The New Releases Shelf — Warm

tweedy

“I break bricks with my heart/ Only a fool would call it art,” Jeff Tweedy sings on “Some Birds,” a track from his new album, Warm. In the most accurate determination, the album is Tweedy’s proper solo debut, though it’s entirely forgivable to quibble with that point. Apart from his twenty-plus years of Wilco records, Tweedy released a double album as a dual act with him drummer son under the family name and just last year put out a set featuring acoustic versions of various numbers from the hefty tome that is his career songbook. That doesn’t even address his teeming bin of side projects, such as honored membership — and creative participation — in Golden Smog and the Minus 5.

Warm, though, is different creature. There’s no eliding ownership of a fresh batch of tracks that are, for whatever reason, credited to Tweedy and Tweedy alone. Certainly, his familiar demeanor is spread liberally across the album’s generous set of tracks. “Don’t Forget” displays Tweedy’s peculiar skill for morbidity as kind-hearted reassurance (“We all think about dying/ Oh, don’t let it kill you”) and “I Know What It’s Like” settles into the forlorn romanticism found in a multitude of predecessors (“When a sunny day/ Starts to rain/ Keep me in mind”). If it seems at times that the material could be plopped onto a Wilco release without unsettling anyone, there’s also a special ease that carries a sheen of the personal. Tweedy just has a few new songs he wants to try out, so come on down to the basement and he’ll play ’em for ya.

Often, Warm has a genial looseness I most associate with Tweedy’s Golden Smog contributions. There’s a gentle ramble to “From Far Away” that is reminiscent of Tom Petty away from the Heartbreakers, and it mirrors the cowpoke drift of “Let’s Go Rain.” Tweedy pushes a little harder with splendid rolling thunder (that eventually gives way to an full electrical storm) on “The Red Brick.” Not every excursion works fully. Lengthy album closer “How Will I Find You?” has a chilled molasses flow that atrophies before the closing notes.

If Tweedy’s humility prevents him from considering his songwriting art, I need not be presumptuous enough to contradict him. Warm already offers a strong enough counterargument.

The New Releases Shelf — A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships

1975

I will admit upfront that I don’t quite know what to make of the 1975. Now three full-length albums into their career (with another promised within the next six months or so), not much music from the Manchester band has registered for me. I do, however, have an odd sense — developed in a cryptic fashion, since I haven’t particularly sought out information on them — of a certain braggadocio and penchant for counterproductive pontificating. Those qualities are issued to bands from their hometown, like inoculations from the National Health, but what I’m most reminded of was the rapid ascendance of the Strokes, who believed their own overjoyed press and then kept spinning the same legend of supremacy as the tailspin began. The comparison kept coming back to me as I listened to A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, the latest from the 1975. The reason is simple: Like the Strokes, it turns out the 1975 can make a pretty terrific record.

What else A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships is or isn’t, it absolutely doesn’t lack for ambition. It is, plainly put, a lot. The music follows the general scheme of British pop that’s been in place for at least the past forty years, all post-disco electronic instrumentation and a precious elegance that would be cloying if it weren’t also so artfully irresistible. The 1975 don’t ramble and roam much within that territory, but it somehow feels like something notably new is coming with every track. It’s a little like a Major League Baseball pitcher only throwing fastballs and yet making such precise adjustments that every pitch looks different to the batter.

The opening of “How to Draw / Petrichor” is delicate enough to score a living fairy tale storybook, then the second half kicks in with skittering dance floor and it approaches the furtive fuss of the xx, not engaging exactly, but too complicated to dismiss. “Inside Your Mind” reaches all the way back to likes of China Crisis, and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)” like something Joe Jackson might have put onto Blaze of Glory or Laughter and Lust“Love It If We Made It” is like Fine Young Cannibals recording OK Computer, at least if they were inclined to open a song by bellowing, “We’re fucking in a car, shooting heroin.” A instinct to indulgence can sometimes get the better of them. “The Man Who Married a Robot / Love Theme,” a modern lingo version of one of King Missile’s story songs, is amusing once, and then it immediately transforms into a road anvil in the middle of the album. Much more often, the 1975 balance their ambition with offhand brilliance, as on “I Always Wanna Die (Sometime),” which is restrained and majestic all at once.

Much as I enjoy A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships, I have a suspicion its charms might wither. It’s reminiscent of a number of albums I remember — albeit vaguely — from my college radio days. They were instantly thrilling in their expansiveness and energy, but their glimmer faded over time until they were a little old intense crushes that were a little embarrassing in retrospect. That might not be the actual result in this instance, but even that impression strikes me as wholly appropriate. Sometimes beautiful music doesn’t last forever.

The New Releases Shelf — Honey

robyn

At around the time several of her songs took off in unexpected ways that forecast the crazy land of viral popularity, it seemed Robyn was poised to become as big of a pop star as she wanted to be. Certainly, she was ready to become the most notable musical export from Sweden since ABBA. And then life intervened. Trusted friend and collaborator Christian Falk passed away, a romantic relationship collapsed, and other trouble ground her down. Robyn guested and otherwise pitched in here and there, but the follow-up to the widely celebrated 2010 release Body Talk remained notably absent. Eight years later — and three years after she started working on it in earnest — Robyn finally brings forth Honey. Perhaps the most amazing single aspect of the album is the way is bears the wait of all that delay, all that anticipation, and somehow makes it as light as the mist off a powderpuff.

As if offering quick reassurance, the album opens with “Missing U,” a song so in line with Robyn’s most notable preceding tracks that it feels like its own genre. It’s dance pop, sure. But it’s mostly Robyn pop, wholly reminiscent of her earlier work and yet dazzling in its sense of newness, of invention, of uninhibited joy in putting beats, tones, and words together in a way that makes dancing all but irresistible. In the years since Body Talk, Carly Rae Jepsen has mastered this sort of constant cycle of perfect pop singles, but Robyn offers the confident reminder that she did it first and better.

Point made, Robyn moves on to craft an album that’s less effusive and more complex. It doesn’t yank the listener toward the dance floor so much as set the disco ball slowly spinning and the glitter raining from the ceiling, setting the mode for swaying along. Or not. It’s up to the individual listener. I’ve rarely encountered an album full of expertly crafted electronic beats and vivacious pop hooks that’s less overtly concerned with whether or not someone will give in to the groove. Even when the lyrics hew to the mandate of depicting life as a nonstop party, it does so with sly irony.  “Beach2k20” hypnotic in its zombie-like devotion to rip-roaring celebration (“I mean, it’s right on the beach/ Come through, it’ll be cool”).

“Because It’s in the Music” is calibrated to suit a reflective moment skating through Xanadu, and “Baby Forgive Me” takes vintage R&B through the delicates cycle in the Robyn transmogrifier. Robyn is locked in a state of concentrated exploration, building cuts with rippling layers of sound and texture. The music isn’t softening or mellowing, exactly. It’s being taken deeper by Robyn, akin to Björk’s curiosity in enlivening her sonic palette through expansive intricacies. Where Iceland’s favorite daughter can sometimes get so lofty that she’s fully obscured by clouds, Robyn is solidly on the ground. It’s more satisfying to dance when it’s a pas de deux with gravity as a mildly combative partner. To a degree, that’s the calm certainty all those years in between her last album and this one have given Robyn. Honey roams freely, and yet it’s always in precisely the right place.

The New Releases Shelf — Wanderer

cat power
(Image source)

I don’t think it’s simply a matter of longevity that gives the new Cat Power album, Wanderer, the feel of a classic. I’m referring less to the actual quality of the release — although it’s plenty strong — than the a certain feel of wafting timelessness. It is unmistakably a product of Chan Marshall’s distinctive creative voice, carrying sonic similarities to everything she’s done previously. It also reminds me of something Joni Mitchell might have created in the late nineteen-seventies or into the eighties, not because of any soundalike qualities, but due to a kindred inner assurance. In direct refutation of the longstanding reputation Marshall has for personal and professional fragility, Wanderer is imbued with quiet, forceful confidence.

Quiet is a central part of the album’s impact. Wanderer retreats a bit from the evocative musical layering of Marshall’s last few releases, hewing closer to the striking spareness of her earliest recording efforts. “In Your Face” is built upon the foundation of a delicate piano, and “Robbin Hood” has a guitar part so sedate it seems thought rather than played. The clearest example of the effectiveness of Marshall’s restrained, refined approach is “Stay.” A cover of a ballad first recorded by Rihanna, the R&B membrane is stripped away, leaving a song that’s suddenly more tender and moving, confession overtaking performance.

