Tuesday means it's time for new music here on Take Two. Every week our stable of regulars make their way into the studio to talk to a host about their favorite new releases. This week, music journalist Steve Hochman joins A Martinez for a chat. Below are his picks.
Artists: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Album: "The Traveling Kind"
Songs: "The Traveling Kind," "If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now"
Notes: With their second duo album, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell slot themselves in firmly in the tradition of a great country-rooted pairing. Not George and Tammy, or Porter and Dolly, or Johnny and June or Tim and Faith. Or even Emmylou and Gram, the latter being Gram Parsons, the country-rock cipher with whom Harris launched her career more than 40 years ago. No, not any male-female duet.
On The Traveling Kind, these two bring to mind no one if not Don and Phil — the Everly Brothers. The harmonies sound like second-nature, as if the work of siblings, not mere singing partners. And the material — including six originals by the two together with a handful of other collaborators — draw on the country-folk traditions that informed the Everlys and are the bedrock of generations of classic country music. The title song, written by the two with Cory Chisel, could be mistaken for something going back 50 or 60 years, yet holds the freshness of something created new and in the moment.
A lot of credit for that intimate immediacy goes to producer Joe Henry, who had the duo and their small case of ace players working together, playing and singing live in studio, facing each other and not even using headphones. Nothing was overthought, over-massaged, letting the glorious gifts of Harris and Crowell and crew simply sparkle.
The sibling-like nature of this can be traced back to the ‘70s, when Crowell joined Harris’ band, contributing a few classic songs to her repertoire, before striking out on his own. That they never really worked in duo form until 2013’s Old Yellow Moon album might be the secret to the success. They came together as old friends, compadres, seemingly free of pressures and full of comfort and confidence.
That’s clear on the new album both in the singing and the writing, with Harris — not really known as a writer — stepping forward right alongside Crowell. The songs cover a wide — and deep — range of both tones and emotions. It runs from the rollicking tour around the South on "Bring It On Home to Memphis" to the jazzy-rockabilly environmental ode "The Weight of the World" to an emotional pledge of devotion in "Just Pleasing You" to the closing folkie Francophonic frolic "La Dance de la Joie," "The Dance of Joy." And there’s an exuberant version of Lucinda Williams’ "I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” almost as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers might do it.
Whatever they tackle seems natural, nothing forced, nothing calculated, just right, two friends where they belong. "If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now," they sing in a new version of a Crowell classic. Sounds like they are home.
Artist: The Milk Carton Kids
Songs: "Secret of the Stars," "High Hopes"
Notes: Hate to say any act is the new someone else. But let’s just get this out of the way: The Milk Carton Kids are the new Simon and Garfunkel. At least it hardly seems possible to hear the Eagle Rock duo of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale without thinking of that antecedent pair. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.
What they take from S&G — and if they deny taking anything from them they’re either lying or fooling themselves — are some of the old duo’s best and most essential qualities: the tight harmonies (of course), the gift for engagingly somber melodies and lyrics at once highly literate and involving. Standout song "Secret of the Stars" has all of that — they’ve said that it covers life, dreams and near-death experiences, with lyrics owing to Japanese surrealist writer Harunk Harukii Murakami. The neat trick is that it accomplishes that without seeming either distant or precious.
That might be credited to the album having been recorded live in theaters and churches around the country during sound checks and after shows. Though these were done without audiences, it captures the spontaneous alchemy of their concerts, the two playing close together, responsive to each other’s voice and guitar filigrees. In that regard it calls to mind another duo, one with whom they’ve had some association, their fellow Angelenos Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Like them, the Kids have kept the music bare-bones, even as the writing and performing skills have evolved over the course of several albums.
But as with Welch and Rawlings as well, keeping it simple and low-key doesn’t mean the Kids can’t dazzle with some pretty nifty picking, as on "High Hopes" — no, not the kids’ song about what ants can do with a rubber tree plant, or the Bruce Springsteen song about, well, kind of the same thing. Sort of. These are more intimate, private hopes, the guitar licks as bubbly as the singers’ spirits.
Artist: Mbongwana Star
Album: "From Kinshasa"
Songs: "From Kinshasa to the Moon," "Malukay"
Note: Let’s go to the Moon! Well, let’s go from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and home of the exciting new musical collective Mbongwana Star. The ensemble’s debut album is titled From Kinshasa, but the musical aims are extraterrestrial, with the opening track titled "From Kinshasa to the Moon." And it sounds like it.
The music coming from Kinshasa in recent years is otherworldly enough, the distorted, electro-metallic clang of Konono No. 1 and the sinewy bounce of Staff Benda Bilili both creating notable sensations in the world music communities. It’s ear-bending enough, more so for where it comes from. These groups formed in the streets of a city wracked with poverty and decades of civil wars, the musicians the poorest of the poor fashioning instruments from scrap metal and junk from the streets. Staff Benda Bilili was even more so, the core coming from a community of homeless polio victims living on the grounds of the derelict zoo, getting around on wheelchairs made from spare bicycle parts and such.
Mbongwana Star is the next phase, with two members of Staff Benda Bilili (which broke up after internal and management feuds) joined by a young cast with some new sensibilities and ideas. Congolese rhythms mix with Euro-dub slink, electronic pulses are threaded with elastic guitar lines. It’s the sound of the harsh despair of the Kinshasa street life, but with a global reach and ambition that is at once cathartic and, well, optimistic. It’s like the over-amped sound systems of ‘70s Kingstown, Jamaica, or the fuzzed-up blues of North Mississippi juke joints, both in sound and spirit.
Some of this is somber, naturally, even contemplative in tone, including the electro-pastiche "Malukay," which features Konono No. 1. It’s a vivid portrait of a stark landscape. And moonscape.