Steve Thorngate's Music Reviews

Music

Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions, by Billy Bragg and Wilco

On Mermaid Avenue (1998), Billy Bragg and Wilco wrote and recorded music for some of the 3,000 tuneless lyrics Woody Guthrie left behind. The stunning result was so much more than a reverent, Pete-Seeger-and-friends tribute album could ever be: the great Guthrie expanded in our cultural imagination and introduced to a new generation.

Music

Popular music

CC recommends

The Blanco Sessions, by Janis Martin. In 1956, RCA signed “the female Elvis,” 15-year-old rockabilly pioneer Janis Martin. But a secret marriage and a pregnancy soon led the label to drop her. In 2007, neo-rockabilly powerhouse Rosie Flores coaxed Martin out of retired obscurity and produced a comeback album for her.

Music

Let It Burn, by Ruthie Foster

Ruthie Foster has a powerhouse of a blues/gospel voice, which she never allows to overpower a song. If you’re not sold already, Foster made her newest album in New Orleans with the Blind Boys of Alabama and a cast of hotshot players. It wouldn’t have killed them to restrain the Hammond organ player once in a while, but that’s being picky: the project brings a truckload of soul and grit.

Music

A Wasteland Companion, by M. Ward

M. Ward’s solo albums reveal that he surpasses his more-famous collaborators (Conor Oberst, Zooey Deschanel) on all fronts. His sound has a sepia-toned timelessness; it’s both inventive and a whole bunch of kinds of old-fashioned.

Music

Kisses on the Bottom, by Paul McCartney

The first question to ask about a Paul McCartney standards album is why it took him so long. The guy’s always been fascinated by the American Songbook, and unlike some pop singers who have taken detours to the land of jazzy old tunes and swinging little combos, Sir Paul has a powerful and chameleonic voice.

Music

Pull It Together, by Shannon Stephens

On her third album, Shan­non Stephens reins in her chamber-folk experimentalism in favor of a bluesy little band that takes her songs to unexpected places. Her sound remains relatively subdued, yet it grooves and pops and even swaggers.

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CC recommends: Popular music

The Harrow and the Harvest pushes Gillian Welch's winning formula further. On Mockingbird Time, the Jayhawks' sweet harmonies and gritty edges are finally back. There's a hefty dose of early Paul Simon on Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues. "Soul" is as good a word as any for Liz Janes's groovy little record Say Goodbye. Tom Waits's Bad As Me is accessible enough to convert some skeptics. And The Head and the Heart's self-titled debut is the feel-good record of the year.

Music

Tell My Sister, by Kate & Anna McGarrigle

The McGarrigle sisters (Kate died of sarcoma last year) were more successful in their native Canada than in the States, but they were deeply admired by those who covered their songs: Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur, Kate's son Rufus Wainwright.

Music

Night of Hunters, by Tori Amos

While it's hard to imagine many pop artists signing up to write a song cycle based on the history of classical music, for Amos—whom  Deutsche Grammophon approached with this idea—the project seems almost inevitable.

Music

4x4, by Works Progress Administration

Works Progress Administration is a loose collective of a supergroup, primarily a collaboration between Glen Phillips and Sean Watkins.