By Sean Titone
May 21, 2016
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson recently said that it doesn’t matter what kind of music he makes, because as soon as he opens his mouth to sing, it’s going to be a country song. This is Simpson playing coy, of course, as he has shown his musical inspirations to be plentiful and far-reaching beyond what many consider a traditional country sound. On his 3rd full-length (and first for major label Atlantic Records), he’s written a heartfelt letter to his young son in album form, and it’s just as much an orchestral soul record as it is a rock record as it is a country record. With help from the Dap-Kings horn section, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth takes the listener on an autobiographical journey through Simpson’s life as he details his triumphs and failures in equal measure, while giving his son life advice on how to avoid the same pitfalls he faced along the way. Simpson’s cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom is such a revelation and unique take on the original, it becomes a new classic all its own, while the closing song Call to Arms is the definition of a barnburner that should become a live staple in the months to come, guaranteed to get the crowd on its feet.
Favorite tracks: In Bloom, Call to Arms, Welcome to Earth (Pollywog), Sea Stories
Charles Bradley – Changes
If anyone is deserving of a musical biopic, it’s Charles Bradley. The crate-digging soul purveyors at Brooklyn’s Daptone Records discovered the now 67-year-old Bradley, whose life has included its share of hard times and odd jobs (including a long-running stint as a James Brown impersonator), and the rest is history. Known as the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Bradley has a voice that only comes around once in a generation. The emotion, pain, sacrifice and unconditional love inherent in his vocal delivery is powerful enough to move mountains, funky enough to get you dancing, and sobering enough to move you to tears. On his 3rd album for Daptone, Bradley and his tight-knit band weave their way through ballads (see: Changes) and bangers (see: Ain’t it a Sin) with equal parts melancholy and vigor.
Favorite tracks: Good to be Back Home, Ain’t Gonna Give It Up, Changes, Ain’t it a Sin, You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know)
Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
Have you ever seen someone strum a violin like it was an electric guitar? I certainly hadn’t, until I saw Andrew Bird live for the first time years ago. Bird has expanded his sound greatly and matured as a performer and songwriter since his days playing violin with the Squirrel Nut Zippers nearly twenty years ago. While his music has morphed from 1920s gypsy jazz to indie rock to baroque pop and everything in between, his lyrics have always remained imaginative and mesmerizing. On Are You Serious, Bird has written some of his most personal lyrics to date, giving the melodically gorgeous, yet complex songs an added emotional punch.
Favorite tracks: Capsized, Roma Fade, Are You Serious, Valleys of the Young
The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust
Coming from a long line of excellent Minneapolis artists that include Prince (may he rest in peace), The Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Babes in Toyland, The Jayhawks return with their first album of new material in five years with the Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Tucker Martine-produced Paging Mr. Proust. One of the most consistently reliable alt-country/rock bands of the past two decades, the Jayhawks are led by principal songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Gary Louris (former bandmate and Jayhawks co-founder Mark Olson is no longer with the band after his brief return on previous effort Mockingbird Time). Louris and company have always known their way around a beautiful melody, glistening harmonies and a catchy sing along chorus, and Paging Mr. Proust is no exception.
Favorite tracks: Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces, Lovers of the Sun, Leaving the Monsters Behind, The Devil is in Her Eyes
Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Since Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts arrived on the scene a few years back, they have drawn comparisons to many of their indie rock forebears, most notably Pavement, but frankly, I never really got that particular comparison other than maybe their outward slacker appearance. On Human Performance, I’d almost liken Parquet Courts to a more playful Sonic Youth, although there are also homages to Beck, Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman. Their sound has certainly gotten more polished with each album, similar to Pavement’s arc, but the percolating anxiety inherent in nearly all of their songs is a touchstone all their own.
Favorite tracks: Dust, Human Performance, Outside, Berlin Got Blurry, Pathos Prairie
Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Woods are one of those bands that in an alternate universe should be much bigger than they are. Each progressive album sounds like it could be their “greatest hits” record. City Sun Eater in the River of Light is arguably their strongest work to date, and that’s saying a lot. The easygoing falsetto of singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl remains the centerpiece of the band as he sings over slinky folk and psych-rock jams. The skull painting on the album’s cover hints that there might be a more sinister vibe to this particular set of songs which is partially true, while the introduction of a horn section adds yet another vibrant color to Woods’ already kaleidoscopic sound.
Favorite tracks: Sun City Creeps, Creature Comfort, Morning Light, Can’t See It All
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Speaking of Woods, Kevin Morby actually used to be a member of that band. He just released his third full-length under his given name, only one week after his former bandmates (don’t worry, they’re still buds). Singing Saw is a culmination of nearly a decade as a professional musician, first with Woods, then as a co-founder of the critically acclaimed band The Babies before ultimately moving forward with a solo career, all done under the age of 30. Morby favors repetition, whether it’s with a lyrical phrase or a guitar riff, and he uses it to his advantage when he wants to hammer a point home. His languid yet often verbose delivery brings to mind ‘70s-period Dylan who is clearly a major influence upon his work. Singing Saw signifies a big step forward for Morby as he has finally developed his own singular and captivating sound.
Favorite tracks: Cut Me Down, I Have Been to the Mountain, Dorothy, Destroyer
Bonus: A Spotify playlist by Sean Titone
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