Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
This is an odd edition: We have one genuinely great album that I found hard to actually discuss, we have one good album that short-circuits my critical faculties, and we have one disappointment for which I have way too much to say. Anyway, onward!
Valerie June, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
I’ve long found it difficult to contextualize my thoughts on Valerie June’s discography and career as a whole thus far. She’s the sort of artist branded most commonly as roots in style yet far more versatile than that description allows. Granted, unlike other artists in that vein, I’d argue she’s switched between country, gospel, soul, bluegrass, folk, rock, and pretty much everything else fairly effortlessly, and while the thread connecting her works is a bit harder to discern, the works themselves always feel cohesive. So the only way to describe her newest album is that it’s a foray into the dreamier side of R&B that’s damn-near ambient in its presentation, and while I wouldn’t place it above 2017’s The Order of Time … wow, talk about a pleasantly blissful experience. Old-school soul is still the main foundation, from the dreamier piano work, muted bass, clicking, sandy patters of more developed percussion on the excellent “You and I,” and supple, liquid swells of glossy strings that blend well with the orchestral flourishes – not to mention an album closer that’s an utterly relaxing, peaceful way to spend a minute of your time. It does meander a bit at points on “Colors” and “Fallin’” and can feel lacking in greater versatility, but capturing that cohesive, relaxing mood is also part of the point, and I did appreciate the tracks that reached for higher highs in their instrumental crescendos to complement the grooves and hooks, like the wonderful opener “Stay”- plus the extended meditation with those wonderful flutes – or the skittering liquid flourishes driving “Why the Bright Stars Glow.” And even when the album does aim darker, like how the moodier acoustics, muted bass and weedier horn section are the driving focus of “Stardust Scattering,” it still fits that spacier, ethereal mood just as well.
Of course, that’s a weird note on the content, where it’s obvious this album is aiming for “feel-good” in its overall approach and approaches any dramatic stakes with a sense of confused wonder and mystery – likely informed by the pandemic, but who am I to say? And while I wouldn’t say the thematic arc explored really hits any grand moment or theme beyond relationships and “we’ll make it through this together because we love each other” or clichés or generic platitudes masked as life advice, the generally hazy approach works when taken in context of the actual mood captured here. I also wouldn’t say June’s high, nasal tone is the best fit for this material, but I was surprised by how much natural firepower she emoted on “Call Me a Fool” and “Why the Bright Stars Glow.” She’s got the sincerity to sell the cautious yet optimistic approach taken by the content that’s only further amplified, again, by the unknown mystery swirling around this entire project and its questioning of what that future will look like. Very light 8/10 – like most of June’s work, I would say it’s a definite grower, but let it sink in for a while, if you haven’t. It’s an absolute delight.
- Favorite tracks: “Stay,” “Why the Bright Stars Glow,” “Call Me a Fool” (w/ Carla Thomas), “Two Roads,” “Stardust Scattering”
- Least favorite track: “Colors”
Rob Leines, Blood Sweat and Beers
This is one of those albums where I cringed at the title, checked it out thanks to a helpful comment made here suggesting it was pretty great, and ended up finding a project that’s a blast to listen through and doesn’t require a lot of words for it. For context: Rob Leines has been active for a few years and is known primarily as a blue-collar road warrior akin to, say, Dallas Moore with more of a workingman’s perspective and approach in a Jerry Reed kind of way. And the best way I can describe this album is a shit-kicking honky-tonk-meets-hard-rock fusion that will absolutely kill live … you know, when that becomes a thing again. And for as much as I like the stomping electric guitar tones that I swear go harder than some metal projects I’ve heard, what I like even more is the frenetically fast-paced tempos and interplay with the fiddles for good measure. This album flies by, and it’s a ton of fun. Now, this album doesn’t thematically reinvent the wheel, and songs like “Saturday Night,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Honky Tonk Life,” and “Good Time” are basically what you think they’re about based off those titles, but there’s also a rollicking self-awareness to the approach that always keeps this loose and never takes itself that seriously.
