Live at Earl's Court
There is a light that never goes out, you see, and I'd be willing to bet ol' Stephen Patrick Morrissey, a Joycean figure if there ever was one, believes that it's the hovering halogens of Mass Media. A tall, cool drink of water to be sure (has anyone ever so artfully combined the presence of James Dean, Jan and Dean, and Dean Martin?), The Moz serves as a bracing draught to those thirsting for a little honest-to-goodness Artistic Mystery, the je ne sais quoi that was common operating procedure during the hedonistic, glam-bedecked 1970s, the decade that begat his punk-y, literate croon in the first place (check out the excellent cover of Patti Smith's "Redondo Beach" included here for a reminder). In an around-the-clock celebrity-obsessed culture given to dragging the waters of anyone turning even the smallest gear in the New York/Hollywood star-making machinery, Morrissey's obsessively reclusive nature serves only to focus attention on his remarkable body of work, from his seminal days with The Smiths up to this, his latest release, a rather indispensable and energetic set of live tunes recorded last Christmas.
There are a handful of Morrissey/Marr-penned songs on Earl's Court, from show opener "How Soon is Now" to "Bigmouth Strikes Again" (typing that pre-SpellCheck©, I noticed I had written "Bigmoth Strikes Again," which would make an excellent title for any Mothra sequels in the works), to "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," "Shoplifters of the World Unite," and "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me." However, it's a credit to longtime Moz collabs Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias that the solo offerings — especially Quarry tracks "First of the Gang to Die," "Irish Blood, English Heart," and "I Have Forgiven Jesus" — shine equally, nuggets in a vein that seems to be far from exhausted. To his rabid fans, Now never sounded so soon. Or so good, for that matter.
Track to burn: "First of the Gang to Die"
-Timothy C. Davis
Fair & Square
Oh Boy Records
It's been nine years since John Prine's last album of original material. It was a particularly tough time for the legendary singer, as he struggled with — and overcame — a bout with throat cancer. While surgery and radiology rendered his characteristically gravelly voice even more so, the years also revitalized his muse. Fair & Square is Prine's best recording in decades, an excellent set of songs brimming with evocative portraits of daily life, captured with wickedly clever phrasing and Prine's trademark folksy and sly sense of humor.
There's much to relish here. On "The Glory of True Love," he gleefully celebrates amour, while on "The Moon is Down" he paints a picture of wistful longing with simple, elegant grace (highlighted by Alison Krauss' harmonies). He delivers a pithy attack on "compassionate" conservatives in "Some People Ain't Human" (with a somber nod to "some cowboy from Texas" who "starts his own war in Iraq"). In a tip of the hat to tradition, he includes a rollicking version of A.P. Carter's "Bear Creek Blues." Fair & Square is the work of a mature master, full of the same wit and wisdom that made his earliest recordings classics. Welcome back, John.
Track to burn: "Glory of True Love"
Magnolia Electric Co.
What Comes After the Blues
What Comes After the Blues is a question Magnolia Electric Co. leader Jason Molina has been asking throughout his decade-long career, first as the solo road warrior traveling under the moniker Songs:Ohia, and for the past three years with his full band. Molina's songs have always been savagely candid, and the eight tracks here are no exception. "How can I be the only one/Whose life can't live up to the light?" Molina asks on the gorgeous fiddle- and steel-accented "North Star Blues" (which, like the rest of the record, was recorded live in the studio by Steve Albini). If you caught the allusion to Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," go to the head of the class; "The Dark Don't Hide It" opens the record with a galloping electric wallop, and the last three mournful acoustic cuts (including the closer, "I Can Not Have Seen the Light") form a triptych honoring the country legend. Led by Molina's rich vocals, guitarist Jason Groth's enthusiastic leads and Michael Kapinus' rollicking keys, Magnolia Electric Co.'s sound recalls the crunch of Crazy Horse and the earthy melodies of Palace, with a pinch of The Band — a unique brew decidedly their own. Even More Blues seems to be the consensus answer Molina finds here, but if this record is indicative, bring...it...on.
Track to burn: "Leave the City"