A few music notes for these horrible days of fascism.
If you haven’t read the Rolling Stone profile of John Prine, do so. It’s really great.
The Nigerian musician William Onyeabor died. Atomic Bomb is a really great album.
If I was to pick 5 songs by leftist white men to shove in Trump’s face, I don’t think these are the songs I would pick. But whatever, any and all are good.
Historically, the agency has awarded thousands of grants for orchestras, jazz, operas, chamber music, and beyond. And just looking back through the past year or so, the array of specific programs affected by the endowment is dizzying. If you saw a video last year of David Bowie talking about working with Lou Reed, that was part of an NEA-funded digital archive. An Esperanza Spalding performance at Manhattan’s Baryshnikov Arts Center, a Steve Reich 80th-birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, and a Quincy Jones tribute at the Monterey Jazz Festival are among endowment-boosted events from 2016.
Album review time:
Dinosaur Jr., Give a Glimpse of What You’re Not
I’ve never been the J. Mascis fan boy that some are, but certainly Dinosaur Jr has put out some excellent albums over the years. Give a Glimpse of What You’re Not is not quite an excellent album. But it’s solid. It’s precisely the type of album where an old band justifies its continued existence (unlike, say, The Rolling Stones) even if it’s unlikely to attract new fans. It’s a completely decent Dinosaur album. If that appeals to you, buy this album.
Margaret Glaspy, Emotions and Math
I don’t much care for emotions or math, but I did like this album pretty well. A tight little grunge-rock album that has solid songs about the life of a woman in her late 20s, for all the potential and frustration and disappointment that means. Various reviewers compare her to Liz Phair or Fiona Apple, which feels a bit lazy and obvious, but is useful enough to get a sense of what Glaspy sounds like. This is some solid rock and roll and some solid singer-songwriter stuff. And that’s not a bad combination. Especially at 34 minutes.
The Internet, Ego Death
This is a solid 2015 album from this R&B band out of Los Angeles. The lead singer/rapper Syd the Kid ignores the deep homophobia with hip hop to write love songs for the women she loves. Like Frank Ocean or Shamir, she is a product of an increasing acceptance of gender fluidity among young people. More important than the politics is that this is a good band making good music. It doesn’t come out and grab you like the very best of R&B in the last 5 to 7 years, but it pulls older forms of the music with new ideas to create a solid piece of art. It’s also extremely listenable and enjoyable.
Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There
I wasn’t sure whether I would like this 2015 album for two reasons. One is the inconsistency of Yo La Tengo. For as much as I love I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One and as much as I like I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, there are also a number of pretty boring albums in their catalog. Two is that I am always a little skeptical of covers albums, which probably comes from years of listening to filler on country music albums of the 60s and 70s. But I liked this a lot. What’s more is that I preferred Georgia Hubley’s tunes to Ira Kaplan’s, which is unusual given her limited voice. But do I need to her do “I’m So Lonesome I Can Cry” and “Friday I’m in Love”? Yes, actually. The only thing I wish here is that Kaplan would rock out a little more, which we all know he is quite capable of doing, but they always have preferred dreaminess. And that’s for better and for worse.
Thayer Sarrano, Shaky
I first heard of Serrano when she opened for the Drive-By Truckers last year. Given how often I have seen DBT (seeing my 11th and 12th shows in February), I have really been exposed to some awesome (Old 97s as an opening act!) and some terrible opening acts that have included an atrocious buttrock band opening for them in Pawtucket but also the worst Son Volt show ever and the execrable Shooter Jennings. Sometimes though they have interesting young artists open for them. Serrano is one, Houndmouth is another. With both bands, the albums proved slightly less successful than the live show, although entirely decent. (Houndmouth because their drugged out gangster lyrics belie a bunch of middle class white hipster kids from the Louisville suburbs). Serrano, based out of Athens, created a completely solid rock album, although one would like her voice higher in the mix. The lyrics are about sadness and sorrow, the music atmospheric. Worth a listen.
Run the Jewels, RTJ3
Dropped as a Christmas present to the desperate hordes out there but a 2017 album, this is the first great album of the year. I like Killer Mike significantly more than El-P but these guys are always great together and this is a critical album of resistance at a time when I really need it. “A Report to the Shareholders” is a killer song, not to mention a great title, demanding justice and ready for the fight ahead. The production is outstanding and the guests, as always for RTJ, add a lot, including Kamasi Washington. RTJ3 is basically just a fantastic album all around.
Maren Morris, Hero
There were some very good reviews for this young country star but I don’t get it. Morris has an excellent voice. But while she works a little blue (as is the norm for female country singers these days and in fact, it’s one of many ways in which hip hop has influenced country in the last 10 years), the songs are mostly forgettable, the arrangements standard, and the whole package too geared for mainstream country radio for my tastes. The single “My Church” got a ton of accolades, but basically because naming Hank Williams and Johnny Cash in a song is a way to claim authenticity that critics die for. I thought it was whatever. I find myself with strongly different reactions to the young women remaking country music, loving Angaleena Presley and Margo Price and really not getting Kasey Musgraves and Maren Morris at all. I guess that’s a good thing, but I think there is going to be some settling out in the next few years between the real talent and the ones who are really just the next forgettable thing in a genre full of that.
Band of Heathens, Duende
Pretty good new album from Band of Heathens. Much sunnier than my mood right now. Great for hanging out and listening to music, drinking a beer. Maybe while having a picnic this summer, maybe while going to the beach. In fact, it has a Beach Boys feel to me. Highly enjoyable.
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
This probably isn’t at the very top of Cohen albums, but for a dying man making what he knows is his album, it’s right up there with Zevon’s The Wind. “You Want It Darker” is a stunning song while “Leaving the Table” and “Traveling Light” are close behind. Sure he couldn’t sing anymore, but then he never really could as he knew and joked about in “Tower of Song.” Yet he still was able to use that rasp with great power and expression.
And a couple of reviews of older albums:
Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Pronto Monto
For some reason, this album had never even had a CD release until last year. The McGarrigles were always poorly served by basic releases of their older albums until just a few years ago. This is a fine album from 1978, but one can see why it wasn’t a priority among their catalog. For fans, this is very listenable. Of course the melodies are great and the songs are perfectly functional within their catalog. There are songs about motherhood, songs about men leaving women at home, songs about swimming. What there isn’t is a really first rate song or anything really even all that memorable.
Cat Power, Sun
In the late 2000s, I really liked Cat Power. Chan Marshall was a mess and that was clear in her music. The one time I saw her play, she very nearly went into total meltdown mode. It was distinctly uncomfortable, possibly because I was right next to the stage and could really see it. But albums like Moon Pix and especially You Are Free were great, outside a couple of songs like “Names” that were almost parodies of how depressing one could try to make a song. But I didn’t much care for The Greatest and Jukebox was a waste of time. I really forgot about her except for the occasional listen to an old album. I’m not sure if I even knew Sun came out in 2012. But I was made aware of it recently so I gave it a spin. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is almost a pop album and its near sunniness was refreshing. The songs aren’t as profound as some of her past, but it’s a solid collection and quite enjoyable. It’s 5 years since this came out so who knows what the future holds for her, but if it is her last album, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on.
As always, open thread on music or whatever else is going to keep your soul alive in the next 4 years.