Sean Rowe has been playing a haunted cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The River" on tour this year, usually using only his battered Takamine acoustic guitar, a harmonica and his well-deep, Old Testament baritone voice. It might give an impression — abetted by his impressive beard — that Rowe, a small-town upstate New Yorker, is some Dust Bowl folkie throwback.
But his albums paint a richer picture. Magic, Rowe's 2010 debut, is full of singer-songwriter balladry with Leonard Cohen echoes, rock 'n' roll outbursts and spooky modern production. Its follow-up, The Salesman and the Shark, adds offbeat junk-shop arrangements that recall labelmate Tom Waits. Madman shows Rowe twinning his styles together with new elements: soul, blues, gospel, R&B. The upshot, surprisingly, is his most coherent record yet.
If there's a spiritual forebear to Madman, it's Van Morrison, whose best records have woven the above styles (and more) into seamless cloth. Exhibit A: Madman's title track, with its handclaps, brass, bright melody, and burly "whoa-whoas." But there's cryptic humor here that's all Rowe's own ("You can call me a madman / but I'm spoken for.") The manic mix of "Shine My Diamond Ring," with its barrelhouse blues swagger and screaming gutbucket sax, shows a man who likes rough textures and exposed seams. But maybe the most striking number is "Desiree," a Motown-styled reverie with scats and screams; if only Amy Winehouse were around to make it a duet.
At the core of every song is Rowe's remarkable voice, which sounds inescapably melancholy, tremendously sexy and often slightly menacing. It does all sorts of things well, and its full range is on display here. It seems worth mentioning Rowe's interest in foraging and wild-crafting (see his series of videos on the many uses of milkweed). It's the idea of taking the bounty that's out there, and of using your skills to transform it into something useful, beautiful, remarkable. It's what Rowe does with his music, too.
Ever since he made his name as a spectral carnival barker in the trip-hop troupe Massive Attack, Tricky has been a master of creeping, crawling mood music that exudes quiet defiance and makes followers consult their dictionaries every so often to reconvene with the precise definition of "crepuscular." For his 11th album, Tricky stays more or less in line — though with a bit of a new persona in tow.
Adrian Thaws takes its title from Tricky's given name, marking a rare occasion for him to shed even the slightest bit of the mystery he's been nurturing since the early 1990s. The songs, though, are still evasive in intriguing ways. "Sun Down" slinks over a slick, gritty mid-tempo beat with a mix of foreboding bass tones, dirty angelic coos and slashes of electric guitar. Tricky himself sounds pleasingly cadaverous, while soulful singing by Tirzah establishes a desiccated R&B air. "Lonnie Listen" features the beguiling art-rapper Mykki Blanco and regular Tricky companion Francesca Belmonte as they give voice to down-and-out despair ("Exercise every day and I'm still not fit / My kids are hungry and I ain't got s—- / What I'm gonna do, what I'm gonna do, what I'm gonna do?").
Adrian Thaws varies greatly in speed and tone. "Keep Me in Your Shake" skulks, with a slur of acoustic guitar that gives the song an appealingly strange country-blues twang. "Nicotine Love" accelerates greatly by comparison, with some of the swing of house music and club-ready bass bumps. "Gangster Chronicles" seethes with fiery rapping by London grime MC Bella Gotti, while "My Palestinian Girl" pays eerie tribute to a paramour who caught Tricky's leering eye ("I take a trip to Gaza, it's love I'm really after," he rasps).
Consistent throughout Adrian Thaws is a brooding, searching spirit and a cinematic sense of atmosphere. Tricky's cinema, to be sure, is noir and then some, but he also knows how to pan back every now and then for a widescreen fantasia.
Justin Townes Earle's album covers have always offered variations on a theme: For each of his full-lengths, he's posed in a different setting with a different anonymous woman. But for Single Mothers, his fifth album, the newly married Americana fixture keeps his own mug out of the picture altogether and casts a kid in his place. The strategically selected stand-in is 13-year-old Sammy Brue, who's also a singer-songwriter (more than a little influenced by Earle), and who's shown here holding hands with a girl his own age. It's as if Earle means to suggest that certain parts of his gig are a younger man's game.
He played the rakish rounder in a few of his early songs — insouciantly swinging, pre-electric, country-style tunes — before setting that persona aside. Since then, without limiting himself to strict autobiography, Earle has moved between evocative portraits of place set in knotty emotional frames, prickly confessions of destructive patterns, and melancholic eloquence in the wake of short-lived love affairs.
Earle's latest songs have a new angle on the mercurial nature of infatuation; he's acknowledging how taxing it can be to live through youthful cycles of passion that flare up and flame out so quickly. Even his vocals, with their conversational yet unclasped, jazzy phrasing, have developed a fittingly frayed edge. "Everyone that walks out takes a bit more of you with her / and you're still startin' fires and burnin' pictures," he chides in the rollicking, riff-driven "Burnin' Pictures." In "Wanna Be a Stranger," he sings as someone craving relief from the volatile feelings that can overwhelm young relationships, and in the spindly, twangy R&B tune "Time Shows Fools," he's a man stripped of romantic delusions.
Amid all this reflection on drama, Earle also toys with what it might look like to settle into love, which is where the hooky, new-school rockabilly number "My Baby Drives" comes in. Easily the most frolicsome cut on the album, it makes yielding control in a partnership sound pleasurable.
The pining, lovelorn character Earle plays in the spare, fingerpicking-and-steel guitar track "Picture In A Drawer" is almost sheepish about his state, quipping, "I'm not drownin' / I'm just seein' how long I can stay down." The song unfolds as a phone conversation between a worried mother and a wound-nursing son — another relationship that has occasionally surfaced in Earle's songwriting.
Several albums back, Earle addressed family dynamics in the arresting ballad "Mama's Eyes," in which he described traits he inherited from his famous songwriter father Steve Earle (unchecked impulsiveness, addictive tendencies) and his civilian mother (clear-eyed perspective). The song's low-pitched, dad-targeted resentment came from an essentially self-interested place, which isn't the case with the younger Earle's new rumination on parental track records, "Single Mothers." This album's country-soul title cut shares some of the same plainspoken antipathy toward men shrugging off paternal responsibilities that John Prine wrote into "Unwed Fathers" three decades ago. So this time around, Earle feels first and foremost for his long-suffering mother, who had to raise him on her own. Without dulling the potency of his expression, he's given it greater dimensions. That's hardly kid's play.
Once known as a poster child for heedless prolificacy, Ryan Adams now seems to have discovered how to live at a human pace. His self-titled 14th album is his first in three years — a span that would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago. But the former Whiskeytown singer has settled down in several ways in recent years, for reasons both healthy (sobriety, marriage) and less so (a painful and career-threatening inner-ear disorder).
It's only natural that, like 2011's Ashes & Fire, Ryan Adams sands down some of the singer-songwriter's rough spots, in ways that can affect peaks and valleys alike. But Adams still hits terrific highs here — most notably in "My Wrecking Ball," which locates the singer's blood-and-guts barrenness, and "I Just Might," during which he channels early Springsteen in a way that suits him.
Adams' output was erratic for so long — not to mention checkered with unlikely detours, including the occasional ragged punk record — that albums this sure-handed actually take a little getting used to. But Ryan Adams rewards the extra attention: It's the sound of a genius who's only recently relearned what it's like to walk on steady footing.
Jon Mueller is thinking about death. It sounds like a hammer hitting an acoustic guitar.
"What happens when we thoroughly hold and understand that our lives are finite? How does this understanding of our end shape our present? How do we become more 'present'?" Since 2011, the percussionist and composer Jon Mueller (Collections of Colonies of Bees, Pele) has been asking these fundamental questions as Death Blues, a multi-disciplinary project stretched over essays, performances, the visual arts and albums. The range of the music has been exploratory and — to those may only know Mueller's work through Volcano Choir — at times challenging, but then so is the range of questions he asks.
If Death Blues was the meditative inception, Here the manic mantra and Non-fiction the explosive catharsis, then Ensemble is the blown-out, hyper-real orchestra of the self. Over the course of two years, film composer and multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch worked with Mueller to bring out new fantastical colors and shapes in these pieces, which still center on the monotonic yet soul-awakening thwack of the hammered acoustic guitar.
Fritch's arrangements feel like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film — a lost era that never existed or a familiar, recurring dream. After the crash of drums and cathedral-shattering voices, "Consonance" is built upon a ramshackle string melody that threatens to buckle under heavy bliss. "Participant," by contrast, is playful in its lilting piano and traditional Chinese folk strings, driven forward by Mueller's declarative drums and Craig Feazel's wandering pedal steel. Later, "Unseen" is the funeral-march cabaret existing somewhere between Tom Waits and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, while "Obtain" speeds up the tempo to an ecstatic gallop. At times, the sublime contrast of melody and atonality recalls Angela Morley's (née Wally Stott) work on the first four Scott Walker solo albums ("Reentry") or Jim O'Rourke's busy yet thoughtful classical Americana album from 2009, The Visitor ("Entrainment"). Ensemble paints across culture and time, reaching upward as it looks inward.
The record comes packaged in a large-format book adorned by Lillian Rammel's mask sculptures. The masks play into Mueller's main theme for Ensemble: "layers within perception," or how we reflect ourselves to the world, even and especially to ourselves. He commissioned essays from friends and deep thinkers (artist and poet Stacy Blint, musician and artist Faith Coloccia, artist Chris Koelle and musician Tom Lecky among them) about the events in their lives that still carry weight. It's in keeping with the idea of mindfulness, being aware of what David Ravel describes — in his heartbreaking story about the death of his father, then his wife — as the "intangible yet ineluctable truth [that] revivifies our present and our presence." In a time where album artwork is reduced to a thumbnail and liner notes to a pdf file no one reads, Death Blues' Ensemble feels vital as a complex experience you touch, live in, and meditate on.