About two and a half minutes into “Blacksburg,” off his fifth solo record, Cory Branan pauses his countrified classic rock tune for a solo from what sounds like bagpipes, a saxophone, and/or fuzzed-out Flying V power chords. Constantly shape-shifting, it sounds like a parody of white guys making fist-pumping music about feelings: a big moment undercut by its own purposeful self-awareness yet somehow made even bigger by its own self-deprecation. The song itself is about a woman with big dreams stuck in a small town; Branan rhymes “emptying rounds in dark bars” with “getting around in a parked car.” He sounds impressed with her decisiveness and daring, the way she risks becoming the subject of local gossip to inject her life with something like a thrill. If that summons forth too many bad memories of bros singing about fantasy women (the alpha monkey in this dubious genre is Train’s “Meet Virginia”), that strangely hilarious solo allows the song to avoid condescension and let the character breathe.
Branan is smarter and wilier than the singer-songwriter genre typically allows and more intellectual than he’d probably admit. He started barking out his songs in Memphis around the turn of the century, and after two albums on local indie Madjack Records, he moved to Nashville and took forever to write his third and fourth albums, which revealed an easily distracted musical mind and a weakness for confusing cleverness for substance. At times his self-awareness sounded suspiciously similar to self-absorption: Does anyone really want to hear a song about your floundering career called “The No Hit Wonder”?
Adios is possibly his best album to date—it’s certainly his most musically imaginative and arguably his wisest. “Don’t ask me how I even got here,” he sings on the rollicking opener “I Only Know,” before Laura Jane Grace joins him on the chorus: “I only know I ain’t gonna go back.” Rather than aim for the punk assertion of Against Me!, the song recalls the candy-sweet catchiness of Buddy Holly and serves as a short (not two minutes long) overture for the album, establishing its themes if not its sound. Branan is all over the map, veering from the swamp rock of “Walls, MS” to the synth-driven pop of “Visiting Hours” to the country crooning of “Cold Blue Moonlight.”
The album’s greatest detriment, consequently, is its length: At 14 tracks, it meanders, occasionally lags, and indulges far too many tangents and jarring transitions. But Heartbreaker is just as long, so that’s only a minor complaint. Ryan Adams may be the obvious point of comparison for a singer-songwriter in his early forties who loves classic rock as much as classic country and probably has a soft spot for classic metal, too. Branan is funnier and more disciplined as a songwriter, which may be why he’s not as popular. Adios is a good place to start because it’s an album animated by a compelling personal backstory: the death of Branan’s father, the birth of his son, and his relocation from Nashville to Memphis.
With its gently finger-picked guitar theme and two-step drumbeat, “The Vow” could have been just another country song about fathers and sons, but the details are so carefully sketched out and so specific that it feels fresh and affecting. That second verse in particular—in which he considers the implications of the phrase “That’s what you get for thinking”—is Branan at his best, taking something familiar and finding new dimensions in it. All the while, he sounds like he’s just thinking out loud. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s probably not the best lesson for a kid,’” Branan sings. “And although that was just something he said… I get to thinking there may have been some kind of genius in the effortless way he just did.”
“Don’t Go” traces a pair of lover from World War II through the end of their lives, but avoids Greatest Generation sanctimony by indulging his storytelling chops. He tosses off a line like, “Shame about your curfew, I would have liked to have the chance just to kiss you into 1941,” before following the couple right up to their recent deaths. When the horns come in on the bridge, there’s no irony in the music—just a funeral march for two people you feel like you’ve known your whole life. It’s a crushing thematic finale. At the risk of sounding clever myself, Adios sounds more like Hola. Nearly 15 years into his career, Branan sounds like he’s finally found the right balance between audacity and subtlety, between humor and heartbreak.
The easy listening criticism has dogged Alison Krauss for more than twenty years, and she does nothing to dispel it on Windy City, her first solo record since 1999. Her music is thoughtfully poised between the bluegrass she grew up playing as a fiddle prodigy and the jazzy mainstream adult pop popularized by Norah Jones. At least since the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack made her voice so famous, she has focused more on singing than playing the fiddle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Krauss has a bright, soft soprano that at its best blends Dolly Parton’s cheery expressiveness with Willie Nelson’s dexterous phrasing. The downside, however, is that her music, while expertly performed and recorded, is often blanched of any distinguishing twang or genre character. The listening becomes too easy.
As though addressing that criticism directly, Windy City includes a cover of the 1967 crossover hit “Gentle on My Mind,” written by John Hartford but made famous by Glen Campbell. The song lives right at the intersection of pop and country, its lyrics even describing how the music should operate: “You’re movin’ on the back roads by the rivers of my memory/And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind.” Krauss isn’t the first female singer to take a shot at the song—Aretha, Patti Page, and the Band Perry have all recorded versions—but she does unintentionally show just how tricky the song can be. While her voice is perfectly suited to the song’s rosy nostalgia, she can’t quite navigate the narrative twist in the last verse, when the narrator is revealed to be not just a wanderer but literally homeless, haunting trainyards and barrel fires with a coal-dark beard and a dirty hat.
Krauss doesn't conjure that kind of character of setting, but then again, Campbell himself barely could. Still, he knew enough to play up the contrast between the grittiness of the circumstances and the gentleness of the memory. This version is all gentle: technically sharp but emotionally blunted. That’s a problem throughout Windy City, as her pursuit of a viable crossover sound opens up new musical possibilities even as it burnishes away the genre edges of these songs. Working with Nashville producer Buddy Cannon, Krauss displays a broad palette, covering left-of-center choices from the Osborne Brothers and Roger Miller, Brenda Lee and country songwriting legend Cindy Walker. But the arrangements on opener “Losing You” and the title track don’t even bother to evoke the messiness of actual loss. They’re stately and elegant, but also cold and detached.
Windy City sounds liveliest whenever Krauss gets away from crossover pop. She navigates the twisting rhythms of the honky-tonk hit “It’s Good-Bye and So Long To You” with a jazzy agility and actually sounds like she’s having fun with it. Likewise, her version of the bluegrass chestnut “Poison Love” has a calypso pulse that seems to defy gravity. Even “River in the Rain” retains its showtune determinism: If this Roger Miller obscurity, penned for a Huck Finn musical, is the album’s centerpiece, it’s because Krauss keeps it anchored to the stage. She sounds more at home with that kind of theatrical drama than she does with a story-song like the title track or “Gentle on My Mind.”
Windy City is not the best place for newcomers to start with Krauss. The curious should search out the 1995 retrospective Now That I’ve Found You, which features a savvier, more imaginative crossover sound. Windy City never quite reconciles her genre history with her populist ambitions, creating an album that toggles back and forth between the two poles and then ends abruptly. Krauss conveys a stately heartbreak in her closing cover of the Cindy Walker/Eddy Arnold classic “You Don’t Know Me,” striking the ideal balance between elegant countrypolitan backing, eccentric piano and pedal steel flourishes, and vocals that convey both power and personality. It’d be a fine starting point for a follow-up.
On 2014’s HEAL, his fifth album as Strand of Oaks, Timothy Showalter emerged as his own most compelling lead character. Showalter was a grown-up adolescent still mired in dark thoughts and intense desires: for the opposite sex, for self-eradication through drugs or worse, for his favorite song to come on the radio. Making or simply listening to music was a lifeline out of the confusion of youth and the disappointments of adulthood, which informed a song cycle simultaneously bleak and optimistic, as big as an arena yet as personal as an inner monologue. Showalter reminisced about “singing Pumpkins in the mirror,” and it’s not hard to imagine his fans finding similar salvation in “JM” or “Goshen ’97.”
