Friday, December 29, 2017

Songs of 2017 - "Turn Out the Lights," Julien Baker

The sound of Julien Baker's "Turn Out the Lights" is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of "the Memphis sound."  Hearing it for the first time, it reminded me of the songs on Sufjan Stevens' "Carrie and Lowell" - songs with such a sense of fragility that you feel they might crash on themselves any second.

But near the end, Baker's guitar takes the fore, and it dawns on you that the song is not one about loss, but rather triumph - triumph over the daily circumstances which threaten to pull us all down, every now and then.

"Turn Out the Lights," Julien Baker.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Songs of 2017- "At the Purchaser's Option," Rhiannon Giddens

There was little doubt before 2017 that Rhiannon Giddens was a singular artist, but whatever doubt might have been left was thrown out with "Freedom Highway," her album released in February.

"At the Purchaser's Option" is the album's best song, a shattering testament to a time that should always be remembered.

There have been few songs as powerful in recent memory, much less the past year.

"At the Purchaser's Option," Rhiannon Giddens.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Songs of 2017 - "Grow Old With Me," Sunny Sweeney

Sunny Sweeney is just one of the many terrific woman artists who have risen to the top of the country music universe in the past several years.  A fair amount of her work crosses over to the rock side, but she is more than capable of handling what most would consider a traditional country gem.

"Grow Old With Me" is a good example of the latter, and if there is any justice in the world, it will become a staple at wedding celebrations for years to come.

"Grow Old With Me," Sunny Sweeney.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Songs of 2017 - "Carry Fire," Robert Plant

This comment may give some hardcore Zeppelin fans heartburn, but it seems to me that their post-band careers have proven that Robert Plant contributed just as much to the iconic band's success as Jimmy Page.

If you're not willing to go that far, than surely one must concede that Plant's post-Zep output has far outpaced that of Page, both in terms of quantity and quality.

"Carry Fire" is an outstanding album, one of the year's best, and the title track is an excellent distillation of everything that Plant does well.  Heck, this almost sounds like it could be a Zeppelin song, if you close your eyes and let your mind wander a bit.

"Carry Fire," Robert Plant with his band The Sensational Shape-Shifters.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Songs of 2017 - Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

The album "Lotta Sea Lice" came out in the fall, and it's definitely one of my 2017 favorites.  Part of what I like about it, and what comes through in the performance below, is that it's a bit messy.  On different parts of the album it feels as if Barnett and Vile are having a contest to see who can sing and play over each other more than the other, but that just adds up to a glorious cacophony.

"Over Everything," Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Songs of 2017 - The New Pornographers

Rolling Stone is doing it, Pitchfork is doing it, NPR is doing it, and I'm sure I've left out a few.  Everyone is choosing their top songs of 2017, so why not get in the act myself?

First up are a couple of songs from The New Pornographers, and their outstanding 2017 album "Whiteout Conditions" - their best since 2008's "Challengers," which still sounds to me like their masterpiece.

Both of these songs display with the Pornographers do best - pop songs with an edge, highlighted by melodic tunes and terrific vocal interplay.

"This is the World of the Theatre":

"Avalanche Alley":

I defy everyone to stay sitting down during either of these.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Chris Stapleton is the Real Deal

With two outstanding albums released in the span of 8 months, it's safe to say that "Traveller" was no fluke, and that Chris Stapleton is one of the most distinctive male voices to hit the country scene in a long time - and maybe ever, if he keeps up this pace.

If there was any drawback to "Traveller," it's that it was almost too much of a good thing.  It was great, don't get me wrong - but with 14 songs clocking in at an average of 4:52, I rarely had the patience to listen to it all the way through, in one sitting.  In contrast to their predecessor, the two volumes of "From a Room" (Volume 1 was released in May; Volume 2 on December 1) are about half the playing time of the debut, each hitting the finish line in a little over 32 minutes.  That's certainly not a long album in this day and age, but in the end the relative brevity of the songs is a plus - hitting the perfect balance between "this is the exact right amount of time I need to make my point" and "let's leave 'em wanting just a little bit more."

What jumped out on Volume 1 that wasn't immediately apparent on "Traveller" was Stapleton's sense of humor; it was hard to listen to songs like "Up to No Good Livin'" and "Them Stems" without ending up with a smile on your face.  But Volume 2 is even stronger - it's an absolute killer from start to finish, with love and hard times prevalent among its themes.  From "Tryin' to Untangle my Mind:"

So if you see me
and I'm lonesome and stoned
so far down the devil's looking high
I'm just trying to untangle my mind

And from "Nobody's Lonely Tonight," which just might take its place among the great "last call for alcohol" songs of all time:

Sitting here it's closing time
You've got your troubles
And I bet they're just like mine
Somebody told you goodbye

But I know a way
We can't go wrong
And nobody leads nobody on
And nobody's lonely tonight

To these ears, the album's standout tracks are "A Simple Song," which is anything but, and "Midnight Train to Memphis," which apparently is an old tune that Stapleton sings in all of his shows.  Taken together, the two songs show off Stapleton's range, the former being a quiet tune about a man facing a fair amount of despair in his life but still hanging on enough to be able to say:

But I love my life man it's something to see
It's the kids and the dogs and you and me
It's the way it's alright when everything goes wrong

...And the latter being a "crunch rocker" that sounds as if it came right out of the Drive-By Truckers playbook. 

What ties this all together is Stapleton's voice, which is his strongest instrument.  It's a voice that transcends labels - sure he's country, no doubt about that, but he's also rock 'n roll, soul and the blues.  And while it may have taken a while for the Stapleton Express to get rolling, he's going to around for a long time.  There's no question that "From a Room, Vol. 2" is one of the year's best albums, with Vol. 1 not far behind.