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,


Buddy & Julie Miller -- Breakdown on 20th Ave. South

Buddy & Julie Miller are two unique talents who happen to work very well together, which is convenient, since they happen to be married. While health problems kept Julie on the sidelines for most of the 2010s, she was well enough late in the decade to cut a batch of fresh songs with Buddy, and 2019's Breakdown on 20th Ave. South is a welcome reminder of her special talents as a vocalist, songwriter, and collaborator. The uncluttered immediacy of the production, the funky echoes of the guitars, and the grainy strength of his harmony vocals mark this as the work of Buddy Miller, but at its best this is a showcase for Julie Miller, who wrote all 12 songs  and takes most of the lead vocals. There's more texture in Julie's voice here than there was in the past, but she can still summon a wide emotional spectrum on these songs -- from the sly, sultry confidence of "Underneath the Sky" and "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" to the spare candor of "Unused Heart" and "Hearts at 2 am" -- and like Sam Phillips and T-Bone Burnett, she's the rare artist who can write about faith without proselytizing and connect with a larger truth that works outside any specific doctrine. Buddy Miller lends all the support any artist could want or need on these performances, but he's smart enough to understand Julie Miller is every bit as deserving of the spotlight. On Breakdown on 20th Ave. South, he makes room for her to shine, and it's a very welcome reminder of her gentle strengths and singular voice. We need her in these days…~Mark Deming,


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,

Cate Le Bon -- Reward

Welsh artist Cate Le Bon's fifth album, Reward, was created in a vacuum of solitude. While Le Bon was in an intensive furniture-making course by day, she spent her nights alone at the piano writing the skeletons that would be fleshed out as songs here. Nonstop activity is part of Le Bon's brand, and while her collaborative band Drinks and production duties for Deerhunter's Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? took up space on her resumé not long before Reward, three years passed between its release and her last fully solo album, 2016's Crab Day. Where that album and much of Le Bon's work were centered around nervous, angular guitar rock, Reward exposes new dimensions of her songwriting. A controlled, confident vocalist and inventive guitarist, Le Bon has built many of her best songs around fluid riffs and unexpected vocal turns. Reward is comparatively restrained, composed on piano and focusing largely on synthesizers, saxophones, and metallic percussion sounds in open-ended arrangements. Reward chases several impulses. Songs like "Home to You" and "Daylight Matters" are straightforward pop through the alien lens of Le Bon's psyche. Familiar sounds (dry '70s drums and airy, chorus-drenched guitar chords) are transmuted into strange melodies as organic and synthetic instruments blur together. Even as some of her most direct work, the catchy melodies and lovelorn lyrics are layered with mystery. These elements of pop and experimentation intersect seamlessly throughout Reward, exemplified in the end half of "The Light," which unravels from soft pop into a frantic monologue. The album is spacious and remarkably constructed, with hidden compartments built for secret sounds that seem to unlock with repeated listenings. Easily Le Bon's most involved, risky, and satisfying material up until this point. ~Fred Thomas,




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.

Bill Callahan-- Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Though Shepherd is over an hour long, its songs are on a smaller, and more personal, scale than any of Callahan's previous work -- instead of panoramas, they're family snapshots. Reflecting the growing wisdom of his songwriting, Callahan begins the album by casting off the people and ideas that no longer belong in his life. On the smoky, three-minute long "Angela," he says a final goodbye to the kind of star-crossed relationship that, earlier in his career, might have inspired an entire album. On "The Ballad of the Hulk," he bids farewell to the suppressed anger and toxic masculinity of his "Bill Bixby days." From there, he marvels at the simplicity and complexity of life and death with a refreshing and thought-provoking lightness. These songs float with a free-flowing ease, turning what could be midlife crises into opportunities to grow and reflect. Most of all, the album's songs are connected by joy, whether it's the bustling domesticity of "Son of the Sea," the existential gratitude of "Call Me Anything" or the chance to tell his son when to wander and when to put down roots on the charming "Tugboats and Tumbleweeds." Unassuming yet frequently profound, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is a gorgeous and much-needed return from an artist whose powers have only grown during the time he spent living his life. ~Heather Phares,













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