by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Quick Takes on Albums 2017 – Quarter 1

May 19, 2017

Continuing from last week’s film coverage, InRO now turns its focus to highlighting memorable music releases in 2017 so far. This includes a labeled “playlist” from Canada’s Own, a collection of covers from a recent Nobel Laureate, and the 61st album from a country legend.


No one’s asking you to accept John Mayer as the second coming of Stevie Ray Vaughn; the dude can shred, but that’s not what The Search for Everything is about. This one’s about unerringly tuneful soft rock—persuasively funky here, lived-in and rootsy there. It has better country-rock songs than either of Mayer’s country-rock albums, and it ends with a dead ringer for prime Randy Newman—no, really. And at least one song (“In the Blood”) is deeply moving to this writer. Either I’m turning soft, or this album is just really good. Maybe it’s both. Josh Hurst

More_LifeDrake liberally switches genres on his “playlist” album More Life, from grime (with Skepta getting his own, rather pointless interlude), to dancehall (“Blem” has Drake singing about the “passa”), and trap (the giddy “Portland,” which boasts colorful features from Travis Scott and Quavo). If Views was Drizzy caught too much in his feelings, here he opens up his music in less determinedly depressive ways—with some help, of course. Young Thug steals the show twice, newcomer Jorja Smith dominates the smoothly Caribbean-influenced “Get It Together,” and Drake finds great success in being curator over content provider—a strategy similar to that of Kanye’s Life. Paul Attard

jardinGabriel Garzón-Montano’s full-throated croon was applied like sonic wallpaper on a track from Drake’s 2011 retail mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, but the exposure was enough to help realize the artist’s own quixotic debut, Jardin—a carefully curated pocket symphony of tropicalia-accented R&B. Garzón-Montano’s Prince-meets-Tom Zé vocal threads a meandering beat tape that nonetheless snaps into place for some assertive tunes: the wriggling bass of “The Game,” and especially “Crawl,” a Stax-worthy soul vamp filtered through the off-beat idiosyncrasies of the singer/producer’s more contemporary R&B influences. Sam C. Mac

the_rideShe’s been one of pop music’s trendsetters (on Whoa, Nelly! and Loose) and a follower (on The Spirit Indestructible). But Nelly Furtado’s best albums—Folklore and now The Ride—come when she seems to have not a clue or a care about what’s on the radio. Pop music often looks fondly on its chameleons, and The Ride marks another aesthetic pivot for Furtado; her producer, John Congleton, pushes the arrangements to the deep-end of the bass clef, emphasizing the rhythm tracks without capitulating to current EDM trends. It’s a fitting choice for the set’s introspective lyrics, which regard the end of a relationship (“Cold Hard Truth”) and the artist’s own atypical career arc (“Tap Dancing”). Furtado’s voice, always an acquired taste, has simply never sounded better—she even turns the coda of “Pipe Dreams” into a proper gospel rave. Jonathan Keefe

triplicateWhat immediately sets Triplicate apart from either of the two (very good) Bob Dylan standards albums that preceded it is a sense of completeness. OK, a three-disc album feeling complete—could it really be accused of leaving much out? But listen close and find a strategy to the excess. Each disc begins in a jaunt, flexing the muscle of a full band, all swaggering energy and… well, one Tony Pastor title puts it bluntly: braggin’. Thirty-odd minutes later, we get a different Dylan, a man reflective and a bit diminished. This set’s immediate influence is of course Sinatra, who recorded many of the songs, in some cases the definitive versions. But Triplicate can feel even older — Dylan is, after all, recording these at a more advanced age than Sinatra ever did. It’s a work that reflects a lifetime, or rather a trinity of them — an album that’s kin to pre-popular music, its song-cycle united by theme and structure. SCM

turn_up_the_quietDiana Krall’s concept album has two concepts: Back to basics (this is, after all, her first true standards album in close to a decade), and a hushed, low-key, quiet intimacy. You know all of these songs by heart, but Krall’s phrasing is masterful and there is a supple, alluring elegance to Turn Up the Quiet that makes the album immersive. Marc Ribot plays on it, and he isn’t even the best session guy in the group. JH

a_crow_looked_at_meOn album opener “Real Death,” Phil Elverum a.k.a. Mount Eerie bluntly articulates the thesis of his new album, A Crow Looked at Me, throatily proclaiming, “When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.” An album conceived and recorded following the untimely death of his wife last year, Elverum utilizes plainspoken language and sonic minimalism to underscore the raw emotion permeating Crow, an approach which proves far more poignant than any florid confessional could. Still more affecting is Elverum’s refusal to make pat his experience of grief, his exposed psyche vacillating between a candid struggle with sorrow and more impressionistic emotional abstruseness. Throughout, Elverum speaks both to his wife and into the emptiness her passing has left in his life, a dichotomy that leads him, somehow, to find glimpses of hope amidst the heartbreak. Luke Gorham

freedom_highwayOn her previous set, 2015’s glorious Tomorrow Is My Turn, Rhiannon Giddens pulled off the uncommon feat of using an album of covers to establish her own unique voice as a recording artist. The fearlessness she displays on her politically-charged follow-up, Freedom Highway, reaffirms that Giddens is among the most vital artists in contemporary music; she refuses to play along with the damaging conventions of “respectability politics” when confronting thorny matters of race relations. The set opens with a harrowing first-person narrative of a slave girl who bore the child of rape by her owner, and she focuses on the humanity of victims of police violence in the incendiary “Better Get It Right the First Time.” That her original compositions fully hold their own in the company of the sorrowful “The Angels Laid Him Away” and the title track, a standard of the Civil Rights Movement, is a testament to Giddens’s insight and empathy. JK

love_and_warA clusterfuck of crank, earnestness, and over-compensation, one-time country leading light Brad Paisley’s eleventh album, meaninglessly titled Love and War, plays as the nadir of a career that’s been headed in that direction since it peaked with 2009’s American Saturday Night. Paisley’s biggest success stories (especially his invigorating and unexpected expression of Obama-era optimism and understanding) and failures seem inextricably tied to our nation’s political leadership, and songs like this album’s misrepresented title-track—far less an anti-war anthem than it is merely a pro-vet one—and the sexist, body-shaming social media rant “selfie#theinternetisforever” feel every bit as vapid and self-righteous as one would expect from a soundtrack to the Trump years. SCM

a_kind_of_revolutionPaul Weller soundtracks our world of deep fracture, and he’s never put his finger to the pulse quite like he does on A Kind Revolution. In the era of Brexit/Trump, he reminds us that progress is a “Long Long Road,” seeks inspiration from the ghost of “Hopper,” and sees the tide turning in a song called “The Cranes are Back,” which feels like the first day of spring after a particularly brutal winter. His last few albums have been fragmentary in nature, but here he really gives all his good ideas time and space to develop; so we really get to enjoy his Afro-Cuban groove, his Boy George duet, his McCartney-style ballad, his gospel flourishes, his sinister electronics, and the way he shreds and shreds on his electric guitar. Its ambition, its anxiety, its hopefulness, and its humanism are all inseparably tied. A great one. JH

gods_problem_childGod’s Problem Child is an album about death that doesn’t forget to be funny, and a rare latter-day Willie Nelson album that finds him playing to his strengths—country, blues, jazzy phrasing, shaggy dog stories, graceful sentiment, sly humor, no Snoop Dog cameos or Coldplay covers. It’s touching, but also a lot of fun, and is very gentle in reminding you that Nelson (probably) won’t live forever. We should enjoy him while we can, and this album makes it easy. JH

songs_from_a_roomSongs from a Room: Volume 1 fixes the biggest problem with Chris Stapleton’s first album—i.e., too damn long!—by offering nine songs in half an hour, with no real theme or concept to guide them. Its modesty is appealing, especially when Stapleton does things we’ve never heard him do before—jump blues, rock n roll… he even cracks a joke or two! Ending such a lightweight set with a pained piece about “Death Row” makes the whole thing topple, but this is an album about individual moments, and most are quite good. JH

