CD reviews: The newest CDs from a few old favorites
produced by Glyn Johns (Capitol)By this point, we expected nothing to be left of Ryan Adams but ashes. The singer-songwriter was burning fast – trouble with drugs and booze, getting a reputation as cocky and inconsiderate, taking on a variety of side projects, and most notably, putting out albums so prolifically that his discography ran as long as Charlie Sheen’s rap sheet (and possibly to the same kind of end). One of the most predictable strains of backlash was that Adams was more focused on the quantity of his output than the quality (though it should be noted that his landmark year of 2005 yielded three albums – one a double album – all very good).Partly due to health issues, maybe due to the burnout that would have struck most artists a lot earlier, the 36-year-old Adams took a break in 2009. By all appearances, it’s a smart move. “Ashes and Fire,” his first solo outing after several albums backed by the Cardinals, isn’t a document of burning out; instead, it finds a grateful, refreshed and fundamentally changed Adams. The album’s first lines are “Last time I was here it was raining/ It isn’t raining anymore,” and the first single is titled “Lucky Now,” which marks a break between old and new: “I don’t remember, were we wild and young?/… Am I really who I was?” The album’s overall hushed, introspective tone suggests someone starting over by using the musical essentials – a fragile voice, acoustic guitar, familiar alt-country structures, loads of melodic keyboards (from Norah Jones, and Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers). What hasn’t changed is Adams’ talent for writing and singing. This is evident throughout – “Ashes and Fire” is nothing if not consistent – but most emphatically on the achingly sweet album closer “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say,” which could become a wedding-song staple.
produced by Jeff Tweedy with Patrick Sansone and Tom Schick (dBpm Records)Wilco’s last album, memorably titled “Wilco (The Album),” led off with a track, “Wilco (The Song),” about having your faith in your favorite band being fully justified and reciprocated: “This is a fact that you need to know/ Wilco will love you baby,” band leader Jeff Tweedy sang. It was the ultimate statement of confidence: We will not steer you wrong, will not let you down. “Wilco (The Song)” was punchy, nearly straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Tweedy seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say, and he wasted no time saying it. “Wilco (The Song)” clocked in at under three minutes.Tweedy and Co. seem less certain on their latest. “The Whole Love” opens with “Art of Almost,” about being up in the air. Here, Tweedy sings, “I’ll leave almost with you/ All of almost/ Almost.” The song moves around on a shaky, shifting landscape, with noises coming in and out, the drums intentionally not locking in to a steady beat. “Art of Almost” covers seven minutes of uncertain terrain – guitar explosions, symphonic sounds, crashes and keyboards, starts and stops.The next song shifts into steady rock mode – but the song is titled “I Might,” and opens with the line, “Was I wrong, off all night long?”But whether Tweedy is bursting with confidence or beset by doubt, our faith is justified. “The Whole Love” may be marked by sonic and lyric unsteadiness, but in the hands of Wilco this comes off as restless energy, an abundance of ideas, turns and twists that keep us paying attention – and keep paying off. “The Whole Love” doesn’t bemoan uncertainty, but simply allows it, and ultimately uses it, so songs like “Open Mind” and “Standing O” come off as bright and energized. By the next-to-last track, the title song, Tweedy is comfortable enough to move into falsetto singing. And by the final track, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” Wilco is as constant as rock – for the full 12 minutes.Yes, the references to the Beatles, which have always been part of Wilco’s m.o., may be more pronounced than ever on “Sunloathe” and “Capitol City,” but can you really fault someone for borrowing from “The White Album” – especially when done this well? And when Tweedy manages to channeling John, Paul and George all at once?Tweedy may not be sure, at the moment, whether Wilco is deserving of our whole love. But I am.
produced by Ollabelle (Thirty Tigers)Ollabelle ostensibly looks backward for influence. The New York quintet is named for Ola Belle Reed, a North Carolina folkie who was born in 1916. Their album titles evoke something aged – “Riverside Battle Songs,” “Before This Time” – and feature renditions of songs from past eras. The songs on “Neon Blue Bird” – “Dirt Floor,” “Swanee River,” even “Record Needle” – seem to intentionally look back in time. But the sounds on “Neon Blue Bird” bring a modern sensibility to folk music. A harmonica solo on “Be Your Woman” is echoey and modern, and the group vocals might remind you of a gospel choir, but it sure isn’t your standard old Baptist choir. “Wait For the Sun” and “Brotherly Love” both strike a unique balance between folk and pop, and “Butcher Boy,” with equal amounts of shimmer and haunt, might even be described as experimental.
produced by Wayne Pooley and Hornsby (429 Records)It wasn’t till 14 years into his career that Bruce Hornsby released a live album – a particularly curious thing given that the keyboardist-singer is infinitely loose in concert, improvising not only solos, but entire setlists, weaving a Gershwin piano melody into a thoroughly reworked take on own of his own hits, before finding his way into a verse of a Grateful Dead song, thus making him a great subject for a live release. When he finally delivered, with 2000’s “Here Come the Noisemakers,” it was everything I’d hoped for, and in the 11 years since, I’m not sure there’s any album I’ve listened to more. It’s enormously agreeable music.And finally, Hornsby returns with “Bride of the Noisemakers,” recorded at various locales between 2007-’09. The two-disc album finds Hornsby and his five-piece Noisemakers both as tight and loose as ever. The tightness comes from familiarity – drummer Sonny Emory is the new guy, with nine years as a Noisemaker under his belt – and means that the band can turn corners on a dime. The looseness is built into Hornsby, and even if “Bride” is more focused on full versions of Hornsby’s own songs (“Country Doctor,” “Levitate” and “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” are the standouts), there is still room for the unexpected: a medley of the traditional murder tune “Little Sadie,” Hornsby’s White Wheeled Limousine,” and George Jones’ “Just One More”; improvisations on Ives, Barber and Elliot Carter; a blissful take on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”email@example.com
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