The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle's songs are always psychologically astute. They're first-person narratives, full of self-incriminating details and plainspoken insights, from characters in situations of psychological conflict with either themselves or loved ones.
During the 20-plus years he has released albums as The Mountain Goats, the edges have softened on the presentation of his songs but not on the subject matter.
“Transcendental Youth" sounds inviting and often pretty, but it depicts characters wrestling with demons. “In Memory of Satan" is a nightmarish tale of someone “locked up inside (him)self," set to a gentle, stately piano ballad with soft horns. “Cry for Judas" opens with the declaration, “Some things you do just to see how bad they'll make you feel." It's a perky acoustic guitar tune with a jaunty horn arrangement.
“Even awful dreams are good dreams," Darnielle claims in “Harlem Roulette," and “Transcendental Youth" proves it.
— Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Born to Sing: No Plan B"
Blue Note Records
Van Morrison is cranky. On “Born to Sing: No Plan B," he's upset with capitalism, worship of money, the abuses of the “global elite," the sound of “some kind of phony pseudo-jazz" (which raises the question What is real pseudo-jazz?) and the pettiness of others (he endorses Sartre's statement that “hell is other people").
Although throughout his career he has used songs to rail against record-company abuses, his 35th solo album contains his most overtly political work. His lifelong spiritual quest continues in songs such as “Mystic of the East," but he's more concerned with voicing his disillusionment with the secular world.
Morrison has few peers for longevity and continued vitality — perhaps only Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Simon — and he's mastered a consistent, comfortable, and appealing style that melds blues, R&B and jazz, often based on piano and his own alto saxophone.
And he's still a peerless singer, locking into phrases and nursing varying meanings through repetition, scatting happily and crooning soulfully, even when he's venting.
— Steve Klinge, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Until the Quiet Comes"
Steven Ellison masterfully blends chilled-out electronica tones, deconstructed hip-hop rhythms, and a free jazz ethos to the point that each element is indecipherable on its own terms and becomes a component of a hybrid genre all his own.
So while the guest spots by Erykah Badu on “See Thru to U" and long-time admirer Thom Yorke on the android paranoid “Electric Candyman" would seem to be the picks to click, it says something about FlyLo's vision that their distinctive voices are subsumed into his fully immersive composition.
— Arnold Pan, PopMatters.com
One line on Beth Orton's magnetic new record, “Sugaring Season," captures the essence of the British singer's approach. It comes during “Something More Beautiful," a meditation on the ways in which we process emotions: “Take your time in the morning light," she sings in her gently husky voice, words flowing with an easy grace. That essence runs through Orton's first record in six years, and the best of her career.
Accompanied by a killer band featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Brian Blade, banjo expert Sam Amidon (her husband) and others, Orton has fully left behind the electronica foundations of previous records on “Sugaring Season," though she collaborates with longtime creative partner Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers on the lush “Call Me the Breeze."
In its wake is an honest commitment to a soft, soulful sound equal parts Roberta Flack and the Fairport Convention.
Unlike more successful British soul imports of the last decade, Orton's an understated presence.
She lacks the vocal heft of Adele and the hearty confidence of Amy Winehouse, but makes up for it in both phrasing and patience, both of which temper “Sugaring Season" with a well-earned depth.
Moving with a Kurt Weill-ian sense of drama, she waltzes through “See Through Blue," only to pull back a moment later. “Mystery" feels like a lost Nick Drake classic.
Orton has crafted an enduring, understated gem of a record, one that deserves an audience as broad and dynamic as her talents.
— Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times
“GLAD RAG DOLL"
It's possible to entertain two mildly conflicting views of “Glad Rag Doll," the new album by Diana Krall. First, you could understand it as a nifty bit of pop archaeology: a bouquet of songs culled mostly from the '20s and '30s. But you could also recognize it as a shrewd recalibration for one of the more stable properties in the music industry, complete with a name-brand producer, his cabinet of wonders and his trusted musical crew.
The producer is T Bone Burnett, whom you may know from any number of other albums filed under the inexact category of Americana — notably “Raising Sand" by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss,. As a throwback jazz singer and a swinging pianist, Krall favors music of crispness and low-gloss polish. Working with Burnett meant more reverberant guitars and stomping rhythm, and an aesthetic as handsomely distressed as the wares in a Restoration Hardware catalog.
Krall is self-conscious enough to call this enterprise into question herself, or so it seems. “All the world can see behind your mask," she sings in the title track, a song memorably recorded by Ruth Etting in 1929. Arranged as a delicate duet with the guitarist Marc Ribot, it's the moral heart of this album.
But it has never been a bad idea to engage Krall's friskier side, and it's satisfying to hear the swagger in her phrasing on “I'm a Little Mixed Up," a tune originally recorded by the blues singer Betty James. On “Prairie Lullaby," a song forever associated with Jimmie Rodgers, she plays the cowboy angle straight, while subtly emphasizing the drowsiness in her delivery.
She sounds even better on another song with country pedigree: “Wide River to Cross," by Buddy and Julie Miller, longtime associates of Burnett. However old-fashioned its style, the song is a contemporary outlier on an album crowded with relics, and its beautiful realization invites the question of what other sort of album Krall and Burnett might have made without any point to prove.
— Nate Chinen, The New York Times