Author Archives: Jon R. LaFollette

About Jon R. LaFollette

An aspiring music critic who claims to know everything.

Sound ‘Round: Neil Young / Hamell on Trial

Men alone with their thoughts (and guitars)

Neil Young – Hitchhiker (Reprise)

Lost recordings, my ass. In a patented move favored by Boomer acts, Neil Young has exploited the past to disguise the fact the creative well is dry. These 10 songs were recorded in 1976 during a day-long session fueled by an iconoclast on a hot streak and a few lines of cocaine. The tapes were inexplicably shelved, and the album-that-never-was grew into one of rock’s many myths.  Gripes about nostalgia and marketing gags aside, this is his most cohesive and affecting batch of songs in five years. Thing is, we’ve already heard all but two of them elsewhere in Young’s scattershot discography. From 1979’s seminal Rust Never Sleeps and up to 2010’s experimental Le Noise, the bones of this album have been picked clean. What dates this record are the characters Young populates his songs with — Nixon, Marlon Brando and Pocahontas live at the Astro Dome! But the tranquility of the performances and strength of the material shakes off the grime of history. “Powderfinger” is no-less devastating when stripped of Crazy Horse’s hungover guitars, and rarely has his quivering voice been so haunting on “Captain Kennedy.” The production is unadorned, the mood is bleak and the auteur seems weathered and weary.  I’ll be damned if this doesn’t rock nonetheless. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Powderfinger” / “Pocahontas” / “Hitchhiker”

Hamell on Trial – Big Mouth Strikes Again (New West)

This live disc is included as a bonus for those who purchase the vinyl copy of Tackle Box but is available on streaming services, too. Regardless of format, these songs are a preview to get your keister in the seats when Edward Hamell visits your town. His anti-folk polemics translate to the stage without losing an ounce of vigor, and being in front a paying audience strengthens his funny bone and sharpens his sarcasm. While humor is found in the macabre, the best laughs regard fatherhood on “Inquiring Minds,” in which Hamell attempts to save face for his inquisitive son. “So when he asks me about my past, and did I get high / I’ve been seriously thinking about my reply / I’m gonna lie, lie, lie, lie, lie.” But he’s not joking when he claims to be the happiest man in the world in spite of a devastating divorce (“When you got nothing, you got nothing they can take away”) and he’s dead set against racism, jingoism and Dancing with the Stars. But notice his most solemn lyrics come in the form of a tribute to Matthew Shephard and other victims of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. Like every great songwriter before him, he knows sympathy is for others. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “Happiest Man in the World” / “Inquiring Minds” / “Hail”

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Sound ‘Round: Fat Tony / The Rough Guide to Salsa de Puerto Rico

A Texan and Puerto Ricans in it for the long haul

Fat Tony – MacGregor Park (self-released)

Anthony Jude Obi is the next great rapper you’ve never heard of but has every right to grab your attention. His intellect is keen, his rhymes nimble, his compassion and humor served in equal measure. Before Hurricane Harvey dumped 275 trillion pounds of water on his native Houston, he spent the preceding years earning his keep in the city’s Third Ward. This eight-track mixtape, released a month before Harvey’s biblical torrent, is an ode to the city that made him and a love letter to youthful innocence. The best track here combines both sentiments, wherein a drunk Tony hits up Texas-based burger chain Whataburger with his sweetheart (“Me and my girl at the drive thru / And you know I got fries, too”). The setting is purposely juvenile, but these aren’t the musings of a misty-eyed romantic, rather a 28 year old who understands the pros of being pragmatic. He settles scores with fists instead of guns, gives a cop the benefit of the doubt and proselytizes the societal benefits of legalizing chronic. He’s heady no doubt, but his heart wins the day on the sanguine title track in which ordinary charm defeats everyday drudgery at his favorite H-Town hot spot. Flooding be damned, there’s still no place like home. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Drive Thru” / “MacGregor Park” / “Ride Home”

Various Artists – Rough Guide to Salsa de Puerto Rico (World Music Network, 2003)