None of this is meant to imply there’s no angle of playfulness to the album. Marshall still knows when to deploy the musical equivalent of an arched eyebrow. “Woman” recruits Lana Del Rey to a duet, serving as both a passing of the baton to and a statement of solidarity with the latest female performer to suffer the indignity of purposeful underestimation and meritless derision (“If you know people who know me/ You might want them to speak/ To tell you ’bout the girl or the woman they know/ More than you think you know about me”). The trickster attitude also manifests on the sly ramble “You Get” and even the airy “Nothing Really Matters,” because only Marshall could take a song with that title and give it a veneer of veiled triumph.

The most distinctive music artists, through little fault of their own, have a tendency to stay locked into the public’s collective first impression of them. Chan Marshall has been recording as Cat Power for nearly twenty-five years, and, in her mid-forties, she’s living a very different experience than the one which paralleled her career beginnings. The reticent ingenue long ago gave way to a sharp songwriter with a penchant for exploration. On Wanderer, Marshall has fully aged into the wise soul who’s always been present in the aura of her songs. Understandably, perhaps, she sounds more comfortable than ever.

The New Releases Shelf — And Nothing Hurt

spiritualized

And Nothing Hurt is the sound of a seasoned rock ‘n’ roll artist in beauteous collapse. On the eight studio album with Spiritualized (and the first in six years), Jason Pierce doesn’t sound worn out, not in the slightest. But there is a sense that he’s easing toward a well-earned rest. The layers are less dense, the squalls of sound somewhat tamed. This is Pierce in a ruminative space, making music that can be nestled into rather than ridden, clinging to a rock slab bobbing on a cascade of lava. If it’s slightly more sedate, it’s also thrilling in its offhand elegance. Pierce is presenting a self that’s present, emotional, wistful, and properly engaged with his surroundings. He’s not floating in space any longer. Without sacrificing any ethereal artistry, Pierce is down on Earth.

Largely built upon melancholy melodies, several of the tracks call to mind the spare offerings of Lambchop, albeit with the significant difference of Pierce’s evocative tenor instead of Kurt Wagner’s weighty baritone. Where Lambchop is often so stately as to become inert, Pierce’s predilection for teetering stacks of sonic exploration keeps the songs robust and textured. He hasn’t jettisoned his big ideas, merely brought them down a manageable size. “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” is a fine example. Its mildly Beatlesque, swooning pop suggests what Oasis could have accomplished unburdened of their swelling pomposity. The cut is lithe and alluring, tilting to less in order to achieve more.

The relative lightness of touch reveals a splendid tenderness in Pierce’s songwriting. The lovely “I’m Your Man” finds Pierce putting himself before a potential partner with affecting humility: “But if you want wasted, faded, uneducated/ Doing the best that he can/ I’m your man, I’m your man.” As if signaling kinship with another artist who had an enviable talent for grand magnificence but also understood the value in intimacy, Pierce gives the familiarly titled “Let’s Dance” a Bowie-esque fragility. Yet more vulnerable, “The Prize” posits uncertainly that love may be the thing that best confers meaning on this messy thing called human existence.

Not everything is so withdrawn. And Nothing Hurt has room for the rollicking fuzz of “On the Sunshine,” and the requisite epic, “The Morning After,” rapidly builds to a boisterous cyclone of sound. These moments are somewhat unique on the album, and yet they feel a proper part of the whole, another facet of Pierce’s swirling musical concepts starting to settle where it’s calmer, on the floor of the rumbling sea. I suppose language like that implies the approach of a creative ending, but that’s not what I hear on this Spiritualized release. It sounds to me like an amazing new beginning.

The New Releases Shelf — Be the Cowboy

mitski

Mitski’s new album, Be the Cowboy, is the white flowers that freckle up on scorched earth. It is beauty and anger and disappointment and resilience. It is a tremor that signals life in a wounded form. It is a mural on a cinder block wall that has been marred by hurled acid. It is relief and anguish. It is fleeting, contradictory thoughts formed into slippery bundles. It is pop music as catharsis and simultaneously as rejection of the notion that pop music can be catharsis. It is sleek and gnarled, enticing and elusive. It is an extension of the magnificent Puberty 2 and so apart from its celebrated predecessor that it can seem like the product of a different human altogether. At this point, it’s not surprise that Mitski has made a great album, but there it is. What else can be said? Mitski has made a great album.

