Tuned In Brewed In is back with the albums of the moment.
by Brian Kaufenberg
Two Albums You May Have Missed
So much talent is squandered by alcohol in life. Men and women’s entire futures are altered by it each day. It can consume a person if they aren’t able to find help and beating alcoholism takes humility as much as it takes physical control—something that Jason Isbell knows all too well.
The first song, “Cover Me Up,” from his new album Southeastern confronts his drinking right away and credits Amanda Shires, the singer and violinist who Isbell married after making the album, for his recovery. Humbly, Isbell admits, “I sobered up and swore off that stuff for good this time / In the old lover’s scene, I’d thought it’d be me who helped him home / But home was a dream, one that I’d never seen ‘till you came along.”
The rest of the album is framed by Isbell’s recovery, but never plunges into self-pity. Instead, he uses his personal life to shape a series of powerful stories ranging from coping with a friend with cancer on “Elephant” to questions of personal change and identity on the civil-war era story, “Live Oak.”
Southeastern is a quieter album than his previous solo work and has a clarity in style and sound that reflects the clarity of a sober mind, but the song “Super 8” shows Isbell is still capable of rocking out. It’s good news for his fans as he takes the next steps forward on his musical journey.
In New Orleans, the cradle of jazz down south, is a no frills jazz club called Preservation Hall where they don’t serve drinks and there’s no air conditioning—there’s just jazz. Since forming in 1961 under Allan Jaffe, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been performing at the hall and has become nationally renown. The staying power of a big band through the last 52 years is remarkable, but that the jazz band’s newest has produced the first album of entirely original material just this year is simply amazing. With That’s It the band is forging a new path while staying true to its classic big band roots.
The album leads off with “That’s It,” a swinging jive number with Latin drums and bass driving the beat and wailing horns ringing out irresistibly until you find your feet dancing in place. The album swings throughout, mixing in voodoo-soaked blues on “Rattlin’ Bones” and slow southern dawdle on “August Nights,” but the band’s New Orleans jazz tradition is most prevalent on the Dixieland-style gospel tune “Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength).”
The three-voice polyphony of the trumpet, clarinet, and trombone, each playing their own melody, gives a hopeful life to a song about searching for mercy and grace in troubled times. Through the gospel call and response between Allan Jaffe’s son Ben and the rest of the band, “Dear Lord” becomes a song of community and serves as an anthem for the city of New Orleans that came together when faced with the tragedy and hardship of Hurricane Katrina and overcame it.
The optimism of “Dear Lord” is the same optimism that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has for the future of jazz. No longer is the band just preserving the jazz tradition, but it is forging a new, original path forward.
An Album Worth the Hype
Ella Yelich-O’Connor already has two #1 singles under her belt in her home country of New Zealand, one of which went double platinum—and she is just 16 years old. Better known as Lorde, her hit single “Royals” from her Love Club EP helped launch her into the international spotlight, including here in Minnesota where “Royals” gets plenty of radio time on local stations.
On her newest Tennis Court EP, Lorde shows that she is not just another teen pop star. The sweetness of her voice is tempered by a cynicism beyond her years and the muted, synthetic percussion and organs creates a dark, introspective atmosphere akin to James Blake, especially on the foggy [Replacements cover] “Swinging Party,” where she confesses her personal faults as self-indictments, ultimately settling on a severe, self-imposed sentence: “If being afraid is a crime we hang side by side / at the swinging party down the line.”
For listeners in love with Lorde’s lighter pop melodies on “Royals,” “Biting Down” is the most challenging song on the album and perhaps the most interesting. A muted siren acts as a supernatural metronome as Lorde chants the eerie refrain, “It feels better biting down” as though casting a spell over us. With little chance for commercial success as a single, the choice to create and include “Biting Down” on a five-song EP is a bold one and signals that Lorde isn’t merely a singer, but has the makings of a true artist.
What to Look Forward to
The result of sporadic writing sessions spread over the course of three years, Volcano Choir’s second album Repave is set for release on September 3. Made up of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Matthew Skemp Daniel Spack, Thomas Wincek of Collections of Colonies of Bees, Volcano Choir began as an exploratory side project, but the first single, “Byegone,” reveals a greater focus and the confidence of a full-fledged band.
Where songs like “Youlogy” on Unmap are full of the tentative vocals and searching spirit found on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago (Volcano Choir actually predates Bon Iver) and the atmospheric buzz of Collection of Colonies of Bees, “Byegone” is full of the same rumbling power as the sea on the album cover and soars at the chorus with full of certainty.
“Byegone” is a song of self-assurance. It begins with Vernon and the band at a local bar in a seemingly Midwestern town “drinking all the ways to down” and, laughing in the face of the music industry hype that makes ordinary people into icons, as they are walking out a wide open door Vernon sings: “you know what were saying ‘bout us now / he’s a legend / I’m a legend / and we both go tripping thru the door.
Just like repaving a road fallen into disrepair, Volcano Choir is reinvesting in the band, and their friendships, after four years with Repave giving it a formal, permanent structure. This road is likely to be well traveled by fans of Bon Iver and Collections of Colonies of Bees for many years to come.
*Correction: The songwriting for “Swinging Party” was attributed to Lorde in the print edition of The Growler. In fact it is a Replacements song from their album Tim.