D’Angelo and the Vanguard “Black Messiah” RCA Records
Well, this has been an exciting month. For me, anyway. I can’t remember the last time I found five brand new releases that I was interested in exploring within the same 31 days of living. There’s nary a reissue in this lot, gang. What’s more, I’ve enjoyed spending time with each of these recordings. Some more so than others, obviously. But perhaps none more than D’Angelo’s long awaited Black Messiah. Let’s just start there, shall we?
I’d not heard a note of this music prior to unwrapping this two record set. So, the first thing that grabbed me was the physical presentation. It just looks like a heavy piece of work. Like an event. The photos on the front cover and in the gatefold are in black and white. The lettering is white on black throughout. The interior paper sleeves are solid black and the center labels on the individual records are black. You get the picture. After production had been delayed on this record for years (literally), D’Angelo moved the final release date up as he felt like the messages contained within needed to be heard pronto. After all of the reworking and tinkering and fixing, over all of those many years, Black Messiah showed up right on time. “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” That little nugget is from “The Charade,” one of the more hummable Messiah tunes. Cloaking a heavy message in a jaunty song is not new. Neither is the Black Messiah sound, necessarily, if only because it’s not a complete departure from what D’Angelo has shown us on 2000’s Voodoo. Unless you have way better ears than I, you’re going to have to read the lyrics from the LP sized liner booklet to get The Point. The layered vocals and the singers’ inflections are hard to follow by ear alone. But The Point is hard to miss once the vocals have been decoded. That’s not to say that you’re going to feel like you’ve been berated. I didn’t. There are “love songs” mixed in to lighten things up a bit. (And at least one of these has a lyric that’s so raunchy that I actually get a bit uncomfortable hearing it. Seriously, I could have done without that part.) There’s also a tune that seems to touch on the artist’s well chronicled struggles with substance abuse, however that’s open to interpretation. Perhaps the best compliment I can think of for Messiah is that it leaves you wanting to hear more like it. You have some options. “Sugah Daddy” wouldn’t have been out of place on Prince’s Sign O’ The Times. “Real Love” has a guitar bit that’s reminiscent of Robby Krieger’s work on the Doors’ “Spanish Caravan.” And all of it is informed, quite clearly, by Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. I’ll take it.
And here’s this, straight from the liners: “No digital ‘plug-ins’ of any kind were used in this recording. All of the recording, processing, effects and mixing were done in the analog domain using tape and mostly vintage equipment.” How ‘bout them apples? The records are pressed very nicely and are almost entirely silent. That may be because they held the vinyl back after rushing the digital versions into production. Speaking of digital, you get a download code too. I’m all in on this one. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Good luck.
My Morning Jacket “The Waterfall” ATO Records
If D’Angelo’s new one grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and turned my face towards the fire, My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall, snuck up behind me and dragged me into the light after repeated listens. But I’ve still not submitted entirely. Not all the way. I mostly like it. And it’s alive and breathing, I know that for certain. As such, I expect my opinion of it to vary with time. This band is very important to me, especially as a live act. To that end, if an article about them pops up in my news feed, I’ll read it more often than not. This can work for or against me, I’ve found. In this case, I don’t think my opinion has been colored too brightly by the knowledge I’ve gained about the record’s making. If you follow Yim Yames and his band at all, you’ll know that there are going to be surprises and hairpin turns that you’ll have no way of preparing for. I like it like that, but it comes with a price. If you’re chasing sonic adventure at the speed of light, you’re likely to miss a step and scrape a knee at some point in the journey. Fighters leave themselves exposed and vulnerable when they swing too wildly. But when they connect, the results can devastate. All of that happens in and around The Waterfall. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta jump into the damn thing and go where it takes you.
First, you should know that The Waterfall is an album in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a small body of work, a cohesive whole. If I caught the album opener “Believe (Nobody Knows)” by its lonesome, I’d throw it back in the water. According to what I’ve read, it was the last song written to be included on this set as Yim felt discontent with the album’s flow without it as an opener. “Compound Fracture” follows it, and I’d listen to that one on repeat for an hour any time. It’s groovy, baby. Bubbly, even. I’ve not heard anything like it from MMJ before. And that’s not the only unicorn in the lot. “Get The Point” is a kiss off song, just as the title suggests. The melody is sweet, and the lyrics are in no way hateful, but they’re direct. I bet she got the point. That one closes out the first disc. Then, things get good. Most bands front load the best material towards the start of their albums. I would. MMJ is not most bands. “Spring (Among The Living)” has all the momentum of a freight train and the texture of fine silk. Many, perhaps most, of these songs are collages. I’m to understand that movements and themes were spliced together. Or taken out entirely. I’d wager that the boys used all of the digital trickery that D’Angelo eschewed. This is great! Takes all kinds. And it often works on The Waterfall, especially during the latter half. Those are the songs that I’m most looking forward to seeing during the band’s three night run that will take place in October a scant two blocks from my apartment in San Francisco. (I have extra tickets if anyone is looking.) And I bet I’ll come out of those shows with a new perspective on these tunes. Can’t wait. Until then, I’ll keep marinating in these tunes until I too get the point. And I will.
