Recordings | August 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, August 2015 Issue.

records_AdamSmithSoSimpleNow

Adam Smith
So Simple Now | 4stars

Just a few short years after relocating to Arizona from his native Kentucky (via Nashville), Adam Smith has fast become a local treasure. His 2010 debut Another Way To Get To Heaven featured such disparate talents as Alice Cooper, rock legend Dick Wagner and new age/instrumental standout Chris Spheeris on drums, helping to bring Smith’s songs to light. Many great songs have followed, and on his new album, So Simple Now, Smith brings it all back home – literally. The album was recorded in his home studio over the course of a year, and it’s his finest work yet.

“You Would Do The Same” opens the set, and it’s a beautiful way to get things started, a moving plea for understanding in a world where it’s in short supply. The resonant, reverb-drenched arrangements make it feel like it was recorded inside some great cathedral or old Tennessee church. It’s a thing of beauty.

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Photo courtesy of facebook.com/adamsmithmusicart.

Smith is a gifted songwriter, and on these generous 17 tracks, he displays his gift for deeply affecting melody. Smith’s voice is so lovely you wouldn’t care if he was singing the phone book, but his thoughtful, revealing lyrics reach the heart. Fans of everybody from Joni Mitchell to Bon Iver to Namoli Brennet will find much to love in these very personal songs. “Made To Be Broken” is a heartbreaker, seeking to make sense of life, love and loss. Smith invites the listener over for a beverage on the charming “Water and Wine,” while “Tell My Story” ruminates over regrets and flaws, and “Creatures Of The Morning (lullabye for vampires)” is the tenderest of ballads.

Smith was born in the Appalachians and “Mountain Heart” is a special tribute to that, drawing on the deep mysticism that underlies his work and putting it front and center. It’s an extraordinary, mostly a cappella piece that captures the mystery deep in the heart of the mountain woods.

“Brave Enough To Try” closes out the album. “I see myself as free when the possibilities are brave enough to try,” Smith sings. These songs are a gift, and So Simple Now is timeless late-night listening and an exciting new work from one of Arizona’s best.


 

records_Nina-RevisitedVarious Artists
Nina Revisited: A Tribute To Nina Simone
RCA | 4halfstars

The late Nina Simone was one of the most original, indomitable talents of the 20th century. She could not be contained or stopped, though many certainly tried. It’s possible the word “fierce” was invented just to describe her. A classical concert piano prodigy, she was denied entry to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music due to her race. To support herself and continue her education, she began playing in jazz and blues clubs, and developed a powerful, singular vocal style.

Over a 50-year career, the High Priestess Of Soul recorded definitive versions of standards like “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “Wild Is The Wind” and many others. Gone over a decade now, Simone is finally getting her propers with a new Netflix documentary and star-studded tribute album that captures some of the spiritual power and uncompromising fire that defined her life.

Lauryn Hill, an artist whose own power is legendary, is back after a long absence with six astonishing covers of Simone classics. “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” burns with raw emotion and a presence few vocalists can match. Hill puts her own brand of genius on “Wild Is The Wind” (famously covered by David Bowie on his Station To Station album) and others, but “Feeling Good” may be the best of her contributions. With its ruthless urgency, fiery groove and a career-best vocal, Hill’s version rivals Simone’s own.

Usher gets the honor of covering Simone’s best-known track, “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” and he reinvents it with a breezy neo-soul vibe that Robin Thicke will be cribbing in a few months. Jazmine Sullivan lays a fine reggae funk on “Baltimore,” a deeply affecting song of protest that Simone made famous but which, perhaps unexpectedly, was actually written by Randy Newman. Mary J. Blige turns in a strong performance of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” while Alice Smith soars on “I Put A Spell On You.” Strong contributions from Grace, Gregory Porter, Lisa Simone, Common & Lala Hathaway round out the set.


Kacey Musgraves
records_KaceyMusgravesPageant Material
Mercury Nashville | 4stars

In 2013, Kacey Musgraves shook up the country music establishment with a hit song called “Follow Your Arrow,” inviting listeners to roll up a joint and “make lots of noise and kiss lots of boys, or girls if that’s what you’re into.” The usual suspects lost their scheisse and tried to keep her down, but nobody puts Kacey in the corner. An Academy Of Country Music album of the year and two Grammys later, Musgraves is back with Pageant Material, and your local hick-hop phonies, sticks-in-mud and right wing killjoys had better look out. Kacey’s telling it like it is and taking no prisoners.

With its stripped-down honesty and classic country roots, Pageant Material is about as far away from Blake Shelton as you could get. Musgraves’ gorgeous voice and lyrics sound like someone not just free of BS but absolutely allergic to it. The first single, “Biscuits,” doubles down on her allegiance to the LGBT community and outsiders everywhere, telling all those Harper Valley hypocrites to STFU and mind their own business – and try having some fun for a change. “Good Ol’ Boys Club” tosses a particularly joyous middle digit to the country establishment.

It’s not all sass, though. On “Dimestore Cowgirl” she lovingly namechecks real-deal country icons such as Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson and the old-school Austin City Limits, back when it was more George Jones than Coldplay. “Somebody To Love” beautifully draws on gospel influences, while “Cup Of Tea” is a lovely ode to individuality. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, Kacey likes you. You’ll like her, too.

This is alt-country/Americana at its best, written by Musgraves along with Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark, Luke Laird and Josh Osborne. Even with that stellar lineup of top insiders, Musgraves sings about outsiders with clarity and conviction.

“I’d rather lose for what I am, than win for what I ain’t,” Musgraves sings. Pageant Material is another winner from one of the freshest voices in contemporary country today.


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