My true story, Aaron Neville, Blue Note
Aaron Neville said recently that he has been trying to make a doo-wop album for the last 30 years, and that no record label would give him the chance. It should go without saying that this borders on the outrageous, even by the usual standards of music-industry shortsightedness. Perhaps not coincidentally, it frames My True Story, his first album on Blue Note, as a product of wish fulfillment, and not just a smart recalibration.
Neville, who will turn 72 this week, has built his vocal career on the dual impression of pliability and sincerity, whether he’s singing gospel or funk or swooning ballads or heartstring-tugging country songs. Doo-wop, as a subset of rhythm and blues, is more than a cherished old style for him; its lessons are coded into his musical DNA.
You hear this expressed throughout My True Story, in a few different ways. There’s the sob that catches lightly at the back of his throat, never more expressively than on Tears on My Pillow, a hit single for Little Anthony and the Imperials. There’s the birdlike trill of his falsetto on the title track, by the Jive Five. And there’s the call and response Neville enacts with his backup singers, including Eugene Pitt of the Jive Five, on tunes of puckish entreaty: Work With Me Annie, Ruby Baby, Little Bitty Pretty One.
Crucially, the album doesn’t attempt to rev up a time machine: produced by Don Was, the recently installed president of Blue Note, along with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, it’s a tasteful genre exercise that employs old-fashioned conventions with strategic license. One obvious recent precursor is Raising Sand, the Grammy-winning 2007 album that T Bone Burnett produced for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
My True Story likewise involves a ruggedly adaptable studio band, this one featuring Richards’ subtlest rhythm-guitar playing, along with the steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the keyboardist Benmont Tench, the bassist Tony Scherr and the drummer George Receli. These musicians work loosely but purposefully with the material, fleshing out a habanera rhythm in This Magic Moment, and spinning a shroud of mystery around Gypsy Woman. (A slightly different crew appears in a special taped at Brooklyn Bowl last fall, which will be broadcast on PBS in March.)
What’s missing is the bright vocal urgency that originally set apart so many of these recordings. Neville favors the mellowest part of his range, rarely wheeling into his silvery falsetto, and carefully parceling out melismatic embellishments. It’s as if he couldn’t shake his responsibility as a custodian of the songs, and while he does them justice, often beautifully, he doesn’t carry them to the heights he surely could have.
— NATE CHINEN, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Almanac, Widowspeak, Captured Tracks
Decline fascinates Widowspeak, the Brooklyn band that has just released its second album, Almanac. “I’m afraid nothing lasts/nothing lasts long enough,” Molly Hamilton sings on the album’s opening track, Perennials. Romances, lives, cities, worlds — Widowspeak’s songs contemplate their gradual erosion with a dazed acceptance and music that keeps opening up new spaces.
On its 2011 debut album, Widowspeak, the band was one among many following the templates of Velvet Underground ballads, Mazzy Star, Galaxie 500, Cowboy Junkies and the Raveonettes: a few chords, a lot of reverb on Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar, generally unhurried tempos and Hamilton’s breathy voice.
The band recorded Almanac at a 100-year-old barn in upstate New York, and the pastoral setting seeped into its music: not just in the occasional sound of raindrops or crickets, but in the rustle and flutter of other instruments that float into the mix. Alongside the reverb and distortion, and a newly expanded vocabulary of echoes, are glimmers of dulcimer, zither and accordion. They don’t countrify the songs, but they do ground them in natural acoustics. Meanwhile, Thomas has created a far more elaborate weave of guitars. They’re clear or hazy, distant or upfront, neatly announcing hooks or rippling away toward some far-off horizon.
And while the songs retain their verse-chorus-verse clarity, the newfound breadth of the music orchestrates and enriches lyrics that take the long view. “If we live until we’re long in the teeth/Think of me and how I used to be,” Hamilton sings in Ballad of the Golden Hour, which moves from acoustic guitar strumming into a tangle of slide guitars, a distorted psychedelic surge and a final, quiet thought about mortality: “It’s all slowing down.”
The album ends with Storm King, named perhaps after the sculpture garden or the nearby mountain in upstate New York. Guitar and piano chords toll quietly, with sustained tones and crashes looming up out of the background. “We found out there’s no forever,” Hamilton sings in fragile tones. “Running from death doesn’t make living better.” The only comfort, and there is some, is in the steadfastness of the music.
— JON PARELES, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE