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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10:39am

Tue August 13, 2013
Music Reviews

Valerie June Wants To Be On Your Mind

Originally published on Tue August 13, 2013 11:32 am

Valerie June.
Susan Riddle Duke Photography Courtesy of the artist

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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11:35am

Mon August 5, 2013
Music Reviews

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

Originally published on Mon August 5, 2013 12:21 pm

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

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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2:11pm

Thu July 11, 2013
Music Reviews

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

Originally published on Thu July 11, 2013 2:19 pm

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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10:49am

Mon July 8, 2013
Music Reviews

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

Originally published on Mon July 8, 2013 11:29 am

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

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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11:25am

Fri June 21, 2013
Music Reviews

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

Originally published on Fri June 21, 2013 12:28 pm

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

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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10:03am

Thu June 13, 2013
Music Reviews

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

Originally published on Thu June 13, 2013 1:34 pm

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

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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12:42pm

Thu June 6, 2013
Music Reviews

Jason Isbell: Literary, But Keeping An Edge On 'Southeastern'

Originally published on Thu June 6, 2013 1:18 pm

Jason Isbell's latest album, Southeastern, is personal and intimate.
Michael Wilson Courtesy of the artist

When Jason Isbell was part of Drive-By Truckers, his guitar contributed to the band's sometimes magnificent squall of noise, while his songwriting contributed to the eloquence that raised the band high in the Southern rock pantheon. But the group was led by two other first-rate songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.

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10:02am

Tue May 28, 2013
Movie Reviews

Vampire Weekend Comes Of Age In 'The City'

Originally published on Thu May 30, 2013 9:02 pm

Vampire Weekend (left to right: Chris Tomson, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig) met while they were all students at Columbia University.
Alex John Beck XL Recordings

The New York City band Vampire Weekend has carved out a sense of immaculate melancholy for our era as surely as Steely Dan once did for Upstate New York in the '70s. Characterized most immediately by the earnest, concise, sometimes surprisingly expansive vocals of Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend makes atmospheric music.

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9:14am

Wed May 22, 2013
Music Reviews

Daft Punk: Accessing Electronic Music's Humanity

Originally published on Wed May 22, 2013 11:08 am

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter are the two men behind Daft Punk.
David Black Courtesy of the artist

I freely admit that, until the new Random Access Memories, I wasn't much of a Daft Punk fan. I could appreciate the craft and imagination that went into creating the French duo's mixture of electronic genres — techno, house, disco — but the mechanical repetitions and heavily filtered vocals didn't turn me on in any other way.

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10:07am

Tue May 14, 2013
Music Reviews

Dawes Knows Where It's Been And Where It's Headed

Originally published on Sun May 19, 2013 7:27 am

Noah Abrams Big Hassle

If you heard the Dawes song "Just Beneath the Surface" and said, "Somebody's been listening to their old Jackson Browne albums," you're not exactly insulting Dawes. The band has actually backed Browne on tour — and Browne has sung backup on at least one of its songs — so you could say that Dawes comes by its riffs and phrasing honestly.

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9:30am

Wed May 8, 2013
Movie Reviews

Natalie Maines: A Country-Music Rebel Rocks On Her Own

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 1:06 pm

Natalie Maines, former singer for the Dixie Chicks, placed the group at the center of controversy in 2003, when she publicly criticized George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
Danny Clinch Courtesy of the artist

Natalie Maines doesn't hesitate to make audacious moves, and wresting away "Mother" — Roger Waters' hymn to oppressive maternal authority figures from Pink Floyd — is the biggest one on her first solo album. Maines takes the "Mother" from Pink Floyd's The Wall and deconstructs it, emotional brick by emotional brick.

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9:39am

Mon May 6, 2013
Music Reviews

Caitlin Rose: A Singer Grounded In The Details Of Yearning

Originally published on Mon May 6, 2013 1:20 pm

Caitlin Rose's newest album is titled The Stand-In.

"Pink Champagne," a song on Caitlin Rose's second album The Stand-In, presents Rose's voice in its sparest purity and veiled shrewdness. She sends her voice skyward, the notes as buoyant and light as the bubbles of the pink champagne she's singing about. Her high trills could, with only a slight shift in tone and attitude, become self-conscious with a Betty Boop coyness, as they do once or twice on The Stand-In. But most of the time, Rose keeps her music grounded in the details of yearning, heartache and a welcome sense of gratefulness and enthused energy.

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9:52am

Wed April 17, 2013
Music Reviews

Brad Paisley's 'Wheelhouse' Of Good Songs — And Intentions

Originally published on Wed April 17, 2013 12:15 pm

Brad Paisley's new album is titled Wheelhouse.
Courtesy of the artist

Brad Paisley's Wheelhouse is yet another very good album from a singer, songwriter and guitarist who's made a bunch of them in a row. It features a slew of shrewd songs about finding pleasure and comfort in a frequently unpleasant, uncomfortable world. The music includes a bone-cracking song about domestic violence written from a woman's point of view, one that praises Christian values from the perspective of a jealous skeptic, and one that samples the great Roger Miller as deftly as any hip-hop production.

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12:25pm

Tue April 2, 2013
Music Reviews

Kacey Musgraves: Country's Blunt And Poetic New Voice

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 12:46 pm

Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round" was one of NPR Music's favorite songs of 2012.
Kelly Christine Musgraves Courtesy of the artist

Kacey Musgraves is something of an anomaly. A Texas native in her mid-20s, she fits most easily into the contemporary "country" category, but the work she co-writes with a variety of collaborators is really a throwback to an earlier era of singer-songwriters — as much influenced by rock and folk as by country.

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11:17am

Tue March 19, 2013
Music Reviews

Justin Timberlake Returns To Music With Enthusiasm And 'Experience'

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 8:03 am

The 20/20 Experience is Justin Timberlake's first album since 2006.
Tom Monro RCA

The orchestral swirls, the transition to a soul-man groove, the falsetto croon — there you have some of the key elements to Justin Timberlake's album The 20/20 Experience. The title implies a certain clarity of vision, even as any given song presents the singer as a starry-eyed romantic, bedazzled by a woman upon whom he cannot heap enough compliments, come-ons and seductive playfulness.

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10:52am

Mon March 11, 2013
Music Reviews

Tegan And Sara Reach Out To New Audiences With 'Heartthrob'

Originally published on Mon March 11, 2013 4:06 pm

Twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have been writing songs since they were 15 and independently released their first full-length album in 1999. Since then, they've produced seven studio albums.
Courtesy of the artist

10:33am

Thu March 7, 2013
Music Reviews

David Bowie Awakens To 'The Next Day' Of His Career

Originally published on Thu March 7, 2013 1:30 pm

After a 10-year hiatus, David Bowie has just returned with The Next Day.
Courtesy of the artist

10:37am

Tue March 5, 2013
Music Reviews

Ashley Monroe Is 'Like A Rose,' Briars And All

Originally published on Tue March 5, 2013 12:14 pm

Jim Wright Warner Nashville

The high lonesome sound of Ashley Monroe's Tennessee voice in "Like a Rose" serves as a clear signal that she's working within a tradition that extends back well beyond her twentysomething years on Earth. One of Monroe's collaborators in that song was Guy Clark, a seventysomething Texas country veteran who's often too tough-guy romantic for his own good.

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10:24am

Mon February 25, 2013
Music Reviews

Guards: Anthems With Gravitas

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 11:38 am

Guards just released its debut album, In Guards We Trust.
Olivia Malone Courtesy of the artist

10:39am

Thu February 14, 2013
Music Reviews

Richard Thompson's New Album Examines 'Electric' Love

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 11:23 am

Richard Thompson's new album is titled Electric.
Pamela Littky Courtesy of the artist

Delicate phrasing, with both voice and guitar, has always made Richard Thompson a musician worth hearing — and sometimes even liking on a personal level. For a man who can make such pretty music, it's to his credit that he prefers to show his thorny, stubborn, cranky, even mean side in many of the songs in his solo career.

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