This week, reviews of albums from an Austin icon and some younger faces.
Willie Nelson recorded a new album. He does it every few years, in between making headlines for West Texas pot busts (and the ensuing circus of being asking to play "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" in the courtroom), working as an activist to reform marijuana laws and appearing in statue form on street corners downtown, among other things. Although it's not exactly a secret that he is still a working musician — when he's not playing shows in Austin, he tours fairly consistently and remains a powerful live performer. It's that from time to time, the other news can eclipse the music.
His latest, "Heroes," is the first of a new deal with Sony's Legacy Recordings that includes several new albums as well as archival releases curated by Nelson. Judging from "Heroes," Nelson is taking the deal seriously, bringing in an army of guests, including family (sons Lukas and Micah) and friends (Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver and Jamey Johnson, among others). And though some of the guests, especially Lukas and Kristofferson, appear quite a bit throughout the album, it's not a collection of duets. It's a Willie album, and one that shows off the legend's various talents.
"Heroes" can be divided into four categories. There is new material, including a couple of songs written by Nelson and some by Lukas; there is some old material, including "A Horse Called Music," which Nelson recorded on a 1989 album of the same name; there is even older material, such as "My Window Faces the South" and "Home in San Antone"; and there are covers of more contemporary songs, including Tom Waits' "Come On Up to the House" and Coldplay's "The Scientist," which some might recognize from a Chipotle ad that ran during the Super Bowl.
"Roll Me Up and Smoke Me" stands out as the novelty song, if only for lines like "take me out and build a roaring fire/roll me in the flames for 'bout an hour/then take me out and twist me up and point me towards the sky/roll me up and smoke me when I die." Still, it's a good song, one that Nelson has been playing enough in a live setting that it's not a surprise to hear on the album. Nelson also managed to get notoriously stoned rapper and friend Snoop Dogg to sing, not rap (that would not have worked), which seems like a feat on its own. Add verses from Johnson, who can sound quite Johnny Cash-like (as he did at last month's "We Walk the Line" tribute show) and Kristofferson, and the thing works.
The other new songs strike a more serious note, particularly "The Sound of Your Memory," co-written by Lukas Nelson and Elizabeth Rainey. Father and son trade verses about a tragic hero broken down by love, with a lush, sad arrangement giving a timeless air to the song. Another new one, "Hero," which Willie Nelson wrote and performs with help from Johnson and Shaver, deals with loss, reality and uncertainty: "wherever he is, we hope he's all right." If "Roll Me Up" is late-career Willie as comic, both "Hero" and "The Sound of Your Memory" send the message that he can still evoke strong emotions.
The Waits song, "Come On Up to the House," adds a soulful dimension to "Heroes," with Sheryl Crow sharing lines with both Willie and Lukas and the addition of Mickey Raphael's harmonica. There is a warmth about it, where the singers don't so much as trade verses as finish each other's lines, a late-night living room jam session. Similarly, on the swinging country number "My Window Faces the South" which was written in 1937 — making it not quite as old as Nelson, but almost — Willie manages a bit of a growl as he delivers his lines; he's also heard laughing at the end of the recording.
"Heroes" might not get billing alongside Nelson's most famous albums, but it more than sends the message that he sure isn't done.
(Square of Opposition)
Although the members of Literature are about to leave Austin for Philadelphia, we can still include them in the group of bands here right now that are candidates for success on a national level. The group, which formed in 2008, could easily take the place of many of the indie bands currently bouncing around the country from festival to festival, stopping in at a number of Austin clubs a couple times a year.
The difference between Literature and some of those bands is that they are actually good. They've proved that for a few years now on Austin stages, and their debut full-length, "Arab Spring," is definitive evidence. The four members — guitarist Kevin Adickes, lead vocalist and guitarist Nathaniel Cardaci, bassist Seth Whaland and drummer Mike Yaklin — are pros in a live setting, churning out their jangly rock and power pop without any nonsense.
The album captures that and blows it up with bigger production. Standouts include the speedy "Push Up Bra," with spit-out vocals that shine with punk gloss atop a chorus of fuzzy kazoo-like backup voices; and "Arab Spring" in which guitars rev up against you-made-your-bed lyrics: "I don't feel bad/not even sad/I don't feel bad about your pre-dic-a-ment." There's not much else in town that sounds like this, which makes it even harder to see them pack up. Here's hoping they're back soon.
John Wesley Coleman
"Last Donkey Show"
Coleman, also known as one of the guitarists and songwriters in the Golden Boys, possesses the sort of prolificacy for which lesser songwriters would straight up sell their soul to the devil. Year in and year out, the guy produces song after absurdly catchy song, shedding them like leaves off a tree. He can deliver frantic garage pop ("My Grave"), catchy songs with extremely disturbing titles ("A Clown Gave You a Baby"), stuff that sounds a bit like Jonathan Richman about Catholic girls ("Virgin Mary Queen"). He can get his croon on ("The Howling"), cry in his beer over honky-tonk women ("Misery Again") and party like the undead ("She's Like Dracula"). And the closing ballad, "Flower in the Dark," is an impressive trick — it's simply "My Grave" given the ballad treatment and the extent to which both songs work perfectly is a testament to Coleman's often-staggering talent. Full of guff and vinegar, wide-eyed enthusiasm for the unvarnished power of the rock language, "Last Donkey Show" is a thrill. I can't remember the last time a songwriter has played on two albums that will be in my year-end Austin top 10. Surely this will end up on yours as well.
— Joe Gross