This week singer-songwriter Ryan Adams returns with his latest offering, rising pop star Bebe Rexha and viral sensation Maggie Rogers release new EPs, Pegi Young releases an album in response to the breakup of her marriage to Neil Young, alt-country act Son Volt drops a new album, Tash Sultana makes an ear-catching debut and Alison Krauss goes back to some country classics. This week is big on country, blues and folk music with some pop-minded side-steps.
|Ryan Adams’ “Prisoner” ****|
Ryan Adams’ latest album seems like a reaction to his recent (somewhat high-profile) divorce. This is a collection of heart-broken numbers delivered with a shiny brand of angst. Opener and lead-single ”Do You Still Love Me?” is a big arena-rock ballad that brings to mind both Tom Petty and a less earnest version of Bruce Springsteen.
As an album, “Prisoner” recalls the singer-songwriter albums of the eighties. It comes from a rootsy place but it isn’t afraid of synths or drum-beats bathed in liberal bits of reverb. “Doomsday” sounds simultaneously like a more produced cousin to the Replacements and a track you might have found on the soundtrack to the John Hughes classic “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” while “Shiver and Shake” is a folk-driven, slow builder.
As he did with his 2014 self-titled record, Adams shows himself to be increasingly comfortable with bigger productions and he’s got songs with hooks to match. This is a self-produced set. He’s far removed from his raw, alt-country beginnings and in more streamlined territory here. After covering Taylor Swift’s “1989” in full, it is evident that he is ready to embrace a higher level of fame. This is both a successfully populist and a personal singer-songwriter statement all in one. If this album had been released between 1984 and 1987, it would now be still played in dive-bar jukeboxes on a regular basis. There’s something timeless about the morose energy that fuels the pop drive of the title-track, while “Outbound Train” recalls The Boss at his best.
There are also ghosts of later, brokenhearted influences. “To Be Without You” has a feeling that recalls Beck’s heartbroken masterpiece “Sea Change.” Ryan Adams wears his damaged heart and his influences quite openly and proudly on this set, and yet this album continues to show him to be the same expressive and articulate writer who gave us “Heartbreaker” and “Gold” roughly seventeen and sixteen years ago respectively. As the years go on, Adams’ range and his sonic agility increases. He’s still just as confident and bold a writer as ever and he still is delivering on the promise expected from him all those years ago.
“Prisoner” is a sad record to say the least, but it revels in those feelings and almost finds a brand of celebration within their depths. “Haunted House” is full of ghosts of the past and yet it has a brightness within its core.
Two interesting observations of note: Adams painted the emotional and expressive painting that graces the cover and according to the liner notes, the set is dedicated to Garry Shandling.
“Do You Still Love Me?” This is an epic opener that sets the collection in motion. It’s a mammoth statement of heartbreak and sadness and yet it still rocks effectively.
“Breakdown” This ballad feels like a sonic answer to Tom Petty’s “A Face in the Crowd.” The song’s guitar-line even has a hint of the Byrds-esque quality found on Petty’s “Full Moon Fever” album. The Petty-association is even funnier when considering the title, although this song shares nothing with Petty’s “Breakdown” other than the title.
“Shiver and Shake” When the synths come in on this track, you half expect Adams to break into Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” That association doesn’t hurt the song in the least. It’s a well-constructed bit of songwriting even if its roots are clearly evident.
|Bebe Rexha’s “All Your Fault Pt. 1” ***1/2|
Bebe Rexha appears to be embracing the current trend of just releasing stray EPs instead of albums. “All Your Fault Pt. 1” implies that a second part is coming, thus making this six-song set perhaps the first side to a proper album. Rexha has shown strength in the past with the EP format with 2015’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” but there is something really frustrating about not getting more from her. Of course, that feeling of needing more and not having one’s thirst fully quenched is probably part of the reason for the EP-based strategy.
This EP as with the rest of Rexha’s work is extremely targeted. Each one of these six tracks seems directly aimed at pop radio domination. All these songs clock between the 3:11 and 3:32 mark, making this is a brisk, tightly-constructed set and Rexha thrives working within the constraints of shiny, modern pop-production. In many ways, the Brooklyn-born singer sounds like an American answer to Cher Lloyd, delivering biting songs that balance a sugary sweetness with a winning bit of edgy attitude. Only on the single “I Got You,” with its Rihanna-style “na-na-na” chorus does Rexha sound like she’s taking a bit of a faceless stumble. Elsewhere, she is better at showing her strengths.
Opener “Atmosphere” is the kind of moving, breathtaking pop song that could stop you in your tracks, while the G-Eazy-assisted “F.F.F.” (which stands for “F*** Fake Friends”) laments the phoniness and loneliness of living the Hollywood life among flaky people.
“Gateway Drug” is a cautionary take on backsliding with an ex-lover while “Small Doses” equates love to drug use. (It is a bit of a tired metaphor, but here it works effectively.)
In spite of her lack of a full-length album at this point, Rexha shows a great deal of enduring promise. Even if this set’s ambitions are painfully clear, she remains an artist to watch. Still, I’d like to see her work with a longer format. 19 minutes and change just isn’t enough. Working with a larger space could also help her branch out into a wider variety of sounds.
“Atmosphere” With rapid-fire vocals during the verses, Rexha manages to find lush serenity during the song’s slower chorus. This is a little 3-minute marvel of a chilled pop-song.
"Gateway Drug” This is a “booty-call” gone wrong over a chilled electro-reggae backdrop. Listen to the details in the bass-line if you don’t hear why this track is a clear highlight.
“Small Doses” Another chilled, electro jam that sounds like typical, current pop-radio fare, but it works and Rexha has enough charisma to firmly stand out from the rest of the pop pack.
|Maggie Rogers’ “Now That the Light is Fading” ***1/2|
Maggie Rogers got instantly famous last year when a clip of Pharrell’s amazement at listening to her song “Alaska” during a master-class at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music program went viral. Rogers is indeed interesting. She’s obviously listened to Imogen Heap and she’s obviously been influenced by much of the modern pop landscape, but then you listen to “Color Song,” the opener of her new EP, “Now That the Light is Fading” and you hear some earthier, more arresting, slightly Americana-influenced elements seeping into her otherwise electro-pop sound. The crickets that serve as the backdrop of this a cappella track emphasizes this aspect the opener.
This balance is even felt on the hip-hop bounce of “On + Off” and the bright, synth-pop stomp of “Dog Years.” You get the idea that had Rogers been born a generation earlier, she would have been a more traditional folk singer, even considering the lush, trippy electo-haze of closer “Better.”
The EP is only 17 minutes. It makes an impression but Rogers deserves a bigger statement. I hope this serves as a teaser for a more substantial release. Still, even with its brevity, you understand why her music caught Pharrell’s ear so strongly. She’s forging a unique path.
“Alaska” This is still the most magnetic and arresting song of the five tracks here, combining an other-worldly presence with a modern pop sheen. This holds up quite strongly on repeated spins.
“On + Off” The looped piano note has a vintage nineties hip-hop layer of dust over it, even if the song erupts into a post-electro clapping beat. Rogers’ delivery here also has a nice R&B-style swagger.
|Pegi Young & The Survivors’ “Raw” ***|
You can’t listen to Pegi Young’s latest album without thinking of the breakup of her nearly 40-year marriage to Neil Young and that is the point. “Raw” is her fifth album in ten years and she has come into her own right as she fills this album with pointed originals and covers all about heartbreak and the turmoil that comes with the territory.
On “Why” she asks “Why’d you have to ruin my life?” With titles like “Gave My Best to You,” “Too Little, Too Late,” “Trying to Live My Life Without You,” “A Thousand Tears,” “Lonely” and more, you get the picture. This is an old-school heartbreak record with some bluesy and country tinges.
She brings a slow, menacing quality to the first verse of her version of the Nancy Sinatra hit, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” while she finds tenderness and almost resolution in her cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter.” Her version of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” remains tender and driven at the same time
If the appropriately-titled “Raw” makes anything clear, it is that Pegi Young is ready to stand up for herself and she’s both saddened and angry. Yet she handles these songs with emotional grace. This is an album that will have you listening for both the performances and the subject matter. It’s not a record that will change the world, but it feels extremely cathartic. This is the sound of Pegi Young working through an understandably traumatic event and coming out on the other side.
“These Boots Are Made for Walking” Quite possibly the best reading of this song since Nancy Sinatra as Young brings all of the composition’s bluesy guts to the surface.
“The Heart of the Matter” Young also breathes new life into her stripped-down version of the Don Henley hit.
“Gave My Best To You” There’s a lyrical subtext of “how dare you” to this song and Young gives the song a strong, bluesy backbone. There is an extra punch to the gut when she declares “Everyone’s replaceable. Everyone’s disposable. Everyone’s expendable.”
|Son Volt’s “Notes of Blue” ***|
When alt-country greats Uncle Tupelo disbanded, Jeff Tweedy went on to form Wilco and Jay Farrar went to form Son Volt. Seven albums in on “Notes of Blue,” Farrar delivers a brisk half-hour set of tunes. His approach maintains the country tinges of his previous band while Tweedy’s Wilco has often been a shape-shifting art-rock ensemble.
