Three recent albums – a solo album by Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, enthralling with just voice and guitar. An archival release from Americana legend Gillian Welch, covering the first volume of 48 songs she recorded in one weekend in 2016. And the third album in three years from pop/R&B superstar Ariana Grande.
Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker has made solo albums before – she released Stages of the Sun as a 15 year old, with a disconcertingly glossy cover, and also released Hours Were The Birds in 2013 and Abysskiss in 2018. Songs, released in a joint package with Instrumentals, follows in the wake of a breakout year in 2019 for Big Thief, with U.F.O.F. and Two Hands both receiving acclaim.
Where U.F.O.F. in particular was a dense record that took time to appreciate, Songs is pared down to just Lenker and her guitar. Lenker’s easily talented enough to carry a solo project alone – Lenker’s guitar work is distinctive and interesting. Lenker’s songwriting voice is even more distinctive – she sometimes reminds me of a female Neil Young, with a thin emotive voice and a unique perspective. Lenker’s songs always feel like she sees the world, and hears music, a little differently than everyone else, and she’s letting us on her viewpoint.
Lenker’s fascinating – she grew up in a cult, while in the interview cycle for Songs she’s discussed the dissolution of a five year marriage to Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek. She’s particularly emotionally vulnerable on ‘Not A Lot, Just Forever’, where she sings “And your dearest fantasy/Is to grow a baby in me/I could be a good mother.”
Lenker’s guitar picking and keening voice are beautiful on ‘Anything’. Most of my favourites are clustered at the end of Songs – like its predecessor ‘Not A Lot, Just Forever’, ‘Dragon Eyes’ is straightforward and emotional. Closer ‘My Angel’ is atmospheric and its sudden ending is a reminder of the rough-hewn origins of Songs. It was recorded on an 8-track tape machine in a wood cabin in Massachusetts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lenker’s one of music’s most compelling artistic voices right now, and Songs is almos as intriguing as Big Thief’s two records last year.
Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1
It’s been a banner year for Gillian Welch fans – she’d been quiet ever since 2003’s Soul Journey, with only one subsequent studio album. In 2020, she’s already released a quarantine album of covers with partner Dave Rawlings, and she’s now released 48 songs from her archive as Boots No. 2. The release of Boots No. 2 was prompted by a tornado – in early March, the roof was torn off their recording studio, and Welch and Rawlings scrambled to save their equipment and archived recordings. The salvage process made them realise they cared for the material (Welch told Rolling Stone that “It’s one thing to know in your mind that you have these tapes, and it’s another thing to run through the dark with them in your arms, rescuing them from destruction”), and they’ve released it over three volumes during the back end of 2020.
Welch needed to deliver a prescribed number of songs by the end of 2002 to complete a publishing deal. Accordingly, all 48 songs were recorded in a single weekend in December 2002 and releasing them has almost doubled her back-catalogue. Despite the quick recording process, The Lost Songs feels apiece with most of Welch’s other material; as always it’s centred around Welch and Rawlings’ harmonies with Rawlings adding adornment, often on his 1935 Epiphone Olympic guitar.
The first sixteen songs from the archives are collected on Volume 1. ‘Johnny Dear’ immediately sets the standard high while ‘First Place Ribbon’ showcases Rawlings’ picking – his ability to provide interesting lead parts on so many tracks is key. Welch is able to tap into powerful tradition on ‘Give That Man A Road’ and ‘Mighty Good Book’. ‘Valley of Tears’, covered by Solomon Burke, is simple and graceful. The bluesy ‘Honey Baby’ features a surprisingly raw vocal, and ‘Here Come the News’ is a pretty closer.
New listeners might want to start with Revival or Time (The Revelator), but this archival release is essential for Welch fans, especially given her small discography.
I’ll planning to slip the other two volumes of Boots No. 2 quietly onto the Gillian Welch page on this site, rather than feature them in New Reviews. At the moment my impression is that Volume 2 is the strongest, with less stylistic variation than the first but a very fine set of songs. Volume 3 features some material that was later reworked for Soul Journey.
I heartily enjoyed Grande’s previous two records – she was fascinating when her lyrics focused on PTSD around the Manchester bombing and her reaction to Mac Miller’s overdose. Lyrics aren’t always the focus in pop music, but the focus on serious subject matter made for interesting songs. On Positions, Grande’s third album in little over 24 months, she reverts to more traditional R&B subject matter, chronicling the lust of a new relationship on songs like ’34+35′ and ‘Nasty’. When presented with Disney-sounding strings for the former, she opted to make lyrics as jarringly yet awkwardly dirty as possible, with lines like “Just get me them babies” and “Even though I’m wifey, you can hit it like a side chick.” The lyrical preoccupations obviously recall Dangerous Woman, but musically Positions often resembles the 1990s R&B throwbacks of her debut.
The emotional punch of the past two previous records is still present – the duet with The Weeknd on ‘Off The Table’ is low-key, focused on the pair’s vocals. The quirky string arrangements of ‘My Hair’ and ‘Love Language’ are different from anything Grande’s done before, and there’s a lovely coda on the latter. There’s plenty of accomplished R&B/pop, like the title track and the closing ‘POV’.
Positions feels a little low key after a run of block-busting albums from Grande, but it’s still an enjoyable collection of songs with few obvious weak points.
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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