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Yola – Walk Through Fire

I first became aware of Yola when I heard her sing a verse on The Highwomen’s song “Highwomen.” It was an arresting vocal. I immediately went to the credits and saw the name: Yola. I never heard of her and I moved on. Recently, she was featured on the podcast Broken Record. The hook was that she is a black British woman who sings country music. The interview was fascinating;  Yola and a couple of her bandmates played a few songs off of her album from earlier this year. The fact that the album was produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach fully motivated me to check out the album. Auerbach’s The Black Keys bandmate, Patrick Carney, produced one of my favorite albums from 2019: Jessy Wilson’s Phase.

The album is country-ish, but it is also soulful. It has a retro sound, but not the tired retro-soul sound that has been played to death over the last decade. It is more of a country-pop sound from the 60s. Think Patsy Cline from the past or a southern fried Adele from today. The best connection might be Mavis Staples who always seems comfortable with a bit of country in her soul music.

I love the combination of Yola’s soulful voice with country arrangements/instrumentation. It sounds original, yet. familiar. I love Auerbach’s production – it serves the artist and not him.

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Kanye West – Jesus Is King

There is nothing more polarizing than a pop star finding Jesus. You repel the hipsters and attract – well – Don Jr.:

I felt compelled to give Kanye’s gospel album a fair listen. My musical hero, Bob Dylan, had a mind blowing Jesus period – as powerful a chapter as any in his bewildering career. Will Jesus inspire a masterpiece on the same level as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? I would argue that 2010 album was Kanye’s last truly great album.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece, but it is not a flop either. The album is an intriguing interpretation of gospel music. If you can look past the Jesus focus (is it any worse than a pop star in love or heartbroken – a muse is a muse), this is an interesting album. Gospel idioms and Kanye’s religious fire has sparked some artistic hip hop that is worthy of your ear’s attention.

My biggest criticism is that album feels unfinished. It is like like Kanye’s rough notes vs. an edited manuscript. Songs abruptly end smashing into the next track. The album is short (under thirty minutes). But Kanye is enough of a musical genius that even his doodles are interesting.

What is most distracting and annoying about when people are “born again” is that they think their faith is original – “I am the first guy to find a higher power.” It comes off narcissistic and self righteous. Kanye faith has those annoying features. But the the enthusiasm of his fresh faith is infectious. I am happy for Kanye that he has found something greater than himself. In the end I need to give this album a thumbs up.

Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

I saw Sturgill Simpson perform live in the fall of 2017 in support of his A Sailor’s Guide Earth album. The surprise of that live show was that Simpson rocked and shredded. He played some seriously heavy guitar. Sound & Fury is a heavy guitar album, but also with some cool keyboard flourishes. It reminds me of the grimy sound of the Black Keys and the oddball gritty swagger of ZZ Top.

After listening to the album a few times I saw this mini-review from NPR. I wish I wrote this:

Sturgill Simpson makes All-American music, and on his fourth album, that means garage metal happily infected by hip-hop, soaked in California sunshine and lit on fire by the blues. The man once dubbed country’s savior goes full metal jacket on this wild reimagination of Southern rock inspired by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and his own lifetime exploration of rugged individualism. — Ann Powers npr.

Wow – not much more can be said. But I will try to add a bit more.

First, there is a companion anime movie on Netflix.

What a thrill it must be for Simpson, an anime fan, to be in a position to commission an anime film to augment his music. The Sound & Fury album is not a soundtrack to a movie – the movie is a “vision-track” to the album. I can only imagine Sturgill geeking out about this. I am not much of an anime fan, but I found this a pretty cool way to consume the album.

Simpson started his recording career with a pretty conventional country album High Top Mountain in 2013. He got a little weirder, but it was still country, with his next album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014). That album made it clear Simpson was not going to be constrained by Nashville conventions. But his next album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, made it clear Simpson could and would transcend genres. He did not play country music, he played Sturgill Simpson music. It won a Grammy for Country Album of the Year, but it was also nominated as Album of the Year (losing to Adele’s 25).

In 2016 I wrote:

“Simpson is swinging for the fences. Marvin Gaye elevated Motown to a new art form with his concept album What’s Going On. Simpson is doing the same to Nashville here.”

With Sound & Fury, Simpson makes the case that he is going to have a Neil Young type career: throwing knuckleballs that have wicked movement. The album mixes guitar and keyboards – one moment heavy metal and the next bouncy bubblegum. And somehow those juxtapositions work and are oddly seamless.

He has another Neil Young feature: Simpson can play some gorgeous distorted guitar. To put it bluntly, as Simpson does on the inner sleeve album credits, “**FUCK YOUR SPEAKERS**” I recommend you do that – enjoy.

Crate Digger’s Gold: Return To Forever – Where Have I Known You Before

One album that turned me on to jazz was Return To Forever’s (RTF) Romantic Warrior (1976). For whatever reason I did not explore RTF’s back catalog – especially No Mystery (1975) and Where Have I Known You Before (1974) which had the same incredible lineup as Romantic Warrior:

  • Chic Corea – keyboards
  • Stanley Clarke – bass
  • Al Di Meola – guitar
  • Lenny White – drums

In hindsight, it seems odd I did not explore the catalog since I got seriously hooked on Al Di Meola’s solo albums on Columbia in the late 70s (Elegant Gypsy and Casino) and Di Meola was such a big part of the RTF sound. It is only recently, via dollar crates, that I have been properly introduced to a couple RTF Polydor albums with the Romantic Warrior lineup: No Mystery and Where Have I Known You Before. They are both fantastic.

The Corea/Clarke/Di Meola/White version of RTF leans toward prog-rock mainly due to Corea’s arsenal of keys (acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, Hohner clavinet, Yamaha electric organ, ARP Odyssey and Minimoog) and young Di Meola’s (he was just 21 at the release of Where Have I Known You Before) flashy rock guitar.

The album opens with Clarke’s “Vulcan World” which showcases all the players. It is RTF at its kinetic best. This is show-off music and it works because these cats have the goods to show-off.

Next is a short acoustic interlude, Corea’s “Where Have I Loved You Before” that joins the hyper “Vulcan World” to the slower and lyrical, but equally spectacular, “The Shadow Of Lo” composed by Lenny White.

Corea’s acoustic piano, “Where Have I Danced With You Before,” creates another interlude to “Beyond The Seventh Galaxy” another full band show-off piece with a strong prog feel.

Side two opens with “Earth Juice” which is a funky jam (all four band members are given writing credit). Di Meola gets the bulk of the solo time.

“Where Have I Known You Before” is the final acoustic piano interlude.  The album ends with “Song To The Pharaoh Kings” which is a fourteen and half minute tour de force. It sounds like the most formally composed piece on the album. All four players strut their stuff, but Corea is the main event with his wall of keyboards throughout the song (which is more of a suite).

If the thought of prog infused jazz with highflying soloists grounded by melody sounds appealing, give this album a spin. It is easy to find in the dollar bins and is on all the streaming services.

Bon Iver i, i

Bon Iver is one of the more adventurous music acts that I am a fan of. The band is impossible to assign to a genre. Is it folk, pop, rock, hip hop, electronica, ambient, jazz, chamber music, etc.? Wikipedia suggests Folktronica. Although this is a totally unique band, I hear lots of influences, for example, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Hornsby (who it turns out plays on i, i) and Prince.

Bon Iver came out of the gate with an original sound in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago. Over the years they have continuously improved their sound without losing originality.  i, i sound is accessible, not because the band has sold-out or watered down their art, but because they have pulled the pop world into their gravity.

Per Justin Vernon (the guiding force in the band) says this about i, i:

“It feels very much like the most adult record, the most complete,” explains Vernon. “It feels like when you get through all this life, when the sun starts to set, and what happens is you start gaining perspective. And then you can put that perspective into more honest, generous work.”

I like this album more than their last album (22, A Million). That album was a major shift from the folk sound of their prior two albums to a harsher more electronic sound. i, i sounds like the perfect reconciliation of their first two albums with 22, A Million. I guess that 22, A Million is going to sound better to my ears after i, i.

