Now in its seventh decade, Mavis Staples' career has taken her through chart-topping hits with the gospel-soul family band The Staple Singers, performances for Martin Luther King Jr., enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a recent string of highly regarded solo albums. One of Staples' many high-profile fans, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, produced and plays on Staples' 2010 album You Are Not Alone, and he returns to steer its fine follow-up, One True Vine.
Out June 25, the new album finds Tweedy playing virtually every instrument — that's his 17-year-old son Spencer on drums — but, as Jeff Tweedy often does on records he produces, he tends to hang back, eschew showy flourishes and stay out of the way once the tape is rolling. This is Staples' showcase, and rightfully so, though Tweedy clearly had a hand in picking the songs, from "Holy Ghost" (by Low, whose new album he produced) to pieces by Funkadelic and Nick Lowe, to the three tracks he wrote himself.
Though Staples remains a gregarious and approachable live performer, One True Vine as a whole is a more darkly solemn and deliberately paced record than You Are Not Alone. But even at its slowest, in the tentative search for salvation in its first half, One True Vine doesn't drag to a slog so much as radiate reverence, while summoning a slow burn well-suited to Staples' rich, dusky voice. Then, as the album blooms into something more celebratory — as Staples begins to find salvation and comfort — the joy in One True Vine peeks through like slivers of sunshine.
Given that Smith Westerns' first record came out when its members were teenagers, it makes sense that the Chicago band has evolved from a garage-y pop-rock outfit — all shambling T. Rex-isms and impeccable hair — to something sweeter, dreamier, slicker and sunnier. Just in time for the season to begin officially, Soft Will finds Smith Westerns fully perfecting a summery jangle that's hugely ingratiating.
The follow-up to Smith Westerns' 2011 breakthrough Dye It Blonde, Soft Will (out June 25) is the sound of weaponized agreeability; a band whose songs are so catchy, even wistful ballads like "White Oath" have a shiny sheen that practically glistens. Given a brisk pace to match, songs like "Idol" and the appropriately titled "Glossed" practically roll the car windows down for you.
Lyrically speaking, it can be hard to parse what an individual Smith Westerns track might be trying to impart at any given moment — a product, in part, of a mix that tends to prioritize clean, chiming guitars over Cullen Omori's vocals. But that doesn't cool off Soft Will's softly sparkly charm offensive for a minute.
Listening to Bosnian Rainbows' first album made me think of the paradox about unstoppable forces and immovable objects — as in, "What happens when Omar Rodriguez Lopez (At The Drive In, The Mars Volta) leads a band alongside Teri Gender Bender (Le Butcherettes)?" Both powerful and iconoclastic performers, the two somehow join together without crowding each other out.
Lopez is known for being prolific and brilliant, but he also has a reputation in the industry for being brooding, controlling, even dictatorial. He himself has gone on record saying, "I don't want to be a dictator all my life," and said his greatest challenge and desire is to be able to collaborate with band members. If so, then his best move was deciding to play with a singer who is not to be bossed around.
Born Teresa Suarez, Teri Gender Bender fits into the category of "unstoppable force." Funny, weird, sick and furious, her live performances are mesmerizing, terrifying and exhilarating. I've had the chance to speak to her and can attest that she's a lovely, thoughtful woman, but on stage she's another story: part Iggy Pop, with a helping of Siouxsie Sioux and a splash of David Bowie from his Ziggy Stardust era.
No Latina rockers are doing anything as powerful as her: Her voice is commanding and majestic and, true to her moniker, oddly devoid of gender, though completely sexual. She's the opposite of quirky hipster femininity; she will eat cuteness alive.
Every song on Bosnian Rainbows is catchy and anthemic, with frequent nods to the '80s work of Simple Minds and Bowie. Lopez, who can get too tangled in his own head, here finds a way to package his ideas in a succinct and digestible way. Songs like the bouncy "Torn Maps" and the wistful "Turtlenecks" are easy to enjoy, but not too reduced — they're full of rich narratives, unusual musical progressions and cryptic, Tori Amos-esque lyrics to keep listeners feeling both included and intrigued.
To make Extended Play, producer and DJ Statik Selektah put out the bat signal and more than 40 rappers turned up. They range from middle-aged, battle-scarred pros like Prodigy, Black Thought and Bun B (Raekwon calls them "the vets in the sweats") to the next wave, like Flatbush Zombies, Troy Ave and Pro Era (Statik is also the group's DJ). They showed because Statik is something special — he makes functional, real-deal records that sound like the triumphant persistence of New York, the strains of nostalgia in a sunny day, parents telling their kids to quit running around and be easy. Then he invites mentally tough, rigorous thinkers raised on competition to perform over them.
Statik isn't trying to super-size the bass, or deconstruct melody, or strip anything away. He isn't interested in messing with perfection, which is, for him, the golden era of rap — that boom-bap. DJ Premier productions, Pete Rock tones, A Tribe Called Quest's intimacy. This album, the fifth he's made in this style in six years, is not solitary by its very nature, and it works best as something shared. It's what you put on while everybody wakes up on Saturday and trickles downstairs at weekend pace.
These are old friends who don't like to do too much explaining. Flashes of recognition cohere around a sensibility that, despite differences in their ages and ports of call, the musicians share. Miss Cleo is referenced, by Hit-Boy in "Funeral Season." Marriage is discussed, as it relates to the block (AG da Coroner in "Big City of Dreams": "Bought the block a wedding ring") and the game (Slaine in "Gs, Pimps and Hustlers": "I'm married to the game, no ring and no gown"). Horns stab, drums are heavy and the bass moves. The specter of Biggie is everywhere, in echoey samples, and the presence of Jay undeniable — he's quoted liberally. Common's 10-year-old lyrics return, in a track called "My Hoe" that communicates the opposite of what its title implies: "I'll never call you a bitch, or even my boo / There's so much in a name and so much more in you."
Mutual respect pervades Extended Play, an inviting, prideful album that's never snobby.
Some bands survive decades by locating a sound and sticking with it, giving fans what they want the entire time. But the Scottish group Primal Scream has survived a remarkably lengthy and tumultuous existence through relentless zigzagging and reinvention. At times, that's meant chasing trends — it's been a dance-pop band, a group of psychedelic wanderers, a garage-rock throwback and many points in between, depending on the cultural winds at the time — but Primal Scream has shown remarkable doggedness in staying alive for more than three decades. Throw in the group members' battles with heroin addiction, and it's remarkable that they're still alive, let alone recording albums.
Out June 18, More Light was five years in the making, but it sounds like the product of a band that took its time. Positively overstuffed at 69 minutes — and bursting right out of the gate with a nine-minute epic in "2013" — the album plays out like a larger-than-life celebration of survival. Like a more political and less grand (but no less ambitious) companion piece to Spiritualized's masterful 2012 album Sweet Heart Sweet Light, it's the work of musicians who've got every reason to feel lucky to be alive.
As if the sheer volume of lush, chugging rock 'n' roll weren't enough, More Light also features guest appearances by Robert Plant (singing in "River of Pain") and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields, both of whom have collaborated with Primal Scream in the past. But this is a Primal Scream record through and through: erratic and given to excess, but still reaching for transcendence — and vital enough to find what it's looking for.