March Album Reviews

Rock Cellar Magazine StaffCategories:Music

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

There’s no argument that along with Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and David Crosby Emmylou Harris is one of the best harmony vocalists in music.  Her soulful vocals have added depth and beauty to recordings by musicians from Neil Young to Conor Oberst, and her work with Gram Parsons makes his albums GP and Grievous Angel into all-time classics.  The cover of Love Hurts that appears on Grievous Angel wouldn’t hurt so much without Emmylou’s presence.
Harris knows her strengths, and collaborative records populate her discography.  Not only has she appeared on records credited to Young, Parsons, and Oberst’s band Bright Eyes, but she’s also joined in full-length duet albums with Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Mark Knopfler.
Old Yellow Moon marks (surprisingly) Harris’ first collaborative album with Rodney Crowell – a member of her Hot Band in the mid-1970s and a respected singer-songwriter-guitarist in his own right.  His best albums – Ain’t Living Long Like This, Diamonds & Dirt, and the recent Fate’s Right Hand and The Outsider – demonstrate his penchant for deeply moving philosophical, confessional, and occasionally political songwriting.
Consisting of four Crowell originals and eight cover songs (featuring three by original Hot Band member Hank DeVito), Old Yellow Moon falls into Harris’ wheelhouse as an interpretive artist.  Like a hitter who can’t wait to step up to the plate, Harris jumps all over the opening cut – DeVito’s Hanging Up My Heart – taking the lead vocal with gusto and leading Crowell and the rest of the musicians through an upbeat and fun country tune.
Crowell is more of a role-player on the Roger Miller classic Invitation to the Blues, joining Harris on lead vocals throughout the song. The song is a pleasurable take on a country standard, but its tonal similarity to the opening track suggests that all of Old Yellow Moon will sound the same.
Thankfully, the record’s mood changes with the third track – Harris’ cover of Patti Scialfa’s sadly beautiful and slow Spanish Dancer.  Accompanied by delicate acoustic guitar, accordion, and Crowell’s sincere backing vocal, Harris demonstrates Scialfa’s tremendous abilities as a songwriter; that she’s more than merely the wife of her world-famous husband.
Other slow, melancholy songs operate in the same vein as Spanish Dancer. Crowell sings his own Open Season in My Heart and Here We Are, which showcase his talent for writing introspective love songs. He and Harris perform another gentle and despondent ballad – Allen Reynolds’ standard Dreaming My Dreams – as a duet.  And the Harris-led version of Matraca Berg’s Back When We Were Beautiful is a stunningly bleak ballad about aging and nearing death; it’s perhaps the best song on the album.

The Crowell-penned Bull Rider and Bluebird Wine kick in to lighten the mood. The former is a jaunty tune about a rodeo, while the latter is a catchy drinking song that features Harris’ excellent backing vocals.  And the album’s other drinking song—the more edgy Kris Kristofferson-authored Chase the Feeling—rocks hard, as Harris and Crowell belt out outlaw lyrics about “getting loaded again” and “dealing with demons that are driving you insane.”
Old Yellow Moon closes with the title track (another DeVito winner), which competes with Spanish Dancer and Back When We Were Beautiful for being the most beautiful song on the album. Backed by a delicate piano, steel guitar, and accordion, Harris and Crowell croon lyrics about retaining hope in the face of aging, despite the fact that they’ve not learned much from experience.
With Old Yellow Moon, Harris and Crowell have created a terrific duets album that never gets bogged down in the same tone and whose greatest successes are its stunning ballads. This is just the kind of record that you’d expect two seasoned pros of Harris and Crowell’s caliber to make, so it’s not all that surprising or revelatory. We should just be thankful that two of country music’s all-time greats decided to rejoin forces.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Push the Sky Away

