Solange Knowles and Drive-by Truckers: Making music about race in an election year

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Solange's 'A Seat At The Table' album cover.

The end is nigh.

Of the loudest, rudest, most interminable election season in American history, that is. Just four more weeks of having to mute the TV during Jeopardy! to avoid hearing Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates Pat Toomey and Katie McGinty call each other what has apparently become the dirtiest insult in politics: "Millionaire!"

And as it's October, it's no surprise that musicians are timing statements on the State of the Nation to the election deadline. Fall is the season for cultural seriousness, and it's also the time for artists to make statements in song to let us know they're wrestling with big issues.

Speaking up softly is Norah Jones, whose new album, Day Breaks, is being heralded as a return to her softly comforting jazzy beginnings. But the new album roils with unrest beneath the surface, particularly on "Flipside," which weighs in on gun violence while evoking Les McCann's "Compared to What."

Raising a louder voice is Green Day, who have their say about gun violence with "Bang Bang" on the band's topical new Revolution Radio. And the most immediately Google-worthy example of a new one-off protest song is "Mr. Tangerine Man" by Englishman-turned-Philadelphian Wesley Stace, who performed his Trump-aimed rewrite of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August. And the Irishmen of U2 chimed in about the U.S. election on tour last week, when Bono addressed Trump thus: "It's not just Mexican people who are going to have a problem with this wall of yours. It's everyone who loves the idea of America."

But the most thoroughly compelling and fully sustained works of political import under discussion here are Solange's A Seat at the Table and Drive-By Truckers' American Band. Neither of the new albums addresses electoral politics directly, but both demonstrate ambition and intelligence in thinking hard about and wrestling honestly with issues of race and violence and identity. Rich musical results are the reward for having the gumption to soberly address issues in a way politicians rarely do.

On the face of it, A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia ***1/2) and American Band (ATO ***1/2) have little in common.

Solange is the 30-year-old artist best known as Beyoncé's arty little sister. Her mainstream name recognition stems mainly from tabloid coverage of the 2014 incident when she attacked her bother-in-law Jay Z in an elevator. The self-penned and self-actualizing Seat at the Table works the alt-R&B turf she staked out with her affecting cover of Brooklyn indie band Dirty Projectors "Stillness is the Move" and collaborations with British genre-splicer Dev Hynes of Blood Orange.

The Truckers, by contrast, are gritty, Rolling Stones-loving white boys from Alabama (who play Union Transfer on Nov. 9). The two-headed songwriting team of leader Patterson Hood and guitar slinger Mike Cooley are road-tested vets now in their 50s who've been telling a-little-bit-country-and-a-lot-rock-and-roll stories in song for going on two decades.

What do these musicians have in common? Both are products of a Southern sensibility in which the artists examine who they are, and who we are, from one side of America's racial divide.

Solange makes black identity her subject. Proud songs like "Don't Touch My Hair," featuring Brit singer producer Sampha (who's due at Johnny Brenda's on Oct. 23), demand respect. "F.U.B.U.," or "For Us, By Us," stands up to the dehumanizing aggressions of racial profiling. "When you're driving in a tinted car and you're criminal, just who you are . . . they ask you, 'What's your name again? 'Cause they're thinking, yeah, you're all the same."

A Seat at the Table is a Louisiana record. Solange, who grew up in Houston, moved to New Orleans from Brooklyn in 2014. And though it takes a broad view of America as it concerns itself with justice and healing, it bears a Southern signature.

Solange's parents, Matthew and Tina Knowles, both speak - her father on being threatened as a child when bused to a white school, and her mother on black beauty and pride. And the surprise star of Seat is the New Orleans rapper and impresario Master P., who proves insightful, whether talking about racial prejudice or the inspiring entrepreneurial example of the Avon Lady.

It's not loaded with pop hooks, though it's lovely and musically calming throughout, and it contains sparkling melodic moments, like "Cranes in the Sky." But what really makes it unique are the spoken testimonials that seamlessly underscore the music's message.

American Band is also Southern to its core, with a broad scope that benefits from band members' peregrinations. Hood, whose father, David, was the bass player in the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, recently migrated to Portland, Ore.

Patterson Hood's travels have contributed to songs like "Ever South," in which no matter where you go, people can still hear where your from, and "Guns of Umpqua," about a mass shooting in his new home state. American Band's songs are wordy - Hood and Cooley have talked about how the cadences of hip-hop have found their way into their work. But the album is alive with the energy of a band that knows it has something to say.

The record starts out swaggering, with Cooley's "Ramon Casiano," a Stonesy guitar rip that retells the story of a Mexican teenager who was killed in 1931 by 17-year-old Harlon B. Carter, who went on to lead the National Rifle Association. (During the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, the Truckers played a pro-gun-control fund-raising party hosted by former Arizona congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords.)

The whole of American Band is impassioned and focused, but the attention-grabber is Hood's song "What It Means." With his sung-spoken vocals pushed onward by slowly surging organ fills, it doesn't pretend to have any more answers than Solange does in "Where Do We Go?" Amid a national conversation that's "just two sides calling names, out of anger, out of fear," he paints a picture inspired by the shooting of Ferguson, Mo., teen Michael Brown.

"It happened again last weekend, and will happen again next week," he predicts and challenges listeners: "If you say it wasn't racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain't black."

On Solange's album, Master P explains he called his label No Limit "because I don't have no limit to what I could do." Solange uses that as fuel for empowerment, as an inspirational brand to demonstrate to herself and her people that nothing can hold them back.

That idea that everything is possible also occurs to Hood in his "What It Means" musings as he assesses our human failings on American Band. But rather than inspired, he's demoralized and can't come up with a vision for a bright future. "Some man with a joystick lands a rocket on a comet," Hood sings. "We're living in an age where limitations are forgotten / The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten."

ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628@delucadan

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