Margo Price: Weakness (2017) – Album Review

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Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the most promising country debut of last year: warm, sincere, literate, open, and very well crafted. Now she opens up this four-track quickie EP with: ‘Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf/Sometimes I’m James Dean’. With that, I’m sold. Interestingly, despite being only 15 minutes, Weakness sees her stretching out, particularly in the 6 minute ‘Paper Cowboy’, which starts off as a subdued 3/4 waltz dirge and finishes as a stonking 4/4 jam session in which her band show off their chops: the bass carefully goosesteps around some ace pedal steel guitar lines (from Luke Schneider) and solos that come straight at you out of 70s classic rock and 60s psychedelia. It surely is a lot of fun, and complemented by the title track’s more conventional country lament set to a rollicking tune, it sets up a promising outlook to Price’s future projects. Undermined slightly by ‘Just Like Love’, a far from invigorating number produced with a melancholy quietude that sadly exposes Price’s vocal lack of subtlety – she should do some research on Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, and Sunny Sweeney, to find out how these minor-key moments can be done properly. Which is only to say that in this killer time for country ladies, perhaps the greatest ever, Price will need to step up her game in order to stand out. But then the final track, ‘Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)’, convinces me that she might have a fair shot: a piano-led tribute to a friend of hers who died of cancer, a 28 year-old drummer, which through tiny inflections manages to mediate a sense of loss whilst bypassing histrionics. It’s a keenly felt moment that tells us much about death. Perhaps as much as the tragedies of Virginia Woolf or James Dean, two sad lives I hope Price will never really try to emulate.


Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017) – Album Review


This is the best Randy Newman album since 2008’s Harps and Angels – which is not saying much, seeing as Harps and Angels was his last album. But it’s also saying a lot: that Randy Newman is nothing short of the most consistent albums artist of his generation, biding his time and releasing near-perfect works once a decade for the benefit of us who know him for more than just the Pixar soundtracks that have made his fortune.

It opens with three of his all-time greatest satires. First up is the 8 minute display of genius ‘The Great Debate’, in which science is put up on trial against religion and comes out losing 3-0 because, and this joke kills every time, a gospel choir keeps butting in to declare: ‘I’ll take Jesus every time!’ And when Mr. Randy Newman himself, a long-standing and well-known atheist, is called to the stand and accused of using straw men arguments in his songs to mock religion… well, I can’t quite convey how ingenious the comic value is, you must simply hear it for yourself. Then comes ‘Brothers’, with the novel idea that John and Bob Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs in order to rescue Celia Cruz and bring her back to America, perhaps a little like the slave trader who wanted to rescue poor Africans in ‘Sail Away’. And then there’s ‘Putin’, which mocks that awful leader with a precision that becomes all the sharper if you listen to it whilst browsing through these recently released macho photos of him on holiday in Siberia. ‘Makes me wanna be a lady!’ indeed.

As is par for the course with any new Randy Newman album, the somewhat grotesque satires that adorn Dark Matter have been met with bafflement by some (there are people who still believe that ‘Short People’ is a genuine attack on midgets), which is excusable for casual listeners, but for critics who get paid to listen closely it’s unforgivable. This review in The Observer really irked me, complaining that ‘Putin’ ‘pokes way too gentle fun at Russia’s dark lord’, which makes me wonder if they noticed the line ‘He can power a nuclear reactor/With the left side of his brain’ at all, but also demonstrates their lack of understanding of the way in which Newman’s best songs work. Like a good Louis Theroux documentary, they seek to humanise monstrous men, including racists and misogynists and slave traders, so as to get our brains actively questioning any assumptions we might hold about them, without ever denying their essential awfulness. We want to know why his characters are bad people, not to be told that they’re bad people, which would be the sign of a lesser songwriter.

Worse, there’s this misreading of ‘The Great Debate’ on Exclaim: ‘The whole thing is musically scattershot, and only follows a logical thread if you can entangle where Newman is being earnest and where he’s not’. Newman’s earnestness is really irrelevant: like any great satirist from Jonathan Swift to Trey Parker/Matt Stone, he deliberately obscures where he’s coming from in order to skewer the pretensions of both sides of the argument at hand, in this case science vs. religion. Good satire shouldn’t take sides, at least not overtly – that’s for propaganda.

