Marcelo D2 – Amar é para os fortes (2018)

a1hxcqjpofl._ss500_Por Francelino Prazeres de Azevedo Filho

O hip hop brasileiro passou por uma fase muito interessante no começo dos anos 2010. Digo “interessante” e não “era de ouro” porque estou falando das minhas opiniões, e pelo que vejo, a crítica especializada não concorda com minha visão, não 100%, ao menos. Naquela época, a moda da vez era um hip hop antropofágico, que sugava as influências dos inúmeros gêneros e tradições musicais brasileiros, sempre trazendo samples obscuros, ganchos que grudavam na cabeça, e um som que borrava o limite entre rap e MPB. Depois, talvez por causa da natural mudança de tendências musicais, talvez por causa do golpe de 2016 que afundou e continua afundando as perspectivas sociais e econômicas brasileiras, o som do hip hop mudou. Ficou mais cru, mais trap, mais agressivo, mais isolacionista e menos melódico. E embora eu reconheça a importância e a necessidade social de tal estilo, particularmente nas letras, não consigo apreciá-lo musicalmente. Para mim, o que era uma “era de ouro” acabou precocemente, sem atingir completamente o gigantesco potencial que eu via.

Ninguém mandou o memorando para Marcelo D2, no entanto. Seu Amar é para os fortes parece situado completamente no estilo de Criolo, Conká, Senzala Hi-Tech e Ogi. É uma espécie de musical hip-hop, lançado em acompanhamento a um curta-metragem de mesmo título, estrelado pelo filho de D2. Como não vi o filme, não posso comentar das qualidades do mesmo, mas no álbum, trechos de diálogos estão presentes em quase todas as faixas, e, devo dizer, pelo que aparece no disco, a história é bem fraca. O diálogo abaixo, da canção Parte 2, é particularmente patético, artificial, e agride meu paladar de tal forma que por si só já seria suficiente para me fazer abaixar a nota:

– Então, vem cá. Francesa, vai morar em Nova York. Daí tu conhece a brasileirada toda modelo, te apresenta o modernismo e tu resolve vim pra cá pro Rio pra estudar Tarsila do Amaral. Caralho, hein, cara. Tipo, privilégio que virou curiosidade ao invés de virar medo. Visão.

– E você, cara sensível que vai parar lá na galeria pra ficar mais perto da arte, esperto isso. Quero dizer, falta que virou curiosidade ao invés de virar ódio.

Se os outros diálogos parecem ter vindo de uma minissérie da Rede Globo, este foi retirado diretamente de uma temporada perdida de Malhação.

Já musicalmente, o álbum é muito bom. Seja por meio de samples ou melodias originais, ele bebe de toda uma variedade de gêneros brasileiros e até mesmo do pop francês retrô, em uma faixa. Depois da tempestade, a faixa em questão, teve seu refrão escrito pelo francês Sasha Rudy, na época com 16 anos, e se destaca pela sutileza e doçura num disco em geral mais áspero. Ainda melhor é Resistência cultural, que após ter sido lançada como single, com participação de Siba e Hélio Bentes, ganha uma versão diferente no álbum. Desta vez com Gilberto Gil nos vocais, e uma sonoridade de sanfona e flauta que parece que veio direto das colaborações de Gil com Dominguinhos nos anos 70. Falando em Siba, foi muito bom ver a magnífica Folha de bananeira, da sua Fuloresta, na voz de Biu Roque, ser sampleada justamente na canção-título, ainda que para mim seja uma das mais esquecíveis do disco em rap e gancho. Febre do rato é instigante, e foi feita sem samples, mostrando o quão bacana fica o som do hip hop com instrumentação assim. Filho de Obá fecha o álbum com seu magnífico refrão em afro-samba cantado por Danilo e Alice Caymmi. Tem uma participação talvez até simbólica de Rincón Sapiência, que para mim é de longe o melhor da geração pós-2016 do hip hop.

O disco é curto, somente 32 minutos, incluindo as conversas moles em todas as faixas. De suas 10 músicas, 4 são sem muita estrutura, do tipo que, em álbuns maiores, sobram e até fazem ligação entre as outras. Neste, entretanto, não há muito a ser ligado, e senti muito a falta de mais canções de porte, que mantivessem o nível de Resistência cultural, Febre do rato e Filho de Obá. A força destas acaba diluída, e sem a constância da pressão musical, não consegui me apaixonar pela experiência. Ainda assim, achei lindo o resgate do estilo do começo dos 10s, e espero que esta obra incentive mais artistas a se enveredar por este caminho. Se não o disco todo, ao menos as músicas mais fortes deixam bem claro como tal caminho pode ser maravilhoso.

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Bobbie Gentry – Fancy (1970)

By Michael Strait

Once again, Bobbie sings other people’s songs – with one remarkable exception.

There are ten songs on this album. Eight of them are covers, one of which (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) was also present on the last album. One of them (“He Made A Woman Out of Me”) was written for Bobbie by the minor pop songwriter Fred Burch.

And one of them is “Fancy”.

Gotta be honest: after “Fancy”, most of the rest of the songs on this album kinda just pass me by in a haze. I said before that “Ode to Billie Joe” is probably Billie’s best song, and that may well be true. But if it is, “Fancy” is nipping right at its heels, and there are certainly times I think it’s the superior song. It’s the only self-penned tune on this album, and the effect of hearing it after having last listened to the light-hearted, airy-smooth Touch ‘Em With Loveis resemblant of a brass-knuckled sucker-punch to the gut. Anybody who considers themselves any sort of country fan, feminist, or class-conscious leftist should have this song somewhere in their library, even if it’s the only Bobbie song they own. It’s incredible, and solidifies Bobbie’s place among the finest storytellers in lyrical history.

