Havoc and Bright Lights
When Alanis Morissette scored her first big hit in 1995, she was a 21-year-old newcomer with a broken heart. Songs such as “You Oughta Know” were angry, angsty missives from a songwriter who was willing to share anything, even the rawest details from her love life, to make her material better. The music was built upon rage, and Miss Morissette became one of the 1990s biggest stars, equal parts feminist rocker and confessional crooner.
On “Havoc and Bright Lights,” Miss Morissette mellows a bit. She is a wife now — a mother, too — and her songs reference those roles often, replacing the fury of earlier albums with major keys, perky melodies and optimistic lyrics. “I’ll be your keeper for life as your guardian,” she sings on the first song, pledging love to her toddler while power chords chime in the background.
Her music has a bit of residual anger, but it’s largely confined to “Celebrity,” where she impersonates an eager-to-please starlet who will do anything to get her name on the marquee. On an album filled with honest accounts of Miss Morissette’s happy adulthood, it’s the one song that sounds anything less than content. “Give me celebrity, my kingdom to be famous; tell me who I have to be,” goes the snarky, scornful chorus.
Miss Morissette, though, knows she doesn’t have to be anyone she doesn’t want to be. Instead of serving up another batch of alt-rock guitars and vitriolic vocals, she changes the menu, dishing out adult-contemporary comfort food instead. “Havoc and Bright Lights” is almost obstinate in its happiness, and no matter what the title says, there is precious little havoc here.
We’re happy for you, Miss Morissette. Your new life sounds lovely. Still, it’s hard not to miss the heartbroken spitfire who turned the music industry on its head 15 years ago, proving that anger could sell just as well as sex.
Feathers and Fishhooks
Rayland Baxter is the son of Bucky Baxter, a pedal steel guitarist known for his work with Steve Earle, Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams. The senior Baxter is a legend; the younger Baxter is a newcomer. Being the son of a legend has it perks, and “Feathers and Fishhooks” — Rayland’s debut collection of folk songs and easygoing country-rockers — is steeped in his dad’s music.
That being said, no musical offspring since Jakob Dylan has crafted a debut album this strong. “Feathers and Fishhooks” is everything its title promises — quirky, simple, Southern — but it’s full of curveballs, too, from slap-happy pop tunes such as “Driveway Melody” to sparse, gorgeous ballads such as “Tell Me Lover.” A vagabond who traveled the world during his early 20s, Mr. Baxter inhabits every tune like a squatter, pausing just long enough to deliver a stirring, heartfelt performance before moving on to the next destination.
There is a restlessness to his lyrics. “It don’t matter where, just get me outta here,” goes one line. “Don’t matter where I go, don’t matter what I see; I ain’t never gonna find the woman for me,” goes another. Other songs are filled with fast-moving images of mountainsides, trees and owls, as though Mr. Baxter cataloged them while driving across the American heartland, bound for no particular place.
On “Olivia,” he attempts to win back the girl he once pushed away. It’s an acoustic song at heart, driven forward by finger-plucked guitar chords and homespun melodies, but Mr. Baxter ornaments the tune with all the smart, tasteful savvy of someone who grew up with one of the greatest sidemen in Americana music. Background vocals sweeten the chorus, and a handheld shaker drives the beat forward. When it comes time for a guitar solo, Mr. Baxter whistles the line instead, sweeping his way around each note like his father’s pedal steel.
The loudest song is saved for last. “Willow” is a psychedelic rocker built around a Middle Eastern scale, and it trades Mr. Baxter’s roots-rock influences for something that is almost reminiscent of Led Zeppelin. It’s a surprise ending, one final curveball to close out an album that never delivers what you would expect, but always delivers.