Bon Iver: I,I (Jagjaguwar) * * *
Tanya Tucker: While I'm Livin' (Fantasy Records) * * * *
Eilen Jewell: Gypsy (Signature Sounds) * * * *
Justin Vernon, the man behind the Bon Iver moniker, is the JK Rowling of pop music. He began writing in humble circumstances – in self-imposed exile in his father’s old cabin in the Wisconsin woods – as a means of consolation, only to discover that his modest work of solo catharsis, For Emma, Forever Ago, resonated around the world.
While Vernon may not quite be rich list material, he has subsequently used his success and influence to put something back, launching a not-for-profit streaming site and running a festival in his hometown of Eau Claire with Aaron Dessner of The National. Dessner crops up with brother Bryce on the fourth Bon Iver album, alongside a number of other artists, notably Bruce Hornsby and James Blake, with whom Vernon has collaborated since emerging from his initial isolation. Having started his career with an austere lo-fi acoustic sound, Vernon has developed into quite the studio head and I,I picks up where previous album 22, A Million left off in creating a tastefully wrought sonic tapestry of electric and acoustic instrumentation embellished with studio effects.
Atmospheric though this is, the album lacks a track with the emotional appeal of a Skinny Love. Its closest contender is the straight-up soulfulness of Salem which is set against a twinkling, gently propulsive groove and the upswell of classical brass.
The return of Texan diva Tanya Tucker with her first new album in 17 years is good news for fans of old school country music. Better still, While I’m Livin’ has been produced by Shooter Jennings, son of her fellow country outlaw Waylon, and Tucker devotee Brandi Carlile, who had a hand in the songwriting too, guiding Tucker to tell her own story and interpret some judiciously chosen covers.
The Miranda Lambert ballad The House That Built Me and gospel-infused roots rocker Hard Luck offer familiar country narratives but are executed with an infectious spirit that is hard to resist.
As to the originals, there is confessional grit to Mustang Ridge, a string-soaked longing quality to The Wheels of Laredo of which her former partner Glen Campbell would have approved, defiance in the characterful honky tonk twang of I Don’t Owe You Anything and a trace of aching ambivalence in Bring My Flowers Now(“while I’m livin’”). On this evidence, Tucker has a lot of livin’ left to give.
Idaho singer/songwriter Eilen Jewell surely has a Tanya Tucker record or two in her collection. She shows off her blues rock chops on Crawl, the opening track of her eighth album though, broadly speaking, her languorous music carries more of a bluegrass and Americana influence. When she sings of hard times on Miles to Go it is with a worn soul, and there is a timeless truth and simple sagacity to the bare bones Fear.
However, she kicks back with some heroic Neil Young-style guitar wrangling on Working Hard for Your Love and has some choice words for the leader of the free world as she dissects his feminist credentials and the gender pay gap on oldtimey singalong 79 Cents (Meow Song). - Fiona Shepherd
John McLeod: Piano Music (Métier) * * * *
John McLeod is 85 and still very active as a composer in Edinburgh. He’s at an age, though, where retrospective anthologies, such as this monumental two-disc set of his piano music by Murray McLachlan and daughter Rose McLachlan, are both warranted and informative.
Each CD progresses chronologically. The first deals with miscellaneous sets from the 1960s Four Impromptus and folksy Hebridean Dances, the delicate intimacy of the Three Interludes and the quirkily narrated (by the composer) Haflidi’s Pictures of 2008. The second disc, meanwhile, focuses primarily on the sterner stuff of the four sonatas. McLachlan senior’s long association with McLeod reveals its virtues in performances that are both virile and sensitive, capturing the pervading seriousness of the music and its often austere demeanour, but also recognising the potent lyrical language that defines its soulful, human side.
A genuinely rich collection of works. - Ken Walton
Kalle Kalima & Knut Reiersrud: Flying Like Eagles (ACT Music) * * * *
The resonant twang that opens the first track of this disc, Strong Wind, Deep Water, Tall Trees, Warm Fire, signals that these two guitarists, one Finnish the other Swedish, are westward bound, indulging their love of Americana, with these idiosyncratic yet satisfying instrumental covers of traditional tunes, several with Native American pedigree, and some classic rock.
With Kalima on electric guitar and Reiersrud providing textural colour on slides, underpinned by bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Jim Black, they seem at times to stalk round each other like some spaghetti western climax, guitars ringing or letting rip, as in Trent Reznor’s Hurt. They open For What It’s Worth with the harmonic chimes of the Buffalo Springfield original, preserving its sense of disquiet, give a dreamy account of Hotel California, while the Native American lullaby, Little One, develops into a turmoil of guitars. - Jim Gilchrist