cultureRight from the get go, Culture aims to be a victory lap for the Migos: DJ Khaled delivers a larger than life introduction (“For all you fuckboys that ever doubted the Migos, you played yourself!”) and the group starts off living up to it, from the tight technical ability of “T-Shirt” and the Metro Boomin-produced global hit “Bad and Boujee,” to their mastery of the triplet flow. It’s a tremendous feat: Every song bounces into the next, sustaining a live-wire of intense rapping and harmonizing—until it stops. At around “Big on Big,” the energy dissipates—Zaytoven’s keys feel as ever mismatched with the Migos’ flows. “What the Price” feels like a weak Travis Scott rip—and then Scott himself shows up on “Kelly Price,” an even more derivative 6-minute snooze. Not even a reliably weird spot from 2 Chainz can save the latter half of Culture, a top-heavy album that’s better remembered for its effusively meme-able (“rain drop, drop top”) singles. PA

graveyard_whistlingLong overshadowed by the likes of Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, and Whiskeytown, alt-country stalwarts Old 97s have spent decades as underdogs in a genre that often prioritizes songwriting that is somber and “mature.” Raucous and unabashedly wiseass, Graveyard Whistling is both a welcome reprieve from the self-seriousness that makes so much Americana music a bore and perhaps the sharpest album of the band’s career. Signifiers of death and religious imagery figure prominently in these songs, but Old 97s are eager to take the piss out of them, with cockeyed narratives (“I Don’t Wanna Die in This Town,” killer lead single “Good With God,” featuring Brandi Carlile) and sketches of deeply flawed characters (“She Hates Everybody,” “Turns Out I’m Trouble”). The figures in these songs know that, if they’re on their way straight to Hell, they’re going to get into some shit along the way. JK

oczy_mlodyIt’s been difficult to identify as a Flaming Lips fan of late—even ignoring Wayne Coyne’s juvenile antics, the music has wavered between indistinctly atmospheric (The Terror) to pointlessly wacky (their Sgt. Pepper’s cover album). Oczy Mlody falls into the former category, lacking any of the creative ambition that made the group’s imaginative songwriting unique in the first place. Coyne’s monotone voice makes a track like “There Should Be Unicorns” absolutely drag (vacuous lyrics like “Yeah, there should be DayGlo strippers” don’t help either) and “Sunrise (Eyes of the Young),” like nearly every song on the album, is drenched in so much electronic reverb that it sounds suffocated. “We a Family” features Coyne fetish-object/frequent collaborator Miley Cyrus showing up to deliver a distorted and ill-fitting denouement, capping another overblown excuse for the band to go on tour and shoot glitter at crowds. PA

this_old_dogMac DeMarco once told Marc Maron that he’s a big Steely Dan man, and that seems believable. Also, that he pledges allegiance to The Band, which we can take on faith. This Old Dog is slick and soft and mostly charming in its one-man-band vibe—just some slightly wonky, homespun arrangements for synth, guitar, and drum machine. Pretty much every song pivots on one simple conceit—“I’m seeing more of my old man in me,” “Not every dog has his day,” etc.—to the point where one starts to wonder why he writes more. Problem is, DeMarco never really has anything to push against here, so the whole thing just gets soggier and soggier, and in the end it wears out its welcome. There are some tunes you’ll find hard to forget, though. JH

parking_lot_symphonyNo coincidence: Trombone Shorty’s first album for Blue Note, Parking Lot Symphony, also happens to be the most “jazz” thing he’s ever done, with sophisticated horn charts, some loose soloing, and plenty of swing. He chalks up another great Allen Toussaint cover with “Here Come the Girls,” which seems to conceal about a thousand hooks, and that illustrates something important: For as great a player as TS is, he may be even better as a bandleader and pop tunesmith. The lyrics could have more personality, but there’s plenty else to hang on to here. JH