Melodically, it’s a return to the bluesy style Bobbie employed so much on her first album, complete with the usual aggressive acoustic riff, funky horns and shimmering strings. There’s a big, strong hook, powerful enough to propel the song into the billboard top 40 ( twice, in fact) despite the uncompromising subject matter. Unlike “Ode To Billie Joe”, there’s no mystery here to keep the public guessing; there’s just deep, deep misery, of the sort that’s been carefully designed to make anyone listening sit up and think for a while about the depth of crushing poverty throughout the richest nation in the world. Here we have the story of a mother who spends her last few dollars, and her last few days in this world, preparing her daughter for a life of prostitution because it’s the only option that doesn’t mean certain death. It’s not shy about it, either, and it doesn’t couch the misery in softer language – witness this verse and marvel at the fact that this song was a successful pop hit in two decades:

Momma dabbed a little bit of perfume
On my neck and she kissed my cheek
Then I saw the tears welling up
In her troubled eyes when she started to speak

She looked at our pitiful shack and then
She looked at me and took a ragged breath
“Your Pa’s runned off, and I’m real sick
And the baby’s gonna starve to death.”

There’s only so much I can actually say about this song, because after a certain point I’d definitely just be reduced to quoting all the lyrics and pointing at them, asking you to just goddamn see for yourself. Suffice it to say that the narrative is incredibly vivid, full of the memorable scene-setting imagery Bobbie has long been so fond of, and that this story contains enough depth, moral complexity, and narrative power for a full movie adaptation if someone got the notion. If you ever needed a reminder of why the working class must always remain a fundamental part of any feminist movement, this is it.

And then there’s the rest of the album.

In a way, this feels more like a debut album than even her actual debut album. I’m not sure what the actual timeline was, but it certainly feels like the rest of this thing was frantically thrown together in the wake of the title track’s unexpected success, just like Ode To Billie Joe. The other songs are almost all covers, and there are some baffling choices. None of the songs are bad, of course – Bobbie’s still yet to let me down there – but a lot of them feel a little out of place following the opener, especially “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”. Great song and all, but seriously, guys – did it occur to nobody that it’s difficult to appreciate this sort of whimsy with desperate prostitutes and starving babies still occupying one’s headspace? Maybe it was less of a problem in the vinyl days, since it’s on the second side, but I dunno. Listening to stuff like “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Something in the Way He Moves” (from a musical and a James Taylor album, respectively) after “Fancy” really creates a whiplash effect that never goes away. I’ve certainly got no real desire to describe most of these songs – they’re all just uncomplicatedly good, smooth, string-laden pop tunes, pretty much indistinguishable from the stuff on her last album. No misfires at all, on a song-by-song basis, but the concept renders the whole end product a little screwy.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” is the only other one I really feel any urge to actually talk about, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the only other non-cover on the album. The funky organ riff is fantastic, and the way the verses transition into the hook is absolutely divine in exactly the way Bobbie loves. If I didn’t know someone else had written it, I’d have assumed right away that she penned this herself, what with its blues-soul feel and miserable, country-focused lyrics. She sings it with great passion, too, really showing off her soulful chops. It’s not truly much better than most of the generally solid songs on this album, but it’s possibly the only tune here that fits with the tone “Fancy” sets, and as such it’s the one I always end up remembering.

So, there you have it. My lamest review? Maybe. But I feel like I’ve basically summarised this album as well as I can. It opens with one of the best, most affecting, and most powerful songs ever written, and then follows it up with a jukebox. It would be a malicious lie to call it a bad album, or even a mediocre one – but it is, to me at least, a misfire of some description, and I’d have loved to see a full album of self-penned tunes backing up the title track. As it stands, the song feels like an orphan, or an alien living among another species. Get it, for sure, and maybe get “He Made A Woman Out of Me” too, but the rest here is entirely optional.

Bobbie Gentry – Touch ‘Em with Love (1969)

touch_27em_with_loveBy Michael Strait

She cedes the spotlight mostly to other songwriters on this one. Good thing she’s got great taste.

So, most of my reviews dealing with cover songs tend to compare and contrast ’em with the originals and/or other versions. That’d take me too long here, though, so I’m not gonna bother. Exactly 50% of this album is covers, and of the rest, only two are self-penned. That disappoints me a little, because Bobbie is one of my personal favourite songwriters, but I needn’t have worried too much – she’s not sung a bad song yet, and she’s not about to start now.

For the most part, this is a straightforward exploration of the soul end of Bobbie’s influences. The folk and blues stuff is mostly left by the wayside, though the fingerpicked “Seasons Come, Seasons Go” – one of the aforementioned self-penned ones – isn’t too dissimilar from her earlier lush folk songs. Still, it doesn’t take long for all the smooth soul elements to come in and remind you that Bobbie, on this album at least, really didn’t want to be mistaken for a country singer anymore. The song is lovely, if not particularly memorable; the second of her songs on the album is far more likely to stick with you. “Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing” has one of her characteristically smart verse melodies and some of her most vividly visual lyrics, as well as brief, loud hook that stays memorable mostly on account of cleverly-built contrast with the verses. It always leaves me momentarily a little sad that she didn’t write more tunes on this thing, but truth be told it isn’t the best song on it anyway.

That honor, honestly, probably goes to the most obvious choice. “Son of a Preacher Man” was always one of my favourite songs in the endlessly-syndicated classic pop pantheon, and Bobbie’s take on it is stupendously excellent. That cool, badass riff that opens it sets the mood for the rest of the song, and the rhythm section maintains a strong, self-assured presence the whole way through as she sings those unforgettable melodies with her characteristic complete confidence. There’s no simpering dependence here, nor much weepy nostalgia; there’s just a woman proudly expressing her justly-earned love for a man who deserves it. I’m not a fan of the fadeout at the end, but other than that I’ve no complaints at all – it’s short, sure, but so is the original, so what can you do? The other super short track on the record, the title track, is similarly excellent and opens the album on a suitably arresting note. Bobbie didn’t write it, but I can see why she chose it – the hook comes swooping in out of nowhere in an incredibly memorable fashion in just the sort of clever way I can tell she really appreciated, and the lyrics, while a little nonsensical, are rife with the sort of intrinsically Southern religious imagery she loves. I also like how the guitar and organ take turns, on the first and second verse respectively, to do their little flourishes over the solid base that is the piano. The sonic variety on this album is a real treat.

There’s one more non-cover left on the first side, and it’s excellent. “Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere” manages to perfectly capture the strange mysticality of America’s vastness and the allure of losing one’s troubles in it. It strikes a difficult tone to hit – it’s regretful, especially the mournful, harmonica-assisted conclusion to the chorus, but it’s also full of undeniably yearning and not a little relief. That’s partly due to the excellent pacing – the way the hook is built up to and then segmented, cut apart by little instrumental moments – but also due to Bobbie’s excellent vocals, which manage to sound wistful in two ways at once, as if she simultaneously wants to be better at holding stable relationships together and wants to be going off somewhere and exploring. The first side is completed by “Natural To Be Gone”, which has possibly my favourite verse melody on the album and manages to throw in a softly cantering banjo in a way that doesn’t feel remotely out of place in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward smooth, string-based soul song. Bobbie was just as inventive an interpreter as a writer.

The only non-cover on side two is “I Wouldn’t Be Surprised”, which has a very nice choir and some passionately-banged drums but otherwise is probably one of the less essential tracks on here. It’s still good, of course, but it’s good in a kind of unsurprising way, which makes it a lesser effort as far as Bobbie goes. “Where’s The Playground, Johnny” does the same sort of things, but it does ’em better, with its smooth strings backing up a hook so melodramatic that it should by all rights sound kind of silly. It doesn’t, though – it sounds very pretty indeed, even if it clashes slightly with the worriedly metaphoric lyrics. “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”, meanwhile, is her shimmeringly pretty take on a song from a musical, and she delivers the simple, slightly kitschy lyrics with such conviction that it’s difficult not to be at least a little moved by them. Finally, we come to the closer, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, which has possibly the prettiest strings and most tasteful rhythm work on the album, not to mention that beautiful moment when the hook sort of holds off on attaining climax for a second, repeating the same string motif a couple of times in anticipation before it blossoms into a full-blown chorus. She really belts in this one, too, showing off the singing skills she’s usually been content to let play second fiddle to her songwriting and lyricism. It’s another display of her outstandingly well-rounded talent, in other words, which is basically the story of this whole album and, really, her entire career.

I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’d still rather be listening to an album of Bobbie originals, so for the most part I tend to play individual highlights from this record (especially “Son of a Preacher Man”) rather than throwing on the whole thing. But whenever I do, I certainly enjoy it, and that’s ‘cos there’s nothing to really not enjoy here. On its own merits, this album is lovely indeed, and it’s only twenty-six minutes long anyway so it’s not like it ever gets tiresome. I’d have more problems with Bobbie spending this section of her career singing other people’s songs if those songs weren’t all so good. I’m not entirely sure what she’s wearing on the cover, but whatever, man. When you’re Bobbie Gentry, you can dress how you like.

Bobbie Gentry—Ode to Billie Joe (1967)

odetobillyjoeMichael Strait

I don’t really want to focus on music history here, so I’ll just hit you with the abridged version: Bobbie Gentry recorded the song “Ode to Billie Joe” as an intended B-side, ended up releasing it as a single in its own right, and was stunned at its prompt, immediate success. She proceeded to grab a guitar, a producer, and a bunch of string musicians, and together they set about frantically recording a debut album to capitalize on her success. The end result was barely half an hour long, and about half its runtime was occupied by either “Ode To Billie Joe” or songs that had almost the exact same chord progression as “Ode to Billie Joe”. In other words, it should, by all rights, be kind of a mediocre album at best, and it certainly has absolutely no business being this good.

To be fair, though, we might’ve expected that the woman who wrote “Ode to Billie Joe” would turn out to be an expert at doing a lot with a little. That song is fascinatingly, deeply brilliant, and it’s certainly not encumbered with an overabundance of moving parts. It’s got a few lovely strings to fill some of the space, sure, but they don’t do much more than basic textural work, and that’s all they need to do. The melody, too, is perfectly catchy and not a little haunting, but its real purpose is to direct as much attention as possible to the lyrics. The words are the real meat of this song, and they are, in my humble opinion, among the best ever set to music.

It’s one of those stories that’s more about painting an environment than it is about the actual plot itself, and accordingly the central mystery – the one that’s occupied so much popular discourse about this song – is never resolved. Why did Billie Joe throw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge? We’ll never know, and that’s okay. What’s important is that you’re left with a fulsome picture of the world in which he lived and died, and it leaves you with the impression that life is rather transient around here anyway. The Mississippi Delta of this song is not quite a dystopia, but it’s an anachronistic relic from an earlier, less prosperous, more brutal era, full of backbreaking farm work broken up only by the weekly church visits and the occasional devastating virus. It’s no wonder the brother ends up moving to Tupelo; it doesn’t sound like there was much for him here. The most indelible mental image the song leaves us is of our poor narrator throwing flowers off the same bridge, no emotion described because no description is necessary. She’s surrounded by death, despair, and abandonment, and there’s little indication that she’s got prospects for anything else. In the end, I’ve always thought this in itself was, in its own way, enough of a resolution to the old mystery. This was the world in which Billie Joe lived, and it was all he had ever known. What more reason did he need to throw himself off that bridge?

“Ode to Billie Joe” is the best song on this disc, very probably the best song of Bobbie’s career, and one of the best songs of the era. It is not, however, the most memorable single moment on the album. That honor goes to “Mississippi Delta”, which is, on my 2007 re-issue, the opening track. I went into this album having been told Bobbie was a country artist, so I expected something like, I dunno, Patsy Cline. Imagine my shock when I throw this baby on and the first thing I hear is that aggressive r&b groove, complete with hard guitar stabs, ominous textural horns and that astounding harsh roar emanating from Bobbie’s mouth, sounding somewhere between an old whiskey-drowned bluesman, a passionate soul singer and a macho rock ‘n’ roll firestarter. She spends half the song’s runtime just repeatedly spelling out the name of her state, and it really has no business sounding as utterly badass as it does. But she makes it sound absolutely natural, and her charisma is instantly enrapturing. On this edition, the title track is the closer, so I spent my first few listens so wowed by the opening and closing tracks that I barely noticed the flaws in between. Sadly, they become more obvious on closer listens, but they’re still quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

You can slot all the remaining tracks into one of two camps. First, we have the songs that are basically clones of the title track, at least in terms of the chord progression; all have very similar bluesy melodies and open with the same little guitar motif, and it’s easy to get a little bored by the time you hit the last one. Second, you have the nice, pleasant folk ballads, usually played with intricate fingerpicking and full of lush string arrangements to add some extra sun. Of the former, my favourite is probably “Bugs”, which remains a song just about anyone living in any part of the South can relate to in the summer. It’s a silly joke song, I guess, but so what? It’s funny, and it works. The way the strings and drums do their best to evoke the motions of various insects in the second verse is highly endearing, and the hook is really very catchy. I’m also quite a big fan of “Chickasaw County Child”, which melds some of that lovely fingerpicking with the bluesy melody and throws in what may be the most optimistic lyrics ever written about Southern poverty. “Niki Hoeky”, despite fitting mostly the same template as the others here, is a cover, and while it doesn’t sound much like the (admittedly superior) original, I wouldn’t say it’s without any charms. I like the quiet piano underlying the whole thing, and those slightly exotic drums do sound quite nice. “Lazy Willie” is probably the most inessential of this lot, but I quite like that quaintly memorable Southern saying she throws in the last verse. “Don’t you remember, Lazy Willie, what Momma used to say?/ That all summer long the grasshopper would play/ The ant would work hard storin’ up his winter supply/ When the snow came, the ant lived, the grasshopper died.” I’m not entirely sure I could vouch for the ecological accuracy, but it brings a smile to my face all the same.

The fingerpicked folk ballads, meanwhile, are uniformly lovely on the surface, even if they aren’t all necessarily equally engaging on a deeper level. “I Saw an Angel Die” ties with “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go to Town With You” for the title of best. The former is a gorgeous, placid sonic portrait of a sun-baked, lightly wind-kissed Southern meadow married to a very prettily metaphoric narrative that seems to suggest a devastating heartbreak, all grounded in Bobbie’s earthen, slightly raspy voice. The latter isn’t as layered, I guess, but it’s still lovely to hear the various instruments introducing themselves and building up as the song progresses, transforming it from a simple girl-and-guitar ballad to a swirling mess of crystalline strings and regal horns that give the father’s trip to town the air of some great royal expedition. “Sunday Best”, meanwhile, is probably the least essential, being just a fairly lovely-but-unremarkable love ballad. As for “Hurry, Tuesday Child”, well, I guess I’m a little mixed on it; I love the ambiguously tragic lyrics (is the child truly leaving to find a better life, or is he leaving this world altogether?), but the song itself kinda plods along without doing much to draw anyone’s attention. It’s nice, but I don’t find myself listening to it very often.

And… huh, that’s it. I always forget how short this album is! It’s all good, though, ‘cos it keeps the flaws from becoming particularly noticeable and allows you to listen in the briefest little windows of time. There’s a lot of promise here, and she’d largely go on to realise that with the albums to come. This isn’t her best record, nor her most interesting, but it’s a solid start to a career and contains a lot of lovely music nonetheless. I’m still not really sure I’m prepared to call it a country record, but I guess I can see why a lot of people do – she’s a white girl from the South playing acoustic guitar songs about poverty and heartbreak, and even if her particular brand of heartbreak is very different to that of most country singers it’s easy to see how one might make the leap. Myself, I’m not really sure where to properly file her, but I know she’s a goddamn great musician, and you should at least have her somewherein that library of yours.

MISERY WITHOUT COMPANY: Tyler Childers—Purgatory (2017)

614ah2b-h1nl-_sy355_Michael Strait

I’m a man who grew up on rock music, where lyrics tend not to matter unless they’re written by Morrissey or Bruce Springsteen, so reviewing mostly-lyrical music like hip-hop or country can be a bit of a foreign experience for me. There’s a reason the first hip-hop act I chose to review in full was UGK, one of the more musically-focused rap groups of the nineties. This burgeoning series here is the first time I’ve ever really had to review consistently lyric-focused albums, and it presents me with a challenge I’m not sure how to face. So I’ll be trying a different tack from now on: when I need to quote and analyse a full lyrical passage, as if it were an excerpt from a poem or a novel, I will. I’ve been allergic to that up until now, because I’ve internalized the rock ethos and have long held the prejudice that to focus on reviewing lyrics is to indicate that one is too stupid to understand music, but I’m as ready to let go of that now as I’ll ever be. Tyler Childers, see, is simply such a good lyricist that I cannot, in good conscience, ignore the temptation to present and analyze his lyrics. He deserves it, and so do you.

That’s not to say the lyrics are his only appeal, of course. His voice – the first thing I tend to notice about country singers – is a complex instrument, blessed with a truly gorgeous tone and constantly quavering with vulnerability that doesn’t sound at all forced, allowing room for depth of sensuality difficult to come by in other singers. He can convey a very wide range of deeply-felt emotions with tremendous aplomb, and he always sounds absolutely lovely doing it. He’s got a real talent for melodic songwriting, too, as is immediately evident from the first track. After that lovely little fiddle intro, he launches into a vocal melody that accurately captures the exact mix of self-directed anger, wry self-effacing humor and general hopeless inevitability he’s going for with the lyrics, starting off low and quiet before quickly building into a brief crescendo before falling back into meek ennui.

And those lyrics are truly something Bear with me, ‘cos this song demands a lot of words, so this is gonna take a while. Let’s dive into the first verse for a little bit:

I only had a couple drinks last night
And few good hits from an antler pipe
And I must admit, I had a few white lines
And I don’t know what all happened

I woke up in the noon time light
With a poundin’ head, shiner on my eye
And I don’t know how and I don’t why
But it feels like fierce abandon

This is such a well-constructed verse that it almost seems too obvious to peel apart, but writing this good always deserves the honor. Look at the way he starts off, building up those clichés of addiction and abuse until their inadequacy becomes obvious and he just has to admit that he’s just lost control of the situation. Look at that beautiful resolution at the end, where he refrains from framing his addictions as a disease or an assailant and focuses instead on blaming himself, suffering the humiliation of admitting to himself that he does it because some part of him enjoys it. In particular, the words he uses draw my attention – “fierce abandon”, he says, characterising his urges as being ultimately drawn from a deep desire to reject social norms, abandon responsibilities and embrace a rawness anathema to well-adjusted life as an adult. In the first half, he descends into an uncontrolled pit of abuse; in the second half, he comes to the realization that he does, on some level, have some control, and that he is inflicting this misery upon himself. Just eight lines, and we’ve already got a nice, fulsome picture of the basics underpinning this man’s character. That gives him a nice base to work from as he transitions into the chorus, which add a beautiful metaphor to fill out the character. “Ah, working on a buildin’ out’a hand-hewn brimstone/ Workin’ on a buildin’ and I’m buildin’ on it all alone”, he sings, and it’s a couplet packed with complex significance. He’s trying to make an adult life for himself, but all he has to hand are his destructive urges, and with nobody there to share his life with the job is so much more difficult. All he has are his sins, and he knows one can’t build a life out of those.

The second verse is, arguably, even better. Let’s have a gander:

Pay no mind to the words I say
Cause they ain’t no count anyway
I been ramblin’ around and led astray
By the paths that I been choosin’

Cuttin’ paths like a forest fire
Pupils wider than backhoe tires
Throwin’ my money on a funeral pyre
But it sure feels good abusin’

First off, you have that opening joke, which disguises genuine self-loathing under the thin sheen of wry self-critical southern humor that everyone who’s lived there for any amount of time will recognise right away. That, though, is mostly just a setup for the amazing punny wordplay on the word “ramblin'”, where the surrounding context means he manages to convey both meanings of the word at the same time, almost as if he’s using them as metaphors for each other in order to describe his life. Then you have that amazingly significant line, “Cuttin’ paths like a forest fire”, which rivals Hemingway in its efficiency. The idea of finding your own path through life is an old rhetorical cliché, but here Tyler twists it, removing it from its normally benign context and framing it dangerously, quickly capturing both the lack of control he has over the situation (since, after all, men can conjure no force capable of truly controlling a forest fire) and the indiscriminate nature of the harm he sees himself as inflicting on those around him. He keeps up the fire theme with “Throwin’ my money on a funeral pyre”, which is as obvious and excellent a metaphor as one might ever find, requiring no explanation. The third verse isn’t quite so dense, but it’s still very important, tying it all back to reality with a necessary reminder that the character he is describing isn’t at all fictional: “Damn good gig, good damn crowd/ Good God, for cryin’ out loud/ Coming off stage I was mighty proud/ Then I don’t know what all happened”. This is him, his life, and he’s painting a tragically compelling picture of it.

A masterpiece, if you ask me. And it’s not the only one on the album, though it is the best. “Feathered Indians” has a similarly beautiful melody, oozing vulnerability and regret as lightly-plucked guitars and banjos surround him, fiddles sliding all over him and melding with the electric slide guitar into a gorgeous, sweeping portrait of the landscapes he describes. For the most part, the lyrics of this song are just beautifully rich imagery in service of an honest expression of love – “I’d go runnin’ through the thicket/ I’d go careless through the thorns/ Just to hold her for a minute/ Though it’d leave me wanting more” – but there’s more here, too, including a clever extended metaphor about the titular feathered indians that I wouldn’t have noticed if not for the genius page explaining the significance of his belt buckle and the Spirits he’s smoking. Then, of course, there’s the simple eloquence of his naked regret: “If I’d known she was religious/ Then I wouldn’t have came stoned/ To the house of such an angel/ Too fucked up to get back home”. Metaphors are great, but sometimes you really just don’t need ’em. Sometimes, the truth alone packs enough of a punch.

Regret, as with much country, is a persistent feature of this album. It pops up again on the next track, “Tattoo”, which is replete with yet more beautifully vivid imagery: “Flint strikes out to pierce the dark/ Cause a flame from just one spark/ Fill the room with smoke so harsh/ She exhales a memory”. Musically, the song is nice in a way that isn’t vastly memorable, though I do like how the majority of the instrumentation waits until the first chorus to kick in, and it’s a neat trick how the chorus is only two lines long but somehow never feels insubstantial. Really, my favourite thing about it is that it’s a song about regret over a long-dead relationship sung from the perspective of his ex, which is a stunningly mature step I don’t think I’ve seen an artist take before. It’s not a caricature, either – he’s fully understanding and carries not an ounce of bitterness in his portrayal of her, even if there is some small existential despair in his knowledge that the sum of their past relationship is now confined to “A haunted tale for someone else/ A little bit about herself”. Still, it’s rare to find an artist this willing to make themselves the extra in their own story.

This same regret bleeds into fear on the title track, a fairly fast-paced bluegrass song with lots of flaming banjos and delighted fiddles. It all serves to underscore the mortal terror that makes up the song’s subject matter, with the fast instrumentation sounding, after a while, like the sound of a life barreling inevitably towards the grave and – more pertinently – towards judgement. “When I’s a boy/ I’d drink and love and smoke and snort my fill/ But all the while/ I kept in mind the Lord’s redeeming grace”, he pleads, lamely trying to salvage some righteousness from the sins he sees overwhelming his life and trying every manner of trick to convince himself he won’t end up in the brimstone. “Catholic girl, pray for me/ You’re my only hope for Heaven”, he begs, hedging his bets in a rather charmingly simplistic interpretation of pascal’s wager.

I’m gonna pause for a second: I’ve always been an atheist, so the fear of eternity spent in the torturing flames is one of those fears I’ve never been able to relate to (I substitute with fear of The Void, though, so it’s all okay in the end). But the culture of much of the less fortunate side of the States is deeply rooted in Christianity, and it motivates a lot of really fascinating existential music. Future’s “Monster”, Hank III’s “Straight to Hell”, Bruce’s “Nebraska” – all have very Christian themes of sin, failure, and the certainty of a fate worse than death at the end of the line. I can’t imagine the terror such belief must induce, or the depth and extra dimensions it must add to the self-loathing one feels after every very human failure. This album is another to add to the list. “I know that Hell/ Is just as real as I am surely breathin’/ But I’ve heard tale/ Of a middle ground, I think will work for me”, says a desperate Tyler, angling as hard as he can for the temporary suffering of purgatory, knowing as he does that he has already sinned too much for anything more but hoping against hope that he hasn’t yet damned himself permanently to the eternal kind.

Christianity isn’t the only spiritual influence on this album, though. “Born Again” has some really lovely, reverby steel guitar in the chorus, sweeping and vast as the great stretches of time it concerns itself with lyrically. It’s a song about the cyclical, endless nature of life and death, tackled through the concept of reincarnation. If that sounds a bit ambitious for a simple ol’ country song then you needn’t worry, ‘cos Tyler has the good sense to frame it as a personal series of vignettes from the perspectives of animals, living out their lives and eventually dying. The masterstroke is that he frames each death as being caused by another being struggling to keep their own family alive; he casts no useless moral opprobrium on, say, the fox who takes the hen to feed her family, but he also doesn’t celebrate it, and the masterful melodic downturn in the chorus serves as a reminder that the cyclical, inevitable nature of death makes it no easier to cope with. Death is inflicted to stave off death, but Tyler never lets us forget that all respite is temporary. “I took one in the boiler room/ To put food on the table of a dying breed of man”, he says as cattle, and this is the sort of spiritual fear I can totally understand. The great cycle of life and death is a difficult topic to write about effectively, so Tyler deserves all the more praise for pulling it off. It takes a master to manage something like this.

Nature is a topic that’s clearly close to him, actually, because he returns to it on “Universal Sound”, another song tackling a topic that’s difficult to handle without coming across as corny. Tyler’s no cornball, though, and the arena rock delay effect on the guitar is deployed to uncharacteristic use as the starry backdrop for a portrait of blessed loneliness in the middle of the empty American wilderness. The melody is, once again, gorgeous, and the lyrics keep pace nicely. Observe:

I’ve been up on the mountain
And I’ve seen his wondrous grace
I’ve sat there on a barstool and I’ve looked him in the face
He seemed a little haggard, but it did not slow him down
He was hummin’ to the neon of the universal sound

Even I know enough about the bible to recognise the reference here. It’s a nice blend of traditional biblical imagery with traditional down-on-one’s-luck country imagery, and a pleasant slice of optimism in the face of all the misery one can find elsewhere on this record. It takes a lot of talent to turn the phrase “the universal sound” into anything more than just a hippie faux-aphorism, but Tyler manages it.

Tyler’s also no stranger to the art of non-autobiographical storytelling, and he indulges in a couple of classically country moments of it here. There’s “Banded Clovis”, one of many country murder ballads that’s secretly about more than just the brutality. This one is mostly about poverty and the opioid crisis, starring a dirt-poor man who goes digging for old native artifacts with his friend and then murders him when he finds some in order to keep all the money for himself. “A clovis like that is a hard point to find/ Makes pills swift to come by with a good chunk of change”, he says triumphantly, though the triumph is a mere temporary comfort before the isolation of the cell. The song is near-nonexistent, musically, but the story’s compelling and the underlying themes deeply relevant, so there’s still plenty to like.

The other such song, meanwhile, is almost the complete opposite. “Whitehouse Road” is possibly the most explicitly musical song on the album, and one of few I think it’s really possible to appreciate (though not FULLY appreciate) without paying attention to the lyrics. He leaves a lot of empty space between his lines in the verses, allowing the instrumentation to fill them with its steady, subtly driving rhythm and its minimal, expertly-applied guitar slides. This emptiness and spaciousness transitions into a faster, more urgent chorus, rendered cathartic and powerful by sheer force of contrast. Simple juxtaposition is underrated as a musical force, and it does a lot to make this song powerful. I get an urge to get up out of my chair and move to this song, even if not necessarily in a musical way; this is music for walking somewhere with a purpose, or driving cross-country at speed. Not bad for a song that is, by any normal standard, quite slow and quiet.

As for the lyrics, well, there’s a line in the chorus that I feel is probably the single most important line on the album, and one of those lines that doubles as an expression of a wider cultural moment. “Get me higher than the grocery bill”, he croons, capturing the essence of not only the rural drug epidemic that has made so many headlines recently, but also the general millennial mindset as a whole, efficiently expressing the basic life philosophy of many of my closest friends and summarizing the joke behind many a viral tweet. The song is, in many ways, a fantasy – about leaving all consequences behind as one embraces the sin that follows Tyler like a shadow on this album, rejecting social norms entirely in the pursuit of, indeed, fierce abandon – but it’s a fantasy rooted deeply in the lived reality of a generation of Americans, and that’s what makes it so powerful. “We been sniffing that co-caine/ Ain’t nothin’ better when the wind cuts cold/ Lord, it’s a mighty hard livin’/ But a damn good feelin’ to run these roads”, he sings in the chorus, emphasising the drug so as to properly convey its severity without ever actually lyrically condemning it. Tyler, in this song, is the quintessential rap character, transposed from the urban setting to the rural; he’s a gangster with “women up and down this creek”, plenty of enemies, a nocturnal lifestyle and a drug addiction, and much like that very same rap character, he’s a fantasy rooted in a desire to escape the grinding endlessness of poverty. It’s a hard living, but at least it’s got a purpose. Can the same be said for the punch-clock monotony of reality?

There is, at least, one other route Tyler offers out of the monotony, and that – of course – is genuine love. “Honky Tonk Flame” concerns this, but it’s the weakest song here so I won’t talk about it much except to mention the pretty fun Sonic Youth-esque noisy countrypocalyptic breakdown that happens after most of the lyrics are done, with all the instruments falling in on themselves in a rather glorious gentle cacophony that comes out of nowhere and fairly redeems a song that otherwise peaks at merely good. “Lady May”, the closer, is the better song on the subject, devoid of all instruments but the acoustic guitar and his lovely voice. It’s simple enough that there’s not all that much to say about it, but it is one of the most prettily-written love songs I’ve heard in a long while. Tyler’s talent for vivid scene-setting really comes out in the first verse:

I’m a stone’s throw from the mill
And I’m a good walk to the river
When my workin’ day is over
We’ll go swim our cares away
Put your toes down in the water
And a smile across your face
And tell me that you love me
Lovely Lady May

The little things do it; he’s far from the river, but he doesn’t hesitate to go there with her anyway, knowing that sometimes it’s worth expending effort to find a perfect moment in isolation with one you love. If nothing else makes the working life worthwhile, then a memory like that may well be. “I’ve seen my share of trouble/ And I’ve held my weight in shame/ But I’m baptized in your name/ Lovely Lady May”, he sings contentedly, reflecting on all the flaws he’s shown us so openly across the rest of the album and finally basking in a reason good enough to cast them aside. Love songs mean a great deal more when that love is the only consistently positive emotion one can find on an album. Much as with the Sarah Shook album I reviewed before this, it’s clear that a deep, genuine commitment to another person is the one surefire way Tyler knows he can avoid the demons that await him in his lonelier moments, so he values it very deeply indeed.

Gee… that ended up being long. But, hey, this album deserves the effort. This is the dawn of a really fantastic lyricist, and one who totally deserves your time. If you take nothing else from my reviews, take this: listen to Tyler Childers. He’s a real, uncommon talent, and in a brighter world than this one he’d be a superstar. Maybe he will be in time, but regardless, I’m gonna keep listening to this album. It’s an underrated little masterpiece, and in an era where popular country has largely abdicated its role as the genuine cultural expression of the American rural working class it highlights just how important it is to keep supporting the good stuff. Get this stuff in your library, man. He’s worth it, and so are you.

MISERY WITHOUT COMPANY: Sarah Shook and the Disarmers—Sidelong (2015)

a3879543519_10Michael Strait

I’m gonna get this right out of the way: if what bothers you about country music is that it’s whiny, this album won’t do much to swing you. But then again, if that’s your problem with country music, fuck you! Misery is one of the great topics of popular music, and the pages of history are littered with miserablist geniuses I’m willing to bet most of y’all just absolutely adore. If you’re into Cobain, Yorke, Morrissey, Reznor, Staley, Curtis, Waters or any of the countless other depressed rock heroes I’ve forgotten to mention, then you should have no problem whatsoever with Sarah Shook here. And while I’m not about to start officiating any sort of suffering olympics, I will say that Shook’s got a lot more to whine about here than Morrissey ever did.

There are, I think, two very important anchors on this record, and the first is the opener. “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'” is a gorgeous, fast-paced ballad, centered around a very pretty jangly guitar and slide-whistling steel guitars, and at first glance it appears to be just another (very good) country ballad about missing an absent lover. Listen closer, though, and you hear an edge of terror in the lyrics, helped along by that trademark harsh warble in her voice. “I’ve got the fires burnin’ way down low/ Oh, come home to me”, she begs desperately, and you can tell that this is more than just mindless submissive devotion. “Oh, I move the days along, workin’ my fingers to the bone”, she laments, hinting at just how much is at stake in this poverty-stricken world, but it’s only on the following songs that the gravity of this relationship really becomes clear.

Sarah Shook, you see, is a woman who has very much experienced enough love to know how pain feels, and she’s witnessed enough dysfunctional relationships and painful collapses to know the deep, profound importance of holding onto something good while she’s got it. She takes some pleasure in excoriating a deadbeat boyfriend on “The Nail”, and the music plays along with that stomping beat and the satisfyingly percussive transition into the chorus, but there’s no real catharsis – just a list of unfixable grievances, piling up on each other as the two of them gather spite and grow further distant from each other. “Well I ain’t your last and you ain’t my first/ Can’t decide which fact is worse”, she sings, landing somewhere between sardonic and despondent as she contemplates the endlessness of this cycle of misery. The end is near, she knows, but she can’t finish it yet, and all there is to do in the meantime is channel her energy into loathing.

She fixates on his drunkenness – “You’re never, ever home and when you are/ What was once a happy home becomes a bar” – before descending into it herself on the very next song, seeking refuge from his damage in the very architect of their misery. She’s fully aware of the futility – “There’s a hole in my heart ain’t nothin’ here can fill/ But I just keep thinkin’ surely the whiskey will” – but she has no answer; she just keeps drinking, trying to drown misery under misery. The melody she sings is as mournful as it gets, and the angry guitar solos bring no relief from the despair. This is music about personal failure, and the pain goes deep.

