Monthly Archives: July 2017

Sound ‘Round: Steve Earle / Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

The ballads of the Outlaw and the Family Man

Steve Earle – So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Warner Bros.)

There’s a cantankerous side to Steve Earle that’s always made me keep my distance even while sympathizing with his politics. Anti-death penalty, yup. Anti-war, amen. But the deal breaker was a stiff outlaw disposition that rendered his music a demonstration in attitude over the savvy songwriting he displayed decades ago. These dozen songs comprise Earle’s most enjoyable and consistent album this century. Go figure it happened when he at long last softened his crusty side. Why now, at 62 years old? Because a life of hard living ain’t worth spit. In fact, the cons are many and listed plainly on the opening title track. Home is nonexistent. Friends are a luxury. Rewards are unfulfilling. Mom is a snitch. Old habits die hard, which is why much of the first half reeks of cigarette smoke, old whiskey and turgid riffs. He’s too old to outrun the lawman, but he’s seasoned enough to pen a convincing ballad. The best song knows “falling is the easy part” when it comes to love. Another knows the toughest man ain’t too tough to cry. And yet another knows the one person in this godforsaken world worth pleasing is Mama. Sounds like Mama Earle did good. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “This Is How It Ends” / “You Broke My Heart” / “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)

A decade has passed since Isbell left his drinking buddies in the Drive-By Truckers, and it seems he can finally smile without the help of Jim Beam. Sobriety has its rewards — a clear mind and a clearer perspective, sure. But nothing as eye-opening as fatherhood, a doorway he stepped through two years ago and a role that makes him twice as anxious as the booze ever did. His dread is mostly political. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know” puts it mildly. But politics is an endeavor best left to songwriters who recognize the human element behind every protest anthem. His aim is true on “White Man’s World,” wherein he pleads for gender and racial equality, but the song lacks an emotional heft due to Isbell’s lyrical solipsism. His stump speech sputters, but his home-spun tales of comfortable domesticity suit him better. “If We Were Vampires” knows a good love song is a good death song: “Maybe we’ll get 40 years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” And the finale finds eternal joy in casual moments these terrible times can’t diminish: singing songs with family on the front porch, counting stars with his wife, and fatherhood. Definitely fatherhood. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Something to Love” / “If We Were Vampires” / “Tupelo”


Sound ‘Round: Omar Souleyman / Mariem Hassan

To hell with your travel ban, Mr. Trump

Omar Souleyman – To Syria, With Love (Mad Decent)

Earth’s most famous Syrian expat never wanted such a title. He began his career in 1994 wanting only to be the best wedding singer in the Middle East. Hundreds of bootleg recordings and one humanitarian crisis later finds him the reluctant figurehead of a movement he avoided. How did we get here? Because a) he was known to the West four years before Damascus crumbled and is therefore a visible figure and b) the music is a tremendous exhibit of dabke, a genre of Syrian dance-pop. In six years of civil war with millions dead, his music existed in a bubble. Zigzagging synths and relentless polyrhythms spared no silence for the dead and his lyricism eschewed bloodshed for love as rapture and dismay — again, he’s wedding singer. Five of these seven songs are in his hopelessly romantic wheelhouse. While there’s something to be said for escapism, Souleyman addresses the 500 pound international disaster in the room on the final two tracks. Translated lyrics: “I’m tired of looking for home and asking about my loved ones / My soul is wounded.” The songs are topical, not political, more heart than head, and all grief. “Look upon us, O Lord / Our sadness is larger than mountains.” Here’s hoping Souleyman and other refugees someday return to a peaceful home. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Khayen” / “Aneta Lhabbeytak” / “Chobi”

Mariem Hassan – La Voz Indomita (Nubenegra)

Before Mariem Hassan and her uncontainable contralto were silenced by bone cancer in 2015 at the age of 58, she was a singular talent who performed the world over on behalf of her people, other nationless refugees and oppressed women everywhere. Here is a woman so strong-willed and determined that she divorced her first husband when he forbade her from pursing a music career. The bulk of Hassan’s discography was recorded in Barcelona where she worked as a nurse and performed with Sahwari refugees such as herself. This album doubles as a soundtrack to a Spanish-language documentary and was recorded in the last five years of her life. Though plagued by health issues, Hassan’s vocals are a beautiful, unwavering wonder to behold. Whether breathlessly soaring above arid and ornate instrumentation, or slithering and hissing her voice through a trio of desert jazz improvs, her voice is as resolute as her spirit. No song here is more resolute than the finale, an acapella coda recorded in a refugee tent near Algeria five months before she passed. It runs just 115 seconds but says more about death, existence and love than most other death albums articulate in 115 minutes — and it’s not even in English. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Latlal” / “Illah Engulak Di Elkalma” / “Hajii Madiya”

Sound ‘Round: Charly Bliss / Girlpool

The sisterhood of the traveling bands

Charly Bliss – Guppy (barsuk)

