New titles from Weyes Blood, Neil Young With Crazy Horse and First Aid Kit highlight this month’s release schedule
Even with the holiday rush at the end, the schedule of new releases in November slowed down.
The month featured its share of reissues, box sets and the like, kicked off in grand style by the post-October review release of the new mix of Revolver with its revelatory unreleased material. November proper followed with the likes of PJ Harvey’s B-Sides, Demos & Rarities, Life Moves Pretty Fast: The John Hughes Mixtapes (cue requisite ’80s flashbacks) and The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s The Definitive Collection. There are also deluxe reissues of albums like the Cure’s Wish (due this Friday), the Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and the International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home.
But that doesn’t mean November was bereft of new music worthy of interest.
It starts with Weyes Blood, whose Titanic Rising topped my year-end list for 2019. She returns with And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow.
Natalie Mering started performing under the name (originally spelled like the Flannery O’Connor novel she took it from) as a teenager in the early 2000s. By the time of her third album, 2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth, songs like “Used to Be”, “Seven Words” and “Do You Need My Love” showed where she was headed on Titanic Rising, a beautifully orchestrated effort that channeled baroque pop and ’70s singer-songwriters into an emotional, affecting work.
Artist: Weyes Blood
Album: And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow
Label: Sub Pop
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
If the question about the eventual follow-up was “Will Mering change things up next time?”, the answer is an emphatic “No.”
And Hearts Aglow, musically, is Titanic Rising 2. Or to be more accurate, it’s the second album of an intended trilogy. If Titanic Rising was a warning dispatch of things to come in the world and people’s lives, the new album is about life with those things arriving. Mering says the next album will be about hope, which was her initial intent for what Hearts Aglow before realizing, in essence, she jumping from the opening act to the final one without properly moving the stories forward.
“It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody” establishes right away that Mering’s working in the same musical turf. Piano-driven with orchestration that grows more lush as it goes along, she sings of isolation, which could be from the pandemic, social media or both.
“I was trying to process this idea of irrevocable change, and what that does to personal relationships, the damage it can do to people, because it’s so isolating,” Mering told the Guardian last month.
The tuneful “Children of the Empire” builds in similar fashion and length as the opener, only with more instrumentation and changes in tone. Lyrically, it moves from the isolation to how to deal with those irrevocable shifts (“Children understand that they pay for their sins/Seize control of what they made/Before we all fade away/Children of the empire wanna change”).
We’re 12-and-a-half minutes into the album and only two songs in.
“The Worst Is Done”, which echoes that singer-songwriter feel to the point where you can picture hearing it outside the Canyon Country Store well over 40 years ago. Placed near the album’s end, it returns to “Children of the Empire” territory, only that song’s determination is threatening to be overrun by doubt.
If the warmth of Mering’s alto has earned past comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter, here it also favorably recalls Aimee Mann on occasion. But she never sounds like she’s engaging in imitation, just that she’s been blessed with similar gifts.
Mering doesn’t just stand there and sing, layering her voices in harmonies in the meditative “God Turn Me Into a Flower”. It’s inspired by the myth of Narcissus, who crawled so far up himself, the isolation killed him and God left a lone flower as a reminder. And certainly the myth can have parallels in the real world, especially in capitalism over the last century where status has replaced personal growth for many.
Just as Titanic Rising extrapolated its wider themes (a title inspired by rising seas caused by climate change, for one) to the personal, Hearts Aglow does as well. The micro becomes the macro and vice versa.
Mering went through a breakup, another irrevocable change, in between albums. The future breakup playlist staple “Grapevine” gets right to the heart of it, moving through the anger at the “emotional cowboy with no hat and no boots” to acceptance that they’re “just two cars passing by.”
Conversely, “Hearts Aglow”, a holdover from the Titanic Rising sessions, expresses, if not with unrestrained hope (“You can’t control hearts aglow/I’m staring at that black water down below/Knowing I could fall if I let go”), a desire to move forward.
For an album full of ambition and overlapping themes, Mering does pull back musically on occasion to offer respite. “Twin Flame” is built off a drum machine loop and synths. “A Given Thing” is centered around her voice and piano.