The title is misleading. While this 63-minute compilation is muy salsa grande, the music’s Puerto Rican heritage isn’t always directly imported. By my count, at least five of these 13 acts originated stateside and were raised in the Bronx by immigrant parents. Another is Cuban and another still is Dominican. Geographical particulars notwithstanding, salsa is an uncontainable feeling, an assembly line of supple grooves, delicate textures and an alluring streak of romantic fatalism. That the track list is so cosmopolitan reflects the unifying power of music as well as Puerto Rico’s complex relationship with the United States — a relationship exacerbated 14 years after the album’s release by Hurricane Maria and Trump’s inability to comprehend human suffering. And while ordinary schmucks like you and I pick up the slack in rebuilding efforts, play these songs to celebrate the resiliency of the human spirit. After you’ve donated to relief efforts, start with Eddie Palmieri’s buoyant piano inflections before migrating to Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe’s irresistible fiesta. After relishing Jimmy Bosch’s warm alto and even warmer trombone, play the whole thing front to back. When you’re finished, donate some more and give the music another spin. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Tirandote Flores” / “Todo Tiene Su Final” / “Muy Joven Para Mi”

Sound ‘Round: Hard Working Americans / Sarah Shook and the Disarmers

Hard working, hard drinking Americans

Hard Working Americans – We’re All in This Together (Melvin/Thirty Tigers)

If Todd Snider’s brilliant solo career is to be put on indefinite hiatus, there are worse excuses than fronting a jam band that satisfies his Widespread-Panic diggin’, hippie-lovin’ heart. And while Snider is kind enough to let the musicians — an All-Star cast of professional jammers — stretch their legs on this sturdy live album, it’s his knack for simplicity and empathy for the common man that largely keep things on the straight and narrow. There are few psychedelic tendencies and even fewer masturbatory displays of showmanship. These are blue-collar protest songs that owe more to Bo Diddley’s boogie than Bob Dylan’s romanticism. That’s why the best performance is a hellfire rendition of Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler” and why the finale is a take on Chuck Berry. It’s also why Snider’s greatest foe is the bottle that brings him to the brink of madness. Not that reality is much better: corporate robber barons, crooked cops, fluoride in the water. So credit their ebullient crowd-pleasing on “I Don’t Have a Gun,” wherein Snider urges the congregation to transcend the drudgery. “This could be the night of your entire life. Why not? Why not? Why not tonight?” All aboard the Mystery Machine to peace, love and happiness.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Stomp and Holler” / “I Don’t Have a Gun” / “Run A Mile”

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Sidelong (Bloodshot)

Maybe it’s because I’m unimpressed with self-destructive behavior, or maybe it’s because I’m writing this review with a hangover, but I want more from this North Carolina smart-ass. First, some backstory. She disavowed mom and dad’s strict religious upbringing without disregarding their relationship. Devout atheism is her creed, bartending her day-job, bisexuality her preference and guitar came only after her son was born. It’s hard living and you feel it on each and every one of these 11 honky-tonk ditties replete with whiskey and other swill. Shook’s gruff, quivering alto signifies her economic status, and her dark humor teases a budding lyricist still prone to the rookie mistake of equating debauchery with artistic authenticity. “I can’t cry myself to sleep so I drink myself to death.” “There’s only one thing to do and that’s to drink you off my mind.” “Nothin’ feels right but doin’ wrong anymore.” Tear-in-your-beer poetry, sure, but she says more about herself on the song in which she swears off booze. Too bad the follow-up hits the bottle harder than ever. Not all is lost. The one person she makes recompense to is mama in the form of a heart tattoo. How compelling and sober. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Keep the Home Fires Burnin’” / “Make It Up To Mama” / “Misery Without Company”

Sound ‘Round: Queens of the Stone Age / LCD Soundsystem

Indie gods wrestle with the beat

Queens of the Stone Age – Villains (Matador)

Josh Homme’s latest artistic coup isn’t teaming with retro-minded and retrograde producer Mark Ronson, it’s not even his re-infatuation with the beat-centric robot rock he first forged in the California desert two decades ago. What’s got him stirred up is a re-invigorated appreciation for the air in his lungs — he’s a happy husband, even happier dad and the ringleader of millennial modernity’s most celebrated rock act. So count his seventh album with the Queens as his most jovial, pop-oriented and dance-friendly. Such redoubt optimism is appreciated during these troubled times, but the titular villains Homme fears are abstract, oblique and undefined. The bad guys aren’t the fundamentalists who targeted best bro and Eagle of Death Metal, Jesse Hughes, nor are they the corporate satans suffocating our democracy. No, Homme’s boogeyman is “circumstances,” a hollow generalization that means everything and nothing.  But even if his target is too big to fail, his intent is earnest and bolstered by nine songs bound by the groove and a desire to keep breathing. Best turn of phrase: “Going on a living spree / Any wanna come with me?” Best truism: “It ain’t if you fall, but how you rise that says who you really are.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “The Evil Had Landed” / “Fortress” / “The Way You Used to Do”

