravy, and the graphic novel itself is a fifth wheel. Not to put down the abilities of Monica Sly and Randy DuBurke, it just feels like neither the comic nor the music is some uncanny match for one another. As usual, it’s all in the eye and the ear of the beholder. This particular beholder just doesn’t grasp the link between the two. But that’s alright because the music of Emanon is enchanting all on its own. Wayne Shorter’s best album? Probably not. But one of Wayne Shorter’s more interesting late-career diversions? Definitely yes.
ANN WILSON, Immortal (CD/LP)
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Soul Jazz Records Presents Studio One Freedom Sounds: The Sounds Of Young Jamaica (CD)
THE LEMON TWIGS, Go To School (CD/LP)
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL, New Routes (CD/LP)
TONY BENNETT & DIANA KRALL, Love Is Here To Stay (CD)
GIANT SAND, Returns To Valley (CD/LP)
GOOD CHARLOTTE, Generation RX (CD)
CARRIE UNDERWOOD, Cry Pretty (CD)
JUNGLE, For Ever (CD/LP)
LOW, Double Negative (CD/LP)
VIKING OLAFFSON, Johann Sebastian Bach (CD)
MARC RIBOT, Songs Of Resistance 1942-2018 (CD)
SLEAFORD MODS, Sleaford Mods (CD)
THRICE, Palms (CD)
YELLOWJACKETS, Raising Our Voice (CD)
THE DOORS, Waiting For The Sun (50th anniversary edition) (2xCD/LP)
The 50th anniversary edition of The Doors’ classic album has packed 2 CD’s of remastered goodness and a 180g LP of the album into one place, with 14 never-before-released studio and live recordings!
BLITZEN TRAPPER, Furr (10th anniversary edition w/ 12 previously unreleased bonus tracks) (CD/2xLP)
JOE BONAMASSA, Redemption (9/21)
SUPERSUCKERS, Suck It (9/21)
DEREK TRUCKS, Out Of The Madness (9/21)
And don’t forget these STILL-NEW platters that matter!
WAXAHATCHEE, Great Thunder (CD/LP)
A sad record isn’t always the easiest to get into, but that tends to be from just how emotionally visceral they are. While it’s not the most complex release from Waxahatchee in recent memory, there’s so much packed in to her words that it wildly overshadows what any additional instrumentation could offer. If you can be in the right headspace to take it in, this album will take you for a ride. In the slow piano crawl of “Singers No Star” Katie Crutchfield explores just as much of the low-end of her voice as she does strange pop tropes. All the while it’s her ability to weave this into something emotionally broken and worn-out that makes it memorable and intense to hear. Ultimately without any major switches or drum intro, the track ends up as more of a thematic intro but one that really packs a punch. By keeping listeners on their toes and being utterly honest lyrically, Waxahatchee gets you set for something introspective. This makes “You’re Welcome” a lot more interesting to take in, even as it feels like Crutchfield is delivering the song to family and friends in the middle of dinner. Speaking of “Ancient mistakes that linger” and living by words “That a stranger overheard” there’s a sense that Waxahatchee is not only haunted by her past but trying learn how to not repeat herself. By the end of the track however, it appears that no one has listened, and that ultimately it’s up to Crutchfield to fight for herself. Though it starts out the most stripped-down, “Chapel Of Pines” slow-burns its demands to let the arrangements drip in with each verse. There’s such a desperation to the vocals Waxahatchee brings that all the little harmonies come off as more of an extension of just how drained she’s become. Even while the hum of a bass-heavy keyboard sinks in and it sounds like someone is starting to thump lightly on a drum, Crutchfield steps away to let the music speak for itself. The simple piano lines of “You Left Me With An Ocean” don’t leave much to intrigue listeners, leaving you to hone in on the sense of disdain that Crutchfield is feeling. Quiet string touches provide a compliment to the equally light harmonies as its clear Waxahatchee is trying to communicate an extreme emotion with no energy left to do so at full force. The emotional appropriateness of these compositional choices are a strong move, although they may leave the song forgettable without the right headspace. “Slow You Down” takes away much of even the melodic charm of the rest of the record, while the harmonies shine so brightly that it starts to feel like Crutchfield is moving on. Each couple bars brings in a new keyboard, guitar or bit of percussion, layering in excitement as it moves. Strangely with all the makings of a lyric-driven interlude, the song is one of the more emotionally deep moments of the album and one that feels inspiring and thoughtful, even enough to make a solo feel appropriate. “Take So Much” oddly feels stagnant from an instrumental perspective with its pianos borderline repeating progressions from the record. If you can bear this repetition, Waxahatchee delivers in the vocal performances and lyrics, as she demands that her loved one unload on her just as hard as she tears into them. More than any track on the record, this song sees Katie Crutchfield reflecting her devastated feelings in the vocals, as it sounds like she’s about to break out crying mid chorus.
