April 2021 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Paul McCartney: McCartney III

Capitol Records 00602435136561 (CD). 2020. Paul McCartney, prod.; Steve Orchard, eng.

Performance ***

Sonics ***

Paul McCartney has neatly framed his solo career with three DIY albums over a 50-year period that provide historical context to his life as an ex-Beatle.

Technically, McCartney was still a Beatle when he dropped his eponymous solo debut in 1970, a homespun session that featured his gorgeous voice and penchant for melodic phrases while showcasing his ability to accompany himself on a full range of instruments. McCartney II was a pause for breath after proving that Wings could keep him at the top of the charts. Now comes McCartney III, an unplanned product of pandemic isolation that allows Sir Paul to make a 21st century album. Here, he manipulates computer-generated sounds and struggles (successfully) to get the most out of a compromised 78-year-old voice. Like much of the music made in this century, McCartney III is short on melody and long on rhythmic effects. There is nothing here as tuneful as the soul-baring classic love song “Maybe I’m Amazed,” from McCartney, or as bright as “Coming Up” from II. But McCartney rocks out here, spinning some rough-and-tumble electronic drum patterns on the album-opening instrumental, “Long Tailed Winter Bird.” Paul’s voice has lost its sweet edge so he’s dropped his range expertly, although in doing so he loses some of his trademark sound. He picks his spots: He nails the falsettos, that classic McCartney touch, on “Find My Way” and the ballad “Kiss of Venus.” There’s always a bit of Beatle in the mix: McCartney admits that “Lavatory Lil” is in the tradition of John Lennon’s “Polythene Pam,” from Abbey Road. It’s doggerel, but McCartney has always been good at that.—John Swenson


Loretta Lynn: Still Woman Enough

Legacy 19439827782 (CD). 2021. Patsy Lynn Russell, John Carter Cash, prods.; Chuck Turner, Trey Call, engs.

Performance ****

Sonics *****

Somewhere between Johnny Cash’s hip, late-career reinvention and Willie Nelson’s “songbook” nostalgia trips stands Loretta Lynn’s recent output. Since 2016, she has worked with her daughter, Patsy Lynn Russell, and Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, on a string of albums of old-school honkytonk meets slick, up-tempo, modern “roots” music.

Here we have Lynn’s 50th studio album as the headliner, not including 10 duet albums with Conway Twitty. Loretta walks a line between Americana (covering the Carter Family’s “Keep On the Sunny Side” and Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”), old Nashville (a remake of her first single, “Honky Tonk Girl,” plus a recited version of mega-hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), and newer Nashville (the title track, a collaboration with Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood; the satirical “One’s On the Way,” sung with Margo Price; and the album closer, another stab at Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” with Tanya Tucker). There’s also a paint-peeling cover of Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light” and a picker’s-paradise acoustic version of the country-gospel ballad “I Don’t Feel at Home Anymore.”

Aside from crackerjack pickin’ by Nashville’s finest, the attraction here is Lynn’s voice, still in fine form. The sound is clear and bright without being Nashville pop-ish. Arrangements are thick, the musicians enthusiastic, and that ageless voice stands front and center. Her soaring rendition of Mosie Lister’s “Where No One Stands Alone” assuages any doubts.

This album has a timeless quality, rooted in a proud past but with a modern shine.—Tom Fine


Little Freddie King: Going Upstairs

King, vocals, electric & acoustic guitars; “Wacko” Wade Wright, drums; Stephen Daly, guitar and slide; Paul Defiglia, bass; Robert Louis diTullio, harmonica; Elan Mehler, piano.

Irma Thomas: Love Is the Foundation

Thomas, vocals; Johnny Vidacovich, drums; Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, congas; Kyle Roussel, piano, Wurlitzer, B3; eight others.

Newvelle Records (LP). Ben Chace, prod.; Misha Kachkachishvili, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****½

Little Freddie King, pioneer of electric blues, and Irma Thomas, “soul queen of New Orleans,” were around 80 years old (she just past, he just shy of) when they recorded these albums in early 2020 at Esplanade Studios, once a vast Gothic church, renovated and acoustically treated, in the Crescent City’s vibrant Treme neighborhood. They’re both in fine, bracing form, their years apparent only in the honed crackle in his voice and the surefooted pace of hers; these characteristics lend the music a grand yet intimate authenticity.

The King album is pure Delta blues—”real real blues,” as King puts it in the liner notes, grounded in “hard tribulations and hard times” but “such a thrill” to come through on the other side with such plain artistry and joy. There’s not much to these songs, which have titles like “Pocket Full of Money,” “I Used to Be Down,” “Bad News,” “Standing at Your Door,” and “Can’t Do Nothing Baby”—the stuff of life and nothing more. King, the cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins and a highlight of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for four decades, sings the songs—and picks their accents and refrains—with a storyteller’s zest. The backup musicians, most of them denizens of the NoLa music scene, are stellar in their idiom. It’s a spirited delight.


