Good Things

Nightfall – Little Big Town

Here we are then, twenty-twenty, the year of hindsight, and my first (new) album purchase of the year is this new record from vocal harmony group Little Big Town. And it’s great, beautiful, and if you’re not uplifted by the opening track, “Next to You”, you’re dead inside. The band wrote 34 songs for this album, whittled down to a lucky 13 for the release. There are lush songs reflecting on things worth getting up for, drinking songs, questioning songs, heartbreak songs, and all of it lifted by the soaring power of the human voice, the harmonies and arrangements, as ever, superb. It’s not all Karen Fairchild, either. At times, I’ve felt that she’s carried the rest with her amazing voice on their standout tracks. Not this time.

On Chapel Sands – Laura Cumming

Finally got to read this, a book that was on my list from the moment I read an extract in the Graun last year. I listened to the abridged version on Radio 4, but still wanted to read it. It’s an intriguing story about a child who gets snatched from a lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child was the author’s mother, and the story is both a deeply personal story about identity and a documentary about rural life and hard times in the Britain of long ago. The author is an art critic and tells the story through images, including both family photos and paintings. She highlights the mysteries of both, from the blurred faces of long-dead relatives to the carefully composed works of old masters. The writing is beautiful, the story tightly controlled, with startling revelations that keep coming. Having read this and Mark Lewisohn’s first volume of his Beatles biography, and knowing some of my own family history, you start to form a picture of British family life that’s completely at odds with the conservative myth of “family values”. 

My one criticism of On Chapel Sands is that it tries very hard to be a beautiful (hardback) book, but is let down by the reproduction of the images that are so important to the telling of the story (like the one above). What it needed was an insert of glossy pages. What it ends up with is what Kurt Vonnegut so memorably described: “They were grainy things, soot and chalk. They could have been anybody.”

The Whisperer in Darkness – BBC podcast.

You ay have heard this recommended. Radio drama can be hit and miss; there are so many things that can go wrong. They can rely on grownass adult women to deliver the voices of children: bad. They can have extended sequences of grunts: boring. They can dumb things down too much: Journey into Space, I’m looking at you. They can be too depressing or too middle class. But The Whisperer in Darkness is properly good, so much so that I even forgive it the already tired trope of being a podcast about a pretend podcast. It even manges to be decently creepy and scary. 

(In contrast, the latest BBC attempt at this kind of thing, Murmurs, becomes quickly unlistenable. It relies too much on irritating sound effects which are, well, irritating. And it uses a sound effects library of sounds that telephones haven’t made in a long time. Also, it relies on the conceit that all of this drama is happening over telephone conversations – and who, these days, ever really talks on their phone?)

Desperate Island Disco

Well, Sue Lawley’s head in a jar, here we are again. It’s time to revisit the Desert Island Disc list, on this my fourth visit to the island. Yes, I like what you’ve done with the place. Here we are with a snapshot of what’s moving me right now. This time, two records survive from my previous visit, sand in their grooves, plus there’s a different version of a song that was on the previous list. Without further ado:

