Itand#39;s a big week for legends, superstars and new favorites here at new release central. Dig into a new platter by The National, a farewell from Gregg Allman, a Mike Stern album that we love and more good stuff. Read on...
THE NATIONAL, Sleep Well Beast (CD/LP)
The Nationaland#39;s hauntingly side-eyed 2007 ode to nationalism, andquot;Fake Empire,andquot; has gotten big responses at their recent shows, unsurprisingly. Yet the Ohio-bred indie-rock achievers arenand#39;t a political band per se. Frontman Matt Berninger generally turns his brooding baritone toward the dark end of relationships andndash; with oneand#39;s self, a lover, a society andndash; backed by a band that can sometimes suggest Wilco channeling Joy Division. Lyrically and sonically, the Nationaland#39;s seventh LP plumbs anxieties more deeply than ever. The result is a disarmingly potent album, not just emotionally but politically as well. andquot;Keep the weed next to the bed/Light the water, check for lead,andquot; hollers Berninger, near hysterical, on andquot;Turtleneck,andquot; a rattled paranoid rocker equal parts R.E.M. and Television at their most screamingly unhinged. A rallying cry it ainand#39;t andndash; more a guilty confession of fearful retreat in a self-loathing UV glow. Numbness as coping mechanism is a recurring theme. On andquot;Walk It Back,andquot; the singer is andquot;always checking out,andquot; getting baked andquot;until everything is less insane,andquot; while stoner synths shimmer, and a nefarious treatise attributed to Karl Rove terrifyingly unspools (andquot;Weand#39;re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own realityandquot;). Thereand#39;s added depth to the lyrics here, which might be due to Berningerand#39;s new co-writer: Carin Besser, his wife and a former fiction editor atandnbsp;The New Yorker.andnbsp;It shows: andquot;Carin at the Liquor Storeandquot; rhymes andquot;I wasnand#39;t a keeperandquot; with andquot;dead John Cheever,andquot; while the psychic struggle of andquot;Iand#39;ll Still Destroy Youandquot; alludes slyly toandnbsp;Romeo and Julietand#39;s feuding Montagues and Capulets (andquot;Itand#39;s so easy to set off the molecules and the capletsandquot;). Humor flashes from the bandand#39;s trademark sleek gloom, as do love songs, which have a new presence and sexiness, buoyed by backing singers Lisa Hannigan (especially on andquot;Dark Side of the Gymandquot;) and Justin Vernon. A broader soundscape also setsandnbsp;Sleep Well Beastandnbsp;apart from earlier sets. Songs often center on piano; electronics (by veteran German sound scientists Mouse on Mars) swarm; and Bryce Dessnerand#39;s string arrangements have grown bolder, full of measured dissonance (see andquot;Nobody Else Will Be Thereandquot;). The guitar work, too, is sharper; the perfectly turned solo on andquot;The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,andquot; in particular, shows an afterglow ofandnbsp;Day of the Dead,andnbsp;the five-hour Grateful Dead tribute that the National curated and appeared on last year.
