Home Jason's Jukebox Album reviews: Brittany Howard, J Mascis, Blackberry Smoke

Album reviews: Brittany Howard, J Mascis, Blackberry Smoke

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Brittany Howard / What Now (Island)
When Brittany Howard first appeared on the scene in 2012 as the front person for Alabama Shakes, her larger-than-life presence combined many important facets of American music, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s proto-rock and roll and the legacy of Memphis soul, right up to her debt to the pioneers of the Riot Grrrl and Queercore movements. But even by the second Alabama Shakes album, 2015’s Sound And Color, it was obvious that Brittany’s creative vision couldn’t be contained within a standard rock band format. Her solo debut, Jaime, in 2019 proved that point with its lush sonic textures enhancing a deeply personal suite of songs that touch on her teen sister’s death, her parents’ interracial marriage, and an ongoing struggle with her religious faith. It was a powerful declaration of independence, setting the stage for What Now, an even more confident and focused effort that nonetheless retains the indefinable qualities that have made Brittany’s work so compelling. Dynamics appear to be the key to getting to the heart of What Now, starting with opening track “Earth Sign,” which morphs from pin-drop delicacy to jazzy cacophony within the span of three-and-a-half minutes. Elsewhere, her mastery of modern funk shines through on the hard-driving title track and the dance floor banger “Prove It To You.” Closing track “Every Color In Blue” even contains hints of math-rock with its complicated guitar and rhythm parts. Perhaps not since Prince has an artist sounded to completely unafraid to try anything, and somehow make it all work.

J Mascis / What Do We Do Now (Sub Pop)
It remains some kind of miracle that the reunion of Dinosaur Jr’s original line-up in 2005 has now lasted almost 20 years, making stories of their notorious in-fighting during the 1980s seem quaint. It’s proof that balance can be achieved if there’s the will to make it happen, and for singer/guitarist J Mascis, that’s meant building an impressive solo catalogue in conjunction with Dinosaur Jr’s surprisingly consistent output over the past decade. While fans have come to expect Mascis’s work on his own to stand in contrast to Dinosaur Jr’s sonic onslaught, What Do We Do Now finds him establishing a kind of folk-rock middle ground. The taut drums and searing guitar solos are still the album’s backbone, but Mascis’s acoustic strumming is more prominent, and there’s an overall twanginess to the material that could suggest a new focus on songcraft. And apart from his unmistakable voice, there are many moments on What Do We Do Now that could cause listeners to think they’re hearing Mascis’s Massachusetts peer Evan Dando with the Lemonheads, particularly on the majestic “You Don’t Understand Me,” with its subtle touches of pedal steel. Detractors might bemoan a lack of edge on the album overall, but it’s hard to knock the melodic smorgasbord that What Do We Do Now offers. We’ll just have to wait for the next Dinosaur Jr album to have our brains melted.

Blackberry Smoke / Be Right Here (3 Legged/Thirty Tigers)
Despite fellow Georgians The Black Crowes seemingly cornering the market on the Southern Rock revival, its admirable that Blackberry Smoke has been plugging away for over two decades now, and making steady improvements. It’s led to their latest, Be Right Here, making great strides toward shedding some of the baggage that’s prevented the band from making a substantial mainstream breakthrough. With 10 solid songs and uber-producer Dave Cobb honing their riffs to achieve maximum impact, Blackberry Smoke might finally be in a position to drop the “Southern” and just be considered simply a great rock band. There’s still plenty of Skynyrd swagger in songs like “Dig A Hole” and “Don’t Mind If I Do,” but a softer side comes across on “Azalea” and “Other Side Of The Light” that reveals the band’s true growth. Still, there’s a nagging sense that they’re holding something back, meaning it’s probably time they do what Gregg Allman or Ronnie Van Zant would have done—make a live album that leaves it all on the stage.

SONG OF THE WEEK
Pokey LaFarge / “Sister Andre” (New West Records)

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