Peace Trail (Reprise)
Despite his 1980s stylistic wanderings, Neil Young is one of rock’s great dependables. His output is perpetual (Peace Trail is his eighth album in 10 years); his voice eternally a thin warble; his grooves bump along like a wagon. When every record carries such strong and specific flavors, it gets hard to distinguish the good from the mediocre—the excellent and lousy are still pretty clear, but Peace Trail is neither. It’s a loose affair of mostly acoustic storytelling—most of the electricity comes from Young’s ridiculously overdriven harmonica breaks, but otherwise Jim Keltner’s drums do little more than fill space and Paul Bushnell lays so low on bass he’s practically inaudible. Song titles suggest political intent—“Indian Givers,” “Texas Rangers,” “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”—but Young sounds weirdly jovial, like he’s explaining what political songs are, rather than singing them, and the impact feels dulled, even subverted. Peace Trail would be cool enough to hear in a small club, but as an album, it’s barely there. As he intones on the Basement Tapes knockoff “My Pledge”: “I couldn’t wrap my head around it / didn’t know what it meant.”
Ty Segall (Drag City)
Frighteningly prolific Ty Segall is back with a self-titled record that plays like a compendium of Segall’s variously favored styles. There’s crushing riff rock, not-quite-delicate balladry, extended psych passages—the only constant is Segall’s voice, insistent even at its most relaxed. Not that there’s much repose here—the album leads with the squalling headbanger “Break a Guitar,” a showcase for the band Segall has assembled and dubbed Freedom Band, which features guitarist Mikal Cronin, who’s building up an impressive solo catalog himself. The band whips up a terrific frenzy and the intertwining leads on “Break a Guitar” are bitchin’ and hilarious. “Freedom” and “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)” deliver more of the same, the latter developing into a Wurlitzer-soaked improv resembling, I swear, a sinister Phish. The album gets sloppy in the middle, a couple songs delivering messy, piercing riffs without any tune to speak of. But the album shines down the home stretch, the band dialing up controlled, scuttling grooves of acoustic-guitar-and-piano-driven garage. Segall is taking Freedom Band on tour this spring; Ty Segall already sounds like a great live set.
Stitch Of The World (Yep Roc)
Even as a wunderkind, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt conveyed a world-weariness that might have passed for premonition; despite rapturous reviews, Grammy nominations and breathless comparisons (Emmylou Harris being a perennial), Merritt’s never quite broken through. Stitch Of The World sounds pretty understated for a breakthrough, but you never can tell.
“You never can tell” might be Merritt’s current theme. Since her last album she has backed Andrew Bird on tour; recorded with Hiss Golden Messenger and classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein; gotten divorced; had a daughter; and returned to her native North Carolina. Big themes abound on Stitch Of The World—love, loss, fates unknown—though the lyrics best serve as a vehicle for Merritt’s voice and melodies. Featuring Marc Ribot on guitar and session luminary Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Stitch was co-produced by Sam Beam, who joins Merritt for three songs, including the concluding “Wait for Me.” It’s a keeper, as are the stomping “Proclamation Bones” and the rousing opener, “Dusty Old Man.” Stitch Of The World is another reminder that Merritt deserves a much kinder accolade than “covered by Don Henley.”