Accusing it of being ‘musically scattershot’ meanwhile is no less simple-minded. Really that should be changed to ‘musically complex’, and I’m sure you’d agree that musical complexity is no bad thing when the complexities massage the jokes and tease out hidden ironies. As they do all over Dark Matter, for example when an Americanised version of Cuban dance music strikes up as the Kennedys start yapping on about Celia Cruz on ‘Brothers’. Or when the Putin Girls pop up as backup singers to prop up the leader’s tenuous ego on his song. Or when ‘The Great Debate’ switches from Dixieland jazz to church hymnals and back again as the argument zips from secular to religious. The arrangements are without doubt some of the most complex of Newman’s career, but unlike that Exclaim writer I found disentangling them to be a constant reward, because nearly every time there was an outstanding joke behind every choice.

Elsewhere across the most consistent album of the year (so far): there’s an amazing real-life tale about blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, whose identity was stolen after he was murdered; there’s a rerecorded version of a so-so theme tune to 2003 detective series Monk; there’s a poignant love song that sounds like a present tense rewrite of Toy Story 2’s ‘When She Loved Me’. They all dispel the notion, in case anyone still believed it, that Newman’s merely a one-trick-pony ironist.

If Dark Matter‘s not as passionate as Good Old Boys, or as precise as 12 Songs, there’s still more than enough here to keep us busy unpacking until the next release. Which according to the current work schedule will be in 2026, when the great man’s 82 years old. I can’t wait to discover what new insights he will have uncovered by then.


Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life (2017) – Album Review


Besides the great ‘High by the Beach’, I’ve never really connected with anything this melancholic pop chanteuse has done before. I disliked her Born to Die and love-as-Ultraviolence eternal teenager schtick, despite being fascinated by that floating voice. And I found the oh… so… slow… dirges of Honeymoon just… too… lethargic.

So it was with great excitement that several listens into Lust for Life I noticed my total engagement as a listener, throughout every single one of its 71 minutes. The first couple of times it sounded too long, for sure, but when I finally set myself the task of considering which songs should be cut, I was stumped – they all succeed as entertainment, art or both.

What’s changed from the early days? How’s her consistency percentage suddenly shot so high? Perhaps the key’s to be found in a recent interview Del Rey did with Pitchfork, where she reveals: ‘When things are good, the music is better.’

That sounds like wisdom to me. Maturity, even. One of the biggest fallacies in music is that you have to suffer for your art: life is full of pain, we all know that, but that doesn’t mean it’s only pain. Nihilistic despair, particularly with regards to romance, is an easy trick to deploy in pop music because it generates instant empathy from an audience with plenty of problems of their own. Artists who acknowledge the simple pleasures in life, without making it sound schmaltzy or too ignorant of real-world pain, deserve a lot more respect, I believe.

So on Lust for Life it’s no coincidence that things are going pretty well in Del Rey’s life and the music is better. In fact, just as she predicted, they’re interlinked.

Along with long-time producer Rick Nowels and a team of co-writers, Del Rey fashions an album that still sounds downbeat on the surface – there’s lots of minor-key ballads, funereal tempos, and eerie multitracked vocals – but that also manages to hide plenty of subtle summery touches underneath. So the haunted ‘White Mustang’ starts off with just a soft piano accompaniment and Del Rey’s quiver, before it starts piling on trap beats like a pop Bolero, soon taking it into an unexpectedly danceable realm. It shouldn’t sound inspirational, but it does.

Fun is to be found round every corner, with a lust for life and music very much keeping her alive. She quotes Iggy Pop on the album title and cover, of course, but throughout the album she also drops references to such classic rock staples as The Angels, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sam Cooke, and Neil Young (the ending ‘Out of the black/Into the blue’ is nicked straight from Rust Never Sleeps). Her distinctive contralto, shuffling between octaves with ease, also deliberately evokes past greats such as Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Amy Winehouse. Her love and respect for the culture that created her comes across powerfully, perhaps most entertainingly on a duet with Sean Ono Lennon where she suddenly exclaims: ‘“Isn’t life crazy?” I said/Now that I’m singing with Sean/Whoa!’ It’s a great moment, with the Stevie Nicks collab ‘Beautiful People Beautiful Problems’ further proof that Del Rey should do more duets. The fangirldom of these moments are incredibly fetching – they sound distinctly like her fallback pessimism being shattered and replaced by the communal spirit that good music should bring.

Darkness gets dispelled everywhere on Lust for Life – even on the political cuts, which are a first for Del Rey. At first you might suspect the title of ‘God Bless America’ to be ironic, considering the nation’s current president, but then consider the subtitle: ‘And All the Beautiful Women In It’. Irony melts away. Then the following track asks: ‘Is it the end of an era?/Is it the end of America?’ and bravely answers it with ‘No, it’s only the beginning.’ That song’s called ‘When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing’, but an alternative title might be ‘Fuck Trump – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

Elsewhere there’s an ode to love (you guessed it, ‘Love’), followed by an ode to sex and dancing on the ‘H’ of the Hollywood sign with The Weeknd (‘Lust for Life’). There’s also a search for ‘something real’ that ingeniously uses a backdrop of faker-than-fake synthesizers (’13 Beaches’). And then there’s the last track, ‘Get Free’, which has been criticised for snatching its melody from Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, and indeed it does. But then Thom Yorke’s never penned a lyric as smart as this: ‘Take the dead out of the sea/And the darkness from the arts/This is my commitment/My modern manifesto’ (I don’t know who wrote it, but Del Rey owns it). In fact, it’s the very antithesis of Yorke’s own philosophy. So whisper it: I think ‘Get Free’ is a much better song than ‘Creep’.

Back in 2014, Lana Del Rey sang on Ultraviolence: ‘I look pretty when I cry’. Lust for Life is here to prove that she looks and sounds a whole lot prettier when she smiles.


My Top 10 Beatles Covers


My favourite band of all time – not a controversial opinion I’m aware, but an honest one – had such an outstanding trio of songwriters at their core that any list of their ‘standards’ must extend way past the obvious hits and into the deep album cuts that are the pitfall of so many lesser groups. Therefore Beatles covers, inevitably, are greater in quantity than those of any other band, and also greater in quality, because the couple of hundred modern folk songs they penned were so universal and hence difficult to ruin through misinterpretation.

That said, The Beatles were also some of the greatest performers of the century as well. If their vitality was remotely easy to reproduce then our music scene would be a lot richer than it is (our most popular songwriter of the moment, Ed Sheeran, makes me want to weep with boredom). So in this list of my favourite Beatles covers, only no. 1 and, at a push, no. 2 manage to convince me that they’re better than the original. I long for the harmonies and tight economy of playing that the Fab Four bring, even when the artists covering them are major.

Every single one of these is still worth listening to. And together they form a moving tribute to the endless, endless joy to be derived from the sunny songwriting of these boys.


1) ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’ – Joe Cocker

Most prefer the slow-burn soul of Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, but I’ve always found this jaunty little number far more impressive: whereas in Abbey Road it got somewhat lost in the second side’s suite, here it stands boldly and plainly on its own, and Cocker’s throaty vocals bounce off the country-twanging guitar and piano to create real rock n’ roll excitement. The only Beatles cover I play with any kind of regularity.


2) ‘I’m Looking Through You’ – Steve Earle

The reason I’m writing this piece is because I’ve recently discovered this gem of a cover, stumbling across it whilst exploring the work of Steve Earle, an artist I formerly knew only from a small part in The Wire. It appears on his gorgeous acoustic roots-rock album Train a Comin’, which also includes an unmissable duet of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ with Emmylou Harris. I so fell in love with its deepening of the country rock logic that forms Rubber Soul’s primary appeal, that I had to write this list just to let y’all know about its existence. Check it.


3) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Prince, Tom Petty, Steve Winwood & Jeff Lynne (2004 Hall of Fame Inductions)

I only love one of these musicians, and my God does he steal the show here: skip to 3:27 for one of the finest live guitar solos of all time, a moment so indelible it went viral shortly after his death. The great man demonstrates a playful virtuosity worthy of making his own guitar weep, for sure, and it probably makes the chumps on stage with him weep a little inside too.


4) ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ – Miley Cyrus & The Flaming Lips

Miley Cyrus gets a lot of stick from far too many rockist dinosaurs, who love the commercial pop music of The Beatles and really should know better. But her brand of eccentricity eases the sometimes pompous prog-psychedelic noise of The Flaming Lips, whose Sgt. Pepper covers album With a Little Help From My Fwends was wackily uneven. Cyrus gets the ethereality of this song pretty much spot-on.


5) ‘Hey Jude’ – Wilson Pickett & Duane Allman

It interests me how many of these are billed as collaborations, the spirit of collaborative fun being one of the key reasons for The Beatles’ enduring popularity, I believe. The Beatles were famous for many things, but never for bringing da funk – but then again neither was Duane Allman, and Wilson Pickett manages to bring it forth from both of them. Scream for scream he matches Paul on the fadeout, and the horns should remind us all of the Motown and R&B hits that were formative influences on these northern England white boys.


6) ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ – The Breeders

This White Album highlight was always on the brink of chaos, structurally quite absurd, so it fits well with The Breeders’, and grunge’s, aesthetic of sloppy just-about-holding-togetherness. It’s from one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite albums, incidentally, which should help sell it to you.


7) ‘Dear Prudence’ – Siouxsie & the Banshees

Another Lennon highlight from the unwieldy White Album – the chord progression and lyrics are, surprisingly, no less sweet in this gothic interpretation. I don’t believe Siouxsie was ever a great singer, or her backup a great band, yet a feeling of kinship with The Beatles’ darkest and most fascinating member shines through here, brighter than anything she wrote herself.


8) ‘We Can Work it Out’ – Stevie Wonder

Joint first as the most tonally audacious work in The Beatles’ canon (along with ‘A Day in the Life’), a perennial battle between Paul’s jaunty optimism and John’s pitch-black interjections of death. Dark and light, it’s made to bounce all the same by Stevie Wonder, who doesn’t approach the original’s complexity, but damn sure doesn’t seem to care as he sings his big heart out.


9) ‘In My Life’ – Johnny Cash

The Man in Black really does sound like he’s at the end of his life here, which is what makes it so moving. The Beatles’ version was the sound of a maturity beyond their years. Cash’s version is the sound of those years having been stripped away, leaving nothing behind but a profound simplicity, of voice and expression. That’s maturity.


10) ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Jake Shimabukuro

Repeating myself, I know. But I make no apologies. This guy kills it.

Jay-Z: 4:44 (2017) – Album Review


Jigga’s changing on us. Maybe it’s middle-age approaching, maybe it’s becoming a father to some stupidly named twins, maybe it’s his superdiva wife slapping him down with irresistible force on Lemonade… whatever the reason, the old gangsta’s softening up.

4:44 follows the misstep of Magna Carter Holy Grail, and its main purpose is to let the world know that, right now and forever more, family is the most important thing in his life. Even more than money. Even more than street cred. Even more than demonstrating he’s the best rapper alive.

Tracks 1-6 are the most revealing Jay’s ever been, taking a leaf out of his apprentice Kanye’s soul-searching book of rap. He addresses, you’ll be amazed to hear, with a high level of humility various accusations that have been levelled against him over the years. He kills off Jay-Z, the cocksure street thug persona, in the first track: ‘Fuck Jay-Z… You got people you love you sold drugs to/You got high on the life, that shit drugged you/You walkin’ around like you invincible/You dropped outta school, you lost your principles.’ He follows that up with a neat little ode to black pride and O.J.’s betrayal of it, betrayal being the one of the album’s key themes. Then on the title track he finally owns up to cheating on Bey with the mysterious ‘Becky’, in a song so full of quotables that it’s hard to choose just one, but this particularly got to me: ‘You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready/So I apologise/I seen the innocence leave your eyes’. And then on the next track, in full splendour, his cuckolded wife joins him to inform the world that ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds’. Beyoncé cries ‘Amen’, and so do we.

I’m tired of the fools on the internet who spend their time posting theories about how this whole marital spat has been made up to sell albums. Because if it has, then so what? Who cares? I don’t know Mr. Carter or Ms. Knowles personally and neither do you. Therefore the ‘truthfulness’ of this whole ‘Becky’ situation has no relevance – we should treat Lemonade and 4:44 as artistic projects about the difficulty of sustaining love and marriage in the modern world. Because adultery is commonplace, whether we want to admit it or not, and the fact that this particular couple have addressed it so openly and intelligently in their music makes for absorbing, fascinating listening. That they happen to be superrich and famous is completely irrelevant. They’ve given their fans a window into the troubles involved with sustaining a relationship beyond the happily-ever-after of marriage, and personally I love them for it.

4:44 is not, however, as focused or perfect as Lemonade. Tracks 7-10 sadly peter out, aiming for a return to the operatic level of boasting that made Jigga’s name, yet sounding less convincing than usual after the vulnerability displayed before. His takedown of the Migos ‘skrrt-skrrt’ school of rappers on ‘Moonlight’ is admittedly deft: ‘We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose!’ But ‘Legacy’ doesn’t leave you pondering the enormity of his legacy the way it promises to, riding a half-assed beat in a way that won’t make you come crawling back for more in the way that, say, The Black Album will.

Jay-Z’s always been very, very funny and his flow’s never been less than enthralling, but never before has the man seemed, well, likeable. Enter the joyful Stevie Wonder sample and open-hearted message of ‘Smile’, which includes Jay’s response to finding out that his mother was a lesbian: ‘Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her/I just wanna see you smile through all the hate.’ Well, well. Even if he nearly let the ‘baddest girl in the world’ get away through his own selfish pride, I’m starting to like the man. Not just his music.


Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers THREE (2017) – Album Review


Robert Christgau called this Tennessee rap duo’s latest album his ‘favourite hip-hop album of the year’, although he qualified such high praise by arguing on Twitter that the year ‘should damn well be generating better ones’. I agree that it’s been a rather weak year for rap so far, especially since wasting time over the last few days trying to come to terms with thin releases from some of its major players (Big Boi’s Boomiverse, Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, 2 Chainz’ Pretty Girls Like Trap Music). And though Step Brothers THREE isn’t likely to be my favourite hip-hop album of the year (the bottomless puzzlebox of DAMN. looms large), it’s a hell of a lot tighter than most.

Opening track ‘5X’ reaches a level of effervescence with its chanting female backers that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on last year’s best rap album, Coloring Book, and these ‘step brothers’ trade goofy rhymes with each other winningly. It’s a peak: no subsequent song comes close to matching it, although practically every song does have one or two choice lines and more than a few memorable earworms.

Here are some favourites of mine: the amusingly paranoid cheating saga ‘If My Girl Found Out’, a ‘Good Cop Bad Cop’ tale concerning opposing officers Craig and Bart (less simplistic than it sounds), a ‘13th Amendment Song’ doubtless inspired by Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix doc and driven by an on-point chain gang sample, a celebration of reaching 25 that’s powered by a muscular keyboard riff, and a sorta-touching rap ballad that insists they don’t deserve a ‘3rd 2nd Chance’ – that’s from any of their women.

Starlito is the Chuck D of the show, deeper voiced and vaguely menacing, whilst Don Trip is a spiritual Flavor Flav, higher pitched and hence more comically inclined. But together they are no match for Public Enemy – they aren’t as focused politically, as relentless musically, or as funny consistently. Still, they are their own beast, darting from topic to topic and mood to mood, sometimes within the same song, demonstrating themselves to be creatures of the information-overload 21st century – even as they bemoan some of the technology that defines our era: ‘They say we’re New Slaves, but really nothing’s changed/We’re just addicted to our cell phones and brand names’. How’s a brother to fight systemic racism if he’s glued to a screen?

I like these two rappers because of their acknowledgment that they’re not above everybody else, admitting at various points to their addiction to dope, women, gambling, hustling etc. They’re common muckers, trying to make a name for themselves and a little cash money on the side, and I wish them well, even as I wish they’d show the consistent respect for other people, especially their ‘bitches’, that they demand for themselves.


Young Thug: BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS (2017) – Album Review


So this is what happens when you cross gangsta rap with the singer-songwriter genre… As you might expect, certain songs here are bewildering (in a good way), like for instance ‘Me or Us’, which sounds for all the world like a Paul Simon co-write with its innocent acoustic strumming, or ‘For Y’all’, which has a horn chart adding mariachi flavouring for no reason at all except, y’know, good times.

I’ve long been aware that rap is the most adventurous genre of music in the game, so it was no surprise to hear that Young Thug had recorded a ‘singing album’ with country and melodic R&B touches – but it is a fair surprise to hear that it sounds this good. It shouldn’t be – Thug’s rapping has always had a sing-song cadence to it, partly thanks to autotuning but mainly due to a wacky variability in pitch and tone that he’s utilised to become one of the most distinctive voices in music. His larynx commands more sound effects than the latest Star Wars film: grunts, shrieks, yelps of delight, warbles, and ‘skrrt skrrt’s all emanate and mix together with a rhythmic unpredictability to make his vocal performances endlessly fascinating works of beauty. Hence this is a vocal album to trump most singer-songwriter’s recent efforts, even if classic trap beats and rumbling basslines serve as a constant reminder that this is still hip-hop.

Another reminder is the all-round thuggery of the words, full of dumb boasting such as ‘I’m the black Christian Grey, you know what I’m sayin’?/I got fifty shades of baes with me’. Oh dear… To be fair, Thug does manage to sneak in some cute shout-outs to his six children on ‘Daddy’s Birthday’, his fiancée on multiple occasions, and, er, the green stuff (with Snoop Dogg in tow, of course) on ‘Get High’. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like ‘Let’s drink a pint of codeine/When she on syrup she a lil easy’, which sounds to me like rape. As an oh-so-middle-class non-G who abhors bullshit macho posturing in all its forms, and most especially when it involves forcing yourself on inebriated or unwilling women, I find moments such as this one very hard to take. And so should you. But it must be said that Thug’s music is still undeniable, and it would be hypocritical to try and pretend that I’m immune to its many charms.


Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (2017) – Album Review


Back in 2013, Beyoncé’s masterpiece ‘XO’ cannily perceived how our awareness of death might only serve to intensify the heightened emotions of love, and hence be a good thing: ‘We don’t have forever/Baby daylight’s wasting/You better kiss me… Before they turn the lights out/Before our time has run out/Baby love me lights out!’ Now here we are in 2017 and alt-country hero Jason Isbell has written us an imaginative song in much the same vein: ‘If We Were Vampires’ ponders what would happen if he and his wife were never to shuffle off this mortal coil, and concludes that ‘I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand… Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift.’

It’s one of many quietly ingenious, heart-warming moments on this tender album. The album ends, for instance, with these ace words of advice to his daughter: ‘Just find what makes you happy girl/And do it ’til you’re gone.’ A family man and proud, The Nashville Sound continues Isbell’s journey towards contentment, one that started with his last solo album Something More Than Free. However, it also remembers the dark times that went before that, as witnessed in 2013’s Southeastern where his past as an alcoholic was both directly and obliquely explored. So Isbell understands why a working-class stiff might turn to drink as an escape from his life in ‘Cumberland Gap’, and how a miner might indulge in long-distance sex because his short-distance existence is so unbearable in ‘Tupelo’; although it must be said that his sympathy doesn’t extend to the US President whose election campaign promised to restore these character’s industries – Trump’s agenda frightens him, particularly when considering a future for his daughter, a future that he nevertheless still believes in: ‘I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation/I think the man upstairs musta took a vacation/I still have faith, but I don’t know why/Maybe it’s the fire in my daughter’s eye.’