PAUL MCCARTNEY, Egypt Station (CD/LP)
When you’ve done enough in music to ensure your name defines the rock’n’roll era and will be mentioned alongside Mozart and Beethoven by the people of 2518, you have three standard late-career options. You could bow out reliving former glories as a reminder of your monumental achievements. You could chase the zeitgeist, working with the hottest young talent to try to recapture your cutting edge. Or you could slouch off into trad rock, playing out your days in the Blues Jam Retirement Home For Idea Drained Duffers. On his 17th solo album, Egypt Station, Macca tries all three on for size. It’s a theme unravelled on the tracks that throw back to his prime eras, where Egypt Station’s real magic lies. “Happy with You” has him declaring “I used to get stoned, I liked to get wasted, but these days I don’t because I’m happy with you”, from within a gorgeous pastoral flutter of flutes, toe taps and arpeggios that should really have been called “Mother Nature’s Grandad”. “Confidante”, an open letter to an ex-soulmate, recalls the proggier folk bits of 1970s Macca, while “I Don’t Know” and “Dominoes” revisit Wings’ plusher mid-Seventies arrangements. Invoking fresh flower power, “People Want Peace” seamlessly fuses “Magical Mystery Tour”, “Eleanor Rigby” and Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, and Mother Mary would undoubtedly approve of “Hand in Hand”, panpipe solo and all. Most heartening of all, though, is the seafaring remake of “Band on the Run” that is “Despite Repeated Warnings”. Opening as a classic “Live and Let Die” piano refrain telling the story of a deranged captain steering their ship towards disaster despite the crew’s desperate pleas, it ramps up the drama over tense, shifting 10cc and ELO segments before the line “it’s the will of the people” reveals its hand as a Brexit metaphor. So many records as reflective and evocative as Egypt Station prove to be career codas. Despite occasional misfires this one proves that, at 76, McCartney, socially and sonically, still has plenty to say.
PAUL SIMON, In The Blue Light (CD/LP)
As he prepares to mark his retirement from touring with a show in his native Queens, New York, later this month, 76-year-old Paul Simon’s 14th solo album revisits 10 songs from his vast catalogue that he felt were “almost right, or overlooked”, and gives them a treatment he compares to “a new coat of paint on the walls of an old family home”. Other artists such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel have tried this approach, and Simon certainly brings his best to it. The stellar band includes jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and guitarist Bill Frissell. Chamber ensemble yMusic’s inventive treatments of Can’t Run But (from The Rhythm of the Saints album) and the sublime René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War (originally on Hearts and Bones) are familiar from Simon’s current Homeward Bound tour. The former song has been updated, so that Simon now hears a DJ whose “sub bass feels like an earthquake”. There are four selections from the 2000 album You’re the One, which Simon presumably feels is his most overlooked. There are no hits and nothing from Graceland. Generally, sparser arrangements allow more space for Simon’s dazzling imagery and oblique but relevant ruminations on subjects including immigration (René and Georgette …; The Teacher), domestic violence (a bluesier One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor) and the state of humanity and the planet (Questions for the Angels). The Orwellian satire Pigs, Sheep and Wolves is now jazzier. Marsalis’s woozy sax in How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns wonderfully recreates the atmosphere of the “downtown [formerly ‘local’] bar and grill”. There is often a reflective, wistful feel, but Simon’s best reworkings benefit from his age and increased experience. The 1975 song Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy is much more poignant, as he brings his septuagenarian voice to the words: “Here I am, Lord, I’m knocking on your place of business, but I have no business here.” Simon doesn’t sound at peace with the post-crash, Trump-era world at all, and the exquisite new arrangement of Love emphasises lines such as: “When evil walks the planet, love is crushed like clay.” But perhaps he can now be content with an extraordinary canon.