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Push the Sky Away
Whenever you listen to a Nick Cave record – whether he’s singing with The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds, or Grinderman – you experience a rock and roll rebirth.
Cave’s voice consistently jolts you back to life.  After hearing it, you believe in the power of rock and roll to do anything.  When his baritone voice sexily commands, “raise yourself” on the opening and title track of his superb 2008 release with The Bad Seeds – Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! – Cave becomes your personal Jesus, as well as that of the once dead-and-buried Lazarus.
Cave never lets you forget that you have a mind, body, and soul (or whatever words you use to think about what constitutes you), and he uses his voice to prod you from your slumber. His mission is to activate you, to animate you.
But the jolt that Cave offers on the new Push the Sky Away (preview/purchase it in our Online Store) offers a different kind of shock than Lazarus or his other recent, fast-paced Grinderman records.
Opener We No Who U R is a stately, slow burn of a song, which reminds you that Cave is more than the sleaze rocker who brought Lazarus back to life and stimulated you to laughter and lust with Grinderman’s No Pussy Blues.  In decelerating things on We No Who U R, Cave’s poetry jumps to the fore, telling you that you “go down with the dew and the money.”
Money – which Cave contrasts to nature throughout the album – surrounds you in its filthy ambience.  It’s the life force of Push the Sky Away, and mind, body, and soul take the back seat.  Hear Wide Lovely Eyes, in which the apocalypse is on its way, as friends pass away and nature dissolves.
Even more so, hear Water’s Edge – in which “you grow old and you grow cold” and “city girls come from the capital” to take apart their bodies for the local boys.  Water isn’t a metaphor for rebirth here but a place where “hard” boys watch girls “shaking their asses.” The girls’ spread legs have replaced the spread-opened Bible – and sex here definitely isn’t a party or an expression of love, but a sign of civilization’s decline.
The deceptively-titled Mermaids – another water ballad – sets you up for an equally lovely song.  But here’s what Cave has to say about his mermaid: “She was a catch / And we were a match / I was the match that would fire up her snatch.”  He undermines the hope of the first couplet with a nasty image that divorces love from sex.
It’s as if after the party of Lazarus’ resurrection and the Grinderman sleaze-fest, Cave has surveyed what’s left over and found a wasteland.  The record’s two epics – Jubilee Street and Higgs Boson Blues – are about people with histories but no pasts, and with futures about which no one cares.  These tracks take you to the heart of a bleak vision, with Cave playing Jesus – not as the hopeful prophet of the gospels – but as the condemnatory judge of Revelations.
As the record spins, the importance of the title becomes increasingly obvious.  Cave commands you to face the dourness of the real world in which there’s nothing to look up or forward to, in which there’s seemingly no hope.  He undermines everything with even the slightest potential for beauty or love with recognition of ugliness and pain, which assume the ultimate reality of the sky (read: love, hope, or whatever metaphor you use to provide your life with meaning).
We Real Cool, Finishing Jubilee Street, and the title track darken the second half of the record like the shadow of a vulture waiting to pull out and devour the innards of a fresh corpse.  On Cool, for example, Cave asks a woman a series of biblically-phrased questions about who motivated the actions of her life, the answers to which should be God.  But here, the “good shepherd” is our capitalist society that makes her feel “real cool” but finally desolate.
The title track sums everything up, as it orders you to push the sky away.  It locates virtue in seeing beyond the illusions of the false security of money, even if “you feel you’ve got everything you’ve come for.”  The children’s backing vocals add poignancy to Cave’s departing point. Also, see: “And some people say it’s just rock and roll / Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul.”

Indeed, in Cave’s able hands, rock and roll has lost none of its power to challenge, move, and inspire.

It takes courage to face down life’s sorrow, just as it takes Cave courage to make a record like the brooding and apocalyptic Push the Sky Away – an album that operates in the same territory and achieves the same heights of recent releases by Scott Walker and Bob Dylan.
(Pick up Push the Sky Away in our Online Store here).

