Editor’s note: From 2012 to 2014, Matt Rice wrote the music column Matt on Music for The Eastern Echo, the student newspaper for Eastern Michigan University. Beginning in 2016, Matt relaunched this column on The Young Folks. You can read past installments of this column here.
Here’s some alt-country and Americana records to get you through the end of February.
Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) The most overtly political track, “Better Get It Right the First Time,” stands out before you even focus on the lyrics. Soul horns and an ear-catching (though unexpected) rap verse—think Michelle Moore’s verse on Springsteen’s “Rocky Ground”—make it an immediate highlight before you even notice that it’s her Black Lives Matter track. But beyond the song’s quality, the fact that there’s even a political song this explicit on the record says something about her ambitions. If her solo debut Tomorrow Is My Turn effectively showcased her fantastic vocals through her takes on country classics and traditional folk songs, its follow-up’s originals prove her to be a strong writer in addition. As a plus, her voice (and banjo) sounds even better here. 8/10
Old 97’s: Graveyard Whistling (ATO) Anyone who hasn’t heard 2014’s Most Messed Up, one of the decade’s most fun and underrated rock albums, should get on that. For those who have, let this one serve as proof that these alt-country heroes are enjoyable even when they’re not exactly brilliant. It’s less energetic than its predecessor, taking on a more roots-based sound. Because of this, it relies heavily on Rhett Miller’s melodic tunes and personality, neither of which reaches the heights of “Nashville,” “Give It Time,” or “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” and some standout lyricism. “Jesus Loves You” is the biggest highlight, both because of how it chugs along and because the words (“Well you can talk to him all night but I’m right here/He makes wine from water but I just bought you a beer”) escape self-parody through intimacy the same way “Let’s Get Drunk and Get it On” did. Some other songs hit pretty hard, as well. But the fact that I’ve named four Most Messed Up tracks here should reveal where my priorities are. 7.5/10
Ryan Adams: Prisoner (Blue Note) Every white guy with a guitar and a broken heart wants to write a Blood on the Tracks. Most wind up with a Sea Changes. Adams’ pain, at the very least, has some semblance of self-awareness, knowledge that this is temporary and at some point, he’ll get back to more important topics on the 20 albums he’ll release in the next 10 years. Still, self-awareness or no, who cares? If people can go after David Longstreth for his whiny bullshit, then I don’t see why this sad bastard, who wouldn’t know a soundscape if he was dropped into one, should get a free pass. Nevertheless, you can tell that this is an above average Adams album because, if you squint your ears, it actually sounds a little like country. But I can’t lie to myself for a whole 42 minutes, and I’d rather hear a Mandy Moore album about him anyway. 6.5/10
Single of the Week – Neil Cicierega: “Don’t” (self-released) Insane Clown Posse + Journey = a creation better than either by themselves.