ERIC BACHMANN, No Recover (CD/LP)|
Eric Bachmann’s role as leader of underground alt-rock kings Archers of Loaf and barroom balladeers Crooked Fingers is, it seems, firmly in the past. More recently as a regular collaborator with Neko Case and as a solo artist he’s committed to a notably more expansive sound and more accessible tone. Here on his fourth solo outing Bachmann offers a suite of songs that benefit from the rough-hewn power of his vocal, tender arpeggiated guitar lines and gentle lifts of electronica. It’s certainly low-key but on songs like the ’70s radio-friendly “Daylight” and the title track we get snapshots of hard, sad situations as vivid as a Polaroid. “Wild Azalea” wouldn’t be out of place as a standout ballad on a recent Bruce Springsteen record while “Boom and Shake” offers a brief, brutal vision of an ecological apocalypse that’s hard to shake off. Soft, ragged, and bruised, Bachmann will always deal in the losing situations of life but seems to have conjured some rays of light here that make those moments seem more livable.
ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES, Young Sick Camellia (CD/LP)
When St. Paul & The Broken Bones first broke out a few years back, singer Paul Janeway sounded like a vein-popping retro-soul powerhouse in search of a volume knob. But the Alabama band has matured and modulated ever since, with Janeway leading the way: He can, and does, still belt to the rafters, but he’s also learned when and how to dial it back and let a song groove and glide. On Young Sick Camellia, that’s allowed St. Paul & The Broken Bones to branch out well beyond old-school soul and into sleek summertime funk, with more than a few glimmers of straight-up disco. (Seriously, don’t be surprised if “GotItBad” gets the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” stuck in your head.) Which means, in turn, that Janeway gets to show off his falsetto, while the band around him — aided by hot R&B and hip-hop producer Jack Splash — indulges its nimble, playful side. But Young Sick Camellia also has an exploratory feel, both in its sound and in its subject matter. Framed by warm and sometimes melancholy interludes in which Janeway’s grandfather discusses local weather events (and another in which his Janeway and his grandfather discuss mortality and family loyalty), the album feels lived-in and personal — a detour from 2016’s more message-driven Sea of Noise. These songs frequently grapple with Janeway’s family legacy, most notably in the way three generations of men interact with each other and the state that helped shape them. (The camellia, referenced in the album’s title, is Alabama’s state flower.) Along the way, Young Sick Camellia also ventures down trippy and unpredictable side roads like “Mr. Invisible,” in which Janeway frets about werewolves over a dense array of smudged-up samples. So anyone who might have written off St. Paul & The Broken Bones as a mere throwback ought to settle in and marinate in a sound that keeps getting weirder, more inventive and, in danceable ringers like “Apollo,” more committed than ever to the pleasures of sprightly, joyous funk
JEFF THE BROTHERHOOD, Magick Songs (CD/LP)
For most indie-rock bands, signing to a major label hardly presents the moral quandary it did, say, 25 years ago. In fact, these days, you barely even notice when it happens. (“I’m so bummed the War on Drugs signed to Atlantic,” said no one ever.) However, the destabilizing effects of getting dropped by a major label are as acute as they ever were. Back in the 1990s, even the most hardened and savvy indie-rock insurrectionists—be it the Jesus Lizard or Archers of Loaf—were never really the same after they got demoted from the big leagues. And in the more recent case of JEFF the Brotherhood, even an act that openly celebrated its dismissal from a major label can’t help but emerge from the experience a changed band. For brothers-in-rock Jake and Jamin Orrall, signing to Warner Bros. in 2012 seemed like the natural next-level move after a prolific decade-long run that saw them harness their distortion-caked racket into radio-ready power pop. Alas, their warm ‘n’ fuzzy Warner debut, Hypnotic Nights, barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, proving that a Dan Auerbach production credit isn’t enough to turn your band into the next Black Keys. With 2015’s Wasted on the Dream, JEFF the Brotherhood took another crack at selling themselves as the world’s most sanguine stoner-rock band, but Warner opted to drop the Bros mere weeks before the album was set to be released. Since then, JEFF the Brotherhood have seemingly been torn between going back to garage-greased brass tacks (2016’s Zone) or stepping more forcefully on the motorik gas pedal (2015’s Global Chakra Rhythms). But with Magick Songs, we feel the true aftershocks of their ill-fated Warner experience. Having made a concerted effort to court the mainstream only to have their advances rebuffed, the Orralls have come to the conclusion that there’s really no reason for JEFF the Brotherhood to sound anything like JEFF the Brotherhood anymore. It’s a rare thing for a rock band to genuinely surprise you on its 13th album, so credit the group—a two-piece outfit that once limited itself to three-string guitars—for completely blowing up any pre-existing notions you may have had of their band or their music. Many of these tracks are actually edits of extended jams, but Magick Songs is more than just a series of experiments in globe-trotting psychedelia. With the Pavementine rumble of “Camel Swallowed Whole” and the misty, cymbal-tapped post-rock surges of “Parachute,” JEFF the Brotherhood successfully indulge their growing fetish for off-kilter sonics while producing effortlessly tuneful, emotionally resonant songs.
WILLIAM ELLIOTT WHITMORE, Kilonova (CD/LP)
William Elliott Whitmore has been performing and making albums since the turn of the millennium, always faithful to his own idea of what makes a song that sticks. He writes songs that are simple and devastating. His voice, as it did even when he was in his 20s, sounds not just older than his years, but as though it comes from a different century. Kilonova is an album of cover songs, a common mid-career choice for commercial artists. The only thing more dire is every artist’s inevitable Christmas record. But while Whitmore plays music for a living, his music has always seemed like an act of defiance to the calculated products of the music business. Kilonova is no exception. While most of these songs were commercial hits in the past — Johnny Cash’s songs “Busted” and “Five Feet High and Rising,” especially — Whitmore strips away studio artifice and presents the songs that he grew up listening to in his gravelly raw baritone, with no more support than is absolutely necessary. The original version of album opener, the Magnetic Fields’ “Fear of Trains,” is dense and low-fi, with drum machine beats and synth bass. As Whitmore takes it on with just his voice and guitar, it foregrounds the devastating lyrics and adds a hint of country twang. It’s arguably the definitive version of the song, bringing the story of a Blackfoot Indian woman’s hard life into sharp focus. “Ain’t No Sunshine” has some of Bill Withers’ soul but Whitmore’s voice is rough where Withers’ is smooth. The next song on the album, Red Meat’s “One Glass At A Time,” seems to rhyme with “Sunshine” — both songs are about yearning for an absent lover. Whitmore’s version is emotionally desolate in the great country tradition. The album closer, “Bat Chain Puller” by Captain Beefheart, seems at first the odd song out in this collection — but it fits brilliantly. Whitmore sounds like Captain Beefheart, but takes the song into droney, krautrock territory. The original is wonky and jerky, Whitmore’s is groovy and meditative, even as he finds his harshest vocal tone to deliver Beefheart’s surreal tale of cruelty to animals. And it contains a lyrical wormhole back to the album opener “Fear of Trains”: “This train with grey tubes that houses people’s thoughts.” Paradoxically, Kilonova may be more personal than Whitmore’s albums of original songs. This collection is William Elliott Whitmore exposing his musical foundations for all to see. Each song is delivered with obvious affection, but it’s more than homage: it finds something new and unexpected in well-worn classics.
ERIC LINDELL, Revolution In Your Heart (CD)
Originally from San Mateo, California, Lindell soaked up blues in San Francisco and built up a following fronting his own blues band. He drifted to New York before meeting his wife-to-be, who wanted to get back to her family in New Orleans, relocating there in 1999. He released several records on his own Sparco label before debuting on Alligator with 2006’s Change in the Weather. Back in 2007, just after the release of Change in the Weather and before Low on Cash, Rich in Love came out, Lindell said he wasn’t big on guitar-slinging stuff, but wanted to hear harmonica and B3 and sax as well. But he’s slingin’ it pretty good on this outing, playing his Tele as well as a Gibson ES 335 12-string, and contributing B-3, bass, harp, acoustic guitar and synth. His only other accompanist is percussionist Willie McMains. Lindell lays out some sound advice on the title cut, trying to live up to what his grandpa taught him: not to speak ill of others. “I may fall short sometime,” Lindell confesses, “But I know I got to do my part / start a revolution in your heart.” Lindell’s style is laid back, but his laconic delivery gets his point across, easing it in and poking it around till it gets your attention. “Heavy Heart” sounds like Tyrone Davis’ late ’70s mellow soul on “Turn Back Hands of Time” and “Turning Point,” but there’s an added attraction with the second line undercurrent stuttering along underneath. His guitar adds another dimension, tossing in electric country blues breaks that somehow mesh smoothly with his weathered soul vocals. He’s most country on “Appaloosa,” a strange mix of Waylon Jennings-style guitar leading a second line trail ride on a moonlight jaunt to Bogalusa see his beloved once again.“Millie Kaye” brings in longtime McClinton keyboardist Kevin McKendree to play piano flourishes on the King Johnson-sounding twangfest. Lindell’s soulful strut can be found at the crossroads where Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Chicago collide for a devilish run through the countryside that’ll leave you breathless, but still hot to to trot.