In 1994, urban romantics seeking refuge from the decidedly suburban concerns of grunge and indie rock were treated to Portishead’s Dummy , the grainy soundscape of trip-hop noir featuring the melancholic singing of British chanteuse Beth Gibbons. Ms. Gibbons’ unsettling moan teased uptown cabaret out of a downtown beat, giving New Yorkers the perfect soundtrack for the sophisticated lifestyle they imagine living.
Eight years later, Ms. Gibbons has returned with her first solo effort, Out of Season (Go Beat/Universal), a non-trippy, non-hoppy album that, despite its title, arrives precisely at that autumnal moment when one is compelled to spin a somber Joan Baez record and mope around the flat with a cigarette burning in the ashtray.
The black-and-white cover photograph captures the essence here: Hair tussled in the wind, eyes wincing into eternity, Ms. Gibbons has the stark glamour of a dead poetess.
Out of Season is an exploration of 70′s folk, soul and jazz. And after Eminem and the retro-racket of Garageville-don’t get me wrong, I love those White Stripes-this is exactly what is called for: a hushed soundtrack to a weekend cottage on a fog-draped moor. Ms. Gibbons shares a title credit with a fellow named Rustin Man, a.k.a. Paul Webb, the former bassist of post-rock band Talk Talk, who produced and arranged. Here, he smartly eschews 90′s-era electronica-the blips and squiggles that torture Radiohead records and now date Portishead’s output-for a stripped-down folk-jazz à la Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, with a considerable nod to the queen of that sort of thing, Nina Simone.
The album is so spare and haunting-fingers rustling over acoustic-guitar strings, Ms. Gibbons’ nicotine-stained breath bathing the mike-you can almost see the staff notes laid bare on the sheet music.
The first track, “Mysteries,” is a devastating piece of work. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a quavery chorus of backup singers, Ms. Gibbons warbles, “God knows how I adore life / When the wind turns on the shores lies another day.” Her voice is so chilling, you’ll have to don a wool sweater just to listen to it.
With its misty sentiment and odd word enjambment, that first lyric casts its shadow across all 44 minutes of the record. Throughout, Ms. Gibbons recalls “water coloured memories / soft as a summer’s breeze” (“Sand River”) and makes weird, soft-focus observations like “time is but a memory / beautiful for some / feathered like a majorette / in a rose unsaid and done” (“Spider Monkey”).
“Tom the Model” follows “Mysteries,” showing off Mr. Webb’s uncanny grasp of retro production. He sets the scene for Ms. Gibbons’ breathy torch-soul singing (a fatalistic cry to a lost lover) with a shimmery guitar, a sunburst organ swell and a tempered R&B horn section that brings to mind mid-70′s Al Green. Grandiose violins soar up and down, a tiny blast of blues harmonica comes out of nowhere, and Ms. Gibbons has you firmly by the lapels.
From there, things mellow out considerably, with Ms. Gibbons sticking closer to the somnambulist folk of Mr. Drake. By track eight, she comes clean with her obsession: “Drake” seems to be an ode to the fallen folky. Ms. Gibbons is adept at inhabiting any number of stylized voices and occasionally morphs into her heroes: the fragile, quavery falsetto of Joan Baez or, in the case of “Romance,” the feline purr of Billie Holiday. Depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing, doing Holiday can come off as schticky or affected. But Ms. Gibbons’ shapeshifting is subtle enough-and the music inventive and fetching enough-that she avoids falling into pure hommage .
Occasionally, Out of Season evaporates under its own Drakean quietude. By the end, you might be half-asleep, buried under a pile of blankets. Still, if you’ve worn out all your rainy-day records-Ms. Mitchell’s Blue , or everything by Belle & Sebastian- Out of Season has all the sophistication and overcast emotion to embalm you for a day.
Pearls of Willie
For all the swing of his waist-long braids and the Uncle Sam swagger of his crocheted guitar strap, no accessory better sums up Willie Nelson than a simple strand of pearls: He goes with everything.
It’s this versatility that redeems Willie and Friends: Stars and Guitars (Lost Highway), the “live” album that originated in a Nashville concert aired on USA Network this spring. The staggering scope of Mr. Nelson’s guests-Keith Richards, Hank Williams III, Ray Price, Sheryl Crow, Jon Bon Jovi, ad infinitum-and his ability to complement each of them proves that the Red-Headed Stranger remains America’s finest melting-pot musician, our smoothest syncretic master since Elvis.
Sure, the whole Tribute Without A Cause setup is feeble, and its byproduct moderately to egregiously overproduced. Next to Stars and Guitars , the “We Are the World” sessions smack of a late-night jam entre amis . But no use mourning the good old days when a live album signified something-a social protest, a gig in Central Park, another overdosed bassist. After the “live studio” gimmick of MTV’s Unplugged raked in so many millions, these pre-emptive bootlegs have glutted the market, plaguing our mega-stores like the Greatest Hits Volume II collections of six-month-old bands.