Rating: 4 out of 5
Justin Hayward Spirits of the Western Sky

Around the time that London fashion impresario Malcolm McLaren formed and started managing The Sex Pistols, he noticed a green-haired punk named John Lydon (soon to be known as “Johnny Rotten”) sporting a t-shirt bearing the slogan “I hate Pink Floyd.”  It didn’t matter to McLaren that Lydon couldn’t sing on key; he knew that image and attitude meant more in punk than musicality.  Lydon had to be his lead singer.
Fast forward 35 years, and Lydon admits that he actually loved Pink Floyd but didn’t care for their “pretentiousness.” The Dark Side of the Moon, he felt, was a great album, and David Gilmour was an “all right bloke.”
Lydon could safely be christened one of the princes of punk, just as Gilmour could hold his own as a prince of prog.  So what does it mean that a punk as rotten as Johnny could see his cynicism disappear in the musical complexities of Dark Side and Gilmour’s personal likability?
Perhaps the answer to this question lays in Moody Blues singer-guitarist Justin Hayward’s excellent new album – Spirits of the Western Sky – a suite of introspective love songs that unabashedly combats the rising tide of irony and cynicism in contemporary music.
Combat perhaps isn’t the ideal word to use when discussing Hayward’s work:  since the halcyon days of The Moody Blues, this “prince of prog” has been conversely rather gentle in his earnest attempt to guide listeners on their inward journeys.  He tenderly helped the fans of the Moody Blues search for their authentic selves, and to find oneness with others and with the natural world.
You might say that the previous paragraph is just a whole lot of hippie bullshit, but when you actually spin The Moody Blues’ 7 classic albums, you’ll see that there’s a lot more to this music than LSD, kaftans, Tolkien books, Age-of-Aquarius philosophy, TM, and more LSD.

This music challenges you to slow down, meditate, and think about your place in the universe and – more importantly – the universe’s place in you.

To get on your way, you’ll need a Hayward primer, which begins with a list of the 7 key Moody Blues albums:  Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, On the Threshold of a Dream, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, A Question of Balance, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and Seventh Sojourn.
Having this list is essential because you’ll need it to find Hayward’s best songs: Tuesday Afternoon, Visions of Paradise, Are You Sitting Comfortably, Watching and Waiting, Question, It’s Up to You, The Story in Your Eyes, and, of course, Nights in White Satin.
These albums and songs are miracles of beauty and musical complexity, with lush vocal harmonies, incredible guitar work and arrangements, and lyrics that are simultaneously socially conscious, introspective, and aware of nature.  They’re about oneness – the oneness that you share with other people, your lover, the natural world, and yourself; the oneness that makes time and space illusions.
You’ve heard George Harrison’s Within You Without You, right? That’s the vibration that Hayward’s a part of in his best work with The Moody Blues and on the new Spirits of the Western Sky.
Opening cut In Your Blue Eyes – which shows that this mature vocalist hasn’t lost any of his pipes – tells of a relationship with a lover that breaks down the boundary of self. Hayward sings, “Then I see my face appearing in your blue eyes,” when he fears the unpredictability of nature.  This song is a tremendous ode to the transcendent power of the oneness that’s possible when lovers recognize themselves in each other.
Other tracks in this vein: the acoustic The Eastern Sky (which has probably the most poetic lyrics on the record), the bouncy On the Road to Love (with its Eastern-influenced lyrics and cool harmonies), and the atmospheric Captivated by You.
One Day, Someday visits the dark places of lost love (also see Lazy Afternoon and the country-tinged It’s Cold Outside of Your Heart), with the narrator wanting to smoke pot and listen to music to escape his pain.  But the ultimate calmative aren’t these drugs; it’s the dream of being with the lover whom he knows will return to him.
The dream can save, as it does in the epic The Western Sky and in In the Beginning, in which the narrator dreams of finding the right words to say to win back a lost love.
But what if, as in Broken Dream, love seems permanently lost? After saying a “silent prayer,” the narrator stumbles “out of the dark into the night” and realizes that only his fear has made him want to return to the past love.  Courageously abandoning his fear, he crosses the threshold of a dream and lets his “heart fly.”
The dream is over – as John Lennon once said – at the end of Spirits of the Western Sky.
However, this new record asserts Hayward’s optimistic belief that our dreams endlessly build on each other, and that we awaken to the universal oneness that is our true selves.   And in that way, the new record movingly carries on the lasting impact of the Moody Blues.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Johnny Marr The Messenger