GREGG ALLMAN, Southern Blood (CD/LP)
As rock superstars fade from the glare of fame into the shrouds of nostalgia, a few find ways to keep connecting. Itandrsquo;s not easy: Talent is critical but more important is honesty. This is especially true when the end of oneandrsquo;s path comes into view, when that road no longer stretches past the horizon but stops somewhere short of there. When Gregg Allman recordedandnbsp;Southern Blood,andnbsp;he could see what lay ahead. Knowing that this was his farewell statement, he crafted it meticulously all the way up to the end of his journey, as producer Don Was indicated in the albumandrsquo;s liner notes: andldquo;He spent his final night listening to the latest mixes and closed his eyes knowing that his vision had been realized.andrdquo; As young men in the late andlsquo;60s, Gregg and his brother Duane piloted the Allman Brothers directly into the spotlight with an unprecedented sound built on a foundation of blues, rock andlsquo;nandrsquo; roll and a bit of jazz. With two virtuoso guitarists, it sparked the Southern rock movement, whose harmonized guitar lines became the genreandrsquo;s calling card. But Greggandrsquo;s vocals -- sometimes anguished, always thrilling -- andnbsp;were the bandandrsquo;s single indispensable element. One ofandnbsp;Southern Bloodandrsquo;s miracles is that Allmanandrsquo;s voice delivers in peak form. If this were the debut of a new singer on the rise, critics would laud his control of nuance, his expressiveness and ability to get inside a lyric. Theyandrsquo;d also note the more immeasurable qualities of raw soul and genuine passion. andnbsp;In fact, no new artist could have cutandnbsp;Southern Blood. They live in the present but lean toward the future. The road theyandrsquo;re on seems endless. The trials and fears are too far ahead for them to see. Allman knew these signposts well. They had become familiar presences, neither distracting nor intimidating, when he began choosing the songs he wanted to sing as his farewell. His selections are musically varied: the low-down Willie Dixon blues tune andnbsp;I Love The Life I Live, the vintage soul-flavoredandnbsp;Out Of Left Field, the New Orleans spell that hauntsandnbsp;Blind Bats and Swamp Rats. Yet they unify as a three-dimensional commentary on what it means to take leave of the world. Tempos are slow, almost grave, as he radiates loneliness and doubt on Tim Buckleyandrsquo;sandnbsp;Once I Was. He strolls along The Grateful Deadandrsquo;sandnbsp;Black Muddy River, andnbsp;to where andldquo;thereandrsquo;s nothing left to do but count the yearsandrdquo; and andldquo;stones fall from my eyes instead of tears.andrdquo; Love itself grows toxic, maybe hastening toward an early reckoning onandnbsp;Love Like Keroseneandnbsp;written and played fiercely by the guitarist on this session, Scott Sharrard. He seems to be calling out to his late brother Duane on Jackson Browneandrsquo;sandnbsp;Song For Adam, with Browne singing backup. Allmanandrsquo;s interpretation of Bob Dylanandrsquo;sandnbsp;Going Going Goneandnbsp;is almost too painful to weather: andldquo;Iandrsquo;m closing the book on pages and texts. I donandrsquo;t really care what happens next. Iandrsquo;m going, Iandrsquo;m going, Iandrsquo;m gone.andrdquo; Itandrsquo;s Allmanandrsquo;s compositionandnbsp;My Only True Friendandnbsp;that stands as this albumandrsquo;s greatest monument. Over a majestically slow tempo, with twin guitars reminding us of where Southern rock came from, caressed by the velvety muscle of his Hammond organ, Allman says, andldquo;On and on I roam. It feels like home is just around the bend. Iandrsquo;ve got so much left to give but Iandrsquo;m running out of time. andhellip; I canandrsquo;t bear to think this might be the end. But you and I both know the road is my only true friend.andrdquo; Only here does Allman falter. No, his friends are many. None can ever forget what he gave to them and, withandnbsp;Southern Blood, he gives even now.
NEIL YOUNG, Hitchhiker (CD/LP)
Hitchhikerandnbsp;marks a pivotal moment in Neil Youngand#39;s ongoing series of archival releases: Instead of a live classic-songs set, this is a buried-treasure mother lode andndash; 10 newly unearthed studio recordings, cut in one acoustic session, on August 11th, 1976. Young wasnand#39;t exactly swept up in the countryand#39;s bicentennial spirit at the time; now grouped together rather than spread out over later records, the violence-drenched andquot;Powderfinger,andquot; andquot;Captain Kennedyandquot; and andquot;Pocahontasandquot; feel like pointed rejoinders to the whitewashed history offered up during Americaand#39;s 200th birthday. Heand#39;s in peak lonesome-guy mode on the never-released failed-relationship chronicle andquot;Give Me Strength.andquot; Another previously unheard song, andquot;Hawaii,andquot; is a spooky mysterious-stranger ballad. The take of the Nixon-sympathizing andquot;Campaignerandquot; here includes a newly relevant verse deleted from the version that appeared onandnbsp;Decade: andquot;The speaker speaks, but the truth still leaks.andquot; The major find is the scruffy title song, an unblinking depiction of fame, andquot;neon lights and the endless nights,andquot; paranoia and cocaine. Young eventually released it on 2010and#39;sandnbsp;Le Noise,andnbsp;bathed in electric guitar and with a verse about being thankful for his kids. There was no one to comfort him in and#39;76: Itand#39;s a journey through the past, but far darker.
MIKE STERN, Trip (CD)
Having established himself as an imaginative technical wizard in the forefront of the fusion movement during the 1980and#39;s, guitaristandnbsp;Mike Sternandnbsp;has left an indelible mark on the way the instrument is utilized in the jazz idiom. But there would be an unforeseen event that would test his physical and emotional will to overcome adversity. In July of 2016 Stern suffered a serious accident when he tripped over construction debris leaving his apartment in New York City. This led to severe fractures in both arms, and critical nerve damage extending to fingers in his right hand. After several operations and intense therapy, he was back on the guitar, andandnbsp;Tripandnbsp;proves he has not lost any of his amazing musical prowess. andnbsp;Assembling an all-star cast of accompanists, Stern went back into the studio to record his 17th release as leader, and re-affirm his place as a force to be reckoned with. The title track opens with Sternand#39;s signature blazing riffs bouncing off the bedrock foundation consisting ofandnbsp;Victor Wootenandnbsp;on bass andandnbsp;Dennis Chambersandnbsp;on drums. The perennialandnbsp;Miles Davisandnbsp;influence is revived on andquot;Blueprint,andquot; which featuresandnbsp;Randy Breckerandnbsp;on trumpet, andandnbsp;Jim Beardandnbsp;on organ and keys. Beard plays keyboards throughout, and also produced the project, as he has so many of Sternand#39;s previous endeavors. andquot;Hope For That,andquot; has long-time friend and drummer,andnbsp;Dave Wecklandnbsp;sitting in, who possibly knows Sternand#39;s music better than anyone, and can accent the changes with a refined brilliance. The music takes a traditional swing orientation on andquot;Half Crazy,andquot; that brings inandnbsp;Lenny Whiteandnbsp;on drums, bassistandnbsp;Teymur Phell, andandnbsp;Bill Evansandnbsp;on tenor. White and Phell are part of his working band, and the musical interconnection is evident. This same lineup and feeling returns on andquot;Scotch Tape and Glue,andquot; named after the process Stern created to be able to hold the pick with his right hand after the accident. andnbsp;Trumpeterandnbsp;Wallace Roneyandnbsp;performs on andquot;Screws,andquot; a funk-fusion excursion sans bass, opting for an electronic pulse on the lower end. This is pure Stern territory as he takes his Strat into the outer limits, Roney augmenting the amplified tension in the higher registers. They continue with this instrumental arrangement on andquot;B Train,andquot; which is a groove injected, spaced-out version of andquot;Take The A Train,andquot; Roney again demonstrating why he is one of the premier horn men on the scene. Beard also shows formidable piano chops on this venture, as the song goes through some adventurous straight ahead sections. Stern exposes his sensitive side with the acoustical, andquot;Gone,andquot; presenting his dexterity on the nylon six string. His wifeandnbsp;Leni Stern, plays the African three stringed ngoni on andquot;Amelia,andquot; which has vocalist Gio Moratti joining Stern in singing, in what might sound like an unusual format for Stern, as he is identified with his powerful electric persona. Leni reappears on andquot;I Believe You,andquot; that has drummerandnbsp;Will Calhounandnbsp;and bassist Edmond Gilmore adding their talents to this uplifting ballad. andnbsp;Thoughandnbsp;Tripandnbsp;stands on its own merits as a quality Stern recording, with the back story concerning the accident, it represents an artist with an unwavering sense of purpose. Stern accepted the arduous medical situation he was confronting, and was steadfast in his belief that he would endure and overcome, with his guitar abilities intact. This is a testament to that.
TORI AMOS, Native Invader (CD/2xCD)
DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979, Outrage Is Now (CD/LP)
JACK JOHNSON, All The Light Above It Too (CD/LP)
JONNY LANG, Signs (CD/LP)
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Music From Twin Peaks (CD/LP)