Favorite Records of 2012 (So Far)

Three months in and there’s already been plenty of good stuff– including three records that very well might, in fact, stand as my three 2012 favorites when December rolls around. Two of those three are only now releasing, in the month of April, and my full reviews are forthcoming. Naturally, their presence here can be taken as a very strong endorsement indeed.

01. Black Radio
Robert Glasper Experiment
02. Slipstream
Bonnie Raitt
03. Locked Down
Dr. John
04. Accelerando
Vijay Iyer Trio
05. Release Me
Lyle Lovett
06. Leaving Eden
Carolina Chocolate Drops
07. Radio Music Society
Esperanza Spalding
08. Young Man in America
Anais Mitchell
09. I Will Set You Free
Barry Adamson
10. Carnivale Electricos
Galactic

Esperanza Spalding: “Radio Music Society”

I love something that Esperanza Spalding said not long ago. In an interview with NPR, she said, “The benefit of the radio is, something beyond your realm of knowledge can surprise you, can enter your realm of knowledge.” And isn’t that the truth?

It’s also a pretty fitting mission statement for Spalding’s own new album. A sequel in name only to her classical-leaning, front parlor-jazz concoction Chamber Music Society, the new one is a loving tribute to radio itself– thus, Radio Music Society. Give it a chance and this record will expand your moral and musical imagination.

To be fair, Spalding’s definition of radio music is probably a slightly-romanticized golden era of pop, one that seems to have a lot more to do with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson than the more nakedly, vapidly carnal stuff that gets played today. There is, in fact, a Wonder-penned Jackson staple, “I Can’t Help It,” done here with a little help from jazz sax legend Joe Lovano. How’s that for world colliding? And it’s hardly the only example here of the jazz idiom blending seamlessly with the vocabulary of pop; it’s as though Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Nicholas Payton have all been drinking from the same watering hole.

I should note that Spalding’s record veers much closer to Bitches than it does to Black Radio, stepping over both the hip-hop inflections and deep jazz reserves that make Glasper’s album such a heavy hitter and instead favoring what is, despite the presence of Q-Tip as a producer, really a pure pop record; truly, she takes her cues from Michael and Stevie more than anyone else here.

But that’s not to say this record isn’t deeply in-the-pocket, or that it’s lacking in vision. Quite the contrary, in fact; this is a record that transitions, without so much as a pause or a falter, from the elegant sensuality of “Cinnamon Tree” into the social justice tale “Land of the Free”– and yes, the song’s title is delivered with more than a little irony as Spalding weaves a tale of injustice and wrongful imprisonment.

But what makes the record such a powerhouse, and such an endlessly charming piece of pop, is how these moods intermingle, and how they’re all given the same weight; how the brassy, soulful love song “Hold on Me” fits so perfectly beside “Black Gold,” an anthem of pride that sounds like it could have been one of the original Civil Rights anthems. Of course, it’s as timely today as ever. These songs show us different sides of Esperanza Spalding, and different sides of what music has been, and can be still. Spalding reclaims this music through rapturous song and story, and the end result is as sophisticated and immediate as anything she’s done.

Chuck Mead: “Back at the Quonset Hut”

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who loves country music not also loving Chuck Mead’s Back at the Quonset Hut– because of course, this is a record made by and for country music zealots, and it’s no great stretch to say that the album represents something of country music’s spirit and history, distilled to their very essence.

Even the title is a tip-off to the fact that this is very much an act of homage. Mead recorded the album at a legendary Nashville studio space– former occupants of which include not just Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Carl Perkins, but even Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Mead and his rugged band of country pros are literally surrounded by history. And then there are the songs, every one a country music classic that you know by heart, at least if you know your country music, and probably even if you don’t.

That all might sound like the recipe for mere homage, but the crowning achievement of this set is how it avoids studious. It’s not a historical reenactment. It’s a very loving and passionate take on standards– and like so many standards collections before it, it’s made memorable not because it reinvents the wheel, but because of its sheer empathy, enthusiasm, and warmth.

