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.

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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 – The Delta Sweete (1968)

By Michael Strait

I believe this is what the young’uns refer to as a “glo-up”.

1244947Alright, so it’s at this point that I start to sort of understand why so many people insist on calling Bobbie Gentry a country artist. I guess this is a country record, even if it only feels like it arrived there by combining folk, blues and soul in a way that sort of ended up accidentally resembling country music. There’s still lots of souly horn arrangements and folky string arrangements, and the songs are still mostly written like blues or folk songs, but the funny thing about hearing them in this context is you kinda start to realise that country music is basically just what you get when you combine blues and folk anyway. The end result, then, is a highly idiosyncratic record, and it also happens to be an utterly brilliant one.

It’s barely four minutes longer than the last one, but it’s an order of magnitude better, and I already liked that one a lot. Just about all the flaws in Ode to Billie Joe could be traced back to its rushed nature, and that constraint wasn’t present here. So, what you’re left with is a selection of twelve distinct, unique, excellently-written songs, all so tremendously rewarding that I really have no idea which track I’d pick as my favourite. Actually, I don’t really know that I could pick a least favourite track, either, which really is an exquisitely unusual achievement.

If there’s one trait this album shares with its predecessor, it’s that it’s split roughly evenly between folk songs and bluesier stuff. Most of the bluesier stuff here resides on the first half, and that includes the opening track, “Okolona River Bottom Band”, which is something of an immediate mission statement. That reserved, growling guitar riff, melding so perfectly with those blaring horns, almost gives one the impression of ominous danger before Bobbie comes in with a few “la-la-la”s and makes it clear that the song is, in fact, mostly an excellent farce. The vocal melody might be described as mock-serious, and she throws in this glorious recording of some old Southern man cackling like a lunatic at a couple of points to make it extra clear that there’s nothing particularly worrisome going on here. She has a lot of fun with her silly rhymes in the chorus, backing herself up with what are either backing vocalists or multiple tracks of her own voice to create a sense of overriding mirth. Thinking about it, I actually can’t think of many songs that pull that off – I can think of plenty of comedy songs, sure, but songs that successfully give the impression of participating in a hilarious, raucously fun communal event, bringing you right into the fun and allowing you to have a good time along with them? That’s more difficult than you’d think. The song is ridiculously catchy, layered, and – as usual for Bobbie – totally unique. On most albums, it’d be an easy favourite, but here I’m not so sure.

Of the remaining bluesy tracks, two of them are Bobbie originals. “Sermon”, the last track on what would have been the A-side back in the horrid days when vinyl was the only option, is sung remarkably quietly for being so fast-paced, as if to show reverence for the sermon she’s relaying the details of, with horns and distant choirs of backing vocalists heralding the message. I always thought it seemed a little bit like she was quietly mocking the preacher, too – “You may run on for a long time”, she repeats, ostensibly quoting him but also perhaps making fun of his long-windedness – but for the most part it doesn’t appear that she’s making much commentary on the message; she’s presenting it without comment, a slice of her life growing up in Mississippi, not to mention using it as an opportunity to deliver some of her usual beautifully-written lyrics. “Great God Almighty, let me tell you my need/ Yes, my head’s been wet with the midnight deed/ I been down on my bended knee/ Talkin’ to the man from Galilee”. I’m doubtful that the preacher used precisely those words, but I expect Bobbie’s version is an improvement.

The other one, “Reunion”, is one of the most unique creations in Bobbie’s mostly-unique catalogue, and certainly the song you’re most likely to remember the first time you listen to the album. It’s remarkably ambitious for such a profoundly silly song, seeking to sonically recreate both the physical and emotional atmosphere of an extended family gathering, piling Bobbie’s silly lyrics (“Mama make Willie quit pulling at my hair!/ Mama ouch! ouch! mama, just make Willie quit it!”) atop a choir of children singing dinner table gossip as if it were angelic verse and then interjecting the rhythmic spoken-word rhymes of an old Southern dad, or perhaps uncle, giving lackadaisical orders and making easy boasts of the sort that flow easily when there’s plentiful food. It should be an absolute mess, but instead it’s an absolute joy, and it brings a smile to my face every time. It’s not got anything resembling the usual pop song structure, because how could it? It’s very catchy, though, and I’ve had the uncle’s lines stuck in my head for weeks now. “I told you, my mama didn’t raise no fool – I can do anything if I got the right tools!” (If you listen closely, you’ll notice one of the things the choir sings about is the suicide of Billie Joe at the Tallahatchie Bridge. Bobbie was building a whole-ass shared universe before it was cool.)