Then again, even sub-par Willie Nelson is still Willie Nelson, and not even an icon can make musical history every day. Poor Mr. Nelson, who’s still recovering from his run-in with the I.R.S., must also balance his checkbook, and serenading Emmylou Harris in a wrenching cover of “Til I Gain Control Again” certainly beats peddling face and throat moisturizer on QVC.
If nothing else, Stars and Guitars confirms Mr. Nelson’s superstar status. He is that once-in-a-generation creature who is more legend than flesh, like Liza Minnelli and Mikhail Gorbachev.
When the album begins, as all Nelson concerts must, with “Whiskey River,” not even the most hardened carpetbagger can deny that this man deserves his own postage stamp and/or Franklin Mint silver dollar. Sheryl Crow, singing with him on this track (and later on the Buffalo Springfield cover “For What It’s Worth”) exhibits admirable restraint and tones down the drawl, compensating the American public for so long polluting the FM waves with “All I Wanna Do” and suchlike piffle.
Often on these rigged jamborees, the V.I.P. performer gets lost in the chaotic Hit Parade of his colleagues, but never Mr. Nelson. He shares the spotlight comfortably: too mellow to hog it, but by his very greatness incapable of surrendering it. The more ill-assorted the talents crossing his stage, the more Mr. Nelson’s own quiddities dominate. Even when he sings little, he owns the song. Aaron Neville croons “Stardust,” the Hoagy Carmichael standard (and longtime Willie and Family cover), alone; Mr. Nelson contributes only his usual deft guitar work. Until the coda, that is, when Mr. Nelson’s inimitable tenor takes over, and the prim cablevision audience erupts.
And if Mr. Nelson carries the finest songs, he also saves the shabbiest ones. As Jon Bon Jovi desecrated “Always On My Mind,” I was living on a prayer that my Discman would run out of batteries. But then Mr. Nelson stepped up to the mike, ushering the crowd past slippery ground. New Jersey just doesn’t grow cowboys cool enough to pull off the operatic cheesiness. And if not for Willie’s helping hand, Ryan Adams’ soggy take on Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” would doubtless have unraveled into the soothing background melodies of a Romanian waxing parlor.
The concert’s high point is “Dead Flowers,” the Sticky Fingers classic that Townes Van Zandt introduced to Texans, here sung by Mr. Nelson, Mr. Adams and Hank Williams III in a twang that would do Mick Jagger proud-and accompanied, ecstatically, by its immortal co-author, Keith Richards.
And on USA Network as in life, Willie’s never better than when he’s singing his own standards: “Night Life” with C&W doyen Ray Price is rousing, and sadder than Mr. Nelson usually sings it. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” with Vince Gill is likewise solid, if less sad.
But far too often in the artificiality of Stars and Guitars , the recent death of Mr. Nelson’s oldest and most successful partner, Waylon Jennings, prickles-particularly on “Good-Hearted Woman,” when that undeserving dauphin, Toby Keith, tosses off a too-rigid Waylon imitation.
A far worthier showcase of Willie’s genius for collaboration is Half Nelson (1985), which features his seminal pairings with Santana on “They All Went to Mexico,” with Julio Iglesias on “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and with Merle Haggard on “Pancho and Lefty.”
As for Stars and Guitars , it is no coincidence that the only two songs that Mr. Nelson sings himself-the anthemic “On the Road Again” and Hank Williams Sr.’s “Move It On Over”-are among the finest tracks on the album. But with all the countless Willie Nelson compilations out there, better versions of these songs are about as hard to find as a tin of Skoal in a Tucumcari, N.M., gas station. Nelson greenhorns should seek these on their next road trip, for Stars and Guitars won’t alienate cradle-to-grave devotees of Mr. Nelson, but it also won’t electrify the uninitiated. Its chief interest is extrinsic, in the testament it offers to the pan-American range of Willie’s appeal.
There’s something-indeed, much-to be said for a man who can lure Hank Williams III and Keith Richards onto the same stage and immediately afterward crack into the western ballad “Lonestar” with Norah Jones.
“Stars and Stripes forever!” I kept thinking as I scoped Mr. Nelson’s audience at the Beacon Theater last week: Amarillans and pediatricians; pomade-laden i-bankers and obese, bearded Hell’s Angels; rodeo regulars and adolescent indie rockers and diapered diehards too old to remember Woodstock, the whole spectacle all so gorgeous and soft-focus and Ellis Island–y that for several long moments, I forgot that we’re bombing Iraq.