Album Reviews: Arlo Parks, Weezer, The Hold Steady, Morgan Wallen and Willie Nelson

Arlo Parks

Collapsed In Sunbeams

Transgressive Records

It should probably be called: A Night In the Life, because it plays that way.

This sweet and sumptuous debut from U.K. artist Arlo Parks, which, lyrics aside, provides a musical and emotional arc that could be any Saturday out to forget what ails you. (Um. You know. Back when that was a thing.)

The album flows beautifully: from Fionna Apple-esque, spoken-word poetics; into something’s-not-quite-right-here single Hurta — west-London soul wrapped in a fuzzy blanket of deep, creamy funk; before it slides into Lily Allen and Eliza Doolittle — briefly Scot siren Shirley Manson — pop transitioning; then, into the early-morning, sun’s-soon-coming hours as trippy and vibey as possible, pulling from inside to ignore what’s underneath.

That’s where Parks so effortlessly marries “night out” with “night that was when the fog clears.”

There’s sadness. There’s pain. There’s ugliness, weariness, wariness and regret. Black Dog will ruin any night you’re having or will have when you’re hearing it — as gorgeous as it is.

But there’s also, too, acceptance. And, seemingly, the promise of a sunrise. Eventually?

Which helps the late-night, early-morning bitters go down and the walk go well, with less shame.

The key to any successful night in a life. 

— Mike Bell

The Hold Steady

Open Door Policy

Positive Jams

There are few — and none better — more literary, accessible yet non-mainstream rock acts than The Hold Steady.

Songwriter, storyteller: flip a coin, pick your IPA with an absinthe chaser when it comes to frontman Craig Finn and his assumed middle-class, “college-boy”-becomes-middle-aged-white-man creative-writing samples wrapped in Petty and Springsteeny sonics. He’s another generation’s Jim Croce or Kenny Rogers. Or Gordon Lightfoot. Or Elmore Leonard. Bukowski.

The brilliant bibliography continues with Open Door Policy, an almost ebullient, seemingly refreshed short-story collection of fictional (?) love stories and dark dramas featuring walking, talking fuckups, character flaws, addictions and casual deaths played out with trademark empathy and honesty and humour. As always, the music — almost at times secondary to the tales weaved by Finn as narrator — still provides that sober/pretending-to-be four-hours-into-things, tightrope-walk-to-the-bathroom line that separates a steady and loose-as-good-goddamn rock feel. Here, on these 11 tracks, that swoozy sound is a little brightier, brashier (hell, listen to the “Woo”-fuelled Unpleasant Breakfast or the Doobie Brothersy, soft-rock Hanover Camera), and the stories more confident, content and Owen Meany than recent outings.

And the result is the best and most satisfying, captivating album from the New Yorkers since ’06’s Boys and Girls In America. Cover to cover.

— Mike Bell


OK Human

Warner Music

When COVID-19 scuppered plans for a 2020 tour with Green Day and Fall Out Boy, Weezer stopped production on a planned stadium-rock album, Van Weezer, and completed work on OK Human, a lockdown-inspired song cycle recorded with a 38-piece orchestra. Yet not only does OK Human sound like a Weezer album (because whatever Rivers Cuomo writes, it comes out Weezer), it’s also a well-crafted one, containing the band’s most appealing and inspired set of songs in years. The orchestral arrangements avoid baroque-pop pomp; rather, they’re understated and tasteful, adding sweetness and beauty without swamping the band. 

Still, how much you like Weezer’s 14th record might depend on whether you deem Cuomo’s embrace of the mundane charming or cringey. For this writer, lyrics about listening to audiobooks or worrying about screen time seem unworthy of orchestral enhancement. But OK Human soars on songs like the gorgeous Numbers or effervescent Here Comes the Rain, where Cuomo looks outward and offers words to console and uplift an increasingly isolated world. 

Amazing trick, this: Weezer replaces guitars with orchestra, irony with sincerity, and yet ends up with a quintessential work, as tuneful and endearing as their best records.