If there’s a quibble here, it’s not that Mering’s reach exceeds her grasp, rather that her reach occasionally convinces her that she doesn’t need to edit her songs. Not that she needs to suddenly churn out three-minute ditties, but some judicious pruning here and there could have helped.
At the end of the day, though, Mering’s reach has taken her to mostly enchanting heights again. If Titanic Rising holds up as the better album, it’s only by a matter of degrees. There’s more than enough here to create anticipation for the trilogy’s finale, which Mering’s already started writing, to see how she sticks the landing.
Much has been made of Neil Young’s singular desire to go from album to album recording whatever he pleases with no considerations towards band stability. Whatever players he chooses to play with, so be it.
The other side of that is that Young is, for the most part, not averse to going back to the same well, even years later. Thankfully, he’s avoided the tired genre exercises when he was displeased with Geffen in the ’80s. He’s also avoided the trap Bruce Springsteen fell into with the recent Only the Strong Survive which, as well-performed as it is, feels like Weezer’s Teal Album for boomers.
Artist: Neil Young With Crazy Horse
Album: World Record
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The biggest constant has been Crazy Horse, who he’d picked to back him on his second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Half of Young’s 42 albums have featured the band, with 15 of them co-credited.
As Young’s kept prolific into his late 70s, he appears to have settled in to a desire to keep playing with bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. They’ve been Crazy Horse constants since the band’s start as a doo-wop group in 1963, as well as guitarist Nils Lofgren who replaced Frank “Pancho Sampedro” when the latter had to retire due to arthritis in 2014.
World Record is the third album in a row credited to Young & Crazy Horse, following 2019’s Colorado and 2021’s Barn.
Young’s prolific nature and respectable quality control of late (Barn made Rock and Roll Globe’s Top 40 albums of 2021 list) wouldn’t indicate that producer Rick Rubin’s here for a late career back-to-basics makeover.
Which, if Rubin were going to do that again, might I suggest he get in touch with Rod Stewart? But, I digress.
Young and Crazy Horse have decades of chemistry by this point, so Rubin’s job was to capture them in all their looseness, sounding at times as if the songs they’re doing had been learned minutes before, without ever falling apart.
The lyrical concerns of World Record are centered pretty much exclusively on the environment, with one notable exception which we’ll get to in a bit.
The state of the planet has been no stranger to Young’s lyrics over the years, back to Ragged Glory’s “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” (“Respect Mother Earth/And her giving ways/Or trade away/Our children’s days”) or two decades earlier on the title track to 1970’s “After the Gold Rush” (“Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s”).
In 2022, the realities of climate change are ever more glaring. The melodies for the songs came to Young on walks in the Rocky Mountains, in relative quiet.
The opening “Love Earth” is loose country that owes more to Harvest than Rust Never Sleeps, as the first lyrics set the tone for where Young’s going (“Love earth and your love comes back to you/Love earth, it’s such an easy thing to do”).
“Overhead” picks up the tempo to late night honky tonk levels.
Not every lyric lands, “Walkin’ On The Road (To The Future)” has its heart in the right place, but sounds like a pamphlet set to music (“Walk with me brothers and sisters of the future / To the world as we know it and the Earth as we knew it / Hand in hand, fist to fist / With no more weapons, no more war/ No more war, only love”).
So, um, the solution to climate change is “make love, not war”?
The sense of optimism throughout World Record is hard to dislike, but one wishes that, under the circumstances, the issue got more of Young’s pointed, angry side. The man who summed up the ’80s with “We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand” is mostly absent here.
Of course, he wouldn’t be Neil Young if he hadn’t run contrary to expectations over the decades. As much as one might expect sharper commentary given the past several years, his embrace of the peace, love, be kind to Mother Earth aspects of hippiedom isn’t a surprise.
The performances help smooth over the lyrical speedbumps. There’s an easygoing, unfussy charm throughout, as these old pros clearly are enjoying playing together. Songs are just as likely to feature a piano or pump organ prominently as they are loud guitars.
Speaking of which, if you’re expecting a full-on return to the “Crank up everything and piss off neighbors many miles away” days of Ragged Glory, that doesn’t happen.
