Amos Lee is one of the many gentle folk troubadours who has carved out a career diligently plying his craft over the years, garnering modest but never overwhelming acclaim and buoyed by placements in movies and TV shows. His last record, Mission Bell–which actually nabbed the top spot on the Billboard chart when it was released–wasn’t fated to be any kind of springboard for a grand career transformation.
That isn’t how Lee rolls. Instead, on his fifth album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song, he delivers another solid, familiar batch of folk, roots, and country songs. Like the log cabin artwork that adorns the album cover, these songs are solidly constructed, and not necessarily crafted with any intentions to awe.
Mountains of Sorrow differentiates itself from Lee’s previous records by fully embracing a band mentality. In the past, his work has been largely defined by its solo intimacy. But here, he’s joined by his touring band, who really bulk up his sound and take the music down a variety of different stylistic paths.
Mazzy Star’s new album, Seasons Of Your Day, is the band’s first in 17 years. However, despite the almost two decades long layoff, the record sounds right at home in today’s musical landscape. That’s because the sound that Mazzy Star perfected in the mid-90s–a slow-burning, moody, dreamy, psychedelic rock that may have been slightly ahead of its time back then–has now been studied and appropriated by a whole new breed of young, hip rock and pop acts. It’s rather easy to find the connective tissue linking Mazzy Star’s smoky icon, Hope Sandoval, to Beach House or Best Coast.
A lot can happen in 17 years. Some bands can reinvent themselves many times over in that span. But Seasons Of Your Day is not a dramatic departure from its predecessors, nor is it even much of a progressive growth from Among My Swan or So Tonight That I Might See. A large part of that can be attributed to the fact that this record wasn’t completely written and recorded just within the last year or two. Rather, the tracks on this album (or some of the elements of them) span as far back as the early 90′s–before some of Mazzy Star’s previous albums had even been released!
The band’s roots are evident in these songs precisely because they were recorded as those roots were still taking shape.
I held off on listening to and reviewing this album, the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis, until I was actually able to see the film in theaters. I didn’t want any of the musical moments to be spoiled for me. While I’m happy to say the movie finally opened up in a theater near me and I was able to see it this past weekend, I must comment on how ridiculous it is that movies of this caliber (see Her for another example) have to endure lengthy limited releases (aka unless you live in New York City or LA, you’re shit out of luck) until enough glowing, award-buzzing press has been generated to spark nationwide roll-outs. I get that it all comes down to business and the almighty dollar, but it’s frankly embarrassing that 47 Ronin was probably in every major theater shitting the bed and taking up screen space while a film like Inside Llewyn Davis had to bide its time and wait its turn.
Get your head out of your asses, America!
Anyway, let’s talk about this little gem of American folk music. Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a single week in the life of a struggling folk singer (based in part on Dave Van Ronk) in early 1961 in New York City. With a winking nod to James Joyce, the titular protagonist is united with a cat which he later learns is named Ulysses, which of course was another slice of life portrait of a searching Irishman. Davis’ story, however, is told largely through song instead of prose, and the movie (directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen) is as much a live folk concert film as it is a conventional drama. The Cohens, along with executive music producer T Bone Burnett, have quite the soundtrack credentials, having helmed O Brother, Where Art Thou?, one of the most successful soundtracks ever.
With the 56th Grammy Awards looming on the horizon (January 26th), it seems like an appropriate time to look over the list of nominees and review a handful of the albums that I missed writing about when they first dropped. On the docket are Drake’s Nothing Was The Same (nominated for Best Rap Album), Kings of Leon’s Mechanical Bull (Best Rock Album), and Lorde’s Pure Heroine (Best Pop Vocal Album).
Let’s jump into it.
Drake – Nothing Was The Same
Drake has always been something of an enigma amongst the titans of the rap game. Despite what he’d have us believe from his self-mythologizing “Started From The Bottom,” Drake did not have the type of hardscrabble upbringing that has shaped the rhymes of many of his peers (to his credit, he admits as much on “Wu-Tang Forever,” when he raps, “I find peace knowing that it’s harder in the streets / I know, luckily I didn’t have to grow there”). And amongst the leading rappers of the day, Drake actually spends the least amount of time actually rapping, opting instead to spend a large chunk of time singing and pursuing more of an R&B vibe. Despite the title of the record, that hasn’t changed here. In fact, Nothing Was The Same does indeed follow in the same footsteps as its predecessor, Take Care (which, oh by the way, happened to take home last year’s Grammy award for Best Rap Album).
Though the formula is essentially the same–dark, spare production work handled predominantly by Drake’s pal Noah “40″ Shebib, and songs that are based more on mood than hooks–it does seem that Drake learned a few lessons from Take Care that he’s implementing here. Namely, he cut back on some of the chaff (though still not enough), turning in a much more manageable and listenable hour-long album, and he all but eliminated guest spots for other rappers. Other than Jay-Z, who seemingly gets a pass for his eminence, there are no other rappers in the mix to compete with Drake. And that’s a good thing, because, as we found out on Take Care, those guests had a tendency to show Drake up. Without them, he comes off much smoother. It’s a matter of perspective, sure, but it certainly helps the overall product. And there are plenty of non-rapping guests to help flesh out the poppier songs, including Jhene Aiko on “From Time,” an exploration of self-confidence and how the lack of it can damage a relationship, Majid Jordan on the slinky hit “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” and the gorgeous hook that Sampha lends to “Too Much.”