Dwight Yoakam “Second Hand Heart” Reprise Records
Dwight Yoakam is a badass. I whiffed on a few chances to see him before finally catching up with him in Golden Gate Park a couple of Octobers back. He was supporting 3 Pears at the time and I really liked that record a lot. I’m downright excited about Second Hand Heart. I think folks are starting to get it. We don’t want all that overly slick crap that everyone’s trying to foist on us today. Real music fans don’t, I mean. Apparently, there are always going to be large numbers of people who are happy to sit around waiting for someone to come along and tell them what to like. For those folks, Sugarland (or who the hell ever) should work just fine. Those of us who like to find our own way are less likely to be fooled by auto-tuners and hair highlights. Maybe. Regardless, Second Hand Heart is pretty raw. Not Exile On Main Street raw, but rare none the less. And, let us not forget, Dwight Yoakam can sing. Second Hand Heart gives him every opportunity to do exactly that. Thank goodness.
Folks may not know about Yoakam’s Punk roots. It’s not as rare or as incongruous as it sounds. There is precedent for Punkers going Country. “Cowpunk” was a term for it. I call it all Rock and Roll, but no one cares what I think. Anyway, songs like “She” and “Second Hand Heart” have a gritty intensity that is sorely lacking from any songs on the most popular radio “formats” now. Again, it’s not the Sex Pistols, but it’s certainly not Georgia Florida Line either. “Dreams Of Clay” has a bit of a “Suspicious Minds” vibe to it, at least rhythmically. You just get the feeling that Ol’ Dwight is drawing from the right well these days. He’s not always been as immune to the sterilizing Nashville needle as he seems to be now. Maybe he feels like no one buys albums anymore anyway so he’ll just do what he wants. I’d imagine that the more established artists could have actually been liberated by the crash of the recording industry as brought on by Spotify, Pandora and all of the other services that allow us to listen to inferior facsimiles of studio recordings without paying for them. I saw Tim Burton’s Big Eyes recently. The villain realizes that people will buy art printed on posters without blinking. Up until then, he’d been trying to sell actual paintings. What a fool. Second Hand Heart is a painting, gang. An original. Like My Morning Jacket, Yoakam has a “Believe” on his newest record. “Words they just get in my way / When really all I’m tryin’ to say is / Believe.” And I’m starting to. People are getting it, man. There are folks out there that are drawn to real talent and the love of true art. Quality matters. And I’m just glad that we have Dwight Yoakam around to capitalize on that and to give the people what they want. He knows that there’s room for his Rockabilly take on “Man Of Constant Sorrow” on a vinyl record in 2015. Truth be told, I’m probably thinking about and reading way more into all of this than he is. He’s probably just building his beast and sending it out into the world because that’s what he does by nature. I’m just glad that the beast can thrive in today’s climate. ‘Bout time.
The Alabama Shakes “Sound and Color” ATO Records
I reckon Alabama should be about as good a place as any to start a band these days. In the olden times I imagine record labels’ artist and representation folks would have been crawling all through that area’s red clay by now. Just on the strength of the success that’s found St. Paul and the Broken Bones and the Alabama Shakes if nothing else. The former band’s lead singer was working part time as a bank teller two years ago. They’re opening for the Rolling Stones in about a week. By the time I’d heard of their buddies in the Alabama Shakes, I couldn’t get into their sold out show at a San Francisco club that holds about 500 folks. They hadn’t even released a record at that point, and by now they’ve toured the world more than once and sold out most every show that I’ve checked on. Their debut record was a blast. Their latest, Sound and Color, is… pretty weird. In the loveliest way. These folks aren’t going away any time soon. That’s good news. We could all use a dose of that about now, I’m guessing. Things are looking up in 2015. I swear.
While Boys and Girls was certainly a success that the band can hang their collective hat on forever and ever, there was some grumbling about the actual quality of the songs. The playing and musical ability has never been questioned as best I can tell. I thought the criticisms of the songs were a little off. That record had about five tunes that crawled right into my ears and nested there for months. That stickability hasn’t found me quite yet on Sound and Color. But I love it. There’s just so much more going on this time around. The band sounds so much surer of itself and it just feels like the players are ready for action. Full on. The new record finds them experimenting with string sections, vibraphones, and even more organ. The vocals are more affected and layered, not unlike the ones on D’Angelo’s latest. “The Greatest” puts a toe in the Punk waters and comes out blood red and snarling. “Miss You,” not to be confused with the Rolling Stones song of the same name, is a traditional Memphis rave-up not unlike the Shakes’ own “Be Mine” from their debut. Again, these songs don’t have separate movements and suites. The Shakes’ label mates in My Morning Jacket already have that angle covered this month. So I’m hesitant to say that the band’s songwriting prowess has evolved noticeably or greatly since their first long player. But they’re obviously pretty comfortable in a studio environment by now. Comfortable enough to slow it way down to the point of lunacy. Some of the instrumentation gets so sparse during “Over My Head” that all you get are those layered vocals and some organ and handclaps for company. It makes it all the more gripping when the bass comes back in. Speaking of bass, I showed Cedric Burnside the inner sleeve photo of the Shakes’ bassist wearing a “Burnside Style” baseball cap the other night at a Blues club. He insisted that I text the picture to him so he could show it to the folks back in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
The “audiophile” black vinyl version of this release is damn near just that. Get it instead of the clear vinyl package. Three sides of sweetness, man. Things are looking up in 2015.
Father John Misty “I Love You, Honeybear” Sub Pop
And speaking of newish artists that have avoided the dreaded Sophomore Slump, how about Father John Misty’s new record? It’s called I Love You, Honeybear, and that title is about as mundane as it gets on this release. Maybe adding string sections to your oeuvre is the thing to do these days because Honeybear is awash in them. But the good Father didn’t stop there. “True Affection” is built out of electronic Legos, it seems. And strings. Always with the strings. Songs like “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” are full of the witty turns of phrase that one would expect after Misty’s (nee Tillman’s) debut, Fear Fun, shook up the world like Muhammad Ali. That’s hyperbole. Which seems altogether appropriate as it relates to Honeybear. Everything is so grandiose even when the tempos get stuck in the orchestral mud. “The Ideal Husband,” by contrast, is a full throated rocker with a fuzz-guitar solo to distinguish it from its more languid brethren. And that leads right into “Bored In The USA,” laugh track and all. I loved Fear Fun, and I’m going to love Honeybear, but it’s not quite as accessible to me after the first few listens. Not the way Fear Fun was. This is one to read along with, maybe. Not only are the lyrics included in the liners, but you get a separate book of “Exercises for Listening” which will advise you to throw a dart at a map and “get born there” amongst other gems. Honeybear was recorded in Jonathan Wilson’s Los Angeles area studio which is legendarily analogue, all the way around. And all that fuzziness is revealed in warm relief on these two heavy platters cut at 45 rounds per minute (as was My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall, I might add). There was another version too with fancier artwork, but the price was exorbitant so I went with the standard issue for a nominal fee by today’s standards. Artwork is fun, but the goods are in Father John’s pipes. That’s another theme for this month. Folks singing their asses off. All but D’Angelo’s newest are brimming with vocal pyrotechnics. D’Angelo’s is brimming with all manner of other funky stuff so he should be as proud as the others. If Honeybear is the ode to Misty’s wife as it’s reputed to be, she might be the proudest of them all.
Here’s the thing about all five record sets that we’ve explored here this month: the pressings and presentations are all really, really good. Especially for releases that aren’t necessarily geared towards the audiophile. I mean, it’s not like these were Music Matters Jazz or MoFi titles. Not coincidentally, none of the records were pressed at United Records either. Maybe the word has gotten out. I’m also replacing less inner sleeves these days which seems like a minor victory at first glance, but records shipped and stored in abrasive paper sleeves are problematic at times so I’m enthusiastic about all that too. As a footnote, the folks at Light In The Attic got back to me about my defective copy of Willie Nelson’s Teatro that I bought on Record Store Day. They’re replacing it in a couple of months when they’ve pressed more. They care. And folks care about hearing music the way the artists intended, it seems. I think we’re gonna win, gang. Hold the line. The world is catching up. I’m suddenly optimistic whereas I was in despair just a few short months ago. Don’t call it a comeback.