There weren’t a whole lot of new releases that really captured my fancy this month, so winnowing down to my favorite was easier than usual. Sometimes it’s like that.
Eli Winter released a new self-titled record of instrumental guitar music. Chock full of special guests such as Ryley Walker, Yasmin Williams, and jaimie branch (who, sadly, passed away much too young, just days after this release), this is one of those albums that seems to fit every mood. Give it a close listen, or spin it in the background. Play it when you’re driving, or while you’re cooking up some dinner. It’ll work anywhere.
My pick of the month, though, is Valerie June’s Under Cover. Probably not a surprise, given that any new music from Valerie June is going to immediately skyrocket to the top of my priority list. Reviews are calling this release an EP, but for me, at eight songs it kind of straddles the line of a full album. Be that as it may, as the title might suggest, this is an album of cover songs, a couple of which have been released prior to this collection. June doesn’t stray far from the path on these tunes, opting for essentially straightforward, even understated, arrangements that allow the lyrics and melodies to stand on their own. Then again, her voice is really all it takes to make her own statement on a song.
I’m getting to this a little later than usual this month, but here we are:
Right off the bat, it must be said that the best thing that happened in popular music during the month of July has to be the surprise return of Joni Mitchell to the Newport Folk Festival. Those of us in attendance had already been treated to the unannounced appearance of Paul Simon on the previous night. Even so, we all expected Brandi Carlile to have an ace up her sleeve to close things out on Sunday, and there was rampant speculation that it might be Joni. But I don’t think any of us realized just how powerful the moment would be when she actually walked onto the stage. Read about it here, and seek out all the videos on YouTube.
Before leaving the subject of Newport, let me point you toward Arooj Aftab, who came to my attention when she was announced as part of this year’s Friday lineup. Aftab is a Pakistani vocalist, producer, and composer, and I am now completely in love with her work. Do yourself a favor and give her a listen.
Another thing that hit my radar in the month of July was the album Good Woman by Becca Mancari. The song “Summertime Mama” popped up on the radio (The Loft, on SiriusXM) on my way to work one morning, and as soon as I got to my desk I searched for the album. If I had been writing these little monthly reviews in October 2017, this would have been my pick of the month without a doubt. I love every note of every song on the record; can’t stop playing it.
So now onto this month’s new releases:
The Deslondes put out a great new album this month called Ways & Means. Apparently the band had been on hiatus for five years, and I would say if this is the result of taking such a refresher, it was well worth it. Not a bad song on it. For most of the month I was expecting this record to be my July pick, and it would have been perfectly deserving of the honors.
But then, along came Kingmaker, from Tami Neilson. As far as I know I’ve never heard of Neilson before, but I can assure you I will hear more of her from now on. What a voice! If I had to describe this particular record in only one word, that word would have to be “cinematic.” Listening to it for the first time, I was convinced (mistakenly) that Neilson was the lounge singer from the casino in the third season of Amazon Prime’s legal drama, Goliath. It also strikes me that almost any song on the record would be right at home in almost any David Lynch project. And there are several passages throughout where the string arrangements seem like they may have been lifted directly out of the Sean Connery era James Bond movies. All that said, I think it’s really a rockabilly record at heart. But whatever it is, everybody needs to hear it.
I’ve flip-flopped so many times about which of these records to pick as my favorite of June’s releases that I finally just have no choice but to call another tie.
First up is Teeth Marks, the second record from Kentucky singer/songwriter S. G. Goodman. Goodman immediately went into permanent heavy rotation in our house with the release of her first album, Old Time Feeling, during shut-down-era 2020. This new release will definitely follow suit. Interesting lyrics and melodies, and an older-than-her-years vocal quality reminiscent of NPR storyteller Bailey White; this woman has it all.
We discovered Caamp several years ago at the Newport Folk Festival. For me their latest record, Lavender Days, is feel-good music at its finest. (I could say the same about the rest of their catalog, as well.) It sounds like we’re all in this together, doing what we can to have a little fun while we make our way through the day. There’s nothing pretentious or fancy going on anywhere near a Caamp record. Just a handful of chords that flow well, and good solid hooks to hold them together. Maybe with a nice, cool drink by your side. Put this on and enjoy a little piece of your summer.
Then along came the release of Carry Me Home, a live recording from 2011 of Mavis Staples and Levon Helm. Boom. Purely delightful. If you can listen all the way through this record without tapping a toe or bobbing your head, I’m pretty sure something about you ain’t right.
My pick of the month, however, is Cruel Country, the new “double album” from Wilco. (Quotation marks because, as of the time of this writing, this record exists solely in the form of a digital download.) There’s a lot of internet chatter about this record being a return to Wilco’s alt-country roots, but to my ears it doesn’t have much in common with their early records. I’m more inclined to say just the opposite: as pointed out by Chris Deville in his review at Stereogum, the band has never embraced their country roots as fully as they do here, even while still managing to push and pull the genre in different directions.
Finally, as a bit of an aside, I’ll mention that about half the songs on Cruel Country made their debut on The Tweedy Show, more than 200 hours of which was livestreamed from the Tweedys’ living room while we were all in various stages of pandemic shutdown. Seeing and hearing these songs develop from a single guitar & vocal on the Tweedys’ sofa into the full band arrangements on the record has been a rare treat.
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder Get On Board and Willie Nelson A Beautiful Time
This month’s first order of business:
I sincerely hope if you’re a person even remotely interested in my monthly musical opinions, then surely you must already be acquainted with Neko Case. If not, you should stop reading now and immediately go check out her entire catalog. If that’s not feasible, the next best thing would be to spin up her new retrospective release, Wild Creatures. It will give you a wide perspective on her whole career, so you’ll get a good primer on what you’ve been missing. Trust me, everybody needs more Neko in their life.
Now on to our tie.
Up until Friday, the clear winner for me this month was Get On Board, the new record from Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. It’s a collection of the songs of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. This whole record sounds like a party in your living room. Perhaps because it was recorded more-or-less on a whim in Cooder’s son’s living room. It’s crystal clear how much these guys love these songs and enjoy performing them together, and the groove is completely infectious throughout. This would have cinched it as this months pick, except…
…On Friday, along came a new album from Willie Nelson, A Beautiful Time. There’s probably no single musical figure I’ve revered more in my life than Willie. Even so, in my opinion, a lot of his recorded output over the last number of years has been pretty spotty. But this record hits the nail right on the head for me. Good melodies, some masterful lyrical phrases; just the thing I’ve been missing in his more recent work. Beautiful, indeed.
One of this month’s contenders was Mike Clark & The Sugar Sounds with their new release, Moon Rock. I wasn’t familiar with Clark, but it seems that although he’s been around a good while, this is only The Sugar Sounds’ second record. Bluesy, funky R&B. Certainly it makes me want to hear more.
I am also really enjoying Superchunk’s latest, Wild Loneliness. Technically it was released in February, but since I managed to not know anything about it until Pitchfork reviewed it on March 1st, I’m calling it a technicality and allowing it into my March reviews. In fact, it was a veritable coin toss decision not to make it this month’s pick. Top-of-the-line power pop through and through. Nearly every song on it seems like something we would have wanted to cover back in the day when I was playing in the not-very-cover-song-oriented Frankie Big Face band.
I’m giving the aforementioned coin toss, though, to Julieta Eugenio’s debut album, Jump. While I love the spontaneity of live jazz, it’s pretty rare for me to like a jazz record this much. (It’s precisely the spontaneity that I miss.) But for whatever reason, the whole feel of this record —straight ahead sax/bass/drums trio arrangements— has just knocked me out this month.
Big Thief Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
First thing out of the gate I want to say the new Spoon record, Lucifer On The Sofa, is all kinds of good. I have to confess that I’ve never really quite gotten on the Spoon train like seemingly everyone else. I’ve liked them just fine, but I haven’t ever fully understood how so many people were so blown away with them. Figured it was just different strokes, ya know. But I’m totally loving this. If this is what everyone else has been hearing in them all this time, I completely get the reverence.
But that said, coming into February I was pretty sure I already knew what was going to be my pick of the month. I’d been reading for some time that Nightroamer, the new record from Sarah Shook and The Disarmers, would drop on 2/18. I love their previous offerings so much, and was so looking forward to new music from them, that they seemed like a shoo-in for this go ‘round.
Well, the day finally came and, just as I suspected, I do love the album. In my opinion it’s a big step forward in their overall sound, both broader and more polished, but entirely retaining their ragged charm. And of course, Shook’s vocals are as good as ever, if perhaps the tiniest bit too soft in the mix.
What I didn’t see coming was Dragon NewWarm Mountain I Believe In You, the latest release from Big Thief. Despite being a huge fan of Buck Meek’s solo work, I’ve never had more than a passing interest in Big Thief. As with Spoon, I liked Big Thief well enough, but that’s as far as it went. Well boys howdy, did this record ever blow the lid off that attitude. Recorded in multiple locations with different production crews, these 20 songs could have easily been a big mess. Instead, this is almost a study in how wide-ranging a record can be while remaining a consistent whole. So much to love here. Ultimately, I might have trimmed one or two songs for a slightly tighter program, but that’s a quibble, and this is a great record.
Another close call this month between two really good records. The new offering from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, The Alien Coast, is a great listen. As always, I encourage you to check it out, even though it gets edged out of the top slot as my official monthly pick. It’s well worth your time. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be your pick of the month. No law says we all have to agree.
For me, though, this month’s honors have to go to Jake Xerxes Fussell’s latest, Good And Green Again. Suzy and I first heard Fussell more-or-less by accident, walking through one of the galleries at Mass MoCA, where he was performing a pop-up show during the Solid Sound Festival in 2017. We heard the music from down the hall and were drawn to it, to say the least. As we have been ever since. Smooth, easy-going, impeccable country blues. Pour yourself a little sip of bourbon and spin this one up.
Get some music in your ears, everybody!
NOTE: Given the recent controversy over Spotify, I will no longer be linking to their playlists from my website. Going forward, all my links will point directly to the individual artists’ websites, which is really how it should have been from the beginning.
Since I made the effort to do a full year of monthly record reviews, it seems like sort of a given that I should draw the year to a close by picking an overall favorite. I find that I simply can’t do it. First of all, I love all the records I picked each month, as well as the others that I mentioned along the way. Second, I simply can’t find a way to decide between two particular outstanding releases. I can’t get enough of either record, and each is my favorite when I’m listening to it. So the tie for my pick of the picks of 2021 are:
Buck Meek Two Saviors
A line from Pitchforks’ review of this record said “The whole album sounds like it just spilled out of a junk drawer you pulled open looking for something else…,” and that captures the tone better than anything I could come up with on my own. The whole project was recorded, in single takes, in a Victorian house in New Orleans, and that distinct, immediacy of place is palpable throughout. Each song becomes its own comfortably ramshackle space where I’m persistently eager to spend more of my time.
Valerie June The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers
As I said in my original blurb about this record back in March, I’ve been a fan of Valerie June for many years. There isn’t a bad record in her catalog, but this one blows my mind. So much more expansive, without sacrificing any of what made her previous work so wonderful. Every time I finish listening, I just want to listen again. I guess that’s about the best thing you can say about a record.
In May of 1999 my father passed away, 73 days after his 58th birthday. Today, December 31, 2021, is 73 days after my 58th birthday. It’s strange to think about. He seemed like such a man to me, and I still feel like such a kid. Maybe my perception of him is belied by the rows upon rows of shelves full of toys he had in the basement. 😄 But I always thought of him as being so solid. I never feel as sure of myself as I thought he was. I wonder now if that was really true, or if that, too, was just my perception. Certainly, he was a constant consumer of information; a seeker of knowledge. Maybe that was a sign that on the in his mind his ideas, ideals, his ways of thinking, could be just as much in flux as mine can be. In retrospect, that seems more likely to me than I would have guessed at the time. Or maybe now that I’ve arrived at “his” age, I’m just disappointed that I’m not as wise as I was expecting to be. As I thought he was. What I do know beyond any doubt is that he lived a life he enjoyed. He loved his family, loved his friends, loved music, and loved to eat. In those respects, I can assure you the apple has not fallen very far from the tree. Sometime this morning I started living on time he never got. Today it feels even more important to appreciate it. Make it a happy new year, everybody.