Hot off the presses: new music! Better said, new music that is worth your time.
Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury – 10 tracks / 41 minutes
More like Sturgill Synth-son on the increasingly difficult to label artist’s fourth LP.
Folks, the days of the back porch Appalachia-inspired country folk of High Top Mountain are so far away it is hard to believe this is the same man on Sound & Fury. After leaning in to rock influences and sounds a bit on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (his finest work to date) and going even further sonically into rock and electronica on his 2016 A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, he miles and miles from country here. He is definitely still an artist to pay attention to, but I don’t think I can include him on my short list of artists saving contemporary country music any longer. He appears to be over that mission – at least for now.
There is a theme of driving quickly down an isolated highway on this album, which starts with the sound of a muscle car being started as the propulsive and excellent instrumental “Ronin” gets going. Unfortunately, at least for me, the rest of the first half of the record is a victim of over-synthed arrangements. Even a solid song like “Make Art Not Friends” which is incredibly well written is nearly ruined by far too much keyboard/80s electronica. Yes, I am biased on a couple of fronts here: I am generally not a fan of this style of music, and I selfishly want Strurgill to stay in his lane.
I must give him credit for following his muse, and there are plenty of songs that work despite some questionable production decisions. “Best Clockmaker on Mars” rocks like few things today and ends way before I’m tired of it, while “All Said and Done” finds him crooning in that familiar twang. This is as close to his first two records as he gets on this outing, and to no one’s surprise it (and a close second to “Ronin”) is my favorite track here. “Mercury in Retrograde” is catchy as all get out and finds Sturgill railing against haters, false friends, and the end of the world.
This is the sound of an artist doing what he wants to do, and I respect the Hell out of that, even if it doesn’t always work. Anyone who enjoyed Sturgill’s earlier work must give it a listen with an open mind, and those who think of him as “country” should hear this and probably reconsider that label.
Key Tracks: “Ronin”, “Best Clockmaker on Mars”, “All Said and Done”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/2ITJBRqMwZ0luWBnnZQ4Hq?si=-YDC6y_SQLORINYdfvL5Tg
Michaela Anne – Desert Dove – 11 tracks / 40 minutes
More goodness from the beautiful and uber-talented songwriter from Nashville via Brooklyn.
Her voice is magnificent yet unassuming, her songs are straightforward and heartfelt, a perfect blend of country and Americana. Ever since I saw her open for Sam Outlaw three years ago, I have been a fan – and this is her finest album yet. “By Our Design” gets things off on great footing as she sings about the tumultuous but rewarding life her and her partner have chosen: “Straight jobs and steady pay were never in our cards to play, late nights and songs to sing and long drives are our trade..you and me, living life by our design”.
There is an up-tempo injection to the album when “I’m Not the Fire” kicks in, and finds her channeling vintage Trisha Yearwood. “Child of the Wind” tells of her upbringing which included too many moves to count, and being “everybody’s temporary friend”. This song has equal parts longing for a different childhood and pride for the lessons it taught her and the person it has shaped her into today. Oh, and it’s a great song with lovely strings behind the simple drum and bass arrangement.
She can pen a mean ballad as well, evidenced by the melancholy and sprawling title track, and “Be Easy” is a short and sweet reminder that we should all take a few more steps back and deep breaths in our daily lives. This is a solid set of songs that will hopefully continue to grow her audience.
Key Tracks: “Child of the Wind”, “By Our Design”, “Be Easy”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/2u0hv91dEom8vbu6bRdPJc?si=8NYq__pCQRuxKkMlG-jUQA
Jack Klatt – It Ain’t the Same – 11 tracks/ 34 minutes
Jack finds a beautiful blend of folk, country, and soul on his greatest achievement yet.
Immediately upon seeing Jack perform earlier this year (an opening set for The Cactus Blossoms), I became a fan. As I wrote at the time, his live set was light years better than the music he had released – I am happy to report that It Ain’t the Same lives up to the hype I have been placing on him. This is gorgeous folksy country music with more than a touch of soul. It also frequently reminds one of The Everly Brothers or the aforementioned Cactus Blossoms (particularly on “Prove My Love”).
Lead single “I’ll ever Let You Down” is a fine song, but the lovely guitar riff and crooning on “Ramblin’ Kind” is the album’s first true gem. The music is straightforward throughout, with sparse arrangements that highlight Jack’s voice and guitar playing. This is very true on the classic-sounding title track where Jack explains “since you’re gone, nothing has changed, but it ain’t the same”.
The finest song on this impressive collection is the dark, brooding lament of “Caught in the Middle” which finds Jack repeatedly singing “the world is upside down, and I’m caught in the middle” as he tells of an unnamed leader who is speaking in puzzles and telling lies. Keep it up, Jack – and come on back to Boise when you get the chance.
Key Tracks: “Ramblin’ Kind”, “It Ain’t the Same”, “Caught in the Middle”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/1zmpGSaRUfuCq626ZHDlbT?si=aQ4wB4hJSgGG_SOVd1tgnA
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – This is the Place
The second of a series of EPs to be released this year finds Noel still in a disco-pop Bowie-inspired place, but the music is not quite as strong as the first one was. None of the three original songs are poor, but none of them live up to the first collection (or either of his terrific three LPs). “Evil Flower” is a bit of an earworm – you’ve been warned.