Have you ever thought about Noel Gallagher’s hair? Have you ever thought about Johnny Marr’s hair? They’re kind of similar, right?
Johnny Marr – former co-leader of The Smiths – is such a guitar god that the former co-leader of Oasis wants to look like him, even though he doesn’t play like him at all.
For Gallagher – along with John Squire of The Stone Roses, Bernard Butler of Suede, Graham Coxon of Blur, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Nick McCabe of The Verve, and almost every other great guitarist associated with Britpop – Marr represented an approach to the guitar that encouraged originality.
You might be unable to hear the direct influence of Marr’s greatest Smiths’ songs – This Charming ManHow Soon Is Now?Half a PersonCemetery GatesThe Boy with the Thorn in His Side, and There Is a Light That Never Goes Out – on classic albums like The Stone Roses, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, Suede’s Dog Man Star, Blur’s Parklife, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and The Verve’s Urban Hymns.
You can’t because Marr’s particular brand of beautiful melodicism is inimitable.
All of the players mentioned above – under the influence of Marr -developed their own style; Marr forced them to do their own thing, with spectacular results.
However, in the 25 or so years since the 1987 demise of The Smiths – years in which he jumped from project to project, from Electronic to The The to Modest Mouse and to The Cribs – Marr’s shown only rare flourishes of his brilliant work with Morrissey, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce.
So the release of Johnny Marr’s first true solo album – The Messenger – holds particular  interest and curiosity.  His 10-year-old 2003 band album Boomslang – credited to Johnny Marr and the Healers – only gave us a taste, and an unsatisfying one at that.  So what’s Marr’s “message” in 2013?
The Messenger begins with The Right Thing Right – an exciting blast of guitar that takes you back – not to The Smiths and the 1980s – but to Britpop and the 1990s.  That initial excitement dies down very quickly though when you realize that the tune sounds an awful lot like Oasis – but without Noel Gallagher’s expertise for vocal melody.  The lyrics and singing are also sadly lacking.
Thus, three problems hurt the message in  The Messenger:  Marr’s singing, his vocal lines, and his lyrics.
Throughout the record Marr sings like he’s bored, and his voice is just too generic for him to hold his own as a lead singer.  He attempts to make the singing easier for himself by crafting simplistic vocal lines, but that alone can’t solve the problems. 
No matter your guitar-god status, it’s difficult to overcome the combination of melodic and vocal drawbacks.  Add hackneyed lyrics to these problems, and you’ve got trouble with your message.
Upstarts begins with the following formulaic lines: “Oh, I feel it coming round / I hear it sounds like the good life I know.”  I Want the Heartbeat follows the same path of lyrical cliché in its anti-technology rant.  And the hilariously titled Generate! Generate! actually finds Marr rhyming the words “generate” and “calculate” as he praises his own creativity using…math metaphors?
Despite its lyrical triteness, Generate! Generate! has some truly excellent guitar work, as do European Me, Lockdown, Sun and Moon, and World Starts Attack.  New Town Velocity – arguably the best track on the record – displays Marr’s patented way of creating memorable acoustic riffs and electric guitar leads.
The song Say Demesne best sums up The Messenger:  Marr’s amalgamation of dark synthesizer and cool guitar effects works beautifully.  But then he starts vocalizing like a poorly-imitated Bono, spouting lyrics that would embarrass the U2’s lyricist on his worst day:  “You’re in for love / And you still fight love.”
Conclusion:  If silly lyrics and weak singing are a deal-breaker, you probably don’t want to let The Messenger in.  But fans of Marr’s inventive guitar playing will certainly find enough instrumentally to overcome the album’s flaws.
[Agree or disagree, you can stream Johnny Marr’s album here, and buy it in our store here.]