LCD Soundsystem – American Dream (Excelsior Equity)

James Murphy behaved like an old soul from the get-go. Here is a man whose debut single came at the geriatric age of 32 with the prophetic title “Losing My Edge.” That was in 2002 when New York’s insular scene conquered the world in a sheet of secondhand smoke. His band’s zenith came in 2011 at Madison Square Garden during a supposed farewell concert which capped a decade of meshing frenzied electronica and rock’s debonair ambivalence. But Murphy’s grand finale was spoiled by his impulsiveness and an oversaturated festival market desperate for any headliner who’ll play. So here comes an album history had no reason to expect from an auteur losing his edge as promised. Murphy’s near-fatal flaw is a lack of vision. Where records of yesteryear were replete with a warehouse of grooves, his polyrhythms have turned flat and uninspired. Half of these 10 songs lack structure and stagnate with percussion apathy. His vocal inflections and lyrical platitudes don’t make up the difference, either. The exception is “Call the Police,” an anti-Trump number that awakens his paranoia and stirs his signature deadpan humor. While middle age and a mad world have him down, his love life appears resilient enough to get him through. At least that’s what I want to believe. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “call the police” / “oh baby” / “tonite”

Sound ‘Round: Hamell on Trial / Gogol Bordello

Street performers and gypsy punks resist and endure

Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box (New West)

To label a streetwise bohemian like Edward Hamell a mere comedian diminishes his art and lessens the dangers of these terrible times. He’s a smartass, sure, but his lyrical barbs are more than cheap laughs. They’re cynical truisms from a one-man-band smart enough to know the cathartic value of gallows humor. Targets of vitriol are obvious — President Diablo and law-breaking cops, for the newcomers. The world is rightly awash in protest anthems, and preaching to the converted doesn’t do much good. So credit the 62-year-old Hamell for pondering global dilemmas through the smaller and more pressing prism of fatherhood. “What am I supposed to tell my child when morals and integrity have all run wild?” precedes “How do I tell my son this ain’t the way when the schoolyard bully is the president today?” precedes “I’m trying to teach my kid there’s some authority that needs to be respected.” His parental instinct softens his pessimism and opens a doorway through which his rage transforms into compassion and heartache. He honors an estranged childhood friend taken by cancer and the finale mourns a broken marriage that lingers a decade later. Good on him for learning to love again. She’s an immigrant who hates the president. And they lived happily ever after.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “NOT ARETHA’S RESPECT (COPS)” / “BALLAD OF CHRIS” / “MOUTHY B”

Gogol Bordello – Seekers and Finders (Casa Gogol)

Every punk group worth their salt makes a record wherein they rage against life’s great inevitabilities: age, death, (gulp) contentment. But for Eugene Hutz, 45, his dread is more personal. Born in Soviet-ruled Ukraine, he knows first-hand the sinister rule favored by the kind of despots occupying the White House. He and his band of fellow gypsies also understand how to fight beyond the ballot box — with agape love and an unbeatable humanist streak. Musically, they are rightly at their most subdued. Partying can wait during mass deportations. But Hutz’s thick accent renders verse after verse of some of the year’s most spirited lyrics. Assemble his best one-liners, and you reveal a protest hymn for the ages. “There must be more to this life than one strife after strife.” “One mania after mania / One phobia after phobia / One damn strife after strife / Promises of the afterlife.” “Life quest for a unity / Death propels the community / To break all the dividers.” “The undividable will hold me up when all goes down.” “With immigrant stamina you know who you are. “And all I know as on we go / The more it’s like so long time ago / My eyes and heart still open wide / Towards unknown and silvery tide.” GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “You Know Who We Are (Uprooted Funk)” / “Seekers and Finders” / “Break Into Your Higher Self”

Sound ‘Round: American Epic / Randy Newman

American epics and new American standards

Various Artists – American Epic: The Collection (Sony)

