I was fortunate enough to see Tal National, the great band from Niger, about 2 weeks ago in Kingston, New York. This band, which is really more of a collective with people shuttling in and out, has released three fantastic albums in recent years. It’s basically desert guitar rock of a kind that has become reasonably popular in the West in recent years. Tal National represents a lot of the different ethnic groups of Niger, which they made a big deal of in the show. Only the guitarist speaks English well enough to do so in the concert, but he did plenty of talking, explaining what was going on. Various band members also did what were told to us to be different dances from the different tribes. I mean, no one out there would have known either way, but I will say that it was pretty freaking awesome to see that live with a great band. Super fun show.
I also saw a James McMurtry and John Moreland double bill on Thursday at the Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio, which I think we can all agree is somewhere in Ohio’s top 50 cities. Maybe top 40! McMurtry took the first half of the bill. This was I think my 11th time seeing him and he’s never less than solid. Having about 75 minutes to play, he did a few newer songs and then a lot of old ones, including the classic “Choctaw Bingo,” which is even better live. He’s not the most charismatic guy, as anyone who has seen him knows, and his band is basically a solid rock band, but the show itself is reliant on the songs, which are just out of this world. The only down side is that the audience was energy-free. Some of this is it being a seated show and some of it is the fact that McMurtry’s fans are not young people, by and large. But he was a bit frustrated by the “politeness” of the audience.
But then John Moreland came on. This was the 3rd time I’ve seen him. The first two were absolutely wonderful acoustic shows. I figured that’s how he usually played. But this time he came out with an electric band playing at the proper volume–LOUD. To say the least, the older McMurtry fans flipped out, quite a few had left even before Moreland came on since it was 9:30 and all and more left soon after. But Moreland also had a lot of fans and they were both younger and more energetic. He did play 5 acoustic songs in the middle of the set and those were wonderful too, but it was really cool to see him with a band. And as for the songwriting–well, this is a generational talent who can write unbelievably beautiful songs.
What is the saddest song you know? This is a topic I have thought a lot about. What makes up a sad song? It’s a fine line between sad and maudlin. They can go over the top into eye-rolling territory pretty quickly (Cat Power’s “Names” is an example of this). Of all the songs I have, the saddest I think is “Rider on an Orphan Train,” on Tom Russell’s flawed near-masterpiece The Man From God Knows Where. That song, originally written and recorded by Dave Massengill, is about brothers split up on the 19th century orphan trains and they never find each other again. It’s totally devastating. The Russell version is not on YouTube but Massengill singing it is.
Did you know that Letterman routinely had Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in the 1980s on his show for relatively long interviews? Here’s one from 1982:
We all have bands we just don’t get. It seems you should like them. But while you might not hate them or anything, they leave you cold. For me, that band is Wilco. Now, this is an unlikely position for me to take. As a man in his 40s who wears a lot of plaid and flannel, I look exactly like a big Wilco fan. And I like most of the other bands Wilco fans like. But I just don’t care for them much. This goes back to the Uncle Tupelo days as well. I recognize the talent in Wilco, more so than Son Volt, which put on two of the worst shows I’ve ever seen. The alt-country outfit turned Woody Guthrie covers turned indie rock band has been an interesting trajectory to watch. I find some interesting albums here and there. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot I thought was good and Star Wars a reasonably good album. And really so is Schmilco. But there’s nothing particularly interesting going on here. I know many of you will disagree. But I continue to just not understanding Wilco’s appeal.
When it comes to jazz, I really value people doing interesting and new things rather than revisiting older styles. I recognize there are amazing players who can play older styles with great competence and grace. That includes the four musicians who make up Aziza. Dave Holland, the great bassist, is the most famous. Chris Potter is on saxophone, Lionel Loueke is on guitar, and Eric Harland handles the drums. These guys play with Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock, Jason Moran, and other of the most popular jazz musicians working. Certainly no one can say anything bad about the playing. But here’s the thing: none of it is very interesting. It’s pleasant enough. But when I compare it to Jaimie Branch’s astounding and original Fly or Die, which I reviewed the last time I did one of these posts, it’s just pale. Branch and her band are making sonic history. This is competently retreading older ideas. No, that’s unfair. It’s far more than competent. These are great players retreading older ideas.
CupcakKe is a very raw, deliciously flithy young hip hop artist from Chicago. She does not give a fuck what you think about her lyrics. This is part of a long tradition of raunch in the black music world. Think of Blowfly and people of that ilk. CupcakKe raps about sex in very explicit, extremely hilarious ways. She’s smart as a whip and comes up with great lines while doing so. Take the album highlight, “Duck Duck Goose” with its brilliant line, “Coochie guaranteed to put you to sleep so damn soon/Riding on that dick I’m reading Goodnight Moon.”
But it’s more than just sex songs. “Crayons’ is the rare pro-gay and pro-transgender song in the hip hop world. In “Self-Interview,” she bemoans the sexual double standard while noting that no one is probably listening to the end of the song since it’s not about sex per se. “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” is, well, about cereal. These add a lot of balance. But the real joy is indeed the sex lyrics. This is a treat, if not safe for work or maybe around your family.
I am not going to embed the video for “Duck Duck Goose” because it’s very NSFW, but you should watch it. Because it’s awesome. There’s also a whole series of clips on YouTube of people’s reactions when first hearing the song.
Carmelo Torres y Los Toscos, Carmelo Torres y Los Toscos
This is an absolutely outstanding album from 2015. Torres is an older guy who grew up in the traditional Colombian traditions of cumbia and vallenato. Los Toscos started as an experimental jazz band but turned into more of a sort of super group of leading Colombian musicians, the best I can tell. This album combines those traditions. Torres’ music is fairly traditional, although really great. Los Toscos adds some really great instrumentation, sometimes backing up in that traditional way, but with a lot of added flourish–short solos, maybe a just a touch of dissonance here and there, the great rhythms one would expect. Very good stuff.
Thee Oh Sees, Live in San Francisco
The venerable garage band puts out a live album celebrating their career. It’s basically like every other album this band under it’s various and far too many different names has put out. Good, noisy garage rock and has both the appeal and limitations of that genre. Better when loud.
Christopher Paul Stelling, Itinerant Arias
I really fell in love with Stelling’s previous album, Labor Against Waste. While I need to listen to this more to truly compare it, this is another fine album by a very talented young songwriter. Those who say there aren’t good singers and songwriters anymore are saying that because they have stopped trying to find the good singers and songwriters.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and no things politics.