When I was in college, I went through a major Frank Zappa period. It really didn’t last very long–2 years or so. This was a time when I was exploring a lot of interesting instrumental music and sometimes that moved into the verges of prog rock (King Crimson, yes; Emerson Lake and Palmer, god no) and sometimes into fusion and sometimes into something like Zappa. It didn’t last very long though for one good reason–most of his albums are absolutely atrocious. He was a wonderful guitar player and that’s probably the most appealing thing about him. But for such a smart guy, he was an utterly cynical songwriter who combined that with sophomoric humor to make terrible album after terrible album, yet with occasional moments of brilliant music. My embrace of Zappa came in the mid-90s, soon after his death and when his reputation was at its peak. Growing up outside of Eugene and going to the University of Oregon as an undergraduate, there was more than a moment when I thought “Who Needs the Peace Corps” was hilarious because it hates on hippies. I still hate hippies, but that song is not deep at all. It’s not that Zappa was completely incapable of writing decent lyrics, as “Trouble Every Day,” written in LA during or just after the Watts riots and appearing on Freak Out, shows. But he gave up on even trying to write good lyrics very soon. His instrumental work is much better, but even much of that early 70s work is hurt by dumb lyrics. Pretty much the only exception is Hot Rats, which I still think is a great album. There are other bits of recordings and live albums that are also great, but they are bits. Most of the catalog is embarrassing and full of dumb sexism. This Sean O’Neal essay on trying to listen to Zappa is pretty good, although I like Hot Rats better than he does. Joe’s Garage, long held up as a great album, is garbage, even if “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is an epic guitar solo. But I’m sorry, when your reputation is based on such titanic songs as “Catholic Girls” and “Crew Slut,” there is just nothing there. On the other hand, anyone who can solo like this is not all bad.
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers has been writing and giving a lot of interviews lately for the release of their anti-Trump song, “The Perilous Night.” He has a long essay in The Bitter Southerner that goes into quite a bit of detail into the reception of the more political material of the last couple of years. Mostly, it’s been positive with some notable exceptions. The whole essay was really good, but I was especially interested in this:
As we mixed and mastered our record in 2016, we watched the debates and primaries attentively. As usual, we were on the road, previewing a few songs each night from the new record. “What It Means” was almost always part of the show. One night in Providence, Rhode Island, we were playing a theater that oddly enough also contained the tiny rehearsal space of our friends in the band the Low Anthem. During our show, one of them brought up a Black Lives Matter sign and leaned it against Cooley’s guitar amp. The next day, we taped it to the front of Hammond B-3 organ played by Jay Gonzalez, our beloved keyboard and guitar player.
It’s been there ever since.
I was at that show! I had no idea that it was the first time they displayed the sign. As I recall, Hood was singing “What It Means” and Cooley paraded it around the stage. Before this, the main thing I remember from that show is that Hood’s voice was completely shot. He is a professional and he did everything he could to make it through that show, but for obvious reasons, it wasn’t one of their great shows. But I had no idea that it was a historic DBT show. So that’s pretty cool. And just because, here’s the setlist.
The always great Gustavo Arellano compiled a very cool list of the 10 best songs about the Mexican Revolution. Check it out. He had an equally great list of the 10 best songs from New Mexican music recently as well.
I was noting on Twitter something I’ve mentioned in one of these music posts–how Graceland is an outstanding album but the rest of Paul Simon’s solo career is bad. Turns out one reason why is just flat stole a song from Los Lobos without giving them writing credit. Wonder how many other songs from that album are stolen.
The long rumored Neil Young archive website is finally open! I’ve only poked around a little. The web design is very 2007.
Here’s a great interview with Sonny Rollins, the greatest living jazz musician. Unfortunately, at 87, he can no longer play his horn. But his outlook remains positive.
The great country songwriter Mel Tillis died. Not the biggest fan of his albums, but he was certainly an important talent. His song “Ruby,” one of the first big hits about the struggles of Vietnam veterans, was recorded by seemingly every male country star of the early 1970s.
Luis Bacalov also died. The Italian film composer’s theme song to Django is the most ridiculous and over the top joy imaginable.
Iron & Wine, Beast Epic
There was a time in the mid-2000s when I was a huge Iron & Wine fan. I was really into albums such as Our Endless Numbered Days, where he sang songs best described as pastoralism barely above a whisper. The sound slowly grew, peaking with The Shepherd’s Dog. Saw a great show in Dallas on that tour. But after that, I felt his work really suffered from not saying anything and a musical stalling out. I did like his recent duet album with Jesca Hoop more than I thought I would, so I figured I’d give his new album a go. And it’s pretty good. He’s moved a bit back toward the quiet but not repeating his earlier work. My only caveat is that I’m not sure any of these songs really mean much lyrically.
These sisters had a great story that usually gets told before their music is heard. The twin daughters of a famous Cuban musician, their Nigerian mother raised them in France. Their music is a combination of all of those influences, along with American music, particularly hip-hop and electronica. Their first album was a marvel, a truly wondrous debut. The follow up is also very good. They sing so wonderfully together and the sparse music accentuates the voices. They sing in English (international language for an international band) and these songs are both political, sad, and hopeful.
I also happened to see Ibeyi recently at the Neptune Theater in Seattle. I was curious how this would translate to the live show. It is just the two of them and the music is fairly sparse. But first, the electronic drums work really well in this format. Second, they sing so wonderfully together. Combined with some hip-hop attitude that got the crowd worked up, this was a fine and fun show.
Chris Stapleton, From a Room, Vol. 1
When I first heard Traveller, Stapleton’s breakthrough album, it didn’t blow me away. I thought he was oversinging. But I’ve gotten really into it and once I realized he was basically Gregg Allman singing country music, I quit worrying about the oversinging and just embraced the soul. His followup is much shorter and a bit less intimidating for that. Made up of some of his older songs (he was a singer and songwriter for more than a decade before reaching success), this is a very nice collection of songs. Plus his cover of “The Last Thing I Needed the First Thing This Morning,” which Willie Nelson had a huge hit with in the early 80s, is just a great, wonderful cover.
This 2015 album is something I hope Prince would have been proud of before his passing. It’s big guitar rock/soul about sex, but not the misogynistic sex that is far too common in the male artists hip-hop and R&B worlds. This is about partners having great sex. It’s also filled with well-designed, well-produced songs dripping in funk. Again, something that Prince would have loved, I hope. He’s not a one-trick pony lyrically either, singing about his mixed race background, his home state of California, and the banal exploitation of the music industry. Good album.
Juana Molina, Halo
The first album in four years by this great Argentine singer does not disappoint. Although the lyrics are sometimes not even words but just noise, the soundscapes here are really fantastic. This is electronic music at its best. Pop-oriented but experimental at the same time, her voice often looped in and distorted, and the big percussion all make for a first-rate listen. This is her best album and one of my favorites of the year.
Charlie Worsham, Beginning of Things
This Nashville songwriting hand has a lot of skill. This album is however a mixed bag. He’s a very skilled songwriter and there are some great examples of this here. “The Beginning of Things” is a particularly excellent song about a man who could be best described as a disappointment. Anyone would be proud of writing this. But Worsham cannot escape the nostalgia and cliche that often hurts country music. It was hard for me to recover from “Southern by the Grace of God” which is exactly what you think it is, both paean to the South and to nostalgic longings for the country, etc. Why is this something that appeals as a subject? Despite this caveat, overall, this is a worthy album. At his best, Worsham is quite fine. You may like this.
And one classic that I had never heard:
Leonard Cohen, New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Somehow I had never actually heard this album before, even though I knew a few of the songs. Obviously “Field Commander Cohen,” “Chelsea Hotel #2,” and “Who By Fire” are classics. Most of the other songs hold up well. This is no Songs of Leonard Cohen, but as that is one of the greatest albums ever made, it’s an unfair comparison. Overall, I think this is middle-range Cohen, which makes it very solid.
As always, this is a thread for all things music and none things politics.