Which, honestly, is how I wish Leines approached this entire project. He slows things down for a dark murder ballad with a pretty predictable plot on “Patti Lynn” and isn’t nearly as convincing with that sort of material, either. He’s a rough-edged, hangdog personality that adds swagger to the album’s meatier moments like “Saturday Night,” “Curse the Sun,” and “Southern Breeze” – which is a real highlight with that fantastic guitar riff interplay off of the piano – and can benefit from being a little eccentric and quirky. But his flow can also be a little choppy at points, and he tends to oversell the slower tracks, especially the straightforward country ballad “Hold On” that’s done much better earlier on as “All I Need,” and I’m not sure this album offers much beyond a pretty fun time. Then again, the moments where it hits are pretty great, and it does what it sets out to do. I just want to hear a more consistent approach is all. Strong 7/10 – hang on to your hat for this one.
- Favorite tracks: “Southern Breeze,” “Saturday Night,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Honky Tonk Life,” “Bailin’ Hay,” “Curse the Sun”
- Least favorite track: “Hold On”
Austin Meade, Black Sheep
I remember stumbling upon Austin Meade’s Waves album in 2019, a project teetering on the edges of the burn-out and exhaustion that became something of a personal favorite for that year. The title track was very nearly my favorite song of that year, and the generally warm country-rock production was a highlight, too. So I was looking forward to the eventual follow-up, especially now that Meade has signed with Snakefarm Records and was reportedly looking to build off the rougher edges of that last album’s title track. Black Sheep, though? It doesn’t get there, and this was a really big disappointment for me, folks. Now, granted, in terms of Red Dirt artists looking to push into hard or atmospheric alt-rock of the ‘90s, this is hardly anything new, and while I’m not too impressed by Koe Wetzel’s take on it, I was generally happy with Kody West’s Overgrown from last year. And to Meade’s credit, the sound and production isn’t an issue here: He’s always placed an emphasis on developed, simmering melodic grooves, and here, they now have as much shrill, howling presence as the waves of smoldering guitar feedback and heavier riffs. And while this is a note on the content, I will give credit to an album at least somewhat self-aware to know of how the impending doom in sound captures a defiantly nihilistic tone in the framing.
Basically, the weird comparison I’m going to make isn’t to those other aforementioned names, then, but to Sturgill Simpson, particularly with Sound & Fury. And while that album was framed around Simpson’s utter hatred of the music industry, this is framed around an obviously toxic relationship and is absolutely petty as hell and just as unenjoyable to revisit. And the whole “both sides” approach in trying to showcase her as uncaring on “Cave In” doesn’t work when the writing is so self-absorbed across the board and has its head up its own ass on tracks like “I Don’t Feel A Thing” and “Hurt You to Hear This.” I remember liking the reflective thoughts he explored on Waves with a generally isolated feel in the writing, and we do get that at points in exploring the mental mind-warp of “Déjà Vu,” this is mainly trying way too hard to be edgy, evidenced by a clunky, curdled opener in “Dopamine Drop” and the utterly overblown title track closer. Now, if I’m playing Devil’s advocate and assuming there’s some self-awareness to the approach in trying to capture an angry mood, that hook on “Happier Alone” sticks like no other, and I did enjoy the gentler, moodier groove of “Settle Down,” even if it drags on way too long. “Lying to Myself” is probably the best track here, if only because it features the most developed groove and explores Meade’s own culpability in ending the relationship. But he’s also not the sort of expressive vocal presence who can keep up with this style of material, especially with the added distortion that makes him cross across as clunky in the mix. And while he came by it pretty naturally on “Waves,” none of these songs even come close to capturing that song’s firepower; loud and atmospheric doesn’t always mean nuanced. Strong 5/10 – to quote a song here, it really hurt me to hear this.
- Favorite tracks: “Lying to Myself,” “Settle Down,” “Happier Alone,” “Déjà Vu”
- Least favorite track: “Dopamine Drop”