Album reviews: Death, bluegrass and ’60s folk
Produced by Fleet Foxes and Phil Ek (Sub Pop).As they did on their acclaimed, eponymous 2008 debut, the Northwest’s Fleet Foxes don’t just look to ’60s and ’70s folk rock. They tastefully pick and choose the best from that era – the harmony singing of Simon & Garfunkel, the adventurous songwriting approach of Crosby, Stills & Nash, the instrumental flourishes of Donovan, the casual artfulness of the Beach Boys. But “Helplessness Blues” moves beyond the ’60s, and beyond the band’s debut, by expanding the sound – especially the rhythmic ideas – and opening up the songs. Over and over, a song starts in one place, only to discover other realms a moment later. The shifts are generally subtle – most everything lead singer Robin Pecknold and Co. do is subtle – and seamless but effectively keep the album from being a static throwback. In the title track, the building is constant – from a quiet guitar and vocal beginning to a more driving guitar segment before blossoming into something else entirely, dense and swirling, before resolving back into quiet again. In “Bedouin Dress,” the soundscape moves through an Eastern-inspired fiddle break, thumping beats and gentle ooh-ooh-ooh vocals.As crafters of superb pop music, Fleet Foxes now rank with the best of them, from any era.
Produced by Randy Kohrs (Sugar Hill).As the story goes, Robert Hunter took some LSD back around 1969 and then wrote the lyrics to “China Cat Sunflower” and “The Eleven,” which would become the first original tunes by the Grateful Dead. (Listen to those songs, and the acid-dropping legend gains much credence.)Which makes me wonder what Hunter is ingesting these days. Turning 70 later this month, Hunter is practically bursting with lyrics. He co-wrote nearly all of the songs for Bob Dylan’s 2009 album, “Together Through Life”; contributed the lyrics for last year’s excellent debut by 7 Walkers, a band that features Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann; and collaborated with Jim Lauderdale on the songs for the album “Patchwork Quilt.” Over that span, Hunter also earned writing credits on albums by Los Lobos and New Riders of the Purple Sage.Perhaps more impressive is that this isn’t the same old thing. Hunter keeps finding new lyrical corners; the 7 Walkers album, for instance, conjured New Orleans themes.On “Reason and Rhyme,” yet another full-album collaboration with Lauderdale, Hunter takes on the guise of a bluegrasser. The 11 songs here aren’t just rendered in bluegrass style; they use the language and style of bluegrass. He gets silly on “Tiger & the Monkey” and seriously romantic on “Love’s Voice,” he resurrects older times on “Janis Jones” and even touches on the sacred in “Fields of the Lord.”Lauderdale’s voice, and a top-notch Nashville band, do a fine job of bringing the words to life, sticking tight to old-school bluegrass, with a tendency to play it fast.Jim Lauderdale performs Aug. 11 in the Snowmass Free Concert Series in Snowmass Village.
Produced by T Bone Burnett (New West).Few people keep death closer at hand than Steve Earle. Earle himself did a close dance with the Big Repose in his drug-taking days; his political activity has been focused mainly on abolishing the death penalty. Three years ago, Earle’s father died, sending Earle into an even deeper contemplation of the final curtain, and he came out with both a novel, his first, and an album, his 14th, both titled “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”The album touches on many aspects of life: God, romance, his father, politics. And every last bit of it is from the perspective that everything comes to an end. In “Little Emperor,” it’s the United States’ short reign as the dominant world power (“Hey little hypocrite what you gonna say/ When you wind up standin’ naked on the final judgment day?”); in “Molly-O,” it’s a lover (“Someday I’ll swing from the gallows pole/ A final dance for my Molly-O”); in “The Gulf of Mexico,” it’s a two-fer, as both his father and the environment meet their maker.Earle finds majesty and inspiration in the subject of death. The songs are poetic and deep; the sound, thanks to the great and prolific producer T Bone Burnett, is more grand than Earle has achieved before – less country, more varied and spacious. Earle even finds a measure of hope in the face of death. Striking his most defiant, assured tone, he closes the album with “This City,” a tribute to New Orleans. He knows death is as omnipresent as ever – “We just carry on diggin’ our graves/ … maybe our bones will wash away” – but some things are eternal. “This city won’t wash away/ This city won’t ever drown” are the closing lines to “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”Steve Earle & the Dukes (and the Duchess) play July 3 at PAC3 in Carbondale.
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