Time for some music notes.
The only story I have about Chuck Berry is that he was the opening act for the only Grateful Dead show I ever saw. This was in Portland in 1995. The last tour. I was as excited or more so to see Chuck than the Dead. But the traffic was so terrible that by the time I got in, Berry had just finished. I was super bummed. But at least I got to wait an hour and a half until the Dead came on stage and that gave me time to watch people trip on acid in 95 degree heat.
Neil Young studio albums, ranked.
1) Tonight’s the Night
2) Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
3) On the Beach
4) After the Gold Rush
6) Comes a Time
9) Harvest Moon
10) Ragged Glory
Jason Isbell has a new album coming out. The single is very good and very, very 2016.
Del McCoury, Del and Woody
Del McCoury may be the last great artist in a dying tradition of music. I am loathe to call any music dying, but it’s hard not to feel that way about bluegrass. And it’s really too bad. Basically created by Bill Monroe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, who combined traditional mountain music with jazz, western swing, and Tin Pan Alley, this was an inventive, commercial music, even if it was also primarily regional music. It continued to evolve through the more mainstream Flatt and Scruggs and more mountain music of the Stanley Brothers and then especially Ralph Stanley’s solo career. In the 1970s, it became a favored music of the counterculture and moved in a number of different ways from there, including John Hartford’s deep respect for tradition that he combine with goofing off in fun ways to the Newgrass stuff of people like David Grisman and Sam Bush to the neo-traditionalism of Old and In the Way, the Peter Rowan and Jerry Garcia fronted group that was the first introduction to the music for a lot of people.
As with many forms of music in the 1980s, bluegrass went into a real down phase, with people like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley (who both played in Ralph Stanley’s band as teenagers in the mid 70s) leaving for mainstream country. But when bluegrass was revived in the 1990s and especially after the release of O Brother Where Art Thou, it came back as an utterly ossified dinosaur of a genre that did not allow for experimentation or innovation. When Karl Shiflett decided to add a snare drum to his outfit in the early 2000s, which was not uncommon in bluegrass in the 1950s, there was such an angry backlash to it from traditionalists that he had to dump the idea. And since then, it’s remained just as mummified, with very tight but also bound bands playing pretty scripted numbers the norm. It’s a real shame. The music just doesn’t live and breathe on the stage or the album. It serves to fulfill the very narrow expectations of a decline number of consumers.
Del McCoury has been around forever and has lived through most of these changes. In the 1990s, his band that included his two sons became probably the best working bluegrass band, even if it also reinforced some of that stiff new music. He’s a fine guitarist with a good sense of fun. His album with Steve Earle was pretty great and it got him a lot of fame, even if the two men ended their collaboration on pretty bad terms (McCoury claimed it was that Earle swore too much on stage, Earle said Del wanted more money. Could have been both).
For 20 or so years now, Woody Guthrie’s family has been commissioning artists to record some of his many songs that he never recorded or left music for. Who knows what Woody would have thought, but this takes his words and allows musicians to play with them. There was the two albums that Wilco and Billy Bragg collaborated on and another done by The Klezmatics. Now there’s this with Del McCoury. It works pretty well. He largely avoids the political songs, which is so central to Woody’s worldview that it does undermine the album slightly, even as the politics are often overplayed in public discussions of the man. But it’s a worthy experiment and a nice late career move by McCoury.
Bonnie Prince Billy/Bitchin Bajas, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties
Will Oldham, aka, Bonnie Prince Billy, has had a long and varied career. At his best, some of his albums (Viva Last Blues, I See a Darkness, Superwolf) are among the finest of the last 25 years. At his worst, he is unlistenable. I respect him for continuing to experiment. And I am genuinely interested in his new Merle Haggard cover album that mostly covers obscure Hag songs. But this is awful. Bitchin Bajas is this sort of pointless post-rock sort of avant garde band that makes minimalist music. BPB mumbles some lyrics repetitively at low volume over this. Some friends of mine saw the tour of this album last year and said it was bad. So I was already a little skeptical. I should have taken their advice and not have given this a spin. Pitchfork called it a “jam session” created through “improvisational democracy.” Give me authoritarianism in the studio any day. Or if I can’t have that, at least make it loud.
Natalie Hemby, Puxico
Do you like solid country music by a good singer who writes good songs? If you do, you will find the new album by Natalie Hemby enjoyable. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s good. And in the world of country music, there is something incredibly soothing and wonderful about a woman writing and singing heartfelt songs that don’t reek of the cheap nostalgia or cliched production of mainstream Nashville.
Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana
I feel in love with Foil Deer, one of the best albums of 2015. So I went back and listened to this 2013 album. It is a fine album, but not nearly to the quality of Foil Deer. The guitars are nice and loud and Sadie DuPuis has a great rock voice. But the songs aren’t quite there, as they would be on the second album. This is hardly surprising and this is certainly a good debut. “Plough” is a particularly excellent song. Hopefully the third album will come out soon.
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
I was ordered by a colleague to listen to Parker Millsap. Since my tenure decision doesn’t come for 6 days, what choice did I have? Millsap has a vibe pretty similar to Jason Isbell, although a bit more bluesy. A bit of Jimmy LaFave in this too, another Oklahoma songwriter you never have heard of. “Heaven Sent” is a particularly good song. And as a long-term believer in covers, I thought his version of “You Gotta Move,” the old Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell song of course made famous by the Stones on Sticky Fingers was pretty interesting. But I don’t love this. It’s completely fine, but then I am often a bit impatient with singer-songwriter material with a heavy blues tinge.
Beverly, The Blue Swell
Good quality indie dream pop on this 2016 album from this Brooklyn band. Drew Citron has an outstanding voice for this sort of music. Good lyrics, good guitars. I find myself listening to a lot of bands like this these days and I imagine Beverly will be the next.
Joey Purp, iiiDrops
This is a pretty fantastic piece of work. This Chicago rapper best known for his work with Chance the Rapper, he writes some great lyrics about the trauma of killing and about the social changes he sees in society. With lines like “Now up in the corners where killers used to inhabit/They built a row of new condos where they tore down project buildings” he sums up gentrification in cities like his own in about 2 seconds. As is all too common, his social observations don’t exactly extend to women. Alas. But great album nonetheless.
Angel Olsen, My Woman
The singing might be a touch melodramatic, but Angel Olsen certainly call pull it off. Ultimately an album about love and solitude and self-awareness, this also has consistently solid and interesting instrumental work. With a couple of long sounds telling big stories around tighter pieces and a stark piano tune at the end, this is a pretty good album.
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
This is a classic rock album for the modern day. I was somewhat familiar with him from his work with Alejandro Escovedo, but then the latter’s albums over the last decade haven’t been very good. So I hadn’t ever really paid attention to Prophet before. But this new album got a lot of acclaim and I have to say that it is pretty impressive. It has a lot of classic rock influences in a way that I don’t listen to a whole lot anymore but which are enjoyable nonetheless and combines that with some really smart lyrics. The title track itself gives you a sense of what you are going to get here. This is primarily a rock album’s rock album, with songs about playing in crappy clubs, dead rock musicians, and Connie Britten, the actress who played the coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights. But it’s not apolitical either, closing with a paean to Alex Nieto, killed by San Francisco police, in a good rocker. A fine guitarist on top of it all.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music, or anything that is not politics.