March 27, 2020


Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real – Naked Garden (Fantasy)

How often does it happen that an artist produces a studio album that owns up to mistakes? For Naked Garden, Promise of the Real decided to make good on what their name suggests: reality. Throughout this album, you’ll hear some guitar tuning issues, vocal inconsistencies, and even some behind-the-scenes gaffs. There is a live performance presentation here that adds a certain connection to the material.

As for the sound and style…I mean, really?

This is Willie Nelson‘s kid. Sometimes acorns fall away from the oak, but a lot of the time, gravity does precisely what is expected. At times, Lukas‘s voice bears an uncanny resemblance to his dad’s. ’70s rock influence shows up to color the classic country and folk with an energy that belies the softness of Nelson‘s tone. He rises to the occasion, though, making this a pleasure of a ride. There’s even a moment where we get to hear what it might sound like if Willie was a member of the Von Trapp Family Singers (“The Way You Say Goodbye”).

FFO: Willie Nelson, Blitzen Trapper, Cordovas

Pearl Jam – Gigaton (Monkeywrench/Republic)

Pearl Jam has been one of the most consistently great rock bands of the last 30 years. Even contract albums are good (Riot Act, S/T). They are inductees in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame with good reason. The impact that Pearl Jam has had on rock music is incalculable.

This is album is…let’s go with “pretty cool”. It is decidedly OK. Absolutely alright. Utterly whelming. The tough truth is this: I will probably listen to this album a handful of times, then relegate it to the list of “oh, yeah. I remember that.”

Remember that teaser single they gave us last month? Sure, you do. It’s the one where they tried to sound like Portugal. The Man. Anyway, it’s probably the most interesting track on the record. It is followed up by “Quick Escape”, which is hands down my favorite tune on the disc.

Maybe after I’ve lived with Gigaton for a little while, I will find its presence comforting and be grateful. But at the time of this writing, that feels a lot like intentional Stockholm Syndrome.


Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia (Warner)

I find a certain amusement in knowing that most of my favorite pop stars are from Not-America. They either hail from Canada, the U.K., Australia, or in rare cases, Korea. Dua Lipa is fast becoming a member of that list.

Her sophomore full-length album shows us why she is a force to be reckoned with in the global music scene, not just a winner of, like, everything at the BRIT Awards. The songs are well-crafted, fun, and emotional in the right places. But since this is pop music, the most important function that tackled by Future Nostalgia is now completely and utterly goddamn catchy it is. Only a total iconoclast could turn off any single track on it, and even then, only to save face among fellow haters.

We were treated to the first single almost 6 months ago. My first response was, “Hey, alright.” Waiting half a year for the rest of the tunes seems extreme even by pop standards, but the result was worth it. Contemporary and timeless. A celebration.

For Fans Of: P!nk, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga


Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof (New West)

On her 4th solo effort, Hiatt effortlessly slides between alt-country, roots rock and the pop sensibilities of adult alternative. Walking Proof is a set of brilliantly written, introspective songs that deliver powerful emotions without blowing the listener away with useless metaphor or overpowered musical tropes.

“Some Kind of Drug” and the title track are the standouts here, the former a kind of a love letter to Nashville. “Never Play Guitar” is the most uptempo track on the record, the artist looking inward and asking herself what she’d be doing if she hadn’t chosen to make music. 

Following in her father John Hiatt’s footsteps, Walking Proof goes a long way towards establishing Hiatt as one of Nashville’s preeminent songwriters.


Clem Snide – Forever Just Beyond (Ramseur)

Producer Scott Avett sums this up best: “Eef is a crooner and an indie darling by sound and a mystic sage by depth.”

That has absolutely been my experience with Eef Barzelay, the soul and substance of Clem Snide. Forever Just Beyond is his most introspective work to date. It chronicles a decade of struggles, including a failed marriage, bankruptcy, and a fair amount of understandable depression. But despite this being Dante Hicks’s favorite record, it’s also a beautiful, honest view into a brilliant artist.

The songs are a series of vignettes, like conversations with a friend after one whiskey too many. How do you respond to a friend pouring his heart out? How do you describe feeling another person’s vulnerability? This album is a collection of rare emotion and honesty, and it solidifies Clem Snide’s place in the pantheon of great singer-songwriters.

For Fans Of: Nick Drake, Mountain Goats, My Morning Jacket


Kim Richey – Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer (Yep Roc)

Long Way Back is a reworking of Richey’s seminal 1999 album Glimmer, with new recordings that allow Richey to put a new spin on her classic tracks. This is a stripped down set with the majority of songs backed simply by an acoustic guitar.

The stand out is “Come Around”, which opens the record and was the most popular single off of Glimmer. The original was a made-for-VH1 song about the emotional struggle following the end of a relationship. Stripped down to just guitar and Richey’s voice pulls out the raw emotions in her writing, making the pain and hope feel more immediate than its poppy predecessor. You feel the desperation of loneliness contrasted with the attempted self-assurance that things will eventually get better. That raw emotion permeates the album without feeling like it’s completely changed the feel of the original songs. It also never feels like it’s an album of re-writes and re-hashes. Even though these are re-recordings, everything feels fresh and new from a great singer-songwriter.

For Fans Of: Shawn Colvin, Lori McKenna


In This Moment – Mother (Roadrunner)

Opening a record with a Steve Miller song is a bold move, even for The Steve Miller Band. Bolder still is joining forces with other powerhouse women of metal to do a rendition of “We Will Rock You”. Both tracks are ill-advised and serve as the worst parts of a production that is, at best, mediocre.

The Good: Brink’s vocals are ON POINT. The cracked-emotion wailing that made her famous is a highlight of every song on Mother. The intensity of her voice and lyrical content is vying hard for a connection with the listener…

…however,

The Bad: Electronic manipulation and creative uses of editing stick a bulbous, ugly nose into every emotional moment. The band is nearly non-existent and completely ineffective. Banal, trite chord progressions are buried under single-note synth tracks and wannabe-horror-flick effects.

I miss In This Moment as a metalcore act. The best thing I can say for In This Moment at this moment is: It’s still better than Halestorm.

For Fans Of: Halestorm, Flyleaf, Evanescence


Vanessa Carlton – Love Is An Art (Dine Alone)

I’ll be the first to admit to neglecting Ms. Carlton. I had no idea what she’d been doing since “A Thousand Miles” wormed its way into our wedding ceremonies and proms. I have heard none of the other 4 albums she released in the meantime, but truthfully, if this album is any indication, I wasn’t missing much.

There is nothing overtly terrible about it, except maybe the production. The songs are slow, but nice. They all have a pulse, albeit a weak one. Her iconic piano is present, but seems like a watermark behind a synth-pad sounding track. Her voice is similarly buried, sounding like she’s singing through a pillowcase on the other side of a bad connection. All of those things are fine as an effect for emphasis on a track, but it really is The. Entire. Record.

I’m sure that the songs are sweet, or poignant, or important. But honestly, I’m not able to get to the content because the production choices make it difficult. I wanted to like it, but multiple listens spread out over time only served to allow me to tolerate it a song or two at a time.

For Fans Of: Mazzy Star, Regina Spektor


Jim Lauderdale – When Carolina Comes Home Again (Yep Roc)

Lauderdale’s 33rd studio album is a love letter to his home state of North Carolina and is another set of songs that features an impressive line-up of collaborators. Huge names of the bluegrass world like the Steep Canyon Rangers, John Stickley, Cane Mill Road and songwriters like John Oates and Robert Hunter, best known for writing for the Grateful Dead.

All that star power adds up to an exceptional collection of bluegrass tracks. Lauderdale’s vocal work drives the wide range of styles on the record, from the excited lightness on “Spin A Yarn” to the Johnny Cash-like smoothness of “Moonrider” to the mournful wail of a man hoping his lover returns on the title track. The most fun track on the record, “Cackalacky”, is a tribute to both the bluegrass music he came to love and the state where he first discovered it. From top to bottom, this is an album of bluegrass at its best.


5 Seconds of Summer – Calm (Interscope)

In the realm of inoffensive, easily digestible music for white people, 5 Seconds of Summer ranks among heavy-hitters like Maroon 5, Coldplay, One Direction, and The Jonas Brothers, but without that level of bank account. They could be mistaken for a Disney kid group if they didn’t consistently shoehorn the F-bomb in wherever they think they can sneak it.

If it sounds like I’m bashing the record, that’s only partially accurate.

If you’re looking for substance, “the feels”, or something that you will hold onto for the rest of your days, you are barking up the wrong muffin-hut. On the other hand, if you’re a playlist maker and need a filler song, or a DJ who needs a track to talk over, or a teenager who has never been exposed to music, then this is your album.


Brian Fallon – Local Honey (Lesser Known)

Much like Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin’s solo swerve into folk on his 2006 record Cold As The Clay, Fallon’s departure from the punk of The Gaslight Anthem is a well executed land change on Local Honey.

More electric funk than americana, Fallon’s songwriting turns a sharp eye inward and touches on subjects like aging, fatherhood and moving on from a lost love. The heartbreaking “21 Days” is a standout, as Fallon reconciles the pain of a breakup with the light at the end of the tunnel, that time will eventually heal the wounds. The eight songs actually left me wanting a song or two more, like there was more to be said.

Regardless, Fallon opens up on his third solo effort and bares his soul on a beautifully constructed record. It’s not an album to throw on during your commute to the office (when we get back to doing that), it’s more a record to put on over coffee on a rainy Sunday morning.


PARTYNEXTDOOR PARTYMOBILE (OVO Sound/Warner)

It’s been nearly four years since PARTYNEXTDOOR has released a full album of his own material, busying himself with an EP, a plethora of guest and featured appearances and writing hits for Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Drake and Usher.

Finally turning to his own work, PND gets to display his songwriting depth on his 3rd studio record. Production is sparse but full of clean beats. There is a lot of minimalism in this set of tracks, which is a technique that can go off the rails easily, but it works in every case. Songs don’t feel too empty and aren’t over-reliant on echo to fill in the dead space. “Trauma” is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album, but the island rhythm is juxtaposed with lyrics begging someone to come back to him and laying out the emotional loss he’s feeling. The lead single “Loyal” featuring Drake hit the top 10 on the R&B chart when it was released back in November, however “Believe It” with Rihanna is the better collaboration. PND’s voice is perfect for the tracks here, its smoothness is only enhanced by the sparse production.

Not my favorite record of the week, but it’s far better than most of the R&B being released.


Half Waif – The Caretaker (ANTI-)

The band’s fourth studio outing is full of lush orchestrations and electronic ambience. Every track feels full with multiple layers of strings and synth buzzes, percussion and fuzzy bass. The soundscape tracks, like “Lapsing”, are actually the strongest on the album.

The vocals are formulaic for the most part. Lower, groaning tones build to a higher surge that jumps into falsetto. Lather, rinse, repeat, maybe flip it for variety. “Generation” is the exception to this rule and the vocal power takes an otherwise generic piano ballad into new, stronger and uplifting territory. There’s plenty of interesting sonic work here to make this record worth a listen or two. It would probably be great background for reading or studying. However, the songwriting is lacking compared to all of the other strong songwriters that have released new material this week.


Jessie Reyez – Before Love Came To Kill Us (FMLY/Island)

In High Fidelity, John Cusack asks, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Jessie Reyez takes that idea to the next level, and Before Love Came To Kill Us is all up in the dark side of love.

But, like, seriously dark.

In a honey-sweet voice, she discusses jumping off a bridge, insinuates murder/suicide, and casually mentions taking out those other “bitches” that don’t “measure up”.

If you can ignore the content, the vibe of the record is a little schizophrenic, but still cool. Great beats, cool melodies, and one of the most interesting voices in the music scene. Appearances by Eminem and 6LACK assist in providing the tone changes that keep the album feeling like it can’t quite manage a hold on reality.

But this record scares the living snot out of me.


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