Maybe more can be offered. There’s an obligation, I suppose, to highlight certain songs on the album, the ones that are emblematic of Mitski’s range on Be the Cowboy. There’s the plush rolling thunder of “Geyser” or the shimmering open wound of “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” (“I know that I ended it, but/ Why won’t you chase after me/ You know me better than I do/ So why didn’t you stop me?”), but now I’m just reacting to the track list in order. Maybe that’s the right way to do it. Be the Cowboy prompts that emotional immediacy. But I should be less predictable, right? Ricocheting around the album to note the vivid weirdness of “Washing Machine Heart” or the languid roller disco of “Nobody” (“And I know no one will save me/ I’m just asking for a kiss/ Give me one good movie kiss/ And I’ll be alright”) or the airy countrified lilt of “Lonesome Love.” Surely that’s what I should do.

Maybe I’m arranging words in this fashion because Mitski’s Be the Cowboy is one of those albums that exposes the futility of writing about music, the dancing-about-architecture of it all. I can name the sly ways Mitski discombobulates (the Smiths-like opening of “Blue Light,” the pulsating “Remember My Name”), but that’s only wanly describing fragments because the whole is impervious to rudimentary reduction. I can type and type and type. Or I can go back to the beginning and simply listen again.

The New Releases Shelf — Hell-On

neko

The notion of rock and pop music as a young person’s game persists, even as a multitude of artists push toward the latter half of middle age while maintaining clearly viable voices. I suspect it’s because so many of the foundational topics of pop music — flaring infatuation, devastating heartbreak, fierce bucking against authority — are bolstered by the passions of youth. It remains true that some sentiments still sound best when delivered by someone with fewer miles on their odometer, but isn’t it reasonable to assume the wisdom an artist accrues can inform songwriting and performance in valuable ways? Maybe it’s still better to burn out than fade away, but a prolonged smolder is an yet superior option.

It’s now been a little more than twenty years since Neko Case took her first spins as a lead singer and quickly moved on to music released under her own name. From there, it’s been a steady march to beloved indie icon status. And through it all, she’s remained fully committed to an uncommon grounded sincerity, honoring collaborative commitments that her career seemed to outgrow and generally delivering a series of fuss-free recordings that merged emotional openness with thorny poetry, pinned to a melancholy tunefulness marinated in classic country music twang.

Hell-On is the seventh studio album that strictly belongs to Case, and the first billed as such in five years. If the layoff could reasonably inspire fretting that Case’s creative impulses were softening a bit, the songs offer a sharp, immediate reassurance the her power as an artist persists.

The opening lines of the album make it clear Case is battle-ready. “God is not a contract or a guy/ God is an unspecified tide,” Case sings on the title cut, ahead of settling on the metaphor she finds even more satisfying. “God is a lusty tire fire,” she insists, and it’s immediately a convincing theological argument. One of Case’s most notable skills as a songwriter is making every assertion resound with a compelling authenticity. Her assertions are plain and true, even as they’re often burrito-wrapped in thorny poetry. Without ever tilting toward the esoteric or elusive, Case often seems to be a conduit of a shared but hidden inner being of humanity. She unlocked mysteries without sharing the specifics of her epiphanies, confident that every will catch up if she’s transparent with her emotions. It’s akin to the way Bob Dylan once revealed the world while keeping his cards pressed so close to his chest that they were inside his vest.

Unlike many of those skilled songwriting predecessors, Case plays well with others, and the album is often a testament to the value of camaraderie. She includes a pair of duets, including one in which she covers the Crooked Fingers song “Sleep All Summer,” recruiting the band’s lead singer Eric Bachman to join her. Case’s crystalline vocal precision and Bachman’s hearty crooning makes the new version perversely and marvelously sound like a 21st century “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the piercing intimacy of wounded love rendered as grand drama.

Tightly controlled drama is an unexpected Case specialty on Hell-On“Halls of Sarah” is recognizably Case’s refined handwork, yet it also seems inches away from becoming a Stevie Nicks epic. And “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” a duet with Mark Lanegan, has the strange confessional power of a bruising memoir (“In the current of your life/ I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes”). It’s heavy, and yet light as air, buoyed up by a bright, almost offhand expertise, a developed knack for making musical miracles. The alchemy is so powerful that Case can somehow squeeze profundity out of the track “Bad Luck,” even at it simultaneously recalls classic girl group pop and Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” 

Case has been plying this particular trade for quite some time, and Hell-On is right in line with the trajectory she’s long been riding. And yet it still had the surge of discovery to it, a freshness representing a voice undimmed. Let others succumb to career mortality. Case might have it in her to go on making great records forever.