Notes on a Conditional Form
(Dirty Hit / Interscope, *** 1/2)
The sheer sprawl of Notes on a Conditional Form — 80 minutes, 22 tracks — is both maddening and impressive. The 1975 are arguably the most self-aware and astute band of our phone-obsessed era: They’re earnest and ridiculous, ambitious and easily distracted, provocative and trend-hopping. They embrace pop stardom as they question its conventions.
The British quartet, fronted by Matt Healy, opens Notes as they have their previous three albums, with a version of “The 1975,” this time with a voiceover speech from teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Then, abruptly, comes the punk-y, Blur-ry rush of “People,” followed by a sedate orchestral instrumental, then the heavily Auto-Tuned electropop of “Frail State of Mind.” (This is not an album for the Auto-Tune-averse.)
What Notes lacks in coherence it makes up for in breadth and invention. Some of us might be partial to the My Bloody Valentine dream pop of “Then Because She Goes.” Others to the acoustic guitar ballad of “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” (a duet with Phoebe Bridgers). Others to loping sing-along of “Roadkill.” That’s a typically whiplashing (and satisfying) three-song stretch.
While the album lacks an epochal track like “Love It If We Made It” from 2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, it’s a rewarding, disorienting hodgepodge.
— Steve Klinge
The Ghosts of West Virginia
(New West *** 1/2)
Over his long career, Steve Earle has demonstrated his command as a narrative songwriter in a wide range of American vernacular idioms moving from country to blues to foot-stomping rock-and-roll.
With The Ghosts of West Virginia, Earle returns to the Appalachian acoustic music that he immersed himself in on The Mountain, his 1999 collaboration with bluegrass bandleader Del McCoury. And the music is ideally suited to the story he has to tell.
The songs on Ghosts were written for Coal Country, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s documentary play based on interviews with the families of the 29 men who were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia in 2010.
During the drama’s pandemic-shortened run this March at the Public Theater in New York, Earle performed eight songs onstage, serving as a Greek chorus with guitar. He’s up for an “Outstanding Music” Drama Desk award this Sunday.
Ghosts draws from the details of the Upper Big Branch tragedy and the righteous fight to hold the mine’s owners accountable. One song, “It’s About Blood,” calls out the names of the dead.
But the album stands wholly on its own, with songs of trouble and strife, heartache and loss. At their best, they sound as if they could have been written decades ago while being utterly timeless.
“If I Could See Your Face Again,” sung by Eleanor Whitmore of the Mastersons (and Earle’s band the Dukes), gives voice to the longing of a coal mine widow, but its understated grief is universal. And “Time Is Never on Our Side” turns the Irma Thomas-Rolling Stones hit on its head, delivering existential gloom with sobering, scratchy-voiced grace.
— Dan DeLuca
David Bromberg Band
(Red House Records *** 1/2)
David Bromberg wrote just two of the 12 tracks on his new album: “George, Merle, and Conway,” a rollicking honky-tonk tribute to three country greats, and a new version of his previously recorded “Diamond Lil,” a somber country-folk ballad.
But Bromberg’s enduring, five-decade career has never really hinged on his songwriting, as good as it can be, or even his singing, for that matter. Rather, as a virtuoso of stringed instruments who generously shares the spotlight with members of his band, he puts his own vibrant stamp on all manner of American roots music. And that’s what you get with Big Road.
Working with producer Larry Campbell, the former Dylan sideman and formidable musician, Bromberg and band begin with the title song, a vintage Tommy Johnson blues number given a rousing treatment with fiddle and horns. From there it’s on to, among other things, folk, country-blues, fiddle tunes, a cappella gospel, a bluegrass makeover of Lead Belly’s “Take This Hammer,” and a swellegant, horn-accented take on the Charlie Rich country hit “Who Will the Next Fool Be?”
The superb arrangements showcase the individual members of the band, but the solo turns work organically in the service of the song. The result is another set that shows Bromberg at the height of his interpretive powers.