Wasteland, Baby! (Columbia)
For proof that Irish singer-songwriter Hozier has hit the big time, look no further than who he’s singing with these days: Mavis Staples and Booker T. Jones.
Their soaring song — Nina Cried Power — is a fitting opening to the Grammy-nominated artist’s second full-length album, Wasteland, Baby! It’s a stunning 14-track collection that proves Hozier has suffered no sophomore slump. It’s assured, unrushed, complex, soulful and passionate, with his specific Irish stew of R&B, rock, gospel and folk. It’s nourishing and substantive, a reminder that enduring music is possible in 2019.
Hozier — born Andrew Hozier-Byrne — emerged in 2013 with Take Me to Church, his anthem against religious hypocrisy, and an excellent self-titled debut album that mixed confessional lyrics and progressive politics. The new album kicks off in a similar vein, with Hozier, Jones and Staples paying tribute to such activist-artists as Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon and Staples herself. "It’s not the waking, it’s the rising," Hozier sings.
Then it’s on to his valentine to music itself with Almost (Sweet Music), which cleverly name-drops song titles from the likes of Duke Ellington and Chet Baker. Hozier then segues to the bedroom with the slinky Movement, dripping with desire.
Wasteland, Baby! is filled with dread and doom, but also — as the cheeky title suggests — humour and light. Hozier returns to sing about the joy of music in the sunny To Noise Making (Sing), which has references to Prince and the Waterboys.
Hozier’s lyrics include everyone from Orpheus to Fred Astaire and plenty of bird imagery. Every song but one was written exclusively by him and he plays guitar, organ, synth and electric piano. He also supplies bells, snaps, claps, beatbox, tambourine and shaker, and on a few songs, he’s playfully credited as "Sex Weasel." After delivering on this album, Hozier can call himself whatever he likes.
★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Nina Cried Power; Almost (Sweet Music)
— Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press
White Owl Red
Existential Frontiers (Hush Mouse Records)
This year continues at a frenzied pace of new and exciting voices in the roots/Americana field, and the third album by San Francisco-based J. Josef McManus, a.k.a. White Owl Red, the delightful Existential Frontiers, should have a few new ears bending its way.
McManus is a wordsmith and the recording has his vocals front and centre to the point that the listener can truly enjoy his sweet delivery and ability to craft memorable language that sticks in your mind. Breaking Away has a Dylanesque bob and weave coursing through its waltz-time flavour. "There’s three bricks missing at the entry/It’s been that way several years/Watch your step if you should come by/You could trip on that trail of tears..." paints the sort of picture you can keep coming back to again and again.
There is an absolute honesty of sentiment in the quieter tracks, like the moonlit angst in See Through Me, and the swirling sadness that envelops Hand-Me-Down Girl. McManus shoots off in a couple of different directions and lets his cow-punk persona rock free in the short sharp shocker I’m A Saint and the fist-raised virtue of Union Fight Song. There is no lack of twang-fulness here, either, and for those that need to stomp on the hardwood floor, Take A Good Look and the title track raise some serious dust with their deft use of dobro and mandolin in the mix.
There are a few songs of morning-after regret (Good Morning Moonshine, Everything But Crying), which include foggy-notion realizations like "I tried drowning the memory in tequila/Cause whiskey couldn’t handle the chore/Tried smokin’ grass from sunrise to sunrise/It just made me hungry, lazy and high..."
★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Everything But Crying; Hand-Me-Down Girl
— Jeff Monk
Michael Davidson & Dan Fortin
Clock Radio (Elastic Recordings)
Vibraphonist Michael Davidson and bassist Dan Fortin are both busy and sought-after Toronto jazz musicians. Here they present a lovely, thoughtful and, at times, unexpectedly complex duet album.
At one level, Clock Radio is thoroughly melodic, and without intending to make it sound derivative, there are hints both of duet albums with Gary Burton on vibes and Chick Corea on piano, or a pared-down Modern Jazz Quartet. The musicality is unquestionable.
As is always the case with duet albums, the interplay and sensitivity to joint improvisation must be a given, or the result sounds forced or over-simplified. No chance of that here. The tunes are melodic without being trite, complex without losing touch and the use of electronics at times is an interesting addition. Davidson excels at a gentle reverb level and can truly fly when needed. Fortin is not an accompanist here; he is an equal soloist.
While "no place to hide" is an overused phrase, these thoughtful interpretations make the phrase unnecessary. Tracks like Delicate are well named. A Lift Above adds an electronic override that works well. The opening two tracks set the listener up for the gentle and beautiful music to follow. There can be great jazz that is aggressive and there is also great jazz that simply makes you smile with its quiet and personal message. Fortin and Davidson leave us with basically a peaceful yet surprising treat.
★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Tur; Berlin V; Zwie Werden Eins
— Keith Black
Pieces of Mind & Matter String Duets (Ravello Records)
This intriguing new release features five string duos written over a period of 13 years by Paul Lombardi, presented in chronological order that provides an array of various instrumental combinations, as well a glimpse into the American composer’s artistic evolution.
The oldest work is Holocene (2004) for violin and viola, which pays homage to late American composer George Crumb. Lombardi creates an effective textural landscape infused with dramatic tension as the two players move through a close-knit pattern of 11 semitones. Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello begins in the brooding depths with a three-note motif that gradually unfolds into more expansive thematic material.
An album highlight is Persiguién-dose (2007), inspired by a Pablo Neruda poem and scored for double cellos, displaying the composer’s ability to craft compelling musical dialogue between two egalitarian, sonorous partners. He digs even deeper with Phosphorescent (2008), written for cello and double bass, while his latest offering, Fracture (2017), returns the listener to higher musical climes, with two violins’ pungent, entwining harmonies and pregnant pauses providing further evidence of this wholly arresting compositional voice.
★★★1/2 out of five
— Holly Harris