Welcome to the summer edition of the Paradise Found Records blog. Here are a few of my favorite releases from the past few months:
Aldous Harding -- Warm Chris
New Zealander Aldous (born Hannah) Harding was first heard as a teenager in the nineties, thanks to an appearance on a record by her mother, folk artist Lorina Harding. Warm Chris, Harding's excellent fourth record, finds her working once again with Welsh producer/PJ Harvey muse John Parish to powerful effect. Harding’s specialties are folk and chamber pop; her simple melodies get under the skin fast but it's her vocal style that makes her entirely unique.
Harding’s multi-octave range covers a lot of ground; it’s often hard to believe it’s the same person doing the singing throughout the record. With the help of former partner and bandmate H. Hawkline (who also handled the album's design and photography), Warm Chris finds a pathway from Nico-era Velvet Underground through Suzanne Vega to its own original sound. Her exclamations are almost Tourettes-like at times. Album closer “Leathery Whip” delivers its chorus in a variety of voices, including one that's a mix of Betty Boop and Loretta Tortelli. “Tick Tock” recounts a languid dialogue between heroin addicts post-fix with a talky delivery that recreates the haze it describes. The title track, a delicately picked ballad, resolves into to an electric guitar riff that sounds far more logical than it has any right to. “Fever” and “Lawn,” the first two singles, are irresistable slices of piano-based folk; Harding has only recently focused more on composing on the keyboard. Her lyrical approach mostly focuses on intentional ambiguity, but Warm Chris showcases a highly beguiling artist that has expanded her palette with each release. (Favorite track: "Leathery Whip")
Kevin Morby -- This is a Photograph
Kevin Morby's sixth and latest LP is a real grower, a deeply personal look at aging and family loaded with boxing metaphors that takes the time to mourn the gone-too-soon talent of Jeff Buckley as it rides a rich tide of rock, folk and Americana. Spurred by the near death of a parent and the resulting dive into a family photo album, This is a Photograph reaches from Morby's Lubbock childhood through his current Kansas home to his dream of living in the musical mecca of Memphis one day.
Morby’s delivery is a nasally tone from the Dylan school of singing, but his range gets stronger and more resonant as the record progresses. Nashville up-and-comer Erin Rae lends her strong vocal chops to the front porch roots of “Bittersweet, TN,” while elsewhere Morby eulogizes Jeff Buckey's sad Memphis history, which ended in his accidental drowning in 1995, in "Disappearing" and "A Coat of Butterflies." Morby describes the process of aging by quoting boxer Roberto Duran, who dared Sugar Ray Leonard to "come on, come on" in their first bout but ended their rematch shouting "No mas, no mas." The album comes full circle with final tracks "It's Over" and "Goodbye to Good Times" reiterating its central themes. Don't let Morby's voice scare you off. Repeated spins of This is a Photograph peel back layers and surprising depths. When he screams "This is what I'll miss about being alive" on the title track, it's easy to feel grateful for the journey he's taken the listener on here. (Favorite track: "Bittersweet, TN")
Angel Olsen -- Big Time
Angel Olsen's dour roots-rock recalls the dark folk of Cowboy Junkies. Olsen got her first big taste of notoriety with 2016's My Woman, but rather than capitalize on that album's critical success, her last few efforts have mined less-accessible tendencies. Big Time is thankfully a return to form, a more polished effort that finds her mourning the end of a relationship and coming to terms with coming out in public.
Some of the credit for Big Time's sheen belongs to LA wizard/producer Jonathan Wilson (currently on tour backing Roger Waters), who lends an Topanga country groove to Olsen's collections of twangy ballads. The record may not rock hard or feature anything remotely upbeat, but if you're a fan of sad lover's waltzes, you won't find a better entry into Angel Olsen than Big Time. (Favorite track: "Big Time")
Kurt Vile -- (Watch My Moves)
Philadelphian Kurt Vile's ninth record is his major label debut, but that doesn't mean he's made any concessions to spur sales. The only notable change appears to be Vile's confidence and willingness to stretch out and try a new directions, from the piano-based opener "Goin on a Plane Today" to the Dinosaur Jr-inspired garage grunge of "Fo Sho."
(Watch My Moves) rambles its way through more than an hour of peak Vile. My personal favorite is "Like Exploding Stones," seven-plus minutes of chill-rock that encapsulates his laidback approach and reminds why it's so easy to enjoy his slacker style. (Favorite track: "Like Exploding Stones")
Wilco -- Cruel Country
Wilco's twelfth studio effort comes billed as a return to the band's country roots, territory not thoroughly explored since their sophomore release, 1996’s Being There. Cruel Country is certainly ambitious, nineteen tracks produced over two years of pandemic lockdown in the band's loft studio in Chicago. Its peaks are as good as anything the group has done in the past decade, although like many double albums there's a little filler. Ultimately it sounds more like a continuation of leader Jeff Tweedy’s recent solo work than any massive musical departure, closer to John Prine-style country than 21st century C&W.
Much of Cruel Country showcases the flatpicking and guitar work of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone. When Tweedy lets his fellow musicians stretch out, in the lengthy, melodic jams of “Bird Without on a Tail/Base of My Skull” and “Many Worlds” and the jaunty country bounce of first single “Falling Apart (Right Now),” the album uncovers a Southern rock vein new to the Wilco canon. Longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy, if not quite the heights of Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the pinnacles, respectively, of their alt-country and alt-rock eras. Tweedy lovers should also check out Live is the King, the energetic, upbeat version of his Love is the King solo album that came out late in 2021. (Favorite track: "Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull")