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Charming and catchy, Bartees Strange cuts across boundaries on 'Farm to Table'


This is FRESH AIR. "Farm To Table" is the name of the new album by singer-songwriter Bartees Strange. It's his second album following his highly acclaimed 2020 debut, "Live Forever." As a Black artist operating in the indie rock space, Strange makes distinctively original music. And rock critic Ken Tucker says that where his debut showcased a highly eclectic, intense performer, his new album is even more impressive for its assurance and daring.


BARTEES STRANGE: (Singing) There's reasons for heavy hearts. This past year, I thought I was broken. You look so nice in a cherry scarf. We should go to Toronto more often. I never want to miss you this bad. I never want to run out like that. Sometimes, I feel just like my dad, rushing around. I never saw the God...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Bartees Strange has described the music he makes as occupying, quote, "this kind of weird indie, alternative space." He's spoken in interviews about the difficulties of being Black in the largely white world of indie rock. To judge by his songs, he's made that distinction work for him artistically. On the new album "Farm To Table," he offers the song "Hold The Line," which he says he wrote after seeing George Floyd's daughter speaking on television not long after her father's murder. It's a big, devastating song that starts out quiet and near hopeless.


STRANGE: (Singing) Hold the line. Hold the line. There's a whole lot of people want to be where you're going right now. See that babe. See that child. Can't imagine what's running through her young mind now. Again, you've taken something of mine. You're reaching for more than my life. What happened to the man with that big ol' smile? He's calling to his mother now.

TUCKER: Given voice lessons by his mother - an opera singer - when he was a kid, Strange, who was born Bartees Cox, has been literally all over the map - born in Ipswich, England and raised in Mustang, Okla., did a stint in the arty environs of Brooklyn and played in hardcore bands in Washington, D.C. What he's ended up creating are artful combinations of influences that very intentionally cut across boundaries.


STRANGE: (Singing) I can't be here lost and abandoned - nobody asking. I cannot stand by you. There's days that I go off stranded. Nobody follows. Nobody sees what's true. There's days that I wanted to be through. And everyday, I toss and turn. My life feels wrong without you. And I took the keys to the lake. I said to God what I said. I know the folk on the road - I know they don't want to move today. I wish I could die in the morn. Sometimes it's hard, but, you know, I'm thankful. I know the folk on the road - I know they die for thе lord. Sometimes your man might go, I don't beliеve anymore. I wish I could die in the morn. Sometimes it's hard, but, you know, I'm thankful.

TUCKER: If you're wondering about the album title "Farm To Table," he means it literally. It's a shorthand way to summarize one version of his journey from growing up on a farm in Oklahoma to - as he's said in interviews - being at the table with other musicians he esteems. He enumerates some of those musicians by name in his song "Cosigns," nodding to acts he's opened for in recent years, including Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett, and the Justin mentioned here is Justin Vernon, otherwise known as Bon Iver.


STRANGE: (Rapping) Damn. Just got out the van. Universal hit me 'bout some texts I need to send. Need my address for some checks that they forgot to send. Need my address for some checks that they forgot to send. Time to flip this transit. I think I'mma need the Benz. I'm in LA. I'm with Phoebe. I'm a genius, damn. I'm in Chi-Town. I'm with Lucy. I just got the stamp. Hit up Courtney. That's my Aussie. I already stan. I'm on FaceTime. I'm with Justin. We already friends. We already friends. We already friends. I'm on FaceTime. I'm with Justin. We already friends. I'm a thief. When things get big, look, I'mma steal your fans. I'm with Martin in the mill. We grindin', making bread.

TUCKER: Sometimes Bartees Strange croons in one verse and raps in the one immediately after. A song might commence as an acoustic ballad and then shift gears into a furious guitar rave-up. Many of the songs on "Farm To Table" don't bother with choruses, except for the one or two that are nothing but choruses. Strange is at once one of the most idiosyncratic musicians and one of the most immediately charming and catchy. He may be thankful he's performing on bills with artists he admires, but I wonder if he realizes they're probably thankful this persistently adventurous artist agreed to perform on the same bill as them.

DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Farm To Table" by Bartees Strange. On tomorrow's show, how the Supreme Court's move to the right will transform American life. We'll talk with Adam Liptak, who covers the court for The New York Times, about the new conservative supermajority, its recent decisions on abortion, gun rights and religion, and the case that we'll hear next term that could increase Republican control over voting laws. I hope you can join us.


STRANGE: (Singing) And still I swear. I never break. I never fold. I'd hold you in my arms, remind you that you're gold. Can't feel the pain if I'm holding on to you. But still they say, Black folks drink Hennessy. But I want you over me - in the dark, on a tree. One, two, three - Hennessy - in a tree. These day - we don't talk no more - Hennessy.

DAVIES: 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, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


STRANGE: (Singing) I'm talking about forever. Sing, sing. I'm talking about forever (vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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