Batting .800

Written by Tom Gibbs

Rodney Crowell

I grew up in the red clay hills of rural North Georgia; country music is in my blood, even though it probably represents a fraction of a percentage point of my music collection. I was raised where the preachers of dirt-poor Baptist churches would damn rock and roll music to Hell every Sunday, then climb behind the wheels of their Ford Fairlanes and crank the Hank Williams and George Jones singing about boozing and womanizing. I never quite understood that dichotomy as a young man. During the early years of my life, when my dad was very ill, we stayed a lot with my Uncle Edwin, who listened to nothing but a steady diet of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton; the Grand Ole Opry is etched into my brain. And prior to my dad’s illness, my mom actually performed on the local AM radio station playing guitar and singing country and folk songs, and later on, insisted we watch Hee-Haw every week.

I first became aware of Rodney Crowell as a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band back in the seventies; already an established songwriter at that point, he was soon writing songs for Nashville’s royalty. Over his career, he’s had no fewer than five of his songs hit No. 1 on the country charts; I saw him perform twice as a member of Emmylou’s touring band in the late seventies, which was always an incredibly entertaining show. God knows I was in love with Emmylou Harris, and Crowell wrote several of her signature songs that were really brought to life in concert, like “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Leaving Louisiana”. He soon stepped out and started performing and recording his own songs, but still collaborated on albums with Emmylou and countless other Nashville performers over the course of his career. His music has strayed frequently from true Country to more of the Americana genre over recent years. I have to admit that I’m much more a fan of Rodney Crowell’s talents as an amazing songwriter and performer than as a singer; his albums are generally well-recorded, and usually with a stellar cast of performers and guest artists. But, for me, his voice is more acclimated for those “pure country harmonies” with amazing singers (like Emmylou Harris) than that of a lead singer. It’s not really a “strong” voice, and it doesn’t have any of the quirky characteristics that make other singers (like Willie Nelson) so interesting.

All that said, his new album, Texas (Crowell hails from Houston) is all of the above, pretty much in a nutshell, and probably the outstanding country music release of 2019 so far. His twenty-first studio album, it features a stellar cast of contributors, ranging from Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and even Ringo Starr thrown in for good measure! And even though there are some finely crafted tunes within, it pretty much, for me, sums up my assessment of Rodney Crowell’s career: excellent songwriter and performer, but God bless him for having the fortitude to continue to pursue a career as a solo artist. The best songs on this album are where he’s harmonizing with his notable guests, like “Brown and Root, Brown and Root”, where the blending of voices between Crowell and Steve Earle is simply magical, undeniably resulting in the album’s biggest highlight. Most of the songs here seem really promising, but just sort of fall short; an extra verse, or perhaps a more extended instrumental bridge would serve the music well. Still, his shared vocals with Willie Nelson, Ronnie Dunn, and Lee Ann Womack are pretty enjoyable on “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas”, which is a really enjoyable song and ought to get a good bit of airplay on country radio. Another real highlight is “The Border”, a real downer of a song in an album of otherwise upbeat tunes. It’s a minor-key assessment of all the recent craziness focused on the border between the US and Mexico, and Rodney really nails the realities of the poor folk trying to find a better life and the risks they take to try and make it happen.

Despite my personal reservations, Texas is a really good album with some really good work by a boatload of great artists. That could easily have been a great album. And, hey: Rodney Crowell was just inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame! Recommended.

Rodney Crowell Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Google Play Music, Spotify)

Sleater-Kinney  The Center Won’t Hold

 All-girl group Sleater-Kinney, consisting of Corin Tucker (vocals, guitar), Carrie Brownstein (vocals, guitar), and longtime drummer Janet Weiss, was one of the indie rock mainstays from the Pacific Northwest during the mid 1990’s to mid 2000’s. Critical darlings, they regularly won indie best-of polls and only increased their legend with each successive studio release. 2005’s The Woods was another critical success, featuring a denser, more heavily distorted sound that reflected changes in the band’s direction during their long stint opening for Pearl Jam’s 2003-2004 tour. Where Sleater-Kinney frequently—on record and in concert—stretched out into more extended set pieces. And suddenly, without explanation, Sleater-Kinney went on a decade-long hiatus. Carrie Brownstein was deeply involved in writing and acting in her collaboration with Fred Armisen in the Portlandia series on IFC. And the various group members remained active in other side projects throughout their absence from the forefront of the music scene.