  1. Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. A perennial this, something I’ve been listening to for forty years, since the Radio Caroline days. In many ways, this could just be background noise, and sometimes it is, but then it will catch me, and I’ll pay attention, and kick myself for not paying attention to the first three minutes, or whatever it is. It’s not really that Top Gear bit I love so much as the extended improvisation in the middle, which is the bit that will catch my ear. Pentatonic scales: so endlessly versatile.
  2. Party of One – Brandi Carlile. So much in the title alone! This one is new enough to me (and this list) that I didn’t know that title, but I love it just the same. Such a great song, with lines like, “You should always let the sun go down on your anger / Let it burn you to sleep” — but it’s not just the lines. It’s the melody, that falling line around “I loved you the first time I saw you / And you know I love you still” grabs you in the guts. And, great songwriter that she is, Brandi Carlile knows that the words don’t always have to be such a stretch. The repeat of “I am yours, I am yours…” towards the end is another gut punch, and then the lush strings come in to the close. The problem with this one, Sue, is which 30 seconds to play? Because each 30 seconds is a different song.
  3. I Won’t Dance – Frank Sinatra. Last time it was the Count Basie version from 1962, arranged by Neil Hefti; this time, it’s got to be the Nelson Riddle Orchestra version from 1957’s A Swingin’ Affair, which is my favourite Sinatra album. And this song! The second run-through of the lyric, as Frank raises the energy, and improvises a “Ring-a-ding-ding”, is such a joy.
  4. Saturday’s Song – Hiss Golden Messenger. A relatively new discovery for me, MC Taylor’s voice and songwriting are now two of my favourite things, something to turn to when I want to find my peace. His music is like getting into a warm bath, which might not be something that would have appealed to 17-year-old me, but. When I was that age, my habitual way of listening to music was under the warm bedclothes with a radio pressed to my ear. So yes, I do love music that makes me feel warm and comfortable, always have.
  5. Something Good Coming – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Surprised myself with this one. I could almost automatically reach for “Learning to Fly” or “Refugee” or “Wildflowers”, but here I am, Sue, picking a late-period number from their album Mojo. It’s a slow build, a mood piece, and maybe that was the mood I was in when I made this list. It’s a sound that soothes you in the background but can also strike you between the ribs when you pay attention to the words. It’s quintessential late-period Heartbreakers, too, because they’re such an incredible unit, they could noodle for hours, playing in the gaps left by each other. Nobody here is doing very much at all, but it all swims together into the groove around Petty’s muttered vocal. Mike Campbell on guitar: never forget how good he is.
  6. Young and Angry Again – Lori McKenna. For me, this song from the great songwriter links to Petty’s American Girl; with it’s opening line, for example: “Sittin’ on the roof to get closer to tomorrow”, and later on you hear Springsteen: “Telling yourself all you’ll ever need / Is a heart full of fire and gasoline”. But the melody and wistful vocal are pure McKenna.
  7. With a Little Luck – Paul McCartney & Wings. I used to hate synthy sounds like this, and I sort of still do; I’d rather a hammond organ, any day. And yet, the stripped back arrangement of this allows McCartney’s superb vocal to shine through, and it’s that voice in the end that gets you, a performance that lifts what might otherwise be a throwaway pop song onto a level that makes people weep. A song that throws people back to some earlier, simpler time.
  8. The Pretender – Jackson Browne. Finally, and forever: my theme song.

Dylan wasn’t all terrible in the 80s

My podcast ducks are all in a row. Having identified Nothing is Real as an acceptable Beatles podcast, and Backlisted as an acceptable books podcast, I have now found a Dylan podcast, Is It Rolling Bob, which I only resent slightly for stealing the title of what would have been my own podcast.

[Which wouldn’t necessarily have been a Dylan podcast, by the way. Like this blog, I’d find it impossible to focus on one topic, so it would be an eclectic mix of me talking shit with a close friend, preferably a woman (you know who you are) because the world has enough podcasts featuring two blokes talking shit.]

I’ve only listened to a few episodes of Is it Rolling Bob but it seems clear so far that people are generally of the opinion that Dylan was terrible in the 80s. Lost his way, got writer’s block, had production problems, as documented in Chronicles, his “memoir” (and didn’t he tease us with that Volume One?).

Each guest starts the episode by quoting a line or a verse of a particular Dylan song, and most of the ones I’ve heard so far have chosen songs recorded in the 1960s. So if I was a guest on the podcast, I’d do two things. The first would be to quote from an 80s song, “Brownsville Girl”:

“How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh.

“We’re going all the way—’til the wheels fall off and burn

“’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies.”

Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

So that’s one thing. And the other thing I’d do is defend the 1980s. Of course it’s mostly terrible, but you can pull together a compilation album of corkers from that period, and it would stretch longer than two sides of a vinyl record. In fact, let’s cap it at an hour, and do it now:

  1. Heart of Mine. From his 1981 gospel album, Shot of Love, Heart of Mine is both a fine Dylan love song and a clear signal that the gospel era is at an end. “Jesus himself only preached for three years,” as Bob said in an interview at the time. Personnel on this track include Jim Keltner on drums, Clydie King on BVs, Ronnie Wood on guitar, and it’s only bloody Ringo on Tom Tom. The track starts out like a rehearsal, a noodle, and then goes into a passionate and beautiful and funky performance. Bob’s voice is strong, and you can hear the musicians feeling their way: keeping it live, Bob?
  2. Jokerman. This is from 1983’s Infidels, and has both Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitar, Sly and Robbie on the rhythms. The gospel era may be over, but the mystical, religious imagery continues: “Standing on the waters casting your bread / While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing”. And isn’t this beautiful: “Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers / In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed /Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.” It needed a better chorus, but it is superb, and who is it about? It’s about him, isn’t it, “manipulator of crowds, dream twister”. Fucking awesome. We’ve got 10 minutes already and we’re barely getting started.
  3. Tight Connection to My Heart. Controversial, I know, but I really like some of Empire Burlesque, which does indeed have possibly the worst album cover of all time. I think one critic described it as “good like Elton John is good” but not good enough for Dylan. Listen, all you need to know about this record is that a lot of the lyrics quote Humphrey Bogart movies. This tickles me. You can picture Dylan bingeing on Bogart and writing songs around the lines that stood out for him. Personnel: Mick Taylor again, Sly and Robbie again, and Carol Dennis et al on BVs. This is pure Bogart: “Well, I had to move fast / And I couldn’t with you around my neck / I said I’d send for you and I did / What did you expect?” And this is pure Dylan: “You’re the one I’ve been looking for / You’re the one that’s got the key / But I can’t figure out whether I’m too good for you / Or you’re too good for me.” And his final farewell to his evangelical years: “Never could learn to drink that blood / And call it wine.” The arrangement of the backing vocals is beautiful, by the way.
  4. Everything is Broken. Forward to the end of the 80s now, and this track from his well-regarded Oh Mercy. Personally, while I enjoyed it, I could feel the slightness of the songs on this record. The effect depends heavily on Daniel Lanois’ production. Still, there are several good tracks, and this is the first. Swampy sounds, lots of vibrato on the guitar, and some dry drums, and a clever lyric that tells us about all the things that are broken: “Broken cutters, broken saws / Broken buckles, broken laws / Broken bodies, broken bones / Broken voices on broken phones”.
  5. Sweetheart Like You. Another track from Infidels. I can leave the rest, but this is lovely. “I once knew a woman who looked like you…” And: “In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear / It’s done with a flick of the wrist / What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?” There are some religious allusions here, and it feels like it might be addressed to the one who converted him to Christianity. And some of Dylan’s best political lines: “They say that patriotism is the last refuge / To which a scoundrel clings / Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you king.” Some great guitar on this, from the Knopfler and Taylor team. End of Side One?
  6. Most of the Time. The best song on Oh Mercy, and one of the most heartbreaking songs he ever recorded. That this came out as I was coming out of a long-term relationship has nothing to do with it, I tell you. “Most of the time / I’m halfway content / Most of the time / I know exactly where it went / I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide / Hide from the feelings that are buried inside / I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend / I don’t even care if I ever see her again / Most of the time.” Superb bass line from Tony Hall.
  7. Ring Them Bells. Sticking with Oh Mercy, I don’t think you can listen to this one and then argue that Dylan wasn’t any good in the 80s. This makes me cry and I don’t know why, just that it’s so beautiful and moving. “Oh it’s rush hour now / On the wheel and the plow / And the sun is going down / Upon the sacred cow”
  8. Emotionally Yours. Another Empire Burlesque number. I’ve got a version of the O’Jays doing this, and it’s fantastic. So the lyrics are simplistic, but the performance is great. Mike Campbell on guitar, Benmont on organ, Howie Epstein on bass. That’s quite a lot of Heartbreakers right there. Honestly, I could pick two or three others from this record, but we’ll stick with two.
  9. Brownsville Girl. Written with Sam Shepard, this is a song with a cinematic quality, but also tremendous wit and warmth and good humour. I think it’s immense. I hate the 80s production, the drum sounds, the wasp-fart saxophone, but it is still glorious. And who is it about? Gregory Peck? No, it’s about Dylan himself. Shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself. “I’ll see him in anything, so I’ll stand in line.” And: “I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert / In your busted down Ford and your platform heels / I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet / Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel.” You could write a thesis on the backing vocals alone. “I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone (Oh, YEAH?)”. What even is this album cover?
  10. Every Grain of Sand. Back to Shot of Love, and one of his all-time greats, one of his gospel songs, this is Dylan as William Blake. “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake / Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break / In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” Arpeggiated guitar, and a careful vocal ending on a sigh, and Benmont on the keys, and a lovely harmonica break (some of his best harmonica playing is on the gospel records). Also, what even is this album cover?
  11. Series of Dreams. Finally, the bonus track. Recorded in the 80s and not released until the 90s. this was left off Oh Mercy, but of course it was. Why was it rejected? Something about not being entirely happy with the verses, preferring the bridge, but not wanting to mess with it too much. Probably titivated it too much and went off it. But it’s great. “In one, numbers were burning / In another, I witnessed a crime / In one, I was running, and in another / All I seemed to be doing was climb.”

59 minutes. Dylan in the 80s. Quite good. 

Macca: Quite Talented Shock

Years ago, when I was a teenager and a keen listener to Radio Caroline, I came upon what I thought was a Michael Moorcock science fiction novel featuring the band Hawkwind.

Wait, come back.

Anyway, Moorcock’s bibliography is chaotic, to say the least, but this book was possibly The Time of the Hawklords, long disowned by Moorcock himself and more probably written by Michael Butterworth. A post-apocalyptic novel featuring the band Hawkwind as the only saviours of humanity. It was almost certainly terrible, as were Hawkwind, but there was a moment in it that struck me, a teenage Beatles fan in the late 70s.

Back then, the only Hawkwind songs I knew were “Spirit of the Age” from their album Quark, Strangeness and Charm; and “Silver Machine”, which was their hit. The former, extended album track turned up frequently on Radio Caroline and, okay, I liked it, because it sounded great swirling out of the faint nighttime airwaves, bouncing off the heavyside layer onto the transistor radio clutched in my hand under the bedclothes.

But anyway, I only remember vaguely this moment in a post-apocalyptic scene as a convoy passes in the distance, blaring music, observed by Hawkwind, and the music the convoy is playing is “Silly Love Songs”, the 1976 song by Paul McCartney and Wings. In the novel this was confirmation that the convoy was unfriendly, evil, or at least deeply compromised. “Silly Love Songs” was made to stand for all that was bland, nasty, and meaningless in 70s pop.

“Silly Love Songs”. I mean: I had probably only heard it the once. I’d been prejudiced against solo McCartney by a couple of things. In the main it was John Lennon’s obvious disdain for Paul’s solo work, as expressed in songs like “How Do You Sleep” and in many interviews. In fact, for the longest time, my awareness of Macca’s solo material was limited to “Band on the Run”, which was often played on Caroline, plus “Mull of Kintyre” and its companion A-side “Girls’ School”. Later on, in the early 2000s, when I burned my first Imaginary Beatles album, I listened to a bit of his first solo record McCartney. And wasn’t impressed.

All of this is a long preamble to the news that I’ve spent a lot of time this year listening to Macca. Partly this is because of the quite good Beatles podcast Nothing is Real, and partly because I thought I ought to give him a chance.

