Brittany Howard, “Jaime” (ATO)
Howard’s ascent as the powerhouse singer-guitarist and driving force in the band Alabama Shakes appeared to be a dream-come-true scenario. Yet despite the acclaim that greeted the group’s garage-rock-meets-soul testifying of “Boys & Girls” (2012) and the more expansive “Sound & Color” (2015), she felt something was lacking.
Her solo debut breaks ground sonically and lyrically. It’s more personal and daring, steeped in ’60s and ’70s soul-funk-R&B but with a rules-are-meant-to-be-broken twist. She often treats her voice like an instrument, unafraid to smudge or even bury it in a stew of avant-noise and psychedelic textures.
Howard animates a childhood crush for a girl in the yearning ballad “Georgia,” explores her relationship with God (it’s complicated) on “He Loves Me” and, most strikingly, describes the hardships of growing up biracial in the rural South on the harrowing “Goat Head.”
The arrangements are just as bold, and occasionally disorienting. On the deceptively languid “Tomorrow,” the dreamy vocals give way to an urgently funky call-and-response section evoking a Parliament-Funkadelic jam. On “Short and Sweet,” her idiosyncratic phrasing, rapturous tone and stripped-down vulnerability conjure Nina Simone. “Run to Me” folds its message of reassurance inside an ominous, reverberating soundscape.
The track’s disquieting beauty counterpoints the unlikely anthem “13th Century Metal.” Over twitchy Morse-code keyboards and chaotic drums, Howard lays out a social contract for the “brothers and sisters” with whom she shares the planet. But it’s not larded with “we are the world” platitudes. Instead, as with much of this revelatory album, it’s also personal. “Just try and do the best you can today,” she reminds herself. “No matter where you’ve been.”
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Tool, “Fear Inoculum” (RCA)
Fans don’t need this review to talk them out of listening to an album they’ve awaited for 13 years. After all, it would interfere with the paradox of analysis-resistant “free thinking” that Tool has cultivated over the decades. But the music has always fit that bill: limited power-chord riffs that prefer to convolute unnatural rhythms rather than attempt a harmonic counterpoint or dissonance within a disciplined economy.
The band loves the fact that its music resembles optical illusions, unresolved staircases to nowhere that sound more enticing on paper. The mutated time signatures and expert palm-muting also sound better in every tension-building intro of these six long tracks before you realize each song’s almost over and hasn’t traveled an inch. The album’s final track is the only moment of release, of crunch, of dynamic explosions corralled into reasonable intervals.
Dan Weiss, Philadelphia Inquirer
• Kanye West, “Jesus Is King”
• Jon Pardi, “Heartache Medication”
• Sturgill Simpson, “Sound & Fury”
• Tegan & Sara, “Hey, I’m Just Like You”
• New Pornographers, “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights”