Improvisation Without a Theme
Four New Records With Nothing in Common

Gonna do some quick ones this week. I’ve chosen four albums with no connections between them that I can see, except that they’re all worth your time and attention. I’ve been going to the same record store (Kiss the Sky in Batavia) for 16 years now, and they’re used to me now. But I do miss the strange looks I used to get from record store clerks when I would buy four albums like this together. “Yes, they’re all for me. Yes, I like all of this.” (Heck, at the same time I picked these up I also bought Inter Arma’s covers record, and I’m not even featuring that one here.)

Anyway, four albums, no connecting threads. Here we go.

Noah Gabriel, Summer’s Gone.

I’m sometimes wary about talking up my friends in this space, because how would you know if I’m genuinely impressed with an album or just helping out someone I know? I hope I’ve spent the last 20 years in such a way that you’d be surprised if I promoted something I didn’t truly admire in this space, but I’m always cognizant of the need for full disclosure. So yeah, I know Noah. I’ve even shared a stage with him. And yes, I really like his new record, Summer’s Gone, and would even if I didn’t know him.

Summer’s Gone is Gabriel’s tenth solo album, and each one of those has been a different beast. This time he’s stripped things down – acoustic guitar, bass, drums and vocals – and made a sparse yet full-sounding album that lets the rawness of the performances take the spotlight. Gabriel has always had a love for ‘90s music, and this one combines that with his more obvious inspiration here, Chris Whitley.

The songs are all Gabriel, though, and they’re good ones. I’m impressed with how smoothly “Rocking Horse Road” switches from 5/8 to 6/8, and how nimbly bassist John Abbey and drummer Gerald Dowd navigate these changes. Gabriel is a hell of a guitar player – you can hear him in full electric mode on the two records he made with his band, Noah’s Arcade – but here he sometimes barely plays anything, just enough to set the song’s atmosphere and nothing more. That’s especially true on standout “Crazy,” which feels like it’s hanging together through sheer willpower. I admire Gabriel for not touching that performance, for letting it appear here just as it is.

Gabriel has been clear about his inspirations for this album, but this never sounds like an imitation or a pastiche. It’s just Noah trying on new clothes, and finding that they fit beautifully. The sound of this record is remarkable, minimal yet room-filling. And I love that he ended it with a song called “Never Say Goodbye.” Gabriel is a prolific writer – I’m sure in the time it took me to formulate these thoughts he’s written another album or two – but this one feels like an album to pause on for a bit, to really take in. It’s a special one.

You can hear and buy Summer’s Gone here.

Margo Price, That’s How Rumors Get Started.

I’m not sure why Margo Price isn’t already a household name. But if there’s any justice, her third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, will be the one to do it.

Price is part of the alt-country movement that includes Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, who produced this new record. She sings like a bird and writes impressive, heartfelt songs. Really, that’s it. There’s no other gimmick or hook here, just ten lovely songs, sung beautifully and played by a dream team including Simpson, Benmont Tench and Pino Palladino. If that sounds good to you, buy this now.

For my part, I think this album is her best. The more traditional twang of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is all but gone, and in its place is a mix of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac that works brilliantly with her voice. “Letting Me Down” is a perfect barnburner of a single, “Stone Me” is a classic epic ballad, “What Happened To Our Love” rides a “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” groove, and the terrific “Hey Child” gives that voice a workout, with a choir of voices backing her up. She saves the best for last with “I’d Die for You,” a song that feels magical to these ears. The performance here is stunning.

I can only hope that we live in a different world than I think we do, one that will embrace this record and give Price the attention and love she deserves. Three records in and she’s firmly established herself as a songwriter worth watching and a performer worth falling for. She’s one of the most straightforwardly great new voices in popular music, and I recommend this album (and her other two) highly.

Enuff Z’Nuff, Brainwashed Generation.