The remaining bluesy songs are all covers, and every one of them is way better than “Niki Hoeky” off her last record. I actually prefer her version of “Big Boss Man” to Jimmy Reed’s, mostly because I love the quietly contemptuous way she sings it, not to mention the extra context that’s injected by those same lyrics coming from the mouth of a clearly-seething woman rather than a sardonic, depressed man. The energetic guitar riffing helps convey the unhappiness, and I love the sections where all the instruments drop except for the bass, rumbling under her nearly-whispered words of suppressed anger. There’s a similar current running under “Parchman Farm”, which is Gentry’s version of Mose Allison’s cover of Bukka White’s incredible original (linked here for the curious only, as it has little in common with either Mose’s or Bobbie’s versions). Bobbie sings it slowly and deliberately, never raising her voice and choosing to switch the perspective to third person, giving the unmistakable impression of judgement as she sings with sardonic contempt. One is unsure why, exactly, she’s being so implicitly judgemental until you reach the end, when she finally unveils the song’s famous plot twist: “Well he’s gonna be there for the rest of his life/ and all he ever did was shoot his wife”. No surprise, I guess, that a woman might see something markedly less relatable in a song about a domestic murderer proclaiming that he’s never done anything wrong, and I take the light, airy strings that come in after the conclusion of the tale as signifying happiness at justice done fairly and right.

“Tobacco Road”, meanwhile, is a song she probably knew from The Nashville Teens’ 1964 version. My favourite version of the song is probably the original, but they’re all great, and Bobbie’s is no exception. I love the way she alternates between the hard, bluesy riffing and the lush folk arrangements as she sings the brutally matter-of-fact lyrics, as if to contrast the harsh reality of deep Southern poverty with the lushness and beauty of the natural environment that surrounds it. The last of the covers is the only one that was, originally, a true-blue country song, and while I like the original just fine I must confess I’m a much bigger fan of Bobbie’s version. She conveys what sounds like genuine excitement when relaying the tale of life on the bayou, and the various extra instrumental arrangements that flourish up behind her really flesh out the picture. It’s really good fun, and a sadly rare example of totally non-toxic working class Southern pride, with no ties to any confederate nostalgia or even so much as a hint of any rebel imagery.

Even the shortest track on this album feels fully fleshed-out. “Penduli Pendulum” doesn’t break two minutes (despite the protestations of both RYM and Wikipedia, which incorrectly record the track length as nearly three minutes), but it’s got one of the catchiest melodies of the whole bunch, and the way the strings steadily build up to swirl around her voice as she sings on is just gorgeous. It’s not a particularly complex song, but it doesn’t feel like it’s lacking anything at all, and I didn’t even notice it was so short until I looked at the track listing. I’m not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but they’re very pretty, and I love listening to her sing them. That voice is still gorgeous and unique in its faintly harsh warmth, and it fits the music like a glove.

It’s not the best folk song here, but it’s certainly not the worst – although, again, I’m not sure there even is a worst. They’re all so good! “Mornin’ Glory” is a deeply pleasant three-minute love song, containing no complicated message and no huge, attention-grabbing hook because it just doesn’t need either; it simply exists in a glowing state of loveliness, casting light and heat on all around it, sounding like the musical equivalent of reflections in a placid pool as the sun rises. “Jessye’ Lizabeth” is similarly placid, although not quite so warm; it’s a much more baroque folk song, evoking old England more than the American South, even as the lyrics remain an expression of devotional love (this time to our narrator’s little daughter). But it’s just as lovely to listen to, chiefly because the melody, for all its baroque, glacial slowness, is well-constructed enough to pop back into one’s head whenever one wishes it to, even as it deftly avoids getting stuck there and becoming irritating.

If held at gunpoint and forced to choose, I guess I’d probably pick “Refractions” as my favourite folk song here, though it’d hurt to feel like I was disrespecting the others. It’s also a little baroque and ancient-sounding, but the melody is truly, totally gorgeous, all soft and bright and huge in scope. It melds with the strings perfectly as it climbs and circulates to climax in each verse, sounding as crystalline as the bird she describes in the beautifully abstract lyrics – lyrics which are certainly some of the most gorgeous on the album, even if I’m not sure that they mean anything particularly deep. It’s a gorgeous ray of light masquerading as a song, and it truly baffles me that the woman who made it isn’t more widely celebrated.

