Reviews of this week’s CD releases
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Pop & Rock
Margo Price has always been an outsider — a stray without a natural home. She first came to prominence in 2016 as an alt-country/Americana artist with an outstanding debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Her subsequent records (Strays is her fourth) have broadened her musical scope and sound to the point that her musical roots are coloured and shaded by rock, folk and even indie pop.
Price has written about her beginnings in small-town Illinois, and about struggling to find her way in Nashville, where she kicked against the pricks and was written off and ripped off countless times. She’s also earned a reputation for unabashedly wearing her heart on her sleeve with unfiltered songs about women’s rights (Pay Gap) and political dishonesty (All American Made, the title track of her second album).
Been to the Mountain, the first single and opening cut from Strays, was initially released last August, and it serves both as the record’s calling card and as an update to Hands of Time and This Town Gets Around, from her debut. As her band evokes a rollicking, dramatic Petty & the Heartbreakers vibe, Price recounts her life experiences, declares that she’s “been to the mountain and back,” says she’s been “called every name in the book” and dares those who would oppose her to “go ahead, take your best shot.”
After placing that defiant marker, Price takes Strays wherever the vibe and feel of the songs lead her. Light Me Up is a slow-loud-slow slice of ’70s, psychedelic-tinged rock ’n’ roll that begins as an acoustic-paean to a lover, gathers momentum in its first chorus and then becomes a swirling maelstrom highlighted by guitar solos from Mike Campbell. Radio, a synth-infused slice of indie pop co-written with Sharon Van Etten (who also sings on the track), is a joyous, buoyant celebration of life and music.
Strays also touches on swampy blues-rock (Change of Heart), sweet piano balladry (County Road) and the haunting, sing-speak, narrative folk song Lydia, which was inspired by Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and paints a stark picture of the life faced by the underclasses in North America. ★★★★1/2 out of five
— John Kendle
Good Thing We Stayed (BMG)
Julia Wolf used to write her goals in invisible ink on her bedroom walls. The self-described shy girl wasn’t ready to reveal her ambition, even to her family.
In her debut for BMG, Good Thing We Stayed, the New York alt-pop performer is ready to come out of the shadows with a blend of darkness, self-discovery and humour.
She displays world-slaying potential on singles such as Hot Killer and Get Off My, but it is in the quieter moments, when her vocals and lyrics take centre stage, that she emerges as an artist to watch.
Though Wolf is a major-label newcomer, she boasts a large online audience through YouTube videos that she created and uploaded from home.
After COVID restrictions eased, she honed her lyrical skills and presence through open-mic nights in New York City, and the performance experience has served her well. Most lyrics are delivered over a hip-hop beat, but her lilt contains surprising echoes of earlier folk-influenced singers such as Tracy Chapman and even Judy Collins.
One of Wolf’s uploaded live performances gained the attention of writer/producer Jackson Foote (Zara Larsson, Demi Lovato, Cheat Codes). Their collaboration plays to her strengths — together they keep the instrumentation spare and the songs short and punchy.
The result is a tight-knit collection of musical sketches of various aspects of youth: discovery, disappointment, trauma and growth. In the final moments of the last song, Rookie of the Year, Wolf reveals some snippets of her training in classical piano, and this may well provide a glimpse of broader range to come in her future work.
With her January album release and a scheduled tour, Wolf is positioned in 2023 to expand well beyond the audience she built from home with a keyboard and camera. As for realizing her once-secret ambition, Wolf describes herself as a Slytherin, so perhaps it was only a matter of time. ★★★★ out of five
— Jim Pollack, The Associated Press
Hyaku: One Hundred Dreams (Libra)
Along with being acknowledged as incredibly talented, pianist/composer/bandleader, Satoko Fujii is often referred to as prolific. The proof is here with her 100th album release. (Hyaku translates to 100 in Japanese.)
She has a simply extraordinary creative range, having released everything from solo piano albums to small groups of all kinds to large ensembles, electronic adventures and other avant-garde challenges. She has always referred to her albums as being dreams, as she has constantly blended “jazz, contemporary classical, rock and traditional Japanese music into an innovative synthesis,” as album notes state.
Fujii has assembled an amazing band for this album: Wadada Leo Smith and Natsuki Tamura on trumpets, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor, Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, electronics artist Ikue Mori, bassist Brandon Lopez and drummers Tom Rainey and Chris Corsano. The playlist is a five-part One Hundred Dreams suite, best heard in its entirety, as the flow is seamless.
The moods are as diverse as her creative mind and the diversity of her bandmates would suggest. Trumpeters Smith and Tamura have different styles that dance around each other with often wild results. There are mellow and gentle moments but the main focus is edgy and challenging. Every member brings a great deal to the party, with Schoenbeck’s bassoon, not too common a jazz instrument, perhaps the most surprising and beautiful.
The opening moments are fittingly a haunting Fujii solo piano, with the slow introduction of electronic and acoustic swirling figures by her colleagues. One Hundred Dreams Part One sets the listener up for a quite memorable musical “dream” throughout the album.
Avant-garde jazz cannot be described in any specific way; it has huge variety. Among other things, it draws a listener to perhaps redefine what is considered beautiful or exciting. This album can help with both possibilities. And Satoko, make it to Ni-Hyaku. ★★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE: Start with Part One
— Keith Black
Jana Kuss violin I
Oliver Wille violin II
William Coleman viola
Mikayel Hakhnazaryan cello (Rubicon Classics)
It’s safe to assume any album titled Krise/Crisis isn’t exactly going to be easy listening. And so this latest release by Rubicon Classics brings together a collection of works embracing emotional turmoil and suffering, performed by the Kuss Quartet comprised of Jana Kuss (violin I); Oliver Wille (violin II); William Coleman (viola); and Mikayel Hakhnazaryan (cello).
One of the new release’s particular strengths is its comprehensive scope; its program of 16 pieces culled from the last 250 years proving that psychological trauma isn’t a handmaiden only of 21st century life with its global pandemics and wars, but has been expressed through music and art since time immemorial.
Perennially popular composers include Haydn (a surprise, with the good-natured composer renowned for his typically congenial works), Schubert, Mendelssohn, Smetana and Janáček. The disc also features three newly commissioned works interspersed with the more traditional fare, with a trio of musicians invited to “compose” their own crises for the string ensemble.
The first of those is Birke Bertelsmeier’s Krise, coiled like a taut spring with its knotty dissonances and repetitive rhythmic motives. The group displays their wide palette of tonal colour in Francesco Ciurlo’s decidedly more introspective Hasta pulverizarse los ojos, their bow strokes cutting like shards of glass. Óscar Escudero’s Post, described in the liner notes as a “social experience for string quartet, electronics and audience” intrigues as its narrator challenges listeners to examine their personal relationships to “truth.”
Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, JW 7/8 (inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata) as the cornerstone work is the sole offering performed in its entirety. Its cohesive unity provides a measure of relief in the album’s otherwise mishmash of disparate styles and single movements extracted from larger chamber works; arguably a salve for what has come before, and welcomed during these troubled, turbulent times.
★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THIS: Birke Bertelsmeier’s Krise, performed by the Kuss Quartet
— Holly Harris