Monthly Archives: July 2015

Album Review – ANGELS AND ALCOHOL – Alan Jackson

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Dear Music Appreciators,

Alan Jackson is a name I’ve heard a lot over the years, but somehow I’d never knowingly listened to one of his songs until I pressed play on ANGELS AND ALCOHOL, and it didn’t take long to know this guy is a master at what he does. Listen to just the first minute and thirteen seconds of opening track “You Can Always Come Home” and see if you know what I mean. It’s a pure genre song to be sure, but it’s done so well it transcends the genre and goes down as not just a great country song, but a great song, period. I’ve always been sort of a sucker for a slow, stripped down intro that suddenly morphs into a full-voiced, uptempo, emotional pick-me-up. No matter how bad it gets “you can always come home” – I mean, what warm-blooded human being doesn’t want to hear that, right, especially when it’s delivered in the warm and seasoned country superstar singing voice of someone like Alan Jackson?

Unfortunately there isn’t another song like this one on the album, but fortunately it seems Alan Jackson didn’t get to where he is for nothing, as the man knows how to fill his listeners’ cups all the way up.

“You Never Know” is the kind of country rocker where everyone and their brother gets a solo (including the piano player, my favorite), and suddenly the warm father figure from the first song is singing about a “curvy little bottom like a roller coaster ride.” “Angels and Alcohol” features some appropriately woozy pedal steel work while addressing one of country music’s favorite subjects – drinkin’ – and it’s notable for the double meaning of the word “angels” as well as the narrator’s apparent lack of apology or regret.

And perhaps it’s a certain lack of apology or regret through the entire album that effectively conveys Jackson’s veteran country confidence and makes this music worth listening to. Sure, some of it gets a little corny at times (“Flaws,” “When God Paints”) but when you’re as justifiably confident as Alan Jackson even corny can seem kind of cool.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE – Jason Isbell

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Dear Music Appreciators,

If music were clothing then Jason Isbell’s latest album would be like one of those favorite shirts. You know, the one you reach for more than the others, the one that fits right and feels good – the one that doesn’t go out of style. SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE is a comfortable, well-made album that deserves some heavy rotation in the playlists of singer-songwriter appreciators everywhere.

Opening track “If It Takes a Lifetime” would not sound too out of place on a late 70’s Kenny Rogers album – and if you don’t think that’s a compliment then I don’t know what to do with you. “Hudson Commodore” could have been a hit for Eagles in their heyday. “Speed Trap Town” evokes the best of NEBRASKA era Springsteen.

Don’t put this one on to rock out. Don’t put this one on to dance. Put this album on to think and reflect and question, to come to terms and plan and move forward somehow. This music is good for staying up late, driving around, learning lyrics and singing a long. There’s a lot of acoustic, mid-tempo shuffling stuff and the electric guitar flavors are used sparingly but to great effect on songs like “24 Frames,” “Children of Children,” and “Palmetto Rose.”

A strong sense of memory and character and story abounds on these songs, and there’s plenty of conflict and regret, but there’s also a feeling of purpose and potential for good. Isbell asks questions (“The Life You Chose”) and he offers answers (“24 Frames”) and he sings about work like the grown-ass man that he is (“If It Takes a Lifetime,” “Something More than Free”). Recently my 12-year old nephew declared that I didn’t like the same kind of music he did because he was into “singer-songwriter.” He offered 17-year old internet discovery Shawn Mendes as an example of a singer-songwriter he was into. I’ve got nothing against Shawn Mendes, nephew, but hopefully someday you’ll learn to think of someone like Jason Isbell instead, because SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE is what real man singing and songwriting is all about.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – GHOST NOTES – Veruca Salt

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Dear Music Appreciators,

Why is this a great album that you should buy right now? Because this is a half-female half-male band playing alternative rock with pop appeal and punk attitude, and playing it well. Yes, they sound like the nineties sometimes and yes supposedly this is the band’s first album in like ten years and maybe there has been some breakup drama in the past or whatever, but maybe none of that really matters all that much if you think about it. All that stuff is just filler.

On GHOST NOTES you’ll find heavy riffs, Ann Wilson-esque wailing, and in-your-face attitude vs. gentle guitar, hushed vocals, and even some touches of vulnerability, despite the “it’s gonna get loud, it’s gonna get heavy” forewarning on the opening track. “Empty Bottle” displays the band’s full range of powers and dynamics and it’s good to find such a strong song anchoring the middle of the record instead of weighing down the front end. And there are plenty more strong songs to be found on GHOST NOTES, all studded with memorable moments. Notice how the meandering slow intro to “Black and Blonde” morphs into a heavy, room-shaking riff. Notice the triple rhymes and rapid fire wordplay of “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl,” See if you can spot the subtle tribute to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecelia” on “The Museum of Broken Relationships,” Try and find a song that isn’t interesting in some way. Maybe you can do it but I couldn’t.

When I was younger I had a roommate from Uruguay, and whenever he encountered an American food he wasn’t familiar with, before trying it he would ask me “is this a sweet or a salt?” If he was here to ask me that question about Veruca Salt’s new album, I would tell him “it’s both.” Yes, my Uruguayan roommate, despite her name, this Veruca is both sweet and salty, and that quality, that contrast between the soft and loud, light and heavy, pretty and pained, is just one of many reasons why GHOST NOTES is such a satisfying listen. Now get me a Snickers bar, beeyotch

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – VENUS – Joy Williams

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Dear Music Appreciators,

Until this album I knew Joy Williams only as the female half of “The Civil Wars,” an Americana duo known for having their own little wars between themselves. Interesting that she should mark her return to a solo career with an opening track that samples Robert Frost, one of the great “Americana” poets of the twentieth century, a man who was probably no stranger to conflict, who has the words “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world” engraved on his gravestone.

Notice the album cover – the photograph suggests a woman exposed, surrounded by darkness, and if I remember anything from my film study classes I remember that when a character is covered with those horizontal shadow lines from the venetian blinds, they might be feeling internally divided or conflicted.

Notice the album title – “Venus” – the Goddess of Love, the brightest star in the sky – and a fun coincidence that the planet Venus completed a rare double star conjunction with Jupiter on the evening of June 30th, the release date for this album in North America.

Conflict, poetry, planetary conjunction coincidences – it’s all very well and good, but what about the music on this album? Well it’s more poppy and electronic and produced than the Civil Wars, but some of that trademark rootsiness and rusticity is still there. The music and vocals are beautiful and tasteful and thoughtful throughout, though at times a sort of earth mother “I’m gonna put a spell on you” kind of dark intensity creeps in. “I am woman, hear me roar” and all that.

In multiple interviews Joy Williams has discussed the album’s themes in relation to being a woman and has quoted the line “I am a universe wrapped in skin” as one of her favorites. And it’s this kind of exploration of the interplay between darkness and light that stamps this album as a memorable work worthy of repeated listening – though it’s pretty enough for mass audiences, VENUS is no puff piece designed to blow away and be forgotten. Hopefully other women, and all lovers of great music will be listening for a long time.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – THE STATE OF GOLD – Matt Pond PA

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Dear Music Appreciators,

I’m just gonna come right out and say it. This is a great album and you should buy it. If you already know Matt Pond PA you will most likely agree with this statement. If you’ve never heard of these guys, then congratulations, you just found a quality band to sink your teeth into. This is their ninth full length album, including their now out of print debut, and not including Matt Pond’s excellent “solo” album THE LIVES INSIDE THE LINES ON YOUR HAND from 2013. I haven’t heard all of their albums yet, and I’m glad. More for us to discover still, right?

When I say you should buy this album I guess I should qualify that statement with an “if.” Allow me to rephrase:

You should buy THE STATE OF GOLD by Matt Pond PA IF you like one or more of these things:

– Pop-rock music
– “Indie” music,
– 80’s music
– Liberal use of electronic effects and flourishes that enhance rather than overwhelm song-flavor
– A male lead singer-songwriter blessed with a light autumnal rasp that easily adds some extra intensity, importance, or interest to just about anything he sings
– Personal, introverted songs delivered in an extroverted, arms-wide open, almost-cinematic pop package
– Lyrics full of references to nature, light, color, and body parts that can be heard and understood enough to maintain the listener’s interest, but are obscured enough to support repeated listening.

And we’ll stop at lucky number 7 on that list because I’ve got other albums to review and this one is just plain good so no, there will be no specific song references or breakdowns or analysis. Sometimes an album is just great and just needs to be heard, and why should I clutter that up with any more music-geek chatter? So go get this one and enjoy it, will you?

