More on Carolina Chocolate Drops

Just a quick note: My mini-review of the wonderful new Carolina Chocolate Drops album is posted at CT; the full review, of course, is still available here.

Lyle Lovett: “Release Me”

Yes, the title is a bit of a double entendre. “Release Me” is a classic country song, but it’s also a tip of the hat to the fact that this is the last album of Lyle Lovett’s recording contract– a contract that extends back to the beginning of his nearly three-decade recording career. After this, he’ll be a free agent for the first time in a long time, and the music gathered here makes it seem like he’s giddy at the mere thought. There’s also the cover photo, of the singer hogtied in barbed wire. I never knew Curb treated him so bad, or that he was so eager to break free; in fact, I’ve kind of always assumed they let Lovett get away with making whatever the hell kind of record he wanted to make, which is probably why they’re all so good.

I suspect this whole thing is really very good-natured, and Lovett harbors little resentment. In fact, he’s in particularly jovial form here, sounding livelier and more energized than he has in years. That this album is sort of a clearinghouse of covers and originals, duets and instrumentals, blues and swing numbers and holiday songs, doesn’t detract from what a good time it is. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason why this record is such a good time. Release Me is a mess, but it’s a mighty appealing one. Lovett hasn’t been so loose in a good while.

The two holiday songs here are actually pretty instructive of the album’s spirit. “The Girl with the Holiday Smile” is one of only two originals here, if you can believe it; if there’s any complaint to be found with this record, it’s that Lovett the Songwriter is underrepresented. But this particular song is a really great one– a gleefully randy, cheerfully low-brow story about a Christmas hooker. Why, you’d have to go back to a certain 1970’s Tom Waits classic for a better treatment of this subject; it’s just the kind of song I love coming from Lyle Lovett, too. The other seasonal number is “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which is done here as flirty jazz but not really as a quote-unquote Christmas song. Lovett seems more interested in it for its sturdy craft than for its festive connotations. He approaches it as a keen student of Great American Songs, understanding and illuminating the song’s inherent creepiness but not ratcheting up the sleaze too much.

Hearing a master songwriter perform other people’s work is always instructive, and here he exhibits just how fine his instincts are. He slows down Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” from a rock and roll number into a story-song. It’s soulful and just right. But this isn’t meant to be a studious affair; it’s either a very constructive way of dealing with writer’s block, or a deliberately tossed-off, unfussy termination to his major label contract. Either way, it’s a fun, spirited record with abundant highlights: The brassy single “Isn’t That So” (the only time he really connects with his love of Big Band here), the bluegrass swing of instrumental opener “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” a monstrously savage, piledriving version of “White Freightliner Blues,” a handful of sensitive and emotive ballads, and a celebratory “White Boy Lost in the Blues,” done with such vigor and feeling it’s clear Lovett is claiming it as his own autobiography.

It all ends up, in all places, with a Martin Luther hymn; “Keep Us Steadfast” is performed at the piano, solemn and reverent and without irony. I’m not sure that it makes any sense beyond the simple fact that it’s a song Lovett obviously loves, and that seems to be the only real thread here. But that’s not a complaint. Everything on Release Me connects. It’s more or less everything I could want from a Lovett album, and its unassuming nature makes it, funnily enough, one of the most essential things he’s done.

Anais Mitchell: “Young Man in America”

Anais Mitchell’s last album, a recording of her beautifully-conceived “folk opera” called Hadestown, was always going to be a tough act to follow; after all, in addition to being a one-of-a-kind recording featuring spot-on guest roles from Ani DiFranco, Justin Vernon, and Greg Brown, the album was just loaded with beautiful, evocative songs, telling a seamless story steeped in mythologies old and new. But Mitchell has followed it up as well as possible, I think, with a fine new record called Young Man in America. She’s wise enough not to do another folk opera, but this one is a very thematically focused work that’s not necessarily any less ambitious than the album that came before it. In fact, I’d say the music here is every bit as rich and beautiful, and there are some stand-alone tracks that are every bit as good as the standout  songs on Hadestown.

So another very lovely and distinguished recording, then– my brief review of it is posted at CT today, if you’re interested in reading further. To the review I’ll only add how nice it is to have the full focus on Mitchell’s voice; the guest turns on Hadestown were all great, but I don’t think I ever realized what a superb singer this lady is all on her own until I heard her take center stage here.

Carolina Chocolate Drops: “Leaving Eden”

You can hear the Tennessee cicadas in the background of this new Carolina Chocolate Drops album, which I love. I’m not normally one to get caught up in questions of “authenticity,” understand. I’ve seen this particular group play, and I believe in my heart that they’re the real deal; here, though, the recording itself offers glorious assent to the truth of the Chocolate Drops as real country people making real country music, living and breathing and swinging here with wild, rugged joy. The cicadas harmonizing along with them makes it all too easy to sink into the belief that you’re sitting on some mountain porch, hearing this music created in real time.

Praises are due, of course, to producer Buddy Miller, picking up where Joe Henry left off. Joe’s work laid the necessary foundation, establishing this band’s penchant for country-blues, rustic folk, and Appalachian jigs. The music on Genuine Negro Jig was tough, drawing the past into the future. The new album likely wouldn’t have been possible without it; that said, Leaving Eden is a more confident, more joyful, and more intimate recording. It’s more ambitious, but less polishes. I simply think there’s more feeling here, and the songs seem to flow quite naturally out of the group’s passion for making music together.

Joe Henry led the band to a cover of a contemporary R&B song, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” It wasn’t a novelty, but evidence of how much this music kicks, even when working to revamp modern material. Leaving Eden offers sort of the mirror image– a Chocolate Drops original, “Country Girl,” that almost sounds like it could fit on a contemporary R&B album. It’s a propulsive tune and an obvious single, its weight carried by vocal percussion and by Rhiannon Giddens’ swaggering delivery of the lyric, a celebration of rural Southern culture that takes the joys with the hardships and embraces the full scope of simple living and field labor.

It’s one of three songs that stand out as obvious anchors on a record that’s otherwise too fidgety, too primitive to stay in the same place for long. The title song is another showstopper, even if it’s also the most mannered thing here; it’s got a lovely cello arrangement, but the lyric, again delivered by Giddens, is what makes it stick. The song is about a life of hardship and strife, one that we all know must end in a sad goodbye– yet for all of life’s struggles, that goodbye is a bitter one, and the song embodies that tension to aching effect. The other big Giddens highlight is the closer, a lullaby called “Pretty Bird.” Performed basically a capella, the song makes me just the tiniest bit afraid that this group could evolve into just a platform for Giddens’ voice– and lovely though that is, I love this band for the glorious cling and clatter of banjo, mandolin, pipes and whistles, beatboxing, bones, fiddles, and kazoos that kick up so much dust on the rest of this record.

And yeah, as fine and as necessary as those album anchors are, I like the record best when it’s woolier, dirtier. The opening one-two punch is actually a little disarming in how ragged the sound is; the traditional “Riro’s House” is a hoedown led by fiddle, banjo, and snare drum, the vocal so muddy you could almost believe the recording is as old as the song itself. The same goes for “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” a creeping instrumental where those cicadas almost overpower the musicians.

And there are plenty of other highlights. “Read ‘Em John” is killer, howling in its gospel fervor and call-and-response urgency. That one’s sung by Dom Flemons, who also charms on the rustic nonsense “Boodle-de-Bum-Bum,” but Giddens is the singer on the funny, feisty brawler “West End Blues” and the jaunty declaration of female independence “No Man’s Mama.” I’m not even sure what to say about the ragged tear through “Run Mountain,” except that it is, indeed, Appalachian folk music at its most primal, and it’s wonderful.

Robert Glasper Experiment: “Black Radio”

Technically, this is the full-length recording debut of the Robert Glasper Experiment– following a half-album’s worth of material they recorded for Glasper’s Double Booked collection. There, the Experiment split the running time of the album neatly in half, sharing space with Glasper’s more traditional, acoustic jazz Trio. That the pianist would follow that collection– designed to showcase his twin passions for jazz on the one hand, hip-hop and R&B on the other– with a full hour’s worth of chill, groove-centric, electric music from the Experiment, gives a pretty good idea of where Glasper’s creative interests and passions are centered right now.

And indeed, Black Radio is an album borne of love, not a desire to show-off. That might be the most crucial distinction between the Experiment and the Robert Glasper Trio, actually, even more significant than the addition or subtraction of electricity. Playing within the realm of acoustic trio jazz gives Glasper and his musicians a showcase for their own virtuosity, something that by now none of us should question. We know he can play. On Black Radio, the Glasper’s rhythm section is the bedrock on which the album is built, Glasper’s piano the glue that holds it together. They prove commentary and accents, but mostly their role is support– for Song and for singers, as well as MCs.

And they’re joined by some of the best. Glasper conceived of Black Radio as an album where his friends from the hip-hop and R&B worlds could come hang out in the studio and each have their turn at the mic. That kind of easygoing warmth and familiarity permeates the record, which never really feels like the work of a band that’s pushing the limits of what a quote-unquote jazz record can do, even though it very much is; for all of its daring and its incredible ambition, Black Radio is not an album marked by “experimentation” so much as a sense of discovery and exploration that’s centered on the songs themselves. The goal is to go deep into these songs, and we’re invited along for the journey. Everything from the languid spoken-word introduction/”mic check” to the hour-plus runtime establishes this as the work of musicians working hard to make us feel welcome, and to encourage us to slip into this music an invest something of ourselves in it, minus any distractions or gimmicks. How could we resist? The album features Erykah Badu and Meshell Ndegeocello, Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway and Bilal– and everyone here is just on.

