Review: A look at some overlooked albums of 2013
A look at some of 2013's overlooked albums, from rocker Joan Jett to rapper E-40 and the Craig Taborn Trio.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, "Unvarnished" (Blackheart)
Joan Jett is at her best when she sounds angry (which is most of the time), and on "Unvarnished," she turns her ire on two targets: reality TV and the extent to which social media have rendered nothing about many people's lives off-limits.
"Reality Mentality" takes aim at trash TV: "Wanna be a star? We'll just lower the bar." And on "TMI" (as in "too much information"), she recoils in horror about what people will post about themselves for the world to see. "Soulmates to Strangers" is a wistful look at a relationship that withered and died, while "Make It Back" starts with insecurity that ends with certainty that things are going to be all right.
The prototypical tough-chick-with-a-guitar, Joan Jett has always been about straight-ahead rock anthems, sweetened with just enough melody to burn them into your brain. From her teen days with the '70s girl group The Runaways through hits like "I Hate Myself for Lovin' You," Jett has delivered the goods and the attitude, stood back and not cared about what people thought.
I wish there were 100 Joan Jetts, but since there's only one, anytime she makes an album it's worth a serious listen.
E-40, "The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 4, 5 & 6" (Heavy on the Grind Entertainment)
E-40 is one of the most respected rappers in hip-hop. He's carved out a niche with his unique brand of West Coast slang and relatable stories that entail street wisdom, and he continued to showcase his talent in 2013 with the three-disc independent set "The Block Brochure: Welcome to the Soil 4, 5 & 6." It's packed with 45 songs featuring T.I., Chris Brown, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy.
The cameos are entertaining, from the Ross and French Montana-assisted "Champagne" to "Put It in the Air," featuring Mac Mall and San Quinn. But when E-40 raps on a track alone, the 46-year-old, who has delivered 20 studio albums, is top-notch. That's certainly apparent on "What Kind of World," where the Bay Area rapper examines a variety of topics from failed marriages to poverty. On "Don't Shoot the Messenger," the hip-hop veteran talks about his childhood, life's troubles and the afterlife.
E-40 is enduring.
Amanda Shires, "Down Fell the Doves" (Lightning Rod)
Amanda Shires was a big part of two albums you shouldn't have missed in 2013. She plays the muse and a little bit of fiddle to boot on husband Jason Isbell's "Southeastern," an album inspired by all the changes in his life spurred by his new love.
A few months later, she released her own "Down Fell the Doves," further proving she should be counted among the group of young, female singer-songwriters in Nashville who are making today's most interesting country-influenced music. Like most of those songwriters, Shires isn't getting any attention from country radio, and that's a shame.
She's at her best on songs like "Bulletproof," "Look Like a Bird" and "Wasted and Rollin'," infusing short storylike lyrics with a playful sense of rhythm and experimentation that should make more people take notice.
Eldar Djangirov Trio, "Breakthrough" (Motema)
Eighty-eight keys are a handful, but when jazz pianist Eldar Djangirov holds down the sustain pedal at the end of his original composition "In Pursuit," every note seems to linger. Like a great home-run hitter, Djangirov touches 'em all, and often.
His spectacular technique has never been displayed more impressively than on "Breakthrough," a trio album that can barely contain the many ideas at Djangirov's fingertips. Notes rise and fall in torrents, but his playing is always headed downhill. There's astounding rhythmic complexity, with bassist Armando Gola and drummer Ludwig Afonso joining their bandleader in more stops and starts than a car chase.
Djangirov's hardly a showboat, however. The 26-year-old Soviet emigrant tackles the Great American Songbook on Gershwin's "Somebody Loves Me" and Berlin's "What'll I Do," never straying far from the melody but squeezing plenty of beauty from both chestnuts.
Elsewhere there are hints of Ravel and Prokofiev, no surprise because Djangirov also released a fine classical solo album in 2013. This is jazz rooted in Europe, rather than the blues, but there's nothing austere or conservative about these performances. Djangirov will pause over a sumptuous chord, then bolt in pursuit of another idea. On "Breakthrough," he swings hard and connects.
Stryper, "No More Hell to Pay" (Frontiers)
For 30 years now, Stryper has been mixing solos and scripture, volume and veneration, head-banging and hallelujahs, and the Christian rockers are at it again on an album that preserves their classic '80s-metal sound while spreading the word to a new generation. You don't have to be a Christian to love the wall-smashing power chords, rapid-fire guitar solos and ground-pounding drums on "No More Hell to Pay." Nor do you have to be a heavy metal fan to connect with the band's message.
Most of this album is pure, distilled Stryper, circa 1986, as a number of tracks would have been as at home on "To Hell With the Devil" as they are here. That's not to say Stryper's music hasn't evolved; it most certainly has. "Sympathy" is more complex than anything the band has attempted in a while. But Stryper remains true to a sound and substance that made it the darling of MTV during the hair-metal days.
Where other bands would be content to play a power chord, Michael Sweet and lead guitarist Oz Fox play dueling, harmonic riffs to create an instantly recognizable sound that has become their trademark. "Saved by Love" is a full-speed-ahead rocker fueled by tasty solos from Fox, truly one of the most underrated metal guitarists of all time, and the obligatory power ballad "The One" has the same spirit as their '80s hit "Honestly."
Kim Richey, "Thorn in My Heart" (Yep Roc)
Kim Richey's latest album finds beauty in heartbreak. The lovely melodies throb with sadness, and the slight twang in Richey's gentle alto adds to the ache.
