TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In listening to a lot of music over the past few months, rock critic Ken Tucker has come across some songs he finds simply beautiful. They're from a wide range of artists - singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, the uniquely unclassifiable singer Swamp Dogg and the retro pop sound of Pokey LaFarge. Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW YOU GET HURT")
COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS: (Singing) Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Do you wish that I would stay? If I missed you, I wouldn't tell you. Best not to give ourselves away. That's how you get hurt. You let your guard down. You make a move, then it doesn't work out. That's how you get hurt.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I think if there's one thing we could all use this summer, it's some nice music. And by nice, I mean beautiful. But by beautiful, I don't mean merely pretty. And while I've been seeking out music that I find soothing, I'm not looking for anything sentimental or mawkish. Here's my first discovery. Courtney Marie Andrews recently released an album called "Old Flowers." I guess you'd classify Andrews' music as Americana, as the Arizona singer-songwriter has a bit of a twang in her voice and a predilection for rhythmic ballads. But nothing in her previous work prepared me for the beautiful ache in her voice in this knockout song called "Guilty."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUILTY")
ANDREWS: (Singing) Guilty. Oh, I'm guilty. I have fallen in love with you. I can't eat. No, I can't sleep. There is nothing in this world I can do. When I wake up in the morning next to him, it makes me want to cry. But I cannot bring myself to let it go and say goodbye because I know I'd hurt you, too, get bored, find someone new. I cannot give my love to you when I am guilty.
TUCKER: There's a different kind of beauty in the music made by Swamp Dogg on the album he released earlier this year called "Sorry You Couldn't Make It." Now in his late 70s, the man who was born Jerry Williams took the name Swamp Dogg to signify himself as the maker of unclassifiable work, mixing R&B, southern blues, funk and country. His voice is rough. And he knows how to bend it toward beauty on this ballad called "Sleeping Without You Is A Dragg."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPING WITHOUT YOU IS A DRAGG")
SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Laying here on my pillow, crying all night long. Stereo is playing some sad, sad songs. It's a natural fact - I can't live like that. Sleeping without you is a drag.
TUCKER: My third beautiful song is from the St. Louis singer Pokey LaFarge. A couple of months ago, LaFarge put out an album called "Rock Bottom Rhapsody." And the title refers to him hitting rock bottom in his personal life. In interviews, he's spoken of a difficult period that led up to the making of this album. The details aren't clear. But the quote that jumped out at me was, I was searching for peace and humility in the aftermath of carnage. The song I want to play is "End Of My Rope," a lovely piece about despair that sounds like a lost Ricky Nelson song from the 1960s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "END OF MY ROPE")
POKEY LAFARGE: (Singing) Growing up was easy for some, but not me. And getting older is the same old story. They say I've come too far, too late to turn back now. So I guess there's nowhere left to go. Say it loud for the whole world to know - let me die onstage singing the last song I know. Let the spotlight shine the skin off my bones. Yes, I'm a long way from normal, and not much left to go until I get to the end of my rope.
TUCKER: Let me die onstage singing the last song I know, croons Pokey LaFarge. It's not a cheerful sentiment, but its fatalism has its own kind of splendidness. Each of these songs does a great job of confronting various cruelties of the world. And each insists that art can at least comfort pain through beauty.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed songs by Courtney Marie Andrews, Swamp Dogg and Pokey LaFarge. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with New York Times Reporter Michael Schmidt about his new book "Donald Trump V. The United States" or Scott Anderson about his new book on the early years of the CIA or Cherry Jones about her life and acting career - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN'S "STOP THIS TRAIN")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN'S "STOP THIS TRAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.