Tuesday, November 27, 2018

September 2018 geezers

This column is of old men: Eric Bachmann, Lenny Kravitz, Low, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney.

Eric Bachmann – No Recover (Merge)

For the last two decades, Eric Bachmann has quietly been amassing one of the greatest songbooks in modern American music—with the emphasis on “quietly,” because barely anyone knows who he is, whether he’s performing as Crooked Fingers or, more recently, under his own name. That, despite the fact that “Mercy,” a song from his 2016 self-titled album, is an essential balm in crazy times that should be on the playlists of everyone who gets panic attacks when they read the news.

Earlier this year Bachmann’s friend—and occasional employer—Neko Case covered his 2005 duet “Sleep All Summer” on her new album, Hell-On (St. Vincent also did a version with The National in 2009), which hopefully sent some people back to find out who her duet partner is.

No Recover is not going to be the album that suddenly changes Bachmann’s profile: it’s a gentle, lilting listen based on his finger-picked acoustic guitar playing and atmospheric backing vocals. The title song closes with the refrain, “Ain’t it good to feel the sun on your skin,” which repeats like lapping waves on a shore at sunset—an image that also happens to be on the cover of the album. But the title phrase, “No Recover,” which alternates with the aforementioned refrain, illustrates the dichotomy at the heart of so much of Bachmann’s work: life is full of trauma that will scar you for life, and yet the precious moments of beauty are what make life worth living.

Nothing here is as heart-wrenching, however, as the closing track, on which Bachmann, who recently became a first-time father, sings, “When your dreams fall through / I'll be there for you … And when I’m dead and gone / as you carry on / when your dreams come true / you’ll know what to do." (Sept. 28)

Stream: “Jaded Lover, Shady Drifter,” “Murmuration Song,” "No Recover"

Lenny Kravitz – Raise Vibration (Roxie/Sony)

This summer, Lenny Kravitz released two of his funkiest singles in many a moon: “Low” and “It’s Enough,” both of which rode slinky grooves and echoed the best Michael Jackson and Curtis Mayfield singles—not to mention Kravitz’s own classic “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.” If that’s the kind of vibe he was going to explore on his new album, then maybe it was time to start paying attention again.

And it was. Raise Vibration is everything Kravitz does best: a pastiche of classic funk, soul, rock and pop. This time out he doesn’t seem to have his aim as centred on the pop charts—it’s inexplicable why he wouldn’t release the surefire hit “5 More Days Til Summer” as a single earlier this year. Instead, Raise Vibration sounds like Kravitz just doing whatever the heck he wants, including a sample of a powwow group at the end of the title track. There’s even a psychedelic funk-folk ballad about Johnny Cash comforting him after the death of Kravitz’s mother—which, as one can imagine, doesn’t really work lyrically, to say the least, even after you find out it’s based on a true story. But the music is still lovely, and if that’s the worst track here, then Kravitz is doing just fine.

The world around him, however, is not doing fine at all: hence the litany of injustices in “It’s Enough,” and the chorus of “Who Really Are the Monsters?”: “The war won’t stop as long as we keep dropping bombs.” (Sept. 28)

Stream: “It’s Enough,” “Raise Vibration,” “Who Really Are the Monsters?”

Low – Double Negative (Sub Pop)

There was once a time, in this band’s 25-year career, when their albums were interchangeable, where a listener knew exactly what they were getting when they put on a Low album: dead-slow tempos, eerie harmonies between husband and wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, delicate guitar and gently brushed drums. Then came 2005’s The Great Destroyer, which roared and exploded with squalls of feedback and even had uptempo pop songs, as well as two songs later covered by Robert Plant. Since then, however, Low have pulled back and redefined themselves continually with electronics and confounding expectations however they could.

