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Steven Hyden’s Favorite Music Of April 2023

Every month, Uproxx cultural critic Steven Hyden makes an unranked list of his favorite music-related items released during this period — songs, albums, books, films, you name it.

1. Wednesday, Rat Saw God

On the previous Wednesday LP, 2021’s Twin Plagues, singer-songwriter Karly Hartzman wrote evocative story songs set in what I like to call the Gummo South, a partly real and partly made-up region in which dead dogs and burned-down Dairy Queens dot the landscape like Starbucks crowd street corners in big cities. But on Rat Saw God, her songwriting exhibits a level of detail that is practically physical. The title alone of the opening track, “Hot Rotten Grass Smell,” filled my nostrils with the aroma of a humid late July day. Tapping into that kind of visceral sense memory grants instant authenticity to the world that Hartzman creates on this record. The nail salons with the lights turned off, the sex shops off the highway with biblical names, the rundown houses with cocaine and guns hidden in the walls — you see, smell, feel, hear, and taste them all.

2. Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed

Directed by Sam Jones, who also made I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, this very good documentary debuted earlier this month on HBO and is similarly centered on the making of an album — Isbell’s 2020 effort Reunions — and how it reveals the fractures in a relationship between two creative people. In this case, it’s Isbell and his wife and bandmate Amanda Shires. It’s clear that they are having a rough time in their marriage, and the stresses of the creative process might be partly to blame. This the first music doc I’ve seen in a while where the subject doesn’t always come off in a good light. I think Isbell ultimately does come off well, just because his candor feels courageous, but Running With Our Eyes Closed definitely doesn’t feel like a commercial. There are scenes that made me cringe, usually when Amanda is being very blunt about her husband’s shortcomings. It’s the rare doc that almost seems too honest — I’m not sure that exposing the inner workings of your marriage to this degree is wise — but it is undeniably a riveting watch.

3. Bob Dylan, “Only A River” (Live in Nagoya, Japan on April 20, 2023)

I currently host a podcast about Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, and I used to host a podcast about the Grateful Dead. So Bob Dylan covering a Bob Weir solo cut — from his lovely 2016 LP Blue Mountain — was a big deal in my world. Bob played a lot of Dead during his sojourn in Japan, also covering “Truckin’” and “Brokedown Palace.” But “Only A River” was the best and most surprising bust out. Shoutout to Donnie Herron, whose pedal steel licks here are transporting.

4. Kara Jackson, What Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?

This Chicago-based singer-songwriter has a legitimate literary pedigree — she was the National Youth Poet Laureate back in the late 2010s. That was before the release of her recent full-length debut, What Does The Earth Give Us People To Love?, a beguiling collection that melds Leonard Cohen with Alice Coltrane. A truly one-of-a-kind experience that feels like a world unto itself.

5. Superviolet, Infinite Spring

Following the sad dissolution of the Ohio emo band The Sidekicks, lead singer Steve Ciolek launched a new solo project that leans into his former band’s heartland rock sensibilities. His first album as Superviolet, Infinite Spring, has a canny pop sense that sounds like Bright Eyes crossed with early Shins.

6. The National, First Two Pages Of Frankenstein

When I first heard “Tropic Morning News” last summer, it felt like an instant-classic National song. And the album version — culled from a widely bootlegged performance in Hamburg — sticks the landing. The rhythm section glides with subtle virtuosity. The guitars lock in on a hypnotic pulse that slow-burns toward a satisfying peak in the outro. And Berninger delivers his patented blend of funny and distraught non sequiturs with pained panache. (Here’s a question for the band’s subreddit: Is the line about how “you can stop and start an athlete’s heart” an accidental Damar Hamlin reference?) The other highlights on Frankenstein — “Eucalyptus,” “New Order T-Shirt,” “Grease In Your Hair,” “Alien,” “Ice Machines” — don’t deliver the same emotional highs. But they do re-focus The National on their most essential attribute, which is the sound of these lifelong friends and brothers playing together with minimal extra baggage. As is the case with all great rock bands, the simplest approach — plug in, stand in a circle, block out the outside world — typically is the most winning. And on First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, The National have rediscovered this.

7. Country Westerns, Forgive The City

I spent a lot of time this month talking about the onset of backyard barbecue music season. And this album epitomizes the form. No matter their name or place of origin, this Nashville band doesn’t so much twang as sneer with some good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll energy. Their music balances jangle and grit like some of the greatest of great American bands, like R.E.M. and the Replacements.