Chris Stapleton – Higher (Mercury Nashville)
Since its emergence as a predominantly rural form of music, country has been in a perpetual identity crisis. Artists within the genre who seek mass acceptance have always been forced to adapt and experiment, leading to country’s reinvention every 10 years or so. Historians are likely to point to the 2010s as one of those periods, when country ultimately usurped rock and roll as the soundtrack to the lives of a large portion of North Americans. Chris Stapleton was there leading the charge with his Grammy-winning debut, Traveller, an album that seamlessly blended the songcraft of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson with the fire of southern rock, all tied together with Chris’ powerfully soulful voice. Surprisingly, he kept things fairly low-key with a trio of follow-up releases that clearly emphasized his art rather than his brand, a move that strengthened the notion that Chris and peers, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, were truly committed to changing Nashville’s culture. On Higher, Chris continues to impress with his musical range; in some ways, the 14-song collection sounds as if it were a classic ‘70s Al Green-Willie Mitchell collaboration, although the first single, “White Horse,” still proves Chris can summon the spirit of Ronnie Van Zant better than anyone. Alternating between these two worlds is Chris’ greatest strength, and the sound he’s achieved in the studio with his longtime producer, Dave Cobb, and wife/musical partner, Morgane Stapleton, is designed for close listening rather than stadium chants. In this sense, Chris may be the true heir to George Jones, as the combination of his voice with emotionally charged songs such as “The Bottom” and “The Day I Die” captures the true essence of country music as one of the purest forms of artistic expression. Higher is sure to be considered one of the best country albums of the year, but it could be the best album of the year, period.
Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert (Domino)
Those with any knowledge of Chan Marshall’s career as Cat Power knows that she’s an unapologetic Bob Dylan fan. During one occasion when they met, she even received a rare acknowledgment from the master when he noted that Charlie Parker’s wife was also named Chan. More crucially, Chan has always leaned on Dylan’s catalogue throughout her tempestuous career’s darker times, and this latest project feels like a dream come true that all of her fans get to share. Of course, recreating Dylan’s 1966 live show is about addressing the mythology as much as the music. As his first “electric” tour with the group that would become The Band, audiences were famously enraptured during the program’s solo acoustic first half, and violently belligerent during the second half’s sometimes overpowering amplification. Original fan-traded recordings captured the stunning atmosphere of these performances in stately European concert halls, until the most famous of them all was officially released in 1998 as part of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Chan is clearly conscious of establishing that atmosphere, and she goes to great lengths to make sure everything is just so—from the pin-drop echo and searching harmonica solos during the acoustic set, to the majestic, ragged-but-right grooves of the electric set. Of course, the appeal for Dylan fans who have this music already committed to memory is hearing the songs from a woman’s perspective, especially as delivered by Chan’s rich voice that deftly avoids any affectations. Her love of the language is palpable, which, at its core, makes this project more than a mere novelty. To reproduce such an important moment in time and make it sound just as relevant nearly 60 years later is an incredible feat. And yes, someone in the crowd does yell out “Judas,” to which Marshall responds, “Jesus.”
Todd Snider – Crank It, We’re Doomed (Aimless Records)
When talk frequently turns to alt-country’s great might-have-beens, Todd Snider’s name inevitably comes up. The Nashville mainstay has been making records since the mid-‘90s when his Elvis Costello-meets-Hee Haw shtick seemed perfectly in tune with country’s brief embrace of irony during the grunge era. It made Todd’s songs an acquired taste to be sure, especially for people averse to humour of any sort in their music. Yet, despite a trail of failed label contracts, Todd has persisted, now putting out records under his own terms. In fact, Crank It, We’re Doomed is an album he recorded in 2007 and has kept under wraps until now. Why that might be is a mystery; the rough-edged takes show Todd at his best, spitting out his rapid-fire lyrics over bluesy riffs (dig the garage rock homage “Slim Chance Is Still A Chance”) with no less than Loretta Lynn joining him on “Don’t Tempt Me” and Kris Kristofferson chiming in on the rollicking “Good Fortune.” While Todd later reworked some of these songs for himself and others, hearing them in this unvarnished form is a revelation, especially for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to Todd for a while. It’s about time he got his due, and this album is a good start.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Hurray For The Riff Raff / “Alibi” (Nonesuch Records)