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Steve Earle and the Dukes, “So You Wannabe An Outlaw” (Warner Bros.)
Steve Earle bills his new album as the philosophical heir to “Guitar Town,” and the DNA connecting it to that landmark 1986 record can’t be missed. Texas-born and Nashville-raised, at least musically, Earle reconnects with his roots in all the best ways.
Earle has ranged around musically for three decades without losing his ability to nail a great song. During that time he has arguably written the definitive song on the death penalty (“Billy Austin”), America’s economic divide (“Down Here Below”) among other masterpieces, all without losing his bearings.
Now he goes back to Texas to revive the muscular style he modeled on Waylon Jennings and other legendary outlaws. But he sounds, as always, like nobody but … Steve Earle.
The journey back is as good as anything he’s put out in a decade or more.
Earle is backed on the album once again by the Dukes, the rocking little combo that supported much of his best work and delivers in fine form here. Miranda Lambert, Willie Nelson and Johnny Bush make appealing cameos.
The capstone is “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a poignant tribute to Guy Clark, a fellow Texan and songwriting mentor to Earle and many others, who died in May.
Earle at his best rocks intensely, fearlessly confronts inner demons and wears his heart on the outside. This album, full of flaming arrows from a seemingly limitless quiver, does it all with gusto.
Fleet Foxes, “Crack-Up” (Nonesuch Records)
Fleet Foxes’ “Crack-Up” doesn’t just grab your attention — it gives the senses a full-body massage.
Produced by leader Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset, who appears on all 11 tracks but one, the band’s third album isn’t far removed from 2011 predecessor “Helplessness Blues,” although the shades are more varied here, the hues deeper, the in-song transitions multiplied, the themes wider and the arrangements both more precious and adventurous.
Some musical and lyrical references may seem taken from an updated “Rock Snob’s Dictionary” — Igor Stravinsky, Beowulf and F. Scott Fitzgerald — but they are at the service of the songs, not the other way around.
Echoes of Lee Hazlewood and Talk Talk are also in the grooves and there are some progressive and jazz touches. The foundations, however, are still deep in folk-rock and Pecknold’s spiraling vocals bathed in reverb usually set to “Gregorian chant.”
Pecknold, who spent part of the extended sojourn between albums at Columbia University, finds room to address seemingly personal issues as well as the band’s situation.
Current events also have their place and the title cut and album closer reacts to the fake news phenomena — “When the world insists that the false is so” — while “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” asks “Who knows what State is in store?”
The array of instruments beyond the horns and strings is so extensive — from prepared autoharp and a Moog Minitaur to an electric harpsichord and a swinging door — that you feel some elements more than hear them.
Rewarding, involving and meticulous, “Crack-Up” has been well worth the wait.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound” (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers)
In the hands of an ordinary songwriter, “Anxiety” would be an ordinary song.
But when the writer is Jason Isbell, arguably the finest songwriter putting pen to paper these days, the song changes tempo and builds to an angsty, gnarling crescendo, all in unspoken support of lyrics about being anxious when you should be happy.
It’s not the best song on “The Nashville Sound,” the new album Isbell produced with his old band, the 400 Unit, but it shows what a craftsman he has become.
Following “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free,” two masterworks that have grown in stature since their release in 2013 and 2015, “The Nashville Sound” doesn’t always rise to Isbell’s standards. An angry song called “White Man’s World,” for example — likely Isbell’s take on post-2016 election America — lacks his usual flair for nuanced, show-don’t-tell lyrics.
But the album has its moments.
The opener, “Last of My Kind,” is an evocative reflection on losing touch with the past. A wistful love song called “If We Were Vampires” rivals Isbell’s best work. So does the emphatic, optimistic anthem, “Hope the High Road,” the album’s first single. (AP)
Cheap Trick, “We’re All Alright!” (Big Machine Records)
Cheap Trick is way better than all right on “We’re All Alright!” — which may be their best in 35 years.
With the album title taken from the ending chant on their signature song “Surrender,” Cheap Trick makes a bold declaration that joyful, unrestrained, in-your-face (and burned into your brain) rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well.
Even this band’s rejects are better than most bands’ A-material: The best track on the album, “Radio Lover,” sat atop a discarded demo pile for 20 years before surfacing here. It’s one of four up-tempo rockers in a row that kick off the album, including the scale-climbing “Nowhere,” and the first single “Long Time Coming,” which pays homage to their musical roots with a Who-like riff similar to “Can’t Explain.”
A bonus track that deserves to be on every copy of the album is a cover of The Move’s “Blackberry Way,” which sounds like what would result if The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” and The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” had a baby.
Forty-four years after their debut, Cheap Trick has still got it going on: Robin Zander is screaming again at the end of verses, and Rick Nielsen’s quirky, minimalist guitar solos are as rambunctious as the most caffeinated garage band. This band neither surrenders nor gives anything away.
NEW YORK: Chris Brown, DJ Khaled, Lil Wayne and New Edition have been added as performers at this month’s BET Awards.
The network announced Tuesday that Post Malone and Roman GianArthur would join previously announced performers Bruno Mars, Migos and Future on June 25 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
Other set to hit the stage include Trey Songz, Tamar Braxton and Jessie Reyez. “Saturday Night Live” comic Leslie Jones will be host.
Presenters include Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Trevor Noah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Issa Rae and Yara Shahidi.
Beyonce, who is pregnant with twins, is nominated for seven awards, while Mars is up for five.
New Edition, who had success with their BET biopic this year, will receive the lifetime achievement award. Chance the Rapper will earn the humanitarian award. (AP)
By Scott Strout