Some may have noticed the preponderance of female artists in the previous episode of the music that parted my clouds in 2021. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this was just me or the result of an actual change in the musical landscape, but I’m pleased to report that, to steal the title of a terrific two volume set of early American rural religious music, the half ain’t never been told … by me at least … yet.
Marissa Nadler – Path Of The Clouds
To deal with them each in any detail might keep us busy until it was time to talk about the music of 2022, but, just for a start, there were Marissa Nadler’s ‘The Path Of The Clouds’, where her customary melodic Gothic folk delicacy, immediately obvious in the mysterious opener, Bessie Did You Make It?, and maintaining its charm throughout, is beefed up and spaced out by sonic collaborators from Mercury Rev, Black Mountain, the Cocteau Twins and Lightning Dust and then mixed by an engineer more used to battling with the likes of Lightning Bolt, METZ and … well, Battles, and indeed Mdou Moctar, who turns up in the next part of this story; and St Vincent’s ‘Daddy’s Home’, whose title references her father’s actual return from prison and which jettisons the brash pop trappings of its predecessor by taking a deep dive back into the ’70s to accompany her customarily smart song writing.
Margo Cilker – Pohorylle
Then Lucy Dacus followed up a previous favourite of mine, ‘Historian’, with the equally fine ‘Home Video’, Australian rocker Courtney Barnett delivered her excellent if slightly leaner third, ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’, and Margo Cilker, completely new to me, released ‘Pohorylle’, a restless, country-inflected gem made in Oregon, far from the country mainstream, with musicians from bands like the Decemberists and Carissa’s Wierd rather than the usual Nashville gunslingers, and a song called Tehachapi that seems to be sung by a woman from the California town who was left behind by the trucking drifter in Little Feat’s Willin’. Another artist new to me, the Saudi-born Pakistani-American Arooj Aftab, made ‘Vulture Prince’, a gorgeous category-defying set of English and Urdu songs in memory of her brother that are influenced by Sufi mysticism and based on the ghazal poetic form and sound as much like jazz, pop and folk as any world music category you might be thinking of.
Chrissie Hynde – Standing In The Doorway: Chrissie Hynde Sings Bob Dylan
A couple of contemporary music’s most highly acclaimed female songwriters of the past few decades coped with some of the strands of artistic devastation caused by Covid-19 by releasing albums of songs written by other people. Now, it’s a truth not always appreciated by everybody that nobody sings Dylan like Dylan, but Chrissie Hynde’s ‘Standing In The Doorway’ is about as fine a set of Bob Dylan songs as anyone other than Bob might have produced. Sparsely constructed mostly by way of file-swapping between Hynde and Pretenders/Rails guitarist James Walbourne (the son-in-law of Richard & Linda Thompson) and handed to producer Tchad Blake, the song choices are as interesting as the performances themselves are dependable with the album opening and closing, surprisingly but well, with songs from Dylan’s much-vilified ‘Shot Of Love’ album, while Chrissie’s version of the magnificent Blind Willie McTell probably stands up to anybody’s but Bob’s.
Lucinda Williams – Lu’s Jukebox Volumes 1-6
Lucinda Williams, about a year younger than Hynde’s 70 and recovering from a stroke, went even further by recording not one but six albums’ worth of cover versions, recorded live in the studio with a righteously rocking band, under the overall title of ‘Lu’s Jukebox’. There’s an engagingly ragged looseness about the performances that seems completely at odds with the reputation Williams once had for perfectionism that led to the long and often fraught gestation of her finest album, ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’, yet the approach works. The albums are recorded in tribute to a number of her influences, respectively but never unnecessarily respectfully the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, classic 1960s country songs, classic soul music and, needless to say, Bob Dylan. There’s also an excellent Christmas album that avoids nearly all the clichés. Listen to any couple of the songs involved and you’ll want to hear what she does with the next couple. And, if you’re anything like me, you might not stop till you’ve been through all six albums.
The Weather Station – Ignorance
The Weather Station is Tamara Lindeman, a Canadian singer-songwriter with, nationalistically enough, a strong streak of Joni Mitchell in both voice and arrangements and a lyrical way that has caused serious critical notice to be taken of her, at least since this one’s self-titled predecessor. Using ’70s soft rock as its musical template – many have mentioned Fleetwood Mac but there seems to be as much ‘Aja’-era Roxy Music and less overtly clever Steely Dan involved as well – I couldn’t help thinking of Joni’s ‘Court And Spark’ as the touchstone. The title of Parking Lot clearly recognises the Mitchell connection and the paving of paradise, and much worse, from the latter’s Big Yellow Taxi is the big theme of ‘Ignorance’ where Lindeman digs into climate change and records her own responses. In Parking Lot, for example, she finds herself in tears as she hears a bird trying to sing above traffic noise but concludes that she isn’t “poet enough to address this peeling”. Despite this diffidence, her emotional investment is impressive. “Don’t ask me for indifference,” she warns on Heart. “Don’t come to me for distance.” On Subdivision she asks, “Did I take this way too far?” It took a few listens, but I reckon she may have taken it the right distance.