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
How to Destroy Angels Welcome Oblivion

Three years after their 2010 formation, the Trent Reznor-led How to Destroy Angels (HTDA) have finally released their first full-length LP, Welcome Oblivion.  Featuring four songs from last year’s An omen­ EP_, the album demonstrates the exciting experimental direction in which Reznor’s muse is taking him.
Surrounded by all the bleak lyrics and heavy industrial sounds of Nine Inch Nails (NIN), it’s easy to forget that Reznor is a rarity – a musician with the ability to make highly experimental music accessible to a mass audience.  He shares this ability with musicians who seemingly don’t share his aesthetic, simply because their music doesn’t sound like his.
As a point of fact, Reznor has a lot more in common with Brian Wilson, The Beatles, Pete Townshend, Roger Waters, David Bowie, and Prince than he does with fellow, less-accessible industrial artists like Ministry, Coil, and Throbbing Gristle.
So the question surrounding Welcome Oblivion has to be, “Does Reznor succeed in doing what he does best and merge experimental and popular music?” Happily, the answer to this question is, “No.”

Welcome Oblivion succeeds because it emphatically moves away from pop music and – most excitingly of all – creates its own experimental genre: garage industrial.

As Reznor’s previous NIN records attest, he hadn’t quite yet discovered garage industrial before HTDA.  He always made three kinds of NIN albums: concept albums (The Downward Spiral, The Fragile, and Year Zero), collections of songs (Pretty Hate Machine, With Teeth, and The Slip), and ambient soundscapes (Ghosts I-IV).
Despite these records’ diversity, they were all produced with a dense, “wall-of-sound” technique.  It’s no surprise that Reznor has cited Bowie’s Low and Pink Floyd’s The Wall as two of his greatest influences, especially on the concept albums. Welcome Oblivion, however, fascinatingly gets away from this production technique.
trent reznor
As always with Reznor, Welcome Oblivion is thematically dark.  But what’s so cool about it is that it sounds like a band discovering its identity as it creates music in the studio.
For starters, HTDA have done away with the heavy guitars that added thickness to all of NIN’s post-Pretty Hate Machine records, with the exception of the ambient Ghosts. They’ve also emphasized the process of creating songs over the monolithic realization of their completion.
Keep It Together, for example, begins with a drum machine, and then a dark synthesizer line enters, followed by singer Mariqueen Maandig.  Her husband Reznor’s guitar then joins in, followed by additional synth lines, and then Reznor’s backing vocal. “I can’t keep it together,” they sing together.
The listener gets to explore the individual parts of the song before they all come together; the process of creation is heard here, and things are intentionally rough and haphazard.  Indeed, “I want to tear it down / To the ground / And build another one,” Reznor sings on the equally rough And the Sky Began to Scream.
And Reznor does just this throughout Welcome Oblivion.  Just listen to Ice Age, On the Wing, Strings and Attractors (which has the most beautiful melody on the album), and Recursive Self-Improvement.  The intriguing electronic sounds – which you’ve probably never heard collected in such numbers on a single album – keep every moment of Welcome Oblivion fresh, new, vital, and human.

A feeling of humanity is almost impossible to achieve in electronic music. But Reznor and the rest of HTDA manage to do this over and over again on Welcome Oblivion.

Too Late, All Gone, the title track, How Long?, and Hallowed Ground are soon-to-be classics that stand with NIN’s best work.  They impress with great vocals from Maandig -who seemingly gains confidence as a singer with each track – and some darkly soaring synths and electronics by Reznor and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross.
The next step for HTDA is to play live – which they’ll do at this year’s Coachella Music & Arts Festival.  With material as strong as Welcome Oblivion – and maybe a few classics from the NIN catalogue thrown in – they should be triumphant.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Atoms for Peace Amok

The group formed in 2009 to perform Yorke’s first solo album, The Eraser, whose overt electronic tendencies grew out of Radiohead’s 2000 track Idioteque and especially the experimental electronica that dominated the band’s 2007 full-length, In Rainbows.
Considering Atoms for Peace’s birth in The Eraser, it makes sense to see the band as Yorke’s baby. The band also allows Radiohead fans to discern more easily Yorke’s individual influences: Björk, Aphex Twin, DJ Shadow, Burial, Four Tet, Flying Lotus, Fennesz, Brian Eno, and Boards of Canada.
So what does Amok sound like? For starters, it definitely doesn’t sound like Radiohead – or any kind of traditional rock and roll, for that matter.

When you spin Amok, you must prepare yourself for a challenging ride. Yorke and company aren’t out to make things easy for you by rehashing songs that sound like Radiohead’s greatest hits.

Tracks like Before Your Very Eyes, Ingénue, and Stuck Together Pieces are teases because they’re founded on rather traditional vocal melodies, guitar riffs, and cool Flea bass stylings. But the fresh electronic sounds that enter halfway through these songs give you a taste of what Amok is really about.
For example, the second track – Default – pulls the rug of opening track Before Your Very Eyes out from under you. The song is about electronic sounds and processed vocals. Its placement right after Before Your Very Eyes wants to show that the structural principals of rock and roll are out of date.
Your response to Amok will depend on your willingness to accept what Yorke tries to prove and to journey with Atoms for Peace into new sonic realms.
But don’t all vital artists invite you on similar journeys?  Think about records like Bringing It All Back Home, Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds, Coltrane’s Meditations, White Light/White Heat, Trout Mask Replica, Low, London Calling, Achtung Baby, Loveless, and, yes, OK Computer – really any record of your choice on which artists make a dramatic departure from their past – and you’ll get the point of Amok and Yorke’s life work.  The record and the man seek to expand your consciousness by giving you new sonic landscapes in which to be.
Unless is a perfect example of Yorke’s importance as a creator.  The track begins to challenge you somewhere near its middle, when Waronker and Refosco’s percussion joins forces with Flea’s bass and a looped Yorke vocal to create a triumphant rhythm that’s quite possibly unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Amok slams to an unsettling conclusion with the off-kilter and beat-heavy Judge, Jury and Executioner, Reverse Running, and Amok. The former mixes Yorke’s acoustic guitar, Jeff Buckley-influenced vocals, beats that sound like handclaps, and Flea’s soulful bass.  Reverse Running also emphasizes beats, but they’re incongruous with the rest of the song, setting you on edge and making you experience the discomfort inherent in lyrics about a person who “feels seen through” and that life “doesn’t mean anything.” And Amok, with its dark bass line, varied percussion, and processed Yorke vocals, is simply ominous.
Amok isn’t for everyone. Its lineage is Stockhausen, Can, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, and Fennesz. It’s only occasionally grounded in rock and roll – and its emphasis on sounds and moods over songs doesn’t make it a very memorable listen. But it’s nonetheless an important album because it shows Thom Yorke – one of contemporary music’s greatest minds – at his creative best. (Click here to stream Amok in full).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Son Volt Honky Tonk

