Sound Round: Orchestra Baobab / Mount Eerie

Making music whilst they still breathe

Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (Nonesuch)

This ain’t no typical tribute record. Though original member and album namesake Ndiouga Dieng remains with them in spirit after succumbing to an unspecified illness, his living band mates waste nary a breath on their fallen leader. They’ve been doing this for 50 years since forming at a nightclub in Senegal, making them old enough to know life goes on and wise enough to know life is worth celebrating. That realization continues to make their music — a harmonious mesh of Afro-Cuban influences — remain vital. What keeps them crazy after all these years? A deep admiration and respect for women that’d make them enemies of the state in Saudia Arabia or the White House. They dig wedding nuptials (translated lyrics, “A good marriage is beyond price”), dig parenthood even more (“Leaving your children lagging behind, that is not normal”), and express loving words with simplicity and grace (“All the beauty of a pretty woman is seen in you”). Salute to the long-tenured percussionists who provide the grooves that get you in the door, and praise be to Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, who lean their leathered vocals into the beat and refuse to budge. With a love this immeasurable and the goal to make each day count, why should they go anywhere else? GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Woulinewa” / “Sey” / “Foulo”

Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Music this morbid is routinely overvalued by the literati, be it much of late-period Johnny Cash or widower Phil Elverum, who has been lauded by gatekeepers for this album centered on the death of his wife (artist Genevieve Castree) from pancreatic cancer. As empathetic creatures, our hearts should break for Elverum and his daughter — born just 18 months before her mother perished. As music consumers, however, we should remember meditations on death do not guarantee profundity, enlightenment or memorable tunes. Elverum’s goal here isn’t for collective healing. These songs are hyper-personal and written in a prose too wordy for melody or typical song structure. And while the austere production and minimalism signifies his grief, his depressive vocal delivery muddles these songs into an indistinguishable slab of sadness. But nestled in the gloominess are clues to his realization that life carries value even as we endure indescribable loss. Father and daughter move into a new house on “Ravens” because they need a new start in a death-free home, and later a task as mundane as taking out the trash becomes a quiet moment of clarity. But Elverum’s darkest line is likely the most hopeful: “We are all always so close to not existing at all.” That’s why we have to keep breathing. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Seaweed” / “Swims” / “When I Take out the Garbage at Night”

Sound ‘Round: The Mountain Goats / Zeal & Ardor

In celebration of the dark arts

The Mountain Goats – Goths (Merge)

Unless your name is Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking or Paul Allen, odds are John Darnille is smarter than you. Like the good English major he was at an uber-exclusive private school, his songs are more literary than lyrical: wordy, dense and as detail oriented as they are character driven. Characters on this concept record — Darnielle’s medium of choice — partake in Goth culture, an odd subject matter for anyone who hasn’t already made an album about professional wrestling.  This is no musical tribute, however. There’s no shoegazing, brooding or nine inch nailing, and those clarinets and woodwinds sound more like chamber pop than chamber drone. And while Goth icons like Siouxsie and Andrew Eldritch get their due, the best songs ponder the idiosyncrasies of the entire scene. He sympathizes with the nervous newcomer who isn’t hardcore enough to go through an initiation ceremony, bleaches his hair like the rest of his West Coast brethren and wears black every day of the week. Until the finale, that is, when Darnielle is wise enough to know that all scenes eventually end. “You and me and all of us / Are gonna have to find a job,” he sings. And the Dad Rock congregation said, “Amen.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Wear Black” / “Andrew Eldtrich is Moving Back to Leeds” / “Abandoned Flesh”

Zeal & Ardor – Devil is Fine (MVKA Music, 2016)

The most striking album of 2016 remains the most striking of 2017. It’s the brainchild of Manuel Gagneux — a Swiss New Yorker dared by a racist 4Chan user (surprise!) to mix black metal with “nigger music.” Not one to let the trolls win, he began meshing blues hollers with the very metal tropes Adult Swim parodied a decade ago. The chants are nonsense but cut to the heart of rock’s anti-establishment creed. The opening refrain of “Devil is kind / Devil is fine” is later followed by, “A good god is a dead one / A good lord is a dark one.” I doubt Gagneux is a Satanist (And what’s it to you if he is?). Instead, I suspect he’s a smart musical mind happy to demonstrate his brainpower at the expense of a faceless scumbag on the internet. The metal elements of this record impress most for their sheer virtuosity. Listen to those stabbing guitar riffs, how they’re enhanced by articulate arpeggios. Listen to tubular bells that could re-possess Linda Blair. Listen to his reverence for the source material and realize a century’s worth of black music is his birthright. Listen from start to finish and know that 25 minutes is just enough time for this one-off to warrant your respect. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Blood In The River” / “Devil Is Fine” / “Children’s Summon”

Sound ‘Round: Matt North / Craig Finn

A working class hero is something to sing about

Matt North – Above Ground Fools (MattNorth.net)

He dresses like Nick Cave and possesses an unremarkable tenor that resembles Stevie Ray Vaughn. He’s a drummer at heart that took up guitar and hired a crew of seasoned pros to spruce up these 10 songs. He was born in Michigan, raised in Illinois and wound up in Nashville because it’s one of the few places left where a white middle-aged singer-songwriters can find work. The music, instantaneous and punchy, is refreshing for its relaxed nature. He’s too old to strain for grandiosity and too addicted to old time rock n’ roll to adhere to any other formula: Big guitars, bigger drums and spirited vocals up front. Not sold, you say? Too conventional, you complain? What’s the secret, you ask? Simply put, ebullient lyricism that refuses quit. From the ex-lover he’s got no hard feelings for, the ex-wife who acquires an obsession for murder shows, or the quaint idiosyncrasies associated with life in the land of Jesus and fireworks, every vignette comes with a worthy couplet and endearing realism. Nothing’s more real than “I Sold It All,” in which he hocks his earthly possessions to get out of a jam. Spoken like an unashamed careerist who knows firsthand the struggle to make ends meet. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “No Hard Feelings” / “I Sold It All” / “Seventeen Days”

Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things (Partisan)

The entirety of Finn’s musical career centers on lowlifes, be it his main gig fronting The Hold Steady or his more tranquil solo work. He grew up in a small Minnesota town and his character studies come from that place of little people sussing out life’s great dilemmas. Here his vignettes deal with tragicomedy and just plain ol’ tragedy. There’s the cash-strapped starlet who swindles a love-struck millionaire of his last penny (“Tangletown”), and there’s the sister who sells back the leftover stash of heroin that killed her brother (“God in Chicago”). Regardless of the means or the method, each character is treated by Finn as a flesh and blood being with real emotions, dreams and fears. His capacity for empathy is so great, I’m sure a few of his subjects even vote Republican. He has no use for being autobiographical, but he’s lived enough and toured plenty to know a thing or two about recognizing how the other half struggle. Blame it on my disdain for bombast, or credit Finn for knowing when to play it cool, but this album tops anything The Hold Steady have done in years. Not every guitar-laden story has to come with bar-band gunk attached to it. Sometimes all you need is the human element. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Birds Trapped in the Airport” / “Tangletown” / “Rescue Blues”

Sound ‘Round: Kevin Abstract / Syd

Black, gay and in love in America

Kevin Abstract – American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (Brockhampton, 2016)

If Frank Ocean is granted his wish for an early retirement to enjoy the suite life, rest assured Ian Simpson a.k.a. Kevin Abstract and other young, black, gay males on the wrong end of the sociopolitical spectrum would be quick to fill the void. But this Houston rapper-singer-autotuner doesn’t just share Ocean’s point of view, he also one-ups him with the kind of articulate beats and crisp hooks R&B tends to disavow these days. He digs formal songs over fluid sounds, and those formalities build this concept album worth more than the sum of its parts. The premise returns Abstract to high school along with a crush on the quarterback. I suspect his idea of beauty is less autobiographical and more a manifestation of his self-contempt. Aside from the penis, Kevin’s beau has everything he don’t: white skin, deep pockets, a social life, validation, unspoken privilege. Meanwhile, Kevin’s mom is a homophobe, his boyfriend’s parents are racist and he hates his blackness for all the historical baggage it brings. The subject matter is heavy and the music doesn’t always carry the weight. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful if not happy. Be encouraged the best song revolves around him quitting his day job. Where he’s going, he won’t need it. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Tattoo” / “Yellow” / “Miserable America”

Syd – Fin (Epic)

How Sydney Bennett’s first solo effort is distinguishable compared to her recent work with The Internet is beyond me. Perhaps the bass is a little less up front. Maybe she’s accepted her diminutive whisper of a voice for what it is. It could be more reliant on samples and cool factor than actual songs. The differences are minimal and hard to parse because of Bennett’s obsession with mood over melodicism. The details don’t matter as much as the vibes, man. That’s not to say there aren’t hooks, but they’re deliberately anchorless and fleeting on an album that’s meant to be more meditative than memorable. But credit the former Odd Future producer for sticking to her talking points. From front to back, these songs concern insecure and unstable love with another woman. No pandering, just real talk — exactly what we need for these terrible times in which gay rights are threatened the world over. It’s vital for someone like Syd to humanize such issues. But championing the cause ain’t her only goal. As he told NPR: “This (album) is like an –in-between thing. Maybe get some songs on the radio, maybe make some money.” We all gotta pay the bills. Maybe she can open a few minds while doing so. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “All About Me” / “Got Her Own” / “Know”

 

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”

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”