— David Veitch

Valerie June

The Moon and Stars: Prescription for Dreamers

Fantasy Records

Valerie June doesn’t stay in her own lane. Heck, for the Tennessee-born Brooklynite, there are no lanes, nor lines or signs on the road saying where you’ve been, where you’re going or where you should be. The songwriter has no need for boulevards that direct her to well-traveled places; she prefers to floor it, to drive off the bridge and go cross-country, mailing musical postcards from the wreckage of country, gospel, pop, blues, folk, and even 1960s psychedelia, rather than roll straight on down the highway.

The 14 tracks on The Moon and the Stars blend June’s vocals, the ones that sound like Dolly Parton fell through the looking glass and ended up on Motown, into a rich musical tapestry augmented by petite George-Martinesque string flourishes. At times, the songs are reduced to simple elements, a skinny dip on that off-road journey; at others, they feast at the finest establishments encountered enroute, enjoying several courses and swelling to crescendos that, due to June’s insightful lines honouring the wisdom of the ancients, never glance at the artificial sweeteners that too often douse such moments.

Stranger, I see you on the side of the road in the downpour. Times are tough. Do you need a lift? I don’t know where we’re going, but if we listen to Valerie June as we speed along, grace will be our gasoline.

— Mary-Lynn Wardle

Willie Nelson

That’s Life

Legacy Recordings

Although one suspects the idea of Willie Nelson covering songs associated with Frank Sinatra was hatched in a boardroom with accountants present (visions of Stardust sales dancin’ in their heads), you can’t argue with the artistic results on his Grammy-winning 2018 album My Way or its sequel, That’s Life. Certainly, as a vocal stylist, Nelson is every bit as distinctive and masterful as Sinatra and the countless other vocalists (such as Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and Dinah Washington) who’ve performed these 11 pop-jazz standards, which date back as far as 1927. 

There’s huge pleasure hearing Nelson, 87, bringing grizzled, rakish charm to You Make Me Feel So Young (a song Sinatra popularized when he was a mere lad of 40), as well as dignified gravitas to A Cottage for Sale, an extended metaphor for loss, and In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning, the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. 

Producer Buddy Cannon keeps the arrangements uncluttered and understated, often using a small jazz ensemble with splashes of brass and woodwind; the use of harmonica, steel guitar, Latin rhythms and Western swing flavourings give these enduring compositions a Texas twist that make ’em Willie’s own.

— David Veitch

Morgan Wallen

Dangerous: The Double Album

Big Loud Records

Without prejudice?

Well, it’s impossible to review rising, fallen-star Morgan Wallen’s latest without acknowledging that he has that, prejudice, and that we should have just as much towards him.

Young, southern, dumb, and full of “n”-word-dropping stupid, the recently rebuked (label drop, agency drop, radio silence, etc.) vocalist’s 30-song epic Dangerous: The Double Album should be the white-bread toast of mainstream and downstream country music, with Wallen a mullet cut — perhaps several IQ points and, well, at least one racist tirade — away from Chris Stapleton or Jason Isbell territory. 

He has that same authentic voice, one that’s less pop-star-on-mudpie-moonshine, pickup-truck pimper (damn you, irony), than actual classic country vocalist. And his songs, the songs he’s chosen — including one lovely, lazy duet with Stapleton and a cover of Isbell’s Cover Me Up — are pulled-back redneckia; a little smarter, a little more subtle than most of the other mainstream country artists who are more than happy to high-five his cancellation. Sure, whiskey, broken hearts, love, beer-drinkin’, bartenders, backroads, good ol’ boys — but in a way that’s more real, realistic and relatable than pandering.

It’s an excellent record. It really is. Most of the material falling on the slower, ballad-heavy, more thoughtful side of the barbed-wire fence, with none of that shitty fist-bump and jean-shorts dreck that has been Nashvhille’s chicken and waffles lo these many years. (Yes, granted, at its most radio accessible — the title track, Beer Don’t — there are mentions of boots, pickups and Daisy Dukes, but it’s the exception rather than the rule, a device not the direction, and often more casual than calculated.)

Neither excusing nor actively rooting, it would be a good thing for country music if he smartens up, learns something about race, and continues growing as an artist — he’s too talented to dismiss outright and cancel completely.

As to how you listen to it? Do, don’t, with or without extreme prejudice, completely oblivious — choice is yours.

— Mike Bell