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
12:22 pm
Wed December 12, 2012

A 'Warrior' Looking For Legitimacy

Ke$ha's new album is titled Warrior.
Yu Tsai Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed December 12, 2012 3:53 pm

Ke$ha uses a dollar-sign instead of an "s" in the middle of her stage name. It's one of those gestures that's meant to bait her detractors — suggesting before anyone else does that she's only in it for the money. It turns out, though, that like pop stars ranging from Madonna on back to Chuck Berry, Ke$ha wants it both ways: mass-audience success and artistic acknowledgment. For Ke$ha, that's what her album title Warrior means: She's fighting a war on multiple fronts.

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Music Reviews
12:17 pm
Fri November 30, 2012

Tracey Thorn: 'Secular Carols' For The Holidays

Tracey Thorn, famous for her work in Everything but the Girl, has a new solo album of seasonal tunes called Tinsel and Lights.
Edward Bishop Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri November 30, 2012 1:24 pm

Tracey Thorn's interpretation of "Maybe This Christmas," by the Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, is typical of her new holiday album, Tinsel and Lights: It's simply arranged, emphasizing Thorn's lovely, delicate voice and bolstered by a firm intelligence; it avoids the fatty treacle that weighs down lots of Christmas albums. Tinsel and Lights mixes familiar songs with new ones, such as the title song written by Thorn.

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Music Reviews
1:34 pm
Wed November 28, 2012

'Buddy And Jim': Friends In Life And Songwriting

Musicians and friends Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale team up on a new album of country duets called Buddy and Jim.
Michael Wilson photo/Paul Moore design Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed November 28, 2012 5:04 pm

Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale are singer-songwriters who've each written hits for country and rock acts, and have enjoyed extensive solo careers as performers and producers. Buddy and Jim is their first collaboration, a mixture of original songs and covers from earlier decades of country, rock, folk and soul music.

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Music Reviews
11:35 am
Wed November 14, 2012

An Unlikely Tribute: Jamey Johnson Covers Hank Cochran

Jamey Johnson's new album pays tribute to songwriter Hank Cochran.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 4:41 pm

Jamey Johnson, one of the most popular country singers of recent years, has just released an album titled Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.

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Music Reviews
11:22 am
Fri November 9, 2012

Cody ChesnuTT Contains A Universe On 'Hundred'

Cody ChesnuTT is the best sort of egomaniac: On Landing on a Hundred, he's preachy but delightful.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri November 9, 2012 12:52 pm

Cody ChesnuTT is the best sort of egomaniac. He places himself at the center of his musical universe; he contains that universe within him. On his new album, Landing on a Hundred, he sings one song in the voice of the entire continent of Africa.

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Music Reviews
12:34 pm
Mon November 5, 2012

Taylor Swift Leaps Into Pop With 'Red'

Taylor Swift's Red challenges her diehard fans while inviting naysayers to give her music another try.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 4:44 pm

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Music Reviews
11:55 am
Fri October 19, 2012

Gary Clark Jr.: A Raucous Blues Shout

Gary Clark Jr.'s Blak and Blu is an eclectic romp through the blues.
Frank Maddocks

Originally published on Fri October 19, 2012 9:49 pm

On his major-label debut Blak and Blu, you can hear the roar in Gary Clark Jr.'s blues guitar, and in his vocal throughout "Bright Lights." It's one of the few straight-up blues songs on what is essentially an introduction to one of the most highly praised young blues guitarists in recent times. While Clark comes out of a blues tradition, he's also a twentysomething who's taken in all of contemporary music.

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Music Reviews
9:14 am
Wed October 10, 2012

Iris DeMent's Emotionally Complex 'Sing The Delta'

Sing the Delta is Iris DeMent's first album of new songs in 16 years.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu October 11, 2012 2:21 pm

Iris DeMent possesses one of the great voices in contemporary popular music: powerfully, ringingly clear, capable of both heartbreaking fragility and blow-your-ears-back power. Had she been making country albums in the '70s and '80s and had more commercial ambition, she'd probably now be considered right up there with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

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Music Reviews
1:48 pm
Wed October 3, 2012

Low Cut Connie: The Self-Deprecating Bar Band

Low Cut Connie's Call Me Sylvia is as raucous as its debut, though it's a bit more self-conscious.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 8:47 am

Low Cut Connie is one of an increasingly rare breed: a party band, a bar band, a band with a sense of rock 'n' roll history that isn't weighed down by nostalgia or the foolish feeling that music was better way back when. Positive fellows, for the most part, even when they're in their cups, these guys "say yes," as the title of one song goes, to a life in music. Oh, and they're also trying to get women to say yes to their craven come-ons.

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Music Reviews
10:13 am
Mon September 24, 2012

Aimee Mann: The 'Charmer' And The Disciplined Id

Ken Tucker says Aimee Mann's latest album, Charmer, is a song cycle about getting rid of a cynical frame of mind.
Sheryl Nields

Originally published on Mon September 24, 2012 1:16 pm

If you listen to the music on Charmer, hearing Aimee Mann's vocals as just another lilting instrument, you'd probably think the album was just what the title suggests: a charmer. The melodies have an airy quality, at once floating and propulsive, and even without fixing on the words, you can hear that they're metrically precise, with carefully counted-out syllables and tight rhymes.

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Music Reviews
1:40 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

Dwight Yoakam: Weary And Wary On '3 Pears'

Dwight Yoakam recently released his new record, titled 3 Pears.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri December 14, 2012 4:06 pm

Dwight Yoakam persists in mixing genres in a way that may leave him out of the country mainstream, but puts him in a good position to make a personal album with some of his best music.

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Music Reviews
10:22 am
Tue September 11, 2012

Bob Dylan's Baffling And Sometimes Beautiful 'Tempest'

Bob Dylan's Tempest features 10 new songs with many feisty, baffling, sometimes beautiful moments.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 1:48 pm

Bob Dylan made the rare mistake of talking about his creative process shortly before the release of Tempest. He told Rolling Stone that he'd originally wanted to write a collection of what he called "religious songs," saying, "That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off — 10 times with the same thread than it does with a record like I ended up with." Which means that either his powers of concentration failed him, or he became distracted by other themes, topics and moods.

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Music Reviews
11:38 am
Tue September 4, 2012

When Ian Hunter Is 'President'

Ian Hunter once is at once crafty and mindful of craft, striving mightily to make his music seem tossed off.
Ross Halfin

Originally published on Thu September 6, 2012 2:54 pm

Recently, I was listening to a new tribute album covering the songs of Fleetwood Mac, and thought once again how dreadful most tribute albums are: They don't add much to the legacy of the artists being saluted, while inadvertently freezing vital old music in an amber of sentimentality. Then I turned to When I'm President, an album of new songs by Ian Hunter.

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Music Reviews
10:31 am
Fri August 31, 2012

Shoes: After 18 Years, The Power-Pop Band Re-Ignites

Shoes.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri August 31, 2012 3:16 pm

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Music Reviews
10:58 am
Mon August 6, 2012

Dan Auerbach Likes It Fast, Simple And Loud

Producer Dan Auerbach achieves an ideal version of JEFF The Brotherhood and Hacienda on their respective new albums.
James Quine

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 12:23 pm

Dan Auerbach, one of two founders of The Black Keys, also maintains an active side business as a producer for other bands that share his love for blues- and country-influenced rock. Auerbach's production work can be heard on two new records: Hacienda's third album, Shakedown, and the major-label debut of JEFF The Brotherhood, titled Hypnotic Nights.

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Music Reviews
12:38 pm
Mon July 30, 2012

This Time, R. Kelly Burns With (Relatively Chaste) Passion

RCA Music Group

Originally published on Mon July 30, 2012 3:56 pm

In recent years, the Chicago-based R&B singer R. Kelly has alternated between elaborate ballads and and the more erotic collection of songs and videos for his series Trapped In The Closet. His new album, Write Me Back, may be relatively chaste in its sentiments, but it's by no means without passion.

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NPR Story
2:58 pm
Thu July 26, 2012

Ocean's 'Orange' Revolution

Frank Ocean performs onstage at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in April.
Karl Walter Getty Images

Originally published on Thu July 26, 2012 5:35 pm

Born in New Orleans and still in his mid-20s, Frank Ocean has already written songs for major pop stars. He sang on the Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, and he's been part of the tumultuous Los Angeles musical collective known as Odd Future. None of which quite prepares a listener for the beautifully moody music that dominates his new album, Channel Orange.

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Music Reviews
10:51 am
Fri July 6, 2012

Big K.R.I.T.: Music Straight 'From The Underground'

Big K.R.I.T.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 1:20 pm

Big K.R.I.T.'s distinction as a rapper is the way he spreads his vowels out over his beats like gravy. There's little that's harsh in his phrasing, even as his lyrics can be tart or tough. In general, though, his tone over the course of Live From the Underground is a voice of coolness, of relaxation or resignation, even occasionally serenity.

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Music Reviews
11:23 am
Tue July 3, 2012

The dB's: Still Plaintive After All These Years

The dB's.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 2:05 pm

If there was any doubt that The dB's have any use for being considered through the haze of memory, or limited to the misty fondness from fans who remember them from the early 80s, the blast that opens their new album Falling Off the Sky, a song called "That Time Is Gone," could not be more explicit. Group leaders Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, along with drummer Will Rigby and bassist Gene Holder, are taking back their sound after 30 years, sprucing it up and re-exploding it for the days we live in now.

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Music Reviews
11:53 am
Tue June 26, 2012

Fiona Apple's 'Wheel' Of Extravagant Emotions

Known for brevity's sake as The Idler Wheel..., Fiona Apple's new album is her first in seven years.
Lionel Deluy

Originally published on Wed June 27, 2012 9:49 am

"These ideas of mine / percolate the mind," Fiona Apple sings in "Every Single Night," the song that opens her new album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Some people are going to listen to the entire record and come away with the feeling that the percolation in Apple's mind has bubbled over like a coffee pot left on a stove too long. But for me and perhaps for you, Apple's bubbling thoughts, words and music are thrilling — eager and direct, heedless about being judged or misunderstood.

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Music Reviews
11:22 am
Thu June 14, 2012

On 'Banga,' Patti Smith Pays Homage To Friends

Patti Smith.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu June 14, 2012 4:39 pm

Featuring Patti Smith's former New York punk-era colleague Tom Verlaine on solo guitar, "April Fool" is one of the prettiest songs on Smith's new album, Banga. Verlaine sends out long, thin, delicate tendrils of sound as Smith's voice suffuses the melody with full-throated urgency. Although Smith has said, with typical art-democratic directness, that "almost everybody in the world can sing," a few songs on Banga make you aware of what a good voice she has.

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Music Reviews
10:43 am
Wed June 6, 2012

Making Music From Messy Relationships With 'Kin'

The new album Kin is a collaboration between author Mary Karr and singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell.
Deborah Feingold

Originally published on Fri June 8, 2012 10:08 am

It's not unusual for poets to try their hands at pop music-making. Patti Smith was a poet before she was a rock star. In recent years, print-poets such as David Berman and Wyn Cooper have put out more-than-credible song collections. But Mary Karr, known more for prize-winning memoirs such as The Liars Club and Lit than for her excellent poetry, has taken a high-profile risk that's paid off.

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Music Reviews
10:40 am
Fri June 1, 2012

Diamond Rugs: Carefully Constructed Drinking Tunes

Diamond Rugs.
Amie Ledford

Originally published on Fri June 1, 2012 12:11 pm

Diamond Rugs is one those bands that wants you to think it prizes spontaneity and sloppy good fun more than careful song construction and technical polish. And the album, also titled Diamond Rugs, almost succeeds in convincing you of its sloppy aesthetic, dispensing songs about drinking and carousing only to be left morose, in one's cups.

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Music Reviews
11:38 am
Mon May 21, 2012

John Fullbright: How To Connect 'From The Ground Up'

Though he's not yet 25, Fullbright's music sounds like he's lived through a lot — or at least thought it through.
Vicki Farmer

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 7:51 am

John Fullbright's voice rises up and around the guitar chords in "Me Wanting You," his tone intended to haunt the person he's addressing. His desire, his "me wanting you," is as direct as he can possibly make it — it's not a cry of despair or hope or lust. It's the sound of someone intent on making as strong a connection with the listener as he possibly can.

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Music Reviews
9:53 am
Mon April 23, 2012

Todd Snider: 'Stoner Fables' With A Layered Worldview

Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon April 23, 2012 10:20 am

Todd Snider is, on one level, your average guitar-strumming singer-songwriter with varying amounts of musical accompaniment for songs he sings with mush-mouthed intimacy. But Snider, now in his mid-40s and impressively prolific, is also an exceptional singer-songwriter, able to set up scenes with quick, precise details.

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Music Reviews
10:41 am
Mon April 16, 2012

Loudon Wainwright III Looks Back At His 'Old Man'

As Loudon Wainwright III says in his song "In C," he likes to sing about "my favorite protagonist — me."

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Music Reviews
11:25 am
Tue April 10, 2012

Bonnie Raitt's 'Slipstream': A Barnstorming Good Time

Bonnie Raitt.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue April 10, 2012 3:39 pm

The warmth and vigor of Bonnie Raitt's voice throughout her new album Slipstream, even when she's covering an oldie such as Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line," is vital and fresh — urgent, even. Raitt has always possessed a gift for taking a familiar phrase and rendering it in a manner that compels a listener to think anew about what the words really mean.

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Music Reviews
10:11 am
Tue April 3, 2012

There's Only 'One Direction' For This Boy Band: Up

One Direction.
Courtesy of the artist

The callow croon over a pulsating beat, the massed harmonies in the chorus, the lyrics about partying that name-check Katy Perry and include a wistful wish for a nameless girl to kiss the singer — this is boy-band music at its newest and its most timeless. The five young guys who comprise One Direction are single-minded.

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Music Reviews
11:27 am
Mon March 5, 2012

Dierks Bentley's 'Home' Is Full Of Country Struggles

Courtesy of the artist

Dierks Bentley has a nice, deep voice; an open, friendly demeanor; and a knack for working in a variety of country-music genres, from bluegrass to power ballads. For all that, it's always been difficult to pin down what Bentley aims to do. Although he's only in his 30s, Bentley sounds as though he's working through a bit of a midlife crisis on his new album Home. Take, for example, the single "Am I the Only One," a novelty tune about going out to party with a twist — not many of Bentley's pals want to join him, because they've settled into adulthood, and he hasn't.

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Music Reviews
10:31 am
Tue February 21, 2012

'Barchords': An Intense, Pensive Album About Love

Afie Jurvanen
Dave Gillespie All Eyes Media

Originally published on Wed March 14, 2012 9:54 am

The song "I Got You Babe," on Bahamas' new album, Barchords, is obviously not Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe." This version is an original song the Canadian singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen, who records under the stage name Bahamas, has written about holding and losing someone.

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