Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
So disarmingly unambitious the tunes can glide right past you, so simplistic in construction their craft nearly gets obscured, thirteen mostly short, mostly plugged-in songs from raspy-voiced Katie Crutchfield don’t quite rise to the wavering heights of her much-lamented PS Eliot even as they fuzz and rasp more satisfyingly than the eleven campfire numbers collected on last year’s American Weekend. That album was a solo statement of purpose with too much in the way of smarts to get mistaken for private press solipsism. This supposed “band” outing still seems mighty personal, each number brandishing no more than one or two distinctive sonic characteristics, be that chugging bass or drum plod. The results are so uncluttered and guileless one easily misses how much Crutchfield does with each carefully-culled detail - some charming guitar pull-offs nearly buried beneath “Coast To Coast,” distortion dirt throughout “Misery Over Dispute,” an acoustic riff so simplistic it nearly pirouettes across “Lips And Limbs”. She spends too much of her time staring inward rather than taking in the world (“Swan Dive’s” “I’m ruled by seasons / and sadness that’s inexplicable” tiptoes right up into Cat Power territory only to reel itself back just in time). Yet she’s got an eye for details and an ear for language, not just “Waxahatchee” and “cerulean” itself, but “intangible,” “champagne flutes poorly engineered,” and “this place is vile/ and I’m vile, too”. Too ragged for folk, wry rather than twee, as sparse in its own way as Young Marble Giants, this is how punk rock should chill out if and when it needs to.
Richard Thompson, Electric (New West)
You forget how much rock and roll space was once assigned to guitar technique until you hear an old pro like Thompson peel off showy solos before, during, and after every chorus, and believe me, I’m not complaining. But why so bitter, Richard? It’s worth noting that when Todd Snider pens a chorus like “good things happen to bad people,” he’s talking about predatory lenders; when Thompson does the same here, he’s scowling at a cheating spouse. From “northern girls will gut you” to “her heart is made of stone” through “you must have been running around,” the perfidy of woman dominates our balladeer’s lyrical plaints, and while all’s fair in love and whatnot, there’s a condescension to a line like “she said she felt bad for/the effort I’d wasted to save her” amid otherwise telling details (kids in the car, gently slammed doors) in wickedly-titled kiss-off “Another Small Thing In Her Favor”. But just when you’re about to throw up your hands, he reels you back in with a nugget like “at the end of the day / it’s still too much effort to hate”. Which sets up lilting closer “Saving The Good Stuff For You,” in which a smitten fellow observes “I’m glad that you never did know me / when I was out of control”.
Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, Hagar’s Song (ECM)
Over the course of his seventy-five years, the one-time Fillmore favorite has assumed the statesman-like demeanor that comes with age, and although saxophone/piano duets can be dicey affairs, Lloyd’s always had an eye for accompanists. Having discovered Keith Jarrett back in 1966 and spent a decade-plus with Swedish notable Bobo Stenson, he’s now settled into a comfortable tenure at ECM alongside Jason Moran, his pianist of choice since 2008 and perhaps his perfect foil - young, dynamic, encyclopedic in scope, both trad. and out. This long album’s centerpiece is a five-part suite dedicated to the leader’s enslaved great-grandmother, and it’s as austere as one might expect. Moving, grandiose, and at times even frenetic (the decidedly un-Monkian “Bolivar Blues), it’s nonetheless overshadowed by what surrounds it, namely a good half-dozen generous interpretations of such notable American songwriters as Ellington, Gershwin, Strayhorn, Earl Hines, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson. On the latter, Moran’s commentary plays against a familiar melody the saxophonist sticks doggedly close to, keeping it just this side of cloying.
Johnny Marr, The Messenger (New Voodoo)
This sure sounds gorgeous, a speedy tour through post-Smiths UK guitar rock, chock full of the six-string heroics and bold swoops British indie has mostly steered clear of in recent years. The vague narrative supposedly detailing life in a metamorphic Britain remains as dodgy as a chorus built around an ejaculatory “technology! technology!” even if Marr sometimes displays a gift for memorable couplets, like “New Town Velocity’s” artsy Mancunian abandoning a life in trade (“leave school for poetry”). Yet the primary voice here is the Fender Jaguar, hurtling through chord changes (“The Crack Up”), plinking along like Bauhaus (“Say Demesne”), mashing up Revolver-era Beatles with Gang of Four (“Word Starts Attack”). But if Marr’s non-ostentatious vocals remind one how much fellow mate Morrissey has gotten away with thanks to a carefully cultivated persona, those vocals are also a reminder that personality counts for something in pop.
Tracks: “Word Starts Attack,” “New Town Velocity”
Chris Stamey, Lovesick Blues (Yep Roc Records)
“This record is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the sound I hear in my head in the middle of the night,” the perpetually boyish ex-dB told the press, and we should all be so lucky to experience such untroubled sleep. Over tempos fixed and crawling, alongside flutes and cellos gently swaying, Stamey’s la-la vocals grace eleven worriedly introspective numbers, power pop as you’ve always feared it beneath the forward momentum and jangle - adult contemporary. High point: the title of the too-cute-by-half “Me N You N XTC”. Nadir: “The Room Above The Bookstore” or as I like to call it, “The Dangling Conversation 2013”: “it’s a Leonard Cohen morning / we are sitting all alone / at a cafe in the Quarter / with espresso and a scone / and you talk about last evening / in a sly, ironic tone / while waiters -” enough, enough, enough.
Youth Lagoon, Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum)
Tiny-voiced young man surges ahead with bedroom project devoted to making his voice sound even tinier, the better to yelp “You’ll never die! You’ll never die! You’ll never die!” over a psychedelic swirl. Cue the accolades.