So it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that Double Negative is like nothing else in the Low catalogue, full of granular electronic distortion that sounds like old Kraftwerk or Laurie Anderson records through a transistor radio tuned to a station of static. Those harmonies are still there, and at times even sound like an opiated Bee Gees (“Fly”). The overall effect is, incongruously, simultaneously soothing and downright disturbing. It is both a balm and a bomb—either a hissing wick trapped in an eternal state of tension, or the sound of the remnants after an explosion.

Whatever it is, it sounds the way 2018 feels. (Sept. 14)

Stream: “Always Up,” “Always Trying to Work It Out,” “Dancing and Fire”

Paul McCartney – Egypt Station (Capitol)

Paul McCartney wants to be heard. He’s not going quietly. He’s working every media angle: carpool karaoke with James Corden, telling scandalous stories to GQ, sitting down for a lengthy chat with podcaster Marc Maron. All anyone wants to talk about, of course, is the Beatles.

But wait! There’s a new McCartney record. And it’s good. As are many (though not all) of his solo records, not that many people have noticed since the early ’80s. McCartney has never wanted to rest on his laurels, and he’s certainly not doing so here. And unlike most people his age—he’s 76—he doesn’t sound like he’s trying *too* hard to fit in to current trends—although he does sound like he’s writing some of these songs for stadiums to sing (see: “People Want Peace”). The living legend is a naturally curious person, so much of this record sounds as au courant as any record by Katy Perry (“Fuh You”) or Gorillaz (“Back in Brazil”) or Jack White (“Come On to Me”), while plenty of tracks could have come from any McCartney record of the last 40 years (“I Don’t Know,” “Happy With You”). For fans of his Band on the Run-era, suite-length weirdness, tracks like “Caesar Rock” and “Despite Repeated Warnings” scratch an essential itch.

It’s always been true that McCartney’s biggest competitor is his own back catalogue. Surely we don’t have to wait for the man to disappear completely before appreciating the breadth of his solo career, and not just through decades of hindsight. (Sept. 14)

Stream: “Happy With You,” “Who Cares,” “Hunt You Down Naked”

Paul Simon – In the Blue Light (Legacy/Sony)

Last year, Paul Simon finally sat down with a biographer for an eponymous book subtitled The Life. Paul Simon recently played the final show of his final tour. Now, Paul Simon has released what he tells us will be his final album.

“I’m finished writing music,” he told NPR. After completing 2016’s underappreciated Stranger to Stranger album (his best record in 25 years, to this critic’s ears), he says, “I literally felt like a switch clicked and said, ‘I’m finished.’’

That’s why In the Blue Light finds Simon recasting earlier songs—though not the ones you might be hoping to hear. These are deep cuts, many from albums that never got much play (like 2000’s You’re the One). There’s nothing from Graceland here. In fact, there’s only one track here that has ever made a greatest-hits comp—and “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” was never what anyone considered to be a hit.

In the Blue Light is not a collection of songs about mortality or finality of any kind; these tracks seem to be selected simply because Simon wanted to shine a little more light on them. In some cases, he wanted to explore different musical terrain than the original, like 1990’s “Can’t Run But,” originally driven by Brazilian percussion, now recast for the string section yMusic, in an arrangement by The National’s Bryce Dessner. Simon has always employed jazz players, but here he gets some real heavyweights: drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist Bill Frisell, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; the latter leads a rollicking and raw New Orleans take on the 2000 song “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” while pianist Sullivan Fortner transforms 1975’s “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy.” 

The only other artist of Simon’s generation to recast their own songbook in this way is Joni Mitchell, who similarly unearthed overlooked tracks, largely from later in her career, for reinterpretation on 2002’s Travelogue. For both artists, it’s a way of looking backwards and forward at the same time. At the time, Mitchell declared Travelogue her final album. Five years later, inspired by an adaptation of her work by the Alberta Ballet, she wrote 10 new songs. If anyone from the Alberta Ballet is reading this, you might want to give Paul Simon a call in a few years and see what he says. Never say never again. (Sept. 7)

Stream: "Can't Run But," "Some Folks' Lives Run Easy," "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves"

No comments: