Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Newman, Kronos and Presley: Americana On Both Sides

“Welcome, welcome, welcome . . . ," sings Randy Newman like a midway barker inviting us into his tent for a little sermon on the current state of mankind. Dark Matter (Nonesuch) is Newman’s 11th studio album of original songs and one of his most musically ambitious. The record opens with “The Great Debate,” an elaborate piece featuring a cast of characters in a musical battle among climate change, evolution and dark matter. The song is full of Newman’s sarcastic wit about scientists and religious fanatics juxtaposed with the power of gospel music, and, like much of this new album, it swings. By the end of "The Great Debate,” he settles for divine providence -- “Someone is watching me . . . " -- as the angels applaud. Dark Matter isn’t a concept album per se; it’s simply a set of interesting topical songs reflecting Newman’s current observations. Yet even a song about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis featuring John and Robert Kennedy, called “Brothers,” only seems out of place until we realize that the president is more interested in saving Celia Cruz than in a Russian blockade. And speaking of Russians, “Putin” stomps in with Newman’s acid tongue in full force, only to be calmed by the beautiful orchestration behind “Lost Without You.” On this record, one of his best in years, we get a fair share of satire, mockery and beauty all soaked in Newman’s unique sense of Americana, a gumbo of jazz, gospel and revivalist choirs.

Folk Songs (Nonesuch) by the Kronos Quartet is a much more serious and grounded album in the Americana genre. The 9-track disc was recorded three years ago but only recently released. It features the quartet with four vocalists whose unadorned performances make for an album that takes stock in the rich history of America: its promise and its pain. The arrangements are superb and the gentle timbre of the quartet, now in their 44th year as a band, complements each singer. Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Natalie Merchant and Rhiannon Giddens bring their own sensibilities to their individual performances, often offering moments that are sublime or mysterious or simply carefree, but the honesty of the music is what counts here and Folk Songs has it in spades. The beauty of the record is its unhurriedness and gentleness of execution, reflecting a more pastoral approach with just the right tension that links all the tracks as a unified work. This is an album about bringing people together in these troubled times.

Wrangled (Mining Light) is the new record from Angaleena Presley that takes critical shots at country music. This album pokes as many holes in the idealism of Americana as it can but it does so with beautiful harmonies and a great studio band. Angaleena Presley, of the Kentucky Presleys, is one-third of the country trio known as the Pistol Annies, a group that features Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. Both singers back her on the audacious opening track, “Dreams Don’t Come True,” one of my favorite songs of the year because I like my Americana laced with cynicism. As Presley sings, “I should have known all along that glass slippers give you blisters.” But she really gets serious on the rocker “Country,” when she throws lyrical darts at the content of the so-called NashVegas songs currently on the charts. I consider it the outlaw track for 2017. Other highlights in the same vein include “High School,”  “Wrangled” and “Bless My Heart.” But a song called “Cheer Up Little Darling,” co-written by Guy Clark, softens the edginess. It’s a beautiful lyric graced by Shawn Camp who is playing Clark’s number 10 guitar with a harmony vocal from Clark’s longtime musical ally, Jack Ingram. Wrangled is Presley’s second solo album; I hope there are more.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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