This week on Tuesday Reviewsday, our new music segment, music journalist Steve Hochman joins Alex Cohen to talk about the best new albums.
Artist: My Morning Jacket
Album: "The Waterfall"
Songs: "Believe," "Big Decisions."
Notes: The Saviors of Southern-rock? That’s the tag My Morning Jacket was saddled with when the first big buzz about the Louisville band started to happen in the early Naughts, as if they were picking up the legacy of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Well, given the way Jim James’ vocals sometimes sound as if they were being beamed in from another planet, maybe southern Mars. Otherwise, not so much.
And yet here with The Waterfall, MMJ’s seventh album and first in four years, there’s a combination of mystery and sophistication that is undeniably southern, something that’s been there from the start, but has only grown and taken on more nuance and character over the years. Sure, in concert the band can power it out with the best of them. On albums, though, it’s all about the shadings, and often shadows.
That there’s something extra going on is evidenced by four of the 10 tracks having second, parenthetical titles, starting with the glorious opener “Believe (Nobody Knows).” Yeah, there’s a lot going on there, musically in the layered swells of quasi-orchestral grandeur and emotionally in the notion that there’s something really big happening, but it’s a secret.
Others, though, are quite direct, notably “Get the Point,” which sounds like it could have been written by Jimmy Webb for Glen Campbell. And then on several songs we get Jim James the Lover Man, who has popped up now and then over the years, recently on one slinky track from the New Basement Tapes, the project in which he and several other artists wrote music to old, unused Bob Dylan lyrics. On The Waterfall, the yearning “Thin Line” and the closing, hurt “Only Memories Remain” both echo classic soul. Yes, southern soul. And very much from this planet.
Artist: Olivia Chaney
Album: "The Longest River"
Songs: "The False Bride," "There’s Not a Swain."
Notes: The recent death of John Renbourn and a couple of years ago Bert Jansch are big losses of key figures in the English folk scene. But a crop of talented, creative, committed youngsters building on their influence is keeping the form not just alive but growing and evolving. If you need proof, the debut album by Olivia Chaney is a great place to start.
Right from the start, listening to the traditional song “The False Bride” which opens the album, it’s the voice that draws you in: gorgeous, pure, displaying the classical training this Oxford, England product had at the Royal Academy of Music. But there’s a nice balance there, the way she diverges just a little here and there, roughs up a phrase or two, maximizing the
melancholy (or outright sadness) at the core of the folk repertoire, tied to her mentorship from another young lion, Scotland’s Alasdair Roberts. For those who know their stuff, the names June Tabor, Maddy Prior and Jacqui McShee might come to mind, and perhaps the somewhat more rustic Shirley Collins.
Of course, folksinger may be a misnomer, though that’s also true for the icons who came before, who freely and inventively draw/drew on blues, jazz, classical, world and in some cases pop and rock forms as much as the British traditions at the core of their style and repertoire. That’s what made them icons in the first place.
Contradictions and contrasts abound with Chaney: the classical-folk meld, the earthy formality of her delivery, the delicate sturdiness of her playing (whether on fingerpicked guitar, piano or floating harmonium). That all ties her nicely to the last few generations of English folkies, as well as ties together her range of material in which the old songs are complemented by some originals (the portrait of a crowded house in “Too Social”), a stalwart piece by Chilean artist Viletta Parra (“La Jardinera”) and, perhaps most impressively, the classical canon (a saucy interpretation of “There’s Not a Swain,” taken from Henry Purcell’s now-politically incorrect opera “Rule a Wife and Have a Wife”).
Purcell, too, had brought folk airs to 17th century classical music, and vice versa. Chaney, who also performs the song on a fine new album Purcell’s Revenge by the Concerto Caledonia, here brings her own stamp to the song in a way that is true to both traditions, yet slave to neither.
Yep, English folk is in very good hands. And voice.
Artist: The Word
Album: "Soul Food"
Songs: "Come By Here," "When I See the Blood"
Notes: Can we get some hallelujahs and amens? It took 13 years, but the Word is back! In 2002, the band — a jam-rock supergroup of sorts — introduced the world to pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph, and introduced many fans to the world of “sacred steel.” That’s the indelible music of several regional African-American Pentecostal church networks in which the complex instrument takes center stage. A collaboration of the North Mississippi Allstars, organist John Medeski of progressive-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood and church prodigy Randolph front and center for dazzling authenticity, the Word played it fairly straight on its debut album and tour, drawing on the styles of “sacred steel” stalwarts the Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent and such. Well, maybe with some Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan thrown in.
Now reconvening for a belated followup, the ensemble finds spirit all its own. And that’s cause for praise as ecstatic as the playing on the righteously stomping “Come By Here” and the scorching “Play All Day,” where the musicians seems possessed. It’s not for nothing that another
track is titled “Speaking in Tongues,” and whatever language, it’s magical, transformative— not aimless noodling but a remarkable musical journey. Medeski seems to be the ringleader-instigator of the most adventurous material, guiding Randolph and the Allstars (guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew) into places not even hinted at on the debut. The gospel is still there, solid at the core, but it now serves at times as a launching point for some rather otherworldly explorations.
Whether the spirituality is explicit (the Old Testament, Pesach-related “When I See the Blood,” with guest vocalist Ruthie Foster, and “Glory Glory,” with Amy Helm) or more elusive (“Chocolate Cowboy”?), every note on this seems to serve a higher purpose. And while the first album transcended the inherent novelty of its nature, this one is, well, simply transcendent, on all levels.