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.

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Music Reviews
1:31 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

Angel Olsen: A Voice Of Confounding Power

Angel Olsen.
Zia Anger Courtesy of the artist

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.

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Music Reviews
2:18 pm
Thu March 6, 2014

Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy

Pharrell, sporting more conventional headwear.
Mimi Valdés Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu March 6, 2014 4:03 pm

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 and a shrewd deployment of those influences.

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Music Reviews
1:04 pm
Mon March 3, 2014

Chuck Mead: Gleefully Sinister Country Serenades

Chuck Mead.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon March 3, 2014 2:25 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
2:15 pm
Mon February 24, 2014

Vertical Scratchers: Slashed Chords, Fractured Poetry

Vertical Scratchers.
Joseph Amario Courtesy of the artist

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 a snap, again and again.

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Music Reviews
4:13 pm
Wed February 12, 2014

Lake Street Dive: 'Portraits' Of Heartache

Lake Street Dive.
Jarrod McCabe Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 10:21 am

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.

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Music Reviews
1:41 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

Hangin' Tuff: Eric Church Takes A Chance On 'The Outsiders'

Eric Church.
John Peets Courtesy of the artist

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.

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Music Reviews
1:36 pm
Wed January 29, 2014

Don't Pigeonhole Me, Bro: New Country Albums On The Borderline

Jon Pardi.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 4:20 pm

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Music Reviews
2:45 pm
Thu January 23, 2014

On 'Hard Working Americans,' Songs For The Ordinary Joe

Hard Working Americans.
James Martin Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu January 23, 2014 4:39 pm

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Music Reviews
1:44 pm
Tue January 14, 2014

Uneven But Vital, Bruce Springsteen Has 'High Hopes'

Bruce Springsteen's 18th album is titled High Hopes.
Danny Clinch Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 2:04 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
12:29 pm
Fri January 10, 2014

Rosanne Cash: Seeking A 'Thread' Through Southern History

Rosanne Cash.
Clay Patrick McBride Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 2:30 pm

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.

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Best Music Of 2013
2:53 pm
Tue December 17, 2013

Ken Tucker's Top 10 Albums Of 2013

Jason Isbell's Southeastern was Fresh Air critic Ken Tucker's favorite album of 2013.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 12:21 am

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Music Reviews
1:40 pm
Mon December 16, 2013

A Former Girl-Group Singer Goes 'All Or Nothing'

With new songs and covers, La La Brooks' All or Nothing isn't just an attempted career comeback.
Jacob Blickenstaff Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 2:33 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
12:08 pm
Fri November 15, 2013

Two Sides Of Holiday Cheer From Kelly Clarkson, Nick Lowe

Kelly Clarkson's new holiday album is titled Wrapped in Red.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 2:57 pm

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Music Reviews
12:06 pm
Thu October 31, 2013

Brandy Clark Tells The 'Stories' That Are Tough To Hear

Brandy Clark's new album is titled 12 Stories.
Becky Fluke Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon November 18, 2013 9:12 am

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Music Reviews
12:22 pm
Tue October 22, 2013

It's A Family Affair On Linda Thompson's 'Won't Be Long Now'

Linda Thompson's new album is called Won't Be Long Now.
Annabel Vere Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 3:58 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
12:03 pm
Mon October 14, 2013

'The Blow' Puts An Artsy, Electro-Pop Spin On Attraction

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 11:04 am

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")

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Music Reviews
11:14 am
Thu October 10, 2013

Two Bluegrass Truths From James King And Alan Jackson

James King.
Julie Lilliard King Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu October 10, 2013 1:13 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
1:27 pm
Wed October 2, 2013

On 'Days Are Gone,' Three Sisters HAIM It Up

HAIM.
Tom Beard Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed October 2, 2013 1:28 pm

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Music Reviews
1:40 pm
Mon September 30, 2013

Don't Feel Too Bad For Sad-Sack Bob Schneider

Burden of Proof is Bob Schneider's third album.
Dan Winters Kirtland Records

Originally published on Mon September 30, 2013 3:40 pm

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Music Reviews
12:34 pm
Tue September 24, 2013

Lucy Schwartz Is In Love With Her Own Voice, And That's OK

Lucy Schwartz.
Tierney Gearon Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 3:16 pm

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 for once that phrase is not meant as a criticism; I think she has good reason to be.

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Music Reviews
11:16 am
Thu September 19, 2013

Robbie Fulks: Exhilarating And Bitter On 'Gone Away Backward'

Robbie Fulks' new album is titled Gone Away Backward.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu September 19, 2013 2:06 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
2:00 pm
Tue September 10, 2013

Bob Dylan's 'Self Portrait,' Now In Vivid Color

Bob Dylan in 1970, the year he released his 10th studio album, Self Portrait.
John Cohen Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 2:36 pm

In the late 1960s, it wasn't just that Bob Dylan's music was eagerly anticipated — it was music that millions of people pored over: for pleasure, for confirmation of their own ideas, and for clues as to the state of mind of its creator. In this context, the double-album Self-Portrait arrived in 1970 with a resounding, moist flop. I don't mean it was a commercial flop; it sold well.

