2021: Halfway Report, Part 1

Records I liked from Olivia Rodrigo, Liz Phair and Miranda Lambert. Records I didn't like from St. Vincent and Van Morrison. Plus a bunch of albums that fall somewhere in between.

ve reached the halfway mark of 2021 (more or less, anyway) and it's fair to say that the year is proceeding at a pace I did not anticipate. Unlike last year, I can't chalk this unpreparedness up to a global pandemic. This year, I have learned that parenting two infants both under the age of 18 months can be a bit of a challenge. Enough of a challenge that I haven't kept up with the pulse of music this year as well as I have in the past, so I'm using this newsletter to help catch up. What follows are not necessarily my favorite albums of the year—there are several that I don't particularly like—but records that have stayed on my mind a lasting impression. I intended this newsletter to cover everything that made an impression on me but this text was already around 2000 words and I'm already tardy on newsletters, so consider this is the first installment in a series. 

(Apologies for any incoherence in the intro or the sequencing of the list, along with apologies for the delay in this newsletter. The last few months have been a whirlwind but things are starting to settle down now.)

Olivia RodrigoSour

I missed "Driver's License" when it camped out at the top of the Billboard charts earlier this year--my daughter was born just as the single hit its stride at number one--so my introduction to Olivia Rodrigo was "Brutal," a stomping rocker that either brings to mind Elastica or Elvis Costello depending on your age or disposition. Rodrigo doesn't tip her hand where the connection is made for her, either. "Brutal" is an outlier on Sour, which is otherwise devoted to moody brooding and other hyper-charged adolescent emotions. First time through, I thought Sour spent too much time dwelling upon the dour—"Brutal" set me up for a fail—then I wound up noticing how exquisitely observed these mini-melodramas are. The craft of Rodrigo and her frequent collaborator Daniel Nigro is appealingly deceptive that way: the sounds fit the time so they nearly swallow the tunes yet the songs are impressive constructions, withstanding—even flourishing—after repeated plays. 

Liz Phair —Soberish

The presence of Brad Wood, co-producer of Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart, nearly guarantees that the phrase "return to form" would be battered around in regards to Soberish, the first album Liz Phair has released in over ten years. The past lingers in the background on Soberish but Phair is moving forward, not back. Still enamored with the smoother sounds that almost brought her some genuine hits in the days of Y2K, Phair sounds much softer than she did the last time she worked with Wood yet she still finds time for detours, overlapping lines, and loose ends—elements that add as much context as texture, elements that conjure a world outside of the album's borders. This measured yet messy update of Phair's '90s sound suits a set of songs that refuse to settle, songs that accentuate their weary wisdom with contented sighs and dirty jokes. All of this means that Soberish may not precisely sound like an old Liz Phair album but it certainly feels like one. 

Miranda Lambert/Jack Ingram/Jon Randall—The Marfa Tapes

A songbook album from a bunch of songwriters, The Marfa Tapes feels a bit too casual to be a major record yet its spare, nearly spartan, settings lingers in the mind a bit too long to be characterized any other way. Much of its understated power is due to the chemistry between the three songwriters. They all know to emphasize the song, not the performance, yet how their voices and guitars intertwine gives The Marfa Tapes power as music: it's speaks to how the trio finds a common, lasting bond within the spaces created by their songs. 

Sleater-Kinney—Path of Wellness

Path of Wellness is an adult alternative rock album by any other name, a move which in and of itself is a bit jarring coming from a band who always chose catharsis over comfort. There's a bit of noise here but squalls of guitar feel don't feel like palette cleansers; they're punctuation, accentuating how Sleater-Kinney is content to leave noise in the past alongside drummer Janet Weiss. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein still aren't quite certain what Sleater-Kinney now means as a middle-aged duo, so they make a fair share of stumbles here, particularly as they take greater care emphasizing accomplishment over emotion. Since that searching is cloaked in expertly rounded self-production, Path of Wellness may alienate some in its well-meaning even-handedness but I find the awkwardness here intriguing. I'm curious how this will sound in a few years, after we and Sleater-Kinney both figure out which direction they want to pursue. 

St. Vincent—Daddy's Home

One of the cardinal rules of criticism is not to conflate art and autobiography, the very thing St. Vincent invited listeners to do during her promotional campaign for Daddy's Home. The result was an internet kerfuffle I've already forgotten the particulars, one augmented by such yarns as inmates at the prison where her father was jailed for some insider trading dotted their cells with autographed photos of Annie Clark. Maybe this happened, maybe it didn't--doesn't really change how Daddy's Home is at once too direct and too muddled. Playing with the notion of "the 1970s" as an aural and stylistic aesthetic conveying decadence and comfort, St. Vincent conjures slight traces of burnished warmth collapsing without a solid center. It's not a great sign that the strongest melody is lifted wholesale from Sheena Easton's "Morning Train"—not a 1970s hit by any measure—as that winds up showcasing how all the songs have no center of gravity; no melody, no hooks, just floating ideas. Daddy's Home is an empty hotel filled with ghosts. It's haunting but there's also nobody behind the door to spook. 

Eric Church—Heart & Soul

It's a warehouse filled with songs and stories, not so much sequenced as presented. Listen closely and some apparent differences emerge between Heart and Soul—there are more songs with "heart" in their title on Heart, naturally—if not quite &, which isn't so much connective tissue as it is evidence of a marketing idea gone awry. When this project was first announced, it seemed as if it was a contained set, not a double album and an EP available to mix and match. Cherrypicking is part of the appeal of Heart, & and Soul--it's an album to be sampled and re-arranged--but it's also a bit exhausting as an overall experience, as everything hums to a similar beat and has been given just the right amount of gloss. Church is still one of the best songwriters and musicians working in popular music these days, so there's plenty to like here but Heart & Soul seems like a quintessential album for the streaming age: the artist is expecting the audience to sort out his work into digestible playlists. 

Van Morrison—Latest Record Project, Vol. 1

It's an album filled with songs called "Psychoanalysts' Ball," "They Own the Media," "Stop Bitching, Do Something," "Why Are You on Facebook" and "Western Man," so it's not unreasonable to expect Latest Record Project, Vol. 1 to be a bit batshit, but it's not. It's a (very long) album by an old pro who is irritated that his regular routine of touring and recording has been disrupted by a pandemic, so he decided to air his grievances over the kind of no-muss jazzy R&B and 12-bar blues he's been playing for the better part of two decades. Van has been in good form in the last few years, so this is hardly embarrassing as sheer music but the lyrics are weirdly controlled; he gets to the verge of spouting off conspiracy theories, then ambles his way back to the one. This restraint is a hallmark of an old pro who knows when he should hit his mark and it's also what makes Latest Record Project, Vol. 1 much duller than it should be. 

Paul McCartney—McCartney III Imagined

Destined to be one of those weird footnotes in Paul McCartney's long, winding discography—think Thrillington, but listenable—McCartney III Imagined contains a bunch of differently "imagined" (but not "reimagined," for heaven's sake) versions of the songs from his 2020 album. It was up to the artist's imagination whether they'd remix or cover a song, a decision that gives the album a decidedly lopsided feel. Some artists seem to have hurried to meet deadline, some took their time to find their own entry into the song, others probably had their mix ready within an hour of being approached. It's kind of fun to hear the album sway between woozy and disinterested remixes but the songs that grab attention are the covers: Phoebe Bridgers' spacey take on "Seize the Day" and Josh Homme swaggering through "Lavatory Lil." 

Taylor Swift—Fearless (Taylor's Version)

The thing that bugs me about Taylor Swift re-working the catalogue is calling the new editions "Taylor's Version"—as if she didn't get final cut in the first place. Fearless is appropriately the first in this series. It was her first blockbuster, the first album to suggest country would limit her talents, the one that perhaps could benefit from a new, older perspective. At times, this version of Fearless does seem a bit softer, maybe a bit wearier, but it also expertly performs its main function: its big hits sound close enough to the original for song placements.

Greta Van Fleet—The Battle at Garden's Gate

Thanks to Greg Kurstin, Greta Van Fleet sound better than ever, nearly managing to create a loving miniature of mid-1970s Zeppelin minus all sense of popcraft or roots rock. Too bad they conjured a literal hobbit to sing their tunes of middle earth. Get another singer in here and the animosity toward the pride of Frankenmuth, Michigan would dampen, maybe even disappear.

Royal Blood—Typhoons

Supposedly this album documents the lead singer's "struggles with sobriety" and who better to guide you on the path to serenity than Josh Homme, whose breakthrough hit listed every substance dear to his heart. The Queens of the Stone Age leader reshapes Royal Blood from a bit of a dour White Stripes knockabout to bubblegum QOTSA, an improvement by any measure. 

Weezer—OK Human/Van Weezer

Two distinctly different albums, each offering an opposite side of the coin for Rivers Cuomo and crew. Van Weezer is recognizably within Weezer's wheelhouse: heavy hooks and heavy guitars, a party album for those who don't especially care for parties. OK Human is the departure, a sumptuous and mellow album of reflection whose moments of introspection are often overwhelmed by an orchestra. Cuomo isn't as supple a vocalist as, say, Harry Nilsson, nor does he wish to be as clever as a composer. He's sticking to songs that work, then gives them richer arrangements that help focus attention on the melody. It's a trick that works: the songs from OK Human linger in way those on Van Weezer don't. 

Lana Del ReyChemtrails Over the Country Club

A day after releasing Chemtrails Over the Country Club in March, Lana Del Rey announced that another brand-new album would follow in July. That's as close as a star would ever get to admitting that their new album may disappoint fans and the past few months suggests this instinct may have been right, as Chemtrails Over the Country Club doesn't seem to eat up oxygen in a fashion similar to Norman Fucking Rockwell!. To my ears, the two records don't seem to be all that different from each other: it's simmering, shimmering music, designed for twilight hours where you could dwell upon heartbreak but choose not to because the vibe is just right. Close listening certainly would reveal subtle differences, either between the records or between the songs on Chemtrails, but I choose to listen to Lana Del Rey as mere mood music and that's enough for me. 

Midland—The Sonic Ranch

Not so much an apologist for Midland but somebody who usually finds them quite agreeable, I found The Sonic Ranch an unbearable slog. The intention is to showcase Midland's early days, the period when they hunkered down in West Texas and figured out how to be a band, but the meandering, tentative tedium of The Sonic Ranch shows why most bands choose not to lift the curtain on their formative roots: it's boring to hear a bunch of musicians stumble around as they search for half a clue.