The only break she takes from the intimate, personal miseries that define the album as a whole is the song “No Name”, a rough, comparatively fast-paced rockish tour through the wider misery that defines American history. “I’ve killed more living souls than the Devil can claim/ And I’ll kill a thousand more because I have no name”, she sings, rugged and forceful; I’ve yet to work out exactly what it is she’s describing, but I know it sounds entirely fitting for a nation with roots as bloody as this one. Elsewhere, though, it’s all part of the same tapestry: decaying, dying relationships segue into endless drinking, which in turn metamorphose inevitably into fierce, vicious self-loathing. “Dwight Yoakam” manages to fuse all three into a tragic swirl of misery, as she tries vainly to drown all the insecurities bubbling up inside her at the collapse of her latest relationship. “He don’t walk around like he’s broken/ And he siiiings just like Dwight Yoooaakam“, she sobs, drawing that last line into a desperate plea to nobody in particular as she describes her erstwhile girlfriend’s new flame, trying to cope with the fact that her very depression has robbed her of the one thing that made it bearable. So she turns, again, to the drink, digging the hole deeper and spiralling down into the void.

Some of the most deeply depressing songs I’ve ever heard reside on the second half of this record, to the point where I sometimes feel a little weirdly voyeuristic about enjoying them. “Misery Without Company” is as black a portrait of hopelessness as you’ll ever find in any genre, rolling pure existential despair at the ravages of fate into the helplessness of substance addiction and creating a postcard from hell itself. “This old world ain’t been kind to me/ And no matter how I try I can’t seem to change my stars”, she reflects, showcasing her talent for rueful poetic flair before descending into that tragic denial we all recognise and fear: “I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ I’m fixin’ to dry up tomorrow/ But for now, the only thing keepin’ my chin up is this bottle.” The blackened melody and the wizened cracks in her voice all contribute to the general fog, and any semblance of a light at the end disappears. This blackness is everlasting, and those desperate wails in the final iteration of the chorus seem destined to echo into the emptiness forever, drawing no relief.

The three-song stretch from “Solitary Confinement” onwards is a particularly hellish journey. What begins as an attempt to recover from the particularly cutting pain of being cast aside like a toy – complete with a particularly depressing, bleakly catchy melodic downturn in the chorus, as she finally, inevitably returns to the bottle she can never escape – turns, on “Nothin’ Feels Right but Doin’ Wrong”, into an uncontrollable descent into a horrid routine in which all emotions become dissatisfying except the cheap thrills of sin and self-degradation, until eventually even they become so regular and predictable that she loses all capacity for real feeling. This all comes to a head on “Fuck Up”, which may very possibly be the most total slice of absolute misery and despair in my entire music library. “I can’t cry myself to sleep, so I drink myself to death/ I’ve got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath”, she sings forlornly, by now buried so far in the blackness that she can’t imagine light. Musically, the song is a fairly standard downbeat country ballad, but her utterly broken vocals and hopelessly despairing lyrics place it in among the bleakest things I’ve ever heard. “Ain’t a thing that I can change to get my luck up/ God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck ups”, she spits bitterly, rolling self-loathing and despair at the fickleness of fate into a concentrated beam of blackened misery.

This is what makes the other anchor on this record so important. The closer, “Road That Leads To You”, is one of only two expressions of genuine love on the album, and forms a very necessary bookend with “Keep the Home Fires Burnin'”, combining to light a candle in the impossible blackness and provide a ray of flickering hope. She doesn’t go into much detail about her lover, but she doesn’t need to – at this point, the fact that the love is real and purposeful is all it needs. And it’s at this point that the opening song really starts to make sense, and you really start to understand what it means.

She needs her lover to return from the north country, and she needs it because she knows the monsters that await her in the dark when she’s alone. She needs them to return, because she needs the relationship to remain real and genuine – because she knows what happens when it ends, and she deeply dreads what happens when it ends badly. She keeps the fires burnin’ low, not for her lover, but for her -because she there is nothing in the universe she needs more than that hope, and there is nothing she will ever cling to harder than that desperate lifeline. She can feel the blackness gnawing at the edges, and it terrifies her. The bleak loneliness of the bottle is waiting to consume her if she lets go, and she knows how cold it gets in the deep. So she resolutely keeps the fires burning, doing what she can to stave off the despair. She knows it well enough to know that she can’t let it claim her again.

And if that ain’t country, well, boys, you can kiss my ass. – Hank Williams III

Shakira–DONDE ESTAN LOS LADRONES (1998)

220px-dondeestanlosladronesReview by Joseph Middleton-Welling

Assigned by Nicolás Martínez Heredia

I’d previously only knew Shakira from ‘Hips don’t lie’ back in the late 00s. That song was never one of my favourites but I didn’t dislike it, it just wasn’t super on my radar. But from that song I thought I knew what Shakira’s deal was- latin dance pop. So when I got round to listening to this record, her forth, from the late 90’s I was pleasantly surprised.

The sound of this record is quite varied; there’s a bunch of horns on the opening track and a lot of the songs are built around a solid chassis of guitars and keys. Hell there’s even a harmonica solo on the second track Si Te Vas. The only place where electronics really get a look in is with the drums, which sometimes get super 90’s in a slightly unpleasant Vengaboys-esque manner. Gotta get the kids to dance somehow I guess… The album is about a third ballads and some of these are a bit soupy but the rest is a solid pop-rock-dance-latinx-crossover-smoosh. Shakira’s vocals on the whole album have a great amount of bite to them and she’s bends a lot of notes in an oddly bluesy way. Her actual vocal tone is sometimes quite biting, which means the songs have a lot of energy. There’s also a lot of emotion that comes across in her voice, which is useful as all of the songs are in Spanish, so it’s good be able pick up on the emotional contours of the songs for me at least; I don’t speak Spanish, I barely speak English.

But wait! There’s more…. There’s actually a psychedelic song on here! It’s halfway through the record, hovering at track 6 and its called Octavo dio…. And its great. Seriously go listen to it now. It’s got a lemony piano melody and a really cool windup into the chorus. Plus theres some mellotron and backwards piano on it. What’s not to love.

In conclusion, this record is definitely worth a listen. It has its ups and downs, but generally it’s a really fun experience. Would recommend.