James Mercer has reached a point in his life when, if he sings the words “my girl,” he may very well be addressing one of his three daughters. Mercer does precisely that in the first moments of the Shins’s Heartworms. On “Name for You,” Mercer calls out the patriarchal consignment of women to domestic roles as a “bland kind of torture,” and he encourages his daughters, and by extension all women, to fearlessly speak their minds and pursue their dreams.
Rather than announcing an album full of sociocultural commentary, though, the empowering “Name for You” marks one of few forward-looking moments on Heartworms, as Mercer otherwise trains his focus on the distant past, both in his subject matter and eclectic brand of indie pop. While the singer-songwriter worked with producer Greg Kurstin on 2012’s melancholic Port of Morrow (his first Shins album after parting ways with the band’s original lineup), Mercer produced Heartworms himself—and, in doing so, returned to the lusher, more upbeat sound of the Shins’s influential early releases.
This is most apparent on this album’s infectious, hook-laden title track and shuffling, gently strummed lead single, “Dead Alive,” the latter of which contains echoes of “New Slang.” On the sentimental “Mildenhall,” which doubles down on the country aesthetic of Chutes Too Narrow’s “Gone for Good,” Mercer vividly reminisces about teenage years spent as a skateboarding military brat at an Air Force base in England. But when he regresses into talk of chasing away rainy-day blues by messing around on his dad’s old guitar, his detailed storytelling becomes bogged down in reams of lazy clichés. On paper, Mercer’s lyrics too often engage in heavy-handed wordplay (“I take the drugs, but the drugs won’t take”) or drift off into abstraction (“I dine like an aging pirate”), though the vocals aren’t always featured prominently enough to easily decipher on a casual listen.
Throughout Heartworms, Mercer ruminates on aging by contrasting his present with his past. Though nostalgic for his teen years on “Mildenhall,” he laments a youth that was wasted on him on the mellow “Fantasy Island.” The ethereal “So Now What” finds Mercer looking back at the long road traveled with his wife over the years, wistfully pointing out that things don’t always go as planned but clinging to the “crazy idea” that they’ll somehow find a way to blissfully “coast to the end.” Anxiety and a desire to escape the realities of one’s existence wriggle their way into his lyrics, whether through the futility of relying on illusory solutions to one’s hardships on “Painting a Hole” or a desire to fly away from an attention-starved childhood on “Fantasy Island.”
But Mercer often only seems to take this theme half-seriously. He irreverently personifies an inescapable situation in the form of a clingy woman on “Rubber Ballz” (“I just can’t get her out of my bed/Wish I’d gone with her sister instead”) or, conversely, laments the relentless melodrama of unrequited love on “Heartworms.” As he details bouts of anxiety that have resurfaced since childhood on “The Fear,” he does so by wishing he could merely have sense enough to “let it give way to love,” as though struggling with mental health is simply a matter of willpower. Such oversimplifications bog down the album, which is too often distracted by pristine melodies that can’t fully obscure those instances when Mercer struggles to find the right words.
Label: Columbia Release Date: March 10, 2017 Buy: Amazon
Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule
The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.3.5
Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.
It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.
If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.
While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.
Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead
The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.3.5
Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.
Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.
“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.
Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.
At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.
Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Ariana Grande Embraces Her Flaws on Thank U, Next
The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album.3.5
Ariana Grande doesn’t care if you like her. The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album, Thank U, Next. She fantasizes about her ex while her lover sleeps beside her on “Ghostin,” she picks fights with him for the make-up sex on “Make Up,” and she glibly coaxes a guy into dumping his girlfriend just for kicks on the plainly titled “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”
As Grande recently proclaimed on Twitter, “Life is full trash,” and it’s this willingness to reveal herself warts and all that makes it easy to forgive her various indiscretions. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s “Needy” and—on the very next track—that she simultaneously requires her personal space. “Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch/Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she declares on “7 Rings,” which finds the singer boasting of her financial prowess in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”
Today’s pop stars typically rely on rappers to deliver the kind of braggadocious verses that would otherwise dirty up their squeaky-clean personas, but Grande spits her own rhymes throughout Thank U, Next, and they’re so slick that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy have both accused her of biting their flows. There are no guest rappers on this decidedly lean follow-up to last year’s Sweetener, and while one might expect it to be filled with at least a few stale leftovers from that album, the songs here rarely sound like sloppy seconds.
Thank U, Next is easily Grande’s most sonically consistent effort to date, even if that means some of the album’s sleek R&B tracks tend to blur together. Aside from a wealth of trap beats and finger snaps, the album’s most notable characteristic is the recurring use of orchestral flourishes. The opening track, “Imagine,” is a dreamy midtempo ballad, with Grande pining for an Instagram-perfect romance that comprises sharing sexy baths and pad thai. The song takes a sudden turn in its final third, as it builds to a hypnotic climax filled with cinematic swells and Grande’s euphoric, Minnie Ripperton-esque whistle notes.
That same tactic makes slightly less thematic sense on the reggae-inflected “Bad Idea,” on which Grande espouses the temporarily amnesiac virtues of casual sex. Elsewhere, the use of a sample by the late soul singer Wendy Rene on “Fake Smile” initially smacks of misappropriation, followed as it is by seemingly mindless lines like “Another night, another party, sayin’ hi to everybody.” But by the end, the song reveals itself to be a modern expression of the blues, about a young woman trying to navigate life in an era where privacy is virtually nonexistent. Grande ultimately earns the use of that sample, and it’s her refusal to fake a smile that proves to be what makes her so damn likeable.
Label: Republic Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon