Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 10/5

For months now I've been saying that 2005 has been a great year for smart, ambitious pop music. But now... suddenly... it has also become a great year for American roots music.

The cream of the crop? Charlie Sexton's new record, Cruel and Gentle Things. Sexton has recently ended a three-year stint as Bob Dylan's guitarist, and the time he spent playing with the Master pays off. Sexton's songs are forged from pain and experience, and his world-weary voice sells his heavy-hearted poetry, but what's remarkable is his contagious sense of joy and optimism-- real, genuine hope, not mere sentimentality or platitude. The production is flawless, highlighting Sexton's stylistic shifts while retaining a sense of focus and cohesion. It all adds up to an American roots disc that deserves to be ranked just behind Over the Rhine's Ohio and Dylan's own Love and Theft.

What's the highlight? Well gee... pick a song, any song! "Gospel" is an affecting tribute to faith in a time of crisis, played by Sexton on solo acoustic guitar. "Burn" explores similar thematic ground, but this time it's dressed up as a fiery rock and roll love song. "I'll Do the Same for You" celebrates fidelity and redemption over bright, chipper acoustic guitar strumming; it could easily fit in on the most recent Over the Rhine disc. "Bring it Home Again" is a rootsy anthem that swells with a Coldplay-ish euphoria. "Once in a While" initially sounds like frivolous fun, but the lyrics eventually sink their teeth in and become truly heartbreaking; an exhilarating piano break makes it one of the year's most memorable pop songs. "Just Like Love" is a brooding jazz number a la Over the Rhine's "Lifelong Fling." Every song is a winner, and they all come together to form a beautiful testament to faith and hope in times of hardship.

The other great American roots album that I've been spinning lately is Howl, the most recent offering from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Yes... that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. You won't hear a more astonishing musical makeover all year; with a little help from T-Bone Burnett, BRMC has transformed themselves from an angry noise-rock band to a mature, thoughtful roots-rock outfit, complete with elements of blues, country, folk, and yes, a few traces of their usual boisterous rock and roll. The lyrics are more cryptic than Sexton's, and not as poetic, but they will reward attentive listens; there's some surprising dialogue with the Divine going on here that makes it something meaningful, not just a genre exercise.

Finally, I recently caught up with Madeleine Peyroux' most recent disc, Careless Love, released late last year. Peyroux sounds an awful lot like Billie Holiday... a bit too much like Billie Holiday, in fact... but her fantastic material and the clean, uncluttered production make it an engaging listen. She and her dynamite backing band bring new life to old jazz standards and covers, sometimes with magical results-- "Dance Me to the End of Love," in particular, is one of the most memorable jazz songs of the past several years. Only her cover of Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" falls flat. (Perhaps some songs just shouldn't be covered?)

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