April 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Weyes Blood: And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow

Sub Pop (16/44.1, Qobuz). 2022. Natalie Mering and Jonathan Rado, prods.; Kenny Gilmore, eng.

Performance *****

Sonics ****

“These songs may not be manifestos or solutions, but I know they shed light on the meaning of our contemporary disillusionment.” So says singer-songwriter Natalie Mering about her latest album under the name Weyes Blood (pronounced like “wise,” a tribute to a novel by Flannery O’Connor).

And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, her fifth album, is the second part of a planned trilogy. Its 2019 predecessor, Titanic Rising, brought the American singer international attention for her rich, expressive voice and ethereal music. That album warned of perils humanity would soon face. Hearts Aglow moves on to what Mering sees as the current chaos. She was expecting this “time of irrevocable change” and views it stoically.

Assisting her is a New York–based duo called the Lemon Twigs, on drums and guitar, plus a couple of keyboardists. But the focus is always on Mering’s voice. It’s natural for listeners’ minds to run to 1970s singers; Karen Carpenter and Joni Mitchell are obvious comparisons—Joni in particular. Weyes Blood’s arrangements evoke Laurel Canyon, as in the wistful, floating melodies over piano chords in “Children of the Empire” and “A Given Thing.”

But Mering does not stay still waiting to be categorized. There’s a nod to synthpop in the syncopated, percussive electronic layers of “Twin Flame” as Mering’s vocals spiral up to the stratosphere. “The Worst Is Done,” with its folky strumming through surprising harmonic twists and the informal lyrics musing on the psychological impact of COVID, brings to mind Rufus Wainwright. “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” a meditation on Narcissus’s self-absorption, draws from the tradition of church choirs singing chordally against an organ.

Whatever the last installment of the trilogy brings, be it contentment, puzzlement, or oblivion, it’s bound to be worth listening to.—Anne E. Johnson

Gina Birch: I Play My Bass Loud

Third Man Records (TMR 776). 2023. Gina Birch, Youth, prods.; Michael Rendall, eng.

Performance *****

Sonics ****

Ever since the group was formed, by Gina Birch and Ana da Silva, in 1977, the Raincoats have grown steadily in stature. Along the way, they have influenced generations of musicians, especially (but not exclusively) women.

I Play My Bass Loud is Birch’s first solo effort. In truth, much of the music could easily be on a Raincoats album, and that’s no bad thing. Present is the scratchy guitar sound and, not surprisingly, her own bass playing, so obviously shaped by punk and dub. Birch has an uncanny knack for writing songs that combine wit with deadly seriousness, often in the same verse; “I Will Never Wear Stilettos” is a case in point. “They love blue suede shoes/Never wear Jimmy Choos,” she sings, the humor contrasting with a darker subtext.

Birch has always been a sharp songsmith, and here the wordplay crackles with verve. There’s always a hook to latch onto. “Wish I Was You,” co-written with Youth and featuring Thurston Moore on guitar, is sure to be a contender for the most rousing anthem of 2023.

Moore and Youth aren’t the only guests; the title track features no fewer than five bassists, all women, including Birch herself and Jane Crockford of the Modettes. No doubt, that’s intended to make a statement; certainly it has superb bounce.

Birch clearly relishes the freedom of being on her own, and her palate of styles is broad. Her desire to explore is on display in the reggae-tinged “Digging Down” and the alt-rock “Dance Like a Demon.”

Everything about this album is to enjoy: the musicianship, the vocals, the production—even the sleeve, which uses one of Birch’s own paintings. (In addition to being an important musician, she is also a noted artist.) I Play My Bass Loud is as fresh and joyous as if it had been recorded by someone just starting out on a musical journey rather than 46 years into one.—Phil Brett

Rick Rosato: Homage

Self-Released (45rpm LP). 2022. Rick Rosato, prod.; John Davis, eng.

Performance ***½

Sonics ****

The pandemic’s effect on music was dramatic. Fans and musicians alike found solace in music’s colors and rhythms. Bassist Rick Rosato, a Montreal native now living in New York City, found himself listening to acoustic and electric blues on radio.

After being “recalibrated” by this music, especially the acoustic delta blues of solo performers Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, Rosato made the brave decision to focus his first album as leader on original arrangements for solo standup acoustic bass of early blues tunes, according to the liner notes for this album. “As time has passed, connecting with so many inspiring musicians, I see that the best improvisers certainly have the blues awareness and language in them regardless of the material they interpret,” Rosato wrote. Homage pays tribute to this most essential of American popular music while exploring how far a solo bass, with no sidemen or accompaniment of any kind, can expand on the legacy of those foundational songs.

It’s the music of Skip James, one of the most haunting vocalists among delta bluesmen, that spoke to Rosato most. The spark of brilliance here, and what makes this record worthy of focused, active listening, is Rosato’s way of mixing up approaches—how he sometimes plays the original melody straight and sometimes retains the vocal phrasing used in the original versions. His arrangement of “Devil Got My Woman,” James’s biggest hit, follows the leisurely pace of the original and mimics James’s crying vocals. On the album’s last song, a creative arrangement of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Boys, You’re Welcome,” Rosato plays both lead and rhythm lines without overdubs.

The recording accurately captures the low sonorities of an instrument rarely heard unaccompanied, let alone playing the blues. Homage is the sound of one man’s musical awakening.—Robert Baird

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