The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
His name is Brad Paisley, and he will be your cowboy-hatted global tour guide.
This is a role the guitar slinger has played before, like on his 2009 song Welcome to the Future, in which he sang about video chatting with companies in Tokyo. Paisley may play music most deeply appreciated in the rural and Southern United States, but he has seen the world and wants to let his fans know there is more to it than mom, baseball and apple pie.
That’s sort of the unifying message of Wheelhouse, Paisley’s 10th studio album, which leads off with Southern Comfort Zone, a song advising listeners, “Not everybody drives a truck … drinks sweet tea … owns a gun, wears a ball cap, boots and jeans … goes to church or watches every NASCAR race.” Globalism is just one of several serious themes Paisley touches on with this new album, which also includes domestic abuse, religion and the Internet sensation du jour, racism and reconciliation.
Almost as quickly as it was released, Accidental Racist, an earnest duet with LL Cool J, was buried under criticism from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum. Paisley brings it in with an intriguing scenario: a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan puts on one of the band’s T-shirts, which includes the Confederate Battle Flag, goes to Starbucks and inadvertently offends his black server with the garment. He laments he was, “lookin’ like I got a lot to learn.”
If Paisley had cut the song off at the customary three-and-a-half minute mark, it would have been a nice, bluesy offering from a guy whose history says he is honestly trying to bridge some divides. It’s when LL comes in that the song becomes overwrought six-minute slog and makes missteps like trying to equate Confederate flags and do-rags. Surely Paisley could have found a better and more current collaborator than the NCIS: Los Angeles star. It’s unfortunate that walking into controversy, Paisley doesn’t have a better song to stand behind.
And for the most part, Wheelhouse is full of good songs, like the domestic abuse revenge anthem, Karate, the divorce ballad Tin Can on a String and Those Crazy Christians, which deftly defends and tweaks both the faithful and their detractors. The latter shows Paisley as a well-rounded ambassador, not only trying to open his core audience to a bigger world but trying to cultivate greater appreciation of his roots.
With such serious topics, there are a few goofy tunes that feel out of place here, such as Death of a Single Man, a fun song that may have worked better on a party-hearty album like American Saturday Night (2009). The album could also benefit from more guitar indulgences, one of the primary reasons to listen to a Paisley album, like the end of Beat This Summer and the instrumental Onryo.
Wheelhouse may not be Paisley’s masterpiece, but it may be the clearest articulation of his voice.
Looking at my list of favorite albums of the past year illustrates why serious music fans like to follow artists. They’re going to grow, evolve, please us, frustrate us and sometimes surprise us.
1. David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant - Talking Heads were the greatest band ever. Period. They were an intriguing collective anchored by Kentucky’s own Chris Frantz on the drums. But at the center of it all was quirky frontman David Byrne whose interests guided the Heads through projects like True Stories and his own career through collaborations with Twyla Tharp, Brian Eno and many, many others. When I heard he was teaming with idiosyncratic artist St. Vincent, my immediate thought was, “That’s perfect!” But it was so much more than that. Love This Giant is a constantly renewing journey with two brilliant minds all anchored in brass and as exquisitely crafted as we’d expect.
2. Jack White, Blunderbuss – We have always heard Jack White in the context of bands such as The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, but knew he was the driving force and individual voice behind those acts. His solo debut brought White’s vision into full focus with two same-sex bands backing him on tracks that renewed his strongest influences. A lot of artists play the blues, but few play it like White.
3. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange – Hip hop and R&B are genres full of posturing cool, so it was refreshing when Frank Ocean stepped onto the stage at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and hung himself out there with his performance of Bad Religion, a confession of an unrequited love for another man. The story was intriguing; the album was an engrossing meditation on being a young man trying to navigate the world.
4. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die – One of the most polarizing artists of the year, you either loved her stylized, morosely idealized West Coast mope or you thought she was a complete fake — a previous career under another name fueling that perception. I loved it. At times, she tried a bit too hard. But overall, Born to Die was an astonishingly complete and compelling vision for a young artist I want to hear more from.
5. Mumford & Sons, Babel – Mumford & Sons had a strong following for a genre band when Babel was released this fall. This release just strengthened it, showing the British band’s take on American roots sounds was a genuine exploration of its possibilities. It also affirmed this is a band we will be listening to years from now.
Best single: Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars. The man is a flat-out entertainer, as his Grammy Awards and Saturday Night Live performances showed. Locked out of Heaven, which closes out the year riding high on the charts, is an addictive collection of hooks brilliantly produced to showcase one of the decade’s strongest voices.
This seems to be the month of folky artists giving us big new albums that push their largely acoustic boundaries.
We have Mumford and Sons with Babel, which the band told Q‘s Jian Ghomeshi was partly a fulfillment of their desire to perform as a rock band.
And we have Lexington’s Ben Sollee, who to this point had made his reputation as the folky cello guy — as well as the writer of thoughtful, pointed songs — offering a new album that has several diversions from his regular profile. That starts the second that Half Made Man begins. Whole Lot to Give immediately draws listeners in with a big rock-pop sound anchored by an electrified riff and Sollee offering as focused a singing performance as he ever has. That and the defiant The Healer had me thinking this is going to be Sollee’s rock-anthem hymnal when DIY drew me back into a more familiar mood — high-energy, rootsy music with a defiant message. That feel continues in tunes such as Get Off Your Knees, and then there is the sonic and lyrical loveliness of Roam in the Dark and The Maestro — reminiscent of his Bible Belt – and the album closers The Pursuit of Happiness and Some Lovin’, which feel as familiar from Sollee as Half Made Man’s openers felt like departures.
On this latest effort, Sollee offers a variety of moods and styles without making it sound like a mess. There is a cohesiveness in the songwriting, arranging and musicianship, with guests including My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel on a variety of guitars, bassist Alana Rocklin, percussionist Jordon Ellis, violinist Jeremy Kittel and vocalist Abigail Washburn. Even if audiences are still discovering Sollee, clearly his fellow musicians are already big fans.
There is a point in Half Made Man when you might forget Sollee is primary a cellist. Yes, we still hear the soulful sound and admire Sollee’s mastery of it. But now that sound is him, and there is no longer a novelty to it. We focus on the music, which stands on its own.
Half Made Man dwells on lyrics about people in progress, but increasingly, Sollee is becoming a fully formed artist.
Before we get into what Frank Ocean‘s Channel Orange is, let’s say what it isn’t. It is not the gay hip hop/R&B album.
Ocean, born Christopher “Lonny” Breaux, caused a sensation earlier this month publishing a letter saying his first love was another man and then giving a riveting performance of the taxicab confessional song Bad Religion on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (above). While pop music has been open open to gay artists for years, hip hop and R&B have traditionally been less accepting of openly homosexual performers. The letter garnered Ocean a lot of attention, which is what his new album, Channel Orange, deserves, regardless of why you tuned in.
Orange is one of those albums that sounds like the emergence of a brilliant young talent. The 24 year old has been around as a writer for artists such as Justin Bieber and a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. Last year he dropped the acclaimed mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra, and Orange is his major label studio debut on Def Jam records, and it is as confident an opening bow as we have heard since Kanye West’s The College Dropout.
It is an album that demands attentive listening, at least the first few times around. That’s where you hear the connective tissue between the songs. It is a stream of money and sex that are the rewards of fame and a complete dissatisfaction with them. This won’t be a surprise to fans of his single, Novacane, released last year. Orange opens with the wistful Thinking Bout You, also previously released, pining for an idyllic love. Then a few tracks later, we are into Super Rich Kids, a longing for genuine emotion in the face of excess. Crack Rock is a great listen in spite of its focus on drugs and violence, leading into Pyramids, which completely defies the conventional belief that young writers should not attempt concept pieces. The 10-minute track makes Cleopatra and her fall a metaphor for everything we have been hearing about for the last half hour with brilliant rhymes and innovative structure. If this album didn’t have Bad Religion, Pyramids would be the masterpiece of Channel Orange.
As great as it was on Fallon, Bad Religion is even better in the context of the album. After expressing an outward and even historical view for the majority of the album, the song focuses inward, quietly. Ocean resists any compulsion to demonstrative drama, instead tending to his emotional wounds in a corner. You sort of want to push stop as the track fades, though there are a few more numbers including the playful Forrest Gump.
And really, as one of the most compelling albums this year, you don’t want to change the channel.
The cello isn’t just for classical music anymore, if it ever really was in the first place. This month started with new releases from Lexington’s own Ben Sollee and Northwesterners The Portland Cello Project that highlight the variety of ways the cello is being used.
The Portlanders may look more more like a traditional classical ensemble, though there aren’t many of those that devote themselves to one instrument … or cover of hip hop tunes. Homage is a tribute to recent hip hop by artists such as Jay-Z and Kanye West and an attempt to put the music in a new context so audiences that don’t appreciate rap will appreciate the music. It hits more than it misses with really illuminating takes on songs such as Lil’ Wayne’s She Will and Jay-Z and West’s H*A*M that really accentuate rhythmic and harmonic lines and reset the tunes in a 21st century classical context. There is a lot here reminiscent of both pop acts that have classical underpinnings such as the Dave Matthews Band and genre-crossing projects such as Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile’s Goat Rodeo Sessions. The least successful effort is the best known song on the record, Outkast’s Hey Ya. With a dominant line that mimics the song’s vocal, this rather literal interpretation sounds like an orchestral take for the sake of an orchestral take on the song.