Dawn Richard – Second Line
I may have listened to more modern R&B and its relatives during 2021 than I usually do but, as is my experience with pretty much any genre, the further I went, the richer it became. For example, I had no idea who Jazmine Sullivan was, despite the fact that her 2008 debut album had seen her nominated for five Grammy awards. But 2021’s ‘Heaux Tales’ – with only half a dozen or so full songs among the spoken tales Sullivan called it an EP rather than an album, though it has in fact won this year’s R&B album Grammy – helped straighten that out. At least part of the problem has been the industry and its constant focus on the soul-crushingly mainstream, which includes most of those Grammys, by the way. Oddly though, my clear contemporary R&B favourite has direct links to that mainstream, in which there is nothing more mainstream, or more soul-crushing, than reality TV music competitions. Back in the day, the massively successful hip hop musician and producer Puff Daddy manufactured a group called Danity Kane by way of just such a competition so that a new all-singing, all-dancing and, most importantly, all-glamorous Destiny’s Child might be unleashed upon the public. Dawn Richard, whose father had been in hit funk group Chocolate Milk who had backed Allen Toussaint and recorded with Paul McCartney, was selected to be part of Danity Kane, whose first two albums almost inevitably shot to the top of both the US pop and R&B charts. Having achieved its aim, the group apparently no longer makes music, but Dawn Richard most certainly does. Richard is from New Orleans where the second line is the desultory gathering of people that follows the brass bands in street parades, blowing whistles, providing syncopated percussion on whatever objects are to hand and generally having a good time or, as Richard’s mother points out on ‘Second Line’, getting down. Which is precisely what Richard herself does here, in a variety of contemporary funk and R&B styles that seem a logical consequence of her musical and geographical DNA without being too specifically Nawlins, and laced with the kind of electronic invention and unstoppable free-spiritedness that may have attracted the much-loved independent rock label Merge to her in the first place.
Moor Mother – Black Encyclopedia Of The Air
One of the songs on ‘Brass’, an outstanding 2020 hip hop album by Moor Mother with billy woods, a US-born rapper who grew up in Zimbabwe with his PhD graduate parents, a Jamaican English literature professor and a poet who served in the Zimbabwean government (so much for so much inaccurate generalisation about rappers), was entitled The Blues Remembers Everything The Country Forgot, and Moor Mother’s brilliant ‘Black Encyclopedia Of The Air’ aims to ensure that we don’t overlook that. The activist poet, sound adventurer and much more, including school basketball coach, Camae Ayewa in real life, who was once influenced by black punk rock bands like Bad Brains and Death and has retained much of their attitude while releasing her own largely uncategorisable music, is also part of the sonically challenging free jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements and features on the Sons Of Kemet record mentioned in part one of this piece as well. ‘Black Encyclopedia’, though retaining a considerable degree of edge and bite and pulling no lyrical punches whatsoever, is unexpectedly approachable, at least on the surface, when compared with her ferociously demanding 2016 debut, the remarkable ‘Fetish Bones’. There’s a feeling that we are being encouraged to listen especially closely in case the message and its lessons, often uncomfortable, and delivered in a kind of associative impressionism where the sense sometimes makes more sense than the words themselves, should be missed. For example, Vera Hall, named after the 1930s Alabama blues and folk singer who was famously and lucratively sampled by Moby and mentioned in connection with Buffalo Nichols earlier in this article, is apparently a tribute to Alabaman found-object artist and improvising songwriter Lonnie Holley, a listen to whose virtually unabatedly propulsive 2021 album with Matthew E White, ‘Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection’ is also recommended.
