This week is an odd release week which should please fans of country, folk and roots rock. With the exception of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, all the reviews this week come from titans of that genre. Of course, we'll discuss the new Springsteen record, "High Hopes," as well as new releases from Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter and a re-release of Lucinda Williams' 1988 self-titled album. It all adds up to a very country-fied and soulful week. Time to dig in!
|Bruce Springsteen's "High Hopes" **1/2|
"High Hopes" is an odd Springsteen record. By its nature, it feels pieced together and not like a cohesive unit. The majority of the tracks came from the same sessions that produced 2012's "Wrecking Ball." These songs have since been tinkered with and given new touches. Add a few covers, "American Skin (41 Shots)" (which has never before gotten the studio treatment) and a new re-recording of "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," and this record feels more like a ramshackle collection of odds and sods than it should. To muddle things even more, Amazon has packaged copies sold there with a bonus DVD showing a 2013 complete London performance of "Born In The USA" in its entirety. It means that "High Hopes" seems to lack its own identity. It's like leftovers from the Springsteen brand.
"American Skin (41 Shots): By far, this is the best track on the record and this studio take is beautifully made. This is of course, Springsteen's tribute to slain, unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down at the age of 23 when the NYPD reportedly mistook his wallet for a gun. Make no mistake, this is a divisive song among his fan-base, but it is also vintage Springsteen.
"Hunter Of Invisible Game": This is the album's sweetest and most vulnerable moment; a flashback to Springsteen's intimate, narrative mode. It's a quiet, string-heavy ballad. A beautiful highlight.
"High Hopes": This title track is a Tim Scott McConnell song and Springsteen and his horn section give this down-trodden anthem the kind of stomp it demands. No doubt, in the live setting, this track lights the stage on fire and charges up the crowd.
"Just Like Fire Would" This song was originally recorded by the Saints and in the Boss' hands, he filters it through his signature stomp, thus making it his own.
"Heaven's Wall": This is a cowbell-introed, gospel-influenced folk-rocker. It is a little stale on delivery, but it still has its effective moments, even if its "Raise your hands" refrain becomes monotonous.
|Jennifer Nettles' "That Girl" ***|
Jennifer Nettles' first solo record is a bit stripped down compared to the shiny, peppy country-pop she makes with Sugarland. Producer Rick Rubin makes sure she's surrounded with acoustic guitars to give this a country-singer-songwriter feel. Fans looking for Nashville-spun pop may not appreciate this approach, but it benefits Nettles. Rubin's aim is to make this sound more folk-driven or like the country of the past. Nettles is a very talented vocalist with a ton of charisma, but in a way she lacks distinction. That being said, this record delivers on its promise, fusing older country sounds with one of newer country's stars.
"That Girl": The album's title track was co-written by Nettles and the decidedly very un-country Butch Walker. It is a warm and winning creeper, but makes lyrical reference to Dolly Parton's "Jolene" and is nowhere near that track's hauntingly resonant level. Nevertheless, it is a satisfying single choice.
"Jealousy" : You wouldn't expect a track called "Jealousy" to sound so sunny, but thanks to a vaguely Latin-flavor and a catchy signature guitar-line, this song sounds like the soundtrack to a casual brunch on the veranda. The track's breezy sound humorously masks Nettles' lyrics, like when she sings about "that party where I made such a mess and poured my whiskey down the back of your dress."
"This Angel": This is a ballad, co-written with the classic country writer, Mike Reid, who wrote Bonnie Raitt's hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me." Oddly this new composition not only brings to mind that older one, but it also bears a passing resemblance to Roxette's "Listen To Your Heart." "Know You Wanna Know": This is probably the closest to country-radio pop here, with its rally-crying, line-dance-ready charge. It's yet another song about a woman cheating with a married man but it still has its upbeat charm.
