“Smoke Ring For My Halo”
The irony of the word “smoke” in the title of Kurt Vile’s new album is that he finally blows some of the haze away.
On his fourth full-length album, the former War On Drugs singer’s songs are still loopy, stoner rambles worthy of William S. Burroughs. “When it’s looking dark, punch the future in the face,” he sings in “Runner Ups.”
But, the songs are tidied up a little this time out, the clutter blown clear. And the vocals, while still moaned and groaned, are mostly discernible.
All this allows Vile’s real power, his looping, John Fahey-like guitar playing to shine through on songs like the pop-friendly “In My Time” to indie-rock psych-outs like “Society Is My Friend.”
As always with Vile, “Smoke Ring For My Halo” is an album in its truest sense, a collection of melancholy songs best appreciated in one long gush, tied together by clever repetitions and understated lyrics.
“She was a tomboy and I admired her,” he sings in the love song, “Peeping Tomboy.”
“Steady As She Goes”
Red House Records
Yup, that Hot Tuna — the Jefferson Airplane side project formed more than 40 years ago by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.
It’s been 20 years since their last studio album, and twice that long since their songs “Hesitation Blues” and “Keep on Truckin’ ” got any radio love.
Long gone is the shaggy hair, and their voices are getting a little thin and creaky. And, their once muscular guitars have settled sedately into middle age.
What hasn’t changed is the pair’s deep roots in gospel and the blues. Among the 12 cuts are covers stretching back to Papa Charlie McCoy’s swinging “Vicksburg Stomp” and the gospel shouter “Children of Zion.”
And, as far removed as Hot Tuna is from its Haight-Ashbury glory days, there’s still a hint of Grateful Dead with a cover of Davis’ “Mama Let Me Lay it On You” and a half-rocking version of “A Little Bit Faster.” And, Kaukonen’s “Second Changes” noodles along like a Bob Weir solo.
But, in the end, that’s the problem here. As good as it is, without a hint of freshness the album struggles to generate much steam.
“Wood and Stone”
After 21 years with Donna the Buffalo, Tara Nevins breaks away for a solo album, her first solo work since 1999’s “Mule to Ride.”
On this set of mostly originals, she calls in some favors, getting a lift from guests like Jim Lauderdale, Allison Moorer and Levon Helm.
She also gets a big boost from legendary roots producer Larry Campbell, the former Bob Dylan sideman who adds his own guitar, pedal steel and mandolin work to several tracks. Riding high from producing two Grammy Award winners for Helm, Campbell keeps things bright and tight without giving up intimacy.
And, that’s the charm of this album, the sense of getting a peek into Nevins’ splendid soul and her vast woodsy song repertoire.
In the jangly, countrified, “You’ve Got it All,” a woman tries to assure an itchy lover. “Maybe I know what it’s like to be lost at sea,” the sweet-voiced Nevins sings. In the bluegrassy “Snowbird,” a woman aches for a man who won’t love her back. “The Wrong Side” is a fiddle-fueled barn dance bench-clearer.
When she does cover a song, it’s with a welcome freshness. She’s several bars into “Stars Fell On Alabama” before you realize the old chestnut has been dressed up in a melody. The closer, Van Morrison’s “The Beauty of the Days Gone By” gets a folky Appalachian makeover.