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Music Reviews
1:57 pm
Thu September 5, 2013

On Its New Album, Superchunk Makes The Downtrodden Sound Upbeat

Superchunk's new album is titled I Hate Music.
Jason Arthurs Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri September 6, 2013 1:53 pm

"I hate music, what is it worth? / Can't bring anyone back to this earth," the band Superchunk sings. It's the kind of sentiment you'd imagine someone blurting out with bitter spontaneity, but it's not really music the band hates; it's the despair and grief to which their music bears witness. Superchunk's new downbeat-but-upbeat album, I Hate Music, is dedicated to a close friend who died last year.

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Music Reviews
10:49 am
Thu August 22, 2013

Robin Thicke: Smirky But Sincere On 'Blurred Lines'

Robin Thicke on the cover of Blurred Lines.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu August 22, 2013 1:57 pm

Robin Thicke exudes a kind of oily charm that is, with the right material, by no means off-putting. A prime example is the single "Blurred Lines," which gives you the complete Robin Thicke Experience. The song is a come-on, because basically all Thicke does in his music is try to put the make on women. What prevents him from being too creepy is that he's also genial, even gentlemanly and debonair, when the object of his lust shoots him down.

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Music Reviews
1:06 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

Valerie June Wants To Be On Your Mind

Valerie June.
Susan Riddle Duke Photography Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue August 13, 2013 1:32 pm

Valerie June wants to be on your mind; to get inside your head. She writes or co-writes songs that mix blues, gospel, folk and soul, and which describe emotional isolation, financial deprivation and insecurity about her place in the world. She's unafraid to proclaim her neediness — perhaps because, possessed of a powerful voice, she knows that her vulnerability isn't likely to come off as passive or self-pitying on Pushin' Against a Stone.

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Music Reviews
1:35 pm
Mon August 5, 2013

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin Ain't 'Foolin' Around' With Bakersfield Sound

Vince Gill (left) and Paul Franklin.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon August 5, 2013 2:21 pm

Country-music star Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin have teamed up to record a new concept album called Bakersfield. Their idea is to cover hits from the 1960s and '70s by two artists who helped define the Bakersfield, Calif., country sound: Merle Haggard and the Strangers and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. But this is no nostalgia-fest — it's a vital testament to music that retains energy and innovation.

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Music Reviews
4:19 pm
Thu July 11, 2013

Jay-Z Swings Triumphant Then Trivial On 'Magna Carta Holy Grail'

Jay-Z's previous albums include Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint. He collaborated with Kanye West for Watch the Throne.
Jewel Samad AFP/Getty Images

Now 43 years old, Jay-Z has become the Jay Gatsby of hip-hop: a man with a checkered background playing host to endless parties, celebrating excellence, the good life and himself. It's no wonder that he was asked to oversee the music for director Baz Luhrmann's amusement park ride version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's romantic fantasy.

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Music Reviews
12:49 pm
Mon July 8, 2013

Eleanor Friedberger's 'Personal Record' Examines The Little Things

Personal Record is the second solo album by Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon July 8, 2013 1:29 pm

One major source of pleasure in the music Eleanor Friedberger makes as half of The Fiery Furnaces is a matter of sheer density — the density of The Fiery Furnaces' musical ideas, the thick layers of words, lyrics that operate as dense sounds with meaning to be extracted from them.

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Music Reviews
12:03 pm
Fri June 21, 2013

On 'Yeezus,' Kanye West Sounds Strikingly Self-Aware

Yeezus is Kanye West's seventh studio album.
Guillaume Baptiste Getty Images

Originally published on Fri June 21, 2013 2:28 pm

Kanye West is having some serious fun with us on his new album, Yeezus, starting with the title; it's a play on his nickname, Yeezy, and his penchant for placing himself just this side of the Son of God in terms of cultural importance. That's just the first clue as to how assiduously aggressive and transgressive West wants to be on this album.

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Music Reviews
12:03 pm
Thu June 13, 2013

Slaid Cleaves: 'Still Fighting' With Smart Lyrics And Stories

Slaid Cleaves' music is influenced by singer-songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Karen Cleaves Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu June 13, 2013 3:34 pm

Raised in South Berwick, Maine, and residing in Austin, Texas, Slaid Cleaves is no one's idea of a music-industry insider. He writes and sings songs primarily about working-class people and romantics both hopeful and hopeless. That said, it's also not difficult to hear another element of the fortysomething Cleaves' past: He was an English and philosophy major at Tufts, and his lyrics are underpinned by both a fine sense of meter and moral perspicacity.

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