Maybe the coolest thing you can do with bringing a new instrument into a foreign genre is make people forget what instrument they are hearing, because it sounds so natural. That’s what happens in Sollee’s new album, Live at the Grocery on Home, recorded at the Atlanta venue in the title. Sollee has become somewhat known as “the cello guy” in roots and Americana music, but more simply as a singer-songwriter of terrific tunes such as It’s Not Impossible and Bury Me with My Car, featured on this rousing outing. The live setting accentuates Sollee’s rhythmic playing and subtle delivery of pointedly socially conscious lyrics such as Bible Belt. Electrified, appropriately, has captured Sollee at his most rocking. And like his studio efforts, Live at the Grocery on Home captures a Kentucky artist who looked at his instrument and saw no limitations. The CD (which includes two copies, so you can give one to a friend) is available at Louisville’s Heine Bros. Coffee shops, online through bensollee.com and iTunes, and at Sollee’s tour stops.
The Portland Cello Project and guest Ben Sollee perform at 7:30 p.m. Monday (May 7, 2012) at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College in Danville. Visit nortoncenter.com for ticket information.
Among recent new releases by Jason Mraz, Train and Birdy dropped this curiosity: The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, a dramatizion of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 article that pioneered gonzo journalism.
It just sat there on my Spotify cue for a week or two until I finally hit play. I was quickly transfixed by Hal Willner’s production featuring Tim Robbins as the author and music by Bill Frisell.
Gonzo journalism lays aside any pretension of objectivity, usually placing the reporter at the center of the action recounting his or her experiences. It’s more commonly thought of in conjunction with towns such as Las Vegas and subjects such as hippies in the 1970s. But anyone whose ever spent a first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs can easily imagine Thompson would have plenty of fodder for his story at the Derby, particularly with him and his British illustrator Ralph Steadman gallivanting through the exclusive suites and the infield, liberally imbibing mint juleps.
The story starts with Thompson landing in Louisville and quickly being chastised by a Derby regular (played by Dr. John) for ordering a margarita.
“We gotta educate this boy, get him some good whu-skee!” the Texan named Jumbo says in a way only Dr. John can interpret it.
From the airport lounge, Thompson makes his way into Louisville, trying to pull off impossible tasks such as getting a hotel room, rental car and all-access credentials for the Derby just a couple days before the race. Though writing for the short-lived British sporting journal Scanlan’s Monthly, Thompson dupes several people by representing himself as a photographer for Playboy magazine, prompting Jumbo to make jokes about taking pictures of naked fillies at the Oaks.
Thompson was accompanied by Steadman, whom he met for the first time at the Derby, starting a longtime collaboration between the writer and artist — a fact that will seem amazing at the end of the story because their first time working together goes way off the track. Steadman plays himself in this recording and has several golden moments, including his introduction to the infield: “God, almighty … this is a … Jee-sus!” he declares, accompanied by a martial drum and trumpet.
Their quest is to find the perfect face of the Derby, to Thompson, “the mask of the whiskeyed gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and terminal identity crisis.”
In the story, it’s clear Thompson, a Louisville native, looks disdainfully upon most of the crowd, particularly the well-heeled occupants of the upper tiers of Churchill Downs. The story includes but the briefest of mentions of the race, won by Dust Commander, but delivers pungent descriptions of the heat, the drunkenness and chaos that many listeners might find familiar, if not from their own experiences, then from things they have witnessed at the Derby. It doesn’t necessarily feel dated, but it does take you back to the days when Churchill had a more rickety feel, before renovations in the past decade made it a sleek entertainment complex.
Robbins holds it all together beautifully in a fast-clip recitation that proves Johnny Depp is not the only person in this world capable of portraying Thompson. And Frisell’s score creates a wonderfully Southern cheery-yet-ominous background for this story.
No, this might not be your Derby story, but in Thompson’s words and in this production, it’s a Derby story for the ages.
Carrie Underwood‘s new album is called Blown Away and it includes a song named Cupid’s Got a Shotgun.
But it is in the album’s quieter moments that Underwood shows her true gift as an artist: she kills you.
Blown Away includes several selections akin to her instant classic rockers such as Cowboy Casanova and Before He Cheats that Underwood delivers with sass and authority. But the magic on her fourth album since her victorious turn on season four of American Idol is when she lays aside the theatrics and the pretensions of the “is this country?” chatter and just sings some honest, relateable songs from a woman who sounds like she still tools around her native Oklahoma in a Ford Escape.
