This week is a treasure trove of new music from country music megastar Chris Stapleton, a new album from the dynamic Lera Lynn, and a new album from JD Simo a guitar player auditioning for the pantheon of guitar gods.
There is something very curious going on with Chris Stapleton. The press release for his brand new album Starting Over was simple and to the point, “Starting Over, the highly anticipated new studio album from Chris Stapleton, is out November 13 on Mercury Records Nashville and is now available for pre-order/pre-save." Alongside the brief announcement were the tracklisting and the album cover art, which was also simple and to the point. The artwork is an all-white square with the word “Title:” in typewriter font followed by a handwritten “Starting Over” and below in typewriter font “By:” with a handwritten “Chris Stapleton.”There are famous blank album covers like The Beatles White Album and Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove. Kanye West took it to the extreme when he released Yeezus in a completely clear cd case with a red piece of tape keeping the blank disc from would-be thieves.
As Stapleton has released each of the first two singles from Starting Over none of the braggadocios ballyhoo one typically finds when one of country music’s most popular artists releases a new song. The press release was a link to hear the song and then the lyrics. Even the accompanying music video for the title track “Starting Over” is a barebones studio performance from the recording session. Stapleton wants us to pay attention to the music. He wants the music to stand on its own and not on the effectiveness of a hype machine. Stapleton may have won countless awards and Traveler is the best selling country album of the past decade, he wants us to focus on the music.
Stapleton doesn’t disappoint. “Cold” starts with a piano chord that strikes of Radiohead’s “We Suck Young Blood” with southern augmentations. As sparse as the song begins, it builds to one of the grandest and most lush productions I have ever heard. Stapleton easily surpasses Guns N’ Roses “November Rain” and at the very least on par with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Many artists would be demure when performing within a song of this magnitude, but Stapleton’s vocal performance is breathtaking. The song “Starting Over” could be spiritual kin to Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” Filled with comforting optimism, hope, and love Stapleton sings, “Wherever we are’s where I wanna be/ and honey, for once in our lives/ Let’s take our chances and roll the dice/ I can be your lucky penny/ You can be my four leaf clover.” Every moment of the song bubbles with sincerity.
Stapleton was right to have us focus on the music because he’s got the goods. November 13 cannot get here fast enough, because Stapleton will give us one of the best albums we will hear all year.
Over the years Lera Lynn has drawn comparisons to Cat Power, Sharon Van Etten, and Jenny Lewis, but these artists fail to capture the spirit of Lynn. Countless artists seek to be comparable to vaunted names in music. They squeak by as a parody and fail to carveout their own space and sound. Lynn’s new album On My Own out October 23 shows she is a force not to be reckoned with. Each song on the album is a master class in tone, texture, atmosphere, identity, and control. Lynn’s closest resemblance is to Lana Del Rey. Lynn and Del Rey are not sonically similar, but both artists have a command of their distinct aura.
All the more impressive and most importantly is that Lynn wrote, produced, sang, and played every note on the album. On My Own shows, Lynn’s distinct vision and style for her music. This was a massive gamble for Lynn because her most popular and most recent album was 2018’s Plays Well With Others. On which Lynn lined up a bevy of co-conspirators to perform with. As great as Plays Well With Others is the album lacks the vision and fire Lynn has.
On My Own feels unbridled. The opening track “Are You Listening?” begins with clacking digital programing as Lynn’s smokey voice enters with vibrations of a guitar drenched in tremolo. As the song progresses drum and bass churn, filling every inch of the verse with tension. At the perfect moment, the chorus comes in like a wrecking ball, clearing out all of the tension with Lynn’s soaring voice. When the chorus ends it feels like you have been thrown off a cliff, falling in the void as a tremolo’d guitar catches you. “Are You Listening?” bends and folds into itself, enveloping listeners into a maze of sound.
Each song on the album is effortless and all-consuming. Edges of music bleed from one song to the next. Lynn’s voice is like smoldering cinders, burning every lyric touching her lips. Every song on the album is a different bend and curve of a labyrinth you will want to stay lost in.
What JD Simo does to a guitar on his self titled album should be illegal. Simo is a lethal combination of Jimi Hendrix's propulsive grooves, Jack White’s fizzy aggression, and Tom Morrello’s diabolical creativity. This unholy trinity of guitar god’s places Simo as King Ghidorah of the guitar world. Outside of the smooth jangle of “One of Those Days” and the front porch blues of “Anna Lee,” JD Simo takes a maximalist approach to his songs. When he turns it to 11 Simo’s soaring guitar solos, thundering riffs, hurricane-force progressions, ground shaking stomps, and snarling attitude terraforms every song.
One of the best examples of what Simo is capable of is the song “Higher Plane.” Right away we can hear the mix of Morrello’s heavy boom and White’s control. As the song throbs Simo is teasing us with dive-bombing riffs and at about the halfway point “Higher Plane” explodes into an all-out assault. Vacillating between chaos and exuberance, Simo grinds every lick. Flirting with danger Simo pushes so hard it feels like the song may collapse, but roaring low-end keeps the song intact. JD Simo’s self-titled album is fearless and is a must-buy for all guitar lovers.
Cory Martin is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., writing about movies, music and pop culture.