Damien Jurado – Maraqopa

Ah, the ‘difficult’ second album. You’ve been writing songs since you were teenager, perfecting them. They get released and suddenly you’ve got a hit on your hands. It’s so popular that the public and, more importantly, the record company are clamouring for more and quickly. You deliver. Frantically writing an album’s worth of new songs in a fraction of the time the previous one took. But it’s a dud, and for the next 40 years you end up playing the songs you wrote as a teenager to small groups of fans in the back rooms of pubs. For Damien Jurado, it’s the ‘difficult’ eleventh album. Moving away from the standard singer-songwriter format, the sound has slowly got fuller, the palette broader, the ambition bigger. On Maraqopa, the development is clear. ‘Nothing Is The News’ kicks things off with a total wig out. ‘Life Away From The Garden’ follows with echoing female harmonies. ‘Reel To Reel’ swirls. These are new sounds. They’re courtesy of a continuing collaboration with singer-turned producer, Richard Swift. They really work. There are songs that hark back to the two previous albums, ‘Caught In The Trees’ and ‘Saint Bartlett’, but Swift manages to build on them, keeping the vulnerability of Jurado’s voice and lyrics while adding a new dimension, a new orchestration. It works because it’s done subtly. Even the wig out. In the end, there’s a certain anti-climax. The final song ‘Mountains Still Asleep’ finishes the album quietly, even abruptly. But it’s a trick. It just leaves you waiting all the more impatiently for that ‘difficult’ twelfth album.

Damien Jurado official site

Jim White – Where It Hits You

Jim White is one of those artists with a back story. Nearly 40 before he put out his first album. Hardly prolific thereafter. Found by Luaka Bop (David Byrne) records, but then got dropped. Tough luck, but then his wife left him too. Five years since his last album, this one has taken some getting together. It’s worth the wait. Much less so for the hoedown tracks. There are a couple. ‘Infinite Minds’, ‘What Rocks Will Never Know’. Much more so for the songs that can’t easily be placed both lyrically and musically. ‘Some are born to go it alone’, he sings on ‘The Way of Alone’. Not by choice, though, is the impression you get. But maybe it’s inevitable. You just have to deal with it when it happens. When he faces up to his situation, looking it straight in the eye on ‘Epilogue to a Marriage’, there’s no self-pity. Nothing maudlin. It takes time, but you get through it. Musically, there are constant references. Pedal steel, banjos, pretty much throughout. But usually understated. Complemented by piano, guitar, strings, some keyboards. Equally understated, but with a certain richness. And that’s what works. Lyrically, it’s never miserable, though it could easily be. Musically, it’s never spare, though it would be so tempting. It doesn’t quite fit. Not plain bluegrass. Not quite alt. Beguiling.

Jim White official site

Lambchop – Mr. M

 Tindersticks – The Something Rain

Tindersticks - The Something Rain

Two albums. Two different sounds. Mr. M, strings and bass-led. The Something Rain, synths, guitar and, occasionally, sax-driven. Two albums. Two personalities. Kurt Wagner. Languid, almost langorous. Stuart Staples. Deep, soulful, sometimes urgent. Two albums. Two masters. Both totally in control of their compositions. Both creating a full, rich, lush sound. Two albums that are not afraid to linger. Lambchop’s ‘Nice Without Mercy’ just dwells. That next note. Will it ever arrive? 10 minutes into the Tindersticks album and still no sign of Stuart Staples. When will he appear? Two albums that sound just beautiful. An orchestration. A soundtrack. And yet. And yet. There are problems. Life for Lambchop and Tindersticks might sound beautiful, but living can never be. Kurt Wagner has lost people. Vic Chesnutt is a presence throughout. And Stuart Staples is constantly searching. On ‘Frozen’, he repeats and repeats ‘If I could just hold you’. He means it. This is the tension that makes these two albums so great. If life was simple, easy, we’d just wallow in the wash of the sound and then move on. It isn’t. That’s why these albums last.

Lambchop official site

Tindersticks official site

Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America

Anais Mitchell’s previous work, Hadestown, was special. Transposing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to Depression-era America, she kept the poetry of the original and added melody. She was helped by an ensemble that included Bon Iver, playing Orpheus himself. It was magnificent. Totally original. On her new work, Young Man in America, again she gets a little help. This time, though, the songs stand alone. There’s a general theme of birth, children, parenting, death, but no over-arching narrative. Yet still she creates a wonderful, coherent whole. In part, it’s because of the songcraft. She likes to create a tension both musically and lyrically. This was central to Hadestown, but it’s here too. There’s repetition in the songs, but they’re never repetitive. “When he said, when he said he was leaving / I took up the violin. When he said, when he said that my body he’d not miss / I became a sculptress. When he said, when he said that my face he’d soon forget / I became a poet”. For ‘The Shepherd’ she retells another old tale, this time a short story that her father wrote as a young man. She turns it into pure poetry. “Said the shepherd to his wife / ‘The crop of hay is cut and dried. I’ll bale it up and bring it in / Before the coming storm begins’. ‘Go’ she said ‘and beat the storm / And then there is another chore. Today the baby will be born / You’ll take me to the hospital’”. At the risk of giving away the ending, the shepherd’s wife never makes it there. Like Hadestown, Young Man in America is compelling. Somewhat less ambitious. Slightly less orchestration. But just as beautiful.

Anais Mitchell – Official site

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

A sign of a great album is that you feel you’ve heard all the songs before. They’re familiar, but fresh. They’re easy to get into your head, because they’re familiar. But they stay in your head, because they complement the sounds that are already there. A sign of a bad album is that you feel you’ve heard all the songs before. They’re familiar, but derivative. As soon as you’ve heard them, you forget them. At best, they might make you want to return to the original, but if they do then it’s at the expense of the copy. The Lion’s Roar makes you feel you’ve heard all the songs before. And it’s a great album. It’s clearly coming from a certain place. ‘Emmylou’ gives you a clue, but, as if that wasn’t enough, it name checks Gram and Johnny and June as well. But this is no Elite Hotel 2. No Return of the Grievous Angel. The songs might be inspired by a sound past, but the spirit is new. The harmonies soar. And sometimes they transcend. Near the end of ‘Dance to Another Tune’, the song just takes off in a different, wonderful direction. Sure, there’s a familiarity to The Lion’s Roar. But in a good way, creating its own precedent that others will want to follow.

First Aid Kit – Official website

Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur

Kathleen Edwards first album, Failer, was a tawdry affair. It could have been set in a trailer park. It was peopled by folks whose best years were already behind them. Women who drank. Husbands who were being played by the people they were playing around with. Kathleen Edwards almost certainly didn’t live there, but she made you think she did. It was a peek behind life’s dirty curtains. Four albums in, she no longer lives there. She’s been on a journey. Away from the ditch and towards the middle of the road. It’s a safer place. More predictable. Less captivating. She sings about a House Full of Empty Rooms, but it’s in a nice suburb. Sure, she’s had a difficult period in between times. Man-wise, particularly. But she’s got through it. It’s left her with stories to tell, but they’re more obviously her stories. She lives in a big house now, but there’s less room for the imagination. And yet, she’s still Kathleen Edwards. The voice remains. And sometimes, Change The Sheets and Going To Hell, there are glimpses that she’s finding a new sound. She may have moved out of the trailer park, but the suburbs contain their own demons. Kathleen Edwards may yet be discovering new ways to express them.

Kathleen Edwards official site

Laura Gibson – La Grande

Laura Gibson’s previous album, Beasts of Seasons, was an atmospheric affair. It was dense. Thick. Misty. It dragged you in and you got lost in it. It was a stayer. But she needed to develop. Beasts of Seasons 2 would not have had the same impact. With La Grande she’s definitely moved on. Nowhere is this more evident than with the first track. The title track. Immediately, there is more instrumentation. There’s a beat. Sure, the lyrics are mildly disturbing, but it’s warmer. It welcomes you in. The same goes for other tracks. ‘Skin, Warming Skin’ has a creepier theme, but with a fuller sound than Beasts. ‘The Rushing Dark’ is just plain creepy. But it’s not all good news. Maybe Laura got a little lost in the mist. Two of the tracks, ‘Lion/Lamb’ and ‘Red Moon’, have a syncopated, slightly latin feel that obscures the song as a whole. In ‘The Fire’ various pots and pans get banged around in a campfire collective sort of way. ‘Crow/Swallow’ sounds like an outtake from Beasts of Seasons. The phrasing is exactly the same. It’s lovely, but, wait, hadn’t she moved on? What was really rewarding about Beasts was it coherence. By contrast, while La Grande has plenty of lovely moments, it doesn’t entirely come together. It’s a place worth visiting, but one that’s a little more difficult to get lost in than others she has created. And that means you’re not likely to stay there for quite so long.

Laura Gibson official site