That’s not to say it’s gone entirely. “I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone)” follows the slow tempo/quavering vocals template. “Break the Chain” is a more urgent stomper that’s the best thing on the album, showing that a group of four guys in their 70s, three of them closer to 80, can still raise an unholy racket.
Then there’s “Chevrolet”, an ode to the joys of driving around in a classic car where the band keeps going for 15 minutes in familiar Crazy Horse fashion. At first glance, it might seem incongruous with the lyrical message elsewhere. Young does acknowledge the contrast (“Lost on the winding highway/Oh, but it feels so good/How will it comfort me/Burnin’ all that fuel again?”). The tone is actually more nostalgic for the roads literally and metaphorically gone than anything else.
If one wishes that “Break the Chain” had been allowed to stretch out more and “Chevrolet” had been shortened a bit, it can still hit the sweet spot when these old pros stretch out like this. As a voice can be heard over the ambient hiss at the end says, “That was fun.”
As imperfect as World Record might be, there’s still enough good here to make anyone who’s appreciated the Neil Young & Crazy Horse combination to be glad they’re still making music this late in the game.
AUDIO/VIDEO: Neil Young With Crazy Horse World Record (full album)
First Aid Kit’s 2018 album Ruins inspired by heartbreak. Klara Söderberg, one half of the duo with her sister, Johanna, had gone through a painful breakup.
That informed the album’s writing. Then, around the time it was released, Johanna’s own relationship ended. But time has proven to be a healer.
Artist: First Aid Kit
★★★★1/4 (4.25/5 stars)
Back in 2018, Johanna told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I think our next record won’t be as sad. I can’t take it anymore. It needs to be slightly more hopeful at least.”
Four years later, Klara is now married and Johanna’s a new mom, things that couldn’t help but inform the writing for Palomino.
First Aid Kit has never strictly been folk country, even if that’s been a base of their sound. But they now seem even less restricted than before, an openness that’s also manifested itself lyrically.
While the Söderbergs have crafted lovely songs before, unabashed songs about love have been more rare. But here, we get Turning Onto You, a musical paean to past AM gold that’s a soundtrack to falling in love. The atmospheric “Nobody Knows” (“Nobody knows me the way that you do/Nobody knows what we have been through”) captures a point on time past the courtship into the relationship itself.
“The Last One” puts that love into looking forward, a sense of happiness at the possibilities that await.
First Aid Kit’s long had a knack for serving as a conduit between past and present. “Emmylou”, off 2012’s The Lion’s Roar paid tribute in lyrics (“I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June/If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too”), music and tone. No further proof that they got the tone right than their performance of the song at the 2015 Polar Music Prize banquet moving Emmylou Harris herself to tears. Their cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” during the pandemic underscored the strength of the original– Mike Campbell’s music.
Gram Parsons gets name-checked again on “Wild Horses II” (“You prefer the Rolling Stones and I like Gram’s/You know I can’t let you slide through my hands”). It’s a gorgeous breakup song that’s angst-free as the prevailing mood is acceptance.
Oh, for the record – Stones. But Gram and Emmylou’s version of “Love Hurts” is the best version of that classic.
“Angel”, a definite highlight, delivers self-affirmation and a big pop hook while answering the question, “What if Abba had Nicks, Buckingham and McVie write a song for them instead of Björn & Benny?”.
The Söderbergs harmonies are as simpatico as ever, serving more modern-sounding pop like “Out of My Head” without the autotuned-to-death robot voice. They just as capably serve the lush love letter to music “29 Palms Highway” (another Parsons reference, naturally, as its the address of the motel where he died).
Despite the name checks, the retro aspects of Palomino are of a general vibe. The winning “A Feeling That Never Came”, for example, sounds like a song Sheryl Crow could have cut in the ’90s without deliberate mimicry.
Final track “Palomino” is sunny late ’80s pop rock without the worst production affections of the era, reflecting the happiness and optimism at the album’s core.
First Aid Kit, as it turned out, to be more than a little hopeful. Paired with their voices and more exploratory writing (with contributions from Björn Yttling and producer Daniel Bengston), it’s a winning combination.