Sleater-Kinney’s long hiatus ended in 2015, with the release of the album No Cities to Love, their eighth studio album, which was met with much acclaim and very positive critical reception. The New York Times review described it as the “First great album of 2015”, and noted that they’d honed their sound down closer to the three-minute post-punk songs of their beginnings. All working toward making the release of the new album, The Center Won’t Hold, one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2019. The album’s title already seems highly prophetic of their future prospects; drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure a couple of months before the new record’s release. Produced by St. Vincent (rumors abound that her involvement precipitated the departure of Janet Weiss), the album continues with their exploration of a more abbreviated song form, with some of the resulting tunes quite “poppy”, to say the least.

It’s really quite sad for me, the departure of Janet Weiss; her excellent drumming is pretty much the rhythymic core of this album. The title track and opening cut, “The Center Won’t Hold” unleashes a powerful drumbeat intro, soon accompanied by searing guitars. With both Brownstein and Tucker repeating the title line in a slow, rhythymic fashion that’s suddenly interrupted by a single piercing guitar note. This suddenly erupts into a chaotic minute and a half of the two singers screaming the same phrase over surprisingly melodic power chords into an abrupt ending, with Weiss just pounding those skins relentlessly throughout. Which happens with just about every song on the album. That is, ending abruptly. St. Vincent’s slick production is very appropriate with the eclectic song selection, which, while retaining much of their post-punk aesthetic, remains very melodic and “power pop-ish”. Many of their songs are presented as statements of where the band stands in the current political environment in the US; Carrie Brownstein, in a recent NRP interview with the band, basically stated that while none of the songs are specifically anti-Trump, Sleater-Kinney is most definitely an anti-Trump band. In the song “Ruins”, they ask, “Do you feast on nostalgia? Take pleasure from pain? Look out, ‘cause the children will learn your real name”. Doesn’t take much imagination to guess who that’s directed at, huh? At 5:18, it’s the longest song on the album.

The Center Won’t Hold is an outstanding album from Sleater-Kinney; despite the departure of Janet Weiss, Brownstein and Tucker insist they’ll soldier on. Let’s hope so, they’re making some of the most intelligent, tuneful, and listenable post-punk/pop currently out there. Very highly recommended.

Mom + Pop Music, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

Kim Wilde  Aliens Live

I won’t apologize here—I freakin’ loved the eighties. Most of the major changes in my life that pretty much helped sculpt who I am happened then; I took my first job in the printing/publishing/advertising industry, I met my wife, moved to Atlanta, and started my family. But mostly, I attended a lot of kick-ass concerts and listened to a lot of really great music. The friendships I forged and the fun that I had during that period are still for me emblematic of what I consider the “Good Old Days”.

Kim Wilde was a mere twenty years old when she hit the big time with 1981’s “Kids In America”, and spent the next year pretty much as MTV’s “It Girl”. You couldn’t turn on the television without seeing one of her videos. I have to admit that I crushed heavily on her; I found her mix of New Wave with Punk and Power-Pop sensibilities pretty irresistible, not to mention her serious cuteness. And so did basically the rest of the world, where she went on to sell 30 million albums over the course of her career. Her only other big splash on this side of the pond was with 1986’s remake of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On”, which I also loved. Her star continued to burn brightly in Europe and beyond, even if she remained mostly a footnote here in the US.

So when I saw the first notice of the impending release of this, her first live album, I was mildly intrigued—though I’ve gotten cynical over the years about “period” artists who try and strut it back out thirty years later. Better in my book to remain a cherished “one hit wonder” memory, than to try and cash in one last time; boy, was I wrong. All the hits are here; a lot of the songs from her first few albums that I merely considered very listenable actually charted outside the US. Plus, there are a number of new songs here, including “Kandy Krush” (I know, it sounds ridiculous!) and “Birthday” that amazingly manage to channel a lot of the New Wave hipness that so rocked the eighties for me. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s got a crack group of musicians backing her up, and that the recorded live sound is impressively good. As much as—in concept—I wanted to hate this album, I just couldn’t do it! Her voice still evokes that sexy/kittenish/coquettish vixen I always imagined from the eighties, and her delivery of the songs I know and love is remarkably unchanged from the studio originals, retaining most of its potency and edge. Pretty astonishing for someone who will turn 59 this year. Recommended, especially if you’re an eighties junkie like me.

