“West of Memphis: Voices FOR Justice"
This collection is inspired by the trials of Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, the Arkansas men known as the West Memphis 3. They were freed in 2011 after spending more than 18 years in prison on murder charges — in a case in which their love of heavy metal music was used as evidence against them.
The 15-track CD accompanies Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh's “West of Memphis," the fourth documentary made in protest against the unjust treatment of the three.
The list of contributors is illustrious, including Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp's band, Tonto's Giant Nuts. Spoken-word poet Henry Rollins also shows up: He reads a searing letter Echols wrote him in 2003, when his plight seemed the bleakest. Bits of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' haunting film score also appear.
Despite all that talent, “West of Memphis" is an inconsistent muddle, with previously recorded tracks like Dylan's “Ring Them Bells" mingling with bad ideas such as Marilyn Manson covering Carly Simon's “You're So Vain" and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks revenging Pink Floyd's “Mother."
For a good cause: A portion of the proceeds go to Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin.
— Dan DeLuca, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Camper Van Beethoven
“La Costa Perdida"
The beauty of Camper Van Beethoven's “La Costa Perdida," the indie-rock forerunners' first album in nine years, is in its lovely shagginess, as if it just fell from the sky fully formed, and David Lowery and friends didn't mess with it at all.
The standout single “Northern California Girls" sounds gloriously unforced, with its loping layers of country-rock guitar and pretty bits of violin sweetness, though its well-crafted lyrics show how hard they really worked to get that sound just right.
The hushed ballad “A Love for All Time" opens and closes with the sound of the tides, bookending Lowery's dreamy lyrical non sequiturs — a microcosm of the album's unexpected triumphs.
— Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
The Joy Formidable
Calling The Joy Formidable's new album, “Wolf's Law," scaled-back in any way sounds a little silly, considering all the layers of instrumentation, from orchestral swells to prog-rock guitar boogie and back again.
But it's actually true, considering the Welsh band's wildly ambitious (and uneven) American debut, “The Big Roar," with its quest for massiveness seemingly bursting from every seam. Singer Ritzy Bryan and her pals have worked that out now.
Sure, “Wolf's Law" still sounds big, but they have figured out a way to lighten things up again — much like they did on their EP “A Balloon Called Moaning," which quickly took them from newcomers to sought-after major-label band.
The balance they build is clever. On “The Maw Maw Song," they sing along with the thunderous, heavy-metal guitar riffs to make it sound less serious. On the over-the-top rock of “Bats," which musically sounds like Muse and Smashing Pumpkins trying to outplay each other, Bryan tries some smart redirection by whispering her vocals. Then, just when you think you have The Joy Formidable pegged, the band unleashes the lovely “The Turnaround," where Bryan channels Dusty Springfield over a tastefully restrained retro-pop background for a song that conjures drama in an entirely different way than the rest of “Wolf's Law," like The Joy Formidable figured out a new way to harness its considerable powers.
— Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
“MY TRUE STORY"
Blue Note Records
Aaron Neville said recently that he has been trying to make a doo-wop album for the last 30 years, and that no record label would give him the chance. It should go without saying that this borders on the outrageous, even by the usual standards of music-industry shortsightedness. Perhaps not coincidentally, it frames “My True Story," his first album on Blue Note Records, as a product of wish fulfillment, and not just a smart recalibration.
Neville has built his vocal career on the dual impression of pliability and sincerity, whether he's singing gospel or funk or swooning ballads or heartstring-tugging country songs. Doo-wop, as a subset of rhythm and blues, is more than a cherished old style for him; its lessons are coded into his musical DNA.
You hear this expressed throughout “My True Story," in a few different ways. There's the sob that catches lightly at the back of his throat, never more expressively than on “Tears on My Pillow," a hit single for Little Anthony and the Imperials. There's the birdlike trill of his falsetto on the title track, by the Jive Five. And there's the call and response Neville enacts with his backup singers, including Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five, on tunes of puckish entreaty: “Work With Me Annie," “Ruby Baby," “Little Bitty Pretty One."
What's missing is the bright vocal urgency that originally set apart so many of these recordings. Neville favors the mellowest part of his range, rarely wheeling into his silvery falsetto, and carefully parceling out melismatic embellishments.
— Nate Chinen, The New York Times
Decline fascinates Widowspeak, the Brooklyn band that has just released its second album, “Almanac." “I'm afraid nothing lasts/ nothing lasts long enough," Molly Hamilton sings on the album's opening track, “Perennials." Romances, lives, cities, worlds — Widowspeak's songs contemplate their gradual erosion with a dazed acceptance and music that keeps opening up new spaces.
On its 2011 debut album, “Widowspeak," the band was one among many following the templates of Velvet Underground ballads, Mazzy Star, Galaxie 500, Cowboy Junkies and the Raveonettes: a few chords, a lot of reverb on Robert Earl Thomas' guitar, generally unhurried tempos and Hamilton's breathy voice.
The band recorded “Almanac" at a 100-year-old barn in upstate New York, and the pastoral setting seeped into its music: not just in the occasional sound of raindrops or crickets, but in the rustle and flutter of other instruments.
Alongside the reverb and distortion, and a newly expanded vocabulary of echoes, are glimmers of dulcimer, zither and accordion. They don't countrify the songs, but they do ground them in natural acoustics. And while the songs retain their verse-chorus-verse clarity, the newfound breadth of the music orchestrates and enriches lyrics that take the long view.
— Jon Pareles, The New York Times