November 2022 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Big Joanie: Back Home
Daydream Library KRS689 (CD). 2022. Margo Broom, prod.; Nathan Ridley, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Difficult times can be fertile ground for great music, and at present, the UK music scene appears to be in a healthier state than its economy. Big Joanie is one of the strongest signs of the fineness of its fettle.

Back Home is the second album from the three young Black women—Stephanie Phillips (lead vocals/guitar), Estelle Adeyeri (vocals/bass), and Chardine Taylor-Stone (vocals/drums)—who call themselves Big Jonie. They have been steadily developing a following thanks to their 2018 debut album, Sistahs, and tours with the likes of St. Vincent and Bikini Kill. Back Home will further expand that following.

Big Joanie is a tight band blessed with adept musicianship and three strong vocalists, who utilize a variety of influences including punk, rockabilly, early soul—even '80s electronica. Each track is short, compact, and focused. Margo Bloom's production is no-frills and direct. It's as if in days like these, they feel that there is no time for excess or filler because each song has a job to do and should do it as directly as possible.

Not that the songs are punk thrashes. The members of Big Joanie use their different styles to shape a song, deliver the lyrics, or convey an emotion. There is, to be sure, a definite Big Joanie sound, but it is not static. "Sainted" reminds me of early synth bands. "I Will" features an organ that could have easily been on a Small Faces track. Numbers such as "Taut," "In My Arms," and the single "Happier Still" are ridiculously catchy. "Cactus Tree" begins almost like a classic singer-songwriter tune before Phillips's buzzsaw guitar crashes in.

Forty years ago was another challenging time; back then, there was another trio who fused radical politics with great music: The Redskins. They stated their aim to "Walk like the Clash and sound like the Supremes." Something similar could be said about Big Joanie.—Phil Brett


Mike Cooper: Forbidden Delta Planet Blues
16/44.1 Bandcamp download, no catalog number. 2022. Mike Cooper, prod., eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

It'd be easy to relegate guitarist Mike Cooper to also-ran status, but it is more appropriate to praise him for having run a less trafficked, manicured path.

Cooper was part of the folk-blues revival in Britain in the 1960s, but in the decades since, he's chased a multifarious muse, who led him to Hawaiian and Polynesian influences, long-form improvisation, and sound collage. His Americana abstractions sometimes resemble latter-day John Fahey, but Cooper's dialect is distinctive.

"Forbidden Delta Planet Blues" is a touchstone for Cooper; the work, or structure, was previously heard on a 2015 album bearing the same title. The new album, which bears the same title, contains five long and very different versions of the work, clocking in at 1¾ hours.

"Forbidden Delta Planet Blues" is not a composition so much as a structure he's comfortable working within. There are no repeated themes; rather, there's a consistent mood that builds into a long suite in which all the sounds are made by a guitar but only sometimes sound like it.

The tracks were recorded in Greece and Italy (Cooper may be British born, but he knows the climate he likes) using a 1932 Resophonic tri-cone lap steel with an internal mike, a 1960s National Chicagoan electric lap steel, and a third steel guitar of his own devising through an array of effects then direct to a Zoom H2 recorder. There were no room mikes, overdubs, or postproduction, which gives the mix a very present sound. There's not much of a soundstage, left to right; Cooper creates space in layers and dynamics. Listening is like a lucid dream, or maybe a role-playing video game: You re-enter, knowing the terrain, and delve deeper to discover new environments. Thanks to the warmth and openness in Cooper's musicianship, the listener feels as if they're having a dream, not just watching one.—Kurt Gottschalk


Dry Cleaning: Stumpwork
4AD (Download). 2022. John Parish, prod.; Joe Jones, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Dry Cleaning's debut album, New Long Leg (4AD), was one of my 2021 favorites. Florence Shaw's spoken style of singing meshed wonderfully with Tom Dowse (guitar), Lewis Maynard (bass), and Nick Buxton (drums), creating music that nods toward the Brit post-punk of the late '70s as well as the music of their indie contemporaries.

Dry Cleaning, though, are no mere copyists. They manage, with help from producer John Parish (best known for his work with PJ Harvey), to create their own distinct sound. I was concerned that they started on their follow-up immediately after finishing their debut; there's a whole section in my record collection devoted to rushed, weak second albums. Stumpwork, though, is superb. Retaining what worked—Shaw's poetry of everyday life in south London and the jangly guitar of Dowse—they've added a broader palate of sounds. Maynard and Buxton are pushed further in the mix, giving it an almost danceable (or at least toe-tapping) feel. That's the thing with Dry Cleaning: There's a bounce to their music.

With Shaw's laconic delivery and words focused on the unspectacular, mundane could so easily equal boring. I mean, "Gary Ashby" is about a pet tortoise (joining the small and select group of songs about the suborder Cryptodira). Not that there aren't more substantial themes in their music: By itself, "Hot Penny Day" references a problematic relationship ("it's not what you think it is"), the rising number of murdered women in London ("I see male violence everywhere"), and the looming financial crisis ("I don't want to enter your bank account or give you nightmares"). Hardly light and fluffy subjects. However, with their more extensive set of musical tools, Parish's sharp production, and Shaw's humorous, deadpan asides, they avoid any sense of gloom. Set to be one of the best albums of 2022.—Phil Brett


Bonny Light Horseman: Rolling Golden Holy
37d03d Records (CD, also available on LP). 2022. Josh Kaufman, prod.; Bella Blasko, eng.
Performance ***
Sonics ****

Not to put too fine a point on it: The supergroup Bonny Light Horseman's second album is a snooze. It's no fun being a party pooper, but as someone who has written fairly extensively about traditional folk ballads, whose ageless resonance this trio seeks to capture, I'm disappointed by Rolling Golden Holy.

Anaïs Mitchell is a folk music superstar, creator of the smash hit Broadway musical Hadestown, which began life as the fourth of Mitchell's eight solo albums. On her own, Mitchell fearlessly confronts the cosmos.

If her somewhat squeaky soprano is an acquired taste, I've acquired it. Her most recent album—Anaïs Mitchell—came out earlier this year, and it's got the meat and heft that Rolling Golden Holy lacks. Bonny Light Horseman's other two members are folk-world eminences, sort of: Eric D. Johnson, the leader and sole permanent member of Fruit Bats, and producer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (Bob Weir, Josh Ritter, The National, Taylor Swift), who acquitted himself honorably as Anaïs Mitchell's producer.

So what's missing? Fire, in a word. These new songs, co-credited to all three members, lack bite. The melodies are not memorable, the airy textures barely vary. To borrow a phrase from a great bard, the album sails off into the mystic but without Van Morrison's soulfulness. Johnson's high tenor at times resembles that of David Rawlings, Gillian Welch's duo mate, but while Rawlings's voice effectively augments his partner's, I find Johnson's cloying.

Rolling Golden Holy does have a keeper, "Sweetbread"; its poker-faced lyrics and Johnson's banjo evoke the Southern Appalachian blues balladry of a Roscoe Holcomb or Dock Boggs. Still, Mitchell would do better to focus her substantial energy on her own fine work and to find collaborators whose gifts approach hers. Auditioned with headphones.—Tony Scherman