It’s been a long time since I’ve written music reviews.
I started out writing more music reviews than movie reviews online, but the interest in movie reviews proved to be much more intense, and I adjusted, desiring to go where the lively discussion was happening. But lately, I’ve been missing the pleasure of “finding out what I think” about music, something that happens best when I write about it.
So, I’m going to pick a few hightlights from my listening adventures this year and make a few recommendations. This post will be updated throughout the year.
Here we go:
Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen: First impressions: Wow. I’m not a big Springsteen fan. I admire and respect him more than I enjoy listening to him. Does that make sense? And yet, I’m playing this album a lot. It’s charged with the kind of energy, and rooted in the rich soil, that made his Pete Seeger tribute album my favorite of his entire career.
Maraqopa – Damien Jurado: First impressions: So far, I think this is my favorite of his records. It’s like David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches if Bazan’s response to a mid-faith crisis had been sadness instead of rage.
Blunderbuss – Jack White: I’ll probably write more about this one later, after I’ve had time to live with the lyrics. But for now, I’ll just say this: It’s about time. Jack White’s various bands have always been about one thing: Jack White. Even The Dead Weather, with its ferocious lead singer from The Kills, had the unmistakable, hook-driven, retro-indulgence of White’s personality. Now, he’s finally “gone solo” (officially), and the songs are, thankfully, no great departure from his previous work. What is immediately striking about them is that he really seems to have cast off any front-man hesitation. He owns every performance, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear him backed up by a full band and a versatile array of instruments. While I might have enjoyed it more if it sounded a little less like material he’d written for the next White Stripes record, and while the hooks make it sound like a record designed with prime-time-TV soundtrack spots in mind, it’s still full of the real rock-and-roll swagger and recklessness that is so hard to come by on today’s music stage. Bono referred to himself as “the last of the rock stars” a decade ago, but Jack White continues to prove him wrong.
Leaving Eden – Carolina Chocolate Drops: Surpassing their excellent 2010 record Genuine Negro Jig, the Drops have made an album that feels like a banjo, fiddle, and hand-clap concert right in your living room, remarkable both for its lack of any perceivable enhancement and for the perfection of its performances. They recreate a time and a place without ever sounding stuffy or overly reverential. Rhiannon Giddens is a national treasure, and her vocals here, especially on “Country Girl” and “Little Bird” are astonishing. This record is a big barrel of beauty, history, gospel, troublemaking, humor, and fun.
Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International – Various Artists: I’ve heard a lot of Bob Dylan covers in my lifetime, and been fond of more than a couple of Dylan tribute albums. The two-disc I’m Not There soundtrack was my favorite album of the year in 2009; I doubted I’d ever hear a better program of good musicians paying tribute to a great. Well, here’s Chimes of Freedom, that certainly delivers an impressive quantity of Dylan covers… if only occasionally impressing with its quality. Read through the lineup of this four-disc marathon, and you’ll guess right away what some of the highlights will be: Lucinda Williams, Adele, Billy Bragg, Mark Knopfler, Dave Matthews. (And you’ll be wrong about a couple: Some big stars turn in forgettable numbers, particularly Sinead O’Connor, whose voice is buried by noise on her rowdy “Property of Jesus” cover.) Diana Krall’s take on “Simple Twist of Fate” finds the bittersweet heart of the matter, and Bettye LaVette’s blusy twist on “Most of the Time” is a joy. Sting is strong in a refreshingly simple setting for “The Girl from the North Country,” and Mark Knopfler, whose voice picks up more depth and texture as the years pass, sounds particularly world-weary on “Restless Farewell.”
But what pleases me most is that some of the best covers come from artists who aren’t in regular rotation on my playlists: The Nightwatchman’s cover of “Blind Willie McTell” is a searing electric version of a song I’ve always loved in its bootleg acoustic version. Raphael Saddiq, playing “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” is having a lot of fun, and sounding a little like Dylan without working too hard at it. Ziggy Marley dares to remake the melody of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and I’ll be damned… the gamble pays off. Mariachi El Bronx reinvents “Love Sick,” turning an extremely simple riff into a complex and exhilarating mariachi arrangement… one of those moments when I worry that the high point of the collection has come early. But it hasn’t. And that’s all on the first disc.
Disc Three is the weak one here, sounding more like a leftovers collection. But just when you can feel the crowd making for the exits, another pleasant surprise comes along. No American songwriter has come anywhere close to the achievements of Bob Dylan for the sheer number of great, literary, and unforgettably contagious songs. While Chimes of Freedom doesn’t match the I’m Not There soundtrack for consistency in vision and energy, it does great honor to Dylan by reminding us of the timeless and flexibility of his songs.
Young Man in America – Anais Mitchell: Mitchell’s follow-up delivers on the promise made by Hadestown — that this is a formidable American artist, one of those rare female rock artists who knows that there’s more to music than singing for the boys or about them. She performs with such riveting confidence, such literary storytelling, such effortlessly vivid imagery. The lyrics have deep roots in the Old Testament, like “Dyin Day”–in which we revisit questions suspended in the gap between Isaac and Abraham’s blade. It’s an album to savor and study, an album that asks you to pack your bags and go exploring in a wilderness of sound from the folksy to the mythic.