This album is extraordinary then in terms of its searching, optimistic lyrics. And if the music is slightly less extraordinary, well, it doesn’t detract from what remains an essential purchase. The lumbering albatross of this album is the 7-minute ‘Anxiety’, which is awkwardly slung round the middle of its neck and is an unfortunate distraction from much of the good work elsewhere. Isbell’s vocals are another distraction, proving to lack some of the gritty character and charisma of many of his characters – I’ve long considered his voice to be a tad too pretty, too smooth.

Nevertheless it’s great to have the 400 Unit back supporting him, their large sound beefing up well over half the tracks with potent crunchy guitar and drums. But the nicest musical touches of all come from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, who appears on fiddle and backup vocals throughout, and who doesn’t just add subtle variety but also makes clearer the familial atmosphere that imbues these recordings with a warm fuzz.

Country music is great at disproving the lie that domesticity in art is naff, boring or somehow ‘bourgeois’. In The Nashville Sound, as elsewhere in Isbell’s career, the simple matter of settling down and raising a family sounds like the greatest adventure of them all.


Chuck Berry: Chuck (2017) – Album Review


Hands down the single most important figure in the history of rock music (Dylan and Hendrix aren’t too far behind, but they are still behind), Chuck Berry will forever be the first port of call when future generations try to get to grips with the groundbreaking phenomenon that is (Hail! Hail!) rock & roll. He invented the form: without him there’d be no Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Springsteen etc. etc. you get the point. His revolutionary fusion of a backbeat-you-can’t-lose-it with explosive riffs and soloing on guitar (plus bluesy bass and boogie-woogie piano never too far down in the mix) codified the basic language of rock & roll and inspired millions of teenagers; simultaneously his exceptional lyrics invented the basic language of teenage rebellion: ‘School Day’ articulates better than any song I’ve heard how popular music is essentially a locus for working- and middle-class kids to vent their anger at the petty frustrations of life. And get laid. The man who penned ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (incredibly his only no. 1 single) was ever the sly fox who knew full well that all of the dancehalls and automobiles peppering his narratives were essentially heady metaphors for s-e-x (see ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ for only the most obvious example).

In short, the man was a genius, and an utterly unpretentious one. Oh, and ‘Promised Land’ may just be the greatest song lyric ever written.

Now I’ve gotten my love for the recently deceased off my chest, let’s turn to the matter at hand: Chuck, the great man’s first posthumous album, and his first one in 38 years. It was recorded in a series of sessions that began in 2001 and continued right up until his death, at 90 years old, earlier this year. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ of his last 15 years on earth, then, and suitably raggedy as a result. But not nearly as shabby as you might expect.

Naturally, there are no songs here to match epoch-defining classics like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Rock & Roll Music’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’… But there are plenty of good ones. Starting with hot opening duo ‘Wonderful Woman’ and ‘Big Boys’, in which his famous catalogue of riffs, including that ‘Johnny B. Goode’ one, are recycled again and yet sound remarkably fresh, even when coming from the red Gibson and aged vocals of an octogenarian. ‘Lady B. Goode’ and ‘Jamaica Moon’ are sequels to known classics that satisfyingly reward long-term fans of his amazing career. And he’s still a sly fox, cunningly updating his double entendres for the 21st century on the live, sleazy, and very funny ‘3/4 Time (Enchiladas)’: ‘I’ve been hoping to find a woman like you, honey, whose software matches this hard drive of mine.’

