Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless Records)
Snider’s man of the people enough to back up his proudly populist and class-conscious centrism-skewing-leftward with music that could never be mistaken for coffee shop gentility. While the acoustic ballads sometimes boast a heartfelt fragility, his stomping blues bristle with crunching electric guitars and surging fiddle-not-violin, and it’s partly this rough Americana that puts over ten songs ranging from the conversational to the confessional - stripped of the elemental shuffle that propels an opener reframing the birth of capitalism as dystopian creation myth, “In The Beginning” might have been so much folkie smugness. But it’s also Snider’s sly humor, eye for detail, righteous anger, and way with words that slam the songs home. So the world-class storyteller drops Mick and Keith into a number cruncher vs. tavern habitué breakup story and hands Newt Gingrich a child labor platform to run on, while the world-class humorist insists moderation is best in moderation and claims God is keeping secrets from his creation. But when he turns his eyes to a “New York Banker,” he directs his rage not at some symbolic Wall Street executive, but specifically at the kind of risky bonds that helped destroy many a pension, including that of the unnamed Arkansas high school teacher who narrates. “Safer than gold,” he was told, and if pyramid schemes sound too detail-oriented to make for convincing anthems, just dig that chorus: “Good things happen to bad people / bad people / bad people.”
Darius Jones Quartet, Book of Mæ’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) (AUM Fidelity)
This third entry in an autobiographical “Mannish Boy” series claims as its theme an embodiment of all the women the alto saxophonist has loved, which sounds unpromising until Jones notes the list includes his mother and sister. Still, one does wish at times for swifter tempos - while never soft, the album is plenty solemn and rarely fiery, with only the deft yet fractured four minute bop of “Winkie” kicking things up. Yet even that number, which takes the unusual step of essentially trading fours for the song’s entirety, finds Jones maintaining his desire to dissect jazz form and explore the parameters of structure. With a rhythm section (Trevor Dunn, bass and Ches Smith, drums) keeping each performance’s tone and swing in constant flux, both saxophonist and pianist Matt Mitchell are left free to dart suddenly out of the ensemble, with Jones especially carving out an unsettling personal tone equal parts soul flourish and off-center wavering. A lengthy fadeout on album closer “Roosevelt,” itself already part of Jones’s studio repertoire, ends things somewhat unsatisfactorily, more committed to the supposed totality of the ongoing project than to crafting an interesting performance. But on multi-part numbers like “Be Patient With Me,” Jones casually displays his gift for arrangement, opening with swirling Strata East glissando before drawing out the melody to Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and bringing things to a hushed close.
Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (Rough Trade)
Opening with a loping 4/4 and one of the most delicious guitar licks to grace any recording this year, a band that might sound as comfortable backing Otis Redding as covering AC/DC encourages the vocal pyrotechnics of a world-class Robert Plant imitator who just happens to be female and the band’s primary songwriter. “Bless my heart / and bless yours, too,” Brittany Howard generously allows before spending the rest of the album singing to the cheap seats, which is really too bad, because this is the kind of quirky local outfit that tends to play venues in which all the seats are cheap. Had Howard and company surfaced a decade earlier, they’d likely be the cream of the garage revival crop. As it is, they’ll need to settle for merely being a particularly soulful anachronism, transmitting the gospel of Muscle Shoals while no doubt pulling off killer live shows. Sometimes bands like this eventually figure out how to manipulate the studio beyond capturing what they sound like on a good night. And sometimes, bands like this don’t.
The Men, Open Your Heart (Scared Bones)
Just when you’ve morosely concluded nobody in Brooklyn has ever heard of The Jam or Spacemen 3, along comes this group of young upstarts committed to crafting the Great Lost Indie Rock Album of 1986. With tastes more Catholic than Bill Donohue, the balls to blatantly rip off the most recognizable riff in the Buzzcocks’ repertoire, and a sense of purpose centered enough to squeeze out long instrumentals just for fuck’s sake, they also have zero vocal presence and choose to ground their mighty roar with lyrics like, “Even if she says no / I won’t let her go”. How tragic.
It’s A Musical, For Years And Years (Morr Music)
Of course lazy critics (myself included) compare this boy-girl organ/drums duo to Mates of State - Ella Blixt and Robert Kretzchmar were even a real-life couple at one point, thus imbuing these charming quickie tunes with slightly deeper emotional hues. Or so certain critics would have you believe. I’d note that aside from the cool soul of “One Million People” and the lovely tripping keyboard riff that opens “As Soon As I,” these tales of love gently lost can’t overcome a pedestrianism that may have as much to do with awkward translation as artistic limitations (“You can’t take everything you need / Your highness”). I’d also note that while I don’t exactly miss the guitars, it would have been nice had the organ picked up a little bit of the slack.
Ryan Power, I Don’t Want To Die (NNA Tapes)
Lounging barefoot and bearded like an end-of-life Jim Morrison on the cover, this Burlington, VT lo-fi singer-songwriter awaits your pensive attention, with stiff drum machines, multi-tracked vocals, and rippling synthesizers aplenty, bedecking poesy just morose enough to make one wince, although he hits his melancholy targets now and again. Admirers claim this crooner manages to encompass both Bill Withers and Ariel Pink. Demand more Bill Withers, less Ariel Pink. Maybe even no Ariel Pink.