While the tempos are mostly slow on "Thorn in My Heart," the music has an appealing variety, thanks to imaginative instrumentation. Trumpet, banjo, keyboards, mandolin, clarinet, fiddle and pedal steel take turns altering the mood.
The blend is so sparse and carefully considered that on "Angels' Share" even the bass drum plays a pivotal role. The vocal arrangements are distinctive, too, with harmonies on most of the 12 songs, ranging from two-part to a gospel chorus on "Take Me to the Other Side."
Richey sings about pledging allegiance, separation, parting and bouncing back. Third-rate romance is the reality on "No Means Yes," while first-rate romance is the elusive goal elsewhere. "Thorn in My Heart" provides a seductive soundtrack for the search.
Craig Taborn Trio, "Chants" (ECM)
A musician's musician, pianist Craig Taborn has appeared on more than 70 albums as a sideman in a 20-plus-year career, working with adventurous jazz musicians from saxophonists Tim Berne, Chris Potter, James Carter and David Binney to bassists Dave Holland and Michael Formanek. He stepped into the spotlight with his stunning 2011 ECM label debut, "Avenging Angel," a risk-taking, spontaneously composed solo piano CD on which he coaxed all kinds of sounds out of his instrument.
Taborn returned in 2013 with "Chants," a long-overdue recording featuring his trio with drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan, who have developed an almost telepathic interplay after playing together for eight years. Taborn takes the jazz piano trio tradition into new territory with nine thought-provoking compositions on which Cleaver and Morgan go beyond the role of supportive rhythm section to play a more equal part in shaping the melody and harmonies.
The centerpiece is the nearly 13-minute "All True Night/Future Perfect" that begins with a delicate piano solo that builds in intensity once Cleaver and Morgan add their voices in a piece full of shifting tempos and changing dynamics.
Charles J. Gans
Brandy Clark, "12 Stories" (Slate Creek)
Brandy Clark's debut album, "12 Stories," turns the spotlight on one of the wittiest, most gifted songwriters in country music who's finally getting name recognition after penning hits for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves.
Clark's album is a fresh breath apart from the good ol' country boy climate dominating radio and proves that finely crafted storytelling is still the backbone of country music.
The stories delve into the traditional well for country songs, like falling in love, getting intoxicated and cheating and/or being cheated on, but she avoids sounding derivative with her emotion-plying scenes, such as the weed-smoking housewife in "Get High" or the other woman in "What'll Keep Me Out of Heaven."
And she's a killer hook writer with lyrics like these from "Pray to Jesus": "We pray to Jesus and play the lotto, 'cause there ain't but two ways we can change tomorrow."
Holograms, "Forever" (Captured Tracks)
Sweden is home to some of modern music's greatest filters, taking sounds popularized elsewhere and feeding them back to us as both tribute and something new.
In this case, Holograms has taken in the music of many mostly British post-punk bands of the 1970s and '80s think Joy Division, New Order and early Cure and given us something back that's pleasingly familiar but not paint-by-numbers.
There's nothing mopey here, as you might think from that list of influences. "Forever" comes not long after the quartet released its self-titled debut in 2012, and its 10 tracks are suffused with a confident, dark energy and a danceable groove that wipes away any dreariness.
It's mostly elemental. Initial single "Flesh and Bone" opens with the words "fire and stone, steel and cold, flesh and bone" and builds to a peak that feels constructed from those raw materials. And the chorus from "Meditation" is built around the chant-shout chorus "Destruction! Destruction! Destruction!"
Put on "Forever" and go find something to break.
Fred Hersch & Julian Lage, "Free Flying" (Palmetto)
This exquisite chamber jazz album matches rising guitar star Julian Lage and innovative veteran pianist Fred Hersch in a series of acrobatic duets recorded live in the intimate setting of New York's Jazz at Kitano club.
Lage has the virtuoso technique and deep knowledge of jazz history to keep pace with jazz masters like Hersch and Gary Burton, appearing on the vibraphonist's Grammy-nominated jazz instrumental album, "Guided Tour." Hersch is a Grammy nominee for improvised jazz solo for "Free Flying's" opening track, "Song Without Words #4: Duet," which has a Bach-inspired classical feel with complex contrapuntal playing mixed with jazz improvisation.
Most of the nine selections are Hersch compositions, including "Down Home," which playfully draws from folk, blues, gospel and early jazz styles such as stride piano, and the title track on which the duo draw on Latin-flavored rhythms as they play intertwining rapid-fire lines. There are only two covers, including the closing "Monk's Dream" on which the two pay tribute to Thelonious Monk's percussive playing, dissonant harmonies and quirky angular melodies.
Charles J. Gans
Jackson Scott, "Melbourne" (Fat Possum)
With a dash of '60s psychedelic and a whole lot of reverb, North Carolina college dropout Jackson Scott turned in one of 2013's most memorable albums with "Melbourne."
Scott's laid-back rock is constructed of various elements that threaten to interrupt but eventually meld into one another. His vocals lope along and are occasionally accompanied by a blistering fuzz of guitar when things begin to simmer.
"Forever never wrong, it's only just a song," Scott sings on the brief but addictive track "Never Ever." That's the only lyric, yet it somehow fits perfectly amid a crash of hi-hats as he intones it over and over again. Scott eschews anger for a more accepting approach, helping the listener feel comfortable with themes coupling hope and despair.
On "Sandy," you can hear his influences the best. The song about destructed relationships is awash with a late '60s, early '70s, double-handclapped cadence. It is sad stuff, sung by a guy who sounds rejuvenated from a darker place.