Jose James is a wonderful singer! He is suave and thoughtful, and thoughtful yet light and sensuous, when performing “Good Morning Heartache,” a song that is part of the great Billie Holiday’s legend. Jose James has the sensuality of youth, and that gives certain songs something special—that sensuality gives him another weapon against despair, against a too predictable pathos. His mastery of “Body and Soul” is incantatory and impressive, as it is a difficult song that maintains its difficulty despite its popularity with singers.
The album Ain’t We Brothers is a collection of songs by the singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Sam Gleaves; and it contains songs of family, love, labor, community, and struggle. Sam Gleaves plays banjo, dulcimer, fiddle, guitar, and autoharp but Gleaves does perform with admired friends. With the fiddle of Tim Crouch and the banjo of Cathy Fink, Sam Gleaves sings “Working Shoes,” about a woman observing the efforts of a hardworking husband, efforts that do not change the fact of family impoverishment.
The connections between beauty and love and thought and truth are a subject that artists and lovers have come to again and again, generation after generation. “Art and morals are, with certain provisos which I shall mention in a moment, one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.
Andy Bey sings and plays piano; and his album Pages from an Imaginary Life features songs that have become standards of early twentieth-century popular music and also Andy Bey’s own philosophical and spiritual musical pieces. Another composition—“How Long Has This Been Going On?”—is an intelligent song, giving eloquence to the thrill and tension of romance, of erotic adventure and tenderness, of discovery of what is possible between two people; and Andy Bey’s phrasing is full of care.
One of the most gifted and celebrated musicians of his generation, Vijay Iyer, a born New Yorker of Asian descent, an Indian-American, is a composer, musician, scholar, and communicator who has explored different musical sources—classical, popular, and folk—and varied subjects, including war.
On Caetano Veloso’s album Abracaco, feisty as its title is the song “A Bossa Nova E Foda (A Bossa Nova is the Fucking Shit),” with lyrics that are fragmented, ranging over time and space, mentioning jazz, an exercise bike, a stew, a Jewish bard of Minnesota, Rio de Janeiro, the sea, sound waves; and Caetano Veloso’s singing of it ranges from rough chants to whispers.
Folk culture is the culture of ordinary people, often in difficult circumstances. It is culture for everyday use—the way work is done and knowledge is shared and meals are cooked and music is made. The songs emerge from work and play, often in commemoration of fundamental events and relationships—birth, childhood, friendship, rivalry, romance, school, marriage, illness, and death.
Rhiannon Giddens’s album Tomorrow Is My Turn is a wonderful collection, and very, very impressive, featuring the songs “She’s Got You” and “Up Above My Head” and “Black Is the Color.” Rhiannon Giddens is an artist who brings a vibrant sense of moment and tradition. It is rare for a singer to be engaged by both classical and folk music but that is the sensibility of Rhiannon Giddens. She is a marvel.
On Sermon on the Rocks, a remarkably fun and satisfying album, Josh Ritter creates an airy atmosphere—beautifully mysterious and sensuous—for “Seeing Me Round.” The sound throughout the album is clear, vibrant, particularly in “Seeing Me Round” and “Where the Night Goes,” about the possibility of romance, in which voice and instrumentation are precisely delineated and warm.
Battles hasn’t been the same without Tyondai Braxton. As much is obvious when you listen to Tyondai’s 2009 Central Market, a haunting homage to Stravinsky’s Ballet Petrushka and the 2008 market crash, beside Battles’ 2011 album, a year after he left, Gloss Drop. Their first album, Mirrored, showed quirkiness that demanded serious attention. More Aubrey Plaza than Zooey Deschanel. Now Battles returns with La Di Da Di, an album as benign as its name, hovering between considerable monotony and death throes.