In this edition: Shooter Jennings, K.Flay, Henry Wagons, David Bowie, and Ensemble Pearl.
Dennis’ Pick of the Week:
Shooter Jennings: The Other Life (Black Country Rock)
One of the main faults of modern country music, particularly the mainstream, is how god-awful domesticated and predictable it is. There’s a fast food familiarity to much of what calls itself country in 2013, which is what makes recent work from Shooter Jennings so strikingly different. There is mystery, darkness and complexity to his music, perhaps never more clearly delineated than last year’s Family Man and its blacker, more troubled twin The Other Life (released March 12). In fact, you don’t need to hear a note of Shooter’s latest before you’re confronted with a wild assortment of images – guns, Illuminati symbols, red-eyed wolves, death’s-heads, a shaved Jennings laid out corpse style – and the succinct, haunting question, “Do you know who you are?” As with Family Man, Jennings is exploring questions of heritage and community, poking at the nature/nurture controversy and making it work in classic jukebox fashion. Except this ain’t no nostalgia exercise. Shooter is whole-heartedly dedicated to making country relevant, stealing it back from the hat acts who couldn’t hit country with a baseball bat.
Like his legendary pop, Shooter is stretching country’s limits and preconceptions, starting off this album with a Pink Floyd-esque cry and then talking about how much in common he shares with a flying saucer. From there it’s one killer after another, with a title cut that would have been a Number One hit for Charlie Rich, inspired pairings with Scott H. Biram (The White Trash Song) and Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim Dandy (the deliciously trippy, melancholy 15 Million Light-Years Away), and a hopping tune Joan Jett wishes she’d written (The Outsider). The conundrum of raising a family and earning one’s living as a musician is wrestled with honestly, the lures of a traveling life bumping up against the urge to hold our loved ones close, and even better, no easy answers or definitive conclusions are drawn. It’s an ongoing struggle and Jennings keeps striking sparks from the friction point of these forces. Everything here swings and sways wonderfully, an confident ease with the genre that allows them to work into interesting spaces on the edges. The band is just fuckin’ great with serving-the-songs playing from Jon Graboff (pedal steel), Erik Deutsch (piano, keys), Jeff Hill (bass), Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle) and the rest. What the past three albums Shooter’s put out make abundantly clear is while he’s Waylon and Jessi’s kid, as an artist he’s his own man – and in the Impound’s view one of THE artists to watch in this new millennium. A creative fire and almost vulgar freedom is at work in Jennings right now that speaks of many great things to come even as he drops an awesome slab like The Other Life in our laps. (Dennis Cook)
Dennis’ Runner-Up of the Week:
K.Flay: West Ghost (self-released)
Missing busses and tussling with shrinks, K.Flay’s brokenness, in several senses, is part of why she connects so well with a generation deeply familiar with therapy and drugs (prescribed and recreational) who’re used to scraping together change for laundry and pet food and consider splurging to be a dank sack, a 12-pack and fish tacos. West Ghost (download it for free here), is the latest chapter in a story that keeps getting more interesting. Guests include Eligh, Grieves and Allen Stone but this is K.Flay’s show all the way, a rare combination of major beat science and emotionally charged lyrics that’s as unique as anything happening right now.
Her casual wildness, astute darkness and ease with inspired profanity is counterbalanced by her ability to be tender and sincere, where one track finds her warning a romantic prospective that “if you want to be my baby you better get some bullshit ‘cause I’m like fucking crazy” and then later tenderly offering, “Spill all your secrets in confidence…Your turning my insides, you’re making me wish I was a better girl with a steady hand you wanted to be with.” There’s a confessional vulnerability to K.Flay’s work that’s disarming, and while not all of it is likely autobiography it feels real as fuck and in music that matters more than truth vs. fiction.