And yet: “HEAL was bullshit, man.” In an exhaustive, candid Stereogum article, Showalter distanced himself from his breakthrough album, which he seems to think is too dark, too self-absorbed. “I’m sick of being the sad white guy with an acoustic guitar… We’re done with that shit,” he said. There’s not much acoustic guitar on the album, but that’s besides the point: Newly committed to his marriage and to a sunnier outlook on everything, Showalter no longer wants to rip his soul out and play harrowing songs night after night. That’s understandable: Who could fault the guy for wanting to be happy?
Consequently, Hard Love is more than a follow-up—it sounds like a direct response to HEAL. These new songs are never quite as dark or as deep, never quite as probing, which is not to say they’re superficial. Showalter seems to have made an effort not to sound quite as troubled. If his relationship to music once seemed desperate, he now sounds like a guy thrilled to be evoking Creation Records, one of the major touchstones on Hard Love. Featuring wobbly guitars and big drumbeats, “Everything” and “On the Hill” nod to bands like Primal Scream, the Jesus & Mary Chain, and even Oasis without making too obvious a reference.
Instead of sulking in his car blasting Songs: Ohia, as he did on “JM,” Hard Love shows Showalter out in the world, engaging with other people through music and, notably, through drugs. This is a peculiarly hedonistic album, one that will doubtless play well on the summer festival circuit. “I have the good drugs now,” he boasts in that Stereogum article, but they’re not especially potent sources of inspiration. Influenced by a mind-expanding episode at Boogie Festival in Australia, “On the Hill” bounds forward with a big, brash sound, but it never really goes anywhere. Instead, it just stays on that hill, blissed out and barely relatable if you weren’t at Boogie and on those good drugs with him.
More rewarding are the smaller moments, the songs that show Strand of Oaks morphing into a formidable rock band. “Quit It” is gloriously raw blues, “Rest of It” a trash-glam stomp. Both sound tossed off in the best way: less burdened with concepts and therefore freer, more fun. They represent a more relatable form of hedonism, with Showalter simply rocking the fuck out. That less-is-more quality extends to those moments when everything falls away except for one or two instruments: The title track builds to a climactic chorus, but instead of pushing everything into the red, Showalter removes everything but the drums. It redefines and redirects the anthem, turning it into an overture for the album that follows.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Hard Love is how far it doesn’t stray from HEAL. Everything sounds weirdly familiar, as though Showalter hasn’t figured out how to move on from that breakthrough. He still makes the most of his murky production, despite bringing in French producer Nicolas Vernhes (Speedy Ortiz, Deerhunter) and multi-instrumentalist Jason Anderson. “Radio Kids” sounds a bit too similar to previous songs about adolescent alienation, and “Salt Brothers” leans too closely toward better cryptic anthems, most notably the apocalyptic “Sterling,” off 2010’s enduringly strange Pope Killdragon. Hard Love never really adds up to a particularly clear or bold statement; there are some strong songs and big moments, but very little that moves the story forward or develops that rich character. It’s a perfectly fine album by a guy who wants to be much more than perfectly fine.
Julien Baker was eight years old when Elliott Smith died. She’s not old enough to have experienced him as an active musician or even as a living person, which isn’t a knock against her. On Say Yes! A Tribute to Elliott Smith, she shows how a new generation of singer-songwriters are learning from his example. She renders “Ballad of Big Nothing” even breathier and more precarious than the original, a performance held together by tensile guitar licks and a grim determination. Her vocals are more expressive than Smith’s precise deadpan, a bit more conventionally soulful when she twirls her notes or adds some soft whooo’s toward the end. When he sang the chorus—“You can do what you want to whenever you want to”—it sounded like an accusation. When Baker sings those words, they sound more like a consolation, revealing the existential horror in such freedom.