He’s playing Glastonbury in 2020, which, I don’t know. I mean, a bit of it will be on telly, won’t it? With endless interruptions for meaningless chat from presenters, and everything being “amazing” and then a frustrating cut to someone trendy playing in a tent, and then the actual footage itself will be marred by all the fucking flags.

On the latest episode of Nothing is Real, one of the presenters mentioned how different an experience it is to go to see Macca in the US, where his audience reacts with unalloyed joy and a complete absence of cycnicism. I’ve seen some YouTube videos this year that have reduced me to tears. When the man stands up and performs “All My Loving” there is simply nothing to beat it for sheer emotional punch. But of course, there’s going to be a huge difference between an uncynical American audience (which is to their credit) and the trustfunders at Glasto, who are going to be at best a mixed bag. We could probably predict 90% of the setlist, but that’s as it should be for this kind of gig.

I still struggle with much of his solo material, though I take the point that he has produced stuff that was ahead of its time, and that he was underappreciated for what he was doing, especially in terms of live work. I still think he needs an editor, and he always needed a creative foil to curb his excesses. He and Ringo have consistently gone out there and played live music. And it was a game effort, if a little insane, what with the shitty tour bus and the college gigs and everything, to pretend Wings was a proper band and not just a backing band for Paul. George did play live a bit, though his voice wasn’t up to it; and John barely did anything. After a while, Paul stopped fighting against his legacy and started doing Beatles songs live, and I’m pretty sure that this is something I ought to have seen – especially before his voice was shot.

I think that I’ve always felt resistant to Paul’s catchiness and his melodic gift, which is perverse, but I’ve always been suspicious of songs that appear to be catchy for the sake of it and about nothing. Unnecessary earworms. But that’s clearly a prejudice borne out of being an early Lennon fan, and still infected with his belief that art is about the artist. Then again, something like “You Never Give Me Your Money” (one of my favourite later Beatles songs) can easily be read as “about” the Alan Klein controversies, and I suppose Paul has always concealed his autobiographical stuff more than John bothered to.

I’ve still got a lot more to explore but I’ve come across quite a lot already that I like. Some of it familiar, some of it not. For example, his song, “No More Lonely Nights”, with Dave Gilmore on guitar, is very good. Apparently, he’s never done it live, and it’s tainted by association with Give My Regards to Broad Street, but it’s properly good. And “With a Little Luck” is a proper gem, which notwithstanding its slightly cheesy synth backing seems to move people in mysterious ways; and then there are things like “Souvenir” and “Early Days”, which show him struggling with his voice but producing some emotional depth.

He doesn’t need my patronage, and it now seems like an impossible job to go through it all, but Macca solo is better than I thought. As a bonus, and thanks to the podcast, I’m enjoying the pleasure of McGear, the solo album by Mike McCartney, with most of the songs co-written and performed with Paul and Wings. It’s surprisingly excellent.

And you know what? “Silly Love Songs” is great.

Solotude

Back in November, I posted about Imaginary Beatles Albums, playing the popular game of wondering what albums they’d have put out if they’d settled their differences and carried on.

I’ve added a one more imaginary playlist since then, a post-1974 playlist featuring releases up to 1980 and beyond. But as with all of them, it’s only all right.

But what if, wondered I, what if they had, in fact, split up after the white album? What would the first Beatles solo records have looked like? As it turns out, post-1968 Beatles solo records are very good indeed, much better than post-1969 imaginary Beatles releases.

First of all, with apologies, I haven’t bothered with Ringo, because the truth is that his first solo record would probably be more or less the same.

Second, some idle speculation. I’m assuming that a similar selection of songs is knocking around. I’m also assuming that with no Twickenham Studios debacle, no Klein, no disputes, and no stitch-ups, the relations between the band members would have remained cordial (perhaps after a short break). Which means they might all have occasionally guested on each others records. That said, I’m still allowing for the composition of some of the “needle” songs.

Let’s start with George. Unsurprisingly, his is a strong set.

  1. Something
  2. I Me Mine
  3. Wah-Wah
  4. My Sweet Lord
  5. What is Life
  6. Here Comes the Sun
  7. If Not For You
  8. For You Blue
  9. Old Brown Shoe
  10. I Live For You
  11. Isn’t it a Pity

Macca is more problematic. I really want to include a lot of the Abbey Road stuff because, objectively, The Long One is one of his greatest achievements. Of course, it doesn’t quite hang together without John’s contributions. But let’s assume it would be recorded like this, and would hold together. Somehow.

  1. Get Back
  2. Teddy Boy
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer*
  4. Every Night
  5. Oh! Darling
  6. The Long and Winding Road†
  7. Junk
  8. Maybe I’m Amazed
  9. Let it Be
  10. You Never Give Me Your Money
  11. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
  12. Golden Slumbers
  13. Carry that Weight
  14. The End
  15. Her Majesty

*Well. As previously noted, a lot of people dislike this one, but I don’t, and see it as an example of Paul’s gift for the vernacular.

† I’m assuming the Naked version

John Lennon was, in 1969, already the most solo Beatle. I haven’t included “Cold Turkey”, however, because I’ve always hated it. Also “Give Peace a Chance” is a bit rubbish so I don’t want it clogging up my iTunes. I was aiming for no more than 45 minutes, and unlike Macca, Lennon can’t manage that with more than 10 songs.

  1. Instant Karma!
  2. Come Together
  3. Mother
  4. Across the Universe
  5. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  6. The Ballad of John and Yoko
  7. Remember
  8. Dig a Pony
  9. Working Class Hero
  10. God

Best Music Downloads of 2019

8. Sheryl Crow Threads

It’s not that Sheryl Crow is retiring, but she says that Threads will be her last album. I guess that doesn’t preclude EPs, singles, and other download formats. Here, she calls on a variety of different friends and performs across a range of genres. Not everything here is to my taste, but once I’ve weeded out the unlistenable from the original 17 tracks, there’s still a core of decent stuff to make up a 10-12 track album. It’s too eclectic to hang together, but there are still highlights, including “Prove You Wrong” (performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris) and “Everything is Broken” (performed with Jason Isbell).

7. J.S. Ondara Tales of America

Born in Kenya, J.S. Ondara won a Green Card lottery and relocated to America, which is the place where all the music he listened to growing up comes from. He taught himself guitar; obsessed with folk music, he says he “Dove deep and fell hard.” Ondara sings poignant songs about the American experience, the promise and betrayal of the American Dream, with a hefty dose of Dylan influence. Songs of America is full of pretty melodies accompanied by his plaint vocal, sounding completely like American folk music but with a Kenyan accent. Highlights include the beautiful “Torch Song”, “Give Me a Moment” and “Days of Insanity”.

6. Trisha Yearwood Every Girl

Hearing Ms. Yearwood’s voice again after such a long hiatus was to rediscover an old friend. When I first heard her music (I can picture the scene) it was in the form of a single track on a sampler CD that came with a Country Music magazine. This was in the 90s, and I was pottering around tidying up in the first house I shared with my girlfriend (now wife). The clarity and power of her voice was immediate, and with the right material, she’s unbeatable. Highlights here include Lucie Silvas’ “Find a Way”, the title track “Every Girl in This Town”, and “What Gave Me Away” (performed with her husband Garth Brooks.

5. Maren Morris GIRL

While Maren Morris had a huge impact with her first album (notwithstanding her inability to get airplay on so-called Country radio), it was nothing like the high profile she maintained throughout 2019. It all starts with this, her second album, which swaggered onto the stage daring radio programmers not to play its super-catchy and soulful title track and then sailed to #1 on the Country album chart (and #4 on the mainstream album chart) and finished the year by winning the CMA Album of the Year Award. Whatever you think “country” sounds like, this isn’t it. This is dance, electronic, rock, soul, pop, all the genres, and behind it an artist of confidence and integrity who is in complete control. Highlights include the title track, (capital letters “GIRL”), “All My Favourite People” (performed with the Brothers Osborne), “A Song for Everything”, “Common” (with Brandi Carlile) and “The Bones”. But really, you only get the full sense of her broad talent by listening to the whole album.

4. Miranda Lambert Wildcard

Another artist in control of her own narrative is Miranda Lambert, who has come a long way since winning third place in the Nashville Star reality show back in 2003. Her first major label release, Kerosene, hit #1 on the Country album chart and sold over a million copies, and her every album since then has also hit the top spot. She also tends to hit #1 in her “off” years with her group The Pistol Annies. While sales in the streaming era are not what they used to be for anyone, Ms Lambert continues to achieve her status “backwards, in heels”, largely without the support of country radio. Highlights of this strong set include “Mess with my Head”, “It All Comes out in the Wash”, “Pretty Bitchin’”, and “Way too Pretty for Prison” (with Maren Morris). True stories told with a punch to the solar plexus.

3. Midland Let it Roll

I recently mentioned this August release, but here is its place on the list. It’s a great sounding record, with smooth production and that 70s country rock vibe. Highlights include the title track, “Cheatin’ Songs”, “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns”, “Mr Lonely”, and “Roll Away”

2. Hiss Golden Messenger Terms of Surrender

This intense set from the prolific MC Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger is warm, good-hearted and uplifting. Hard to place on the genre spectrum, this is Americana, folk-rock, singer-songwriter. Highlights include “I Need a Teacher”, “Katy (You Don’t Have to be Good Yet”, “My Wing”, and “Cat’s Eye Blue.” As a bonus, check out the non-album single, “Watching the Wires”.

1. The Highwomen The Highwomen

While Let it Roll may be a better all-round album, and both Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris have a claim to this spot, the larger project represented by The Highwomen places it highest for me. While their singles didn’t penetrate the cloth ears of country radio programmers, the album deservedly hit #1, and the group of collaborators gathered here represents the best in country songwriting and performing at the moment. While the challenge to country radio was rejected, I do think a number of the songs here have staying power, and we’ll be listening for years to come. Highlights include the title track, “Redesigning Women”, “If She Ever Leaves Me”, and “My Only Child”. As a bonus, check out their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on the soundtrack to the movie The Kitchen.

Fine tunes from Midland and Brandi Carlile

It is somewhat sheepishly that I provide a brief review of Brandi Carlile‘s By the Way, I Forgive You. While Grammy nominations don’t necessarily mean a lot, the six she received in 2018 as a result of this record do speak volumes. I’m sheepish because I did (of course) give her song “The Joke” a quick listen on the YouTube, but for whatever reason it didn’t grab me. Given how great this album is, I want to nag at that a little more. Carlile has a powerful, distinctive voice, and I’m wondering if trying to listen on crappy laptop speakers gave it an unpleasant timbre. Furthermore, I found the cover design offputting; turn a light on, I want to say.

Still, thank goodness for The Highwomen, which album has given me cause to go back and listen more properly to By the Way…, and I’m here to confirm what everybody from the Grammy nominations committee to Barack Obama already knew. It’s a tremendous album, full of confidence and swagger, a shout to the rafters of the kind of popular music that defies categories. The great pleasure for me now will be in going back and listening to her earlier records.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Midland have recently released their second album, and it too is a cracking listen. Perhaps because lead singer Mark Wystrach was also a soap opera star and model, people found it hard to take Midland too seriously at first. Early singles were good, but was this for real? Was this pastiche? The Nudie-style suits certainly nodded towards Gram Parsons, while the smooth harmonies recall Eagles and the 70s West Coast scene. Ultimately, the vibe is Alan Jackson mixed with all of the above, and (pastiche or not) these guys are seriously good.

Their first album, from 2017, was On the Rocks, and I’m still playing it regularly on my 4-star-plus playlist. Their second album, Let it Roll, released in August, proves that the first was no fluke. It’s packed with hits, is a pleasant listen, and doesn’t seem to contain a single duff track.