(MCA Nashville ***½)
As a pillar of the Nashville establishment, and with his well-deserved place in the country pantheon assured, Vince Gill can pretty much do what he wants.
With Okie, the 62-year-old singer and guitar virtuoso uses that artistic freedom to occasionally go where mainstream country rarely does. “Forever Changed,” for example, tells the story of a girl victimized by an adult sexual predator (though it’s based on an incident that actually happened to Gill himself). “What Choice Will You Make” lays out the wrenching dilemma facing a pregnant teen. And “Black and White” questions the country trope that things were always better in the old days.
To be sure, Gill also puts some affecting new turns on bedrock country themes, whether it’s the salvation found in family and religion, the joy of love, or, at the other end of the spectrum, “The Price of Regret.” He also pays tribute to two of his musical heroes, Guy Clark and Merle Haggard.
These exquisite Gill-penned compositions unfold gracefully in unhurried, mostly acoustic-based settings, which present the perfect framework for the high, airy tenor of one of country’s great balladeers — and help to give Okie its understated but undeniable power. — Nick Cristiano
Ode to Joy
(dpm *** ½)
Jeff Tweedy has been busy, releasing two solo albums and his memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) in the past year. And now we also have the 11th album by the Chicago rock band that Tweedy has fronted for the last quarter-century, taking its title from the Friedrich Schiller poem most famous for its use in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
So is Wilco’s Ode to Joy an audacious fanfare that shouts to the heavens about the glories of being alive? Hardly. Instead, it’s what you would expect at this point from the 52-year-old Tweedy: a spare, subdued collection of songs with acoustic guitar at their core, more interested in quiet revelations than bold statements.
And yet that doesn’t mean that Wilco has commenced coasting or ceased to make rewarding music. On the contrary, Ode to Joy is a focused affair, a bounce back from 2016’s Schmilco that benefits from Tweedy’s time away from the band. Putting his life story into prose and working on two solo albums has steered his songwriting onto a more direct path, with language more personal and less coded in poetic ambiguity.
The arrangements are pared down to their essentials, but Wilco remains an intuitive band whose members put their leader’s songs into their best light, whether it’s Glenn Kotche’s steady, martial drumbeats setting the tone on the opening "Bright Leaves” or Nels Cline’s snarling guitar giving “We Were Lucky” its bite. And while “Ode To Joy” doesn’t overflow with exuberance, its songs do crisply communicate immediacy, from the fearful chill that shivers through “White Wooden Cross” to the tender, carpe diem love song “Hold Me Anyway.” — Dan DeLuca
Spread the Feeling
(Ashmont *** ½)
Joe Pernice is an expert at crafting barbed power pop songs tinged with melancholy. At their best, his tunes sound effortless and timeless. Spread the Feeling, the sixth Pernice Brothers studio album and the first in nine years, is Pernice at his best. Joined by a varying rota of longtime collaborators including Pretenders guitarist James Walbourne and Philly drummer Pat Berkery, Pernice shifts between energetic rock songs and softer ballads. He has fun co-opting New Order’s clear-toned guitar lines on “Throw Me to the Lions” and the jangling 12 strings of the Byrds on “Eric Saw Colors,” and part of the fun in listening to the album is hearing familiar echoes of classic power pop, circa 1975-1985.
“You piss away your life writing stupid songs that try to say what love is,” Pernice sings, rapidly, in “The Devil and the Jinn,” with Neko Case joining on backing vocals. The song is a series of smart metaphors for the pains of love: as on much of Spread the Feeling, the lyrics are often bitter, but the music is uplifting, and that joy is the feeling that sticks. —Steve Klinge