The Big Music is back. Now Mike Scott calls it "sonic rock" (there is no flesh-and-blood saxophonist these days) as he has come full circle in crafting large-scale sounds, his retreat to embrace Irish folk music apparently a thing of the past. Whatever caused him to fall in love with full-tilt rock again, his new attitude is as electrifying as a sermon from a fire and brimstone preacher, one who alas, has little concept of pacing or stopping to rest. Looking like Mick Jagger from the Black and Blue era, Scott and his latest incarnation of Waterboys (one "boy" being a feminine Jo Wadeson on bass) have started a U.S. tour to rock, and support an album called A Rock in the Weary Land. On this, the third show of the tour, Scott strolled onstage in a violet velvet jacket and nearly spit out the title of the new album, holding true to his promise to play a fair share of tunes from the most recent release. When they opened with "Let It Happen", a hard rock tale of walking in the wasteland of London and accepting things for what they are, one could see how this band -- which always had a shifting lineup -- was once considered a contender for U2's title of Big Christian Rock Group. Thankfully Scott does not proselytize directly, letting his songs ("The Charlatan's Lament", "Dumbing Down the World", "Is She Conscious?") do the talking for him. Early on, a standout was "Malediction", its acoustic tale of vengeance transformed into a blistering whirlwind, with Scott screaming the words of the final line "my enemies you pimps and thieves, prepare to meet your nemesis at laaaaaaaaaasst" for full effect. As someone whose masterpiece -- the folky fiddle-laden, Celtic-influenced "Fisherman's Blues" -- was apparently a quirky success whose formula Scott did not intend to follow forever, the head Waterboy now has the task of rectifying his past and present muses to satisfy a fickle audience. And this he does fairly well, honoring his past by playing a smattering of early songs, but concentrating on the newer songs, a fair enough blueprint if the full ensemble could take a sonic breather once in a while. The first half-dozen songs were directly off the new album, before violinist Steve Wickham played the sweet intro to "Fisherman's Blues" and the band seemingly were lost in reverie as much as the audience. Wickham, who co-wrote the song with Scott, physically spun in circles before its conclusion, playing violin for all he was worth while the crowd supplied the requisite "woo-hoos" when necessary, as Scott was only singing single "woos". "I think we're gonna play a song from the same vintage," Scott announced, before launching into another song from the folksy days, "We Will Not Be Lovers", though when he grabbed his electric guitar it was obvious this full-band version of the song would be more bombast than ballad. Still, it was a highlight and by now a few were screaming for even earlier songs like "This Is the Sea". Scott obliged with another song from the same album, "The Pan Within", dedicating it to "the lovers caught in the first flush of love." From there, it was a hodgepodge with Scott playing songs from solo work ("Bring 'Em All In", "What Do You Want Me to Do?") and later-period Waterboys ("The Glastonbury Song") before playing the hit which introduced most of the U.S. to the band, "The Whole of the Moon". For this one song about a woman embracing life by reaching "too high, too far, too soon", Scott sat down to delicately play his own piano, complimenting keyboardist Richard Naiff who manufactured lush horn-like sounds. "I almost formed a band in Austin, in the early '90s," he said to a round of cheers, "it was to be an American version of the Waterboys." He talked about rehearsing with a trio of Austin players (mentioning their first names) and then dedicated "Crown" to the local musicians, a tale about a fallible man trying to tread a righteous path so that he may earn his crown. The band closed with "My Love Is My Rock in the Weary Land", a rocker reminiscent of the Waterboy's own Magical Mystery Tour, but encored with one more early ode, "Don't Bang the Drum" in an effort to satisfy the pagan in all of us.
In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.
If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.
From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.
60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)
White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans
This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.
The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.
Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.
On "Restless Mind", Paul Luc establishes himself as an exceptional 21st century bard who knows his way around evoking complex emotions in song.
The folk-rock swing of Paul Luc's upcoming Bad Seed is representative of the whole human condition. Following his previous track release in "Slow Dancing", the Pittsburgh singer-songwriter is sharing another mid-tempo, soulful number. This time, it describes the way too familiar feelings of uncertainty and diversion can, at times, sneak up on all of us.