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Robert Plant's new album, lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar, comes out Sept. 9. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Robert Plant, 'Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar'

Sep 1, 2014

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Ann Powers

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The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once famously evoked the drift of time through the image of old men gazing at their own watery reflections. "Everything alters, and one by one we drop away," Yeats' elders say as they themselves sit solidly at the shore. Robert Plant is hardly the gnarled specimen Yeats described — at 66, the singer is still a majestic rock presence, at peace with the legacy of his hard-rock-defining band Led Zeppelin, while remaining relentlessly creative in his solo work. But on his 10th solo album, Plant does pause by those waters to consider the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual currents that have shaped his illustrious life. He finds himself, characteristically, not saddened but renewed.

lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar is an expression of many kinds of rich, autumnal love: of the English countryside to which Plant recently returned after several years living and working in Nashville and Texas; of the musical diaspora he's been exploring since Led Zeppelin first connected its American-inspired blues to North Africa in "Kashmir"; of the Celtic and Romantic literary lines he's always favored; and of a woman, whom the songs' narrator treasures but, for reasons upon which at least half of the album dwells, leaves behind. (Presumably, that's Patty Griffin, with whom Plant recently parted after a long relationship. Her answer record ought to be amazing.) More than anything, the album waxes gorgeous about music itself — the force that enlightens Plant, allows him to speak to his absent beloved, and helps him through his now more solitary life.

That existence is far from lonely, however, because Plant has built a band that's attuned to his focused eclecticism. He's worked with many of the Sensational Space Shifters before, on the solo efforts that preceded his plunge into Americana with Alison Krauss in 2007, and the six-piece group represents Plant's breadth of interests, with past experience in trip-hop, Britpop, Gambian music and jazz. The guitarist Justin Adams, Plant's right-hand man, has worked with both the desert blues band Tinariwen and post-punk British mainstay Jah Wobble; between those influences lies the big, lush field where Plant now resides. When the voice of the Welsh singer Julie Murphy surfaces in one song, it's a call from Plant's spiritual home of the British Isles, but it also sounds like it might have traveled through the deserts of Morocco.

The Ceaseless Roar begins with the sound of a kologo, an African relative of the banjo, within an arrangement of the folk song "Little Maggie"; the album concludes with a return to that song, featuring vocals by Shape Shifters member Juldeh Camara in the Fulani language. With such gestures, Plant draws the circle that contains his wide-open sound. Elsewhere, Plant invokes Leadbelly (the source of the frenetic "Poor Howard"), Roy Orbison (in the hard-to-resist ex-lover's mea culpa "House of Love"), U2 ("Turn It Up" recalls the Bono and Edge of "Bad"), Celtic traditionalism ("Stolen Kiss" strips that style to its essence) and, in "Embrace Another Fall," the rich, jazz-tinged soundtracks of Dimitri Tiomkin and Lalo Schifrin. No one of these songs sounds precisely like its source; that's the genius of this album. It lovingly layers elements in ways that mirror memory, creating new constructs from floating shards of the musical past.

Throughout The Ceaseless Roar, Plant creates himself as a character in songs that, like the music itself, borrow from a past well-studied and well-lived. He quotes Led Zeppelin; in his more hippie-ish moments, he declares himself a rainbow (among male rockers, only Robert Plant could call himself a rainbow and still come off as sexy) and a wanderer with "pockets full of golden," behaving like a Romantic pastoralist who's ingested a few psychedelics in his time. Alternately, like the Southern bluesmen and early rockers who've always been at the foundation of his persona, he sings of packing his suitcase and burning down the house of love. The imagery Plant confidently claims would seem corny coming from a lesser synthesist, but he and the Space Shifters bring it to life in settings so vividly constructed, the familiar phrases gain new life.

Plant's voice runs through these songs like a body of water, elemental and remarkably flexible. There are no mighty, wind-on-down-the-road yowls; one thing Plant has learned from studying both African music and Delta blues is that intensity can come through authoritative quietude. As a producer, he's found effective middle ground between the almost ambient sheen T-Bone Burnett brought to the Krauss collaborations and the raw edge of his favorite influences, like Tinariwen. Plant takes advantage of the balm of reverb, but he doesn't overdo it. His phrasings still sound personal.

In the joyful "Somebody There," which sounds like the softer side of the Led Zeppelin Jack White likes, Plant places himself within a memory of wandering the English countryside as a boy. "Below the world's unfolding, unrattled and exploding," he sings, sweetly. "It was always so." Everything drops away, Plant knows, but this music makes clear that he also believes in rejuvenation. On lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar, he shows what that sounds like.

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Death Blues' new album, Ensemble, comes out Sept. 9. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Death Blues, 'Ensemble'

by Lars Gotrich
Aug 31, 2014

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Lars Gotrich

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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.

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Ryan Adams' self-titled 14th album comes out Sept. 9. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Ryan Adams, 'Ryan Adams'

Aug 31, 2014

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Stephen Thompson

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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.

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Sean Rowe's new album, Madman, comes out Sept. 9. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Sean Rowe, 'Madman'

by Will Hermes
Aug 31, 2014

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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.

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Tricky's new album, Adrian Thaws, comes out Sept. 9. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Tricky, 'Adrian Thaws'

by Andy Battaglia
Aug 31, 2014

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Andy Battaglia

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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.

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