If the thought of gentle but adventurous music sounds appealing to you, I recommend you give i, i a listen.

Brandi Carlile – Minnesota State Fair 8/31/19

I first got turned on to Brandi Carlile when her song “The Story” was a hit in 2007. I bought the album but did not keep up with her career until her break-out album By the Way, I Forgive You came out last year. I did not fully appreciate her until she performed “The Joke” on this year’s Grammys. She absolutely killed it with that performance.

After that, she was on my list of must-see acts. So we went to see her at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand on a beautiful Saturday night.

I have seen a lot of legends at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand: Dylan, Emmylou, Chuck Berry, Flaming Lips, Allman Brothers, etc. Now I can add another: Brandi Carlile. She is a charismatic and inspired performer with a natural and genuine connection to her audience. I don’t think it was a schtick, she seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing in front of the 13,137 paying fans at the Fair (her last performance at the Fair was at one of the free stages).

Carlile played a nice sampling of her catalog with emphasis on By the Way, I Forgive You. She did some cool covers, including Joni, Led Zeppelin and Elton. I judge a good concert by goosebumps and Carlile delivered plenty of goosebumps.

One of the interesting things about Brandi Carlile is that she is not a solo act, but a band. The core of that band is Brandi and the Hanseroth twins (brothers Phil and Tim). That trio has been working together for nearly twenty years. Their chemistry on stage was obvious. The band has evolved from clubs to theaters, but the Grandstand is at the arena level. The band easily translated to the big time. The fact that it was beautiful weather made this outdoor show transcendent.  This band had one of the great encores I have ever witnessed: as the State Fair fireworks decorated the sky, the band broke into an energetic cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).”  The crowd went nuts needless to say.

A bonus was Mavis Staples, a favorite of mine, as the warm-up act. Mavis, a mere 80 years young, rocked and testified.  It was one of the greatest warm-up performances that I have witnessed.  Later in the evening, Mavis joined Brandi for a cover of a Pop Staples’ song: “Friendship” – an appropriate choice as the connection between Brandi and Mavis was palpable.

I feel like I witnessed a niche Americana act turn into a rock star in real-time. This was a great show and Brandi has earned some new fans for life.

For a professional review see link.  Here is a playlist of the setlist (with the covers by the original artists):

Thom Yorke – Anima

I have been a Radiohead fan since The Bends was released in 1995. I have enjoyed Thom Yorke’s work outside of Radiohead, but somehow this album, Anima, resonates with me more than the rest of his solo and side gigs. I don’t know if I am in a more receptive and evolved state, or if Yorke made Anima more accessible. My gut is a little of both. Perhaps, seeing Yorke live this past winter put me in a more receptive state of mind.

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First, let me compliment Yorke and his label (XL Recordings) for the excellent rendering of the physical release. There are several versions and I picked up the vinyl on orange wax. It is a high-quality quiet pressing and the artwork is striking.

Yorke developed Anima with longtime Radiohead producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich via studio work and live shows. It was accompanied by a 15-minute short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson released on Netflix.  The film complements the album and the album complements the film.

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Anima lands squarely in the electronic soundscapes that solo-Yorke has worked in since his debut solo album The Eraser in 2006. It alternates between infectious dance numbers and dirges (sometimes in the same song). Ultimately, this is dream music. Not only dreamy sounding, but I assume we are getting a peek at Yorke’s unconscious mind on this album.

The music is both spare and lush at the same time. Yorke and Godrich have done a fantastic job on the production. As electronic as it is, it feels live and organic. It does not sound overly fussed over (but I assume it was – nothing that sounds this good is spontaneous). There is a lot of open space in the production that lets the music breath, yet it’s also deeply layered. Yorke’s vocals are front and center and the beats support the song – augmenting without distracting (despite their perfection). It is an artistic achievement to pull all of this off without it sounding like a mess.

Lyrically, Yorke is his usual “Debbie Downer,” but the music is so gorgeously performed that it’s more joyful than depressing. It is pure magic that Yorke and Godrich make their dystopian art beautiful. If you are a fan of the more electronic side of Radiohead, you will love this album.