Four Solid Hits!

Four Solid Hits!

Written by Tom Gibbs

Sophia Portanet  Freier Geist

Sofia Portanet is of Spanish and German descent, but she grew up in Paris, and she sings with perfect ease in both French and German. Although, the songs destined to be the “hits” on this side of the pond are sung in English, which she also manages with ease and effectiveness (they were sung in German initially). The first few singles from the album have been released in Europe over the course of the last year, but her first album, Freier Geist (Free Ghost) makes its American (and worldwide) debut this month. Her striking take on post-punk and synth-pop are part of what’s being hailed on the European continent as a rebirth of the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave), and the music is definitely reminiscent of the kind of sounds we were hearing in the late-seventies into the mid-eighties from groups on both sides of the Atlantic. She’s been tagged as “Germany’s next big pop star” in the German music press and by the BBC.

The entire record maintains a high level of energy throughout from the totally propulsive drumbeat of the opener, “Free Ghost.” It’s her English-language version of the eponymous title hit, and is more a clever play on words about Sofia being a free spirit rather than an actual ghost. The frenetic pace continues with “Menschen und Machte” and “Wanderratte” (Wandering Rat), which is accompanied by a very cool “behind the wheel”-type video. On “Planet Mars” — which has been prepped as the first single stateside — she wails in a way that Nina Hagen could only dream about back in the day; her vocal histrionics have also been favorably compared to Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52s. The album is mostly a rapid-fire mix of guitars and synths, along with Sofia’s ever-changing vocalizations, but slows it down a bit for the synth-heavy final two tracks, “Ringe” (Rings), and the album’s closer, her version of the classic “Racines” — sung in French — is an anthemic ballad that blew me away with its majesty and grandeur.

Freier Geist is probably the best post-punk, synth-pop album I’ve heard since forever, or at least since the eighties. In fact, if it were still the eighties, I’m sure this album would be all over MTV and in the mix along with all the heavy hitters of the day! All my listening was done with Qobuz’s 24/44.1 stream, and the sound quality was exemplary. There’s nothing really groundbreaking here, but this is a really fun album, and has a really snappy, poppy sensibility to most of the songs that helps to make it such a joyful listen. And Sofia Portanet definitely has the eighties’ big hair down pat. Very highly recommended!

Duchess Box Records, CD (available for pre-order) (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Bandcamp, YouTube)

Margo Price  That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price was completely off my radar until about a year ago when I happened to catch her performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert of the song “A Little Pain,” from her album All American Made. She was dressed in a sequined micro-mini dress that accentuated her every move under the spotlights — she was an absolute vision of loveliness, and her smoky/sultry, kittenish vocal stylings (think maybe an updated, countrified version of Stevie Nicks?) were damn-near irresistible. I’d suggest checking out this video performance to get a feel for how Margo Price was able to command the stage and the room; unfortunately, it’s been taken down everywhere on the internet, except at Stephen Colbert’s site, where you have to scroll through the entire show to get to her performance. Still, a very rewarding watch and listen. Her style is kind of alt-country/Americana, and her band was cracking, to say the very least — I tracked down the video online and watched it several, several times following the live performance. It really grabbed my attention, and All American Made definitely moved into my regular rotation on Qobuz for months afterwards.

For her new album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, Margo Price has a new record label, and has obviously decided to give  her music a slightly harder edge. And she’s teamed up with alt-country’s bad boy Sturgill Simpson — who, until his last album, at least — I totally loved. He kind of went off the rails for me with his latest, Sound and Fury, but I can’t begin to tell you how many folks (especially Copper readers!) felt it was his best work. Anyway, he’s assumed the production chores here, and he’s actually managed to meld a very interesting mix of Margo Price’s often angelic vocal style with his new-found, aggressively rock-and-roll meets and crushes-the-life-out-of-country music style he seems to have recently become enamored with. His production is shockingly spot-on — mostly — and only gets a bit over the top on a couple of tunes. Regardless, the album is definitely a move away from the alt-country leanings of her first few albums, following a path that’s much more in the realm of southern rock. As the final touches were about to be put on the album early this spring, the pandemic broke out, and Margo Price’s husband, guitarist Jeremy Ivey, was diagnosed with COVID-19. He’s okay now, but that delayed the album’s release until now.

