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.
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.
Michael Hurley, who turned 80 on December 20th, put out a great new album this month, The Time Of The Foxgloves. It sounds like he’s just sitting out on my front porch playing through a batch of new tunes along with any musicians who might happen down the street as the afternoon rolls by. I feel like it will be one I listen to pretty regularly when the weather turns and I’m sitting out on the porch myself. But however worthy it may be, it’s not quite my pick of the month.
I’m sure it says something about my current state of mind that for two months running my pick is an instrumental record. I guess these more contemplative albums just fit my mood as Suzy and I are progressively shutting ourselves down again to wait out the omicron storm.
And so it is that this month’s pick is Phil Cook’s All These Years. According to Cook, he used his time during the initial Covid shutdown to dedicate himself to “re-learning” the piano. The result is a mostly quiet record of solo piano pieces. Elements from all his usual influences are here, from folk to jazz to gospel, blended into an intimate, meditative whole. Beautiful.
Since I went off on a tangent last month about the Beatles in general, and specifically the new deluxe edition of the Let It Be album, I’m not going to spend a lot of time this month telling you how much I love Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary, “Get Back”. Suffice to say that Suzy and I watched the entire 7-hour (8-hour?) series in less than 24 hours, and the first thing Suzy said when we finished was, “I’m going to need to see this again.” Brilliant. It’s streaming on the Disney+ service. If you don’t have that, this is the perfect opportunity to impose on a friend or relative who does.
As far as this month’s record releases go, there were quite a few good ones to pick from. Houndmouth,Curtis Harding, Courtney Barnett, and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats all brought us some seriously good music this month. I’m especially fond of Snail Mail’s Valentine. And I imagine it would come as no surprise to anyone reading this if I said my pick of the month was the new offering from Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Raise The Roof. Both these records are excellent, and will no doubt be in steady rotation in our playlist.
But this month’s honors go to Sally Anne Morgan’s new album, Cups. Exceedingly pared-down, spare arrangements of instrumental music. Identifiable as “folk” primarily by way of the chosen instrumentation, each tune has an almost hypnotic effect (in the best possible sense of the phrase). For me, it conjures echoes of Phillip Glass, Michael Hedges, Harry Manx, and perhaps Laurie Anderson in a power outage. Although Morgan has apparently been around for some time, I’m not familiar with any of her previous work. But this album is definitely a keeper.
First, October 15 brought us the Beatles’ new Let It Be: Special Edition – Super Deluxe box set. This is, without question, the October ‘21 release I’m going to listen to most over the rest of my life. I know this because it has been, in its previous form(s), one of the records I’ve listened to most over the *past* years of my life. But that’s exactly why it won’t be my pick of the month. Obviously these little reviews I’m doing don’t have any rules other than the ones I decide to set for myself, but I’m disqualifying this box set because, in my mind, the Beatles effectively pose an insurmountable hurdle to comparison. In general, I hate terms like “favorite” and “best” in relation to bands and music; they’re too amorphous to have any meaning. But that said, if I judge any given new release, from any given month, next to any given Beatles album, the Beatles are almost certainly going to win out. It’s just not a level playing field. I’m also disqualifying it because, ya know, it was actually recorded 51 years ago.
The second caveat is that I could literally flip a coin between the other two records I considered this month.
I’m putting Jackson+Sellers’ Breaking Point in the runner-up position based solely on the fact that at one point in one song it got a little too frenetic for me while I was cooking. That’s right; the only thing I can find wrong with this record is that there are a few seconds on it that are not 100% conducive to following a recipe. So don’t overlook it. It’s a great record. In any room of my house except the kitchen, it might have been my pick of the month.
Taking all this into consideration, then, Pokey LaFarge takes the honors this month with In The Blossom Of Their Shade. I must admit I’m marginally less enamored with LaFarge as his music has strayed farther and farther from the ‘30s/‘40s sound of his first years. Even so, I’m always eager to hear his next record and I’m never disappointed when I do. The band is always tight, the rhythm is always directly in the pocket, and my head has absolutely no choice other than to bob along with every single tune. Go ahead, I dare you. Try to sit still through this record. You know you can’t.
The best individual song from September has to be Parker Millsap’s version of Vigilante Man from the Woodie Guthrie tribute album Home In This World. In addition to a top-notch musical arrangement, the idea of updating the lyrics for today’s times —in true folk-music tradition— is a stroke of genius. And man, those screaming guitars come in and do their job at just precisely the right moment.
Another high-water mark for the month was the release of a found musical document. Thirty-one years ago, Emmylou Harris and (her then band) The Nash Ramblers performed a concert at TPAC in Nashville. The show was recorded, the tape was shelved, and nobody ever thought about it again. Until now, with the release of Ramble In Music City. The Nash Ramblers period is one of my favorite points in Emmy’s career, and their At The Ryman record, which was released in their heyday, is one of only a handful of live recordings I really love. Any other time, Ramble In Music City would quite likely have been my pick of the month.
But this month the nod has to go to Adia Victoria with her new record, A Southern Gothic. It’s laid back, bluesy, swampy, and something in her voice lends just the slightest hint of a jazz undercurrent to a portion of the proceedings. Several guest artists make appearances throughout, adding exactly what each song calls for and keeping the flow going, without ever calling unnecessary attention to themselves. Every song grabs my full attention, and I want to hear them all over and over again. What else can you want from a record?