Ken Tucker

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.

Tucker is the author of Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love and Hate About Television.

John Fullbright 's Songs is the most interestingly uneven album I've heard in a while. The work of a smart young man, it's also the work of a self-conscious young man who's prone to mistaking articulate melancholy for wisdom. Fullbright's debut album contained bold melodies and told stories about daydreamers and offbeat people. On Songs , Fullbright opts for pure mood-setting, sounding morose in an attempt to signal subtle passion, but that's not really how it plays out. "Write a Song" is a...

Transcript TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Hank Williams is commonly considered the most important country music songwriter and one of its first tragic figures, dying at age 29, in 1953. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of two new items featuring Williams - previously unreleased recordings from 1950 radio broadcasts called "The Garden Spot Programs," sponsored by the Naughton Farms Mail-order Nursery and rare TV performances included in the new DVD titled, "You Are There: Classic...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X294h3dl2_I The title song on Ray LaMontagne 's new album, Supernova , features sunny, just-this-side-of-psychedelic production and instrumentation. It's a bright plea to a woman to join the singer on some new romantic adventures. For a guy who made his reputation as a morosely troubled, soulful crooner, it's a welcome departure. LaMontagne is a 40-year-old singer-songwriter who has succeeded in the circuitous manner of the current music industry. He spent the...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbiFcPhccu8 tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus. She writes the songs, which frequently consist of musical riffs broken into pieces and shards, glued together with an organizing rhythm. She provides most of the multi-layered vocals and much of the percussion, as well as various keyboards, ukulele and other instruments and objects. Working with bassist Nate Brenner and occasionally a few other singers and instrumentalists, Garbus gives electrifying performances that...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meHGilIpCbE Jessica Lea Mayfield possesses a delicate singing voice that she likes to contrast with her crunching guitar riffs. For her new album Make My Head Sing... , she's working with drummer Matt Martin and her bassist, producer and husband Jesse Newport to create a roughed-up, often blues-based sound that lends her lyrics vehemence. You can hear, in the midst of all this rock heaviness, the influence of the bluegrass band Mayfield was a part of when she...

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Transcript DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The Both is the name for the duo formed by veteran singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Ted Leo. "The Both" is also the name of their debut album. The two began performing together in 2012, when Ted Leo was Mann's opening act. Mann began joining Leo onstage during his set. They liked the sound their voices together and started collaborating. Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review of "The Both." (SOUNDBITE...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbdrFYYgn3k Carlene Carter was born into country-music royalty: Her father, Carl Smith, was a fine country vocalist, and her mother June was not only famous for performing with husband Johnny Cash , but also as part of The Carter Family, the groundbreaking act that ushered in the modern era of country music in the 1920s. Carlene Carter has reached back to that rich material of the Carter Family for much of a new album, Carter Girl , which offers fresh takes on...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJO6KR5A9wg Jon Langford has spent his career illuminating lives that get ignored in celebrity culture, pointing out what he perceives as lies in political culture, and asserting himself with boldness and a rough sense of humor into art culture. In addition to writing and performing songs, he's also an excellent artist — he's made a painting to accompany every song on his new album, and I highly recommend a 2006 book of his paintings and writings called...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lexeFtDREPg Sara Evans is a singer with a big voice who knows what to do with it. Her phrasing is conversational; she rarely tries to goose the emotion in a song by stretching out syllables or leaping registers. Evans has never been a singer of hardcore country music — she likes pop, and she's not afraid to apply her big vocal power to a big, cheesy power ballad. The difference between Evans and many singers who work in that particular territory is that her...

Angel Olsen begins the song "Hi-Five" by paraphrasing Hank Williams , admitting she's so lonesome she could cry. She goes on to say she just wants someone who believes in love as urgently as she does. The twanging guitar throbbing beneath these sentiments suggests that it's going to be a long, lonely search. Over a matter of minutes, Olsen has created the landscape she'll inhabit for an entire album. Frequently on the new Burn Your Fire For No Witness , Olsen makes her voice echo and float in...

Pharrell Williams, who frequently goes by just his first name, is the sort of pop star whom many people would like to view as a friend. Emerging from hip-hop, he makes charming recordings that suggest a deep appreciation of pop, soul and R&B music extending at least as far back as the 1960s. To hear Pharrell on his new album G I R L , you'd think his world consisted of grooving on catchy beats and flirting with women. It's a lightweight image that draws gravitas from his prolific work ethic...

In "Reno County Girl," Chuck Mead serenades us with a tale about a young woman with whom his narrator fell in love. It's a loping country song, Mead's version of cowboy music, but as its pretty melody unfurls, you realize that its scenario is bleak: Mead's character urged her to leave home despite the objections of her father, and it turns out Daddy was right — this guy leaves her all by her lonesome much of the time. "She knows I'm the kind that likes to ramble around," he sings, noting that...

The members of Vertical Scratchers don't have to pretend: They are free spirits, making music that is at once tightly composed, whimsical and anarchic. The vocals on a Vertical Scratchers song tend to be high-pitched and yearning. John Schmersal creates harmonies from his vocal tracks that have a keening romanticism. His guitar lines are a series of slashed chords — vertical scratching, and thus the band's name. At the same time, there's a compressed intensity to the tunes, which uncoil with...

Lake Street Dive is powered by the voice of Rachael Price; it's what hits you first when you listen to this quartet. It's a ringingly clear, strong voice, a sound that's at once beseeching and in control. Price regularly harmonizes with the other members of Lake Street Dive — bassist Bridget Kearney, drummer Mike Calabrese and Mike Olson, who also plays guitar and trumpet. But most of the songs on Bad Self Portraits are showcases for Price's surging vocals. When Lake Street Dive performed ...

Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch. Now, one of the things I mean by that is that Church is willing to take big chances such as "The Outsiders," the title track from his fourth album, and clearly a manifesto he's proud of. The composition is a big, overblown mess of a song — a country-rock-rap-metal explosion, with lyrics that brag and boast like some uncanny cross between Waylon Jennings and Kanye West . I think the song is kind of...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqrktVBto4s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp9gKMU4TJU If you listen to country-music radio at all, you're aware of a dominant subgenre of song — tunes about gittin' in a pickup truck with a case o' beer, askin' a pretty gal in shorts and flip-flops to come along and party hardy with you. This formula has yielded big hits and even awards for young male acts such as Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and the duo Florida Georgia Line. The music critic Jody Rosen...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0yWTr2mGUk Hard Working Americans is a new quintet formed by singer-songwriter Todd Snider ; it includes Dave Schools from the band Widespread Panic and Duane Trucks, whose family includes members of The Allman Brothers Band . On its self-titled debut album, the band covers 11 songs by well-known songwriters, and the result coheres as a statement of both solidarity and fun. Halfway through the album, Snider's voice leads Hard Working Americans through a loud,...

High Hopes is a different sort of release for Bruce Springsteen . It features original and cover songs that had been performed live over the years, some never recorded in a studio setting, as well as a few older songs reconceived with new arrangements and musicians. Springsteen first recorded the title track in the '90s; it's a cover of a song he's long liked, by the band The Havalinas. It's a good, rough-sounding piece of music, with a rousing chorus that sounds both joyful and determined....

For the past two decades, Rosanne Cash has lived with her family in Manhattan, but in 2008, she was asked if she wanted to help with a project to restore the childhood home of her father, Johnny Cash , in the small town of Dyess, Ark. She agreed and went down there to do some fundraising — and in the process, she and her husband, producer-songwriter-guitarist John Leventhal, took some car trips throughout the South, soaking up history and music. The creative result is The River & The Thread ,...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUqHEzgFRoA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCP0y-mbaFo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUxkZreYiQs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C02bCT6telc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLx11xq6X7Q http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9e9NSMY8QiQ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uFjXd9trQE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypJ3dP7qCpE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij0Vg0jQJks http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEsEUpk5rU8 No music moved me more, did more to make me think about life a bit...