Ear Music, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

Jon Batiste  Anatomy of Angels: Live at the Village Vanguard

Jon Batiste is probably most well known as the music director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; aside from that, he actually has a pretty impressive musical pedigree. He was born into a musical family that included New Orleans musicians Lionel Batiste and Harold Batiste, and played drums in the family band, the Batiste Brothers Band. He switched to piano at age eleven, and eventually graduated from the St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, where he steeped himself in the New Orleans musical tradition. He later earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Julliard. Anatomy of Angels: Live at the Village Vanguard is his twelfth studio album, and he is a self-professed disciple of Thelonious Monk. Despite all that, I have a hard time taking him seriously; I just can’t get beyond that stupid-ass keyboard/horn/whistle thing he plays every night on Colbert’s show. I find it…offputting, to say the least.

The tunes here are a mix of self-penned originals and standards; the whole affair clocks in at just over 38 minutes, making this more of an EP than anything. The audience response is very polite throughout the entire performance. Jon Batiste is a very technically proficient pianist, but I compare the experience of listening to his playing as I pretty much heard everyone describe Wynton Marsalis’ first few discs way back when: incredible technician, but very little soul, and very derivative. He had yet to earn it. Very little of what I heard here moved me the way so much of the jazz I love does. And I freaking adore Monk. Jon Batiste still has to earn it. I’d pass if I were you.

Verve Records, CD/LP (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

Tom Waits  Small Change

In recent years, I’ve slowed my tendency to rush out and acquire the latest remastering of any particular artists’ record catalog; that said, if it’s an artist I particularly love—like Tom Waits—I’ll cave in when the right opportunity presents itself. That happened a week ago when I was visiting in Charleston, SC—there’s a favorite record store there, Monster Music—that always has a superior selection of new and used LPs and CDs across a staggering array of genres. A couple of Tom Waits’ discs are definitely on my desert island list, and frankly, the currently available Warner/Asylum CDs are a shade lackluster in terms of sound quality. Monster had the newly remastered Epitaph/ANTI Waits catalog title CDs for $10 and the LPs for $20, so I caved and bought both versions of Small Change, his landmark album from 1976. To see if there’s a significant difference between the CD versions, and mainly just to check out the pressing quality of the LPs. Which at $20 is significantly less than the $30 average for new LPs these days.

There’s not a bad song on Small Change, where Waits wheezes and boozes his way through classics like “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”, “Invitation to the Blues”, “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”, and “The One That Got Away”. A stellar backup cast that includes the legendary Shelly Manne on drums and Lew Tabackin on sax provides the perfect touch of jazzy authenticity to the proceedings. The great news is that the sound quality is head and shoulders above the Warner version. It’s obvious from the opening notes of “Tom Traubert’s Blues”; there’s much greater clarity in the sound, with the Warner version sounding more congested in comparison. The individual players are more clearly deliniated in the soundstage, and you can virtually reach out and touch Tom Waits; his presence on a CD has never been more visceral and realistic. As the orchestra fades in the close of this song, you get a much greater impression than I’ve ever sensed that you’re actually present in the recording space with the players. It’s eerily good, and almost like listening to this classic disc for the very first time.

Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan both took part in the remastering process, and my experience with this first disc bodes extremely well for the remaining catalog. And the possibility of my acquiring the remaining discs. The LP also sounds magnificent; I felt it shared the superlative sound exhibited by the CD version, although it’s not abundantly clear whether the LP is mastered from the analog tapes—if they even exist. Not sure if Waits’ catalog was part of the big Universal fire that’s been all over the news of late [including this piece in Copper—Ed.] , but I wouldn’t be too surprised (who knows, maybe Waits’ had safety copies of all of his tapes). It’s pressed on perfectly flat and extremely quiet 180 gram vinyl, and for an extra $15, you can get it pressed in translucent blue wax. Of course, there’s no free lunch here; as great as the sound quality is on both LP and CD, the packaging was…somewhat lackluster. The CD came in a digipak—which is usually fine with me—but the print quality was somewhat washed out and faded looking (it would never have gotten through QC at my plant!) The same is true for the LP’s jacket; a bit more care could have been taken with the finished product, although I’m totally happy with the sound of the LP, and that’s what ultimately matters. Highly recommended—if you’re a fan like me, you’ll love the new remasters.

Epitaph/ANTI Records, CD/LP/Limited edition LP in colored vinyl (download/streaming from Amazon, Google Play Music, Tidal, Qobuz, Spotify)

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