Monthly Archives: March 2016

Sound ‘Round: The Louvin Brothers / Johnny Cash

Guilt and grace for your Easter holiday

The Louvin Brothers – Satan Is Real (Capitol, 1959)

Louvin Brothers - Satan is RealLaugh at the gaudy album cover — plywood Satan and all — but these Alabama brothers mean business about their Baptist fatalism. Look no further than the radio-play-as-title-track in which a backslider relays the woes of damnation to the congregation. “Hell is a real place / A place of everlasting punishment.” Yikes. As a devout atheist, I listen not to their sermons but to music as strong as the Louvins’ belief in the Almighty. Whether performing one of their five original hymns or singing the words of the Carter family and others, nearly every track sounds like a classic in the making. Ira and his earthly baritone play the melodies straight while little bro Charlie and his angelic tenor adds harmony and serenity to their heavenly pleas. The music, twangy and spry, is propulsive and buoyant despite lacking a proper rhythm section, and their brevity eases their heavy-handed Bible-thumping. Don’t be fooled by the stainless allure of their sanctimony. Ira was a notorious drinker who abused each of his four wives and ruined many concerts by smashing his mandolin in a drunken rage. Coupled with his ardent love for Christ, such inexcusable flaws make him a hypocrite. But they also make him human, adding resonance and realism to the brothers’ quest for forgiveness. GRADE: A

Key Tracks:  “The River of Jordan” / “There’s a Higher Power” / “Satan is Real”

Johnny Cash – Hymns by Johnny Cash (Columbia, 1959)

Cash album artFrom Jerry Lee to Katy Perry, reconciling faith and fame is a time honored pop trope. As a child of the Bible Belt, Cash spent much of his career grappling with the same dilemma. Despite his sinful ways, no twentieth century musical figure was more suited to sing the gospels than Cash. With a rich baritone as everlasting as the Ten Commandments, he sounds like Yahweh speaking through the burning bush. This is his first collection of religious music and it splits the difference between historic hymns and hee-haw hallelujahs. The four songs penned or co-penned by The Man in Black are rife with overproduction and are the weakest on the record. “It Was Jesus” and its overzealous call-and-response chorus renders the miracles of Christ cliche, and the plodding pace of  “Lead Me Father” stretches its 2:31 runtime to eternity. What’s left are seven songs that get by on the conviction with which Cash recites his lines. The traditional hymns of “Swing Low” and “The Old Account” are performed with such reverence they could kickstart a revival, and “Lead Me Gently Home” pleads for a heavenly escape as well as a guiding hand through the pitfalls of celebrity. Though he’s a country icon, records like this demonstrate his shortcomings, making him more man than myth. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” / “The Old Account” / “Lead Me Gently Home”

Sound ‘Round: Kendrick Lamar / Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman

Noteworthy hip-hop in fun-sized packages

Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (Top Dawg / Interscope)

kendrick untitled unmasteredKing Kendrick surpassed Kanye as hip-hop’s most important contemporary figure because he remains rooted in reality. While Yeezy bemoans the financial ruin of his grotesque fashion line, Lamar understands real people worry about paying the bills. This eight-song compilation composed of B-sides from To Pimp a Butterfly extends his status as the leader of rap’s socially-conscious wing. Musically, it occupies the same space as its predecessor: groove-centric without bombast and jazz-heavy minus the coffee-house snobbery. With a little help from homies Jay Rock, CeeLo and others, he contemplates America’s omnipresent racism and wrestles with the fame he views as a hindrance to his Compton bona fides. Though he’s plenty thoughtful, there’s bile to his rhymes — the fire and brimstone of the opener envisions racial and economic harmony only as a consequence of the biblical Rapture. Looser vibes come on “untitled 06,” where he finds beauty in a woman’s imperfections. “Look at my flaws … And yours are equally valued / You stick out like an alien compared to those around you / And that’s alright because I like it / You and me are the same.” His career is a rare example of talent exceeding lofty ambitions, and this is more of the same. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “untitled 05” / “untitled 06” / “untitled 08”

Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman – Lice (Rhymesayers / Stones Throw, 2015)

aesop rock and homeboy sandmanAt five songs — six counting the remix-as-finale — and less than 20 minutes run time, it’s easy to let the brevity of this free EP undermine its strong points. The beats are deliberately off kilter but sacrifice little in the way of power or creativity, and the samples are playful and upbeat but still malleable to suit their needs. Whether spit-balling life advice over a frantic organ riff or exploring sociology on top of an arpeggiated bass line, the only constant is their real talk meshed with killer one liners. Aesop’s gruff, lumbering delivery stands in contrast to Homeboy’s rapid-fire barbs.The former plays the straight man to the latter’s comedian. The finest example of their routine comes on “Katz,” wherein both relay a list of do’s and don’ts to stay on their good sides. Aesop keeps it real: “Cats had better not graduate doing what they hate the most.” Homebody knocks it out of the park: “Cats had better not smoke in a igloo / Cats had better not fart when their girl is the big spoon.” They’re underground weirdos, but that’s the point. To quote Homeboy as he ponders the meaning of success over a Brian Eno track, “I know that sounds strange, but strange beats normal.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “So Strange Here” / “Katz” / “Get a Dog”

This article appeared in the March 18, 2016 edition of The Monitor.

Sound ‘Round: Willie Nelson / Eric Church

Country boys sing for, and about, their heroes

Willie Nelson – Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (Legacy)

Willie Nelson - Summertime Willie Nelson Sings Gerswhin

Uncle Willie’s creative well is drying up in his old age. Enshrined as one of America’s greatest and most prolific songwriters, the bulk of Nelson’s output this millennium is a mix of covers albums, takes on the American songbook and rehashes from his gargantuan discography. A few are inspired (2009’s “Willie and the Wheel”), some are forgettable (2002’s “The Great Divide”) and the rest splits the difference. This record finds the East-Texas native reinterpreting the works of song maestros supreme, George and Ira Gershwin. During a set of music that’s relaxed and brisk, the Gershwin’s East Coast lounge-pop is refashioned into the kind of Western-troubadour swing Nelson mastered along his journey into country iconography. At 82, his cool wheeze of a voice adds benevolence to the Gershwin’s playful rhymes and serenity to songs dripping with hopeless romanticism. Not everything is good vibes and sunshine. Nelson mutes such festivities on tunes where lost love allows him to ponder a looming date with death. Such melancholy is negated on a pair of duets wherein Sheryl Crow and Cyndi Lauper restore his playful ways and add validity to the ethos of age being nothing but a number. Instead of an exercise in the macabre, he spends his golden years celebrating the golden age of lyricism. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Somebody Loves Me” / “I Got Rhythm” / “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”

Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville, 2015)
Eric Church - Mr. MisunderstoodHis best album in six years gets meta concerning the joys of music. No surprise the instant anthem is “Record Year,” a pseudo-ballad wherein Church gets over an ex by listening to a stack of vinyl she left behind. He digs Hank, Willie, Jones and Jennings but also celebrates James Brown and Stevie Wonder. Label his multi-genre ode to the classics as pandering or merely conceited, but Church knows his audience desires more than honkey-tonk nostalgia. The teenage loser of the title track doesn’t crave the life of George Strait but that of Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy, the latter of which is referred to as “one bad mother.” More impressive than his eclectic iTunes library is a new-found sense of tranquility. While a song titled “Holding My Own” would likely have reeked of macho-rock bombast a few years ago, it is now a tender tribute to an embrace shared with his wife and three-year-old son. The littlest Church appears once more on the closing song to teach the old man a thing or two about life’s profound and simple lessons. “Say ‘I love you’ all day long / And when you’re wrong you should just say so.” May he always perform with the zeal of a child. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Record Year” / “Mr. Misunderstood” / “Round Here Buzz”

This article appeared in the March 11, 2016 edition of The Monitor

Sound ‘Round: Wussy / Arca

Discovery in the presence and absence of sound

Wussy – Forever Sounds (Shake It)

Wussy - Forever Sounds

Into their second decade as America’s best musical group, Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver lead this Cincinnati quintet into its long-gestating drone-rock era. Once a songwriter’s band that eked out a living on sharp verses and steadfast melody while the music simply held water, they’ve evolved into a premiere guitar outfit. Credit the metamorphosis to drummer Joe Klug and steel guitarist John Erhadrt who arrived in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Their heavier, more robust musicianship creates a thoroughfare by which Walker, Cleaver and bassist Mark Messerly morph from quaint indie darlings into fuzz-rock bona fides. Swirling distortion and feedback into an omnipresent mist of sound, they demonstrate the Yo La Tengo influences they always claimed but never fully articulated. The sonic upgrade bolsters and compliments their lyrics, too. “Dropping Houses” hammers with the weight of collapsing infrastructure while the pseudo-psychedelia of “Sidewalk Sale” bakes like the hottest of Midwestern summers. Still, a songwriter’s band they remain, as proven by the album’s closing trifecta of songs. Sandwiching the a-religious foreboding of “Majestic-12” between the tender ballad “Better Days” and resolute finale “My Parade,” their greatness is displayed while tackling their favorite themes: Bruised love, false idols and an unyielding belief that tomorrow will be better. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Dropping Houses” / “My Parade” / “Better Days”

Arca – Mutant (Mute, 2015)

Arca - Mutant

At a time when any dropout dumb enough to construct a half-cooked beat drop wins a lifetime pass to Spring Break festivals, along comes Alejandro Ghersi to upset the established order. With music that’s as bizarre as the demonic humanoid that graces the cover of his second album, don’t expect him to perform at South Padre Island any time soon. That’s not to say the Venezuelan producer doesn’t get around — he collaborated with Kanye on Yeezus and produced a Bjork album. When not working behind the scenes, however, Ghersi is a musical iconoclast. His brand of digital futurism is as detached as it is a-melodic, relishing the eerie appeal of dissonance and counterpoint. No surprise every moment of this 20-song, 63-minute affair is challenging to grasp. The music is so sparse and unpredictable you’d swear the record were an exercise in arbitrary thought. But inspiration is found among the tuneless chaos. The songs with the busiest arrangements show up near the midpoint and allow for a rare moment of ebb and flow, giving Ghersi more tools with which to subvert the status quo. But don’t feel overwhelmed by the music’s progressive austerity. This is a soundtrack from a Class-A weirdo. GRADE: A-

Key Track: “Umbilical” / “Front Load” / “Gratitud”