Rock is a collaborative sport, as Berry full well knows, and he benefits not just from the support of The Blueberry Hill Band, who sizzle here where his 50s crew erupted (perhaps in deference to his age), but also from the well-judged cameo appearances of Tom Morello, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Gary Clark, Jr. (on guitars the lot of ’em), all of whom rightly sound blessed to be allowed to record with the founder of their careers. Best of all, though, are the several collaborations with his children, Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and Ingrid Berry on harmonica, which help to make for example the gorgeous tribute to their ever-comforting presence, ‘Darlin’’, sound so real and so true: ‘Your father’s growing older/Each year strands of grey are showing bolder/Come here and lay your head upon my shoulder/My dear, the time is passing fast away.’

As you might gather from that quote, this album feels more autobiographical in tone than anything Berry’s recorded previously. Most of all, it’s dedicated to his long-suffering wife Themetta ‘Toddy’ Berry, who for nearly 70 years put up with his well-known cheating ways, plus a whole lot more I’m sure, and who very much deserves such tender tributes as ‘Wonderful Woman’ and the spoken-word ‘Dutchman’. Which isn’t to say that Chuck’s forgotten his roots in fiction, for there are several narratives that live up to his poetic reputation: ‘Big Boys’ is a cute tale about partying with girls and boys out of your league, and ‘Lady B. Goode’ is a typically well written story-in-song. Yet the female perspective of the latter is proof again that he has matured some, and recognises that he owes a great debt to his greatest lady friend.

Chuck is a worthwhile addition and a fitting ending to his catalogue then, providing both a rare opportunity to learn more about the character of Chuck himself, and/or to revel in the sharpness of his fictional observations, as you see fit. Any old way you choose it.


Jlin: Black Origami (2017) – Album Review

I would first like to offer my deepest condolences to all of the poor families affected by the terrorist incident last night in Manchester. I’ve been unable to think of anything else all day: appalled, sickened, depressed. I wasn’t sure whether to publish this review today, out of respect, but these attacks are a deliberate attempt to disrupt the flow of civilised society, not to mention our enjoyment of music from death metal to Ariana Grande, and so I feel that the best way to retaliate is to carry on appreciating the wonders of music as usual (whilst never, ever forgetting the lives tragically lost, of course). Which is why a) I’m still going to be seeing Radiohead in Manchester on the 4th July, fuck you radicalists, and b) I’m still going to recommend the very good album below on this day of mourning. We should stick to our pleasures, in the face of extremism, now more than ever before.

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Jerrilynn Patton, a.k.a. Jlin, is an electronic musician from Gary, Indiana. She’s renowned for her work in footwork, an electronic subgenre that combines rapid dance beats (tracks hurtle by at approx. 160bpm) with avant-garde flourishes. I’m by no means an expert on electronic music (got the above information from Wikipedia, folks), but I was nevertheless instantly attracted to this distinctive artist’s world: multiple polyrhythmic percussive elements tussle with each other atop chopped-up Indian voices, ululations which are made to sound just as percussive through their lack of melodic cadence, whilst dark basslines and industrial sound effects quietly undermine the general uplift of the clamour. This is a ‘black’ record in two senses of the word: firstly, in its stark rejection of the colouring of melody, leaving a pop-abjuring vacuum as dark as space that’s somewhat alarmingly filled with the angry, martial beats of drums; secondly, in its celebration of an underclass of explicitly non-white sampled voices, which come together across the course of the album to threaten the despised ‘1%’ (the name of one song, which helps to make the political context more explicit). The overall effect is of M.I.A. without the hooks, every track crossing cultural borders like that artist’s famous ‘Paper Planes’. Jlin was apparently inspired by her ongoing collaborations with Indian ‘dancer/movement artist’ Avril Stormy Unger, and it shows, but the musical texture has a speed and aggression that very much finds its feet in the footwork of Jlin’s earlier career, whilst there are also collaborations with American avant-gardists William Basinski and Holly Herndon. What should be a mess instead comes across as a focussed 45-minute blast of electronic rebellion, culminating in a ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, which comes both as a promise and a veiled threat after all that’s gone before. The lack of melodic structure makes the soundscapes more of an endurance test than, say, Burial (a personal favourite). But, even for an electronic dilettante, the effort’s certainly worth it.