There are weeks when one can look at new album release lists and wonder who in their right mind would buy any of these?
This, however, is not one of those weeks.
I don’t know if anyone might’ve guessed ten years ago that contemporary country music would become one of the hottest genres going, but here we are. New releases by Lady Antebellum, the Pistol Annies and the Dixie Chicks’ own Natalie Maines are among this week’s most hotly anticipated albums, and all of them—however far removed they may be from the works of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline—represent where the public’s taste resides at the moment, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Because while each signals a deliberate move forward from the strict traditionalism of what some would call classic country, none are particularly blatant examples of crass commercialism, none appear to be specifically aiming at “crossing over” to pop at the expense of art, and all of them are actually quite interesting.
And then there’s that new Gatsby soundtrack!
Pistol Annies: Annie Up (Sony Nashville) Energetic, compelling, raucous, emotional, Annie Up is the second album from the divine trio of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, and as a follow up to Hell On Heels, it couldn’t be better. Brimming with original material, the album seems entirely a group effort—not an artificial marketing concoction—and presents this trio of very exciting performers in a context that only adds to what they’ve already established on their own, no small thing when it comes to both the celebrated Lambert and Monroe, whose recent Like A Rose was startlingly good. There’s something organic here that’s especially appealing, and its very natural feel—along with the dozen fine tunes within—signal that the Annies are the real, non-prefab deal. Great stuff.
Rod Stewart: Time (Capitol) Having been fortunate enough to witness the 68-year-old Stewart perform most of these songs as a special performance at LA’s Troubadour club a week or so ago, I’m already sold on this record. Had I no idea that Stewart had spent the last decade or so crafting “tribute” albums to the works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and just about anyone your mother or grandmother loves—had his last recorded work been only, say, 1978’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”—I’d probably simply report that the singer still has the goods. But precisely because of that, because he hasn’t really devoted much of his time to the rock ‘n’ roll at which he really excelled so long ago, I’m even more impressed. Stewart wrote most of the songs here, and the majority of them—like openers “She Makes Me Happy” and “Can’t Stop Me Now”—are catchy, rocking pieces firmly in the tradition he himself established long ago. Joyous, rocking stuff, Time is yet another indicator that when Stewart himself takes the time to write his material, which doesn’t happen very often, he’s nearly always triumphant. A very significant return to form.
Lady Antebellum: Golden (Capitol Nashville) In the world of contemporary country music, Lady Antebellum are about as big as it gets: Seven Grammys, significant respect among their peers, notable crossover love from the pop community, and not a bad collection of songs spread among four albums. Golden is a strong return for the trio, packed with good songs, produced by the band and respected vet Paul Worley, and already boasting a No. 1 country hit with “Downtown.” The band’s stature may be underestimated by those who turn their nose up at country music, but that their “Need You Now” bested Eminem & Rihanna’s “Love The Way You Lie” in the Grammys’ Song Of The Year category a while back tells the tale: Lady A makes music that both resonates with the American Heartland and makes their peers feel pretty spiffy, too. A fine return from a hard-working band getting better by the moment, Golden is just what Lady Antebellum needed to offer up this year.
She & Him: Volume 3 (Merge) I found repeated listenings to the new She & Him album a fascinating experience today: It’s a fine album that—and this isn’t intended as a criticism—sounds like it might have been recorded 40-50 years ago. The combination of M. Ward’s production, Zooey Deschanel’s voice, and, more specifically, her songs, suggest that sort of dreamy, female pop that mid-‘60s singers like Robin “Wonderful Summer” Ward offered up sporadically: warm, familiar, appealing, sentimental, and the sort of thing that might make the sappy among us tear up on occasion. Most interestingly, having ignored the album credits, the unexpected cover of Blondie’s “Sunday Girl” set my mind-a-reelin’ about where I’d first heard the song: Was it Mari Wilson? Saint Etienne? It took a moment, but that was what I liked: heavenly female pop songs, penned by who-knows-who who-knows-when? Never all-out spectacular, Volume 3 is nonetheless a fine work by a legitimate band getting more and more interesting each time out.