Finally, we come to our lovely closer, “Courtyard”, which has the honor of containing my favourite lyrics on an album where almost all the songs have great lyrics. The song itself is slow, light and gorgeous, gliding softly along like mist as she sings longingly and lovingly of the tragic, love-resembling illusions in which she has trapped herself. The final couplet contains vastly more depth than most artists are able to squeeze out of entire songs. “Patterns on a courtyard floor/ Illusions of all I’m living for”, she sings acapella, the music having trailed off and left her sitting there alone, awaiting fulfillment that will never come. It’s a bit of a downer ending, considering the various mixed emotions one can find elsewhere on the album, but it’s beautiful all the same, and certainly deeply pleasant on the ears.

Looking back, I’m amazed at all the stylistic variety, emotional depth, and musical creativity she was able to squeeze into these thirty-three minutes. This is a highly efficient album, without so much as a wasted minute and lacking anything I can immediately pinpoint as a flaw. It’s an album that knows how to have fun without being embarrassing, knows how to be ambitious without being pretentious, and knows how to be heartfelt without being corny. It’s an expertly-made, remarkably perfect piece of art, and it’s a tremendous injustice that it isn’t given more credit as such. It’s unique enough that no genre gatekeepers really feel like claiming it for their canons, except for country music, which has such a frankly overpopulated canon that it can be easy to miss Bobbie in there. I can’t remember how I discovered her, but I’m very glad I did. Now y’all can too. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of the best albums of the late sixties. You deserve it, I promise.

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: 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

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga—Joanne (2016)

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Bleh. What a waste.

(No, I’m not reviewing Cheek to Cheek. Sod off.)

If this album proves one thing, it’s that I was wrong to suspect that Gaga’s reservoir of raw melodic talent had emptied entirely. Naw, she’s still got it, and it’s actually present on this album in abundance. I dunno where it went on Artpop, but it’s back now, and most of the songs on this album centre around at least one pretty memorable tune. So, that’s a good thing, right? All is not lost?

Mmmm… nah. Gaga’s talent for writing catchy melodies is most certainly back, but it’s been misapplied. All those dense, clever tunes she used to write, with their lovely development and evolving structure, are gone, and what we’ve got here instead is a big ol’ pile of vast, soaring arena music. Just about every hook on here is huge, slow, ponderous and spacey, and it’s all delivered with so much uncontrolled vocal power that it often starts to become a little grating after a while. Take the opener, for example: a perfectly competent, entirely decent piece of soft faux-indie arena pop-rock sung as if it were some sort of U2 ballad about Martin Luther King, developing as predictably as anything you can imagine from its plaintive verses to its big ol’ drawn-out-syllables hook. It’s perfectly enjoyable if you’re in the mood, but it’s rather tragically typical, sounding like just the sort of dime-a-dozen landfill indie that’s been filling middle class nerdy-white-girl playlists since the turn of the decade. I kinda like the sheer melodrama of the bridge, I guess, but I could see it coming from a mile away. I like Gaga best when she keeps me guessing, and there ain’t a single moment of that on this album.

If anything, the most baffling thing about this album is the general consensus among the uninformed that it can be considered “country”, presumably something to do with all the acoustic guitars and that big pink hat on the cover. There’s nothing country about it at all, of course, with the possible exception of “Sinner’s Prayer”, which at least has some vague ghost of the twangy warmth one can usually find in the best country. The fingerpicked guitar style is still more folk, though, and the actual songwriting is mostly just the same as the rest of the acoustic tracks on this album: ballad-pop, genreless and formless except in the most general possible sense, the sort of music recorded just as easily by Adele or Keane as by Lady Antebellum. It’s a little better than most of that dreck, ‘cos Gaga is still a better melodist than most, but the melodies just aren’t interesting anymore, you know? Like, nobody could deny that “Million Reasons” is extremely catchy, but it’s just so much dumber than her catchy songs used to be. The hook is vast, soaring, huge, sweeping, etc. etc., and impossible to forget the moment you first hear it – but it’s not clever. It’s the sound of a supremely talented melodist operating on autopilot, defaulting to the path of least resistence and creating the only song in her entire career I’d be willing to call completely generic.