What Burns was to jazz and Scorsese to da blues, so now is antique revivalist Jack White to (what else?) obscure recordings produced during the roaring ‘20s and depressed ‘30s. While White has turned this series into a worthy enterprise — including a four-part documentary film and a slew of specialized albums — this review concerns the 100-track box set that makes a worthy gift for collectors and notable playlist for the Spotify crowd. These five discs tell the story of America’s foray into mass media, when radio and nascent recordings revolutionized the way music was consumed. Buried among the many treasures are names and stories already etched in stone: Carter, Johnson, Jefferson, Rainey, House, Rodgers, Patton. But, true to the franchise’s namesake, these songs stretch beyond the Mississippi delta and Appalachian coal mines. There’s ragtime from Chicago, Spanish-language romance from the NYC, railroad blues through Memphis, Native American rituals, Alabama gospel, Hawaiian lullabies, jug bands, Creole ballads and Dust-Bowl era country. Altogether, this collection is a remarkable patchwork reflective of America’s diverse and spirited people. A good starting point is the Carter’s weeping willow followed by Barbecue Bob’s pro-Black anthem written during the era of lynch mobs. The music may be historical, but it’s history that’s alive and well. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree” / “Chocolate to the Bone” / “Cecillia”

Randy Newman – Dark Matter (Nonesuch)

Political satire has been Newman’s forte since the days of Lee Atwater, so of course we get a trio of tragi-comedies out the gate. “The Great Debate” pits scientists against theologians in a battle for the country’s intellectual soul. That Newman lets the Bible thumpers win is an indictment of tribalism over reason. Sound familiar, Trump fans? Then comes “Brothers,” wherein RFK fails to stop JFK’s plan to rescue Cuban actress Celia Cruz. Rounding out his state of the union is the self-explanatory “Putin.” Just as pressing as humanity’s devolution toward insanity and authoritarianism is a date with the grave that awaits us all — and just shy of 74, Newman’s got reasons aplenty to be worried. Only thing is, he’s not. In fact, he’s as gracious and endearing as ever. Subjects of empathy include a soon-to-be widower, a father who mourns his son and a man humbled by a love he doesn’t deserve. But the auteur pities real people, too. Deceased bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson gets his due on an eponymous number that’s resplendent with lyrical charm and musical joy. “I’m the only bluesman in Heaven,” Williamson says through Newman’s distinct drawl. Here’s hoping Newman will provide good company beyond this mortal coil, and let this record show that he earned his ticket to paradise. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “She Chose Me” / “Sonny Boy” / “On the Beach”

Sound ‘Round: Bob’s Burgers / Young Thug

Cartoon characters, literal and almost literal

Various Artists – The Bob’s Burgers Music Album (Sub Pop)

One of the year’s most unlikely success stories isn’t unlikely at all. Granted, it ain’t very conventional — 112 mini-songs and vignettes from an animated sitcom wherein the titular family’s musical instigator is a woman voiced by a gay man. As a fan of the show, I purchased the vinyl as a collector’s item and left it on my bookshelf to gather dust. But after rearranging furniture around the house and making my record player more accessible, I gave it a whirl and was reminded why the music is such an integral part of the show in the first place: impeccable pop know-how mixed with enough brevity to keep the punch lines a-coming. And at just under two hours, there are jokes here in spades. Some of the laughs rest in the show’s warped realism and diminishes their accessibility (the longest track is a medley from an episode concerning a Die Hard musical). But the uninitiated need not strain to grasp the more elemental bits: a son admitting his fear of snakes, a wife relishing date night, a boy-crazy girl who’ll do anything for a kiss, the satisfaction of a “BM in the PM.” Treat yourself. Put this on shuffle and have a few giggles. It’s a small way to remain sane in these terrible times. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “I Want Some Burgers and Fries” / “Not Bad for Having Three Kids” / “Mononucleosis”

Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls (Atlantic)

To experience certified weirdo Jeffery Williams is to remember that expectations are silly things. Three years removed from his trap-rap peak he’s since evolved into one of the game’s premiere iconoclasts. He aims to please on his own terms, slurpin purp, slurrin’ rhymes and stackin’ paper with glee. The terms here, however, are a stretch even for his unbounded sense of direction. 14 glossy songs produced by fellow ATLien London On Da Track. All but one (the stoner anthem featuring — you guessed it — Snoop Dogg) written with a romantic bent that plays to his auto-tune addiction and penchant for hooks. These are pop songs, not street bangers, and therefore live and die by the hook. That’s the most glaring fault, here. Too few ear worms to make this genre experiment stick. Much of the second half is devoid of flavor and grows stagnant. But if his pop life fantasies fail, he’ll make a worthy comedian. Favorite one-liners include: “I’m fresh to death you know I should be coughing.” “She plan on havin’ more kids than God.” “Ain’t talkin’ Nicki, I’m ‘bout to have a ménage.” Other areas where he succeeds include fatherhood and cunnilingus. That both are intricately related is a joke not lost on him. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “For Y’all” / “Daddy’s Birthday” / “Family Don’t Matter”