July 2023 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Natalie Merchant: Keep Your Courage

Nonesuch (16/44.1 stream, Qobuz). 2023. Natalie Merchant, prod.; David Snyder, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

On Keep Your Courage, Natalie Merchant sounds like a 59-year-old woman who has been through some rough health. But that reflection of reality is what makes Keep Your Courage so good: Merchant refuses to hide her humanity and openly celebrates her distinctive, poetic mind while pondering the mysteries of love and the innate strength of women.

It’s been almost 30 years since Merchant fronted the band 10,000 Maniacs. She has made nine solo albums, although this one is the first in almost a decade to include new songs. All but one of the Keep Your Courage tracks were written by Merchant in response to a variety of world events, but she presents her thoughts metaphorically, with a literary bent.

The opening two songs are duets with the smooth-voiced Abena Koomson-Davis, a member of a group of women and nonbinary singers called the Resistance Revival Chorus. “Big Girls” finds the two trading bluesy lines about fighting through adversity, bolstered by John Mills’s mighty horn arrangement. The duet “Come on, Aphrodite,” an impatient appeal to the love goddess, has the kind of melody that could anchor a Broadway show, if Merchant ever decided to go that route.

String arrangements by Stephen Barber and well-defined sound production give a lushness just shy of sentimentality to songs like the sorrowful “Narcissus.” The shaking and scratchiness of Merchant’s aging voice act as an effective contrast to the velvety orchestrations: There’s only so big and sweet the music can get when the singer sounds mortal.

Merchant still has a huge range. She flips the melody up an octave at times in “Guardian Angel,” and she does it quietly, which is even harder. When she covers “Hunting the Wren,” by Irish folk group Lankum, she brings just as much intensity to that simple, haunting tune.—Anne E. Johnson

The Hold Steady: The Price of Progress

Thirty Tiger Records (auditioned as CD). 2023. Josh Kaufman, prod.; D. James Goodwin, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****

The Hold Steady has developed a remarkable career using an approach to music that is unique and comfortably quirky. Centered on front man Craig Finn’s spoken-word vocals, their sound is always a bit off beat and sharpened by well-executed quick turns. That’s once again the case on their latest release, The Price of Progress. For their ninth studio album, the band returned to The Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, New York, and worked with long-time collaborator Josh Kaufman. The result is a record that might be their most expansive to date, with a sound that is big bodied and bold.

This record continues the band’s commitment to telling stories that are cinematic in scope yet rooted in the challenges Americans face daily. The songs are tales told by adults who, finding themselves in a seemingly endless holding pattern, so distant from their youths, when impossible dreams were so easily formed, have lowered their expectations. Finn once again delivers the sense of despair felt by the characters he represents, with an actor’s presence. This is another of the band’s theatrical productions, framed in the construct of rock’n’roll. Finn’s theatricality sometimes distracts from the outstanding musicianship of the players around him. Steve Selvidge (guitar, vocals), Bobby Drake (drums), Franz Nicolay (keyboards, vocals), Tad Kubler (guitar, vocals), and Galen Polivka (bass) deliver their parts with fire, precision, and purpose. Together, they provide a sense of “progress” that lifts The Hold Steady to new heights.

Pay particular attention to tracks like “Grand Junction” and “Sixers.” There, the band sets new musical milestones and migrates from novelty to genius, every element delivering on the promise of their earliest works. These songs will go over well live and properly complement an existing catalog of songs in ways that will delight every fan.—Ray Chelstowski

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