Been a good long time since I have done one of these.
Rolling Stone released a list of the top 100 country artists of all time. Please feel free to complain. The bottom of the list felt like they had to throw all the douche country acts of the last 20 years in, and I suppose you have to take that shit seriously in a list like this, even if it sucks. But the recent stuff is way too overrepresented here. The idea of Roy Acuff at only #66 is completely ridiculous as he was a giant of the genre’s early decades. The entry for him actually says, “Country music as we know it starts with Roy Acuff.” That’s not really true either, but it’s not that far off and it seems to me that said person is probably not #66, one below Billy Joe Shaver, who while fine and all, is no Roy Acuff. On the other hand, I figured it was inevitable that Hank Williams would be #1, and while that would have been a more than acceptable option, I’m glad it was Merle Haggard.
Speaking of lists, building on NPR Top 150 albums by women, here’s a response–the Top 150 worst albums by men!!! There is trolling here–Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is a great album and I like Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album a great deal. But it’s still fun.
The life of the middle aged and still (rightfully) bitter rocker: Ted Leo.
So did Gary DeCarlo, whose “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” has been a plague on the national sports attending consciousness for a very long time. I hope he made a lot of money on it at least.
The important jazz pianist Geri Allen also died, and I’m ashamed to say that I really don’t know her music well.
I saw my 12th Drive-By Truckers show last Saturday at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The HOF is a terrible museum filled with terrible choices for its honor, especially in recent years (Journey! Green Day! Kiss! Meanwhile, Janet Jackson is nowhere to be found.), but there’s something very pleasant about seeing an outdoor rock show on a humid summer night. It was a really great show. They were supposed to play with the legendary Spooner Oldham, but he was sick so they covered two of the songs he wrote instead: “I’m Your Puppet” and “Cry Like a Baby.” I had seen Oldham play with DBT at a show in Santa Fe in I think 2006 or 2007 so it wasn’t so devastating that he didn’t play with them, but it still would have been great. Anyway, now in their early 50s, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley still put on a tremendously energetic performance, as does the rest of the band, and with their wonderful songs, at worst at DBT show is going to be good, at best transcendent, and on average, excellent. Hood made a public call for Alex Chilton and Big Star to get in the HOF and they played a good variety of songs from very old (“The Living Bubba”) to about half of the new album and a good range of my favorites mixed in (“Lookout Mountain” “Women Without Whiskey” “Sounds Better in the Song”).
Last month, I saw John Moreland play in Cambridge. It was the 2nd time I had seen him. He was amazing, but I was once again reminded how one idiot in the audience can screw up a show. Unfortunately, a woman sat behind me who had to provide rather loud commentary on his songs. It was just Moreland and his acoustic guitar, so anything can be heard. And this woman, who was not drunk, would comment when he sang one of his amazing lyrics things like “That’s right John!” “Tell it!” “That’s so great.” And everyone in the half of the room I was in could hear her. I am not usually a murderous person, but I was that evening. People who talk at concerts, unconcerned for how their behavior affects those around them, are basically engaging in the selfish and self-centered attitude and actions of Trump voters. Anyway, Will Johnson, formerly of Centro-Matic opened, and he was also good.
Now for some album reviews.
As I’ve been saying for awhile now, Tacocat is tons of fun. If you like fun poppish punk feminist music, I imagine you will you like Tacocat. If you don’t, I’m sorry to hear that. NVM, from 2014, is excellent and here’s their classic song about menstruation.
Angaleena Presley, Wrangled
Presley’s previous album, American Middle Class, was a pretty outstanding set of country songs that took seriously the hardships of the small towns of the South, even if I had a problem with her construction of class and the racial undertones underneath it. Her new album is very solid, but not quite up to the level of the last, particularly in terms of ambition. There are some songs along the same lines, such as “High School.” There’s a song mocking bro-country, which also includes a guest appearance by the hip hop artist Yellawolf. I’m not sure it works that well, but it’s better than the usual mashup of the two genres. She’s an important talent and has attracted a lot of attention from the living legends, co-writing songs with the now recently deceased Guy Clark, as well as Wanda Jackson. There is much to like here, even if it isn’t a truly epic album.
Lucinda Williams, Ghosts of Highway 20
There is one reason to listen to this album: the great band. Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz are both fantastic here. But Lucinda is not. Her voice has lost much of what made it so wonderful and it feels like she is singing through mush, often making it hard to understand. Moreover, why are all these songs 5 and 6 minutes and even 9 minutes long? She doesn’t have that much to say to justify these overlong songs. The best song is “Dust,” which turns out to be an adaptation of a poem by her father Miller Williams. Appropriate, because the songwriting isn’t so great here.
Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone has heard this album but me. But in my quest to catch up on hip hop (which has gone far enough that it’s started annoying my wife), I am diligently working through albums I need to hear. And, yep, this pretty much lives up to the hype. Great songs, great social message, great backing musicians. A truly epic album.
Valerie June, The Order of Time
The extent to which one likes Valerie June probably depends quite a bit on her voice. I saw her open for Sturgill Simpson last year and she was unexpected–a small African-American woman singing her version of country Americana in a high, off-kilter voice to an audience of perhaps 100% white people. I found the music OK and the voice a little off-putting. Listening to her new album, I’d go a bit farther and say the voice seems less odd, but the music and songs are mostly not all that interesting. I do very much like the closer “Got Soul.” And there’s certainly nothing objectionable here, but neither does it move me.
Hanoi Masters: War is a Wound, Peace is a Scar
This is a really great 2010 recording of old Vietnamese musicians doing traditional songs as their nation changes and time passes from the Vietnam War. Some are from the war era, some are not, all are quite touching. Here’s a nice piece on the making of the album.
Golden Dawn Arkestra, Stargazer
Despite the reference to Sun Ra and the visual tribute as can be seen in the performance below, this feels more like a modern, more jam oriented Mandrill album. It’s an alright effort in the funk-jam genre. Fun, maybe not life-changing.
Kamasi Washington, The Epic
This album was enormous popular upon its release in 2015. For this reason, it’s important. It’s popularity rested mostly on the fact that Kendrick Lamar is a fan and he was on To Pimp a Butterfly. So this opened up a lot of hip hop fans to jazz. Great! But for a long-time jazz listener, this is not a great album. There are some really good cuts. But the album has a ton of filler. That’s almost impossible to avoid in a nearly three hour album. There’s a reason very few albums are 3 hours. But this should be a 70 minute album. Take the first disc. The first two cuts are pretty good, if clearly an homage to some pretty standard icons (late era Coltrane, 70s era Miles, and Pharoah Sanders). But the rest of the disc fades to background music. I’ve heard from friends that he puts on a great live show and he’s a talented guy, but this does not break new ground and is way, way too long.
Mavis Staples, Livin’ On a High Note
This is a perfectly acceptable late career album. Her voice is still pretty strong. The songs aren’t all that great by and large, despite being written by some of the finest songwriters working today. Still, there’s plenty of hope and inspiration here. It’s not peak Staples, but it’s the album I was listening to as the health care bill went down and so at least got me through that.
Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger
Simon has had an odd career. His early work with Art Garfunkel was fairly groundbreaking. Then he went into a long, sleepy solo career with not a whole lot of good albums. Then he made Graceland, one of the greatest albums ever released. And then he released a bunch more bad to mediocre albums. Stranger to Stranger is among the better of those albums, but it’s still not really all that interesting. Simon does have some fairly active arrangements here, which is a nice change from albums that tend to become repetitive and boring. But the songs aren’t all that special and he’s just not an exciting singer. The reviews for this album fell squarely into the “every mediocre Woody Allen movie is his big comeback” category, reliving his career and noting this is a good album. It’s possible that repeated listens would make me appreciate more the lyrical content, but it’s hard to see investing the time in something that, at best, is going to be a rare listen.
Connections, Midnight Run
Leaving aside the question of whether the Columbus rock scene is big enough to have a supergroup, Connections is supposed to be a super group of Columbus rockers that formed in 2012. Their 2016 album is my first experience with the band and it is pretty impressive. This is some very good rock and roll, of the kind we need more of. Good groove, good sound, good conception. My one hesitation here is that I really dislike how low the vocals are in the mix, making them almost a backing instrument when I want to hear the words, especially for an album with pretty catchy music.
I made another of my occasional forays into electronic ambient music. As usual, it was a mistake. I suppose I could see listening to this if I wanted background music while writing. But I never want background music. As so often with this sort of music, it’s incredibly repetitive. Maybe you are saying, “why even bother listening to this music if you don’t like it.” And the answer is that I always want to keep trying. But maybe I am never going to get over my disdain for this synthesizer driven ambience.
Herbie Mann, Live at the Whiskey A Go Go,
This is an alright 1968 album by the famed flutist. I have to admit that flute is not my favorite jazz instrument and that’s probably getting in the way of a higher rating. But there are some other issues here as well, particularly that Sonny Sharrock’s noise guitar doesn’t work that well here. For most of the album, he’s really in the background, way more than you would expect from him. And then when he shreds, at the very end of the second side, it’s out of place with the rest of the album. Overall, it’s a fine if minor fusion album.
Buddy Miller, Universal United House of Prayer
I’ve heard nothing but great things about this album since its 2004 release. I don’t know why I never listened to it. But it is indeed a really strong country gospel album. It proves that the genre doesn’t need to be maudlin and it doesn’t need to be fundamentalist or right wing. Miller and his backing singers have excellent voices. Miller is a fine songwriter (often working with his wife Julie, who also sings here), and the covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “There’s a Higher Power” and Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” are really great.
Pharoah Sanders, Message from Home
I’d never really paid attention to Sanders’ work after the 1970s. This 1996 album is a comeback of sorts, both helped and hindered by Bill Laswell’s production during the period when he was producing like 8000 albums a year, all around his own version of fusion world music. There are moments in here where Sanders really brings the intensity that made him famous, but there are some real lulls in here as well. Laswell’s popping bass gets pretty annoying and there are some cheesy 90s production techniques too. The highlight of the album is “Kumba” which features the great Foday Musa Suso, but then the song is almost all Suso, which says something about the entirety of this project.
As always, this is an open thread on all things music.