Irma Thomas is a storyteller, too, more in the R&B vein. A contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, Thomas, like them, came up through the church. In a long career, Thomas had moments of near-breakthrough (a Grammy in 2007 for After the Rain; songs featured in Black Mirror and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law), but she never quite crossed over for reasons I don’t understand. (Her cover of James’s “Don’t Go to Strangers” could easily hold its own.) Her voice spans the registers, but she lingers in the lower-mid, her cadence conversational, her way with a lyric familiar and thorough as if she were singing about her own sagas of love, ache, loss, and triumph.

Both albums sound superb. The musicians—and the room—are right there, every guitar lick, bass pluck, and snare sizzle lifelike in detail and dynamics. The Thomas album in particular tosses up a soundstage as 3D as any I’ve heard on a record of this sort: The horns and back-up singers are way back there; the air between the players, front to back and side to side, is palpable. The recording isn’t “purist.” Misha Kachkachishvili, the engineer and studio owner, told me he used a tube compressor on Hopkins’s voice (to avoid overload) and a Roland Space Echo on Thomas’s (to give it a touch of early-’60s reverb). But he recorded the session on a set of vintage microphones, added the artificial effects discreetly, and processed it all through a Rupert Neve 5088 analog console. The result sounds natural. Marc Urselli, who mixed the Pro Tools files back in New York, added a little more reverb to King’s voice (recorded in a semi-isolation booth) to simulate the reverberant space of the other musicians. I think he overdid it, but only a little.

The albums, part of Newvelle Records’ four-LP “New Orleans Collection,” are a novelty for the label, which usually deals in modern and contemporary jazz. Each New Orleans title can be bought, straight from the company, individually.—Fred Kaplan


Goat Girl: On All Fours

Rough Trade Records RT0154LP (LP). 2021. Dan Carey, prod.; Alexis Smith, eng.

Performance ****½

Sonics ****

Goat Girl’s debut album was one of 2018’s more exciting releases. On All Fours is smoother and less raucous than its predecessor, but it’s a progression, not a departure. The funky bass is still there (played by a new bassist, Holly Hole), as is L.E.D.’s post-punk guitar sound and the lovely lead vocals by Clottie Cream (aka Lottie Pendlebury); dissonance is still cut by the band’s harmonies, but now they’ve added synths.

On “Sad Cowboy” there’s twangy guitar, but the track has a spacy feel. Their lyrics are less confrontational here—more oblique—but the themes are just as dark. “P.T.S. Tea” is ostensibly about scalding tea being carelessly and unapologetically spilled on a band member (so very English), but it’s also about women not being taken seriously. Melodies lull the listener; in “Pest,” the chorus delivers the harsh, four-letter dismissal in an almost angelic tone.

Over four LP sides, the songs change style: one song is guitar-driven; the next is ephemeral. Often, change comes in the same song: The single “Badibaba” is infectious pop, with alternating solos and vocal harmonies ending with a Joy Division–esque instrumental.

Dan Carey is a sympathetic producer, nurturing a sound that’s atmospheric but not too polished. The band’s (and the genre’s) DIY ethos still applies. Drummer Rosie Jones says, “You can find percussion in every item under the sun”; Goat Girl deploys many of them. A roll of Scotch tape is used on one track. This is, after all, still a band that rehearses in one of their mum’s garages.

On All Fours is young but mature, the sound of a band exploring musical possibilities.—Phil Brett


James Yorkston: The Wide, Wide River

Domino Recording Co. (16-bit/44.1 kHz stream/ Qobuz). 2021. Karl-Jonas Winqvist, prod.; Daniel Bengtsson, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ***½

Scottish singer-songwriter James Yorkston’s The Wide, Wide River, emerges from two decades of immersion in the traditional, new folk, and indie rock scenes.

Yorkston has long been part of the Fence Collective, a group of Scottish musicians that has included KT Tunstall and King Creosote. Besides those creative influences from the indie side, Yorkston’s low-key, low-tech approach is shaped by guitarist-singers like Dick Gaughan, Martin Carthy, and Nic Jones, who helped define English and Scottish folk in the late 20th century.

On past albums, he has mixed his own songs with covers; this time he wrote all the material himself. Another new touch is his collaboration with the Second Hand Orchestra, a Swedish pickup band that includes piano, percussion, flute, violins, and cello. The group, assembled and led by Karl-Jonas Winqvist, who also produced the album, focuses on improvisation to vary the folky guitar-and-voice style. Cecelia Österholm’s ethereal nyckelharpa (a Scandinavian instrument related to the hurdy-gurdy) floats through the Lou Reed–like “A Droplet Falls.” On “To Soothe Her Wee Bit Sorrows,” the polyrhythmic counterpoint between vocal line, cello, and bass brings to mind some of Jonny Greenwood’s Radiohead work. “Choices, Like Wide Rivers” provides contrast, with calming harmonies in the backing vocals.

Accompanied by his intricate guitar playing, Yorkston delivers his literate lyrics unpretentiously. “There Is No Upside” is Dylan meets Morrissey. The best offering is the spare, introspective “We Test the Beams,” which dwells on the importance of friendship as we age.—Anne E. Johnson

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