Songs for the summer
Among a certain curmudgeonly sort, there’s a prevailing opinion that music isn’t very good these days. To such people I say: you’re just not listening hard enough. Over the last few months artists as varied as Imelda May, Dan Auerbach, Benjamin Booker and Justin Townes Earle have released truly stellar albums. Although they range from '70s throwback rock & soul to alt-country to whatever it is Imelda May is doing (which seems to be just about anything), these albums are timely and timeless, drawing on the music of generations past to create the music of today.
Imelda May has had a career that now spans over a decade, but I only became aware of her a few months ago after her rousing performance on the Graham Norton Show. May’s latest album Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is one of the best I’ve listened to in a very long time. Anthemic, sultry, wry, angry and soulful, the album runs the gamut and then keeps going, vaulting over genres and styles with assured and unassuming professionalism.
On “Should’ve Been You,” May transforms a poisonous relationship into a vital anthem. She turns seductive over a slinky guitar riff on “How Bad Can a Good Girl Be.” Then there’s “When It’s My Time,” a stirring gospel ballad that’s downright psychokinetic, educing goosebumps and shivers through the power of May’s soaring vocals.
How can one album accommodate so many sounds, so many styles and genres? Credit May’s producer, the legendary T-Bone Burnett, but credit May above all; every song bears the unmistakable stamp of her spirit and heart and intellect. I’m a little sad it took me this long to notice her, but now that I have there’s no looking away; Imelda May is the real deal.
More than any of the other seasons, summer demands a soundtrack – a musical accompaniment to underscore lazy afternoons and barbeques, the dog days and balmy nights. I have a feeling Dan Auerbach’s Waiting on a Song is going to be an ideal summer album. The title song is a perfect opener; a breezy, laid-back ditty about songwriting itself, accented by chimes, hand-claps, a bouncy bass line and a twangy guitar solo. It’s pure summertime bliss, the musical equivalent of a cool mojito on a hot day.
The rest of the album continues in a similar vein, bringing in horns, keyboards, strings and back-up singers to recreate the wall of sound style popular in the '60s and '70s. Waiting on a Song is retro to its bones, but there’s nothing cynical or exploitative in Auerbach’s revival of classic rock, Americana and blue-eyed soul. The songs are so catchy, the musicianship so irrepressible, I found myself humming along to melodies I’d only just heard. Waiting on a Song may only be a few weeks old, but it already feels like a beloved classic.
Benjamin Booker’s debut album was one of my favorites of 2014, and his follow-up Witness is arguably even better. Booker once described his sound as what would happen “if Otis Redding strapped on a guitar and played in a punk band,” and though he’s broadened his musical and lyrical palette considerably since his debut, the description still feels apt.
Booker has a raspy howl of a voice (a far cry from from the forceful, earthy passion of Otis Redding), that nonetheless generates its own electricity. We hear the influence of Redding in songs as varied as “Witness,” a ferocious protest anthem featuring Mavis Staples on the chorus, and “Overtime,” a tender ballad that calls out gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.
But Booker isn’t about to hang up his guitar. The album’s opener “Right on You” is an assaultive barrage of guitars and drums that rocks as hard as anything Booker has ever written. “Off the Ground,” which comes at about the album’s midway point, bridges these two styles, opening with Booker singing softly over an acoustic guitar and piano before switching gears and pumping the gas as it transforms into propulsive rock ’n roll.
That such distinct styles can coexist in the same song – and, indeed throughout the same album – is a testament to Booker’s restless creativity. He’s not content to be just one thing; he’s R&B and rock ’n roll, blues and punk, Otis Redding and Jack White. I have no idea what Booker’s next album will sound like, and I can’t wait. In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll give Witness plenty of proverbial spins.
At a recent performance for Houston Public Media, Justin Townes Earle explained that his latest single “Champagne Corolla” was a jab at all the kids “writing songs about ’57 Chevys that they’ve never even seen.” Earle’s music straddles the porous borders between country and folk, but he’s never been content to simply parrot the masters. Earle writes for today’s audience. His newest album Kids In the Street builds on his penchant for bringing together classic and contemporary. Its opener, “Champagne Corolla,” sounds like a countrified Bruce Springsteen tune, but it has a light touch, offering a tongue-in-cheek spin on the old country trope of likening women to cars. In Earle’s version, you’re better off with a “middle-class queen riding by in a Champagne Corolla,” rather than a “high toned woman...built for speed.”
Later, on “15-25,” Earle recounts his misspent youth over soaring organs, jangling honky-tonk pianos and a rhythm so downright locomotive you could hop aboard it and ride the rails. Lyrically, we’re not exactly in new territory here, but Earle isn’t putting on any airs; he’s lived a turbulent 35 years, dropping out of school and struggling with substance abuse in his teens and 20s. Earle knows how lucky he is, though, and ends “15-25” by admitting, “I could be doing 25 to life.”
There’s not a bad song on the rest of the album, from the weepy “Faded Valentine,” to the swooning, world-weary ballad “Here Come a Fool.” Earle’s always been a good songwriter and a heartfelt performer, but Kids In the Street might just be my favorite of his albums. Tuneful, lively and affecting, this is an album I can imagine listening to for the rest of the summer.