That might be what keeps the album from ever feeling like a compilation, or like a revue for a bunch of famous singers and MCs: It’s all egoless, it all fits together seamlessly, and everyone is as invested in this as they are the music they record under their own names. You can hear it on the two MC-featuring tracks, for sure. Check “Always Shine,” an album standout not just because of the smokin’ Bilal hook but also because Lupe Fiasco proves that, when his record label isn’t around to force him into their easily-marketable box, he’s actually an ace MC, showing off an easygoing flow and waxing philosophical about love and legacy, referencing Gil Scott-Heron and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the process. Yasiin Bey (he’ll always be Mos Def to me), meanwhile, gives a blazing performance on the title cut; he’s just in fire, rapid-fire rhyming giving way to soulful singing and then back again. Of course, he invokes both of the possible uses of the term “black radio”– one of them explicitly, when he nods to the “only part [of the plane] that survives,” and the second more subtly, with a Public Enemy allusion that pushes Black Radio into the slipstream of rap history.

The songs that feature singers are just as good. In fact, some of my favorites are gathered here. Readers of this blog know that I carry a torch for Erykah Badu– think her to be the finest living R&B singer, in fact– and hearing her do “Afro Blue” in this context is a dream come true. She just kills it, as does Ledesi on a sunny and soulful love song called “Gonna Be Alright.” And one of the other great singers from the soul/jazz idiom, the great Bilal, has a sleeper hit tucked away at the end of the record, a reading of David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” that’s warm and empathetic and remarkable in its emotional nuance.

It would be silly of my not to mention the headlining band, which is always blazing hot even though the music is mostly pretty chill. Glasper just couldn’t make this music– indeed, this whole album would topple under its own weight– were it not for the bedrock rhythm section of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave. Indeed, I’d call Dave’s tight, in-the-pocket groove on “Afro Blue” every bit as integral to that song’s success as Badu’s vocal. And then there’s Casey Benjamin, who provides some lovely flute work on “Afro Blue” but mostly sticks to the vocoder. What he brings to the instrument, though, is a sense of musicality that you don’t often associate with it– this is not Kanye West’s “Autotune,” in other words. He contributes a lovely, soulful call-and-response with Lalah Hathaway on “Cherish the Day,” but of course his real showcase is on the guestless closing number, an already-famous cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” where Benjamin brings a whole new level of indecipherable weirdness to Kurt Cobain’s lyric.

Glasper provides memorable fills and flourishes throughout the record, but it’s to his credit that he primarily takes on a less flashy role, as the guy who keeps this whole thing afloat. An unassuming role, perhaps, for an album uncommonly easygoing and graceful record. That so many bright talents could be represented here, all doing such stellar work but disappearing so selflessly into Song, is a testament to the vision of their ringleader, and to the fact that Black Radio is extraordinarily more ambitious and radical than it might first seem.

Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet: “Love, Peace and Soul”

Reed man Don Byron has been on my radar ever since he served in Joe Henry’s Tiny Voices ensemble; he’s made a lot of terrific recordings in his own right, all of which tend to be filed under Jazz even though most of them aren’t really straightforward jazz records. (Whatever that even means.) He pays tribute to a different genre, or perhaps a different composer, with each record he makes, and his new one is no exception– only, it might actually be his most personal, and it’s certainly one of his best. Love, Peace and Soul is a salute to the stirring, high-stepping gospel songs of Thomas Dorsey, mostly, and also folks like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you are, like me, a fan of the documentary Rejoice & Shout, or of the gospel anthologies Fire in My Bones and This May Be My Last Time Singing, you’ll find a lot to love here.

But of course, what really makes me love Byron isn’t his eclecticism so much as the earnest sense of joy he brings to everything he touches; he doesn’t make these records just to show off his knowledge of different genres, but rather to celebrate the music that he loves. This one may be his most celebratory yet. My review is posted at CT.

Ten Favorite Films from 2011

Just in time for Oscar Week. I shan’t bore you with any Academy Award will win/should win talk– though you can make some inferences from my selections here– and I’ll also dispense with commentary about whether I found 2011 year to be a great year or a bum year at the movies. I only know that I really loved all of these ten pictures, and in some cases for wildly different reasons.

I’ve written about several of them here already, and may offer some further commentary somewhere down the line. Beyond that, I’ll add only my usual caveat, which is that I still haven’t had a chance to see all of the 2011 films I’d like to see– with A Separation and Certified Copy being the two most prominent omissions.

01. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

02. Rango (Gore Verbinski)

03. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichol)

04. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

05. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

06. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird)

07. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Thomas Alfredson)

08. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

09. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

10. Tabloid (Errol Morris)