Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
The best soul songs, blue-eyed and otherwise, use clichés as points of departure. This time ’round, Carrack is using them as ends in themselves. How long wasn’t Rome built in? What kind of weather friends let you down? Where do you put a smile? Only on “Life in a Bubble,” which identifies the accumulation of “First World problems” and a “weary conscience” as root causes of anomie, do the words dig deep enough to make the TLC of the singing and the playing seem worth the trouble.
Jeffrey Foskett, Jeff Larson
Foskett is the Beach Boys’ and Brian Wilson’s longtime secret weapon; Larson is Foskett’s vocal twin and summer-loving soulmate. Harmonizing impeccably and taking turns singing lead, they turn out breezy yacht-pop whose only flaw is that it’s sometimes merely pretty for prettiness’ sake. Two times that it isn’t are “The Word Go,” an immediately irresistible Foskett-Larson composition that Foskett has recorded before, and “All Bets Are Off,” a Gerry Beckley composition about falling in love that makes you glad songwriters haven’t grown tired of the subject.
Wild! Wild! Wild!
Robbie Fulks, Linda Gail Lewis
As you’d guess from the title, there’s a whole lotta shakin’. But there are tears and sweetness too. And unlike Van Morrison, whose You Win Again relegated her to the background, Fulks gives Lewis lots of room. She makes the most of “Till Death” (hell hath no sense of humor like a woman scorned), “Hardluck, Louisiana” (heart is where the home is), and her half of “That’s Why They Call It Temptation.” Fulks’ “I Just Lived a Country Song” and “Foolmaker” belong on his next Very Best Of.
Boarding House Reach
Having been called “the last rock star” seems to have spooked Jack White. On none of these songs does he get within spitting distance of conventional AM or FM songcraft. His default soundscape is demented funk. His default fantasies include starting corporations and robbing banks. He old-school raps. He free-associates like John Giorno. He covers Antonín Dvořák–Howard Johnson, agitates for dog liberation, and enlists C.W. Stoneking to hyperverbalize. Prince was never weirder or wilder. Some people called Prince the last rock star too.
If Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan can make hay of “singing up” to the Great American Songbook, it’s understandable that opera luminaries such as the baritone Thomas Allen and the lyric soprano Renée Fleming should want to give singing down to it a go. But that image suggests condescension, and there’s nothing condescending about Allen’s piano-accompanied September Songs (Champs Hill) or Fleming’s orchestrally rich Broadway (Decca), new recordings on which each star seems as committed to shadings and nuance as he or she has ever been to crescendos.
Allen’s skews toward material from 1950 and before, Fleming’s toward material from 1960 to the present, with “All the Things You Are” their sole common denominator. Programmed together, they provide a total of 34 affecting performances as well as a crash course in the development of theatrical song. They also testify to the indispensability of—and the importance of replenishing—the reservoir of emotions common to all but the incorrigibly hardened. —A.O.