Dolly Parton, Lisa Hannigan, Ed Harcourt And More Music Reviews
Plus, get details about the latest from Lisa Hannigan, Ed Harcourt and more.
— -- intro: I wasn’t expecting this to be a busy release week. It ended up being more loaded than I imagined. Frank Ocean dropped a record, which I already covered, but there were a lot of other releases as well. Country legend Dolly Parton dropped a new album, as did former Damien Rice collaborator Lisa Hannigan. English singer Ed Harcourt released a dark, immensely gripping album and singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews decided to explore her country side. Experimental electronic musician Tobacco released an appealing but strange new album and rapper Watsky released a new set too. Finally, alt-country singer Lydia Loveless made a star-making turn with her latest album.
There is more to read this week than there usually probably is and there are plenty of amazing records to discuss. Seriously, 2016 is already quite a remarkable year for music.
quicklist: 1title: Dolly Parton’s “Pure & Simple” ***text: At just over a half an hour, Dolly Parton’s latest album is just another reminder of her durability as an artist. Like Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn, she is one of the few remaining from country’s old-guard and yet it is still amazing to think that her first albums were released fifty years ago.
“Pure & Simple” is a tender, mostly acoustic record that finds its sweet spot in soft balladry, from the whispery “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” to the quiet bit of loving personal praise in the opening title track. Really this is an album celebrating mature, loving relationships. Keep in mind that this last May Dolly and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
What’s interesting is that these love songs almost contain a religious kind of earnestness, and while the tales about why we shouldn’t cheat found on “Can’t Be That Wrong” blur the lines between personal love and religious doctrines, for the most part this album remains grounded in its notion that true love on a personal level is sacred.
There’s joy in Dolly’s voice as she takes a trip back in time, with the jaunty “I’m Sixteen” and “Outside Your Door” is the sonic equivalent of butterflies in the stomach as one approaches a moment of passion.
As an album, this collection doesn’t quite have the same kind of spark as its predecessor, “Blue Smoke” from 2014, But then again, this set is more quietly singular in its tone. Even when Dolly revs things up on “Head Over High Heels,” it is evident this is an album celebrating love, lust and personal connections.
In the end, “Pure & Simple” stands as a reminder of Parton’s reliability. She’s a gifted songwriter, who still knows a good hook. While this album doesn’t immediately, generally scream for attention, it is still proof of her enduring gifts as a writer and performer.
“Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” This may not be the title track, but it stands as this album’s thesis statement.
“Never Not Love You” This is a more upbeat track. It is nice (and unsurprising) to hear that Dolly isn’t selling out to try to appeal to the current pop-minded sounds of country radio. This is just an up-tempo country ballad in a timeless sense. Nothing is forced here. She still sounds like she isn’t compromising.
“Outside Your Door” This is kind of the classic country equivalent to “smooth-lovin’ R&B.” It’s an ode to making love, with Dolly delivering the capper, “We’ll be here ‘till we’re both satisfied.”
quicklist: 2title: Lisa Hannigan’s “At Swim” ****1/2text: I’m not sure why, but Lisa Hannigan does not get the kind of attention that her former collaborator Damien Rice does whenever he releases a record. She is equally compelling as a performer and a writer.
Hannigan’s third album and first in five years is a stripped-down affair that emphasizes quiet beauty in the gentlest of ways, from the country lullaby of “Prayer For The Dying” to the beguiling pull of “Undertow.”
A listen to “Snow” and you realize that this album will probably have even more impact in November or December than it does in August. It’s a very winter-y collection that feels destined to soundtrack shorter days, curled up by the fire.
Hannigan often marries beauty with darkness. Her songs are sometimes quite comforting and occasionally eerie. You can feel the warmth coming off of “Ora” while “Funeral Suit” is fittingly packed with a celebratory sense of sadness and longing. “We, The Drowned” plays a little like a haunted rendition of a classic Irish folk song.
“At Swim” is the kind of record that alters your state as you hear it and Lisa Hannigan continues to be an utterly captivating force as a vocalist. Even on the a cappella “Anahorish,” she is commanding the room. The bottom line is, this record is a casually understated record that after a few listens will have deep resonance if you leave yourself open to its charms.
“Barton” This closing track differs from most of the rest of the record. It has a chilled electro core and yet it still remains soft in its approach. It is actually quite affecting in its execution even as skittering beats emerge.
“Prayer For The Dying” It takes a special kind of vocalist to pull off a song with this kind of grace and elegance. Hannigan captures every nuance as her voice bends and changes shape rather effortlessly.
“Ora” This song has a stunning quality as Hannigan tenderly beckons the listeners by asking “Won’t you come with me?”
quicklist: 3title: Ed Harcourt’s “Furnaces” ****text: At his best, British singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt almost has the kind of mystique of performers like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith. He can command a room with his voice and make dark, mysterious lyrics sound like pearls of wisdom. At the same time, one gets the feeling that he also probably listened to Radiohead’s albums “The Bends” and “OK Computer” endlessly on repeat.
“Furnaces,” Harcourt’s first album in three years is an often magnetic and stunning meditation on fire and other vices. This isn’t necessarily Harcourt’s best record. Both 2001’s “Here Be Monsters” and 2003’s “From Every Sphere” best it a little, but this album gives them at least some competition in his discography, “The World Is On Fire” is no doubt one of the greatest and most compellingly morose tracks Harcourt has ever put to tape, while the rocking “Loup Garou” is a harder edged bit of anthemic rock with sinister undertones.
The minor-key strumming on “Occupational Hazzard” is accompanied by Harcourt singing the lines, “My milk of kindness is slim. / My shining light has grown dim. / My envy’s evergreen.” This borders on sounding wonderfully evil.
“Furnaces” revels in darkness. It has the earnestness of a rock opera and yet it never hits the moment of excess. You are always with Harcourt as he explores this anti-utopia of sorts. The falsetto-led track “Immoral” is both eerie and enchanting, whereas “Dionysus” is a delicate piano ballad that quickly turns into marching-band-driven, semi-orchestral sludge-rock. Throughout the set and its many moods, Harcourt remains unified in his vision. Like an approaching firestorm, this album is consuming.
“The World Is On Fire” This song is six minutes long. It will envelop you from the start and it definitely won’t let go. This song needs to be immediately licensed for a poignant scene on television or in a movie. It’s quite incredible and maintains its hold as it rises.
“Antarctica” This closing track opens with the lines “Wipe away your memories and we will start again.” This is some wonderful slash and burn energy. Considering that this song closes the set, its feeling of renewal is all the more palpable.
“Occupational Hazzard” There is definitely a Radiohead vibe going through this track as Harcourt almost gleefully sheds his human skin.
quicklist: 4title: Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life” ****text: Courtney Marie Andrews has released a string of strong collections of enchanting acoustic music over the years. The strongest of those albums is probably still 2010’s “For One I Knew” which is book-ended by two incredible songs, “Venus Is Prominent” and “Mt. Saint Helens.” But she is probably most famous for his stint in 2011 as a back-up singer and touring keyboardist for Jimmy Eat World. She added a highly notable energy to the band with her contributions to their woefully under-rated but fantastic album, “Invented,” and was also quite an asset on tour. She made such an impact that it is kind of a shame that she didn’t remain a permanent addition.
Her indie-rock cred from the Jimmy Eat World association is all the more interesting when you hear her latest album, “Honest Life.” With the album, Andrews essentially switches genres. This is a country record and quite a strong one, as she adds a bit of twang to her already distinguishing natural vocal lilt. You could hear this shift coming a little in 2013’s “On My Page,” but from the start of “Rookie Dreams,” it is clear that this is a vintage-sounding country record with a strong singer-songwriter backbone.
This is a record that deserves some mainstream attention and should catapult Andrews up to a larger audience. “Put The Fire Out,” for instance, is the kind of song that country radio should be championing.
While this is a bit of a different record for her, Andrews proves even with the switch in focus, she hasn’t lost any of quality found in her past work. This is an album worth seeking.
“Irene” This is one of those songs where the singer is giving her main character some advice and Andrews takes some really interesting vocal chances with sudden high notes within the melody. The fact that she can convincingly pull this off is a testament to her inherent gifts as a vocalist. In the '60s or '70s, this song would have become a country classic, even if it does have a little bit of post-Stax soulfulness in its mixture.
“Put The Fire Out” As stated above, this is another potentially star-making track. It should be a hit.
“Let The Good One Go” This love song brings to mind not only classic country, but the country side that Jenny Lewis has explored both as a solo artist and as part of Rilo Kiley. Andrews and Lewis both have very strong voices with many layers and textures. It is safe to say that Andrews unquestionably nails this performance.
quicklist: 5title: Tobacco’s “Sweatbox Dynasty” ***text: Even by Tobacco’s standards, “Sweatbox Dynasty” is a really bizarre record. That is really saying something. The enigmatic member of Black Moth Super Rainbow specializes in bizarre electro music that often sounds like a sonic bar-brawl between Devo’s lo-fi side and Harold Faltermeyer. But this album puts its emphasis on analog fuzz. There’s a potent tape-hiss, throughout the set and sludgy tracks like “Dimensional Hum” can leave the listeners a tad bewildered if they aren’t prepared.
This is a very effects-heavy record. It sounds like a lo-fi experiment with drum-machines and synths perhaps connected to pedals. “Wipeth Out” is a massive blast of sound while “Gods In Heat” and “Home Invasionaries” sound like vintage soundtracks to games of “Space Invaders.” There is sort of an Atari/Nintendo sound going on here. It recalls a 1980s vision of the future, but then again, it often takes some experimental turns that are simultaneously both interesting and challenging.
This is a decent record, but it is not recommended to be your first take of Tobacco’s music if you’ve never heard it before now. 2010’s “Maniac Meat” (which featured two tracks with Beck) is probably still the best introduction, but once you’ve taken a trip through his back-catalog, you should check out this album’s undeniable strangeness.
