Sturgill Simpson, “Sound & Fury” (Elektra)
Over his first three albums, this Kentucky maverick stretched the definition of country music in much the same way the ’70s outlaws and ’80s neotraditionalists once did. On “Sound & Fury,” he’s blown up even those generously wide parameters.
The album was recorded hit-and-run style in a motor inn north of Detroit with Simpson’s touring band. The goal was to make “a sleazy, steamy rock ‘n’ roll record,” in effect providing an outlet for a couple of years of pent-up frustration after relentless touring.
This isn’t a self-pitying rant, but a raised middle digit to an industry that treats people like cogs in a machine. You don’t have to understand a single word Simpson sings to know that he’s fed up with pretty much everything.
Distortion-saturated guitars, squealing synthesizers and tribal drums give country tradition a swift kick in the backside. This carnage doesn’t belong to a genre, it’s more like a feeling.
The opening instrumental, “Ronin,” sounds like it’s fading out, only to burst out of its tomb back to life. A pattern develops: Songs start and cut off in midsentence, as if what we’re hearing is one long sonic exorcism chopped up into 10 songs. Bruised melodies poke through the din and a few vocals emerge relatively unscathed, glimmers of life from inside the storm.
In “Remember to Breathe,” the narrator is “having a one-way conversation with the darkness in my mind, he does all the talking because I’m the quiet kind.” Even the relatively contemplative arrangement in “All Said and Done” provides no relief.
The singer gets friskier on “Last Man Standing” with its rockabilly zoom, and the new-wave springiness of “Mercury in Retrograde,” but the closing “Fastest Horse in Town” slams the door shut with seven minutes of guitar-synth violence over thudding drums.
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Rodney Crowell, “Texas” (RC1)
Although he left for Nashville in 1972, Crowell does hail from Texas. So it’s fitting that the onetime country hitmaker and current Americana stalwart would draw on his heritage again for inspiration. And this new guest-laden set yields more riches.
Much of “Texas” rocks with a loose-limbed rambunctiousness, whether it’s celebrating salt-of-the-earth types on “Flatland Hillbillies” (with Lee Ann Womack and Randy Rogers), saluting a classic ride on “56 Fury” (with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons) or swaggering through “You’re Only Happy When You’re Miserable” (with drummer Ringo Starr).
Elsewhere, Crowell slows for more contemplative turns. On “Deep in the Heart of Uncertain Texas” (a real place), he is joined by Womack, Willie Nelson and Ronnie Dunn as he delivers the revealing line: “I’ve tried hard to leave here, but never did could.” “Brown and Root, Brown and Root” revives a bit of Texas history, with Steve Earle. And “The Border,” written 10 years ago but utterly timely, puts a human face on some of what is happening in that fraught area.
Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Wilco, “Ode to Joy”
• Danny Brown, “uknowhatimsayin”
• DaBaby, “Kirk”
• North Mississippi Allstars, “Up and Rolling”
• Blood Orange, “Angel’s Pulse”