I think this time I’m going to skip all of the “you don’t know Enuff Z’Nuff” rigamarole and just get right to it. Let’s take it as a given that EZN is one of the most consistent and consistently overlooked power pop bands in the world, with a catalog far richer than their two hits back in the late ‘80s would indicate. Let’s also take it as a given that Donnie Vie’s solo career is similarly rich and overlooked, and that you should buy his wonderful album of last year, Beautiful Things, right now.

Brainwashed Generation is the 15th Enuff Z’Nuff album, and the second to be led by bassist Chip Z’Nuff. Donnie Vie left the band acrimoniously some time ago, but kept coming back for new recordings. But with 2018’s Diamond Boy, Z’Nuff took full control of the band, writing and singing all the songs. And it was pretty good, honestly. Not nearly the same level of quality as the Vie-Z’Nuff partnership produced, and Z’Nuff’s voice leaves a lot to be desired. But it was pretty good.

Brainwashed Generation is similarly pretty good. It’s in the same vein as its predecessor, if a little darker and more drawn-out. Songs like “Drugland Weekend” and “Help I’m in Hell” are pretty much what you think they will be from their titles – crawling riff monsters that emphasize the harder aspects of the band’s sound. Z’Nuff never forgets the melodies, of course, and the Beatles influence remains as strong as ever. The songs are longer and slower than on Diamond Boy, but they still sound like EZN.

And then there is “Strangers in My Head,” the one song here to feature Vie on vocals. He wrote this one with Z’Nuff, their first collaboration in about a decade, and (sorry Chip) it’s the best thing here. I have been enjoying Chip’s version of the band, but I find myself hoping that “Strangers” is just the start of a renewed partnership. I’d love to have at least one more Vie-Z’Nuff album.

In the meantime, Brainwashed Generation is a decent record that serves as a fine addition to the catalog. All power pop bands should have this one’s sense of harmony and tunesmanship. I’m happy to have found them and to have followed them all these years. Long may they run.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade, RoundAgain.

I don’t talk about jazz too much in this space, even though I’m a fan. The main problem is that I can’t figure out what to say about most jazz records. “Hey, listen to this, the playing is really good.” Like, over and over again. I’m afraid that’s what this little review will boil down to, but in my defense, the playing here is really good and you should listen to this.

Back in 1994, saxophonist Joshua Redman released an album called Moodswing. It was the first of his albums I picked up, and it remains in rotation at my house. His backing band consisted of three young guys just starting their careers. You can see their names up there, and if you know jazz, you know that in the ensuing 26 years, all three have carved out remarkable careers. I’m a piano player, and Brad Mehldau is one of my idols. And I’m not sure there are better bassists and drummers in jazz than Christian McBride and Brian Blade.

RoundAgain is a reunion album, then, only this time all four players are significant enough to have their names on the cover. They play here like they’ve been practicing together for all of those 26 years. These seven songs all give the players room to jam, and their interplay is electric. Redman can sometimes be a little sedate for me, but he’s on fire for much of this, feeding off of his rhythm section. Blade is astonishing, as always, thinking through every percussion hit and how it serves the song.

All four write here, and I was struck by how clear the authorship was. Redman’s tunes are straightforward bops, like “Silly Little Love Song,” where Mehldau’s are complex workouts. There’s a rhythmic shift near the end of the what-the-hell-time-signature-is-this-in “Moe Honk” that feels so organic that it’s almost supernatural. McBride’s “Floppy Diss” leaves room for the bass to shine, while closer “Your Part to Play” is Blade’s ballad, a generous offering that provides the most spare and atmospheric five minutes of the record.

Really, though, this all can be summed up by saying “the playing is really good.” It’s a joy to hear these four guys back together, making gorgeous music, and I can only hope that they have another one or two (or ten) records in them as good as this one. I’ll be first in line.

Next week, I’m not sure, but I have a few options. August is crazy with new releases, but July leaves me wanting a little bit. We shall persevere.

See you in line Tuesday morning.