My last review–of Haim’s debut album–was about a band breaking out in a big way. My next review is about another band experiencing something of a breakout, but on a far smaller scale. I’m talking about Baltimore’s J. Roddy Walston & The Business and their new album, Essential Tremors.
Their previous self-titled album, released in 2010, started to grow the band’s name and got them booked to several large festival bills, but with Essential Tremors, they are finally getting some well deserved national attention, largely in thanks to the album’s first track and lead single, the hellacious “Heavy Bells.” This track has been put in rotation on rock radio stations nationwide, and that’s provided the band a level of exposure they never could have received with just their touring schedule.
“Heavy Bells” is an interesting introduction to the band and the album. It is, by far, the most raucous track on the album, with Walston exploding into frenzied shrieks over a punkish rockabilly groove. It’s a sweaty, throat-shredding slab of infectious southern-inspired riffs, but nothing that follows is quite so extreme.
Haim are blowing up, for real. Days Are Gone, the debut album by this Cali sister trio, came out in September, topping Justin Timberlake in the UK. They’ve received major press outlet spotlights and were booked to play Saturday Night Live (where, aside from killing it onstage, they also made their way into the awesome “Josie” skit, featuring a playful take on The Outfield’s “Your Love”). They’ve even scored guest spots from hip-hop big shots Kid Cudi and Childish Gambino.
It would be hard for a debut release to go smoother than these ladies have made this one seem. And all the attention? Completely deserved.
The older two Haim sisters (bassist Este is 27, and guitarist/lead singer Danielle is 24) were actually at one time in a pop group that scored a spot on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack, but that music was not in the long-term cards for them. As is made evident on Days Are Gone, the sisters Haim are heavily influenced by the 80s and early 90s radio rock that I’m sure they grew up listening to. (It’s the kind of music that I, as a child of the late 80s and early 90s myself, heard all the time as a kid on the car radio, and that’s probably why this record sounds so natural to me).
As the year draws to its close, it’s clear that the three biggest female pop albums of 2013 came from Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. And given that Taylor Swift didn’t release a record this year, that should come as no surprise. Miley, Katy and Gaga are pop culture behemoths, and anything they put out is bound to make a big splash.
So, which lady takes the year’s pop diva crown? It’s quite a tough choice, but let’s discuss.
Miley Cyrus – Bangerz
As big as Katy and Gaga are, 2013 has unquestionably been the year of Miley Cyrus. How could it not be? From the twerking to the tongue, the drastic hair cut and dyed eyebrows, the VMAs and the wrecking ball ride, Miley blasted off into the stratosphere this year. As so many in the media and all the regular folk standing tall on their soapboxes and sitting high on their horses tried to rip her down and shame her, Miley straight up owned them all by going out and confidently asserting her own maturity, sexuality and smarts, proving that she cannot be lumped in with all the other former Disney princesses who now litter Hollywood as failed and embarrassing pop starlets. Her cover story in Rolling Stone is a master class in how all young women should look to go about making that tenuous transition between innocent and powerless young girl to a woman in complete control of her life and decisions. Sure, not every move has been flawless (seriously, those eyebrows…), but I simply don’t have enough bravos to give her on how she’s stepped into maturity while pissing off every prudish person in this country. You can’t expect or demand that a 21 year old girl forever remain the sexless tween you see her as from your days of watching Hannah Montana with your niece.
So that’s a definitive A+ for her image and stylistic choices. How about the record?
Back in March 2012, I went to go see the Black Keys play in Washington, D.C. Their opener for that show was the Arctic Monkeys. Although the Monkeys weren’t yet supporting their new album, AM, it was clear to me–even as a novice Monkeys listener–that the band had moved beyond their “British new wave of garage rock” mantle that their career was birthed upon. I never got into that genre, never felt it. It always seemed so forced, as most over-hyped and quickly fading British music fads do. But I could dig the show they put on that night.
Little did I know that those four lads from Sheffield would soon find themselves back in the studio, undergoing the same kind of transformative sonic rejuvenation that rocketed the Black Keys from a solid, straight forward garage rock band to slickly produced arena wallopers. Might the Monkeys have learned something from the Keys along the way? It sure sounds like they did.
AM is the Monkeys in their finest form.
The cover art–a hypnotic amalgamation of an elastic bass note, sunglasses at night, and a tiny bikini top (what, I can’t be the only guy who’s mind went there, right?–is a perfect representation of this album’s sound. It’s slick, lascivious, and simmeringly sexy, and it’s the perfect soundtrack to get you through the night, whether it’s one of hazy-headed dancing at the club or wiling away the hours thinking about the girl who threw her chance with you away, all in the pursuit of some fleeting thrill ride.
Hesitation Marks was supposed to be Trent Reznor’s masterful, long-awaited return to producing music as Nine Inch Nails. Instead, it feels like the intervening five years between now and his last, pre-hiatus NIN album, The Slip, have all but lobotomized him.
It was a given–and he had been showing increasing signs of this–but no one should have expected Reznor to remain the Prince of Darkness forever. People tend to mellow out as they age, and it just looks desperate to scratch and claw to maintain the image as the lord of the goths as maturity and stability set it (see: Marilyn Manson as exhibit A). But getting older (and happier) doesn’t necessitate that you forget how to feel passionate or inventive. The best (or perhaps I should say “lucky” ones) just figure out how to keep the spigot of inspiration tapped as they progress through their careers, and are able to redirect its flow in order to stay fresh and exciting.
NIN are one of my favorite bands, and I’m glad Reznor is back to writing NIN music, but Hesitation Marks feels like a giant, rudderless ship.