I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
The bad news is I couldn’t find an album deserving a review this week. Or, more specifically, I couldn’t find a terrible album worth mentioning that had anything in common thematically with the good-to-great albums I’d already heard—roots reworkings from black musicians who challenge and reimagine musical tradition.
The good news is, that means I've got five good-to-great records to tell you about. And the whole point of this column is to find the good stuff, right?
Adia Victoria –Silences
“First of all there is no God,” this South Carolina blues revisionist declares plainly 30 seconds in, strings creeping beside her through the shadows, and you can hear the glint in her eye. She knows He’s dead because she offed the sucker, maybe with the same knife she aims to plant in the intruder she’s found lurking in her garden. Victoria and co-producer Aaron Dessner of the National populate the corners of these tracks with ghosts and echoes: a distant gnat of a guitar buzzing behind “Bring Her Back,” “Lady Sings the Blues” piping in from the next room on “The City.” And while the lyrics typically read more bleakly than they’re sung, this excerpt from “The Devil Is a Lie” captures the album’s spirit: “Sneak away to do my dirt/I like the things that make me hurt/They say the weak shall inherit the earth/But the world was never enough.” That’s expressed in a voice that’s stealthily scrunched, preternaturally nonchalant, playful in its self-destructive defiance: If Victoria’s whistling past the graveyard it’s not to steel her nerves but because a great tune just popped in her head. Doughty Mid-Atlantic-bred rationalist that I am, I rarely seek my psychological or intellectual tingles from Southern Gothic, but a deicidal Billie Holiday fan who sounds like she’d sold her soul to Kurt Weill to pay off her bar tab? I’m not made of stone, people. GO
Our Native Daughters –Songs of Our Native Daughters
Rhiannon Giddens, the fiddler/banjoist who’s done as much as anyone to remind Americana amnesiacs how black their folk roots are, joins her voice with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell in Dirk Powell’s Louisiana studio to reconstruct the stories of African-American women, including Russell’s Ghanan ancestor and Polly Ann, the woman who swung the hammer when John Henry couldn’t any more. Sometimes the proceedings do wax a mite conceptual, as when a Giddens recitation of a William Cowper anti-slavery poem leads into a melody interpreted from “the first western notation of New World enslaved music.” (Phew!) So be glad that enough of a federal government remains that the Smithsonian, whose Folkways imprint released the album, can offer us freeloading music-streamers pdf liner notes—they’re worth your time. Beginning with the full-blooded “Black Myself,” the performances themselves are far from academic, and the two best tracks here about as distant from each other tonally as you could want: the raw a cappella “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” and “Better Git Yer Learnin’,” a minstrel banjo tune rewritten to celebrate the power of the written word that you could mistake for a genuine historical artifact. SLOW
Leyla McCalla – The Capitalist Blues
Her again. McCalla starts with two timely, class-conscious numbers: a title track more concerned with the totalizing effects of the -ism upon us all than the banal sins of the -ists, which are addressed in turn by a calypso oldie called "Money Is King," drawn from the catalog of Trinidad’s Growling Tiger, its diagnosis of the wealthy’s impunity as fresh as the transcript of this week’s congressional hearings. McCalla’s conversational robustness loses a little of its character when it rises into her upper register—her voice works best as one musical element among several. Fortunately she’s a restless musicologist/bandleader, directing traffic with her own banjo and guitar while Haitian compas, zydeco, Dixieland, and more garden variety folk musics swerve around one another. SLOW
Yola – Walk Through Fire
Why’s this 35-year-old Brit’s solo debut come so close to greatness where most modern soul records barely get by on overexcitable you-gotta-believe revivalism? Here’s the boring answer: good songs, which split the difference between break-up analyses and farewells to a past self and would have improved any ’70s Dusty Springfield LP. But, more intriguingly, also cause she’s a 35 year-old Brit. That means she’s not only old enough to know what she doesn’t want to do—keep touring with her fellow Bristolites in Massive Attack (too dark, she says) or soldier on with her old band Phantom Limb (too dude). And rather than apprenticing on a U.S. retro circuit that rewards crowd-pleasing clichés, she’s been tutored at a distance by her favorite old records, so she sings with a clear enunciation and old-school pop sensibility, favoring warmth over demonstrative pain, risking a delicacy on her high notes rather than swinging for the bleachers. Credit’s also due to producer Dan Auerbach, who knows all the shortcuts to country-soul effectiveness but doesn’t mind accompanying Yola on the scenic route. SLOW
Gary Clark Jr. – This Land
Though writing great songs is hardly a more difficult skill than playing guitar brilliantly, it is a different one, and I’ve got the ’70s vinyl to prove it. Wth Amerikkka partying like it’s 1876, this celebrated Texan bluesman’s righteously pissed, and while that rage hasn’t exactly turned Clark into Willie Dixon, it’s focused him conceptually, while also galvanizing his singing and encouraging him to value punchy, scuffed bursts of guitar over fluid displays of prowess. Maybe it’s even what’s encouraging him to style-hop into reggae and R&B and make a real studio album with layered, considered arrangements, rather than falling back on the rote verse-chorus-jam of his previous recordings. True, this doesn’t need to be 75 minutes with bonus tracks (and still over an hour without), but you know how bluesmen can be about demonstrating their stamina. SLOW
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new, newish, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty self-explanatory: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.