Credit: Myesha Evon Gardner
Album Roundup by InRO Staff Featured Music

Album Roundup — January 2021 | Part 1: Jazmine Sullivan, Barry Gibb, Madlib & Four Tet

February 15, 2021

Jazmine Sullivan

Jazmine Sullivan has built a rather remarkable career for herself over the last decade, the sort that few contemporary pop artists are allowed the time to properly nurture. This is, in part, because she was able to step away from the industry for a time, for a nearly four-year hiatus that concluded with the release of 2015’s Reality Show. Sullivan’s time outside the music industry aligns with any number of massive shifts, both all-encompassing (dominance of streaming) and specific to R&B (aesthetic trends), yet the vocalist/songwriter hasn’t had to drastically alter her vision. This is an artist who can confidently fill in the space between two different eras of R&B (she made significant contributions to both Frank Ocean’s Endless and Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman), specializing in a bombastic, vocal-forward style, backed up by hip-hop production both soulful and trap oriented. Sullivan’s aesthetic preferences undoubtedly favor the genre’s recent past, when artists like Blige dominated, but her own music is a legitimate contemporizing of that sound (one of her first big singles was built around a prominent sample of “Veridis Quo,” after all) as opposed to shallow reenactment.

In the six years since Reality Show, Sullivan had kept busy — working on other artists’ projects — but had avoided putting out a full project exclusively under her name, until this year. Heaux Tales stands as an exciting reemergence, then: 32 minutes (a substantial EP?) with a rigid formal conceit, in that they’re meant to be experienced as a whole. Based around spoken-word testimonies and musings from Sullivan’s friends and mother, the songs on Heaux Tales translate these anecdotes into massive ballads, the singer’s huge vocals confronting us with the conflicts, pleasures, and contradictions involved in a woman’s journey to articulate, and to maintain agency over, her sexuality. Sullivan primarily works from a heterosexual perspective (though one of these tales accounts for a lesbian friend’s brush with infidelity), each song wrestling with the tension between sexual and financial power dynamics, searching for the line between transaction and romance. The songs can at times contradict each other in their messaging: Anderson .Paak’s guest verse on “Price Tags” finds him cheekily dismissing a paramour he’s determined to be a gold digger. When taken as a whole, however, the contradictions can be savvy and compellingly human frictions, ones that reject a monolithic view of womanhood. Alas, one fears that a project so dependent on its full form may translate oddly in the streaming era (the aforementioned “Price Tags” plays as retrograde and corny on its own). But the lack of consideration for new industry rules makes Heaux Tales a stand-out, not a holdover.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux   Section: Pop Rocks

Credit: Desiree Prieto

Barry Gibb

On his third-ever solo album, last living Bee Gee Barry Gibb rarely sounds like the star of the show; at best, he sounds like he’s playing a supporting role, or even making glorified cameos on his own record. This isn’t necessarily a liability, and in fact, it seems largely by design: Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1 is intended, first and foremost, as a reclamation of the Gibbs’ songwriting legacy, rescuing both classics and obscurities from the trappings of disco and soft rock, revealing them to be transcendent works of melody and masterpieces of emotion. Gibb enlisted producer Dave Cobb, who situates these new renditions in the country music tradition — not the bare-bones, outlaw austerity he brings to his Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton records, but rather a lush, string-laden take on Nashville’s commercial glory. Gibb sings on every song here, but he’s joined by a cast of country and roots-music legends whose charisma consistently outshines him; how could he really be expected to hold his own when duetting with the luminous Dolly Parton, or strutting through “Jive Talkin’” with Miranda Lambert?

As with so many star-studded duets albums, Greenfields can feel a little imbalanced: Individually, the songs all work, but there’s no center of gravity to bring them all together. Gibb’s hiccuppy singing style can be an acquired taste, but by largely ceding the spotlight, he keeps the focus where it belongs: on this remarkable body of songs that he created, both by himself and with his brothers. The pleasures come in hearing these songs performed in a more timeless style, with vocal talents who are clearly energized by the Gibb Brothers’ striking tunes and emotionally accessible lyrics. Highlights? How about “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You,” with Keith Urban, which opens the album with a radiant burst of strings? Check out the irresistibly dramatic “Lonely Days,” featuring ace harmonies from Little Big Town; or Isbell’s performance of “Words of a Fool,” which reveals the song to be the deepest, nastiest blues Gibb ever wrote. Did I already mention that Dolly Parton’s on the album? It all feels like a big, splashy highlight reel, but it more than makes its point: The Gibb Brothers songbook is a treasury of riches, and it probably still hasn’t gotten its due.

Writer: Josh Hurst   Section: Rooted & Restless

The Notwist

For a band whose blend of processed instrumentation and glitchy production might scan as experimental, to the unfamiliar listener, The Notwist are actually surprisingly consistent. The German indietronica trio releases a new studio album every six or seven years, and for each, the band seems in more or less the same headspace in which they were last they checked in — namely, dispassionate melancholy over loops and sighs. The milieu shifts from album to album — see the neoclassical grandeur of Neon Golden, still their peak, or the art-rock of follow-up The Devil, You + Me — but the recipe and results are still, generally, the same. And as per, the Notwist’s new Vertigo Days is another thoughtful sampling of genres from an elder tastemaker perspective, cycling out the chilly balladry of 2014’s Close to the Glass for some krautrock and jazz. The results are among the most eclectic the Notwist have put to tape. Single “Where You Find Me” locates a typically pretty late-period Notwist song within an echo chamber of cascading vocals, while the live band-sound of “Exit Strategy to Myself” builds in urgency, until reaching a squall of white noise. Elsewhere, shorter snippets like “Ghost” and “*stars*” are curiosities in the best sense, and specifically benefit from the band’s decision to seamlessly transition between tracks on Vertigo Days — fitting, since “seamless” sounds have long been a cornerstone of the Notwist’s appeal.

