Van Lear Rose
Tired of seeing veteran artists he enjoyed relegated to also-ran status by their labels, American Records head Rick Rubin eagerly inked artists like Donovan and Johnny Cash to his label, surrounded them with younger musicians not yet old enough to develop a "style," (i.e., a formula), and basically told those assembled to do whatever the hell they wanted.
In recent years, the punk-affiliated label Anti has also gotten in on the act, signing performers like Merle Haggard, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits. These days, it seems, the best way for an artist to guarantee a retirement plan is to write enough good songs to hook the generations that follow.
Loretta Lynn's new Van Lear Rose might well be considered one of those albums. Sympathetically produced and recorded by Jack White (White Stripes) in a minimal amount of takes, the album completely strips away the overproduced, 10- and 15-take gloss that Nashville producers have over the years piled onto Lynn's vocals like so much pancake makeup. Stripped of artifice, we're left with Lynn at face value -- nothing more, nothing less.
But what a face! Lynn penned all 13 songs on Rose, with a vocal assist from White on occasion, as on the excellent "Portland Oregon." Opener "Van Lear Rose" is classic Lynn -- a song about "Mommy and Daddy's" courtship -- but here shines like a forgotten antique after a bout with a jar of OxyClean. "Trouble on the Line" is classic breakup country, ably paired with minimalist backing from White and his band, the Do Whaters.
There's a little Stripes-style rave-up on the lovers' lament "Have Mercy," which would likely overwhelm a lesser singer. Lynn, however, remains beacon-like at the top of the mix, her heavenly voice rising above the tumult and noise.
Lynn was said to be so thrilled that the Stripes dedicated their White Blood Cells to her that she invited Meg and Jack over for some chicken and dumplings. On Van Lear Rose, White ably returns the favor, cooking up the best platter Lynn's had in at least 20 years.
Track to Burn: "Miss Being Mrs."
Grade: A--Timothy C. Davis
Stefon Harris & Blackout
Blue Note Records
Vibraphonist Stefon Harris came to light as a session man for Steve Turre and Charlie Hunter. He disavows the drudgery of smooth jazz with the infusion of Latin vibes and moody overtones on Blackout, his fifth recording for Blue Note. The instrumental record, with one vocal-track exception, flows in its own time-space continuum, albeit in a forward-gazing, contemporary jazz mode. There are moments when brilliant alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin overpowers the quintet. But Harris weighs right back in with his percussive dexterity, which takes the subtlety of vibes to new heights with the help of the rest of the combo -- drummer Terreon Gully is especially spontaneous. Harris is not a traditionalist, but he doesn't forget the roots and arranges the classic "Summertime" into a stylistic waltz. The quintet also reshapes Bobby Hutcherson's "Montara" and Sting's "Until" into the tracklist. Harris alternates between vibes and marimba throughout the record and proves his originals can stand up to standards, especially the signature track, "Red-Bone, Netti-Bone." The combo has made a record that's eclectic, but not so much as to be inaccessible.
Track to burn: "Summertime"
Grade: B--Samir Shukla
On! Air! Library!
On! Air! Library!
New York's On!Air!Library! have recorded a finely balanced debut of genre-balking rock confections, all wrapped loosely with bubbling electronic diversions and expertly woven substrata samples. Though straightforward in track-by-track construction, most of the record is too ambitious to be corralled as purely rock-based, yet too hauntingly melodic to be thought of as pretentiously experimental. And as inviting as they are mutinous, the trio shirk as many influences as they channel -- ranging from Portishead to such easily fingered contemp-oraries as Interpol (whose drummer Sam Fogarino guests on opener "Faltered Ego").
Twins Claudia and Alley Deheza share vocal duties with third member Phillip Wann, who frequently layers the already sweepingly thick songs with piecemeal recordings from his answering machine message collection. Guitars pierce forth and echo back bewitchingly, vocals drawl and blur, drums stutter, cymbals ring backwards, bass lines lurch -- yet each song grinds forward on the momentum of the swirling mix, like a Category I twister. Perhaps at their most accessible on the My Bloody Valentine-spirited "Bread," the twins wind cyclic vocal lines about each other, set adrift subtle crashes and wayward shoegaze guitar work: It's an opiate-based tonic with enough kick to wake you up, and enough languor to put you to sleep.
Track to burn: "Bread"
Grade: A---William Morris