"Moneyball": There's almost a seventies AM-radio hit quality to this bright number, even if its modern mentions of texting, "Facebook emoticons," YouTube, and iPads are not only are destined to date it but also threaten to weigh it down. However, it has enough crossover appeal to give Nettles some attention outside her country fan-base.
|Rosanne Cash's "The River & The Thread" (Deluxe Edition) ****|
On "The River & The Thread," Rosanne Cash delivers a haunting song-set steeped in the swampy southern backwoods. This is a potent mix of country and folk. It's been 35 years since she made her debut, and while this is a far cry stylistically from the country she originally made for Columbia in the eighties, it further establishes her as a driving force of the genre, continuing with pride to carry the weight that her family name holds. Most of the songs here were written by Cash and her producer/husband, John Leventhal. Interestingly enough, one track, "When The Master Calls The Roll" is credited to Cash, Leventhal and Cash's former husband Rodney Crowell. The deluxe edition adds another three songs (two of which are covers) and cases the album in a hardcover book.
"The Long Way Home": The four plucked notes that begin this track usher in an epic, blossoming tune that stirs with ghosts of a Southern gothic past. The string section makes it burst into a whole different realm, as if someone merged the sounds of Beck's "Sea Change" with Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." This is the album's key highlight, but it is also the marker that Cash sets for the rest of the record. Odds are, if you like this track, you'll enjoy the whole set.
"Modern Blue": Perhaps this is the closest on here to a typical radio single. It's a driving rocker and yet it still maintains the tone established by the rest of the collection. This track is closer to blues-rock than country, but it's also akin to material you might find on a record by Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow.
"World Of Strange Design": This track is slightly gospel-tinged while deeply rooted in a certain kind of swampy country. At the same time, I think it would please both blues and country purists alike.
" A Feather's Not A Bird": According to the liner notes, this opening track is inspired by a trip to visit a friend in Florence, Ala., who taught Cash how to sew. It's a key track because it is most obviously the genesis for the album's title, "The River & The Thread."
The Sunken Lands: The bass on this track lumbers along in a nice two-step beat and Cash sings a strong chorus here. Inspired by an area of Arkansas where the Cash family used to live that had been damaged by an earthquake back in 1811, this furthers Cash's exploration of her origins.
|Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' "Give The People What They Want" ****1/2|
This album was originally supposed to be released last August, until Sharon Jones was diagnosed with bile-duct (and later pancreatic) cancer. She finished her chemotherapy on December 31, so now she is ready to promote this very strong record. "Give The People What They Want" showcases these classic soul revivalists on top of their game. They pack as strong a punch as ever. This is a heavily inspired, driven record. It clocks in at under 34 minutes, but if you love classic soul, its brevity won't be a problem. This is the kind of album you'll probably want to play on repeat. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings not only prove themselves once again to be astounding revivalists, but they also end up making a record that would hold its own next to their influences. Let's hope Jones stays in good health. We need more records like this for years to come!
"Stranger To My Happiness": Like a lost Motown classic, "Stranger To My Happiness" wallops you from the start with its insistent beat and its dynamite horn-work. Jones is placed firmly in front, but she is assisted by a group of background singers to emulate a classic girl-group sound. When one of the singers laughs in the mix, it gives the track a spontaneous rise.
"Retreat!": "Retreat!" opens the record with an authoritative force. Bringing to mind classic kiss-offs from the likes of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, this is Jones delivering a threatening warning call. If this had been released in 1967, it would be a classic now. "You'll Be Lonely": This track just begs to be sampled and rapped over, especially the semi-psychedelic "Son Of A Preacher Man"-esque guitar-loop that sets the song off. This is pure soul gold, all the way through.
"Long Time, Wrong Time": With more Motown-y goodness, this guitar-driven hand-clapper begins in a very understated way until the horns add a bit of punctuation. Jones really is one of those gifted, timeless vocalists. Like the rest of this record, this sounds like a dusty, well-worn classic for the ages.
"Making Up And Breaking Up (And Making Up And Breaking Up Over Again)" This is a sunny love song that is made even bolder by the Dap-Horns' effective intro. At only 2:24, this song is over by the time you are ready to settle in, but it really is a satisfying gem.
|Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Songs From The Movie" ****|
This isn't a country album. This isn't a folk album. This is Mary Chapin Carpenter exploring her back catalog with an enormous orchestra. Recorded in London, this album has a stately, important feel. Carpenter's bold voice has never sounded more authoritative. Giving these tunes some classical heft makes every track sound like the climax of an epic musical. These arrangements compliment these compositions surprisingly well. This album is soft, but it is never sleepy. In fact, it is best heard at top volume. This is a gently beautiful record that emphasizes Carpenter's considerable song-writing skill.
"Come On Come On": The title-track to what many would consider her signature album becomes heavier when you replace the acoustic guitar part with a piano, some strings and a woodwind section. Carpenter's voice is a tad deeper too than it was 22 years ago, giving her narrative ballad an added sense of wisdom.
"I Am A Town" Another "Come On Come On" track, "I Am A Town" sounds even more moving and cathartic than the original. As the orchestra swells, it only accentuates Carpenter's lyrics about small-town America. Her lyrical imagery is priceless.
"Ideas Are Like Stars": The original version of this song can be found on her 1996 album, "A Place In The World." Carpenter, at her best has a knack for storytelling in such a way that you believe that each one of her characters truly exists. The chorus of singers who add background throughout the track add a sense of elegance.
"On And On It Goes": Originally on her 2007 album, "The Calling," "On And On It Goes" isn't all that radically different in its orchestral form, but it exhibits many of this records strong points. To put it plainly, this is a stellar re-recording of a song that was strong in the first place.
"Between Here And Gone": The title track to Carpenter's 2004 album is given an extra dose of pastoral beauty with this treatment. Somehow, her work seems even more pensive given this backdrop.
|Lucinda Williams' "Lucinda Williams" (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) ****|
In 1988, after an eight-year break, Lucinda Williams released her self-titled third record and it became one of her signature works. She was still a decade away from her masterpiece, "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road," but this record really showed the beginning of her legendary status as a songwriter. Repackaged with a bonus disc full of 20 live takes, this week the album was reissued in honor of its 25th anniversary.
Williams is a truly gifted writer and this album is one of the key cornerstones of her career. She has released many albums as good or better since, but ultimately this still stands as a stellar example of her work. Hopefully this reissue with bring her new listeners.
"Passionate Kisses": This song would be covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1992 on her record, "Come On Come On," thus becoming a signature song for both women. Williams' original finds her at her poppiest and most lovelorn. It's a song that is as expressive as it is catchy. As on the rest of this record, the eighties production tends to date it. (The reverb on the drums screams 1988.) But, the song, itself is a timeless gem.
"Changed The Locks": This is another song made famous by a cover. Tom Petty recorded his version of this song for the soundtrack of the 1996 movie "She's The One," but Williams' version is dirtier and bluesier sounding.
"Like A Rose": A gentle and touching, drumless ballad, "Like A Rose" doesn't really sound like any other composition of its time. Yes, the eighties reverb is still all over the track, but it is just Williams, a guitar and a fiddle. And yet, it is as much a soft dose of power-pop as it is a country song.
"Side Of The Road": With an appealingly catchy tune, Williams sings of trying to escape a doomed relationship. In fact, at its core, this is a concept album about every-day frustration – romantic and otherwise. Williams packs these songs with a relatable, down-to-earth angst.
"The Night's Too Long": A tale of a downtrodden waitress named Sylvia, "The Night's Too Long" is the kind of hard-working inspirational country song that would be clichéd if Williams didn't have such a keen knack for detail. Yeah, sure, Sylvia wants to get out of her one-horse town and her dead-end job, and ultimately she only ends up going dancing with a sweaty stranger and drinking a Corona, but that sense of aggravated angst still drives the song even if her goal isn't ultimately achieved.
Next Week we will have a stack of new releases, including the debut from Bad Things, the band featuring Olympic snowboarder Shaun White. Plus we'll review the latest from alt-rock band Warpaint and more.