Andrew Bird -- My Finest Work Yet

Given that he's as well known for his whistling as for his singing, not everyone picks up an Andrew Bird album expecting a cogent lyrical statement. The impressionistic verse that's dominated his work bears this out, but given the cultural tumult of life in America in 2019, it's not surprising that even Bird has something to say about the world at large. My Finest Work Yet isn't the work of an artist mounting a soapbox, but most of the songs do follow a consistent theme that in a time of chaos and upheaval, apathy and cynicism are our worst enemies, and that when we have enemies rather than adversaries, we've given the opposition power rather than blunted it. Bird filters these sentiments through a poetic sensibility on songs like "Bloodless," "Olympians," "Archipelago," and "Fallorun," but even though these songs demand a cautious optimism from his listeners, they're thankfully free of empty cheerleading, and much of the time he sounds like a man determined to win a moral victory even if the outcome of the war itself is in doubt. As for the music, My Finest Work Yet doesn't entirely live up to its title, but it's a marvelous summation of what he does well; it's passionate, beautifully crafted indie rock with an artful undercurrent of folk, and Bird has rarely been as consistently in strong form as a vocalist. Bird and his studio band deliver performances that are dynamic and evocative while sounding fresh and uncluttered, and as usual, his guitar and violin work (as well as his whistling) are first-rate. Andrew Bird isn't going to save the world with My Finest Work Yet, but one of its virtues is he clearly knows that. Rather than issuing directives, Bird, like most of us, is struggling to figure out what to make of trying times without reducing himself to the level of the worst among us, and the process has helped him create an album that is likely to stay relevant and satisfying for a long time to come. ~Mark Deming,


Cactus Blossoms -- Easy Way

Easy Way seems to be an appropriate title for the sophomore set from the Cactus Blossoms, a Minneapolis-based brotherly duo who make no effort to disguise their enduring debt to the Everly Brothers. Like You're Dreaming before it, Easy Way leans into harmonies that recall Don and Phil, supporting this soft, supple blend with sounds that evoke a time before the Beatles. Unlike its 2016 predecessor, this 2019 album does nod toward the present, with the duo singing about pocket computers on the lively "Please Don't Call Me Crazy" and lamenting low wages on "Downtown," a song that conjures ghosts of the Petula Clark hit of the same name. Far from breaking the Cactus Blossoms' retro spell, these lyrics underscore how the group isn't content with re-creating the past. Rather, the duo is intent on extending a tradition, constructing songs with elements culled from a shared vocabulary and then finding emotional undercurrents that make their songs seem alive. Because the Cactus Blossoms move steadily and gracefully, they make this fusion seem easy, but that's a trick: Their music is subtly crafted and deeply felt, which means that for as comforting as Easy Way feels upon its first listen, it has the depth to not only last but improve with subsequent spins.~ Thomas Erlewine,


Mandolin Orange -- Tides of a Teardrop

When a small acoustic group expands their numbers, it's usually with the intention of delivering a bigger and bolder sound, but Mandolin Orange are an act who continue to create a strikingly intimate record as they've expanded their instrumental range. The addition of a rhythm section and an occasional electric guitar has only reinforced the character of Mandolin Orange's music; their music evokes the sweet, quiet sorrow of late nights, long rides across the plains, and that moment when the snap of autumn begins to give way to the chill of winter. Marlin and Frantz are vocalists who have no trouble finding the emotional textures of a song, and their tales of love and ordinary life (penned by Marlin) are all the more powerful of the subtle details of their unforced delivery, and their harmonies are never showy but always add to the songs. The careful, nuanced interplay of the musicians on Tides Of A Teardrop is superb, and producer Marlin and engineer Julian Dreyer give the recordings a wide-open ambience that recalls the unobtrusive accuracy of a good bluegrass session with the telling atmosphere of slowcore classics like Low's Secret Name. Plenty of roots-oriented acts can do the high and lonesome thing, but Mandolin Orange make it cut like bourbon and soothe like honey on Tides of a Teardrop, and it's outstanding work from a group that grow more satisfying and accomplished with each release. [The initial edition of Tides of a Teardrop includes a bonus EP, Sing and Play Traditionals, featuring Frantz and Marlin offering spare interpretations of four folk standards. It's not quite as impressive as the material on the album, but the performances are spot-on and they approach the covers with the same emotional honesty as their originals.] ~Mark Deming,

Steve Gunn -- The Unseen Inbetween

Annabel Mehran's black-and-white cover photo for Steve Gunn's The Unseen In Between is a portrait of the guitarist and songwriter seemingly on the move. It evokes those found on early to mid 1960s recordings by Bob Dylan, Koerner Ray and Glover, Jackson C. Frank, Bert Jansch, and others. Gunn's has shifted his focus considerably. Rather than simply showcase his dazzling guitar playing, he delivers carefully crafted, uncharacteristically tight and well-written songs with guitars, keyboards, strings, reeds--and percussion-- translating them without artifice or instrumental disguise. Gunn's also a more confident, capable singer than he was on 2016's Eyes On The Lines and it shows. He places his voice at the center of producer/guitarist James Elkington's beautifully layered, multi-textured mix.. His delivery walks the line between folk, blues, and psyhedelia as the tune unfolds its suggestive, fleeting landsdcapes and emotional states. "Vagabond" inspired by Anges Varda's tragic 1985 film of the same name, features Meg Baird on backing vocals; it winding psychedelic country rock recalls the feel present on Jansch's early seventies Los Angeles period albums L.A. Turnaround and Santa Barbara Honeymoon.  On The Unseen In Between Gunn's guitar is the hub on which his songs turn, but is not their centerpiece. For guitar fans, there's an abundance of fine playing here, but the songwriter's aesthetic shift delivers listeners his most consistent album to date.~ Thom Jurek




T- Bone Burnett -- The Invisible Light

The Invisible Light is Burnett's first album in 11 years. It's a futurist, avant-industrial companion to a 5,000-line poem he's been writing for years now. Its companion volumes will be released at six-month intervals. Burnett's themes illuminate his notion that for 100 years, electronic programming (and in turn, technology) has caused humans to lose capacity for distinguishing truth from fiction, and has gone a long way to transforming us into hybrid beings. (Google claims the transition will be complete within 20 years.) He is joined by drummer Jay Bellerose and sound sculptor, composer, and keyboardist Keefus Ciancia. There are few acoustic instruments here. The songs follow even fewer conventional traits: Burnett talks more than he sings and he pays attention to interplay, texture, and dynamic, not songwriting norms. In his liner essay he calls this "electronic music" and "trance music," but it doesn't resemble EDM. He juxtaposes ecumenical spiritual themes and propaganda, philosophy and emotionThe Invisible Light: Acoustic Space is not comfortable to listen to but is nonetheless compelling, and arguably necessary. It's outrageously transgressive -- even for Burnett -- creative, labyrinthine, and assertive. It observes contradictions and asks questions we can only answer for ourselves. Amen.

M. Ward -- What A Wonderful Industry

Equal parts rock memoir and cautionary tale, M. Ward's ninth outing is titled What a Wonderful Industry. Forgoing his long-held roster position at Merge Records, the Portland-based songwriter issued the album himself, pairing his affinity for arcane American roots traditions with colorful stories from his two decades operating in various branches of the music industry. Ward's laconic delivery and retro-minded Americana have always been presented with a twinkle of dry wit, but not unlike its unannounced delivery, a self-released concept album calling out what he refers to as the "heroes and villains in equal measure" encountered during his career comes as a bit of a surprise. While his records often come across as a little loose and hairy, What a Wonderful Industry has a particularly homespun feel to it with an emphasis on springy acoustic 12-string riffs and rattling rhythms disguising what are in reality some of his craftiest songs to date. There's a bit of jangling mayhem -- bordering almost on menace -- to tracks like "Bobby" and "Miracle Man," while the brooding "Shark" wears its darkness in a subtler shade. The nifty little guitar intervals on "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" help lend an air of dreamy sophistication to its cutting lyrics. Along with the excellent "Motorcycle Ride," it's also one of the album's sweetest pop gems. Writing about past foes and benefactors seems to have injected some fire into Ward's approach, which had arguably settled into a pretty familiar laid-back groove. Musically, What a Wonderful Industry slots neatly into his canon, but its added focus on personal history gives it a distinctive flavor. ~Timothy Monger,














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