Hes 76, so, sure, Kris Kristofferson is feeling mortal. Over the last several years, however, that feeling has resharpened his muse, resulting in his best work since the 60s and 70s, when he introduced a new poetic lyricism to country music. Feeling Mortal is no exception its the first great album of 2013.
As on 2006s This Old Road and 2009s Closer to the Bone, producer Don Was puts Kristofferson in the best possible light. He highlights the aging troubadours craggy grace with spare arrangements that fit his conversational delivery and heighten the intimacy of these songs about life, love and hard-earned wisdom. (Not all of them are new: Two have 1970s copyrights, which makes for a nice linking of his two golden ages.)
Kristofferson may be feeling mortal, but thats also freeing, and so the silver-haired devil doesnt sound as though hes ready to quit anytime soon, as he indicates on You Dont Tell Me What to Do. And while Ramblin Jack pays tribute to his friend Ramblin Jack Elliott, Kristofferson could also be singing about himself: And I know he aint afraid of where hes going/ And Im sure he aint ashamed of where hes been/ And he made his own mistakes, and love, and friends/ Aint that what matters in the end.
The Joy Formidable
Calling this album scaled-back in any way sounds a little silly, considering all the layers of instrumentation, from orchestral swells to prog-rock guitar boogie and back again.
But its actually true, considering the Welsh bands wildly ambitious (and uneven) American debut, The Big Roar, with its quest for massiveness seemingly bursting from every seam. Singer Ritzy Bryan and her pals have worked that out now.
Sure, Wolfs Law still sounds big, but they have figured out a way to lighten things up again much like they did on their EP A Balloon Called Moaning, which quickly took them from newcomers to sought-after major-label band.
The balance they build is clever. On The Maw Maw Song, they sing along with the thunderous, heavy-metal guitar riffs to make it sound less serious. On the over-the-top rock of Bats, which musically sounds like Muse and Smashing Pumpkins trying to outplay each other, Bryan tries some smart redirection by whispering her vocals. For the epic The Leopard and the Lung, a plinking piano line unites the songs varied influences, from bits of Lush and My Bloody Valentine to riffs reminiscent of Joy Division. Then, just when you think you have The Joy Formidable pegged, the band unleashes the lovely The Turnaround, where Bryan channels Dusty Springfield over a tastefully restrained retro-pop background for a song that conjures drama in an entirely different way than the rest of Wolfs Law, like The Joy Formidable figured out a new way to harness its considerable powers.
LA COSTA PERDIDA
Camper Van Beethoven
The beauty of Camper Van Beethovens La Costa Perdida (429), the indie-rock forerunners first album in nine years, is in its lovely shagginess, as if it just fell from the sky fully formed, and David Lowery and friends didnt mess with it at all. The standout single Northern California Girls sounds gloriously unforced, with its loping layers of country-rock guitar and pretty bits of violin sweetness, though its well-crafted lyrics show how hard they really worked to get that sound just right. The hushed ballad A Love for All Time opens and closes with the sound of the tides, bookending Lowerys dreamy lyrical non sequiturs a microcosm of the albums unexpected triumphs.
WEST OF MEMPHIS: VOICES OF JUSTICE
This collection is inspired by the trials of Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, the Arkansas men known as the West Memphis 3. They were freed in 2011 after spending more than 18 years in prison on murder charges in a case in which their love of heavy metal music was used as evidence against them.
The 15-track CD accompanies Peter Jackson and Fran Walshs West of Memphis, the fourth documentary made in protest against the unjust treatment of the three. The list of contributors is illustrious, including Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Lucinda Williams, Patti Smith and Johnny Depps band, Tontos Giant Nuts. Spoken-word poet Henry Rollins also shows up: He reads a searing letter Echols wrote him in 2003, when his plight seemed the bleakest.
Bits of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis haunting film score also appear. Despite all that talent, West of Memphis is an inconsistent muddle, with previously recorded tracks like Dylans Ring Them Bells mingling with bad ideas such as Marilyn Manson covering Carly Simons Youre So Vain and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks revenging Pink Floyds Mother. For a good cause: A portion of the proceeds go to Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin.