POP / ROCK
Blue Hearts (Granary Music/Merge Records)
The title and cover art insist that the heart Bob Mould wears on his sleeve in this album’s opening song is blue, but it could very well be black. Mould’s 14th solo album (hard as that is to believe — the guy’s nothing if not prolific) is a 14-track rager fuelled by his fury and disgust with the America he rediscovered upon moving home after four years living in Berlin, the city that inspired his 2019 album, Sunshine Rock.
Mould has said that as he resettled in San Francisco late last year he began to realize just how much Donald Trump’s America reminded him of the bleakness of the Reagan/Bush years, an era that propelled the inchoate rage of his first band, hardcore punk popsters Hüsker Dü. He was moved to dig up a tune he’d originally written in 2013, called American Crisis, which harkened back to those days. A baker’s dozen more songs quickly followed, most of which matched the furious tone and mood, and Mould set to work with his ace rhythm section of bassist/singer Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster.
Sounding as pissed off as Hüsker Dü ever did (and with Mould’s voice buried deep in the mix, just as in the ‘80s), this punky power trio rolls away the years as Mould and his effervescent buzzsaw guitar take dead aim at religious hypocrisy (Fireball, Forecast of Rain), the bleak outlook for modern America (Heart on My Sleeve, the album’s acoustic opening salvo; and the powerfully urgent Next Generation) and life as a gay man looking for love in a world that should be far more tolerant (Siberian Butterfly, When You Left, Leather Dreams).
Just as powerful as the sentiment here is the musicianship. Mould isn’t a stereotypical guitar hero, but the depth and virtuosity of his playing is evident all over this record, especially on Baby Needs a Cookie and Little Pieces, where chords and riffs create a firestorm. Narducy and Wurster, meanwhile, are lifers and whose relentless rock ‘n’ roll groove is the perfect complement to Mould’s spiky melodicism.
It’s been said that political or protest music doesn’t age well; that the sentiments feel dated as time passes – but music like this feels pretty damned cathartic in its moment, and there’s no better moment than now for Blue Hearts. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: American Crisis; Siberian Butterfly; Baby Needs a Cookie
– John Kendle
ROOTS / COUNTRY
Live From the Troubadour (Fantasy)
Last year, Tanya Tucker released her first album of new material in 17 years. With acclaimed singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile having a hand in most of the songs and Shooter Jennings producing, While I’m Livin’ was one of the best records of 2019 and of Tucker’s once-tumultuous career. It found the country star digging deeper than ever as she balanced echoes of her hell-raising past with reflections on her own mortality.
Live From the Troubadour, recorded in Los Angeles with Tucker supported by a full band and backup singers, again finds her in top form on a set that ranges from her teen-sensation days of the ‘70s to six selections from While I’m Livin’.
Ballads such as Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone), The Wheels of Laredo and Bring My Flowers Now highlight Tucker’s tender and vulnerable side, her raspy drawl adding weathered character to her performances. Same goes for her inspired medley of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.
Speaking of fire, Tucker brings plenty of it to country-rockers such as Hard Time and It’s a Little Too Late, the pungent country kiss-off I Don’t Owe You Anything and the 100-proof honky-tonker Texas (When I Die), swaggering through them with palpable delight.
To finish, Tucker goes back to the start of her career for a rousing rendition of Delta Dawn (with an Amazing Grace intro). It drives home the point that Tucker still has plenty to give. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: I Don’t Owe You Anything, Bring My Flowers Now
— Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer
Multiquarium Big Band
Remembering Jaco (Naïve Records)
American-born Jaco Pastorius singlehandedly revolutionised how the electric bass was played in jazz. He was a member of the jazz fusion band Weather Report and went on to lead groups of his own. His extraordinary musical skill and creative mind have made him a legend whose legacy is heard in virtually every current electric bass player. Plagued with problems of addiction and mental health, Pastorius died in 1987 at age 35 after a pointless altercation outside a Florida nightclub.
Multiquarium is a French big band whose new album is an authentic, worthwhile tribute to Jaco. Led by drummer André Charlier and keyboardist Benoît Sourisse, with the powerful inclusion of guitarist Biréli Lagrène, who played with Jaco, on the bass lines, this is a terrific release. The music is culled from the Weather Report years and the bassist’s solo career, with tunes familiar to Jaco fans. Lagrène accompanied Jaco mainly on guitar, but his bass playing here is nothing short of amazing. There are three or four brief spoken interludes interspersed with the music by drummer Peyer Erskine, a friend and colleague of Jaco’s.
The band members may be largely unknown to North American audiences but they are top-notch. The music is incredibly rhythmic and mainly played at uptempo speeds. Erskine’s interludes speak to Jaco’s audacity, intelligence, complexity and unique rhythmic precision. Multiquarium, with Lagrène’s bass, takes no prisoners in referencing the moods and style of Jaco’s music. The well-known tune Invitation is taken at breathtaking speed. Other songs, like Teen Town or Kuru/Speak Like a Child capture the essence of the originals.
Tribute albums can sometimes be almost maudlin in praise of the subject being discussed. This one is simply a treat from end to end. No one has illusions about Jaco’s shortcomings, if you will, but the influence of this musical giant are appropriately displayed. If you are a Jaco fan, or would like to be one, this is a winner all around. ★★★★1/2
STREAM THESE: Palladium, Liberty City (Intro)/Invitation
— Keith Black
Bowen: Fragments from Hans Andersen Op.58/61
Nicolas Namoradze (piano) (Hyperion)
In this early January 2021 release, Hungarian-raised pianist/composer Nicolas Namoradze treats listeners to eight charming musical sketches penned by 20th-century British composer York Bowens, in turn inspired by the wit and whimsy of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless fairy tales.
The top prizewinner for the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition, Namoradze reveals his poetic sensibility during each of the mini mood pieces that comprise Fragments from Hans Andersen Op.58/61, published in 1920/21. Highlights include Thumbelina, showing his crisp staccato touch, the more rhapsodic The metal pig, and the evocative The leaf from the sky and The bird of popular song.
Comprehensive liner notes provide helpful background information for the relatively cryptic titles; however, the short solos can easily stand alone as engaging musical portraits without a programmatic narrative attached.
Also included are Bowen’s Concert study for piano, No. 1 in G flat major Op. 9 No. 2, and Concert study for piano No. 2 in F major Op. 32, demonstrating why this lesser-known composer is regarded as the English Rachmaninov. Namoradze displays his lyrical phrasing during their sweeps of sound, as well as technical prowess during each of the two high-spirited works.
A final, intriguing choice is 12 Studies, Op. 46 with each piece highlighting a particular facet of pianism, while also paying homage to the composer’s earlier, popular work 24 Preludes, Opus 102. While a baldly titled, albeit descriptive, "For forearm rotation" and the unapologetically pragmatic "To induce lateral freedom of hand and arm" might leave a certain something to the imagination in terms of a live performance setting, this latest recording of the full set in Namoradze’s hands offers a fascinating compendium of requisite keyboard technique and how pianists like to play. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Thumbelina, from Fragments from Hans Andersen Op. 58/61
— Holly Harris