The title track opens and leads off with a stylish piano figure by none other than former Heartbreaker Benmont Tench; he adds his incredible artistry throughout the proceedings. The track chronicles an encounter with an ex of Price’s, who, it would appear, is nothing but bad news and can’t keep his mouth shut: “Word travels faster than a whisper in the wind, Now all the birds are flyin’ south, Black hawks and doves, we are at it once again, And you’re talkin’ out of both sides of your mouth.” One of the record’s real highlights and the album’s true centerpiece is “Hey Child,” which is kind of a gospel/country/soul (but hard-driving) tune that deals with someone who’s really down on their luck. It’s an anthemic song that’s propelled by massed keyboards and crunching guitars, along with a powerful backing chorus from the Nashville Friends Gospel Choir — it’s a powerhouse of a song. In contrast, it’s followed by “Heartless Mind,” which is a synth-pop kind of ditty that almost feels like it might have sprung from the eighties; I’m sure Sturgill Simpson probably has one of his Manga-esque videos already lined up for this one!

All my listening was done with the 24/48 Qobuz stream, which, while a tad compressed, actually sounded pretty incredible. Despite being stylistically all over the place, this is a really good record, and among the best alt-country/southern rock records I’ve heard all year. I’d definitely place Margo Price’s That’s How Rumors Get Started in the same ranks alongside works by artists like Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, or Lucinda Williams — it’s that good! Highly recommended.

Loma Vista Recordings, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

Gerald Clayton  Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard

Four-time Grammy nominated pianist Gerald Clayton has been steeped in jazz traditions since his childhood; as the son of jazz legend, bassist, and composer John Clayton, his musical training began early at home. He continued his education at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he earned a Presidential Scholar of the Arts award. Later, his studies continued at the USC Thornton School of Music, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree under piano icon Billy Childs. Which was then followed by a year of intensive study at the Manhattan School of Music with none other than pianist extraordinaire Kenny Barron. In 2006, Clayton placed second in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz piano competition. His 2010 debut recording, Two Shade, was nominated for a Grammy; that happened again with his compositions and recordings that followed in each of the next three years. He’s currently the musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, and  he’s performed and recorded with artists as diverse as Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, John Scofield, and Charles Lloyd, to name a few. Quite the resume, to say the least!

Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard marks Gerald Clayton’s debut on the Blue Note label, and the recording revolves around quintet and trio settings that utilize players from some of Clayton’s past albums and sessions he’s taken part in. The lineup includes bassist Joe Sanders, and also features saxophonists Logan Richardson (alto sax) and Walter Smith III (tenor sax). The newcomer is drummer Marcus Gilmore, who makes his first recorded appearance with Clayton here. The group spent six days at the legendary Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City, where tapes rolled for two sets each day; I didn’t have a physical copy of the disc available to me, and no amount of research on the internet could help me determine the actual dates of the recording sessions. Although it’s pretty easy to guess that they had to be prior to the onset of the pandemic; it’s no big deal, but I still found it very interesting that no one seems to have clearly marked the dates of the recordings — at least at this point. Anyway, the best takes were culled from the twelve sets during the group’s week-long residence at the iconic club to create the album release.

The seven tunes are scattered throughout the generous 75-minute runtime of the session, so there are definitely some extended takes with plenty of room for all the players to stretch out. And you get a really great sense of just what an amazingly talented pianist Gerald Clayton is. Among the quintet settings, four of the tunes are Clayton originals. The set opens with the 10-minute “Patience, Patients,” where the horns introduce the main theme, then step out at points where Clayton delivers very deliberate piano solos, accompanied by only bass and drums; the intimate interplay between Clayton, bassist Sanders and Gilmore’s drums and excellent brush work has an almost “chamber jazz” feel. You immediately get a good sense of his ability to set the stage for his accompanists, as his second solo segues into a beautiful, but challenging, tenor solo by Walter Smith. “Envisionings” is a rhythmically inventive blues that starts with a calmingly modal Clayton solo, that eventually blends into the full band, offering plenty of room for dynamic soloing between both altoist Richardson and Smith’s tenor. The first of the two trio settings include a propulsive version of Bud Powell’s “Celia,” where the three players push each other into a really swinging rendition of the tune. And in deference to the wishes of the longtime matriarch of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon (who always insisted that each artist performing in the club play at least one standard in every set), Clayton and company honor her intentions here with an emotional trio reading of the classic “Body and Soul.” The set closes with a quintet offering of the Duke Ellington classic “Take the Coltrane,” where Clayton’s trio sets the mood, just in time for the excellent horn section to come crashing in.

The sound quality of the 24/96 Qobuz stream is, quite simply, superb; this is one of the best sounding jazz recordings — or of any genre, for that matter — I’ve heard in a very long time. That said, I do have a very small quibble; there are so many classic recording sessions from the Village Vanguard by the likes of Bill Evans and John Coltrane, among many, and it’s the seemingly archetypical setting for live jazz recordings. Made famous by spacious, atmospheric recordings like Bill Evans’ classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard, but the sound here — while otherwise excellent — is a little flat, and lacking in front-to-back depth of field. Everyone just seems a bit squeezed on the stage, and there are few of the ambient cues that are so in abundance in so many classic recordings from the venue. Which the near-holographic imaging of my Magneplanar loudspeakers tend to give you in spades — the magic that this group produced live is not quite all there on the recording — my guess is that it’s a microphone placement problem, which seems really odd for a venerable jazz label like Blue Note. Regardless, if you have any appreciation for jazz music that’s on the more adventurous side, you’d be hard pressed to find more rewarding sessions than those contained here. Highly recommended.

Blue Note Records, CD (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Gillian Welch  All the Good Times Are Past and Gone

I’m  a huge fan of Gillian Welch, and when I first got wind of this upcoming release about a month ago, I was beyond excited, as their last album, 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest surely ranks among their very best recordings. And nine years is a heck of a long time between releases, for anyone! Of course, those of you who are also among the faithful realize that “Gillian Welch” is the name that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have chosen to perform under since Revival, their 1996 debut. And yes, they’re an item, although they prefer not to focus on their personal relationship, and just let their inimitable style of Americana and Appalachian folk music do all the talking.

The new album is All the Good Times Are Past and Gone, and surprisingly, it’s a covers album, recorded at their home studio, and includes their remarkable takes on tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Prine, Elizabeth Cotten, and Norman Blake. Three Welch/Rawlings arrangements of traditional folk tunes are also included, along with a rousing version of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” thrown in for good measure. And in an interesting and unexpected move, David Rawlings, whose tenor voice melds perfectly in harmony with Welch’s alto on almost all of their songs, takes the vocal lead on several of the tracks.

Opening with a plaintive rendition of Elizabeth Cotton’s “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” you’re immediately given a great sense from Gillian’s lead and the thrilling harmony vocals that they haven’t skipped a beat in the nearly nine years since their last album (they’ve been touring virtually non-stop the entire time, despite their absence from the recording studio). We then get a surprisingly effective offering of Bob Dylan’s “Señor” (from the oft-maligned Street Legal), with an impressively authentic David Rawlings lead vocal. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” is the first of the traditional arrangements where the duo spins their ever-present magic into another classic from Appalachia, and of course, there’s plenty of excellent flatpicking work from David Rawlings on the classic 1935 Epiphone archtop guitar that’s become his trademark. And there’s more of that great guitar work on another Dylan tune, “Abandoned Love,” a really great mid-seventies track that didn’t see the light of day until 1985’s Biograph retrospective. That really good groove gets cut short, however, as the tape splice harshly segues late in the song into the previously mentioned “Jackson,” which always brought the house down when Johnny and June delivered it as one of their encores. Rawlings and Welch’s version here definitely doesn’t disappoint! The album closes with a fun version of the Arlie Duff classic “Y’all Come,” which I probably heard a zillion times when my mom watched Hee Haw every Saturday night during my childhood — it’s the perfect tune to close a nearly perfect record.

The 24/44.1 Qobuz streaming file was absolutely superb, and the recording is intimate, yet spacious with a really great capture of the recorded acoustic of their home studio. On the big stereo, you get a really great impression of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performing right in your listening room! While their concerts are always entertaining, and there’s always a wealth of great material in their set lists, these cover tunes will prove to be a valuable addition to their concert repertory. I do have a minor complaint, and this is more from the standpoint of a longtime fan — while the intricate guitar interplay between Welch and Rawlings is in abundance here, there’s not a trace of Gillian’s always plaintive and always interesting banjo picking. Oh well, maybe next time — or even in concert! Very highly recommended.

Acony Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

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