Early last spring Third Man Records released Margo Price’s debut album and the singer was later featured in Uncut magazine in October 2016 before appearing on several year-end best of lists. Once or twice a year a country song will stop us in our tracks and that’s what autobiographical first track and single “Hands of Time” did late last year. The song came in at number 11 in our favourite songs of 2016 and probably should have rated a few spots higher. The tough talking Nashville transplant puts a protagonist in their place in “About to Find Out”. A dirty drum beat starts off “Tennessee” and the lyrics recall simpler times “the future ain’t what it used to be, let’s go back to Tennessee”.
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has all the classic country prerequisites: heartbreak, take this situation and shove it stories, drinking stories, a fiddle here, a pedal steel guitar there, etc. “I killed the angel on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams” being a particular favourite drinking lyric from “Since You Put Me Down”. “Weekender” spins a sad but great tale of spending the weekends in jail to a jaunty melody. The acoustic 1.30 minute track “World’s Greatest Loser” brings the album to a close on a quiet note. While sometimes veering into cliché, there are more than enough good tracks to make this a solid debut from a new and unique voice in country music.
Seventeen years ago, I was living in the UK and every week I’d head down to the trendy record store that was a few blocks away from London’s Angel tube station. While the vestiges of time have made me forget the name of the shop, I loved it there. Small but well curated; half of the store was devoted to records, the other half to CDs and every time I was there I stared at the album Nixon by Lambchop that was always on sale 2 for £20. I never bought even though the press was raving about it and only picked it up second hand in the last few years… but have yet to actually listen to it.
Such is the background I came to FLOTUS (For Love Often Turns Us Still) that Kurt Wagner released late in 2016. I’ve heard of the group for almost 20 years obviously but this is the first time I’ve ever really listened and on their 12th album, it certainly wasn’t what I expecting. Washes of electronics give the album a flow and water like quality, Wagner’s voice heard mostly through a vocoder. Like a lot of the album, the nearly 12 minute “In Care of 8675309” has a smooth, laidback late night style. “JFK” features a twitchy beat and “I talk too much” lyrics> “Old Masters” has a soulful 70s vibe followed by the relatively upbeat “Relatives #2”.
FLOTUS is bookended on one end with the 12-minute opener and the 18 minute “The Hustle”. Neither outstay their length and “The Hustle” in particular permeates the room and often changes as it goes. Wagner’s clear voice rings out through the beats that come and go to reveal jazzy horn sections then the beat reappears in a different form, like a brand new song before synthesizers once again wash everything away. “Do the hustle” Wagner tells us. Indeed. At 70 minutes long, this is a beautiful album that can float along in the background then suddenly pull you in to luxuriate in once again.
When The XX arrived on the scene in 2009 with their self titled debut album; their distinct, minimal, moody guitar sound gained the band wide spread acclaim. Second album Coexist brought more of the same and was equally well received. Following Jamie XX’s excellent solo album, the band is back with their first new album in nearly five years.
Perhaps because of the success of the Jamie XX album, I See You brings many of the band’s more dance oriented elements for the fore. The horn stabs and rumbling bass of “Dangerous” starts off the album with a statement of intent, to get the listener moving… or at least bobbing their heads. “Say Something” has a contemporary London R and B sound with emotional lyrics similar to Jesse Ware. The track starts off stating that the feeling of love has escaped before revealing at the end that “the thrill of affection is only getting stronger”. “A Violent Noise” sets out singer Oliver Sim down a lost and confused path but he is comforted by bassist Romy Madley Croft expressing concern for her friend and bandmate’s well-being.
The latter half of I See You features “On Hold” which may be the biggest song of their career. The Hall and Oates sampling track will surely be given the remix treatment over and over again as Romy sings about the stars in the sky. This will definitely be one of the songs of the year at festivals around the globe. The minimal melodic beauty of “I Dare You” follows and is hard to resist. Romy and Sim’s vocals blend together better here than anywhere else in the band’s catalogue as the simple guitar line is like ear candy.
As good and distinct as the first two albums were, the band practically created their own genre, allowing more electronic elements into their sound has taken The XX to another level. Having recently appeared on Saturday Night Live, audiences should expect the band to be everywhere in 2017.
On Sunday, June 19th, Angel Olsen played to a few hundred people at the Park Theatre in Winnipeg. A few miles away thousands were seeing Garth Brooks play his last of four shows at the much bigger MTS Centre. That night, the crowd at the Park was quiet. A little hungover, sunburned and tired from a warm weekend spent at the beach or lake with Monday morning was not too far away. Even still, it was a memorable night with Olsen’s voice being the main attraction. Just a few months later in September, she released her third studio album, My Woman.
The album is split into two sides – the first side contains the upbeat songs and the second side being quieter. The synth driven first single “Intern” starts off the album before energetic tracks “Shut Up Kiss Me” and the Liz Phair-ish “Not Gonna Kill You” jump out of the speakers. As things start to slow down, the near 8-minute “Sister” is a standout. Throughout the album, Olsen repeats certain phrases and nowhere is it as effective as it is here when she repeats “All my life I thought I’d change” to close the track out.
My Woman is more direct than previous efforts, some of the lo-fi aspects have been cleaned up for a more direct sound. This suits Olsen very well as she continues to grow as a songwriter. While the first side of the album sparkles, by the time you hit another near 8 minute song, the penultimate “Woman”, things start to drag a bit. Regardless, some of the best songs of Angel Olsen’s career are presented which makes it easy to skip back to the energetic side one.
(see also Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness review)
I had never heard of Laura Gibson before this year. The cover of her album caught my eye. Featuring just Gibson’s face in a yellow top in front of a yellow wall it has the captured in a moment feel, like when the bright lights of a camera catch you standing in front of the wall in a dark club and you quickly look away.
Having moved away from Oregon to New York in order to study creative writing, the building Gibson was living in caught fire and she lost all her belongings including all of her writing. Tragically two people were killed though Gibson was not hurt. Working on the new album, this spirit gets captured in the lyric “Two hearts, new start, every card is wild” from “Two Kids”
Gibson’s fourth, Empire Builder, starts off with the mid temp strut of “The Cause” and is followed up with the sparse “Damn Sure” whose lyrics look back on past plans that didn’t work out. The decisions that you hang your entire life on at the time but then start to fall apart. “Well, I changed my name the day I left, I cut my hair, I hemmed my dress, I was damn sure about it”.
Halfway through the album there is a bit of a lull right after the poetically heartbreaking title track. The aforementioned “Two Kids” picks up the pace while the “The Last One” proves to be one of the better songs on the album. “And maybe I’ll stay, or maybe I’ll hear The tiniest voice whispering to me ‘Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go Go’” .
After reading a bit about her life, Laura Gibson seems to be a wanderer and discoverer which comes through in her art. Empire Builder is a minimal batch of songs that are confident and excellently played by Dave Depper of Death Cab for Cutie, Dan Hunt (Neko Case’s percussionist), and composer/violinist Peter Broderick. Throughout the album, Gibson captures quite well what its like to be an adult and still trying to figure life out.