A half-century on, La La Brooks still sings about boys and girls falling in love. At an age when other veterans of first-generation rock movements are thinking about retirement or oldies tours, Brooks has come up with a fresh, energetic collection that doesn't deny her past, but also refuses to succumb to mere nostalgia. Brooks has a strong, surging voice that has deepened over the years, as can be heard in "Mind Made Up." But it's not as though the teenager who sang The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMimVRA1hRo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks4xy_HVD9I New collections of Christmas music come out every year, and several entries in 2013's batch are already making an impact. Kelly Clarkson 's Wrapped in Red made its debut at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200, while Nick Lowe 's new one, called Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family , finds him mixing traditional songs with new ones he's written or co-written with Ry Cooder . Lowe's Quality...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCP0y-mbaFo "Pray to Jesus" leads off 12 Stories , Brandy Clark's modestly amazing new album. It isn't a conventionally religious song, instead opting to set up what will be a recurring theme throughout this collection: a quick, precise sketch of specific people, mostly rural, many of them working-class, who don't see a heck of a lot going right in their lives, now or in the foreseeable future. So, as Clark sings, "We pray to Jesus and we play the Lotto / 'cause...

Linda Thompson is probably best known for the albums she recorded with her husband Richard Thompson in the '70s and early '80s. They divorced, and Thompson has maintained a sporadic solo career. Her new album is a family affair, featuring some accompaniment by her ex-husband, and some songs written with her son, the singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson . "It Won't Be Long Now" ends Won't Be Long Now , but it can stand as a kind of explanation — a manifesto, were this assiduously modest woman...

Transcript TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the new album, "The Blow" by the music and performance are duo called The Blow which was conceived by its singer, Khaela Maricich. Melissa Dyne plays a more behind the scenes role, arranging, mixing and co-producing much of this new collection. The music made by The Blow can be broadly labeled as electro pop, but Ken says it goes further than that. (SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A KISS") KHAELA MARICICH: ...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s-k8Q_40cA On Three Chords and the Truth , bluegrass musician James King picks from the canon of country music to rearrange its songs as bluegrass. On The Bluegrass Album , country star Alan Jackson has recorded his first collection of bluegrass music — some classics, some originals. King takes the title of his new album from a famous quote by the great songwriter Harlan Howard — who, when asked to define a good country music song, said it was "three chords and...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TffpkE2GU4 The three HAIM sisters are in their 20s with plenty of experience, including years spent playing in a band with their parents. Each is a multi-instrumentalist; each sings. They write their own material. Here ends the questions-of-authenticity part of the review. Not that questions of being musical lightweights are going to be resolved for some listeners, because HAIM works in that most vexed and scorned of genres: pop-rock. Your notion of pop-rock...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q7Angi3d6g Bob Schneider's Burden of Proof is a frequently beautiful, often morose, downcast album. I get the feeling he's using broken romantic relationships metaphorically — that when he sings about not connecting with someone he loves, he's also singing about not connecting with a bigger audience. And he does it with just the right lack of self-pity to make what he's bemoaning interesting. The music on Burden of Proof is mostly straightforward singer...

The first thing you notice about Lucy Schwartz's Timekeeper is the singer's voice — both her physical voice, which is at once ringing and adroit, and her writer's voice, which is precise yet elusive. When Schwartz sings "Ghost in My House," the production renders her tone in an echoing manner that signifies spookiness. It also suggests a metaphor — memory as a ghost, the haunting of someone who's no longer in her life. In general, Lucy Schwartz is in love with the sound of her own voice, and...

Robbie Fulks has been recording since the mid-'90s, making music that's difficult to categorize. He's written country songs about how compromised most country music is, and while he's fond of folk and bluegrass, he pleases concert audiences with covers of hits by Michael Jackson and Cher. Fulks' new album, Gone Away Backward , is one of his most sustained and subtle efforts. With Gone Away Backward , Fulks has made an album that feints in the direction of nostalgia while grappling very much...

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