Sincerely,

Constat Listener

Album Review – COMING HOME – Leon Bridges

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Dear Music Appreciators,

Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve listened to the new album COMING HOME by Leon Bridges several times now and I’ve come to the following conclusions:

– Leon Bridges is a pretty smooth dude. His vocal phrasings are nicely toasted to the low burning embers of the music – no marshmallows catch fire on this album if you know what I mean, and as the listener I was continually left wanting s’more of Leon’s sound. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing – maybe Leon is a little too nicely toasted at times. Maybe it would be nice to hear him really let loose and catch fire – he certainly has the voice for it. Perhaps he lets things hang out a little more in his live shows – some artists are great on record but even better live.

– I like soul. I need more of it in my life and in my music collection. I go through life with a damper on my feelings most of the time and it can be liberating to listen to a honey-throated heartbreaker sing it with feeling (whatever “it” may be). If I was a singer I think I’d want to be the soulful kind who could sing those “Baby, baby, baby’s” and “Whoa girl’s” like Leon, in a way to make the ladies lean forward and listen.

– “Coming Home” is far and away the best song on the album, which is probably why it is the title track and why it was also the demo song that got him significant radio airplay and attention from major labels, leading to a deal with Columbia. Unfortunately “Coming Home” is also the first track on the album, which could make it a downhill trip from there for some listeners. I’m here to tell you to hang in there and keep listening. “Better Man,” “Smooth Sailin’,” “Lisa Sawyer,” “Pull Away,” and “River” are also standout tracks that deserve attention. Leon’s music has what I call “instant atmosphere” and by virtue of his velvety vocals and smooth, retro style he can make any room and any person in that room feel instantly cooler with the sound of really any of the tracks on this album.

– I’ve seen names like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye written in connection with Leon’s. I see the similarities of course, though his voice doesn’t seem to have the same kind of grit or power or passion of any of these yet, but of course not and so what? He’s awfully close, probably, but I guess I don’t really want him to be any of these guys anyway. I want him to be himself, and on the strength of this, his debut album in what surely could be a long and successful career, he is succeeding wildly at doing just that.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – PAGEANT MATERIAL – Kacey Musgraves

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Dear Music Appreciators,

I listened to this album all the way through without knowing a thing about Kacey Musgraves and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed the whole darn thing. Albums like this are rare for me and they remind me of an apple pie I ate once. So many people rave about apple pie and so often I enjoy parts of it but not the whole thing and the apples make me feel too full. One day my friend came home from his bakery job with an apple pie with a streusel crumb topping and the apples were all finely diced and well blended into the filling and every last bite was delightful. Still not sure if it was Dutch Apple Pie or French Apple Pie but that pie had my attention and interest to the last bite, as did this new album by Kacey Musgraves.

Less pie, more music you say? Here are three reasons to buy PAGEANT MATERIAL by Kacey Musgraves:

1. Although to some it may at times feel a little too cute or preachy, these songs are full of clever lyrics and rhymes and turns of phrase (which is sort of a tradition in a lot of country music), and when these kinds of things are done right, i.e. they appear naturally in the song and are sung earnestly and without trying too hard, they can be like memorable little gems the listener can easily remember and take away with them when the song is over. “I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t,” “mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy,” “they own too much wicker and drink too much liquor.” – the list goes on and on and it can be kind of fun to pick these out. With Musgraves’ laid-back presentation I’m willing to wiling to eat this stuff instead of sending it back to the kitchen.

2. There is an easy-going confidence wrapped in a sort of cool retro-country vibe throughout, making this all go down like a cold, sepia-colored drink on a warm country day. Notice how the album cover evokes a classic 1960’s feeling. Notice the prettiest songs with the longest phrasing beginning and ending the album and playing their natural part in the storytelling. Notice the surprise uncredited guest vocals after the silence at the end of the album – they appear as almost a sort of confirmation – “if you’ve been listening to this thinking this girl’s an easygoing natural who knows what she’s doing, well, you’re right.”

3. For all the self-empowerment, life-lesson, and daily affirmation nuggets in these songs there is also a nod to self-questioning and doubt, and with the album ending with the words “are you sure this is where you want to be?” I was left feeling that I’d been listening to an album that was maybe sort of sad and beautiful instead of just plain cute and twangy.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener