Monthly Archives: May 2017

Sound ‘Round: Brad Paisley / Willie Nelson

Blue collar country from red state men

Brad Paisley – Love and War (Arista Nashville)

Of course he’s a cornball. That’s not the issue. It’s a matter of his mawkishness muddling his best intentions. Never again will he be as sentimental as 2009’s American Saturday Night, the only mainstream country album to salute Obama and progressive thought. He’s since been tripped up by ill-conceived ambition and retreads of the very clichés he once defied. This modest return to form ain’t perfect, either. The cranky anti-social media song “selfie#theinternetisforver” is loaded with bad gender politics — as if only women post regrettable content on Instagram. His barbs are put to better use on the title track, a righteous anti-war duet with John Fogerty that suffers forgotten vets from Iraq and Vietnam (and let’s pray not Syria or North Korea). Paisley later shames evangelicals who voted for Trump in droves (like the ones from his native West Virginia) because sometimes the worst things are done in God’s name. These are terrible times, no doubt, which is why he enjoys the little things. “Heaven South” digs iced tea, fishing and fireworks while “Last Time For Everything” recalls prom, marriage and fatherhood in that order. And that’s the prevailing theme here: cherish what you have today and love thy neighbor. Call him an idealist, I call him refreshing. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “Heaven South” / “Love and War” / “Drive of Shame”

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child (Legacy)

At 84, Nelson’s musical output hasn’t slowed a bit. This is his ninth album in seven years and third in 14 months. But as the tunes keep a-comin’, his once robust lyricism has waned. Last year’s well executed batch of Gershwin covers signaled he was on the verge of creative bankruptcy. Blame it on another year being closer to the grave or the election of Donald Trump (what’s the difference?), but Uncle Willie is reinvigorated here. Seven of these 13 songs are originals co-written with producer Buddy Cannon and are the sharpest of the bunch. “Delete and Fast-Forward” is a perfect summation of the election (if only it were it that easy, Willie), and “Still Not Dead” is an anti-ageist anthem in which Nelson wakes up to yet another fake news story regarding his own demise (“Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play.”). The six covers get the job done with a little help from his friends. The opening hymn is lifted by Alison Krauss, and the title track features Leon Russell from beyond the grave. The best tribute is reserved for Merle Haggard on the finale in which The Okie from Muskogee is made eternal through music. Credit Nelson for mourning his friend rather than boast of achieving the same goal. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Still Not Dead” / “Delete and Fast-Forward” / “He Won’t Ever Be Gone”

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Sound ‘Round: Gorillaz / Arca

Are we humanz, or are we androidz?

Gorillaz – Humanz (Warner Bros.)

There’s a fine line between unbearable misanthropy and macabre satire. It’s a dichotomy Damon Albarn has long juggled with this virtual band. For every depressive dance anthem (“Clint Eastwood”), there’s an equally ebullient banger (“Feel Good Inc.”). The cartoon characters that front this art project are a distancing mechanism that allows Albarn to fetishize his apocalyptic daydreams, a fantasy world made dangerously real by President Trump. These songs were recorded during the U.S. election and made under the assumption of his eventual victory. Looking for hope through the darkness? The best you’ll get is the out-of-place finale “We Got the Power,” a blast of electro-punk in which Savages’ Jehnny Barth promises to never give up hope — how 2008 of her. But if you’re looking for an anti-hate rally cry, no dice either. The warped gospel of “Hallelujah Money” is as close as things come to a formal protest, border walls and crony capitalism included. Much of the rest is nothing new: horrorcore synths, De La Soul cameo, gallows humor that misses the point. There are reasons to believe, however. Vince Staples brings the heat, Popcaan slithers with glee and Mavis Staples starts a revival. Think there are too many guest spots? Get real. They help Albarn stay out of his own damn way. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Andromeda” / “Saturnz Barz” / “Let Me Out”

Arca – Arca (XL)

The big to-do surrounding Alejandro Ghersi’s third album proper is the introduction of vocals from the former recluse himself. How much that piques your interest still depends on whether or not you dig a-rhythmic, tuneless electronica that aims to challenge and inform rather than entertain. Me, I’m glad he’s finally stepped out of the cocoon his wealthy Venezuelan parents put him in during a childhood spent homeschooled in a gated community. The fact the lyrics are in Spanish will maintain his status as an unknowable figure to much of his burgeoning American audience — not to mention the digital effects that bend his weepy alto into a putty of sound. For the bilingual, or those in Spanish-speaking households, you get a front row seat to his limbic system.  From what I’ve parsed through Google Translate (not an exact science, I know), Ghersi’s lyrical play concerns unrequited love and self-worth, a fitting theme for a gay man who disavows traditional identity politics. “Anoche” (translation, “Last Night”) details a one-sided love that drives him to the point of madness while “Sin Rumbo” (“Aimlessly”) deals with the fallout of dissolved accords. Though his music remains meticulously robotic and deliberately detached, it’s nice to know he just might be a real boy after all. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Reverie” / “Anoche” / “Castration”

Sound ‘Round: Whitney Rose / Angaleena Presley

 Country gals do it their way

Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite (Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers)

Her well-enunciated soprano is pure maple syrup. The songs go heavy on schmaltz and her brand of neo-honky-tonk prefers rhinestones and Chardenet to camouflage and beer kegs. Timid, charming, innocuous. Think Kacey Musgraves if she ditched open mic at Starbucks for karaoke night at Applebee’s (How much that sentence offends you depends on your love for half price mozzarella sticks). This six-song EP has garnered more attention than the pair of full-length records that preceded it, the byproduct of a burgeoning market for diminutive country-pop reminiscent of Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins — folk sympathies sprinkled with lap steel and accordion straight out the bayou. Part of me wants to resent her for pandering. “Analog” and its sepia-toned lyrics disparaging of modern technology appeal to those addicted to nostalgia but render her and old fogy. Dissing Spotify is one thing (you can stream her entire discography there, btw), but averting GMOs is the kind of anti-science paranoia befitting of these terrible times. As a proud Canadian, she should know better. Her spirited individuality serves her better elsewhere. “Three Minute Love Affair” actually clocks in at 3:32, and she dresses down on “My Boots,” adorning second hand attire the day she meets her future mother-in-law. In Canada, that’s called punk rock. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “My Boots” / “Three Minute Love Affair” / “Lookin’ Back on Luckenbach”

Angaleena Presley – Wrangled (Mining Light)

The longer humanity goes without another Pistol Annies record, the more they turn into the high-powered lark my gut tells me they should remain. For the rest of our tedious and brief lives, there’s a far worse fate than accepting Angaleena Presley as a damn fine substitute. Her whiskey warm alto and sharp wit are the perfect instruments to bemoan the plight of blue collar America and the women wrangled in blue collar hell. The title track paraphrases 1 Timothy 2:11 (look it up) to protest biblical and institutional sexism, and God’s instrument meets his maker on “Only Blood,” wherein an abusive preacher receives swift retribution from a bullet delivered by his wife (take that, Timothy). But women are persecuted here beyond the pulpit. The teen mom of “High School” is hated by both genders — “Girls can be mean / Boys don’t want the mom-to-be / They want the prom queen.” Presley’s preoccupation with disaffected ladies stems from her own struggles in a genre reluctant to let women have a seat at the table. That’s why she aspires to join the Nashville hit parade on “Outlaw,” and why she she’s stuck in Georgia selling t-shirts after a gig on “Groundswell.” Here’s hoping she strikes pay dirt. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Outlaw” / “Wrangled” / “Groundswell”

Sound ‘Round: Kendrick Lamar / Body Count

Make way for the prophets of rage

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

Damn. As in, damn, y’all went and elected Trump anyway. As in, damn, America remains a sinister and unwelcoming country for non-white-hetero males. Damn, all men are created equal was always bullshit. Damn, God Bless America is a slogan best reserved for those with privilege. Damn, having too much money really is a bad thing for you. Damn, fame is one hell of an illusion. Damn, how does a Compton kid live comfortably in a cozy new mansion? Damn, no one prays for me anymore since Grandma died. Damn, love is hard to find and harder to maintain. Damn, what use is there believing in God when there’s little else worth believing? Damn, I’m lucky my dad never got locked up or murdered. But, damn, I’m still scared for my family and black families everywhere. Damn, is Geraldo Rivera really that stupid? Damn, he is. Damn, the Bono cameo actually works because he sounds like the immigrant he always hated portraying.  Damn, the beats are less fussy but no less compelling. Damn, what he lacks in bangers he makes up with conviction. Damn, this might just be the record of the year. Damn, don’t expect him to fake humble when he’s the best rapper alive. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “HUMBLE.” / “DUCKWORTH.” / “XXX.”

Body Count – Bloodlust (Century Media)
My lone avid reader (Hi, Dad) knows this is the first metal album featured in this column. I generally avoid the genre — the musicianship is admirable if the final result is stupid and sterile. But Ice-T isn’t a typical metal head. He wrote “Cop Killer” long before playing one on T.V., and is a rapper who loves Sabbath, Suicidal and Slayer. He’s got enough cash to retire but gets his kicks playing in a band with high school bro and guitarist Ernie C. Protest anthems are back in demand with President Agent Orange in power, and this record is full of ‘em. The nihilism of “No Lives Matter” is rooted in America’s omnipresent oppression of the poor, Ice stands his ground on “Black Hoodie,” and the system burns to the tune of a Dave Mustaine solo on “Civil War.” As a pacifist, I hope his violent visions remain fantasy. But my inner realist agrees with him on the title track. “The human is the only animal that actually kills for sport. The ability to kill is as innate as the ability to love.” There’s no room for optimism because these are pessimistic times. Think things are stark now, imagine being black in America. To quote Ice, “I’ve been talking about this shit for 20 years.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “No Lives Matter” / “Civil War” / “Bloodlust”