Chief among these is Forever Changed by Tom Douglas, James T. Slater and Hillary Lindsey, a heartbreaking ballad about a lovely life slipping away to Alzheimer’s. Underwood has been saying she can’t sing the song live because it’s too emotional, and wiping away a few tears listening to it, you can understand. The emotions aren’t quite as intense, but no less real on other tracks such as Thank God for Hometowns, Good in Goodbye and See You Again. The main quality that made Underwood an Idol winner and its most successful graduate was people feel like they know her, like she is a girl next door. That feeling endures.
It has helped that she can have some fun, and that comes here in the leadoff single and track, Good Girl, as well as the standout storytelling song Two Black Cadillacs, the tale of a mistress and a wife and the late scoundrel they unwittingly shared. It paints the revenge fantasy of Before He Cheats a few shades darker.
In title, Blown Away promises a bit more than it delivers. But we already knew she could do those big rockers and ballads. The discovery here is more subtle and intimate.
If you entertained any question as to whether Jack White is a great artist, his solo debut should shove you right off the fence and about a dozen yards into his field.
Thus far, we have known the Michigander as the very strong frontman of acts like White Stripes and The Raconteurs, as well a the visionary producer of artists such as Butcher Holler’s own Loretta Lynn.
We’ve had a few glimpses of what this would be with tracks like the scorching blues of 16 Saltines and and the almost comically dark Love Interruption. The latter, with its lyrics about wanting love to smash his fingers in the door and murder his mother is emblematic of a record of songs at odds with love, though it wouldn’t necessarily be a breakup album — more like brooding with a bottle in your man cave.
Not that Blunderbuss is a real brooding enabler. It’s too invigorating with the myriad ways that White takes clear influences and channels them to his own devices. For instance, it is obvious this man’s brain has consumed a lot of Led Zeppelin over the years. There are indeed moments like the title track where it seems White is channeling both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page is one performance, and we are not talking about the prototypical British heavy metal band sound we get from many Zep wannabes. This is the country blues Zeppelin of Going to California and other classics, but orchestrated in a distinct White style.
Though White is very much a star of the digital age, Blunderbuss is a very analog-sounding album from the upright pianos and electric keyboards to the rattle of the drums and crackle of the guitars. Subtitle it “The Golden Age of Wired.”
I’m Shakin’, for example, is this great gritty romp — nothing particularly fancy, but a bare basics gospel-drenched number in the rhythm White owns. In the blaze, he tosses off the line, “I’m Bo Diddley.”
Maybe not, but with his previous efforts and this solo debut, White’s earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with the greats.
The past few years, music fans have gotten to know M. Ward for his associations. He’s one half of the duo She and Him with adorkable new girl Zooey Deschanel and a quarter of the Monsters of Folk with Louisville’s Jim James (as Yim Yames) of My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and celebrated producer and journeyman Mike Mogis.
A Wasteland Companion reintroduces us to the Portland singer songwriter himself, and it’s something like walking through the home of a person with tremendous taste to match his talent. Ward is an indisputable terrific songwriter and distinctive performer. What sets him apart from most of his contemporaries with similar resumes is the thoughtful presentation of his tunes, whether it’s the spare setting of There’s a Key or the subtly threatening Watch the Show. The later evokes the sensation of waking up on the couch with the TV still on, with an atmospheric introduction that gains clarity as it goes on – and we wake up. Crawl After You, with Amanda Lawrence’s metronomic violin, is a beautiful blend of Ward’s Eastern and Midwestern influences filtered through a Portland sensibility.
Me and My Shadow hurtles through tunnels of compression at a breakneck speed and features one of two cameos by Deschanel. Mogis also sits in and presumably gave Ward some studio time as Mogis’ home base of Omaha is listed as one of eight locations where Ward recorded Wasteland Companion – eight studios in six cities on two continents. On the Merge Records website, Ward says the transient recording experience taught him what to take and what to leave behind.
The result is 12 songs with sharp focus by a musician we should know in his own right.
Last week, Gotye‘s Making Mirrors quickly became the album I will associate with Spring Break 2012.
Yes, Spring Break is usually the occasion for wilder fare, when you’re in your teens and 20s. And it may say something about me that there are moments on the album that take me back to artists like Sting and Peter Gabriel who were big in the 1980s … when I was in my teens and 20s.
The trippy, animated video for leadoff single Someone That I Used to Know certainly has a Gabriel-esque tone, reminiscent of some of his clips such as Sledgehammer. Like most, the single with heavy xylophone parts drew me into Belgian, Australian artist. But one of the delights of the the album, which has been out overseas since last year and came out in the United States early this year, is that there is nothing else like the moody breakup lament featuring a fetching cameo by New Zealander Kimbra.
Making Mirrors is about as much of a journey of an album as one might expect now with the moribund mood of the opening tracks shattered by the soulful I Feel Better and Save Me and aural trips like State of the Art. There is so much more here than just a hit single that warrants repeat listenings, well beyond one season or vacation.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich