Sunday, September 13, 2020

Record Roundup: Songs And Singers


What is it about a song - an idealized, often compact blend of melody, harmony, rhythm, and words - that can lift you up, comfort you, and put language to your inchoate emotions? Find your answers where you may, I prefer to embrace the mystery of one of humankind's greatest achievements. Here, then, are some masterful examples of the power of song on albums could help you get through the hellscape of 2020.

Jenny O. - New Truth Jenny O. is a major artist around my way, her pensive and tuneful indie rock always a highlight of any year she puts out something new. In fact, her first full-length album, Automechanic, was on my list of the 100 best albums of the 2010's. Now we have her third album, and first without Jonathan Wilson in the producer's chair. This time around she's working with Kevin Ratterman, who's been in the trenches for years as a band member (Wax Fang), mixer, masterer, engineer, and producer, and who also plays drums on most songs. Almost all the other instruments are played by Jenny herself, along with the layers of background vocals that enrich some of the tracks. But the new collaboration has done nothing to impede her growth as a songwriter and singer, with her melodies sounding more inevitable than every and her voice at its most confident and relaxed. 

Her lyrics have the same conversational, relatable quality that's distinguished her work from the jump. A song like Small Talk is a perfect example: "Case you didn't notice, I been suffering/Some days are better, others are OK/It doesn't matter what you say/I know you're suffering too, like everyone/Tell me how you feel/How'd your brother die?/How you doing now?/Small talk, small talk." There's also a new dreaminess in the bossa-psych of Color Love, with it's aching melody and distorted guitar. And then you get a song like Even If I Tried, a jangle-pop wonder which should be played on public radio stations across the land - at any other time it would be a huge hit. And if you go to her Bandcamp ASAP, you can still grab a copy on beautiful "Professor Plum" vinyl. When it arrives, just do as Jenny says in Color Love: "Put on a record, let it move you and turn it over/Listen to it all the way through."

Richard Aufrichtig - Perfume Cigarettes
"Take my hand, for a minute/If you can/There's a world in my pocket/And I cannot stop it," Aufrichtig sings in Fragment, which kicks off this companion album to last year's Troubadour No. 1, and there may be no better metaphor for his seemingly endless ribbon of creativity. Consider the fact that all of these songs were drawn from a pool of 400 songs Aufrichtig wrote in his 20's! Like Troubadour No. 1, Aufrichtig worked on Perfume Cigarettes with Josh Kaufman, the genius multi-instrumentalist and producer who is also one-third of Bonny Light Horseman, and the symbiotic relationship between song and sound is as complete as it was on the earlier album. This one is slightly more relaxed of vibe, however, with spare arrangements that mesmerize on their own while highlighting Aufrichtig's warm, wise vocals. Take So Far Gone, for example, which is just bass, drums, and a reverb-drenched piano played with the wide-splayed power of Dylan warming up in Don't Look Back while Aufrichtig takes us to a church built of memories. The whole album is a journey, touching down in New Mexico, Paris, California, on to New York City and "that holy sound," as Aufrichtig sings in RNK 3, which ends the album on a reflective note in an ambient cloud of wordless vocals and and echoing drum machine. Let this album osmose into your soul, which will be forever enriched in the process.

Caitlin Pasko - Greenhouse Speaking of ambient clouds, Pasko's whole album is essentially a formation of sky-sailing soft events, mostly made up of synths and with her voice floating through the haze. A cross between art song and electro-folk, Greenhouse is an album made for lying in the grass and watching the chiaroscuro of life go by your closed eyelids. 

The Dead Tongues - Transmigration Blues While this might be more conventional than the haunted Appalachia of Ryan Gustafson's earlier work, it's also his most assured - and even lush - album yet. It's one long woodsy swoon, with a touch of Keith Richards swagger, full of memory, yearning, and regret. Sheer beauty, and when that tube-driven guitar solo leaps out of Nothingness And Everything it's a startling reminder of the deep well Gustafson draws from for his music.

Alex Rainer - Time Changes I know Alex mainly as a member the team at Unison Media, who keep me in the loop on things like what the JACK Quartet is up to - or that amazing Miyamoto Is Black Enough album that I reviewed recently. But he is also an exceptionally fine folk singer/songwriter and Time Changes, his first album in four years, is loveliness itself. While Nick Drake or Robin Pecknold might come to mind when listening to his intricate finger-picking and slightly husky voice, there's an emotional ease here that is worlds away from Drake's haunted searching or the existential questions of a Fleet Foxes track. Beneath the calm surface, however, lies hidden strength that you can draw on as you navigate these difficult times. If your steps are faltering, take Rainer to heart when he sings on Take One: "Don’t waste what you’re given/Just do what you got to do/And don’t worry, good things/will come to you soon." Good things, indeed - like this wonderful album. Let it come to you soon.

Emma Swift - Blonde On The Tracks That Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the 20th and 21st centuries needs no further proof than this marvelous collection by Swift, an Australian transplant to Nashville who released an EP of limpid Americana in 2014. Everything I said above about the power of song seems to have been what attracted Swift to this material as she struggled though her own dark times and she sings each one as if it were her own. Much of the album was recorded in the last few years, aided by the sensitive production and musicianship of Pat Sansone, and a band of Nashville all-stars: Jon Radford (drums), Jon Estes (bass), and Thayer Serrano (pedal steel). But it wasn't until the combination of her tour being cancelled ("I lost my job," as she puts it - correctly) and Dylan's release of I Contain Multitudes that Swift was able to summon the impetus to release the album, quickly recording her own version, which reveals the song as an all-time great even beyond the original, and Simple Twist of Fate to fill out the track list. Living with cult legend Robyn Hitchcock, who has been Swift's musical and romantic partner for several years (here they are performing Dylan together in 2016), and who also contributes guitar, no doubt helped get these last tracks done. 

But the true star is Swift's voice, clear as an Appalachian spring, or whatever the Australian equivalent may be, as that is from whence she hailed before settling in Nashville. She seems hardwired into the emotional through-line of each song, whether stone-cold classics like Queen Jane Approximately or neglected gems like Going Going Gone. Perhaps even more audacious than jumping right into I Contain Multitudes is Swift's magisterial take on Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Her singing is both finely concentrated and at ease throughout its length, jaw-dropping when you think about it. Swift is far from running out of gas with Dylan, either - when she performed the album live at Grimey's a few weeks ago, she added a deeply affecting take on I've Made My Mind Up To Give Myself To You, another track from Rough and Rowdy Ways. I'm hitting refresh on Bandcamp, hoping she releases it as a single. Unlike many covers albums that arise from a place of contrivance, this album carries with it the weight of something that simply had to be. If you're looking for "folklore" from someone named Swift, look no further than Blonde On The Tracks.

Christopher Trapani - Waterlines Avid readers of AnEarful will be familiar with my rhapsodic response to Trapani's brilliant piece, whether in concert or on record, connecting instantly with his collage-like approach to old blues and country songs. So I'm like a kid in a candy store as I absorb a second world-class recording, this one by Belgium's Ictus Ensemble featuring Christie Finn, an American soprano. Their version differs somewhat from Talea Ensemble's world-premiere recording and may even have benefited from their example in that it's a bit more naturalistic. If you didn't know Trapani was behind it, you could almost think this was just a group of supremely skilled musicians who had an unusual approach to these songs that they loved. A bonus on the Ictus album is Trapani's Two Folksong Distortions, which has him deconstructing Wayfaring Stranger and Freight Train to remarkable effect. As sung by Liesa Van der Aa who also plays violin, accompanied by Tom Pauwel's guitars, they have a wonderfully hazy quality, like a photo printed out of register. This is my first exposure to Van der Aa and now I want to hear her interpret Dylan! In the meantime, I'll enjoy her work here while also exploring her album, Easy Alice, released this past February. It's so rare that the cream of contemporary composition gets more than one recording. Show your appreciation for this embarrassment of riches by diving deep into both versions of Waterlines.

Billie Eilish - Live At Third Man Records Billie Eilish became as famous on eBay as she is everywhere else when Third Man Records released the first pressing of this acoustic show in-store only. As I don't live in Nashville or Detroit, nor have infinite funds, I bided my time and, voila, look what Record Store Day brought me! So was the 10-track LP worth the wait? Mostly yes. While I could tell that her songs (co-written with her brother Finneas, who accompanies her here) had the bones to be presented in any number of arrangements, it's nice to be proven right by these stripped-down versions. Bury A Friend, Come Out And Play, and I Love You probably work best but there's no sore thumbs here. Her stage presence is great, too, warm and slightly bemused by all the love she's getting from the audience. The only caveat here is the audience, in fact, as they are very loud when showing their appreciation or when singing along. This works a treat in my bootleg from Sydney's Horndern Pavilion in front of 5,500 people, but in this setting it seems a little...extra. This could have been helped in the mix, but part of the point of these Third Man recordings is that they are raw and uncut. As a souvenir of Eilish's first flush of stardom, I think this will only accrue value, and I don't mean monetarily. That's possible as well, with all 17,000 copies of this pressing already in the hands of either happy owners (like me) or resellers. If you're a fan, it's a must.

You may also enjoy:
Record Roundup: American Harvest
Record Roundup: Cornucopia Of Americana And Folk

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