In which the best band in America remains the best song band in America while passing the Sonic Youth consortium on the outside to become the best distorto-guitar band in America, and although the competition in both categories has thinned out, how many ever dared combine it? Television? Nirvana? The Thompson Couple? That is the territory here. What once seemed the overkill of replacing minimalist Dawn Burman with muscleman Joe Klug opened a thruway to the big beat. What once seemed the neighborly gesture of taking in Ass Ponys steel hand John Erhardt powered sonic dimensions arena-rock dumbos risk tinnitus to achieve with Marshall stacks. The lyrics mix heroic feats of individual transcendence with a romantic striving vexed equally by economics and psychology as the melodies flow on unabated. Gender parity also guaranteed. A PLUS
Miranda Lambert: Platinum
Sixteen songs in an hour, half with her name on them and half farmed out, add up to 2014's most ambitious and accomplished big-ticket album. Pragmatically, Lambert front-loads the hookiest material, getting us to track 11 or 12, with four of her cowrites tailing off just slightly at the end. Among those, “Holding On to You,” although not quite a grabber, mixes formal exercise with idealized autobio the way pop songs do, a connubial hymn it’s hard to imagine Blake Shelton deserving—and hard to imagine Miranda Lambert deserving if he does. I also fall for its opposite number, the Miranda copyright “Bathroom Sink,” a crucible her mama taught her to clean at 16—she doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror there and doesn’t like that she’s still fighting with her mama either, but she takes her meds and faces the day. I must also mention “Platinum,” about her records and hair, and “Gravity Is a B*tch,” about her breasts, thighs, and girlfriends. Nor are the farmed-out sure shots any shorter on sass. Apolitical de facto feminism at its countriest. A
Withered Hand: New Gods
Almost 40 as he released his second album, Edinburgh singer-songwriter Dan Willson is one of those walking miracles who writes songs that seem simple until you try to think who they remind you of and pretty much stop at Neil Young, may the force be with him. Except insofar as they’re also songs about losing God, they’re songs about finding a better if by no means simple substitute. Which is love, of course, easy to say and hard to do in art and life both. Horny on tour, he remembers her entreating “Don’t go breaking my heart.” Taking a drive in the country, he wants to lick the tears from her face but can’t unblock his own heart. Telling her she’ll be beautiful yet again, he imagines tongues of fire above their heads. A
Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans
Mike Cooley has always been a more facile singer and tunesmith than Patterson Hood. But facile implies that things come easy for him, and Cooley has never written enough to sustain that illusion until this album, where the leaders of the world’s smartest boogie band split thirteen tracks smack down the middle. Two hymns to a caring fatalism bookend pained descriptions of simple men who believe clever bumper stickers and the piece of shit they vote for, of marriages too tragic for cheating songs because their ends are not in sight: the relaxed, acerbic Cooley lead “Shit Shots Count” (“The boss ain’t as smart as you’d like him to be/But he ain’t near as dumb as you think”) and the pained, oncycling Hood elegy “Grand Canyon” (“I’m never one to wonder about the things beyond control”). But pervading it all is a musical ease that’s on Cooley—a groove and feel that accomplishes a provisional and uncomplacent peace for a band eternally grateful that the highway still rolls. A
Robert Christgau: Expert Witness
Sam Cooke / Aretha Franklin / The Flaming Lips / Bette Midler / James Brown
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