The album is, in other words, a roaring good time– rich and hearty and rustic, everything a great country album should be. And it’s amazing how much of its appeal comes from what might seem like little things; I was a full convert before the second song, “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor,” had stopped playing, partly because of the sonorous, two-stepping upright bass, partly because of the splashes of honky tonk piano (right around the time Chuck gets to the “Jelly Roll” line), but largely because of the singer’s own spirited and authoritative rendition.

Mead’s album is a winner for its diversity, as well. It begins on a truly old-fashioned note, and who better than the Old Crow Medicine Show to help Mead bring the hoedown all the way down from the mountain? Almost as old-fashioned is the wonderful barroom duet with Bobby Bare Jr. on “Hey Joe.” There are a couple of excellent ballads– a tender “Sittin’ and Thinkin’” being a standout, an excellent truckdriving anthem (“Girl on the Billboard”), and, with Jamey Johnson, a terrific, trash-talking “You Better Treat Your Man Right.”

Mead is not one bit afraid to stretch his country music to encompass early rock and roll– there are a couple of terrific rockabilly sides, including a “Be Bop a Lula” that curiously reminds me of John Lennon’s take on the song– but Mead saves the finest number for last. “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” is fiesty, sexy, and an absolute delight– so it’s no great surprise that Mead shares the romp with Elizabeth Cook, another singer/songwriter whose gift is for bringing country music past roaring into its present.

Justin Townes Earle: “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now”

I’ve reviewed the new Justin Townes Earle album for CT. I confess that it didn’t do much for me– and that I much prefer the wonderful Harlem River Blues record from a couple years back– but this new one is at the very least impressive in how it signals a change in direction, and suggests that Earle’s vision is a wide, vast one. He’s got a lot of great records still to come, I’d wager.

Vijay Iyer Trio: “Accelerando”

Like so many iconic bandleaders before him, pianist Viyaj Iyer makes albums that each come with a heady conceptual bent– and typically, you can tell the concept just from the album’s title. Historicity was an exploration of the elastic relationship between jazz past and present; Tirtha blended Western sensibilities with Indian music conventions; Solo, I suppose, speaks for itself.

Now: Accelerando. Its title refers to movement– to pace, speed, the sheer physicality of the music itself. It may be Iyer’s savviest concept yet, because it unites his braininess as a composer and bandleader to the music’s own dance-hall origins. It’s music made for the head and the heart and the feet, all at the same time. And it may be his finest hour yet.

That’s as much about the band as it is the concept. Iyer is playing once again with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. The band has been together for a while now, and it shows. They bring intuitive interplay that’s essential to the success of these songs.

And what songs! These are, as you might expect, dance tunes– but of course, on an Iyer album, nothing is ever quite expected at all. There’s an Ellington number, “The Village of the Virgins”– and what better way for Iyer to tip his hat to the history on which his music stands? But the other songs are less expected. “Mmmhmm” was penned by eccentric/electronic mad scientist Flying Lotus– an expected selection only if you remember Iyer’s previous rendition of an MIA song. “The Star of a Story,” meanwhile, is a heavy disco tune from the band Heatwave; here it’s done as a delightful, low-slung brand of jazz-funk.

Originals sit alongside these covers, and they’re very true to the pure, noble ambitions of this project; one is declined to describe them not in terms of genre, but in terms of how they move. The title track was originally conceived for the ballet, I’m told, and it’s not hard to believe. It lends yet another layer of meaning to Accelerando‘s identity as dance music, plain and simple.

But no: For its directness and its appealing sense of physicality, nothing here is quite plain or simple. Certainly not Iyer’s take on “Human Nature”– Michael Jackon’s best ballad, but, more to the point, a song that Miles turned into a modern jazz standard. Iyer has recorded it before, but this version might be my favorite rendition of the song, ever; it’s nearly ten minutes, and it holds true to the beautiful melody of the original while offering an endless, hypnotic array of inventions and improvisations with the rhythm and the syncopation.