Baker, at 21, is the youngest artist on Say Yes!; the oldest, J Mascis, is 51. That range of ages is one of the more intriguing aspects of this otherwise by-the-numbers tribute album, which is just as scattershot and inconsistent as any other tribute album. It does, however, suggest a legacy that is still evolving and developing from one generation to the next. Smith’s contemporaries tend toward more faithful renditions, with mixed results. Tanya Donelly can’t find anything new to do with “Between the Bars,” but it’s not quite as redundant as Adam Franklin’s “Oh Well, Okay.” For many listeners, “Needle in the Hay” may always soundtrack Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt, but Juliana Hatfield takes the song outside the house and into the city. She adds a low-key drum loop and a harmonium that evokes heavy traffic and dense, pressing crowds, which lets a bit of air into the song without alleviating its dire anxieties.
We know what Smith meant to his contemporaries, but what does he mean to younger musicians who discovered him only after he took his life, after his legacy had cemented, after his albums had been elevated to the status of classics? Some of the most compelling interpretations on Say Yes! come from the younger artists, who have the benefit of some distance on the subject. The Nashville duo Escondido reinvent “Waltz #1” as a shoegaze pop anthem, drenching it in hazy reverb broken only by Jessica Maros’ surface-to-air vocals. It’s refreshingly over the top—a maximalist rendering of a minimalist song. Taking a different tack, Waxahatchee slows “Angeles” down to an even slower crawl, her only accompaniment a heartbeat drum and a guitar that would be hypnotic if it weren’t so discordant and unsettling. More than the music, it’s the vocals that lend the cover its sense of dread. Katie Crutchfield sings with a subtle sneer in her voice, twisting her vowels into a grimace that amplifies the grim, gray humor at the song’s core.
Elliott Smith is, ultimately, not especially easy to cover. His precise melodies make a deep and immediate impression, as do his fatalistic lyrics, but they’re never simply gloomy. His best songs possess some grain of humor—a dark, wincing humor that often bubbles to the surface in sarcastic asides. Walking the fine line between so many gradations of emotion can be tricky, and there are more missed opportunities on Say Yes! than revealing interpretations.
So it’s surprising that one of the standouts comes from one of the unlikeliest sources: Amanda Palmer has not exactly endeared herself to the music world, which makes her choice of songs so ideal. She turns “Pictures of Me” into a meditation on celebrity and a vertiginous rift between a woman’s public and private selves. “I’m so sick and tired of all these pictures of me, completely wrong, totally wrong,” she sings, her voice low but tense, as though barely suppressing her rage. She grits her teeth and pounds her piano violently, turning the song into a great fuck-you to the entire Internet. It doesn’t make her more sympathetic, but that’s not the point. In Smith she finds something like a kindred spirit, and in “Pictures” she finds a song that speaks for her. That’s why we all listen in the first place, right?
Lori McKenna has released ten albums in nearly twenty years, amassing a formidable catalog that marries forlorn country-folk melodies with vivid-story song lyrics about desperate women and dying towns. But her solo work has been lately overshadowed by the hits she has either written or co-written for other artists, including Faith Hill, Alison Krauss, and Mandy Moore. Last year she stirred up controversy when Little Big Town recorded a composition she co-wrote with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose. Radio programmers and some listeners objected to “Girl Crush” and its intimations of gay desire, specifically to the physicality of her lyrics (“I want to taste her lips, because they taste like you”). Despite the hubbub, it won a Grammy for Country Song of the Year. This past spring Tim McGraw took McKenna’s “Humble & Kind” to the top of the country singles chart—the first time in four years that a song with only one writer reached that spot.
The songs on her latest album don’t veer too far from anything she has done before, but The Bird & the Rifle may do for McKenna, career-wise, what Traveller did for veteran songwriter Chris Stapleton last year. McKenna has a remarkable facility for conveying the inner lives of women trapped in soured relationships; that may not be an easy sell for the conservative playlists of country radio, but it makes for one of the most accomplished and devastating singer-songwriter albums of the year. McKenna even worked with producer Dave Cobb, who helmed Traveller. As he’s done with so many artists from Jason Isbell to Sturgill Simpson to literally anybody on his recent Southern Family compilation, he gives the music a lived-in quality, emphasizing an amiable acoustic strum, a relaxed backing band, and the ragged texture of McKenna’s voice.
