Reviews of this week’s releases
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Brandy Clark (Warner)
After making three records in Nashville, country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark has opted to work with Brandi Carlile as her producer on her latest, self-titled album. Carlile, the Grammy-winning star whose music might best be described as Americana pop/rock, whisked Clark away from Music Row to record at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu.
If the intent was to strip Clark’s music of some of the overwrought and overt clichés of Nashville record production, it seems to have worked. Clark and Carlile have found a sweet spot at which Clark’s lyrical sentiment and clever wordplay can settle into intimate musical backdrops that defy genre. There’s no forced twang to Clark’s voice here, no immediately identifiable “sound.”
Tell Her You Don’t Love Her, in which a woman protects a friend by speaking to the friend’s wayward partner, could have been a weeper in the grand Nashville style — but in this setting, it begins with metronomic percussion, gently plucked acoustic guitar and a simple vocal melody that grows into a gently ethereal chorus featuring Lucius.
Similarly, Dear Insecurity opens with ominous, unsettling strings until a piano plucks out the melody and Clark’s unadorned vocal lays out the ways in which her anxiety and insecurity get the better of her. Carlile joins in on the chorus and the song slowly adds instruments (quiet drums, subtle bass and a keening string section) that softly build to a gentle resolution rather than an over-the-top crescendo.
That same sense of intimacy and service to the song permeates the majority of the 11 tunes on this album, most of which deal with the travails of learning when to love and when to let go.
Even the rockers here eschew a typical country treatment. Album opener Ain’t Enough Rocks is a haunting story song about revenge that eschews twang in favour of a ripping guitar solo from Derek Trucks and soaring backing vocals from Carlile, while Northwest is a mid-tempo, Steve Earle and the Dukes-ish ode to Clark’s roots in Washington state. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Tell Her You Don’t Love Her, Dear Insecurity, She Smoked in the House.
— John Kendle
Yesterday’s News (Niles City)
In the title track to his new album, Yesterday’s News, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Ellis suggests in thinly veiled terms that he’s washed up. But the album proves he’s anything but.
Ellis isn’t for everybody, and large-scale commercial success may not be his destiny. His voice is expressive but reedy, his lyrics quirky, even eccentric. But the originality that made him a critics’ darling going back at least to his brilliant 2014 album, The Lights of the Chemical Plant, shines as brightly as ever here.
The nine songs are set against a subdued background of acoustic finger-picking on nylon strings, backed by upright bass and light percussion. The playing often sounds more like classical guitarist Andres Segovia than anything country or Americana, and Ellis leans into it for long instrumental stretches.
Several songs hint at pandemic themes, and while it’s true that most art forms have ventured past the point of offering anything fresh or insightful about the months we all spent in isolation, Ellis is better suited than most to commemorate the mood. The frailty of his voice and the nakedness of his guitar bleed a kind of vulnerability that fits the moment.
Ellis’s music has always had a brittle feel to it. His lyrics convey exposure whether he’s confessing to his son on Gene that the dark frightens him, too, or capturing cultural desperation in a song called On the Run.
The latter is a testament to Ellis’s songwriting genius. It opens with a road trip through the desolate West Texas landscape, the stark visual imagery set against an urgent acoustic background. By the time the song is over, though, he’s offered up something that works on many layers.
“Every one out in this desert is just passing through or lost,” he writes, “dissipating to the atmosphere like smoke from the exhaust.”
It could be about the pandemic, or about being American, or about being alive in the 21st century. It echoes the Townes Van Zandt song Waiting Around to Die, both in melody and style. That’s almost certainly intentional, and here it comes off as just another of Ellis’s multitudes.
It’s the kind of lyricism that sets him apart from ordinary songwriters — and makes it clear that he’s yesterday’s news only in the most ironic sense. ★★★★ out of five
Stream this: On the Run
— Scott Stroud, The Associated Press
Who Are You? (TPR)
There have been at least several tribute albums to the great Canadian-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Though he spent most of his life in the U.K., we are always proud to consider him “ours,” and he frequently recorded in Canada (with at least one Winnipeg release).
Bassist Duncan Hopkins was born in Britain but was raised in St. Catharines, Ont. — Wheeler’s birthplace — and now lives and works in Toronto. This album is Hopkins’ loving tribute to the trumpeter, with the playlist consisting mainly of Wheeler compositions; other tracks are specifically inspired by him.
Along with Hopkins on bass, his quartet features two guitarists — Reg Schweger and Ted Quinlan — and Michel Lambert on drums. Each member considers Wheeler a mentor and worked with him on various projects.
While the music maintains a swinging groove, the overall mood here is quite gentle, always accessible and enjoyable. Wheeler’s compositions were often contemplative, and these tracks are faithful to the writing. The two-guitar choice works well; they swirl around each other with complete empathy and a unified interpretation.
Foxy Trot is an example of a spirited drive through a terrific melody. The album-opening title track sets the mood well, with a solo by Hopkins that highlights a lovely waltz ballad. We Salute the Night beautifully showcases both Wheeler’s writing and the quartet’s affection for it.
The final tracks are a three-part suite called St. Catharines Suite — Montebello, Kitts and Salina St. They present a somewhat different mood with some greater exploration. Apparently, Wheeler left Hopkins a handwritten tune that was never recorded and bore the note, “This could be part of the St. Catharines Suite if it’s any good.” Hopkins used it and a Wheeler excerpt from a 1976 CBC recording to compose the piece.
Wheeler was always humble — he didn’t need to worry if it was any good. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Who Are You, St. Catharines Suite Salina St.
— Keith Black
Dvořák: String Quartet Op 106;
Coleridge-Taylor: Fantasiestücke (Hyperion)
The Grammy-winning Takacs Quartet tackles two chamber works by composers Dvorak and Coleridge-Taylor in this upcoming release on the Hyperion label, highlighted as July’s “Record of the Month.”
String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106 is one of Dvorak’s first major works, penned after returning to Prague in 1895 following his extended stay in the United States. The group infuses its opening Allegro moderato with dramatic intensity marked by strong dynamic contrasts, followed by the Adagio ma non troppo, which alternates between major and minor tonalities, underscoring this particularly section with both peaceful serenity and dark tension.
The most overtly Slavonic movement and a double variation, the Scherzo is delivered with rugged attack as well as melancholic longing during its contrasting theme, while the players’ rousing rendition of the Finale ends their performance on a triumphant note.
Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke, composed in 1895, promises even greater things to come from its youthful composer, then studying at London’s Royal College of Music. The well-balanced ensemble delivers both flowing lyricism and crispness to each of its five movements, with the second, Serenade, boasting a striking, five-beats-to-the-bar time signature.
Other highlights include the quicksilver third movement, Humoresque, and finale Dance, the latter particularly bristling with energy and propelled by syncopated rhythms, delivered with verve.
The album caps off with Dvorak’s Andante Apassionato, B40a, a “rejected” slow movement from the self-critical composer’s prior String Quartet in A minor, Op. 12 (B4) that stands on its own as a single movement; it’s given new life in the hands of these four compelling musicians. ★★★★ out of five
Stream this: String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106 “Scherzo”
— Holly Harris
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