There’s been a lot of noise about Sturgill Simpson in the world of country and it’s not hard to see why. His third album, A Sailors Guide to Earth is, if anything, even more ambitious than his breakthrough album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music from 2014.
It should have been a complete disaster. A concept album, which is bad enough, in the form of a letter to his newly-born son, which, obviously, is even worse, whose touch points are Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles-inspired, late Otis Redding. Amazingly, he lives up to those lofty ambitions whilst somehow still managing to deliver up what is undeniably an alt country album.
He might balk, albeit a tad effortfully, at that distinction, between country and alt country. But usually there’s a world of difference between the powerfully plain and straight as a die world of country and the more nuanced, quietly sophisticated realm of alt country.
But impressively, Simpson manages to straddle both worlds, and then some. The horn and string arrangements on a number of the tracks here are very specifically designed to recall the rustic, guttural rhythms that came out of Stax with their string and horns (and if you haven’t already seen the doc on Stax, reviewed earlier here, treat yourself). The results call to mind early Van Morrison. But then there’s also a very sombre cut of Nirvana’s In Bloom re-imagined as teenage angst.
This is an impressively ambitious album that is every bit as substantial as everyone has been suggesting – it gets an 8 from the boys at Pitchfork here. A serious album from a major artist. You can see the video for In Bloom here.
Pop is so ubiquitous and the results so invariably saccharine and offensively MOR that it’s easy to miss the few grown-ups who work in the genre. Sam Beam has been recording as Iron and Wine for the last decade or so, and after beginning in roots Americana mode he has slowly but surely settled in the world of pop – his last album was reviewed earlier here.
He produces the same kind of thoughtful, articulate yet unabashedly emotional pop that you get from Jenny Lewis and Christopher Owens, and earlier from Squeeze and Everything But the Girl (in their earlier incarnation), and, from before again, with Carole King and Harry Nilsson (see the doc on him, reviewed earlier here).
On this latest album Love Letter for Fire he teams up with Jesca Hoop, who was mentored by Tom Waits after she landed a job working for him as a nanny.
Like all he best pop, these songs manage to be introspective yet upbeat with just a hint of melancholy. Their smooth, boygirl harmonies washing over you before disappearing again into the ether. Together with country, it’s the only other genre to resist black influences and not be rendered hopelessly redundant ever after.
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