This album also marks the first occasion of credited features on a Notwist album, and while their prevalence could be seen as just more evidence of the commonality of collaboration in the streaming era, the guests here loom large on their respective songs, serving to embellish the Notwist’s usual sonic and emotional range. On “Into the Ice Age,” clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid brings whimsy and a sense of clarity to the band’s doom and gloom, her instrument putting the song in proximity to one-time Notwist contemporary Radiohead’s Amnesiac standout “Life in a Glass House.” Some vocals from Juana Molina, on “Al Sur,” likewise leaven and liven that track, warming its pulsating groove and pushing it closer to Stereolab than Suicide. One imagines people will still consider all of this mere patch updates — and Vertigo Days is still the same old software the Notwist have used for the past 25 years. But that’s part of the appeal: This is indeed a contemporary adaptation of an existing sound, rather than a truly contemporary invention. The same components are there; the way they’re assembled is fresh. Ultimately, the features’ cosigns and genre interpretations serve as a reminder, and a persuasive one, of why we liked the Notwist in the first place.

Writer: Michael Doub   Section: Obscure Object

Credit: Egon/Four Tet

Madlib & Four Tet

After years of rumors about a potential collaboration, and about two decades of listeners familiarizing themselves with both Otis Jackson Jr. and Kieran Hebden — better known by as Madlib and Four Tet, respectively — the duo has at last combined their unique sonic worlds into one, with the release of the much-anticipated Sound Ancestors. Of course, both of these producers are no stranger to collaborative work, so it’s not surprising that their joining forces has resulted in a clear division of labor: Madlib focuses on the beats and samples, while Four Tet takes editing, arranging, and mastering duties. Apart, each commands an incomparable constellation of sound; and the blend of the two creates music unlike any either have ever made before.

There are an endless array of samples here (at the time of this writing, a complete list isn’t available). First single “Road of the Lonely Ones” features vocals from Ethics’ “Lost in a Lonely World” (“Where did I go wrong?/ Can you tell me now?/ Did I ever treat you bad?”) set against a sparse, rolling drum beat. The sound is akin to being in a spacious, empty room — surrounded by voices. “One for Quartabê/Right Now” boats an otherworldly-sounding Busta Rhymes verse (“Screwdriver-driver to just tighten up one of them screws inside of his skull over there/ Might need a new pair of socks or som- Pshh, get outta here”), one of a number of transcendent moments that seems to lift the work out of its very listening space. By and large, that’s what this album does with each of its electronic peaks and heavy hip-hop beats — samples from jazz, reggae, and (naturally) hip-hop weave their way in and out of the fabric of the record, creating a wholly singular soundscape. It’s an essential album from a long sought-after collab, and we can only hope it’s not the last.

Writer: Andrew Bosma  Section: Ledger Line

Steve Earle

Steve Earle has already devoted a sizable chunk of his discography to tribute albums, honoring his personal pantheon of formative influences. An exploratory Townes Van Zandt record in 2009, a ragged-but-right homage to Guy Clark 10 years later. His latest, J.T., is, as a New York Times profile put it, the album he never wanted to make: A collection of 10 songs written by his son, Justin Townes Earle, who died last summer of an accidental overdose. The elder Earle curates songs that span his son’s rich and all too fleeting recording career. It concludes with “Last Words,” the plainspoken send-off of a father cursed to outlive his child.

Obviously, it’s a heavy, purposeful album, made all the more so by the announcement that all proceeds will go into a trust fund for Justin’s daughter, Etta. Remarkably, though, it’s never as painfully bleak or funereal as you might expect it to be, for three basic reasons. The first of those is the presence of the Dukes, Steve’s long-time backing band, who’ve never sounded looser or more confident than they do here, bringing boisterous energy and casual versatility to everything they touch whether it’s rowdy bluegrass rambles (“I Don’t Care”) or thrumming blues (“Champagne Corolla”). Second thing is the elder Earle’s intuitive interpretation of his son’s music. Justin always conveyed a world-weariness beyond his years, and his words sound just right when delivered through his dad’s leathery rasp. (Listen to Steve’s jaded sneer in “The Saint of Lost Causes,” where he makes a feast of his son’s wounded cynicism.) But more than anything, J.T. is beautiful for how it manages to be both a eulogy and a rousing celebration of life: You can’t deny its mournful undercurrents, but neither can you diminish Steve’s energetic embrace of Justin’s rich, smart, emotionally articulate body of work. This is both an excellent Steve Earle album and, in its way, a terrific Justin Townes Earle one; the fruit of tragedy, and very much an act of love.

Writer: Josh Hurst   Section: Rooted & Restless