Recordings | December 2015

Three albums we're listening to this month

By Cait Brennan, December 2015 Issue.

MUSIC_KarenCrusher_GRANITEKaren Crusher

Granite | 4stars

It takes a lot to get “folk music” right. Even the genre is kind of a screwed-up concept; when most people say “folk music” they don’t really mean traditional folk-song music, they mean music played on an acoustic guitar. And the stereotypes run deep and harsh, from the out of touch ‘60s folkie singing about counting roads, to the Animal House “Twelfth Of Never” guitar-smash, to the humorless, agonizingly strident protest singer. What’s left out, though, is the true heart of the matter—the raw power and honesty of, say, the mighty Billy Bragg in his prime, or Frank Turner’s anthemic punk-folk, or Ani Difranco in her earliest, most daring days.

Photo by Cherise Briggs.  Courtesy of Karen-Crusher-325077840867850

Photo by Cherise Briggs.
Courtesy of

Lucky for us, then, that we’ve got Karen Crusher. Crusher’s new self-released album, Granite, is a real treat that boasts nine powerful and lovely tunes that dispense with pretense and get to the heart of things.

“No Way Out” pulses with desperation, propelled by Crusher’s chunky, rhythmic guitar style and a strong, distinctive voice that cuts like the proverbial knife. Crusher is a great storyteller and conveys the sense of being trapped, cornered, frantic and wailing. “WiFi,” if it’s even possible, is actually faster-paced, a furious tempo that contrasts nicely with the yearning wanderlust of the lyric. (Fittingly, there is an actual ballad called “Wanderlust” a little later on the album, and it’s a great one.)

The songs and musicianship on the album are top notch; Crusher’s fingerpicking is exceptional, and her voice has that haunting high-desert-lonesome one hears in voices like that of Neko Case. “The Target” is a particular treat, with its rollicking off-kilter beat and expressive, tense vocal line. It recalls In My Tribe-era 10,000 Maniacs, and I rarely mean that as a compliment but in this case, it definitely is.

Crusher is based in Scottsdale and we’re lucky to have talent like this around. It would be great to hear how this work comes alive in a live setting. Granite is well worth checking out.

MUSIC_koko-jones-whos-that-ladyKoko Jones

Who’s That Lady?

Motema Music | 3halfstars

In an era when trans artists all too often feel compelled to lead with their gender, Koko Jones puts her music front and center. In her pre-transition youth, Jones was the fierce, peerless percussionist for such artists as Whitney Houston and the Isley Brothers. These days, she’s still in high demand, and has launched a successful solo career to boot. Who’s That Lady? – a clever reference to the perennial Isley Brothers hit she had a hand in making –  is a joyous rhythmic celebration of music and liberation that also touches on the pain and difficulty of living an authentic life in a world that still doesn’t easily embrace our differences.

“Why,” featuring vocals by Derrick Dupree and Myoshi Marilla, recalls fine ‘70s soul balladry, but is 100 percent of the moment, dealing with a all-too-recent anti-trans assault Jones suffered early in transition. “It is dedicated to all of those who suffer senseless violence due their gender, sexual or racial identity,” Jones explained.

“Xtravaganzas,” is a tribute to the legendary House of Xtravaganza of 1980s New York City ballroom scene fame. The dedications and connections to the trans and LGBT movements are strong, out and proud; Jones dedicated “Turn It” to Stonewall heroes Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.

Besides the fantastic Isleys cover, Jones also takes on Whitney Houston’s “Love Will Save The Day” with a lively arrangement and a cheerily positive focus.

Jones’ originals are also fun, like the Buddhist-influenced “The Treasure Tower” and the spectacular instrumental “Decatur Avenue Stomp” (the staggering musicanship on that last one puts to rest any notion that Jones’ chops might have slipped since her youth).

Who’s That Lady? is an excellent reintroduction to one of the finest pure musicians of the past 40 years.

MUSIC_christinequeensChristine and the Queens

Christine and the Queens

Neon Gold/Because/Atlantic | 4stars

French chanteuse Héloïse Letissier has been huge in her home country for a while now, but it’s a tough fight for any French-speaking artist to make it in the United States. If there is anybody who can do it, though, it just might be Letissier, whose Christine and the Queens project combines gorgeous synthpop influences, Letissier’s shimmering and haunted vocals and a fearless embrace of LGBT culture – especially the world of drag and gender-transgressive art.

The tendency in any kind of international crossover is to smooth out the edges and tone down the weird, but Christine and the Queens is faithful to its original French roots. In fact, it is largely a slight Americanization of her 2014 French-only record, but with some bonuses for those of us lucky to be on this side of the Trump Wall.

“Jonathan” is a particular highlight, featuring collaborations with such artists as Mike Hadreas (aka Seattle’s own Perfume Genius) on a sparse, moody, beautiful meditation, their voices creating an amazing dynamic.

“St. Claude” is another gem – an understated, but incredibly catchy mover, powered by her voice – that’s alternately tremulous and effortlessly cool. “Paradis Perdus” continues the winning streak with an intimate ballad that belongs on your dark-night-of-the-soul playlist.

Anyone who so cheerily embraces androgyny and gender freedom deserves a cheer, but Christine and the Queens is the kind of music that’s rewarding beyond any limits.