As Taylor, Lorde, Hayley and the sisters Haim conquer the world with Regan-era glam, along comes Eva Hendricks with enough punk-pop bonda fides to make Courtney Love swoon. Her bubbly soprano resembles Carly Rae on helium and signifies a bratty disposition that revels in the kind of teenage boredom others spend a career lamenting. “I haven’t tried, but it sounds too hard,” is their mantra. And, at a time when seemingly every pop act with a vagina pens a self-serving grrrl anthem, it’s refreshing when Hendricks rejects such gross displays of solipsism. That’s not to say these songs aren’t anthemic, too. With a band of bros at the ready — including actual bro Sam on the drums — Hendricks employs power chords and brevity in equal measure on an album that keeps the hooks coming. Four years above 16, her aspirations are zero. She’s resigned to working at Dairy Queen, but not before laughing when your dog dies. Things aren’t much better in the love department. She gets dumped on her birthday and winds up the other woman in an affair between cousins. But notice the two songs wherein Hendricks displays her humanism are named after women. “Julia” finds empathy for her boyfriend’s ex, and “Ruby” is an ode to her therapist. Feminism is for others, too. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Westermarck” / “Black Hole” / “Glitter”

Girlpool – Powerplant (Anti-)

Diminutive bedroom-rock like the kind fancied by Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad often leaves me drowsy and disinterred. Their affinity for sparse production plays up the intimacy they sell by the pound, but their twee minimalism is for aesthetes who mistake bad poetry for brilliance. So two years after their full-length debut — a record that made me yawn and the indiesphere fawn — comes a follow-up worth believing in. The latest development is the addition of drummer Miles Winter, who helps formalize their songwriting, shore up their musicianship and provides a backbone to tunes that otherwise couldn’t walk straight. With their spirited duo made a worthy trio, Tucker and Tividad take the opportunity to expand their sound. If previous albums recalled the bedroom, this is straight out the basement. Guitars jangle and hum, and nebulous riffs are born from newly acquired distortion pedals. But their evolution to noise rock is undercooked. They aim for Yo La Tengo and wind up short of The Pixies — tranquil verse begets noisy chorus. It’s a simple formula, but their whisper-thin voices undercut their bolstered sound. They let their angst out on the opener about a troubled romance and settle for sensitive the rest of the way. Abandon the genre conventions, ladies. Let ‘er rip, lest we fall back asleep. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “123” / “Static Somewhere” / “It Gets More Blue”


Sound ‘Round: Nnamdi Ogbonnaya / Khalid

There’s brains in them there beats

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya – DROOL (Father/Daughter/Sooper)

This son of a preacher man is a musical polymath whose resume is padded by a litany of art-rock gigs picked up in his adoptive Chicago home. Various profiles written by smart musical minds swear by his numerous prior exploits, but a busy bee like me will have to take them at their word. With too little time to sort through such a vast and obscure discography on the internet, I’ll stick by this self-titled debut stuffed with enough goodies for intellectuals, dilettantes and plebeians alike. Nnamdi is foremost a percussionist and keeps the rhythms rolling. His beats are articulate, layered and heady. They eschew hip-hop formalities and R&B’s detachment but nonetheless pack a wallop when he lets them. The music is as versatile as the grooves, too. Rich brass, extraterrestrial synths, burps, blips, beeps and clicks all get their turn on one of the year’s most iconoclastic records. So self-assured is Nnamdi that nearly every song succeeds as he hopscotches across subject matter with glee. The most playful one is about sex (duh) and the darkest one concerns police brutality (of course). He’s not above gloating, either. But while “You could never write shit like this,” is a boast proclaimed to infinity, he certainly makes a good case. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “let gO Of my egO” / “hOney On the lOw” / “sHOULD hAvE kNOwN”

Khalid – American Teen (RCA)

El Paso’s Khalid Robinson, like a lot of American teens, is young enough to mistake hopeless romanticism for brilliance. But, like a lot of other American teens, he’s smart enough to transcend his youthful limitations. In a sluggish and unremarkable mumble that resembles Frank Ocean imitating Elmer Fudd, music’s smartest 19-year-old gives his state of the union on teenage woes. Robinson’s greatest asset is his deft lyricism that resonates with utilitarianism. Each of these songs comes with a first person point of view but tackles dilemmas familiar with youngsters everywhere regardless of class or color.  The title track celebrates a child’s ambition while acknowledging dreams don’t always come true — which is why he winds up young, dumb and broke on the following song. So broke, in fact, he’s stuck at home on “8TEEN” under a strict military mom who makes her disillusioned son pine for “the good old days.” Melodramatic, yes, but what teenager isn’t? Nonetheless, Robinson remains hopeful on the love front. He keeps his ex’s phone number safe should she reconsider and spends the entire second half stating his case. His troubled heart remains unfulfilled by album’s end, but it’s a fitting conclusion to a song cycle about not always getting what you want. He’s wise beyond his years. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “American Teen” / “8TEEN” / “Young Dumb & Broke”