May 2022 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Son House: Forever On My Mind
Easy Eye Records EES-024, Dan Auerbach, prod., M. Allen Parker, Ryan Smith, engs.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

This is the first recording Eddie "Son" House, one of the half-dozen or so greatest practitioners of the Mississippi Delta blues during its 1920s and '30s heyday, made after his 1964 rediscovery. The recording is from a live performance at Indiana's Wabash College on November 23, 1964. For an undisclosed reason, the audience has been edited out. The tape sat on a shelf, finally making its way to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, a devoted student of the blues. Auerbach presents the music here, on his Easy Eye Records label, as an eight-song album.

As a stiff-fingered, prematurely aged 62-year-old, House had to relearn how to play his National resonator guitar. He performed at Wabash College after a mere few months of practice; "primitive" would be a generous description of his playing. The voice is in much better repair: a bulldozer, a big voice capable of shading into paper-thin falsetto.

For those who care about sonics, the painstakingly mastered Forever is a significant addition to the small House ouevre. Collectors get a piece of new vinyl, attractively packaged. The completist gets a record of a significant milestone performance. And for those who don't already know House's work, Forever On My Mind might serve as an introduction, drawing attention to the Son House music that's already out there, some of it much deeper than this performance, especially Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions, supervised by the great John Hammond at Columbia's New York studios, and Son House Revisited, which pairs two live performances from 1965. Above all tower the seven sides House cut in 1930 in Grafton, Wisconsin, for Paramount Records, available on several compilations and online. That is the great Son House in full, riveting command, Neolithic sound notwithstanding.—Tony Scherman


Superchunk: Wild Loneliness
Merge (16/44.1 FLAC stream, Qobuz). 2022. Mac McCaughan, prod.; Wally Gagel, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Wild Loneliness is the 12th studio album by Superchunk and its first since What a Time to Be Alive. That 2018 record was an angry lashing out, as one might expect from a group born from punk. This new release is different, facing reality with thoughtfulness. The past few years have apparently mellowed and matured the band. That's a powerful thing to witness.

Instead of sneering or griping, Mac McCaughan's nasal voice now navigates sweet, captivating melodies like "On the Floor." Yet, it's not that these songs promote escape from reality. Instead, they acknowledge what's happening and suggest that we can improve things. "Remake the world when the old one dies," McCaughan advises on the opening track, "City of the Dead," over a lush string arrangement.

Mercifully, there's more here than sunshine and flowers. The lyrics of "Endless Summer" concede the threat of climate change while floating on Jim Wilbur's rich guitar line and the close vocal harmonies of guests Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley. Acknowledging the dreadfulness of, well, everything right now is seen as a healthy response in "If You're Not Dark."

Always a DIY band, Superchunk started their label Merge in 1989, the same year they formed. That dedication to music as home-based craft has intensified in the COVID era. All the guest artists recorded themselves. The results don't suffer from that social distancing: The sound crackles with energy and immediacy. "Highly Suspect" demonstrates how distinctly Jon Wurster's drums and Laura Ballance's bass are delineated.

Superchunk has long raged against the machine. On this new musical road, the machine lies rusting in the background. The songs are by turns majestic and comforting, adjectives not previously applicable to this band. More than anything else, Wild Loneliness is hopeful.—Anne E. Johnson


Yard Act: The Overload
Zen F.C./Island Records 3899610 (LP). 2022. Ali Chant, prod.; Rob Slater, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Imagine you're in a British pub, and there's a bloke wearing a raincoat and thick Michael Caine glasses, clutching a pint, holding forth on all that's wrong with the world and the country in particular. He sounds the worse for drink, with his machine-gun delivery, but he possesses an obvious intelligence. He is passionate, amusing, and sometimes profane. Other blokes join in, creating a catchy chorus of the fears and problems in the UK circa 2022. Imagine that, and you get some idea of Yard Act's debut album, The Overload.

The man at the center is vocalist James Smith, who delivers observational songs more spoken (or, indeed, shouted) than sung. Think John Cooper Clarke or Mark E. Smith of the Fall. With him on jerky guitar, reminiscent of fellow Leeds band The Gang of Four, is Sam Shipstone. Completing the quartet is the funky-indie rhythm section of Ryan Needham on bass and Jay Russell on drums. Ali Chant pulled them together in this post-punk production, which is appropriately to the point.

Smith's witty, acerbic songs capture the minutiae of British life: Anarchy meets a cup of tea. "Tall Poppies" is about a lad who perhaps could have made it big but instead chose to stay in his village. His life is unremarkable and not really worth talking about, but Smith does: "At 4:00 AM, staggering home down moonlit country lanes. We cry because children are dying across the sea." The specific is used to comment on the general. Other songs are more direct, such as "Dead Horse," a scathing denunciation of xenophobia. ("Every card played is a statement made/And there's always a new scapegoat to blame for it.") Despite the veneer of cynicism, humanity and hope run through the songs. "Gimme some of that good stuff, that human spirit."

Together, the songs on The Overload add up to a fantastic album, so grab a chair and a drink—and listen.—Phil Brett

Anton's picture

Malachi Liu gave the Son House album the exact same rating and stirred up a blizzard of snowflake bullies on Analog Planet.

I wish Tony better luck with his review.