The grave series will probably always skew to people of longer ago because half of modern people get cremated instead of buried. Sometimes, they are they placed in a cemetery, but often they are not. So there are lots of people from the last half-century I’d like to cover, but can’t. However, occasionally those people have other forms of memorialization. I was in Peoria last week and wandered across this Dan Fogelberg memorial in a park. This is just one stone among many, others embossed with his lyrics. I soft rocked all the way to sleep that night. Unrelated to music, there is a great sculpture of Richard Pryor as well, another Peoria native who left and was cremated upon death.
I was lucky enough to see Jason Isbell with James McMurtry opening in Pittsburgh last Monday, which was my birthday. The last time I saw Isbell, which was toward the end of the tour where he supported his beloved album Southeastern, I was pretty disappointed. It was a big theater in New York, we were sitting high and near the back, and the seemingly endless number of acoustic songs in a row made for a boring show. So I wasn’t as excited about this as I would have liked to be. I was more excited to see McMurtry, who is one of the greatest songwriters ever. I hadn’t seen McMurtry with a full band since I lived in Texas, when I used to occasionally steel myself for his Midnight-2 shows on Wednesday night at the Continental Club, which he still frequently plays. Man, that was great. And while his band and style of roots rock doesn’t quite fill a theater like it fills a small club, seeing “Childish Things” and “You Got to Me” and “Levelland” again was a huge treat. Wish he had another 4 or 5 songs!
Then Isbell came on. And it was great. Some of it was the material off The Nashville Sound is better suited for a rock show in a large theater. Some of it is that the band now has another guitarist and is just better than it used to be. It was more electric for one thing. But also Isbell had a ton of energy. He had just won his Grammy the night before. And his wife, the fiddler Amanda Shires, joined him for the first time on the tour, so he was obviously excited about that. He just crushed it. Mostly he played songs off the last three albums, a few older ones, and a couple of his Drive-By Truckers songs. He didn’t play any of his first two solo albums and I think he hardly ever does, which I wish he did. He also, the best I can tell, has never played “The Day John Henry Died” as a solo artist, and I wish I knew why. Anyway, seeing a song as utterly jaw-dropping as “Codeine” played live in a high-energy performance is just a wonderful thing. I’ll probably never enjoy an Isbell show as much as the two I saw in Texas when he was drunk and playing in small clubs, but this was close.
Did you need a return to 1986, with a cranky old white man complaining about the hip and the hop and the kids with their pants and why can’t the kids like Bob Dylan instead but not the crazy electric Dylan? Well, here you go. And I mean, if there’s one look a white man should have when writing about hip hop, it’s definitely this how this guy rolls!
At one point, a couple of these posts ago, there was a discussion in comments about whether artists still put out cassette releases and how silly that would be. Well, it exists. And it’s probably pretty silly, but who am I to judge?
The New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions
There are some bands that I find it impossible to imagine people not liking. This is one of them. This band, led by A.C. Newman but who’s real star is Neko Case, is a testament to the power of the human voice and the glory of power pop. I saw them live right after this came out and loved it, even though I hadn’t heard the album yet. Now that I finally have, I love them even more.
Dave Cobb, Southern Family
Dave Cobb is the hottest producer in country music over the last five years, producing a lot of the acts that have rejuvenated the genre, people avoiding douchebro crap and instead remembering what country music should be–songs from the heart about real life experiences. So he decided to use his stable of artists to put together an album to represent the southern home and family and its experiences. It works OK. It got a lot of hype when it came out in 2016 but that faded pretty quickly because only some of the songs really work well. The Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert, and Brandy Clark songs are particularly strong. But a lot of them tend to use a bit too much nostalgia about family, often the bane of country music. The Chris Stapleton cover, with his wife Morgane, of “You Are My Sunshine” doesn’t really work because it’s the type of quiet song that doesn’t translate well to his intense singing style. It’s an interesting experiment, but while certainly pleasant enough to Americana, folk, and country fans, I don’t really think it holds up to repeated listening.
Thomas Adès, Totentanz
This is the British composer’s tribute to the great Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, with the subject of death. Based on the text with a 15th century frieze in a Lübeck church destroyed in World War II that depicted everyone in society, from the Pope to peasants, next to death, it explores how death will take us all soon enough. A soprano plays all the people, a baritone is death. An interesting theme for an opera. I thought the piece a bit more conventional than I expected in terms of not sounding that overly modern. How you think about that depends on your taste. The reviews for this were outstanding and I can’t say I disagree, even if I lack the vocabulary to write about classical music with any effectiveness.
Chris Stapleton, From a Room, Volume 2
The latest release from the great country singer, following Volume 1 of this series earlier in 2017. A little quieter than the first version, with more songs about love and loss than about smoking marijuana, and including a good cover the underrated Kevin Welch’s “Millionaire” the real star of this show is, as always, Stapleton’s great voice and phrasing. He’s not flawless, as he can sometime oversing his material, but he hasn’t become one of the biggest stars in country music without compromising to douchecountry in order to get radio play for nothing.
Beauty Pill, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are
The critics loved this 2015 release and there are some interesting sounds and some nice singing but this did not affect me in any meaningful way. The story is nice–it was the first album since 2004 since bandleader Chad Clark suffered from serious heart problems, but his health improved enough to return to music. There’s some interesting music here and some nice singing on some tunes. Clark references his own near-death in one song and there’s a somewhat interesting cover of Arto Lindsay’s “The Prize,” a good song from that underrated and iconoclastic indie musician. So you might like this a lot; for me, the different pieces didn’t add up to a lot.
Marc Ribot & The Young Philadelphians, Live in Tokyo
Ribot is a soul who never stops searching for something new to do. Some of his work is quite inaccessible and difficult and then sometimes he comes out with a Cuban band. I saw him play a few years ago at The Stone in New York where he just tore the roof off the place with his band, an amazing experience of free jazz. With artists like this, you never know what is going to come next, but I can’t say I expected him to gather other jazz legends and put together a band covering Philadelphia soul and funk songs. Did you think you needed Ribot and his fellow guitar god Mary Halvorson shredding over “The Hustle” or Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO”? No, you never thought of it but you definitely need it because this is great. The rest of the band is Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who used to play bass with Ornette Coleman, and G. Calvin Weston on drums. Playing this music live in Tokyo, they also added a string trio of Japanese musicians, only adding to the richness of the sound. Very, very cool stuff. It’s true that no one in this band can sing, which I guess is a demerit, but who really cares when the music is this insanely good.
Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights
This widely lauded album ended up on many Top 10 lists for 2017. I can see why. A couple reviews noted that listening to these songs by a young lesbian evangelical from Tennessee is like entering her private prayers to God and I can see why. Trying to figure out the contradictions of her life (she had other friends from her church come out and they were sent to heterosexual conversion camps and she had no idea what would happen when she came out to her parents, but it worked out just fine and they were supportive), this is a fascinating album by a gifted young songwriter. The songs may blend together a bit, but when you write this well, it’s OK. She reminds me somewhat of John Moreland, whose quiet songs are instantly arresting and force you to listen. Quite a talent here.
As always, an open thread for all things music and no things politics.