Rosanne Cash, The River & The Thread (Blue Note)
Although John Leventhal’s sleepy-time-down-south production won’t be lighting a fire under anybody’s ass, there’s enough variety here to keep wandering ears occupied. From the Creedence crawl of “A Feather’s Not A Bird” to the electric sitar on “Money Road,” from the chimes waltzing down “Night School” to the bluesy Turtles quote within “Long Way Home,” it’s roots-rock with all the good and evil such designators bring to Nashville after-parties. But maybe the sixty-year-old Cash has the right to slap away Music Row with the aside “the money’s all in Nashville”. Besides, the only rootsy flourish I’d do without appears on the expert mainstream rock of “Modern Blue,” a Wallflowers detour off Highway 61 to Barcelona, which likewise offers the only lyrical stinker in the bunch. “My mind got changed,” Cash notes of her Mediterranean jaunt, only later filling us in as to how: “it’s a big wide world”. Better she keep her eyes on the undulating delta plains and Piney Woods of the southland that comprises this travelogue’s heart and soul, a southland that both birthed her beloved father and vexes her to this day. She never once submits to easy mythology - sometimes her gaze is detached (five cans of paint settling into sunken lands; hard roads that fit your shoes). Other times, she’s rendered numb (Emmett Till and Billie Joe McAllister). She crafts a Civil War reminiscence as if unearthing a lost version of “The Twa Sisters,” offers up a warm riposte to “Far Away Eyes” via an agnostic’s ode to gospel stations, and manages to make “you’re not from around here” sound inviting rather than foreboding to clueless Yankees. “It’s hot from March to Christmas,” she warns, then settles back into the climate-appropriate sleepy groove.
Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Total Treble Music)
Nobody likes some churl standing outside the bonfire of history getting all nitpicky, but can we talk a little bit about how Laura Jane Grace and co. here once again embrace a brand of anthemic skate punk so straightforward it makes NOFX sound like The Fall? Overlook the treble-heavy production, Grace’s farting-around bass, even the moonlighting drummer, and there’s still the pesky matter of guitars so tidily assembled I found myself scrawling “Manic Street Preachers” all over my notecards. Not that the album’s precision detracts from the messiness under discussion - far from it. Slamming through ten songs in twenty-eight minutes with nary a bum note nor frayed edge within earshot helps highlight the way these impressionistic sketches are giddy slaves to their own undeniable hooks, even when Grace is stumbling over the kinds of wordy couplets that have always tripped up smart hardcore types (“paralytic states of dependency / in her dysphoria’s affection / she still saw her mother’s child”). I prefer those lyrical moments when the singer trusts her own gift for gutter poetry (the humanistic agony behind “you’ve got no cunt in your strut”) or plainspoken hurt (“goddammit / I miss my dead friend”). And when Grace channels murderous rage in a lynching fantasy imagining a former tormenter strung up like Mussolini in the Piazzale Loreto, she manages to flip thirty-plus years’ worth of skate punk heteronormative violence on its nasty little head. Which doesn’t erase the fact that it’s a lynching fantasy - it just reminds us that progress needn’t always be progressive.
Beyoncé, Beyoncé (Columbia)
Only fools and idealists demand political consistency from pop stars, yet it’s still worth questioning why Ms. Knowles delivers this frequently bombastic album’s two most explicitly pro-feminist sentiments via surrogates - Nigerian intellectual Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defining the F word in clear economic terms, Hajiba Fahmy delineating feminism’s respect for raunch via untranslated French. Yoncé’s own bullet points often owe more to Oprah than Adichie, as when she murmurs “it’s the soul that needs surgery” on an opener linking sugar-free snacks to “the disease of a nation,” or when she cools down “Partition’s” limo fuck by explaining “I wanted to show that you can have a child and you can work hard and you can get your body back” (cynics should be directed towards the concurrent sneak-release of Yoncé’s new perfume RISE, with a “fragrance concept” memorably described as that of “female empowerment”). Still, who expects Hélène Cixous-level intertextuality from a jet-setting part-time vegan? And given that Beyoncé’s beats are usually better than Cixous’, who needs consistency, especially when those beats add muscle to the handful of top-notch songs here, three of which are unapologetic Prince/D’Angelo sex jams that will hopefully scandalize any young fan grossed out by the image of a mother enthusiastically getting her grind on. From “I get filthy when that liquor get into me” to “I know you never waste a drip,” you’re goddam right she’s a grown woman comfortable in her own skin. When the hubby blurts out “eat the cake, Anna Mae” in the sweaty midst of “Drunk In Love,” you can almost picture her rolling her eyes even if she never once slows down her swerve.