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Songs by Iris DeMent, Sunny War and Margo Price speak urgently to the current moment


This is FRESH AIR. Three women have new albums out. And our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has chosen a standout song from each of them. Whether it's the folk protest music of Iris DeMent, the cutting-edge blues of Sunny War or the hard-charging Americana of Margo Price, Ken says there's urgency in each of these songs. Here's his review.


IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) I'm going down to sing in Texas, where anybody can carry a gun. But we will all be so much safer there, the biggest lie under the sun. Go ahead and shoot me if it floats your little boat. But I'll live by my conscience even if that's all she wrote. I'm going down to sing in Texas, where anybody can carry a gun.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Iris DeMent has a new album out called "Workin' On A World." It's filled with songs that preach love within a Christian framework. And DeMent's astringent voice is as stately as her piano playing. The album has an obvious centerpiece. It's an eight-minute excoriation of bad deeds called "Going Down To Sing In Texas." Its opening moments, which I played at the start of this review, decry what DeMent sees as flimsy gun control laws. But she's just getting started. In each of its many verses, she takes aim at a different target, including Donald Trump, George W. Bush and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. DeMent wants to speak so urgently, so bluntly, that it seems as though she can't be bothered to tidy up her rhymes or work up artful metaphors. But that's part of her artistic strategy. The song works like a speech delivered on a street corner when standing on a soapbox wasn't a cliche but rather an insistence on being heard.


DEMENT: (Singing) I know a couple of Muslims, and they seem like pretty decent folks to me. I'd take any one of them over that evangelist I'm watching on TV. You want to ban something? I got a plan. Let's ban hate from every corner of our land. Well, I know a couple of Muslims, and they seem like decent folks to me.

TUCKER: Another piece of urgent music comes from Sunny War, who, on the song I'm about to play, mourns the demise of a romance as a kind of death. The Tennessee-based guitarist and singer's new album is called "Anarchist Gospel." And she creates a modern sort of gospel blues in which guitar, harmonica and an array of electronic effects converge on this song called "Love's Death Bed," as War blends her voice with those of Allison Russell and Chris Pierce.


SUNNY WAR: (Singing) Hold your tongue.

ALLISON RUSSELL AND CHRIS PIERCE: (Singing) Hold your tongue

WAR: (Singing) Words cut.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Words cut.

SUNNY WAR, ALLISON RUSSELL AND CHRIS PIERCE: (Singing) Like a knife, a knife so deep.

WAR: (Singing) But your mouth.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Your mouth.

WAR: (Singing) Is a gun.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Is a gun.

WAR, RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Got bodies dropping every time that you speak.

WAR: (Singing) Babe, I'm done.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Babe, I'm done.

WAR: (Singing) Got to run.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Got to run.

WAR, RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) I heard you loud and clear this time.

WAR: (Singing) But I hope.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) But I hope.

WAR: (Singing) It was fun.

RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) It was fun.

WAR, RUSSELL AND PIERCE: (Singing) Being the last heartbreak of mine. On love's death bed, I lay my bouquet of flowers. On love's death bed, I cry away our final hours.

TUCKER: Finally, there's Margo Price, whose new album, "Strays," pulls away from her usual country music to work in a lot of rock and pop. For me, the clear standout is the song called "Radio." Price and guest vocalist Sharon Van Etten sing the first two verses with a calm, careful precision, a lyric about being overwhelmed and exhausted. And then suddenly, the song's big, lush chorus rushes up at you, and the music seems at once instantly familiar and completely new. It serves to remind you of the old power that radio has always had to take you out of your everyday existence.


MARGO PRICE: (Singing) I think I need to take some time out. And I want to turn my phone off. I just want to be alone. Just let me be alone today. I'm saving all my extra money. Go out get what they'd never buy me. Why do I feel so sick and tired? I'm sick and tired every day. People try and push me around, run my name straight in the ground. I can't hear them. I tuned them out, and I turned them way down low. The only thing I have on is the radio. Only thing I have on is the radio. Don't get confused about how I feel.

TUCKER: In the pantheon of great radio songs, I'm thinking Price's "Radio" fits in somewhere between George Harrison's "Devil's Radio" and Joni Mitchell's "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio." In the radio station of my mind, all three of these songs by Margo Price, Sunny War and Iris DeMent are playing in heavy rotation.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed songs from new albums by Iris DeMent, Sunny War and Margo Price. On tomorrow's show, Terry speaks with Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered. He's written a new memoir about moving between different worlds. He's traveled the world as a journalist and has sung around the world with the group Pink Martini. He does a cabaret act with actor Alan Cumming. When he came out in high school, he was the only openly gay student. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Therese Madden. 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, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINK MARTINI'S "ANDALUCIA") 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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