Monthly Archives: June 2014

Sound ‘Round: Lykke Li / Jack White

Black and blueLykke Li – I Never Learn (Atlantic)lykke li - i never learnThis coy songstress is currently Sweden’s leading exporter of melancholy. A young career thus far marked by perpetual brooding, she broke through stateside in 2011 with album of doom-and-gloom love songs more catchy than reflective. Ditto this concise nine-song sequel which swaps the big-beat production of its predecessor for the cavernous ways of dream pop. There’s plenty to roll your eyes at: the mascara-stained pillow talk, the Tim Burton color scheme, lyrics more corny than scornful. That each track concerns a recent breakup only adds to the melodrama. Once again, she’s rescued by her instincts for a good hook. As cliché as her wounded rhymes are, I find myself intermittently humming half of them and latching on to a worthy melodic nugget in the ones I don’t. She’ll always make music like this – heavy on feeling and bad metaphor. She bodes well for herself on the closing number, which sports a hint of optimism. “If you save your heart for mine / we’ll meet again.” Hopefully she means it. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Gunshot” / “No Rest For The Wicked” / “Sleeping Alone

Jack White – Lazaretto (Third Man)

Jack White - LazarettoThe comments made to Rolling Stone regarding his reticent, and seemingly apathetic, ex-wife, proves Jack White is still spurned by the sudden end of the band that made him famous. “She’s one of those people who won’t high-five me when I get the touchdown,” he said.  And so it is White gets busy living, soldiering on as before – combining the messy crunch of Detroit with the meticulous twang of Nashville. A solidified crew of studio pros at the ready, his second go ‘round as a solo artist is more assured and robust. The riffs are as meaty and dynamic as they’ve been in years, the solos have a frenzied sense of renewal and White’s vocal performance sounds like a man at ease with his second career. An inspection of the lyrics, supposedly reupholstered from a play White penned as a teenager, won’t silence critics weary of his supposed woman-bashing ways. The man in question rebukes the detractors, as would I. But for someone so obsessively cryptic on record and in public, there can be no doubt as to whom he address in the sharpest line on the title track: “When I say nothing / I say everything.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Lazaretto” / “Temporary Ground” / “Black Bat Licorice”


Sound ‘Round: Miranda Lambert / EMA

What doesn’t kill them only makes them blonder

Miranda Lambert – Platinum (RCA Nashville)

Miranda Lambert - PlatinumEvery bit the feminist-as-wife doctrine Beyoncé is, but every bit in love with the kind of economical song structure Beyoncé averted, her fifth album is a brilliant culmination. Bestowed with an audacious title which alludes to superstardom and salon appointments, no Nashville act has been this perceptive, funny and sanguine since Brad Paisley waxed poetic about Obama. But where Paisley occasionally succumbs to the temptations of keg stands and John Deere, Lambert is solely focused on female empowerment, self-image woes and equal say in relationships. She’s explored such themes previously throughout her discography, but she’s no longer brandishing a shotgun to defend herself. Instead, she’s all sass and smarts: eviscerating society’s standards of femininity, telling lustful boys to keep their hands off, boozing with Carrie Underwood, lamenting teen pregnancy and parodying the reckless myopia of youth. Her sharpest moments of wit concern her marriage to Blake Shelton, such as the open letter to Mrs. Elvis Presley. “You and me share a unique position / Married to a man who’s married to attention,” she sings. Hubby is addressed once more, albeit more directly, on a line which meshes Lambert’s every-woman charm with her gunpowder and lead tenacity. “I love my apron, but I ain’t yo mama!” A perfect summation. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: Bathroom Sink” / “Platinum” / “Priscilla

EMA – The Future’s Void (Matador)

EMA - the future's voidShe was irksome three years ago when posing as a martyr for Midwestern apathy – hating your South Dakota birthplace doesn’t make you an individual. She’s still irksome on this busier, noisier follow-up which takes exception with the blogosphere-as-paparazzi and a culture overrun with selfies – a moral imperative Instagram is not. Nevertheless, her musical growth is impressive. Gone are the rudimentary trappings of her once-confessional austerity. Here, she flexes her voice in ways tranquil and throaty, throwing it with abandon against buzz saw guitars and synths bubbly, fussy and exact. Though her subject matter is suspect, the songwriting has turned from scattershot and undeveloped to terse and taut. Her worthiest line comes on her worthiest song – this one about a boy in sheep’s clothing: “He’s gonna act just like a feminist / but leave it up for you to prove.” That low-life lives in the big bad city. Creepers creep everywhere, not just South Dakota. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: So Blonde”/ “Cthulu” / “Satellites

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / The Everly Brothers

Songs to mom, songs from dad

Neil Young – A Letter Home (Third Man)

neil young - a letter homeAlways feisty and with a cause to champion, Young’s disdain of late has been aimed at a music biz perceived as a black hole devoid of “musical authenticity” – a cringe worthy phrase too often used by hipsters and dilettantes. For the auteur, however, the phrase damn well means everything. That this smattering of acoustic covers performed in a Voice-O-Graph at Jack White’s Third Man headquarters sounds straight out of Dust Bowl America is no gimmick. Rather, it’s a scrapbook of memories forged while singing as a child with his now-deceased mother whom he affectionately addresses in the intro. The audio pops and fizzes like a Depression-era anthem, his guitar bends in and out of tune, and his braying timbre is muffled by laughably archaic recording technology. The song selection, an assortment of obscure protests and iconic standards, were written by old-timers who share his enthusiasm for the craft: Dylan, Nelson, Springsteen, Everly and others. The whole thing would reek of fogeyism were it not for Young’s lighthearted and reverential approach to the material. Close to 70 years of age, it’s charming to hear him giddy with approval after a rendition of “On the Road Again.” As said to the former White Stripes front man who accompanies him on piano: “That was a funky one.” Agreed. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Girl From the North Country” / “Crazy” / “Early Morning Rain

The Everly Brothers – Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (Cadence, 1958)

the everly brohters - songs our daddy taught usThe lithe and insatiable rumble of their rockabilly peak is unexpectedly paused on this quaint collection of folk ballads – a progressive artistic choice with risky marketing implications at the time. The songs are penned by writers obscure and unknown ranging from the era of the New Deal to the Round Table, each one worming its way through oceans and bloodlines. The subject matter is often melancholy and the characters often doomed: A son who can’t afford a train ticket home to his dying mother, a murderer who faces the gallows after drowning his wife, a hopeless romantic ever-optimistic despite a lifetime of unrequited love. Moody, no doubt, but the morose verses are counteracted by graceful harmonies brimming with a hymnal and jubilant quality. Such earnest fragility pays dividends on the tunes absent death or wrongdoing – specifically those concerned with familial bonds and the stirring tribute to their Bluegrass home. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Long Time Gone” / “Barbara Allen” / “Kentucky

Sound ‘Round: Lily Allen / tUnE-yArDs

No they won’t back down

Lily Allen – Sheezus (Warner Bros.)

lily allen - sheezusPop’s wisest smartass returns from a family-induced hiatus of five years to mockingly assume the diva throne created by moronic journalists who treat women like sparring ingénues. Lyrical barbs once reserved for the contemptible elements of civilian life – sexually incompetent men, homophobes and societal double standards – are now rightly preoccupied with a shortsighted press. Subsequently, it’s no surprise critics have called her third outing “grumpy” seeing as she spends several tracks lashing out at a tabloid culture which questioned if her Hammersmith accent is legitimate, ugh. And while it would be easy for me to resent her lambasting of basement-dwelling tastemakers who live with mom and dad, I’m more perplexed by my contemporaries missing the humor. Even more discouraging, however, is the scant attention paid to the songs where she’s more concerned with being a doting wife and mother than parodying Kanye’s abrasive alter ego. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Air Balloon” / “Sheezus” / “Hard Out Here

tUnE-yArDs – Nikki Nack (4AD)

tune yards - nicki nackMerrill Garbus wooed critics and ascended the Pazz & Jop poll in 2011 behind an album stuffed with polyrhythms, herky-jerky tempos and firm political convictions tempered by an off-tune ukulele and a big voice Chuck Klosterman called “somewhat androgynous.” The follow-up alters the formula to less gratifying results. Beats grooves, grunts and loops once brazenly robust are now slender, tame and relegated to a supporting role. The signature hum of her four-string has given way to synths which neither identify nor resonate and her once-sprawling vocals are caged in comparison to the range demonstrated on prior albums. Not one for conventionality, however, Garbus finds a new way with a continued focus on melody. The sing-song chorus of “Water Fountain” undercuts its very real and somber plea for third world relief, and the choral-like harmonies in the opener resonates better than any track after the silly interlude about cannibalism. It’s clear her intentions were aimed at an artistic shift as opposed to an outright schism, and the results are enjoyable to a point. By limiting the skillset which defined her, however, she’s done a disservice to her music. “When I see you changing / it makes me think that I can change to,” she sings. But at what cost? GRADE: B+

Key Tracks:Water Fountain” / “Look Around” / “Time of Dark