In 2005, after a 7-year hiatus and a series of unsatisfying solo albums, singer-songwriter-bandleader Jay Farrar reformed Son Volt and released the excellent Okemah and the Melody of Riot LP.  Farrar was the only original member of Son Volt involved in the project.  He recruited excitingly creative musicians like guitarist Brad Rice, bassist Andrew DuPlantis, and drummer Dave Brysson to lend a hand, and the result was the best Son Volt album since 1995’s classic Trace.  Powered most memorably by Farrar and Rice’s fiery guitars and Farrar’s anti-Bush screeds, Melody was focused and driven.
Since the release of Melody, Farrar has retained this focus and drive, and the records that he’s made with Son Volt since 2005 are inarguably vital.  Indeed, The Search (2007) and American Central Dust (2009) share with Melody a liveliness that makes you appreciate Farrar’s gifts as singer, guitarist, and songwriter who always has something to say.
Son Volt’s recent triumphs bring us to their new release – Honky Tonk – whose personnel includes Farrar, DuPlantis, Brysson, and Mark Spenser on steel guitar and keyboards (he came on board to help craft the rootsy country of American Central Dust), as well as new member Gary Hunt on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.
Like American Central Dust, Honky Tonk doesn’t contain the hard-edged rockers that populate Melody and The Search, perhaps owing to the absence of Rice’s Neil Young-influenced guitar.  Rice left Son Volt after The Search and, without him, the band has a more down-home country feel; the contributions of multi-instrumentalists Spenser and Hunt are crucial in creating this vibe.
Opener Hearts and Minds starts off the proceedings with some straightforward country music.  Spenser’s steel guitar and Hunt’s fiddle figure prominently in the mix, and Farrar explores a tried and true country theme about the danger of love.  His country-vocal twang is on full, convincing display here.
The following two tracks – Back Walls and Wild Side – cover the same thematic and instrumental terrain.  So, despite terrific melodies, singing, and playing on Honky Tonk’s early songs, the record risks sounding like an exercise in country music and not as genuine new creation.

Things quickly change for the better.  The dark Down the Highway is monumental. Farrar’s lyrics touch on the importance of forgiveness and living in the moment, although his deeply philosophical lyrics are couched in a love song.  Hunt augments thoughtful lyrics like “There’s a world of wisdom inside a fiddle tune” with a terrific fiddle solo.
When Farrar hits you with Bakersfield right after Down the Highway fades, you realize the true thematic drive of Honky Tonk: the Buddhist ideal of not clinging to the transitory stuff of this world and instead finding joy in the moment.  Farrar’s point makes sense when you consider One Fast Move or I’m Gone – his 2009 collaborative album with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie – about Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur and the Beat Generation’s interest in Buddhism.  In fact, Seawall could be a sonic replication of the end of Kerouac’s novel On the Road: the “two honky tonk angels” that still walk the ground of the seawall could be Kerouac’s main characters Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.
The beautiful Livin’ On discusses how the importance of how a devotional existence can make sense of time and how “conventional wisdom” doesn’t do you any good.  Other devotional songs – Tears of Change, Angel of the Blues, and album closer Shine On – explore dukkha, the first Buddhist noble truth that life consists of the suffering, anxiety, and dissatisfaction that come from the painful realization that everything, including one’s mortality, is impermanent.
On Shine On, when Farrar sings “Miles and years make it better through guilded tears,” he declares the third noble truth – that of the cessation of dukkha.  In other words, the experience of suffering is holy because it’s an essential part of the path that leads to enlightenment.
Honky Tonk, despite its opening in some standard country sounds, is Farrar’s way of helping guide us on this path.
[Upon release, Honky Tonk will be available in the Rock Cellar store here.]

Rating: 4 out of 5
David Bowie The Next Day

To quote R.E.M., we have to “walk unafraid.” and state the obvious: The Next Day is David Bowie’s best album since 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
The record harkens back to Bowie’s best work – the classic Berlin Trilogy of Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979) – not just because of its music but also because of its sheer creativity and freshness.
At the age of 66, the master is back with an undeniable masterpiece, a record that takes his signature sounds to new places.  You’ll play The Next Day over and over again because all the songs are bursts of creativity that engage your intelligence and move your soul.  These songs do what Bowie does best and reaffirm the tremendous gifts that he’s made to rock and roll.
And some of us thought that 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality were true Bowie comebacks. Bah!
You have to wait until track nine for Bowie to state outright The Next Day’s mission statement.  On Boss of Me – whose rhythm and lead guitar recall classic Low tracks like Sound and Vision and Always Crashing in the Same Car without simply mimicking them.

