Here we go starting off the new year with yet another artist I never heard of before, even though Big Sigh is Marika Hackman’s sixth album. Of course that just means I have five albums to go back and delve into, because this one certainly makes me curious to hear more.
I’m liking everything about this record more and more on repeated listenings. I’m especially taken with her lyrics, which exist mostly in varying shades of bleak. Even singing about a desirable, lusty, romantic encounter, her phrases and metaphors are almost uniformly ominous (and the name of that particular track is “Slime”). But it’s not all about compelling lyrics. Her melodies are catchy, and the arrangements for every song are spot-on.
I’m expecting this one to stay in heavy rotation for a long while.
More than 20 years after his last release, Peter Gabriel picks up right where he left off with his new album, I/O. Judging from much of what I’ve read, lots of people are apparently a little miffed about that, figuring there should have been more of a progression after such a long wait. I’m personally more aligned with the notion that he left off at a pretty damned good spot, and I’m plenty glad to get more of it
For anyone who may not be aware, the album is actually two different mixes of a dozen new tunes: a “bright-side” mix, each song of which was released on twelve consecutive full moons, and a “dark-side” mix, each song of which was released on the corresponding new moons. For whatever it’s worth, I’m mostly partial to the dark-side mixes, but both are pretty great. (There’s also a surround sound Dolby Atmos mix, which I like less, but as I don’t have a surround sound system to hear it on, I don’t really feel qualified to judge.)
To be completely honest, I feel like there are a few lyrical rough spots here and there throughout the record. On the other hand, I kind of can’t stop listening, and my nitpicks bother me less and less over time. On the whole this is very easily one of my favorite albums of the year.
The only new record that got repeated listens from me in the month of November was Kurt Vile’s Back To Moon Beach. Vile apparently refers to this release as an EP. I’m not going to quibble with the artist, but there are 9 tracks here with a runtime of 52 minutes (on the physical album, 6 songs at around 40 minutes), so don’t pop this on thinking you’ll give it a quick spin while you’re waiting in line at a hot dog cart or something.
As has generally been the case with Vile’s music, especially in recent years, the songs here consist of relatively simple, mostly mellow grooves that sort of wash over you, in support of quasi-spoken-word lyrics that seem nearly stream-of-consciousness, yet simultaneously self-aware and keenly observant. And maybe just a shade darker this time than in the past. This collection even includes a cover of Must Be Santa that comes across, at least to me, as slightly on the melancholy side. But maybe I’m just reading that into it; I happen to be a guy who thinks the world needs a few more pensive Christmas tunes.
The Feelies Some Kinda Love: Performing The Music Of The Velvet Underground
We had an unusually busy October, so I have to admit I missed listening to a number of the month’s new releases. But I think there was really only one contender this time around, anyway.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nobody else out there who rocks the roll quite like The Feelies. Pretty much anything they’ve ever done is solid gold in my book. So it is that, although I generally don’t like live albums or tribute albums, I am nevertheless recommending Some Kinda Love: Performing The Music Of The Velvet Underground as this month’s pick. I can’t think of a better band for The Feelies to cover than the Velvets, and there’s probably nobody better to cover the Velvets than The Feelies. It’s a perfect matchup of musical sensibilities from both sides of the equation. Much to their credit, it’s pretty obvious The Feelies recognize this, as evidenced by the fact that they clearly aren’t attempting to clone the original versions of these songs. Rather, they strike the perfect balance of faithfulness to the material and the infusion of their own unique aesthetic. I don’t have a lot more to say about it, except that this one definitely deserves your attention.
September was a bit of a weird month. Toward the end of August I saw the list of upcoming releases, and it was chock full of new goodies from quite a few of my favorite artists. But alas, as they came rolling in over the course of the month I didn’t find most of them to be very interesting at all. The only one that really grabbed my attention is Willie Nelson’s latest, simply called Bluegrass. Way, way back in the day when I was playing bluegrass in Touch Of Grass and The Southland Ramblers, we covered Willie Nelson songs routinely. But somehow it never occurred to me that Willie himself might make a bluegrass album someday. But here it is, and it’s pretty great. Good song choices and an absolutely stellar lineup of bluegrass pickers.
Adding to the weirdness, I also really like More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith. Generally speaking I mostly find tribute albums to be kind of all-over-the-place and, perhaps understandably, more than a little uneven. But this one is good throughout, and also offers up what is very easily my favorite individual song this month: John Prine & Kelsey Waldon’s duet on Love At The Five And Dime. Every single thing about this track is perfect.
And so it is that, as so often happens, despite any expectations I may have had, my pick of the month for September comes from someone I never heard of before, Jenny Owen Youngs. Her new release, Avalanche, is apparently her third, and together with a few EPs along the way, it’s a catalog I definitely need to explore in more depth. Back during the thick of the pandemic I happened upon and fell in love with Becca Mancari’s first record (from 2017), Good Woman, and then as her subsequent records came out she ventured onto a musical path that led away from what I’d loved about that record. While I don’t want to take away from Youngs’s own originality, and she certainly doesn’t sound like a Mancari clone, one of the first things through my mind during my initial spin of Avalanche was that it starts to fill in the space where I had hoped future Mancari records would be. I also hear echoes of Edie Brickell, and maybe just the slightest hint of Regina Spektor in Youngs’s vocals. There’s not a bad song on Avalanche. The lyrics are solid and interesting, the melodies infectious, and the production is top-notch. And it turns out she’s originally from Newton, NJ, about 20-ish minutes from our house. We’re practically neighbors.
Buck Meek Haunted Mountain and Gregory Alan Isakov Appaloosa Bones
Long time readers (haha! I say that to make myself feel like I have readers) may recall that Buck Meek’s last record, Two Saviors, was tied with Valerie June’s The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers as my favorite recordings of 2021. Well, I still love Two Saviors, and now I also love Meek’s latest, Haunted Mountain. Lyrically this collection doesn’t grab me quite as much as Two Saviors did, but I’m very taken with Haunted Mountain’s more expansive musical production. These arrangements bring a fuller sound without sacrificing any of the delicacy and spontaneity I associate with Meek’s solo work.
And on the topic of arrangements, I have read that Gregory Alan Isakov had originally intended his new album to be a stripped-down, “lo-fi” rock-n-roll record, but the songs wouldn’t cooperate. While I do enjoy speculating on exactly what an Isakov rock-n-roll record might sound like, I couldn’t be happier to find that Appaloosa Bones hews more closely to the path forged by his previous effort, Evening Machines. I can’t get enough of the way Isakov marries his relatively straightforward, down-to-earth lyrics to treatments that range from the simplest, contemplative strummed guitar to broadly atmospheric, often nearly surreal, soundscapes.
Haunted Mountain is, overall, the more spritely of these two picks. Spin it up while you’re enjoying a sunny afternoon. Then ease into Appaloosa Bones when you’re sipping a cocktail on the porch, watching the sun set.
Well folks, due to prepping for, attending, and catching up after the Newport Folk Festival, it took me longer than normal to listen through the month’s new releases. So now that we’re halfway through August, I’m finally getting around to posting the July episode of my little monthly reviews.
Cut Worms released a new self-titled album I enjoyed. Straight-ahead pop-y tunes delivered in comfortable arrangements, it’s an easy listen for a summer afternoon. Similarly, Colter Wall’s new record, Little Songs, retains his signature lived-in vibe throughout. As I’ve said before about Charley Crockett, I’m not 100% sure I can distinguish one Colter Wall album from another, but I really do love his sound when I’m listening to it. Also on point in the relaxed listening category is Dream Box, the latest from guitarist Pat Metheny. Sorted from a forgotten folder Metheny found on his computer while on the road last year, these are ultra-stripped-down versions of standards, covers, and original compositions played on two guitars: Metheny with Metheny, adding overdubs to the tracks in the found files.
July also brought us Elizabeth Moen’s new release, For Arthur. This five-song EP is a tribute to Arthur Russell, a musical prodigy, cellist, pianist, hippie, and spiritual seeker who passed away in 1992. Russell’s music came across my radar via The Tweedy Show, the nightly Instagram show put on by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his family during the pandemic shutdown, as they often covered Russell’s songs. Moen’s record shows these songs in a new light, without losing any of the very personal nature of the originals.
Speaking earlier of the Newport Folk Festival, however, this month’s pick absolutely has to be Joni Mitchell At Newport. I’ve been fortunate to experience an awful lot of indescribably transcendental musical moments in my life, many of them at Newport Folk, but very few even remotely compare to the moment Mitchell walked on stage in 2022. Fifty-three years after her last Newport Folk appearance, 22 years after her last public concert, and 7 years after having been stricken with a brain aneurysm, a live performance from Joni Mitchell seemed, at best, entirely unlikely. And yet that’s exactly what happened. The experience was so profoundly moving that Suzy and I struggle to talk about it to each other even today.
Now, I’m not going to claim that this album will convey that same experience to you. I can guarantee it won’t. In fact, I’ll admit that I will almost certainly listen to all the other records I listed above more often than I listen to this one; Joni Mitchell At Newport is a good record, not a great one. But it’s my pick of the month because it is the best document available of one of the best moments of my life, plain and simple.
Before I mention anything about Isbell’s new album, I’ll take a minute to point out that Dan Tyminski released a new record, God Fearing Heathen, this month. It’s his first straight-ahead bluegrass record in something like 15 years, and it’s a good one. Tyminski always has a top-notch band, and if there’s a better singer in bluegrass music today I don’t know about it. If you have any love at all for bluegrass music, give this one a listen.
I think it’s pretty safe to assume that anybody who’s taking the time to read my little reviews every month is probably already familiar with Jason Isbell, so there’s probably not much I can say about his latest release, Weathervanes, except that it’s another solid collection of great tunes. That famous quote from Tom Waites, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things,” always comes to mind when I listen to Isbell. His melodies are great and he’s an absolute master at using just a few simple words to capture the plight of the downtrodden, including whatever vague notions of hope they might harbor. But I’m sure you already know this. You don’t need me to point it out. Just go listen.
The first time I heard of Parker Millsap was when he opened a Lake Street Dive show at Terminal 5 in November 2014. I enjoyed him well enough –probably even more than usual for an opening act– but I wasn’t exactly bowled over by him. Over the years, though, he’s popped up more and more, especially on the few SiriusXM channels I listen to most, and his work has steadily improved and steadily grown on me. In September of 2021 I touted his version of Vigilante Man, from the Woody Guthrie tribute album Home In This World, as the best song that month, even though the album itself was not my pick.
Well, this month I’m going all in on Millsap’s new release, Wilderness Within You. Gotta admit, the first time I heard the first few lyrics of the first tune, Greetings and Thanks, I thought to myself ‘okay, this is not going anywhere good.’ And to be honest, I still think it’s the weakest song of the bunch. But for what it is (which is Millsap’s take on a traditional prayer of the Iroquois Confederacy), it’s better than it should be, and it serves well enough as a springboard into an album thematically focused on the natural world and our modern-day relationship to it. Or lack of relationship, as the case may be. The range of musical styles, while impressive, results in a slightly-less-than-cohesive record overall. But the individual songs are generally so strong, and the production so well done, that I completely forgive any nitpicks I might have. This record makes me look forward to whatever Millsap does next and, when it comes down to it, that’s all you can ask for.
We discovered Bella White soon after Rounder (re-)released her very bluegrass-inflected first record, Just Like Leaving, in 2021. Her voice – equal parts Sarah Shook and S.G. Goodman – immediately caught my attention and the album instantly went into heavy rotation. I especially remember listening to it a number of times in the car as we drove to NC and back for a long July 4th weekend, the first time we dared to take a post-pandemic road trip.
So it was with some excitement that I dropped the needle (so to speak) on Among Other Things, her latest album. To say the very least, I am not disappointed. Rooted solidly in the alt-country universe, this release offers only the faintest nod to the bluegrass tinges of the previous record, but all the elements of White’s wise-beyond-her-22-years songwriting are still intact: Deftly-observed ruminations about broken people navigating broken relationships and dreams in a casually indifferent world. The themes aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but that’s the whole point.