“Gods In Heat” This is perhaps the most typical of Tobacco’s work here and it has a strong rise that sounds rather explosive when compared to the track’s quiet beginnings.
“Hong” This track is a little over a minute, but it sounds like a pleasurably warped exercise.
“Fantasy Trash Wave” When I was little, the record player in my bedroom was by the window. Once or twice I accidentally left albums on my turntable and the sun would melt them. Why am I telling you this? Well, I am doing so because this track kind of sounds like a melted synth-pop album.
quicklist: 6title: Watsky’s “X Infinity” **text: I think Watsky has a good to great record in him. “X Infinity” still isn’t it. His records tend to be frustrating exercises. He has rapid-fire lyrical skill and I suppose that is showcased well on opener “Tiny Glowing Screens No. 3” but he seems determined to balance his lyrical skills with some ill-fitting confessional indie-rock like on “Talking To Myself” or unflatteringly cartoonish backdrops like “Pink Lemonade,” a track which starts out OK and then quickly turns rather garish.
The problem isn’t often with Watsky himself or his delivery. It is more about the production and the beats that are sometimes way over the top. “Don’t Be Nice” with its digital helium vocal repetition sounds like something out of an animated nightmare and Watsky as an MC has a lot of energy and a likable presence. He doesn’t need to be smack people over the heads sonically. In fact, in a way, doing so almost makes a joke out of the exercise.
Listening to a song like “Stick To Your Guns” with its sung pop hook and very synth-driven energy I can’t help but think that Watsky probably gets the same kind of “compliment” that Macklemore claims he gets. “I don’t really like hip-hop, but I like you.” That isn’t good.
Essentially what Watsky has made here is a collection of highly-animated pop songs with a watered-down hip-hop base. You can imagine this plays well to some areas of the college fraternity crowd, but he has more potential to be more responsible with his hip-hop influence. He can spit bars but the way he placates to the pop world in perhaps the hopes of a left-field crossover hit comes off as disrespectful to the genre if you understand hip-hop’s history.
Listening to a track like the Mal Devisa-assisted “Satisfied” with its '80s, synth-driven glam-rock core and you think something has gone wrong. Listen to the clearest portions of “Love Letters” and there is hope. Watsky needs to strip away the pop and other extraneous elements from his records. He’s a decent rapper with the soul of beat-poet, but too often these populist stabs mute his best assets. This album ends up frequently being too manic and too sugary for its own good.
“Love Letters” During the verses, this works. In fact Watsky really nails this for long stretches. He needs to harness this energy and make a whole album with this kind of intensity. All of Watsky’s best potential is found on this track ... at least until the pseudo-dub-step breakdown.
“Yes Britannia” Here Watsky almost finds a good balance between his rap skills and his pop hooks, although his serious lines about the Paris bombings and the dangers of lung cancer are again undercut by the song’s neon-hued tone.
quicklist: 7title: Lydia Loveless’ “Real” ****1/2text: As a vocalist Lydia Loveless stands ahead of the alt-country pack with a determined delivery and her knack for frankness. “Real” is Loveless’ fourth album and it finds the soon-to-be 26-year-old singer telling tales with an honest, lived-in quality that many might expect from an artist twice her age. This is even true when Loveless switches to the funk-rock of “Heaven,” without losing an ounce of integrity. Anyone who has ever heard a Lydia Loveless album knows that she is the real deal, approaching country with a rawness that sounds refreshing in the midst of today’s sonic landscape.
“Out On Love” is a gripping song missing opportunities in search of something that may or may not be real, whereas single, “Longer” is a about mundane existence in the face of heartbreak. Loveless approaches each song with the unbending honesty and straight-forwardness of a punk and yet her songs have pop hooks. Those hooks, however, are never forced.
Hearing this album gives me the same kind of refreshing feeling I felt back in 2003 when I first heard Kathleen Edwards’ debut album “Failer.” Both singers make country music with an indie-rock sensibility and a remarkable sense of intensity.
By the time Loveless delivers a romantic museum proposal at “Bilbao,” it becomes apparent that as an album, “Real” should be Loveless’ major crossover record. It is an album packed with hits and loaded with her no-nonsense style. If you don’t know Lydia Loveless, she should unquestionably be on your radar.
“More Than Ever” Within this striking ballad, at the 1-minute, 45-second mark there is a stifled laugh as Loveless sings, “If self-control is what you want, I’m gonna have to break my fingers off....” That’s a great example of the dark humor and lyrical gems she hides in her songs.
“Heaven” No doubt this is intended to be a possible radio hit and it would do well without harming any of Loveless’ credibility.
“Real” It is interesting that the title track is the closer, especially since it is a strong single contender. Perhaps this is Loveless’ way of leaving the audience wanting more.
Next Week: New music from De La Soul, Britney Spears and more.
Missed the review of Frank Ocean's "Blonde"? Find it here.