Fascinating new CDs from 4 queer faves
Lori McKenna, The Bird & the Rifle. Music Row’s renowned wordsmith Lori McKenna doesn’t exactly bury this casual burn, but still, you might miss it. You might because Lori McKenna’s exceptional 10th studio album teems with lines that sear and stick; that’s just what happens when you’re as seasoned at breathing new life into familiar tropes as the 47-year-old Massachusetts-based musician. The burn? You can have him / I hope you have fun / I guess wife number three could be the one.” “Old Men Young Women opens with that zinger, wryly tearing down ageist patriarchal values.
On The Bird & the Rifle, McKenna’s poeticism endures throughout all 10 tracks, while Dave Cobb’s rustic production is appropriately lean, letting her gentle Southern drawl guide her engaging narratives, as it should. (McKenna’s writing chops are, in fact, Grammy-certified; she recently won the coveted award for co-writing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”). On “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” McKenna depicts a picturesque scene of childhood nostalgia, while “We Were Cool” recalls young love and cruising around in an old car listening to Duran Duran, with all the hindsight of a grown adult. The album’s opening track, “Wreck You,” is a brutally honest portrait of a relationship gone awry, and that title track — oh, it’s a stunner. During the song, McKenna draws on metaphors to tell the tale of a dreamer seeking to set herself free from her husband’s oppressive ways. Like the bird McKenna sings about, her voice flutters. It’s beautiful. Her singing, that song, this album. Four stars.
Tegan and Sara, Love You to Death. If you’re still lamenting the loss of Tegan and Sara’s grunge-y, string-strumming past (RIP guitars), it might be time to move on. Because have you heard Love You to Death? It’s the next obvious step in the gay sisters’ glossy pop career, wherein — after 2013’s Heartthrob, their full-on pop initiation — they continue to fulfill their childhood music fantasies to become, to some extent, the boombox pop icons they admired as kids. Buoyant synths. Throbbing basslines. Deep ’80s. If Amy Grant was recording a pop album in 2016, this might be it.
That’s only a slightly weird observation, though also a compliment — remember Grant’s own ’90s pop-crossover Heart in Motion? So much of Love You to Death is, like that album, served sunny side up, romping through pop pleasures like the invigorating, drum-happy “Faint of Heart” and “BWU,” a standout track that merges a thoughtful marriage-centric commentary with a punchy and distinctly queer chorus. Leaning heavily on keyboard for downer ditty “100x” is a nice touch — it’s appropriately minimalistic, a quiet moment of reflection during an otherwise spirited outing. The song might be underwritten, even slightly amateurish considering their impressive catalog of more intricate compositions, but clearly the twins are embracing the simple pleasures of pop music. It’s perfectly OK if we do, too. Two and a half stars.
Fantasia, The Definition Of… It’s been 12 years since Fantasia Barrino gave us eternal life as she sobbed her way through “I Believe” after winning the third season of American Idol. Those tears were the tears of a dream being realized. The 32-year-old singer is still living that dream on The Definition Of…, her reflective fifth album. Fantasia’s evolution over the last decade has been met with Grammy nominations and critical acclaim, and she’s still taking charge of her artistry. Here, she bridges her old-school roots with a contemporary zest that’s in full bloom on the deep blues of “Sleeping With the One I Love,” “Ugly,” a welcome country detour, and the vintage, Patti LaBelle-esque ballad “When I Met You.” Prepare to be inspired all over again. Three stars.
Michael Blume, When I Get It Right. Close your eyes and imagine a world in which Sam Smith’s songs are as impressive as his voice. Or just listen to Michael Blume, a New Jersey native who, because he’s not run by a major-label machine (don’t be surprised if that changes by the time you read this), can nonchalantly mention going down on a guy during an impressive rap break on “Relationships.” When he’s not rousing with his rhymes, Blume is a blue-eyed soul treasure singing passionately about queer issues and civil rights. The truth is, if there’s any justice in this fickle music industry, both he and his intoxicating debut EP will reach Smith-level success sooner rather than later. Three and a half stars.
— Chris Azzopardi