Madlib – Sound Ancestors
While we’re in the hip hop ballpark – although she’s not a rapper herself and her music is way too wide-ranging to be confined to any particular category, Moor Mother interacts on ‘Black Encyclopedia’ with several underground rappers – I need to say how much I enjoyed Tyler, the Creator’s 2021 record ‘Call Me If You Get Lost’ – also a Grammy winner the very day after I wrote this – as well as ‘Smiling With No Teeth’ by Ghanaian-Australian Genesis Owusu, an album that has a hip hop core but also accommodates several other styles without any force or fuss and whose deluxe edition was relatedly titled ‘Missing Molars’. The ridiculously prolific Madlib stands right on the pitcher’s mound of that hip hop ballpark, constantly firing off enormously influential sounds and ideas, albeit in a number of directions at once. Describing himself as a DJ first, a producer second and an MC last, Madlib, one of whose own sound ancestors is uncle Jon Faddis, whose often dazzling trumpet playing is probably somewhere in your record collection even if you don’t listen to jazz, sent a huge selection of unfinished beats and recordings to British electronic music maestro Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet – as a less well-known aside, his mother was born in South Africa of Indian descent – who arranged, edited and mastered them into ‘Sound Ancestors’, a 16-track album designed to be listened to in a single sitting. Short attention spans beware … it probably works best that way. The tracks, none more than four minutes long and some less than two, sample such an array of material so seamlessly that Snoop Dogg and Young Marble Giants seem like natural bedfellows and Residents-like eccentricity rubs up against Philly soul and psychedelic rock without any of it developing a rash.
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band – Leftover Feelings
Among the best of the usual slew of veteran singer-songwriters still making quality records in 2021 were John Hiatt, who joined up with dobro master Jerry Douglas and his group for ‘Leftover Feelings’, a largely acoustic but still rocking twenty-somethingth album where Hiatt’s rootsy sensibilities may be a little quieter but are entirely undimmed and Light Of The Burning Sun, about his brother’s suicide, is all the more devastating for its lyrical directness; Steve Earle, whose ‘J.T.’ pays eloquent and emotional tribute to his recently deceased singer-songwriter son Justin Townes Earle by covering the latter’s own songs, as he had previously done for tribute albums to Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, in Steve’s inimitable style, and then adding a deeply moving original about the last conversation they had together; and Neil Young, who corralled Crazy Horse, with Nils Lofgren now firmly established in place of the retired Frank Sampedro, for ‘Barn’, a typically warm, slightly ramshackle, thoroughly agreeable record made, appropriately enough, in a restored and converted 19th century barn in the Colorado Rockies where the voice may be fading but the spirit blazes on and the Horse never misses a step. There’s also a full-length documentary available on YouTube that is worth watching for sure.
Willie Dunn – Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies
I first heard Canadian First Nation songwriter, film maker and activist Willie Dunn on Light In The Attic’s wonderful 2014 compilation, ‘Native North America Vol 1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985’. Just a little younger than Bob Dylan, he had died the previous year. ‘Creation Never Sleeps …’ is a superb career-spanning compilation of Dunn’s work released on the same label (double vinyl with Grammy-nominated liner notes in the version I was miraculously able to locate in Cape Town) that includes many powerful but never hectoring political songs from his early 70s albums that are now out of print, and that reminds me a lot, both in vocal style and subject matter, of the great Irish singer Christy Moore. Light In The Attic, known, inter alia, for rescuing song writing obscurities from the past and giving them a good home (Bob Frank and Rodriguez spring to mind), also released Leo Nocentelli’s ‘Another Side’ last year. This was a big surprise, not just because the tapes, recorded in 1971 but never previously released, were thought to have drowned in the Hurricane Katrina floods but because it turns out that the New Orleans guitarist, one of the funkiest men on the planet and in what many consider the funkiest band ever, had been sufficiently influenced by the musical time to make a really good largely acoustic folk/soul record with his Meters bandmates and Allen Toussaint on which, apparently influenced by James Taylor, he had written all the songs but one.
James McMurtry – The Horses And The Hounds
Last year I heard, for the first time, a couple more of those trail-of-Townes songwriters I mentioned last time. Ben De La Cour actually lives in New Orleans. He was born in London, moved to the US when he was a baby, lived in Cuba while training to be a professional boxer, gave it up to play in a metal band around Europe, returned to the States and became a songwriter … as one does. He looks a bit like a riverboat gambler but his writing is of the Van Zandt school and maybe his best song is Uncle Boudreaux Went To Texas, so he fits, perfectly. He didn’t release an album in 2021 but he’s well worth a look anyway. The other newcomer for me was Vincent Neil Emerson who is from Texas – coincidentally Van Zandt County, which was named after Townes’s politician great-great-great grandfather. Emerson’s eponymously titled album, his second, produced by Rodney Crowell, delivered a bunch of good songs and at least one fantastic one, The Ballad Of The Choctaw-Apache, about the forced sale of his own grandparents’ ancestral land to the US government. And then, out of a clear blue sky like the Blue Norther that sweeps into the Lone Star State from time to time, a dozen years since the previous one, came a new album by the Flatlanders, the legendary ‘More A Legend Than A Band‘ band from Lubbock that contains three of the best Texan songwriters ever, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmour. ‘Treasure Of Love’ consists mainly of cover versions – including Townes’s lovely Snowin’ On Raton and Mobile Blues by another truly great Texan, Mickey Newbury – with just a handful of originals a couple of which have turned up on the members’ solo albums. But it’s still the Flatlanders doing what they do just about as well as they ever did and that’s good enough for me. However, the Texan songwriter album of the year was surely The Horses And The Hounds by James McMurtry, another scion of Texas royalty, though this time it’s writing royalty in the person of Pulitzer, Oscar and Emmy-winning author Larry McMurtry who died four months before his son’s tenth studio album came out. There might have been some concerns early on that James was riding on dad’s coattails but his writing and his ear for a strong tune kept getting better. He certainly inherited some of his father’s story-telling skill but he has been his own man for many years and a lot of albums and ‘The Horses And The Hounds’, packed with memorable songs about great characters and featuring a tough, trim and tightly rocking band built around the string strength of guitarists David Grissom and long-time Dylan man Charlie Sexton, both of whom once played with Joe Ely, might very likely be his best so far.
Ryley Walker – Course In Fable
There are good songwriters outside of Texas too, even if their number per square mile seems that much higher in that state. Ryley Walker continued to impress both with a musical variety and dexterity so broad that in other hands it might be considered dilettantish, and with the related fact that the quality of his output remains so high just about no matter the style. ‘Course In Fable’, produced by fellow Chicagoan, Tortoise’s John McEntire, manages to be musically smart and lyrically complex, and incorporate unexpected elements of prog, without being overblown or losing the touch that made Walker so attractive in the first place. The year also saw him release ‘Deep Fried Grandeur’ with Japanese psychedelicists Kikagaku Moyo, less accessible perhaps, but still rewarding, and, as if demonstrating the extent of his musical tentacles, at least three guitarists associated with him, Daniel Bachman, William Tyler and Bill Mackay, all released particularly fine and interesting albums last year, Tyler with Marisa Anderson, Mackay with the Black Twig Pickers’ Nathan Bowles and Bachman with his tape recorder and a variety of found and natural sounds. We might look at these a little more closely in the next part of this piece, depending …
John Murry – The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes
Hiss Golden Messenger, as much MC Taylor the singer-songwriter as it is a band, keeps delivering at a combined level of productivity and consistency at which most can only wonder. Last year’s ‘Quietly Blowing It’, which did anything but, was both a keeper and a grower – often not the same thing – while there was also a Christmas album worth hearing that came with a bonus dub LP. And Dean Wareham, New Zealand-born but musically raised in New York and once a member of the great Galaxie 500 before founding Luna, who has almost never played a note, or at least a chord, that I didn’t like, made ‘I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of L.A.’, arguably the album title of the year. The songs are that good too. But my favourite male singer-songwriter album of the year, and a strong contender for the main gong, was and remains John Murry’s ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’. The Mississippi native, related to William Faulkner by adoption (his birth mother was Native American, which seems, unintentionally, to have become a bit of a theme of this piece) but now living in Ireland, first came across my radar with an album of originally composed murder ballads, about real murders, written and performed with the aforementioned Bob Frank. Several years later his solo debut, ‘The Graceless Age’, was my Album of the Year in two successive years, first for its European release and then its American. Yep … it’s that good. So good in fact that I own four separate editions of it. And the new one is nearly as good. As the album title – surely another contender for title of the year – suggests, and as anyone who has previously heard Murry’s work, sung in that offhandedly forlorn baritone, will appreciate, this is a resolutely, implacably dark record, very much like the details of his own life. The sparse production, sometimes fuelled by chugging electric boogaloo, sometimes fractured acoustic with weeping pedal steel, always absolutely in keeping with the songs, may be a factor of cost … despite critical acclaim, Murry is not alone in having had to play gigs solo because he couldn’t afford to bring accompanists … but the album could hardly have worked as effectively any other way. The songs vary between being disturbingly plain-spoken and lyrically just out of reach, though the disquieting mood is maintained. The record, which sports titles like Oscar Wilde (Came Here To Make Fun Of You), Perfume & Decay and Time & A Rifle, kicks off, apparently referring to the Oklahoma City bomber, with “I bought fertilizer and brake fluid / Who in the hell am I supposed to trust”, wonders, with a nod to Blake, why God would “give a damn enough to cry when every day is like huffing lighter fluid”, and concludes that “love doesn’t mean a thing when your last name is Murry”. It may not be entirely coincidental that Murry also released a non-album version of the Jimmy Ruffin hit What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted.