It’s time for an entirely too long post about music. It’s too long because I didn’t get around to finishing anything while I kept listening to new albums and reading new stories. Well, maybe it will provide enough material to avoid a long discussion about the “merits” of Yes in the comments.
Here is a really great essay on Cecil Taylor. Among the many things in here that I didn’t know is something that probably a lot of people do know: that Miles hired Herbie Hancock over Taylor for his classic quintet and that Taylor never forgave him for it. It just made me wonder how different Miles’ 60s work would have been with Taylor. Or maybe how different Taylor’s career would have looked. Taylor was also a pretty wild guy, as this goes into in great detail.
I have come to the conclusion that the 3 best rock bands of all time are, in some order, the Stones, Sleater-Kinney, and Led Zeppelin. I know that in public culture, all the good bands were around between 1965 and 1977, but there’s no reason that a contemporary rock band can’t be considered the best band of all time and there’s every reason to think that Sleater-Kinney is in fact that band. Every album they’ve ever made has been absolutely fucking brilliant, with remarkable consistency and ground-breaking awesomeness, both musically and in the fact that it is an all-female band. Sure, breaking up between 2005 and 2015 is one knock, but they were active almost as long as LZ and being a band forever hasn’t exactly helped bolster the Stones’ overall quality given the last 30 years. Anyhow, after No Cities to Love came out, which is somehow perhaps their second least successful album and an album I would also grade an A or even A+, Spin put together a list of all S-K songs ranked, which is worth considering here.
I haven’t heard the new Neko Case album yet. But this is a fantastic interview with her. Neko has approximately 0 fucks to give and it’s just great, especially talking about being a woman in the music industry. But let me also point out that her opinion on what has happened to the Pacific Northwest is even more dismayed and angry than mine (I’m more ambivalent) and so good that I plan to use it in this history of the recent Northwest book I am writing.
When people asked Case to describe Tacoma, she’d say it was the Baltimore of the West: a thing that people from Baltimore understood, but few others could. “It’s not describable,” she told me. “It existed in a lot of different fragments at the same time.” But Case is the one who’s described it best: “A sour and used-up ol’ place,” she sings in “Thrice All American,” with buildings “empty like ghettos of ghost towns.” And yet it remains beloved: “I can’t seem to fathom the dark of my history / I invented my own in Tacoma.”
A friend from Tacoma recently told Case that people from nearby Seattle were coming down and wanted to know where the good places are to live, spouting off, “Tacoma is actually cool!” “And I just wanna go, ‘Fuck you, don’t pretend you ever fucking liked it here, because you didn’t,’” Case says. “You talked shit about it here until you had a kid and now you have to move somewhere. Just because you’re standing here doesn’t make it cool now.”
But she tries to remain unsentimental about the cities she’s lost. “The thing that keeps me from, like, overly clutching that pearl is that I think about all the Native Americans that are still there, and have to look at this stuff going in, on their ancestral land, and it’s like, I have no business being uptight about people going to Tacoma. My heartbreak is nothing. I’m just a person with no home.”
See also, my home town of Springfield now that Eugene is getting quite pricey. I know I loved California and Portland assholes in college saying they were sorry when I said I was from Springfield. In case I didn’t already have a chip on my shoulder about class.
Incidentally, I know I am in the minority to those who love her early work, but I thought The Worse Things Get was the best album of her career.
A favorite hobby of mine is finding old Pitchfork review of great albums that received bad reviews because the artist wasn’t hip enough at the time. Thus, this review of PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, which may be the greatest albums of the 21st century, so long as you use the colloquial understanding of the century starting in 2000.
This is a really interesting essay on why people are so obsessed with The Replacements, considering that they were barely a band most of the time.
Reggie Lucas, who played guitar on those great Miles Davis performances at the end of the experimental electric period and then went on to produce Madonna’s first album, died after a long history of heart problems.
The legendary Jalal Mansur Nurridin of The Last Poets also died. One of the founders of rap and one of the critical musical voices in the Black Power era, this is a big loss. Another big loss is Elvis’s drummer, D.J. Fontana. It’s easy to forget these sidemen, but they were utterly critical in creating the sound of early pioneers like Elvis.
Other recent deaths in the music world include the British prog drummer Jon Hiseman, the early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, Blind Boys of Alabama stalwart Clarence Fountain, the Chicago-based blues guitarist Eddy Clearwater and Jonathan Fire*Easter frontman Stewart Lupton.
With my wife away all last week, I’ve had even more time to listen to music than usual. So here’s a whole lotta album reviews:
Wussy, What Heaven is Like
My favorite band puts out yet another very good album. Like their last release, I don’t think this quite hits the heights of Funeral Dress or Strawberry or Attica, but it’s a very good rock album. This is really a Chuck album more than a Lisa album, in that I think his songs are a bit more successful. The opener “One Per Customer” with its great opening bit about wishing you were an astronaut back when astronauts had more appeal, setting a tone of tremendous ambivalence, is one of his best songs ever and then there is his awesome cover of the obscure Twinkeyz’s “Aliens in Our Midst,” which they were playing live on the tour from the last album and which is just a great punk song. Lisa’s top highlight here is the great “Gloria,” based on the character from the TV show Fargo and is one her classic songs of strivers trying to make it in this world. Not every song on the album signifies like their very best material, in part because they’ve moved so heavily into the noise of John Erhardt’s weird playing of the steel guitar that it can dominate Lisa’s voice, but it’s worth thinking about this band through its now pretty long history. This band has released 7 albums and each and every one is between very good and a classic. As Christgau, the godfather of this band, has noted, this is Stones territory in terms of consistency. Lots of bands put out 1 or 2 great albums, but who puts out 7 excellent albums in a row, plus several worthwhile EPs? It’s really hard. Take my other favorite band, Drive-By Truckers. It might be that their heights are higher than Wussy’s, although not by much. But they definitely don’t have the same consistency, as albums such as Blessing and a Curse and The Big To-Do aren’t really very good. Who knows how long Wussy can keep releasing albums, but this has been quite a run for one of the most underrated bands in rock history.
Speedy Ortiz, Twerp Verse
I really like Speedy Ortiz’s last album, Foil Deer. It’s melodic punkiness and attitude appealed to me greatly and I was wondering when another album would come out. Turns out they had a bunch of songs, then the election happened, and they started over. What replaced those songs isn’t exactly an overtly political record, but it is a record of giving not too many fucks and talking back to whatever is bothering Sadie Dupuis. There’s a strong #MeToo aspect to these songs, delivered in great bits of accessible poppiness. A very fun album and a very strong folow up to Foil Deer.
U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
This is a very fine album. Very fine. How great it is? I’ll even forgive the lyrical silliness of “M.A.H.” in which she talks about how mad as Hell she is at Barack Obama for being a militaristic sellout of the big banks. Given that I don’t look for political leadership from musicians or judge them by their politics, unlike some publications on the left, whatever. Because while Meg Remy’s earlier work was kind of sad and introspective in ways, she started coming out of her shell on the very good Half Free and on In a Poem Unlimited, she has suddenly a full indie pop persona with deep disco influences that make me want to listen to this album over and over again. And hey, maybe there are good reasons to be mad at Obama anyway. Say what you want about the man over music this good.
This is right there with the Superchunk album as the best 2018 album I’ve heard so far.
Tom Russell, Folk Hotel
There’s no easy way to review this album without something of a career retrospective on an artist I used to care about very much. Russell started his country-folk recording career after years of playing tough bars in New York and Vancouver and Oslo, developing a cache of some great songs. The albums from the 1980s are a bit mixed. They range from great Poor Man’s Dream, (A and with the legendary “Gallo del Cielo” and the co-written with Ian Tyson “Navajo Rug”) to good Road to Bayamon (B+) to pretty mediocre Hurricane Season (C). Then he had a couple of mid career retrospectives, one of his great western songs with some extra tunes added, Song of the West (A-) and then his other songs The Long Way Around (B+). Russell then released a series of albums between really good and truly fantastic: The Rose of the San Joaquin (A), The Man From God Knows Where (A-), Borderland (A), Indians Horses Cowboys Dogs (B+). This was a guy who wrote incredibly beautiful songs about the American experience, about love and broken relationships, about the West both old and new, about Mexico. But in the mid-2000s, Russell began to engage in a deeply damaging new subject: writing bitter nostalgic screeds about how everything used to be better. His bizarre album Hotwalker, which is about his relationship with Charles Bukowski and includes a lot of told stories from this dwarf carnie Bukowski used to hang out with that is supposed to represent The Old Weird America that Russell loved, is awful (D-, salvaged from a full F by a great country song called “Grapevine) and Modern Art, which is mostly bad covers and half-baked songs about the 60s (C). Russell came back with a couple more solid albums with relatively low tinges of his nostalgia and which both had great songs, Love and Fear (A-) and Blood and Candle Smoke (B+). But the reason the latter doesn’t rank a bit higher is his cranky nostalgia occasionally showing its head. That leads us to Russell’s last few albums. Mesabi (C-) was a full-blown exercise in the 50s and 60s being better than today, including a song of him doing an impression of a bitter Sterling Hayden. No one needs Sterling Hayden impersonations on an album. There is one good song on this, “Jai Alai”, and the rest is bad. And his two-disc cowboy opera The Rose of Roscrae is just a mess of a narrative with too many guest artists and no real cohesion (C).
I had mixed hopes for Folk Hotel, Russell’s latest album. I basically figured he was finished as a good songwriter but given that the album wasn’t explictly about his nostalgia kick, I had some hope. And it’s a highly mixed album. “Up in the Old Hotel” itself serves as an excuse to name drop a bunch of heroes again. There are some fairly decent songs on here–I worried that a song called “The Last Time I Saw Hank” would be another exercise in how artists of the past are so much better than today, but it was actually a pretty great song about loss that included some discussion of his father, the last time he saw George Jones play, and other exercises in talking about the past usefully. “I’ll Never Leave These Old Horses” is a very fine song about an old man who can’t get himself to leave the ranch. Turns out it is about Ian Tyson being unwilling to move to town in his old age, but it has a timeless quality that makes the specific subject not actually matter. But overall, most of these songs are feel fairly flat and not overly inspired. Russell can be such a wonderful songwriter–his best 15-20 songs are equal to anyone who has ever worked in the folk-country-Americana genre–so I still have hope for the future. This is just OK.
Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Body and Shadow
Solid if not spectacular jazz album by this combo influenced by Americana. Excellent playing, solid contributions, a proper length at around 40 minutes, avoiding the all too common jazz habit of 75 minute albums. Worth your time, some will like this very much.
Ryley Walker, Deafman Glance
I saw Walker a couple of years ago and while I didn’t think his albums were that great, he sure put on a hell of a live show. It was very much what I imagine an early 70s Van Morrison show to be like, jazzy, energetic, great musicians, tons of fun. His new album just reinforces my belief. He’s not a great songwriter, although his lyrics are properly odd, which often gets translated into being a great songwriter, but I don’t rate them so high. The playing is however quite good, making this an enjoyable listen and I look forward to checking him out again on his fall tour.
Thomas Rhett, Life Changes
I would never normally listen to anything referred to as “pop country.” But this was supposed to be well-written pop country, so for the sake of my own knowledge, I thought I’d give this album by the son of Rhett Atkins a try. It’s fucking horrible. I don’t know what the hell this is but it is not country music. That in itself doesn’t matter–labels aren’t meaningful and I don’t really care about authenticity or pure country music or whatever. Country music is always changing anyway. But this is just pure pop music and not good pop music at that. That said, I know it actually gets worse, because Rhett mostly avoids the worst of the cliches of radio-friendly country music, which I am frequently exposed to in getting my hair cut in small town western Pennsylvania and which consist of little more than recombined lists of “girlfriend, backs of trucks, fishing, football, nostalgia about mom and dad, beer and whiskey” and a few other things. So it’s not an F. It’s still a shitty album.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
I think I first took this band seriously on a recommendation from Simon and I put their latest album on my list of things to hear. I finally got around to it and I am glad I did. This album is filled with compassionate, bittersweet, memorable songs, well-played and arranged. Fine folk-rock music that I need to hear more of.
LCD Soundsystem, American Dream
I confess to not being a big fan of most electronic and dance music. But I’ve loved LCD Soundsystem ever since I first heard them right after Sound of Silver came out. The reason: James Murphy is a fantastic lyricist. These aren’t just grooves and beats, they are fully-formed songs that stand up to any more lyrically-inclined genre. After a long break, Murphy reformed the band last year and I should have listened to this then, but I was so overwhelmed with other new music. American Dream is another big success, with another album of great beats and sounds and lyrics, all of which help define the present.
Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet, Ladilikan
Trio Da Kali is a Malian griot band and the Kronos Quartet, well, you know about them and if you don’t, take care of that. What this is is the trio using the quartet to replace the traditional griot beat with strings. This is the kind of world music collaboration that both respects tradition and moves music forward. It’s sweet and touching and fun. That said, I kept thinking this album would be better if it was just a Trio Da Kali album with the traditional rhythm. So in the end, I respect the heck out of this, even if I don’t exactly love it.
Finally, I would like to thank our great commenter howard for sending me some great jazz. I know I speak for my co-bloggers when I say that it is very kind when readers send us anything off our wishlists or anything else, as this is a poorly compensated way of spending our time and gifts in kind fill those gaps.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and none things politics.