Usually when an artist goes solo, there’s a sense of uncertainty.
You know the questions. Will this person be able to capture the magic of his/her band on her/his own? What if the other members of the band were really bringing the magic? How different will this solo music be from the music this person made with his/her band? Will it be too different? Will it be too much the same? When is the band getting back together?
Absolutely none of these questions have been asked about Brittany Howard, leader of the Alabama Shakes, on the occasion of her first solo record. That’s because if any artist in recent memory seemed to have the right to take the band name on as her own, it was Howard. For most people – and no offense intended to her three bandmates, though I just had to Google to see how many were in the band – she is Alabama Shakes. Her voice, her guitar playing and her jaw-dropping presence are the three main reasons to listen to her band.
In many ways, then, Jaime is the least risky solo bow I have ever seen. I think everyone assumed Jaime would be just what it is: a solid, soulful, strange and striking piece of work that centers Howard’s voice and further cements her as an artist to watch. It’s not surprising that this album is pretty great. It would have been surprising, in fact, if it were not.
But let’s be clear: Jaime doesn’t sound like Alabama Shakes. It’s a much quieter affair, with a lot on its mind and a real sense of dynamics and versatility. The album is named after and dedicated to Howard’s sister, who died as a teenager, and when she shouts “We are all brothers and sisters” on the wild dirge “13th Century Metal,” it feels both universal and personal. This album is remarkably weird, as if Howard knew exactly how far she could push her well-earned creative freedom, but it’s leavened with beautiful numbers like “Stay High” and the deeply soulful “Baby.”
“History Repeats,” the opener and first single, masters that universal personal thing right away. It’s both romantic and political, and when she sings “History repeats and we defeat ourselves” over and over, she makes her point beautifully. “Goat Head” is one of the most striking, with keyboards from Robert Glasper and a lyric about herself as a child trying to make sense of the racist south. “Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back,” she sings with (and this is remarkable) a tone of jaded innocence. But she juxtaposes that with a beautiful oasis of contentment on “Presence.” The whole record is like this, stabbing you and then kissing the wound.
Like that second Alabama Shakes album, Jaime may not seem to hang together at first, but every part of it is meticulously crafted and arranged. It has taken a few listens to really piece it together, but now that it’s flowing for me, I think it’s pretty terrific. Like most people, I assume, I never had any doubt that it would be, but Howard threw more than one curve ball here, especially for fans of her band, and it’s impressive how well she navigates this jazz-soul-hip-hop blend she delivers. I have no idea if Alabama Shakes will ever be a thing again, but it hardly matters: in or out of the band, she’s swell, and Jaime is another winner.
I can’t imagine a similar truckload of confidence greeting Liam Gallagher, the erstwhile singer of Oasis. He suffers from the classic lead singer dilemma: Liam’s brother Noel is widely credited with writing the songs that made Oasis what they were, and without him, there’s no real way to know what level he’ll be able to reach. He has one of the most recognizable voices to emerge from the Britpop boom of the ‘90s, but those questions above certainly applied to him, and the mediocre nature of Beady Eye, his post-Oasis band, didn’t help answer them.
It’s a truly pleasant surprise, then, how enjoyable Gallagher’s solo albums have been. 2017’s As You Were gave us a solid set of songs, particularly the mea culpa “For What It’s Worth,” and now the cheekily titled Why Me? Why Not takes another good-sized step forward. While Noel is busy issuing dance-rock singles, Liam connected with pop craftsmen like Greg Kurstin (of The Bird and the Bee) and Andrew Wyatt (of Miike Snow) and, for the second time, assembled a catchy, memorable group of short, well-written tunes.
And make no mistake, each of the 14 songs on Why Me is a potential single. The roaring guitars of “Shockwave,” the opener, have already delivered Liam his most successful solo track, and there are so many others lying in wait here that Radio One may not know what hit it. The barrelhouse piano and thunderous drums of “Halo,” for instance, are pretty terrific, as is the melody and gentle sweetness of “Now That I’ve Found You.” Kurstin and Wyatt produced, and every song sounds crisp and ready for mass consumption.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is some crassly commercial effort, though of course it is designed to become as popular as possible. It truly is a well-honed set of songs, all of which fit Gallagher’s voice quite well. It’s a more polished effort than the last few Oasis albums and miles better than Beady Eye, which makes this my favorite Liam Gallagher record in something like 20 years. That may sound like faint praise, but I mean it as a true blue compliment. Why Me? Why Not is a thoroughly enjoyable record, and I hope Liam can keep this streak going.
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So some of you may have noticed that I skipped the second quarter report this year. I took an entire month off for the first time in this silly music column’s long history, and that month happened to be June, and so I never compiled my halfway-through-the-year list. It’s time now for the third quarter report, and I hope it’s no surprise that it doesn’t resemble the one I assembled in March at all, except for the top spot. I mean, what a lousy year it would have been if it did.
Anyway, I’m glad to be back in my weekly groove, and glad to have a third quarter report to share with you. Here’s what my top 10 list in progress looks like right now.
10. Devin Townsend, Empath.
9. Over the Rhine, Love and Revelation.
8. Pedro the Lion, Phoenix.
7. David Mead, Cobra Pumps.
6. Coyote Kid, The Skeleton Man.
5. Peter Mulvey, There Is Another World.
4. Bryan Scary, Birds.
3. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You.
2. Keane, Cause and Effect.
1. Amanda Palmer, There Will Be No Intermission.
That album at number six will get a review shortly, I promise. There are also a few I wish I could include, like The Bird and the Bee’s amazing Van Halen tribute record. And there’s a new Marillion, With Friends From the Orchestra, on its way later this month, but it will be ineligible since it consists of new versions of older songs. But with strings! I am very much looking forward to hearing it.
That will do it for this week. Probably Wilco and Sturgill Simpson on tap for next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.