The opening song on the album, oddly enough, barely moves anywhere at all; “Bode” is almost an ambient piece, more about the warm hum of the acoustic instruments than it is anything else. It’s something of a warm-up before the feats of athleticism and imagination that follow, but also, perhaps, a reminder of how thoughtful this music is– how with Iyer and his band, nothing’s ever out of place or ill-conceived.

Bruce Springsteen: “Wrecking Ball”

When Springsteen released his Pete Seeger tribute album in 2006, reviews were generally quite good, but there’s one piece that still strikes me; a major publication lambasted Bruce for releasing a record of dusty old folk songs during a time when America was divided, warring at home and abroad. As if it is somehow Bruce’s responsibility to capture the national mood with every record he makes. As if the Seeger Sessions record, with its history-rich tales of war and sorrow, Gospel and joy, were somehow less resonant today than they were a hundred years ago.

The irony is that every record Springsteen has made over the last decade– from The Rising onward– has offered commentary on national affairs; Seeger happens to be the one that I find to be most effective, its humor and its sadness and its swing turning it into a genuine rallying call. The others are all a bit po-faced and self-serious, I think, and the new Wrecking Ball is no exception.

It’s true enough that the album is something of a return to form for Bruce, the songs generally much better than the ones on the two albums that came before it. And it’s probably worth noting that the record lifts a lot of the Irish folk lilt and protest-march chords from The Seeger Sessions, as if there could be any doubt that this is a modernized rallying call for the Occupy era. It’s a good idea, but what doesn’t carry over from the Pete Seeger record is the color, the storytelling richness, that made those songs stick.

Here, Bruce does not write in character much; he is not confessional, or funny, he is just writing anthems. And these anthems do a good enough job of capturing a certain sense of bristling rage– a moral indignation that does, at times, make Wrecking Ball galvanizing– but when the entire first half of the record is loaded with references to “fat-cat bankers” and armed uprisings (complete with the rather corny sound of a shotgun blast at the end of one song!), it’s difficult not to find the whole thing a bit flimsy, good intentions spread over over-earnestness and weak songwriting.

Which is not to say that there is not enough here to make for an okay Springsteen record– the bitter ironies of “We Take Care of Our Own” and the double entendre in “This Depression” counteract the thin character study in “Jack of All Trades,” and the aforementioned shotgun blast. The second half of the record is stronger: The title track works up to a wonderful E-Street swell, and the fevered gospel epic, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” makes its studio debut here. It is a wonder, with an appearance from the late Clarence Clemons that puts a lump in the throat.

But it’s probably telling– of my own tastes, of this record’s rather graven air, or perhaps of both– that the songs I like best are the looser, more spontaneous ones. “You’ve Got It” is the only thing here that could rightly be called “fun,” a spry little love song that points to the kinds of rock and roll records I’d love to hear Bruce make again. The closing song, “We are Alive,” is a folk song that lifts a line from the Seeger playbook, finding hope and conviction in the backpages of American history. It’s spirited and it makes its point without Bruce seeming like he’s trying to be our Messiah.

Speaking of which, there is another song, “Rocky Ground,” that makes a good point about pastors leading their flocks into greater compassion and understanding– but ironically enough, it makes that point through the preachiest writing of Springsteen’s career. I guess I just prefer him when he’s telling stories. But there is plenty to appreciate about Wrecking Ball, starting with the nobility of its calling. It’s very hard to dislike a record so pure in its intentions– even if I happen to think Bruce has written much better songs, often on similar subjects, before.

Film Break: “John Carter”

My review of the new sci-fi blockbuster, John Carter, is posted at CT. I’ll happily go on record saying that this is a better film than many of its critics would lead you to believe– far from great, but consistently entertaining.

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