The RnR Hall of Fame is a legitimately bad museum – it’s not kid friendly (which is not fatal, but come on now) and does not have anything interesting to say about its subject. I admit, that living near DC, I have a high entertainment bar for museums which charge money (spoiled of course) but that does not clear it.
This is true. It’s a terrible place. There are many problems here. The most obvious is the absurdity of who are actually HOF members. But let’s leave that aside for now. It’s a terrible museum. It has a terrible reputation in the museum community. It faces a couple of basic problems. First, it doesn’t even try to do anything interesting. Unfortunately, it’s basically still in the “Hey old white people, here’s a coat and a guitar from your youthful hero” phase. And that means no historical context, nothing interesting. Just some clothes, song sheets, and guitars. That’s disappointing. Think of all you could do. Imagine exhibits on race and early rock and roll. On the historical context of hip hop. On the Mississippi Delta and the blues that influenced a generation. On the rise of women in rock and roll and how that fit into feminism. On the influence of black culture on England and how that changed music. Etc. So many opportunities. But no, here’s an outfit that David Bowie wore, isn’t it cool? It doesn’t go any deeper than that. The first time I visited the museum, the main temporary exhibit was on Springsteen, but it was just a bunch of stuff. This time it was on Rolling Stone magazine, which was just awful. It was really nothing more than Baby Boomer nostalgia at their favorite magazine.
Second, the building is a disaster. And this really matters. Sure it looks cool from the outside. But like so much modern architecture, it might draw your eyes, but it sure doesn’t draw your soul once you are inside. One major problem is that the funky shape of the building just does not work for exhibit display. There are a number of long escalators that lead to almost nothing. And then you have to go back down. This is of course a major problem with many major museums, although one that what is now called the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle (previously the EMP Museum and originally the Jimi Hendrix Museum) does not suffer from, even though it is a Frank Gehry design. They have a boatload of space and do a better job.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is, in short, a very bad museum.
Can someone explain Phil Collins to me? Like, why was he so popular in the 80s. He was a prog rock drummer. And then he became a huge superstar. Nearly every prog musician had a pretty rough time of it in the 80s. Their music was stale, with punk, New Wave, metal, and electro pop replacing it. Everything those bands stood for was drastically out of fashion. And really only two of those people truly reinvented themselves for a new audience: Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. Maybe you could make a case for Robert Fripp and the Belew-era King Crimson. But while Gabriel remained experimental, bringing in his world music and making some of the biggest hits of the 80s, Collins managed to turn Genesis into a straight-ahead 80s rock outfit and become a chart-topping pop singer for several albums, doing both incredibly effectively. I don’t particularly like his music, but I find his fame remarkable given that he was a tremendously unhip middle-aged guy in a fashion-forward era who totally conquered it.
Ringo Starr is a big Brexit guy. That’s just great to know.
Don Williams also died. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of that 70s smooth country movement. It’s why I didn’t really write about Glen Campbell’s death (well, that and I was in Yellowstone when it happened. I have Williams’ 1979 Portrait album, it’s OK.
I saw Margaret Glaspy play in Eugene a few weeks ago. Her 2016 album Emotions and Math was outstanding and so was seeing her play live. She is so smart and witty that I feel bad for anyone who makes her mad in a relationship, because I feel she could destroy that person with her words. There’s a few artists I’ve thought about this for, either because of their stage persona or the sharpness of their lyrics–Robbie Fulks, Waxahatchee, Richard Thompson. Liza Anne opened and she was pretty good too.
Now for the album reviews:
Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm
With each album, Katie Crutchfield expands her sonic reach and her songwriting. When I heard Cerulean Salt, I thought, this is a really nice indie-folk album with some very promising songs. I liked it a lot. So then Ivy Tripp came out. And I thought, wow this is really great, with more fuzz in the music, and with even sharper lyrics, especially “Summer of Love,” which is kind of a perfect song. And now Out in the Storm is out and it is even greater. It should go down as one of the finest breakup albums even created, a genre that always has potential to inspire great songs and which includes Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights, and Beck’s Sea Change. And yeah, I think Out in the Storm is in the conversation with those albums (and probably better than Sea Change). It’s more pissed off and frustrated than whiny, introspective without being naval gazing. And rather than go back to the indie-folk of Cerulean Salt, which she originally thought this would be, the music expands further into the pop world, making for a very rewarding listen. Great stuff. Quite possibly the best album I’ve heard in 2017.
Bonnie Prince Billy, Best Troubador
In Bonnie Prince Billy’s extremely varied and inconsistent career, nothing quite prepared me for a straightforward Merle Haggard cover album. Mercifully, Will Oldham largely avoids the obvious cuts and goes for obscure songs he feels best sum up the Hag. This is probably the best Haggard cover album out there. It’s pretty widely acclaimed and I don’t love it that much. Some of the songs fall pretty flat. About 2/3 of the way through this 17 song set, everything starts sounding more or less the same. But it’s good music and the closing cover of “If I Could Only Fly,” which is actually a Blaze Foley song that Haggard covered on his album of the same title from the early 2000s is quite touching. Overall, a quite worthy effort.
Bomba Esteréo, Ayo
This Colombian band blew up the world with their last album, Amanecer, especially “Soy Yo” with its great video about empowerment and individualism. Ayo is a worthy follow up. Continuing to mix Colombia’s cumbia with indigenous music and influences from around the world, this remains a fascinating band that embraces what it means to be, to be a bit crass, a South American hippie, with the various world music, such as reggae, that one would expect from South American hippies. That sounds negative, but it isn’t really. The term “world music” is kind of meaningless, yet it also has been embraced by bands from across the globe taking their own national traditions, combining them with the global music they hear, and then using their own ideas to combine and evolve it all. That’s what Bomba Esteréo does here and it’s a good album.
Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir
Stephin Merritt evidently requires a gimmick to organize his songwriting. And that’s fine. Sometimes it works to great brilliance, more recently, the albums have been hit and miss. 50 Song Memoir is a pretty great idea, with a fatal flaw. Going through his life year by year through a song is pretty interesting. It works far better for detailing his messed up childhood being dragged through a series of hippie communes by his mom than it does for recent years. Mostly, I just felt really bad for the guy. God, hippies were horrendous parents. Yeah, yeah, I’m generalizing, but I’ve read plenty of hippie memoirs and histories and it’s hard to square good parenting with being dropping acid while giving birth, letting kids go around in dirty diapers because you are too stoned to change them, or uprooting their lives over and over to follow the new guru. Anyway, I digress.
There are two reasons why this works less well on the second half. First, mostly Merrit is just writing love songs. That’s fine. He’s good at that. But that gets to the second problem, which is that perhaps the biggest reason 69 Love Songs worked so well is that Merritt didn’t sing all 69 songs. He just doesn’t have the vocal chops to carry 50 songs without them really getting old. So even when the songs are good, it just gets really tiring to listen to. I get that this is a very personal project so he left his co-singers at home. But it would have made for a better album for them to be here.
Childbirth, Women’s Rights
Childbirth is an occasional group of musicians from other bands consists of Julia Shapiro of Chastity Belt on guitar and vocals, Bree McKenna of Tacocat on bass and vocals, and Stacy Peck of Pony Time on drums. This is their second album. It is highly amusing. The songs are sort of lesser versions of what Tacocat does in that they are feminist, silly, and funny, but neither Shapiro nor McKenna can sing all that great. They tend to perform in hospital gowns, sing about the perils of being a young woman, why men are assholes, or some combination of the two. I don’t love this, but I had several laugh out loud moments such as this from the hilarious “Baby Bump: “I brought coke to your baby shower/what can I say/I thought it was a party.” How is that not awesome?
Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop, Love Letter for Fire
About 10 years ago, I was a pretty big fan of Iron and Wine. I liked the early sparse albums and then I thought The Shepherd’s Dog was a big step forward with a more robust sound. Saw a great show in Dallas after that album was released. But then Kiss Each Other Clean came out and I thought it really stalled out his career, repeating Shepherd’s Dog with less success. His later work sounded no better and I didn’t bother. At the same time, I know that Tom Waits’ former babysitter Jesca Hoop received some acclaim for her solo work, but I was pretty indifferent. So I was skeptical about this album. But you know what? They sing really well together. Sam Beam’s songwriting was never my favorite part of his act; it was the atmosphere that really prevailed. And I’m not sure the songwriting here is that much better. But there is something about two good voices, one male and one female, singing together that really works for me. And everything about this collaboration is more than good enough.
Sun Ra, Singles
Do you want 65 tracks of Sun Ra cuts that range from his early work to the odd doo-wop period to the more experimental work of the late 60s and early 70s? Um, yes you do. I guess it’s not perfect in that most of these songs are known to his devotees, some are relatively famous, and none are the long-form work that he partially became known for. But this is just a great collection following a wonderful artist through a long period. And if you aren’t that familiar with the Ra, it’s a good place to start.
Jason Isbell, The Nashville Sound
A strong although not classic album. There are some great songs here. I do feel that there are some songs that don’t rise too much above filler. The juxtaposition between his great songs and his mediocre songs has always been pretty jarring because the upper crust are so high. If you listen to Here We Rest, it’s a terrible album with one jaw-dropping great song in “Codeine.” That was the low point of his career, before he sobered up. Southeastern was an outstanding record that mostly avoided his filler problem except for a couple of songs on the back half. Something More than Free was a consistently good set of songs that perhaps lacked anything at the “Codeine” or “Outfit” level but also lacked the filler. The Nashville Sound sees Isbell back on his game at the upper end. “If We Were Vampires” is an outstanding song. And “White Man’s World” is a necessary song written in the immediate post-Trump election moment from a white southern man. It’s great. “Cumberland Gap” is a good late-era coal mining song. My only hesitation is that I don’t think the whole album holds up, particularly toward the end. Filler remains a bit of a problem. Yet it’s surely worth your time.
Steve Earle, So You Wannabe an Outlaw
I might find Jason Isbell a little inconsistent, but I don’t know if there’s anyone working in the last two decades as inconsistent as Steve Earle. Take The Revolution Starts Now. By and large, it’s a pretty good album. But really it’s an album with two absolutely amazing songs: “Home to Houston” and “Rich Man’s War,” a couple of really terrible songs such as “Condi Condi” and “The Gringo’s Tale” and then some pretty OK songs. And that’s pretty much been the highlight of the 21st century for Earle. I haven’t even bothered with the last couple of albums. But I heard good things about this so I gave it a spin. And it’s pretty good! Not great. But good. There’s probably not really a standout here. Probably “News from Colorado” is the best song. But it’s just a solid country-rock album, blessed with quality cameos from Johnny Bush, Willie Nelson, and Miranda Lambert. I’ll never consider this a key album for me, but I will listen to it occasionally.
Sera Cahoone, From Where I Started
This is very solid singer-songwriter music. It’s not exceptional. It’s pleasant, listenable, worthy. Not sure there’s too much reason to say too much more about it.
The thing about Tinariwen and the other Tuareg bands that bring their version of electric desert blues from Mali around the world is that they all kind of sound the same. You either like that traidtion or maybe you find it boring. Personally, I think it’s pretty great. On Elwan, Tinariwen mixes it up a little bit, bringing in Kurt Vile and Mark Lanegan. I’m not sure that bringing in western guitarists really adds that much. But it’s good music.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music.