Sunday, November 12, 2017

Autumn Albums, Part 1

It’s a rare year indeed when so many of my bedrock artists of recent years put out new material, especially so close together, but this fall's releases are redefining "embarrassment of riches." Let's get right to it!

Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow Every record by M.C. Taylor is a labor of love, but this may be the most loving music he’s released yet. It comes hard on the heels of last year’s Heart Like A Levee, a sprawling double album shaded by its fair share of self-doubt, with many songs guided in part by the philosophy “You can’t choose your blues but you might as well own them.” This batch of songs is all together sunnier, a reflection of Taylor’s remarkable ability to use music to turn things around when things look bleak. 

There’s a looser, more collective vibe here, too, as if Taylor and his road band knocked these songs together at soundchecks and in rehearsal studios, driven by his relentless desire to get some positivity into a world filled with dark currents. Of course, when your band includes Brad and Phil Cook (bass and guitar, respectively), Josh Kaufman (guitars), Darren Jessie (drums) and people like Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig on backing vocals, you’re talking Americana royalty, people who can get into a heartfelt groove on a moment’s notice. The horns are a nice touch as well, filling out songs like the re-recorded John The Gun, originally a haunting bit of solo folksong on the deluxe edition of Levee. 

The themes, melodies, rhythms, and instrumental touches will all be familiar to fans of Dylan, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Michael Chapman -  if you want to call this “dad rock,” I think Taylor would wear the badge proudly. And this father of three connects instantly with Hiss Golden Messenger, something I can’t say for The War On Drugs, which others have embraced under that label. Maybe if my dad listened to Don Henley and Dire Straits, that would be different! 

Taylor continues to be one of the best songwriters around, and if a line like “Step back, Jack, from the darkness,” (from When The Wall Comes Down) is a little more on the nose than usual for this supremely literary lyricist, that may be what the times demand. Just as his use of "patriotic" motifs in the marketing for the album seeks to reclaim something too often associated with repressive parts of our society, a radio-friendly “classic rock,” or even “southern rock” gesture like Domino (Time Will Tell) may be a point of unity among groups who have lost the ability to converse easily. 

That may be too much weight to place on an album that contains, overall, Hiss Golden Messenger’s most effervescent music. And I can't completely ignore the fact that Hallelujah Anyhow does not cut as deep as my favorite from him, Lateness Of Dancers. But when so many American verities seem on the verge of blowing away, there’s more than enough integrity here to stand on as you wait out the storm. Catch HGM on the road - it's always a great night.

Beck - Colors As long as we’re talking politics and music, I think it’s funny that many people have predicted a great punk revival in the Trump era, as if that was the only movement that pushed against the harsher inclinations of the 70s, and I’m like, “Remember disco?” Bringing people together on the dance floor was just as radical an act as igniting a mosh pit, and maybe ultimately more effective. So I don’t think it’s any accident that Beck released his “Fuck art, let’s dance” album in 2017, even though it’s been in the works for years. 

Nothing is simple, though, and this may be Beck’s most divisive record yet, with people turned off by everything from the hyper-compressed production to the relentless cheerfulness of the thing. But if you give yourself over to the bright, shiny candy-colored surface - and Colors is almost all surface, like a James Rosenquist painting - it’s hard to stop smiling as the songs whirl past. Beck and his producer-in-crime Greg Kurstin (who also gets songwriting credit on most of the record) cook up each song for maximum enjoyment, each track filled with as many surprise and delight features as a concept car at the auto show. 

I hear echoes of Breton, Stewart Copeland, Benji Hughes, and The Beatles, all absorbed into Beck’s pop smoothies, each song sounding, somehow, unmistakably like no one other than him. That’s partly due to his distinctive, vibrato-free tenor, which is still as versatile as it was 20 years ago - he even raps a little, for the first time in several albums. While a downcast sincerity has been a hallmark of his folk-based work (Sea Change, Morning Phase), ironic detachment is a common mode for his upbeat, chopped and screwed side. That’s not the case here, as an open-hearted happiness infuses most of the album. But if irony is absent, there’s still plenty of sly surrealism. I would pay good money for a video of the moment in the studio when he inserted all those “Giddyups” into Wow - I look forward to them every time I listen. 

Unlike the great Morning Phase, however, Colors is not a perfect album. Fix Me is a half-baked song, ending the record on an ellipse when it should have gone out with a bang. Even if that had I'm not sure Colors ever would have been as good as his best work. Kurstin is just too white bread (if you can still say that) a collaborator. It's notable that Wow, which may be the best song here, is the one he is least involved in, with Beck getting a major assist from Cole M.G.N. But as I said to a friend, Colors is a party album - let's all have more parties! 

While it remains to be seen how he will integrate the new material in concert, there’s also no doubt that Beck will have a blast busting out all his best moves when he takes Colors on the road. Giddyup. 

Iron & Wine - Beast Epic I’m not one of those who greeted the eclecticism of the most recent albums by Sam Beam and Co. with a sigh, yearning for the bedroom intimacy of modern classics like The Creek That Drank The Cradle. Not only did I find his incorporation of funk, soul, jazz, and dub captivating, I listened in astonishment as Beam became one of the best singers alive. Hearing him sing Sade’s Bulletproof Soul On Sing Into My Mouth, his way underrated covers album with Ben Bridwell, sealed the deal. But I also became concerned about his songwriting inspiration, especially when he followed up with another collaborative project, this time with Jesca Hoop, which contained few memorable songs. 

Now, four years after the last I&W album of all original songs, Beam has given us a Beast Epic, not a return to his stripped-down indie folk, but a reclamation of some of that woodsy territory nonetheless. The production is no less complex than something like The Shepherd’s Dog, but every song has an acoustic center, whether big-chord strumming or hypnotic finger-picked patterns. Beam surrounds those guitars with strings, marimba, piano, reeds, brass, and percussion, creating the atmosphere of a sophisticated jam around the campfire that, varied as it is, feels as warm as an inherited Hudson’s Bay blanket. 

The songs are all solidly constructed, with melodies as natural as breathing. The lyrics have arresting koan-like nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout, such as “Nothing makes silence like experience/There’s a message in my eyes/You better love yourself/‘Cause I tried,” from Bitter Truth, and ”For all the love you left behind, you can have mine,” from Call It Dreaming, which is an instant Iron & Wine classic. There are also little bits of eccentricity that add tooth to the album, calling out to art song, the sardonic theater music of Brecht/Weill, or even the cracked Americana of Harry Partch. Hearts Walk Anywhere, one of two brief bonus songs available on vinyl only, pushes this even further, pointing in possible new directions. Theater? Chamber music? There are no limits to what Sam Beam can conjure when he's inspired and he is surely inspired on the gorgeous tapestry of Beast Epic. Let me know if you make it to one of the shows!

Coming in Part 2: The Clientele, Historian, and Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band

To find cuts from these albums and others in similar veins follow AnEarful: Of Note In 2017 (Rock, Folk, Etc.) on Spotify.

You may also enjoy:
Hiss Golden Messenger Holds Back The Flood
Beam & Bridwell's AOR Utopia
Beck's Next Phase

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