The drama in her songs has the easy feel of the everyday; nothing much happens beyond her characters pondering where things might have gone wrong. “Wreck You” opens with a disarming couplet: “I get dressed in the dark each day/You used to think that was so sweet.” The language is simple and direct, but that phrase “used to” hangs in the air, suggesting several years of quiet sacrifices and well-worn routines that have frayed the edges of this relationship. The narrator dreams of disentangling herself from this late sleeper, and the Mellotron strings on the coda—a Cobb signature—soundtrack a daydream that may never come true.
Even with its references to teenagers blasting Nirvana while racing down suburban backroads, “We Were Cool” isn’t about generational nostalgia but something more personal, and the last verse throws a twist into the story, with McKenna going full Springsteen: “Duran Duran on the radio, those wild boys would never know we had a baby on the way the year our friends started school.” It’s an understated reveal, but something about the melody makes the sentiment sound bittersweet instead of just plain bitter. McKenna knows that the power of a barbed lyric or a rich character relies on a bold melody and a patient vocal, and more than anything else her vocals put these songs across and makes these stories relatable. On “Always Want You,” the break in her voice implies intense yearning even as the lyrics hedge their bets. The most important words in the chorus are the first two: “I think I’ll always want you.”
McKenna doesn’t cover “Girl Crush,” but she does include her own version of “Humble & Kind.” It sounds like it ought to be a Hallmark card of a song, with a parent passing life lessons along to her children, but what could easily have been platitudes turn out to be bits of hard-won wisdom. “Know the difference between sleeping with someone and sleeping with someone you love,” McKenna cautions, “‘I love you’ ain’t no pick-up lines.” When she gets around to that chorus, to that loving reminder to rise above your basest fears and to “always stay humble and kind,” it’s a startlingly powerful moment, especially at a time when such virtues of humility and compassion seem to be in such tragically short supply.
Friday Night begins with an encore, and that’s not even the weirdest thing about this unlikely live album. It follows Will Butler’s solo debut, last year’s Policy, an eight-track, one-man rumination on his place in the world and possibly in the Arcade Fire. Those songs mimicked the scale of that band’s biggest anthems, yet kept the stakes aggressively personal, as Butler revealed his dire worries over his family, his country, even his eternal soul. He called out God Himself, demanding that the Big Man account for His actions.After that, he spent a week writing and recording a song a day based on headlines from the Guardian, then he released a new version of Policy containing them. It’s clear the guy likes a risk.
From anyone else a record like Friday Night might be a bit suspect, an easy way to milk a few songs or get a little closer to the end of a record contract. But Butler has always been a compelling performer, a guy who claims—in song, no less—“I have never been drunk and I have never been stoned” but seems to lose himself on stage. So he’s much more comfortable in front of the crowd at Lincoln Hall in Chicago than he ever was in Electric Lady Studios, which might explain why the live album is nearly twice as long as the studio album. Even with comedian Jo Firestone acting as his hypewoman and the great Abbi Jacobson providing Magic Marker artwork, much of the show has a you-had-to-be-there vibe. But there are also moments when Butler’s music sounds more jagged, more hapless, more violent, more paranoid than it has in years.
Now, about that encore. Butler opens the track by giving a shoutout to the sound guy, which is a nice gesture but not a “This is the first song off our new album!” kind of moment. Then he explains that they’ve never played “Tell Me We’re All Right” before. “I mean that literally,” he clarifies, right as he’s launching into some piano chords practically quoted from Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” Butler forgets the lyrics at one point, cajoles the audience to sing along (which they don’t seem to do), adds a lengthy bridge during which he rap-introduces his backing band, and finally plays the song right into ground. What makes the performance so remarkable—and probably the entire reason it’s at the beginning of the show rather the end—is its by-the-seat-of-their-pants momentum, the feeling that the whole thing might just fly apart at any moment, leaving the band defeated and exposed up on that stage.
Butler obviously lives for those moments of musical risk, when he can either fall on his face or subsume himself into something larger. He prizes spontaneity both in writing and playing, which adds a rambunctious energy to “Son of God” and punk abandon to “II”. It gives him license to explore every style and genre that comes into his head, and the new songs point in some directions Butler might go in the future: the raw heavy metal riffing of “Public Defender,” which is simultaneously bracing and ridiculous; the homemade ‘80s soundtrack rock of “Sun Comes Up,” which sounds like a Moroder sequencer held together by duct tape.
But that quest for pure spontaneity can reveal the cracks in Butler’s craft. Penned for the Guardian, “Madonna Can’t Save Me Now” meanders for four and a half minutes with no memorable hook and only a smug sense of its own cleverness to sustain it. It’s an indie-rock song as hastily typed Facebook post, which can’t be what Butler intended, and it shows just how ugly the results can be when his seat-of-the-pants approach actually fails him.
Margo Price has been gigging hard in Nashville for nearly a decade, earning a reputation as a fierce live act but getting barely any attention from labels or radio programmers. In the last few months, however, her fortunes took an abrupt turn: She signed to Jack White's Third Man Records, debuted on "Colbert," and released a string of hard-drinkin', hard-livin' singles. Even before she releases her debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, she has found herself at the center of some of the most intense buzz in country music, which means she has undergone a great deal of scrutiny. Most of it has concentrated on her backstory, which sounds like every country song rolled into one: Dad lost the farm, Nashville screwed her over, she shacked up with a married man, did a brief stint in jail, lost a child. To record this album, she hocked her wedding ring and car to pay for sessions at Memphis' legendary Sun Studios.
She owns up to all of it on her debut's epic six-minute opener "Hands of Time," which tells her own story better than any critic, press release, publicist, TV host, or awards presenter ever could. It's a remarkable cold open, an incredible introduction to an artist who is both a newcomer and a veteran, but what makes it so powerful is the contrast between all the bad shit she's endured and her modest goals for recovery: "All I wanna do is make a little cash." Rather than conquer the world or see her name up in lights, Price just wants get the farm back for her dad and buy her mom a nice bottle of wine.
On Midwest Farmer's Daughter—whose title is clearly meant to echo Loretta Lynn's famous origin story—Price emerges as a woman struggling to reclaim her story from the Nashville machine and reset it in old-school honky-tonk tunes that split the difference between so many ampersands: country & western, rock & roll, rhythm & blues. It's an ambitious piece of music-making and storytelling, featuring a road-hardened backing band called the Price Tags and a singer whose flinty voice conveys both a guarded vulnerability and a reckless scrappiness. She fiddles while Nashville burns on "This Town Gets Around," three minutes of inside baseball that details all the unscrupulous managers and sexist promoters who populate the industry like fleas on a hound. "I guess it's me who gets the joke," she sings. "Maybe I'd be smarter if I played dumb."
On most of Daughter, however, Price is tough in conventional ways, on songs that fit a bit more squarely with country traditions. She threatens a bar patron on the honky-tonk fight song "About to Find Out," drowns the devil on her shoulder with whisky and tequila on "Since You Put Me Down," welcomes a wayward lover on "How the Mighty Have Fallen." They're sturdy tunes, strong examples of the country songwriting, but they don't hit with the same force as the more obviously personal songs here. Daughter is best when it's specifically first-person, when Price bends country to fit her own story rather than bend herself to fit the form. You root hard for Price to win these battles, even as you may find yourself wishing Midwest Farmer's Daughter could transcend the hype.