The Red Headed Stranger and friends.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – Django and Jimmie (Legacy)
Named for pioneering jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and country forefather Jimmie Rodgers, this duo’s sixth outing meshes end-of-life romanticism with geriatric gusto in unequal measure. Their voices are withered by age and the decades spent emulating the outlaw lifestyle, meaning more than half of these 14 ditties lean soft and tender to the point of medium rare. Though much of the music’s chicka-boom swing doesn’t inspire either, their macabre jokes do. “Live This Long” finds them wishing they had ingested less pills and booze in their younger years so as to diminish the aches of aging, while Willie’s tale about Johnny Cash and a casket fits the bill just fine. The biggest laughs occur when they let go of their elderly inhibitions – like the one where they share a joint in apathy as the rest of the world goes to hell. “It’s all going to pot / whether we like it or not,” they sing. Standing on eternity’s doorstep, they still keep it cool. GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “It’s All Going to Pot” / “Django and Jimmie” / “Live This Long”
Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie – December Day (Legacy, 2014)
Every cut here resonates with an off-the-cuff charm, as if Willie and his big sister drew songs from a hat and decided to roll with the first idea birthed by their collective talents. Their source material is an amalgam of the American Songbook, Depression-era instrumentalism and Nelson’s own gargantuan discography. Irving Berlin gets credit on half of the opening four songs, including an amiable take on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” before a tip of the cap to Django Reinhardt, Nelson’s guitar icon. From there, the subject matter turns dour — as most records that grapple with mortality are wont to do. Beginning with “I Don’t Know Where I Am Today” and running through the finale, Nelson relays the fragileness of age, the fleeting joy of existence and the delicate nature of relationships. Where such topics could turn grim at worst or merely blasé, the musicianship is inviting, hospitable and warm. Credit Bobbie, whose piano work uplifts and accentuates Nelson’s wilted drawl. GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” / “Laws of Nature” / “Who’ll Buy My Memories?”
A young man’s game indeed.
Young Thug – Barter 6 (Atlantic / 300 Entertainment)
This would–be stab at Weezy’s long running Carter franchise looks to be his final mixtape before a proper debut set for release in the fall. He’s less spastic than on last year’s excellent Black Portland collab with hype man Bloody Jay. Instead of tightly-wound rhymes as succinct as the trap beats he once fancied, his addiction to madness and bullet-quick non sequiturs has subsided into a syrupy mix of auto-tune and ego. The music has slowed and stretched, but it allows the best rapper alive plenty of chances to pick up the slack. His puns are on point: “I call the spot elementary cuz I keep a K around here.” His boasts are laced with truth: “I can’t stop rapping but I can’t stop stacking figures.” His take on current events rightly reiterates what you already knew: “R.I.P. Mike Brown / Fuck the cops.” GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “Can’t Tell” / “Dream” / “Amazing”
Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife (Interscope)
Brat rap straight out Elvis’ hometown of Tupelo, these rookies brag about burning through cash as if they were lifers at Goldman Sachs. To quote 19-year-old Swae Lee: “I make my own money, so I spend it how I like.” Along with cohort, Slim Jimmy, these partners in party pile on enough purp and molly to fuel their hedonism through one club anthem after another. The subject matter is soft: proclamations regarding bank accounts, women, fast cars and similar perks of climbing up America’s economic ladder. I’m not a hater. In fact, I’m enticed – especially on the track where Nicki Minaj makes a cameo in the guise of a stripper. What intrigues me more than a night of endless debauchery is their instinct for melody. I’m clueless as to what “Unlock the Swag” means, but that hasn’t stopped me from humming the hook ad nauseam. Don’t confuse their sophomoric themes for vapid fun. Instead, stick around for the finale with a title that doubles as a creed worth believing. It’s called, “Safe Sex and Paychecks.” GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “No Flex Zone” / “Throw Some Mo” / “No Type”
Calling ’em like they see ’em.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
An indie kid sees the light – hallelujah. Barnett generated buzz with last year’s double EP that was heavy on lyricism without the musical bite to match. When her wittiness waned, she strummed and hummed as the songs fell off a cliff. No more. Nary a note is wasted on this full-length debut, which finds her and the boys in the band sounding taut and invigorated. Guitars buzz and whine, while the percussion adds depth to match Barnett’s little-voice-that-can. Come for the riffs, stay for her songwriting full of internal rhyme, deadpan humor and deft one-liners. So gifted is Barnett, she can pull off a character study or an autobiography. The opener about a fedup office worker is the former. The one where she almost drowns in a pool while attempting to impress another swimmer is the latter. She’s at her best in the gray area, where she finds herself on “Despreston.” What begins as an open house in a crummy neighborhood becomes an existential crisis when Barnett discovers a picture of a Vietnam vet left behind by the home’s deceased owner. “And I can’t think of floorboards anymore / … I wonder what she bought it for.” Surrealism or reality? Who cares. It’s damn-near perfect. GRADE: A
Key Tracks: “Depreston” / “Dead Fox” / “Pedestrian at Best”
James McMurty – Complicated Game (Complicated Game)
Don’t play this for fun. Shit gets heavy after the opening count off. From there, this Fort Worth native spends 4:37 detailing a marriage which crumbles along with the family business. Next comes a tune where he attempts to rekindle the passion of youth on his wedding day. Both are gut wrenching in their portrayal of broken love and remarkable for their campfire ballad tenderness. So goes the rest of his ninth album, named for the song where his muse sleeps with a valet while McMurty travels to the next gig. His highway addiction doubles as an escape from damaged love and adds resonance to the songs where he looks for tranquility afar. Though he ain’t got a place in this world, he still searches for one in North Dakota, Florida and Appalachia. As his career nears its third decade, there’s no telling when or where he’ll find what he’s looking for. He comes awful close with a verse about a down-and-out fisherman: “Staring down that long steep slope / We gather ‘round and we hold out hope / Because at the end of the rope / There’s a little more rope sometimes.” GRADE: A
Key Tracks: “You Got to Me” / “Copper Canteen” / “Cutter”
Tomatoes are delicious.
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Mercury Nashville)
As bro-country propagator Keith Hill compares female country artists to tomatoes in the freeze-dried salad that is Nashville radio, along comes Musgraves to convert you to veganism. It’s no coincidence the go-to anthem here is “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” a verbal “Fuck you” to the corporate country machine run by asinine chauvinists like Mr. Hill. Bidding adios to out-of-touch suits, she concerns herself with skewering small town America on a litany of home-cooked puns. “Biscuits” tells nosy neighbors to mind their own, while the title track tackles society’s double standard by which it views women. The best line: “It ain’t that I don’t care about world peace / But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.” That’s not to say she doesn’t aim the pen at herself. Despite her gripes with Main Street, she saves the best love song for her hometown of Golden, a blip on the map in eastern Texas. Therein she details the perks of fame – expensive wine, sightseeing on tour, befriending Willie Nelson – only to reaffirm what this homesick critic knows all too well, “It don’t matter where I’m going / I still call my hometown home.” GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “Good Ol’ Boys Club” / “Biscuits” / “Pageant Material”
Sunny Sweeney – Provoked (Thirty Tigers, 2014)
The title implies a blast of femme-first country a la Miranda when she was still packing gunpowder and lead. The actuality splits the difference between hell-raising honky-tonk and starry-eyed balladry that overstays its welcome. The opener spills the beans on a two-timing husband and is followed by a toast to ladies who indulge their wild side. “Good girls go to heaven / Bad girls go everywhere,” she sings in her nasally drawl. It’s a dynamite one-two punch. From there, things get corny on three-straight slow numbers concerning self-empowerment and lessons learned. My condensed track list skips to the one about a bad romance she can’t quit and continues to the finale where she rhymes “raise your glass” and “working class” with “kiss my ass.” GRADE: A-
Key Tracks: “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” / “Bad Girl Phase” / “You Don’t Know Your Husband”