The sentiments get pretty generic, too. Gaga’s never been a good lyricist, but the first verse on “Come to Mama” may be the most offensive thing she’s ever written, dipping far below her usual levels and dragging us to the dread realms of white savior-pop. “Everybody’s got to love each other/ Stop throwin’ stones at your sisters and your brothers/ Man, it wasn’t that long ago we were all living in the jungle/ So why do we gotta put each other down/ When there’s more than enough love to g-g-go around?”, she simpers, doing her best to ruin what little goodwill may be conferred by the perfunctory funk brass-band arrangements one finds elsewhere in the song. “Hey Girl” is a duet with eternal wailer Florence, fresh from The Machine, and it’s a meeting of two such unstoppable freight-train voices that it’s actually almost likeable until you hit the dimestore feminism lyrics. “Angel Down”, meanwhile, closes the album out on perhaps the most trite note possible, with Gaga donning her – gulp – political hat, letting loose with a string of such rancid clichés that I nearly vomit every time I hear it. “I’m a believer, it’s chaos/ Where are our leaders? Oh, oh, oh!” she sings pathetically, doing her very best Whitney Houston impression in the worst possible way. All these songs have incredibly, ridiculously catchy arena-pop hooks that I can easily imagine anybody singing along to at a live show, but they’re all basically the same as each other and none of them have an ounce of intelligence anywhere in their bodies. The only little acoustic ballad on the whole album I properly like is the title track, which drops all the lyrical pretense in favour of a simple lament for one of Gaga’s long-dead relations and does nothing to ruin the fairly pleasant melody and fingerpicking that accompany it. It’s quite lovely, but it’s not exactly one of her best tracks, and she’s hardly the best to ever do this kind of music. Still, at least she’s better at it than Mumford & Sons, eh?

The other songs on this record – and we’ve blown through more than half of them already – have various ideas that set them apart from this grey mess, but not all of them are good ones. “Dancin’ in Circles” is, once again, catchy as anything, but it’s also very much a superficial imitation of the absolute most basic possible surface traits of reggae or ska music, lacking any sort of groove or funk to match its lyrics (“Tap down those boots while I beat around/Let’s funk downtown”). “Perfect Illusion” is this weird, ridiculously oversung glam rock pastiche, saddled with the absolute dumbest verse melody on the album (which is seriously saying a lot) and laden with a totally, hilariously unearned key change that brings to mind the worst excesses of Eurovision idiot-pop. I can, in the right frame of mind, just about enjoy most of the tracks on this album on some base level, but “Perfect Illusion” really is total shit, and I can’t recall a single moment where I ever enjoyed any of it. Gaga’s made a lot of bad songs, but this seriously might be her worst. And it was the lead single! See what I mean about bad ideas?

The remaining two songs are the only ones that come close to displaying the level of talent I know Gaga is capable of, and it’s really only a dim reflection. “A-YO” is classified as “country-pop” by the idiots over on Wikipedia, but it’s really more of an indie pop song with perhaps vague, ill-defined influences from a nebulously distant era of American popular music, sounding not really much like country, rock ‘n’ roll or r’n’b but kind of like someone heard all those styles described to them by a millennial who’d read about them on George Starostin’s old page and decided to make a song based on that information. It’s dancey, catchy and fun, even if Gaga’s oversinging gets grating, and I can’t deny that the end result of this pastiche is something kinda unique among the pop radio hits of the day. “John Wayne”, meanwhile, is the closest thing you’ll find to Gaga’s old bop style on the album, and it might be one of the better tracks on Artpop if you just replaced all the live instruments with expensive synths. The rock influence is vague enough to, once again, accidentally create something a little unique, not quite rock enough to be called pop-rock but with enough ghosts of rock attitude to make the whole thing sound a little more hard-edged than usual. It’s still not perfect – the hook feels a little lazy, what with those little wordless, distorted vocals taking the place of Gaga’s usual well-developed melodies – but it’s at least kind of a successful banger with a nice build in the prechorus, which is a trick one might almost have thought Gaga had forgotten entirely if one judged by the other tracks on the album.

And, uh… that’s it. Man, what a disappointment, huh? I can’t rate this too low, ‘cos every song on here really is very catchy, but this is an album that feels very much as if Gaga is suppressing herself in pursuit of some great social ideal she has no business pursuing. The idea that acoustic ballads are the definition of authenticity is, of course, a silly one, and I’d actually say this feels like possibly the least authentic Gaga record yet, save maybe for the lowest nadirs on The Fame. Trying to slot any of these tracks onto best-of-Gaga playlists is a bizarrely futile endeavor, not just because the instrumentation is so different from her usual but because the melodic style seems almost like that of another artist, moonlighting under the Gaga name but not really representing her soul. The cover, at least, is great – probably the best Gaga album cover ever, actually, at least so far – but, alas, that’s the only hyperbole I can heap upon this album, which isn’t even interesting enough to claim the coveted title of worst Gaga album. Man, is there anything more depressing than the sight of an interesting artist making an uninteresting album? Well, I dunno, maybe

Dessa—CHIME (2018)

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Review by: Michael Strait

Assigned by: Graham Warnken

I am, as is known, among the most deeply white individuals ever to spew forth from the Earth here in the land of everlasting swamp. So understand that when I say this music feels like it’s made for people even whiter than me, I’m talking proper white. Like, rural-Minnesota-in-winter white. Works-part-time-at-a-co-operative-local-market-in-Vermont white. Plays-Space-Wolves-in-40k-white. Listens-to-Aesop-Rock white. Gives-away-flip-flops-to-random-stranger-while-drunk-on-a-night-out-in-Winchester white. White, essentially, in the sense that it is so utterly, mind-bogglingly, overwhelmingly, profoundly bland that it blinds me; white so glisteningly pristine that it is difficult to look upon without pain.

Sorry, Graham, but this is some really boring shit.

This girl raps sometimes, sings most of the time, and ends up boring me to death either way. Her rapping occasionally verges on outright annoying, what with her blabbermouth philosophy-on-sleeve style, and that hackneyed crescendo at the end of “Fire Drills” – in which she gives a glossy new rhetorical coating to a whole bunch of perfectly correct but nonetheless fairly fucking obvious Feminism-101 bullet points, presumably relying on reaching an audience young enough to find them revelatory and life-changing – is probably the moment I first realised this album wasn’t ever gonna do it for me. The synths are expensive and dark, but they’re creating an atmosphere that reminds me of the average YA dystopian novel, too glossy and lightweight to convey any real danger or menace to anyone who’s brushed up on the adult stuff. She, meanwhile, is the pretty young protagonist at the centre of it all, relatable and strong without being off-putting, smart in a way that doesn’t seem intimidating. Of course, pay attention to her more intelligent moments and you realise she’s got little new to say; “Velodrome” is probably the most pleasant song on the record, but its lyrics amount to nothing more than a restatement of the profoundly unshocking idea that free will might not be quite so free after all. Nice metaphor, sure, but it says a lot that the closest the album comes to genuine lyrical intelligence is a fairly clever restatement of one of the oldest philosophical conundrums anyone can remember.

You’d think she’d be a little better if she just stuck to singing pop songs about her heart, but nah, she ain’t. Songs like “Jumprope” and “Say When” simply do not exist; they contain vocals, synths and lyrics, alright, but somehow it all amounts to a void, combining into purest, emptiest possible nothingness. This album mostly sounds like a sort of bland Tove Lo or Tove Styrke record, with the same kinda synths, the same kinda melodies and absolutely nothing memorable sticking out whatsoever except maybe the occasional obnoxious lyric. “Rap real fast, but that’s on purpose”, she winks on a brief interlude near the end of the album, and it just makes me sigh slowly as I contemplate finding some sort of way to crush her under a grand piano. The closest she ever comes to emotional catharsis on this record is empty, distant melodrama, making molehills that look like mountains if you’re close enough on tracks like “Ride” and “5 out of 6”. (Distinguishing lyric on the latter: “I don’t need an agenda, I just tell the truth!” Are we going for some sorta post-ironic Nigel Farage chic here? Fuck outta here with that telling-it-like-it-is posturing. I’ve no time for demagogues.)

I think it’s instructive to conduct a little thought experiment: imagine if tracks like, say, “Half Of You” or “Good Grief” were thrown in the middle of, I dunno, a Rihanna album, or maybe a Katy Perry album if you’re feeling mean. Would they be highlights? I mean, in the technical sense yeah, probably they would. But would they be immediately distinguishable as highlights? Mmm… no, they wouldn’t. These are the sorts of tracks that behave like active camouflage, blending perfectly into their surroundings and making themselves almost invisible, absorbing the quality level of the music around them and offering nothing to hook you or draw your attention away from the rest of the music. Competent, utterly invisible stuff, and trying to focus on it is like trying to shoot a stealth Elite with a Needler in Halo. My point is that these would feel like filler on even a bad album, even if they were technically better than the songs surrounding them, and here they just slot right in amongst other songs that are all of exactly that type, giving the whole album an uneasily ephemeral, ghostly character that doesn’t feel at all intentional. I’ve listened to this album twice, but it passed right through me; I’m relying on my notes ‘cos there’s nothing here to actually remember. White and bland as an English Sunday roast.

I’m not even wastin’ no more bars on this prick! – Devilman