That the soundscapes her ideas float around in happen to be bursting with boom bap and skittering synths just makes the medicine go down easier, not to mention the pure pleasure of her mic skills – she’s an MC of the first order whose flow is on the way to rivaling establishment greats like Nas and Missy Elliott (doubters can check Appetite for Consumption and the title track here for supporting evidence). One thing this EP confirms is her ability to inject female consciousness into a realm that’s often woefully lacking in it. Rap remains resolutely masculine in tone and perspective, and by working the edges, swerving between hip hop, electronica and modern rock, K.Flay breaks fresh ground to cultivate a legit voice sorely needed by the genre. It may be that a full-length album is simply something K.Flay isn’t that interested in producing, but each subsequent EP and single increases the sense we’re witnessing the steady gestation of what is shaping up to be one of the major talents of the decade. (DC)
Dennis’ Bonus Review
Henry Wagons: Expecting Company? (Thirty Tigers)
The duet was once a regular thing in pop music, particularly during the Motown and Music City’s 60s heydays when guys and gals intertwined passionately on the regular. Australian new millennial pub rocker Henry Wagons revives the tradition nicely on this 7-track EP (released January 22) with a bevy of collaborators including the rare two-dude combination with The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster. Elsewhere he growls with Alison Mosshart (The Kills, Dead Weather), goes ecclesiastical country with Melbourne’s Sophia Brous, croons a weepy barroom shuffle with Canada’s Jenn Grant, as well as pairing up with Gossling and Patience Hodgson (The Grates) on cool Nick Cave-like gem A Hangman’s Work Is Never Done (the set’s standout). Each comports themselves well in Wagons’ company, and the man himself sings with an old school, young Johnny Cash-esque quality. The songs are sturdy stuff filled with satisfying classic romantic tropes, and the playing throughout is pro stuff. All in all, a charming little digression before the next full-length Wagons release. (DC)
Ron’s Pick of the Week:
David Bowie: The Next Day (Columbia)
If you are one of those David Bowie fans who doesn’t listen to anything after the Berlin trilogy, then you have no right calling yourself a Bowie fan. While I cannot bring myself to endorse the likes of such mid-80s travesties as Tonight and Never Let Me Down, for the most part the Thin White Duke’s post-Let’s Dance output has been largely underappreciated and misunderstood, from his 1989 hard rock outfit Tin Machine to 1995’s Fincher-esque industrial crime novel Outside to his outstanding and overlooked excursion into Drum ‘n Bass with 1997’s Earthling. And though it has been a solid decade since Bowie has released his last proper LP, it seems that most critics must have automatically tossed his two previous outings, 2001’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality, in the giveaway bin too soon given the way they are reacting to The Next Day (released March 12).
Yes, there is cause to celebrate its arrival after the English rock icon, following his 2004 heart attack, has kept an incredibly low profile over the last ten years – especially from the studio – giving many fans the impression he had retired from the world stage for good. But upon listening to these 14 new songs you’d be left to wonder if any time had passed at all as The Next Day is largely a continuance of the neo-classicist sound he was mining with its prior pair of predecessors, not to mention 1999’s Hours. Zig and a roundtable of longtime associates – including producer Tony Visconti, bassists Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Levin, guitarists Earl Slick and David Torn, and drummer Sterling Campbell, among others – bring the brew still simmering from Heathen and Reality to its full rapid boil, fusing together the jagged guitars of the first Tin Machine album and the contemplative darkness of the very record this new album sends up – 1977’s Heroes – to create what can easily be called one of the five best Bowie records out there. Thing is, to truly appreciate the greatness of The Next Day, you ought to revisit the five LPs that came before it. (Ron Hart)
Ron’s Runner-Up of the Week:
Ensemble Pearl: self-titled (Drag City)
You’d think a supergroup consisting of members of such new merchants of heavy as Sunn O))) and Boris would be something so skull crushingly thunderous it would blow anything either act has done out of the water. But on the contrary, the self-titled Drag City debut (released March 19) from Ensemble Pearl cuts closer to the cloth of the atmospheric moodiness of the outlet of the band’s X Factor, bassist Bill Herzog, who anchors the chaos with the “Cosmic American Music” that drove his former group Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, if not in form than in function. What transpires is not dissimilar to the later works of Sunn O)))’s primary inspiration, Earth, allowing frontman Stephen O’Malley to explore the more wide open spaces of the doom metal landscape he helped settle with impressive results. (RH)