From the beginning of “Promise to the World,” through the end of the set, Farrar maintains a back-to-basics honesty. Sometimes his lyrics get a little repetitive like on the moody but still appealing “Cairo and Southern,” but it is evident he is out to set an overall tone.
Even when he rocks out on thunderous punk workouts like “Static” and “Lost Souls,” he still does so with a slight twang, giving these songs a fuzzed-out almost rockabilly vibe. “Cherokee Street Girl” packs a powerful stomp and a textural integrity that recalls some of Neil Young’s rougher electric sets.
“Notes of Blue” is a reliable workout. It shows a surprising amount of musical depth in spite of its brevity. It could have used at least two more songs, but Jay Farrar still appears to be maintaining an old tradition on his own terms.
“Static” You get the feeling that Farrar could have written this song in his sleep, but on headphones this is completely stunning. His bellowing delivery is also as clear as ever.
“Cherokee Street Girl” There’s something wonderfully murky about this song, combined with its narrative style. It feels like a fuzzed-out answer to a vintage folk/blues classic.
“Threads and Steel” Only two-minutes in length, this closer has a strong backbeat that you wish it maintained for longer, but it has a strong, authoritative sense of attitude. It’s funky and vaguely, slyly angry at the same time.
|Tash Sultana’s “Notion” (EP) ****|
Tash Sultana is an emerging Australian multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter who fuses a variety of styles into her appealing sonic mix. This approach can make her music hard to classify.
Calling “Notion” an EP is a bit of a misnomer given its 41-minute span. It is an unusually put together collection, however, consisting of only six tracks. The first half contains four studio numbers while the second half contains two live workouts titled “Big Smoke, Pt. 1” and “Big Smoke, Pt. 2,” respectively. It is during this second half where her musical abilities are really truly on display. In the live setting, she is an ace at using looping pedals, which means this brings out her freakiest, jazziest funkiest side, bringing to mind the kind of experimental live recordings that used to fill whole sides of records back in the seventies. When compared with the lush, relaxed electro pop of the studio cut “Gemini” or the musically dense but still highly-produced title-track and “Synergy,” it becomes immediately apparent that this Sultana is a powerful, multi-faceted musical force.
This collection is a fully-formed, somewhat stunning offering with a level of musicianship rarely heard on pop-minded albums. Sultana blends a compelling singing voice with a strong tendency towards guitar solos. In other words, this is a collection that jams out for people who don’t necessarily always enjoy such exercises. She knows the power of the slow-build and often uses it to her advantage.
“Notion” is the work of an artist with great appeal on a sharp rise. This set is equally unusual, beautifully ear-catching and technically-skilled. There is nothing typical at work here.
“Big Smoke Pt. 1”/ “Big Smoke Pt. 2” I suggest listening to the twenty-one-minute live half first because it sets Sultana in her best light. These jams often change shape throughout their spans but Sultana never loses the flow and will continuously keep your attention.
“Notion” The title-track revels in an effortless sense of serenity in its mannered build. She almost brings Carina Round to mind at several points during the song.
“Gemini” This is the closest to a pop single on the this set and it is a chilled, alluring piece full of jazzy accents and warm sonic textures.
|Alison Krauss’ “Windy City” (Deluxe Edition) ***1/2|
“Windy City” is Alison Krauss’ first album in six years and her first solo album in 17 years. As a set on the whole it finds the bluegrass star tackling classic country covers with some occasionally jazzy touches. Her opening cover of Brenda Lee’s “Losing You” for instance has both a classic country feel and a strong bit of stately elegance.
Krauss’ high, clear vocal delivery remains the album’s clear focus, whether she is approaching Roger Miller’s “River in the Rain,” Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared for You” or Glen Campbell’s signature hit “Gentle on My Mind.”
Her version of “Goodbye and So Long to You,” originally recorded by the Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman, combines some appealing Memphis-style slide-guitar work with some New Orleans-style Dixieland flourishes.
“Windy City” is the kind of record that is at odds with much of the music that is touted as “country” these days. It is rooted in a very deep and strong tradition. This is Alison Krauss paying strong tribute to her influences and thus keeping the classic, more authentic country flame alight.
The deluxe edition includes four additional live recordings of songs found earlier on the set.
“Gentle on My Mind” I am not sure why this is my favorite song on the set exactly. It might have to do with the inward-looking lyrics of the song itself and Krauss is able to sell its mature appeal just as well as Glen Campbell did years ago. She also gives it a nice shuffling sensibility.
“You Don’t Know Me” This Eddy Arnold classic is given a new kind of tenderness in Krauss’ hands.
“Poison Love” This Bill Monroe classic feels so removed from the modern country-world and that’s why it works. Krauss keeps the song’s vintage charm intact.
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