Bowie sings, “I want to make it cool again.”  He succeeds.

The new songs fall into three camps, each containing great songs that smack of aspects of Bowie’s genius.
Camp One consists of songs that emphasize Bowie’s vocal abilities and the way that he can transform his voice to suit any song that he chooses to write.  Lou Reed, in a documentary on the making of 1972’s Transformer, talks about the high-register backing vocals that Bowie performs on Satellite of Love.  He says that they make the song.
Bowie uses this same register on some of the best cuts from his glam-rock period.  Just listen to the Ziggy Stardust (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973) albums, and you’ll here how Bowie manages to sing catchy pop melodies in a high range that simultaneously recalls 1960s’ pop and forecasts bratty punk.
Stars, for example, amalgamates one of the catchiest and weirdest vocal melodies that Bowie has ever written with a terrific lead guitar line.  While recalling the songs on Ziggy and Aladdin, this rocker is somehow stranger yet more accessible.  And Grass features some of the patented Bowie backing vocals of which Reed speaks. They’re high pitched and smack of the 50s’ parodies on Ziggy but with cool horns and a noisy guitar solo that make the song totally new.
Bowie populates Camp Two of The Next Day with tunes that update the aesthetic of the Berlin Trilogy. The aforementioned Boss of Me belongs here, as do The Dirty Boys, Love Is Lost, and Dancing Out in Space. But as the poet Ezra Pound once said, great art (such as these songs) “make it new.”
The Dirty Boys is prime example. Filled with distorted guitars, off-kilter horns, and an original melody, the track is founded on the experimental drive of the Berlin albums. But Bowie – whose fearlessness should always be praised – isn’t satisfied with duplicating his classic work.  The horns are a bit weirder than they are on the Berlin albums,  the guitars are a tad more distorted, so The Dirty Boys becomes something almost unheard of today: an original work of popular art.
The songs in Camp Three take Bowie’s non-glam and non-Berlin recordings as their basis. Not only do these songs remind you that Bowie did some of his best work on albums that didn’t receive critical praise and/or public popularity, but they demonstrate that these albums had ideas that could later be fleshed out for better use.
These songs include Where Are We Now? and the three tracks with which The Next Day ends: (You Will) Set the World on Fire, You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, and Heat. Stylistically disparate, these songs are simply phenomenal. Where Are We Now? and You Feel So Lonely You Could Die are sad ballads that Bowie performs in a fragile voice that recalls his singing on 1999’s ‘Hours…’—a record that the press lambasted because they thought that it was Bowie’s insincere attempt to be sincere.  But, taken in the context of the rest of The Next Day, the sincerity of Bowie’s despondent balladry is only too apparent—and compelling.
In addition, the heavily distorted guitar riffing on World on Fire will convince you that Bowie’s Tin Machine-era, Sonic Youth- and Pixies-influenced noise was a necessary and liberating experiment, simply because it led to a song that rocks this hard.
Heat – the album’s amazing closer – is one of the best songs on the album and of Bowie’s entire career.  Sure, it sounds like a more accessible version of Scott Walker, but Bowie’s never denied his debt to Walker.  Sung in Bowie’s wondrous baritone, the song actually recalls Bowie’s 1995 concept album Outside, which focused on the doings of the serial killer Nathan Adler.  But listened to outside the context of Outside and in the context of The Next Day, the style of Heat is ominous and not bogged down by a self-indulgent narrative.
So do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Next Day when it comes out on March 12. When you do, you’ll own the best record of the year so far, as well as one of the best albums of Bowie’s career.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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