Fitz & The Tantrums: More Than Just A Dream (Elektra) Renowned for their energetic live shows, which evoke a ‘60s soul shakedown merged with the catchiest pop imaginable, Fitz & The Tantrums are poised for a breakthrough here with their first major label affair. It’s loaded with great tunes, the band couldn’t be more media friendly, and their secret weapon remains: They are the sort of band that people who merely “like” music strangely fall in love with. A significant step up from 2010’s Pickin’ Up The Pieces, the album just needs one radio hit—just one—and the good will they’ve already established with major media outlets, the late-night TV world, the festival appearances, will take them over the top fairly soon. Just wait and see.
Natalie Maines: Mother (Columbia) Something of a bold step for Maines, whose excellent work with the Dixie Chicks oddly became less the topic of discussion than her political beliefs a few years back, Mother is her “rock” album, and that alone is interesting. Throw in a conspicuous contribution from co-producer Ben Harper, covers such as the title track, from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” and you’ve got a revealing sense of what creative artists locked into pre-existing genres—such as the Chicks—might want to do if they had the creative freedom to do it. Fine musicianship prevails, Maines’ vocals are consistently excellent, as one might expect, and the psychological themes within are, indeed, not quite what might resonate with today’s mainstream country audience. Whatever the genre, genuine artistry always prevails—and Maines has already proven she’s got that stuff down cold.
Various Artists: Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film The Great Gatsby (WaterTower Music) Personally speaking, the likelihood of me wanting to go see this movie is about as high as my getting a pedicure--and that rapper Jay-Z was intimately involved in the creation of its soundtrack is, shall we say, less than a major selling point. As an album, there are a few compelling songs to be had here—almost incidentally, by people like Emeli Sandé, Sia, the xx and even Lana Del Ray—but the overriding sense of high-concept marketing on display ensures this album will likely have a shelf life considerably less brief than that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. In all sincerity, were Jay-Z to be involved in scoring a remake of Santa And The Ice Cream Bunny (1974) purely because he liked it, I would consider him a genius rather a rich man seriously concerned about his perceived status as an, er, esteemed public figure.
James Cotton: Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator) A world-class harmonica-playing bluesman with a distinguished catalog behind him, 77-year-old Cotton has played with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Otis Spann, has the usual batch of Grammy nominations and the like, and returns here with players such as Keb Mo, Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, Joe Bonamassa and Ruthie Foster. It’s a fine album, featuring a number of tracks co-written by the harpist and one—“Bonnie Blue”—sung by Cotton himself, no small event since his past battles with throat cancer. An upbeat, warm blues album boasting fine musicianship and the same undeniable spirit Cotton has displayed for close to 60 years now.
The Blow Monkeys: Feels Like A New Morning (Cherry Red) Don’t know if it’s simply ‘80s nostalgia or the fact that I’m completely comfortable with cruising around town while listening to the new OMD album, but the notion of a new album by the Blow Monkeys—the Brit band who made some noise back then with “Digging Your Scene” and a few other similarly charming tracks—sounds pretty interesting right now. This new collection, a recent studio affair with a second disc of “acoustic Blow Monkeys” performed by Robert Howard—alias the band’s Dr. Robert—is better than you might think, and almost enough to make one pull out the old Blancmange albums and start watching old John Hughes movies. In retrospect, maybe not a bad idea.
98 Degrees: 2.0 (Entertainment One) Though I have some vague idea of who Nick Lachey is due to my involuntary involvement with the “celebrity journalism” business, I find it fascinating that I have absolutely no memory of 98 Degrees and thus find news of this new reunion—and the fact that they have apparently sold over 10 million records—a better reason than ever to continue offering fresh perspectives on the music business! As they say in Michigan's Upper Peninsula: Yepper!