Wilco, "Ode to Joy" (dBpm)
From the opening beats of the first song on Wilco's latest album "Ode to Joy," it's clear this is a record driven by drummer Glenn Kotche.
Setting a one-two march-like beat on "Bright Leaves," Kotche drives the song and ultimately the record forward as lead singer Jeff Tweedy's vocals and lyrics explore familiar themes of loss, pain, exhaustion and yes, even joy.
It's a more understated minimalistic musical approach for Wilco on its 11th record. Acoustic instruments and subtly sung vocals (and that ever-present drum beat) win out over howling guitars and anthem rock choruses.
Every Wilco record has a personality of its own. This one almost feels like a Tweedy-Kotche duo effort, with the rest of the band making guest appearances as warranted. But it's two songs that more fully showcase the entire band that are standouts on "Ode to Joy."
On "Love is Everywhere (Beware)," Tweedy strikes a cautionary pose about being too accepting of the love that surrounds us, while also welcoming it. And on "Everyone Hides," Kotche drives an infectious beat and memorable melody.
The music video for that song — which features the band on a Beatles-esque hide and seek game in the streets of Chicago — is worth seeking out. Think of it as a love letter to the city the band calls home, with a sly wink and a nod to the Wilco's fans and its history.
Jon Pardi "Heartache Medication" (Capitol Nashville)
Jon Pardi's third studio album, "Heartache Medication," is surely positioned to be a bartender's best friend. The traditional country release offers up a strong sampling of drinking songs about love lost.
Pardi is a California native, but he's got the Nashville arithmetic down to a science. Break up with a woman, drown your sorrows and write about it. There are at least four songs here that find our protagonist listening to a jukebox and tipping back a beer or something stronger.
The title track puts a fine point on it as Pardi sings, "Here I go again/I'm drinking one, I'm drinking two." It would be tiresome if Pardi weren't so good at it. He eschews some of the sound fusion that has crept into modern country, instead opting for traditional fiddles and Telecasters. It works well and he's got a talented ensemble around him.
The best and most raucous track on the album is "Me and Jack," a tribute to a breakup with a certain bottle on the shelf. Like a nicely aged Tennessee whiskey, Pardi's music is strong stuff and should keep him a staple on working class radio.
Billy Strings, "Home" (Rounder)
The lightning fast fingers of Billy Strings have tapped him as the future of bluegrass music for a few years now. But it is his creative musical storytelling, paired with solid vocals on "Home" that should seal the deal, pleasing fans of the genre and creating some new ones.
Strings, a 26-year-old Michigan-born multi-instrumentalist, is the perfect blend of pure talent and pluck. He's comfortable bringing his indie-rock influence into his latest release and weaves it well while fleshing out inventive tracks.
Songs like "Hollow Heart" are beautifully delivered, but traditional bluegrass in approach and structure. Where Strings makes his true mark is on the title track, a beefy seven-minute-plus song that builds from a slow burn to race car pace, crashing into a magical collection of guitar, mandolin and light percussion. It matches the song's premise of challenging that in which one finds comfort.
The earworm here is album opener "Taking Water," replete with beautiful banjo and String's deft work on acoustic guitar, his staple instrument. It can be hard for even the most skilled bluegrass musicians to break through tradition and reach a wider audience. It takes an acknowledgement of the past but a willingness to explore the musical path ahead.
Thankfully, Billy Strings can do it all.
Kacy & Clayton, "Carrying On" (New West)
Second cousins Kacy Anderson and Clayton Linthicum hail from a remote part of Saskatchewan, if that's not a redundancy, and their new album package helpfully includes a map to show just where that is. Talk about high and lonesome.
The music reflects their roots, with spare arrangements that suggest wide-open spaces, modest tempos to echo the pace of life, and the sort of dark humor common to latitudes where nights are long. It's a distinctive brand of North Americana that Kacy & Clayton have mastered on their latest album, "Carrying On."
The duo is again produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who knows how to showcase their strengths — Linthicum's remarkable electric guitar work, Anderson's arresting alto and top-notch original material. There are songs to clear the dance floor, with death, dying and the grim reaper among the topics, and the tunes benefit from smart, often funny lyrics always crafted with care.
The melodies allow Anderson to shine, and Linthicum's guitar is the other compelling voice. The cousins complement each other beautifully, whether in counterpoint, in unison or taking turns. His smear of judiciously chosen notes mixes twang and tremolo with hints of pedal steel and Celtic folk.
Solos are brief and so are the songs, because time is short. "We're all dying alone," Anderson sings. But this music deserves a long life.
North Mississippi Allstars, “Up and Rolling” (New West)
The blues is alive and kicking, and rock ain’t dead either. Thank the North Mississippi Allstars for that reminder.
Luther and Cody Dickinson’s latest album is a communal jam band amalgam that embraces a couple of creaky old musical genres and still sounds like 2019 because everyone involved seems to be having so much fun, and there’s no expiration date on that.
“Up and Rolling” ranges from roadhouse blues (“Out on the Road”) and festival rock (“Lonesome In My Home”) to disco funk (“Bump That Music”) and a socially conscious fist pumper (“Living Free”). The band connects Muddy Waters with Prince on the salacious grinder “Peaches,” where a stepladder never sounded so sexy, and seeks forgiveness with a gospel swing on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” More heavenly yet is the Mavis Staples-led tent revival stomper “What You Gonna Do?”
The Dickinson brothers spotlight a handful of guests, and even Jason Isbell has the blues. He and Duane Betts help turn Little Walter’s “Mean Old World” into a 12-bar boogie with an Allman-esque coda straight from Fillmore East.
Electric guitars abound, and Cody is a marvel on drums, which is a big reason the music finds grooves sure to make hips shake and toes tap. It’s all as loose as a collar on a 90-degree day, and a good way to work up a sweat.