Let’s talk some music.
We can argue whether Wayne Shorter is the greatest living jazz composer, but we can’t argue that he should be in the conversation. He just turned 85 and here’s a profile of him and his legacy, focusing on the most critical year of his career.
Pitchfork named its 200 best albums of the 1980s. These things are incredibly formulaic, with edgy or unusual picks clumped at the bottom and then the top being whatever are iconic albums among hipsters. I don’t have a huge problem with the list per se, especially if one forgives the standard limitations, but the fact that not a single country album is on the list is particularly problematic.
There’s a new documentary about Betty Davis, the wild early 70s funk singer who completely and utterly disappeared from the public by the end of that decade. I have always respected more than loved her music. She was risque, she was fashionable, she also shouted rather than sang. Her albums were re-released about a decade ago and I picked them up. They are worth a listen at the very least.
I recently profiled the great Lester Young in the grave series. In comments, howard mentioned his exploration of Young’s army trial transcript. You can read a little about it here.
The great Algerian singer Rachid Taha died. Christgau has a good remembrance. He’s probably most known for his cover of “Rock the Casbah,” which he claimed The Clash only wrote after meeting him, but to his credit, Mick Jones played the drums on this, so maybe it is true. Anyway, there’s a lot more of interest to his career than just that cover.
I was lucky enough to see Yo La Tengo at the Columbus Theater in Providence last week. I had never seen the band before and had heard that their live performances could be of mixed quality. I don’t know how true this is but I can say that this show was quite fine. They make such a strange band–the whispered and almost sweet vocals mixing with Ira’s guitar freakouts and the general noise. Without the noise, they would be a sleepy band (and some albums really are more sleepy than they should be), without the soft vocals, they wouldn’t be nearly as popular. Anyway, I didn’t get to see them play “Autumn Sweater,” but I did get “Sugarcube,” so that was pretty awesome. Here’s the setlist, which mostly consisted of the new album, which is pretty good but really is awful quiet.
I also saw the astounding band Algiers last night at a new space called Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The local opening bands were not great and that left only about 40 minutes for Algiers, but they blew the roof off the place with their black liberation hard rock. I am obviously going to be inclined to enjoy a band that starts a song in a live show by playing the famous Mario Savio speech from the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 or which shouts out the names of black people murdered by the police, but this band is also sonically incredible. And even though they have received a ton of acclaim for their two albums, there were maybe 75 people tops to see them. Small space, so that worked OK, but it’s amazing how hard it is to make a living in the music business.
Album Reviews, this time for some reason largely older releases:
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
Van Etten is one of those artists that everyone said to listen to for so long. And sometimes I do that and sometimes I don’t, not based on any real solid formula, but to some extent based on description. As I said the last time I did one of these posts, when I listened to Feist after all the hype, I realized that this was just adult contemporary background music for hipsters. If someone sounds like that world, I’m likely to avoid it. And so maybe that’s why I never listened to Sharon Van Etten for so long. But you have to try it out at some point. This 2014 release, still her latest, demonstrates why I shouldn’t pay attention to my vague rules. This is a quite good album, well within the modern indie-rock world of writing about small issues in life rather than big overarching themes, but with a sharp enough sense of observation that this confident album goes over just fine. Wish I had heard it 4 years ago.
Rilo Kiley, rkives
I’m always a little suspicious of odds and sods collections. Even though I thought Rilo Kiley was a really good band at its peak and saw them play on the Under the Blacklight tour in Austin, I still didn’t pay this 2013 collection too much attention. But I finally decided to throw it on and while I don’t know that I need to own this, it’s certainly better than your usual throwaway from a broken up band. There’s a remix of “Dejalo” with Too $hort adding lyrics, a bunch of pretty good songs that weren’t ever released, and, sure, some indifferent cuts, mostly by Blake Sennett, who always kind of sucked. It’s too bad that Jenny Lewis’ solo career has been an experiment in some seriously diminished returns, but this is a reminder that she was pretty great once upon a time.
Elizabeth Cook, Welder
Cook is a lifer, the type of musician who goes on forever in obscurity because what the hell else is she supposed to do? This 2010 album shows why so many hungry artists are still writing some great material as they age. At this time, she was basically completely unknown, although because Paul Shaffer was a fan, she had a bunch of late-era Letterman appearances after this that raised her profile. This is very good country music. “Heroin Addict Sister” is exactly as depressing as it sounds, yet with tons of understanding and love, whether based on someone or not. “Yes to Booty” is silly, but a worthy entry into the “too drunk to fuck” genre by rejecting the man who says no to booty when he says yes to beer. One-night stands and funerals follow, typical country topics, but then it’s never about new lyrical genres as it is honing the real emotions of humans. Unfortunately, Cook herself went into drug rehab after this album and also had a serious of family tragedies and it took 6 years for her to release anything else. But this is a very fine piece of work. I guess she also has a regular show on Sirius’ Outlaw Country, so it’s nice she has steady work at least, even if she isn’t recording as often as she once did.
The latest album from this Malian desert rock band, from last year, is pretty much like every other album from Malian desert rock bands. That’s not such a bad thing, but there is a sameness to Tamikrest’s music, not to mention Tinariwen. When you first hear this stuff, you are like, “wow, where was this my whole life?” After hearing a lot of it, it tends to run together. There are some exceptions, such as my beloved Tal National, but part of the reason that band is so great is that it is from Niger and incorporates more traditions. As it is, there is no good reason not to listen to Tamikrest. On it’s own, it’s interesting music, something just familiar to western listerners that it’s foreignness is quite ingratiating. They can play, no doubt about that.
Lafidki-Ayankoko-Pisitakun, Dângaêk Mountains
I don’t even know how to evaluate this really. But there’s this label called Chinabot. And it has a schtick, I guess you might call it. It takes border conflicts in Asia and then has bands from each side of the conflict do music to represent it. In this case, it’s the Thai-Cambodian border conflict in the Dângaêk Mountains that was in the headlines 7 or 8 years ago. And while there are Asian influences in this music, this is neither traditional music nor western versions of traditional music designed for popular audiences. Rather, it’s largely electronic work firmly embedded in the artists’ visions.
Oh, and you can listen to this digitally or buy it in exactly one physical form–cassette tape. So evidently, this is actually marketed toward 26 year old hipsters who are fetishizing a truly awful form of media, the charm of mix tapes notwithstanding. I couldn’t find a proper YouTube video to embed, but here’s something else from Chinabot. You can check out the whole thing on Bandcamp.
R+R=Now, Collagically Speaking
This is a Robert Glasper project that attempts to build on Nina Simone’s call for jazz that speaks to the present day moment of politics and art. I’ve always found Glasper’s work a bit of a let down, maybe a little too set in the tradition and while certainly open to interpretation of a wide variety of pieces and pop music, not quite using them in ways that really moves the music forward. And while he and his band is strong here, again, I’m not sure this totally works for me. Part of the problem here is the extensive use of AutoTune on the vocals, which I still find an unforgivably awful technological assault on music equal to the terribly brittle production values of so much 1980s pop music. There’s certainly a ton of talent on the stage and the idea is worthy. And it’s not as if this is a bad album. But even outside of the AutoTune, the various vocal tracks range pretty widely in quality and interest and for an intentionally political action, it lacks some focus. Interesting, not great.
Aruan Ortiz Trio with Brad Jones and Chad Taylor, Live in Zurich
Ortiz is a Cuban jazz composer who doesn’t bring much from Latin rhythms into his music. Rather, this is someone more in the line of Ornette Coleman or Matthew Shipp. This fine pianist, the bassist Brad Jones (who I mostly know from the Jazz Passengers and Marc Ribot) and Chad Taylor on drums, who is part of the great duo Chicago Underground and who I saw playing drums with Ribot when I saw him at The Stone a couple of years ago, produce a pretty excellent album from a Zurich live show in 2016. This combines Ortiz’s own compositions with an extended version of a Chopin piece, another example of the growing connections between creative jazz and the classical tradition that has happened in interesting ways for the last couple of decades. Jones especially shines on an extended improvisational solo. Overall, a very fine album. There’s no video of this group playing together, but here is as close as I could get, with Gerald Cleaver replacing Taylor.
Danay Suarez, Palabras Manuales
Suarez is a Cuban artist in her 30s who tried for years to get this project out, including basically defecting to the United States to fulfill a recording contract. Combining reggae and American hip hop with Latin sounds, it’s a mature and striking work, which may be partially explained that it was recorded in full on 3 different occasions before it found a release. This was much lauded upon its release and she was nominated for several Latin Grammys. For good reason. This is a pretty unique sound that works very, very well.
Mitski, Be the Cowboy
I think this album is pretty strong indie rock, but I’m not sure I get the overwhelming acclaim for it. I grant you that listening to an album once makes it hard to properly review, which is why I don’t do this professionally, or even amateurishly really. The idea behind the album is for her to exude a combination of self-reliance and self-loathing. I mean, when the film “The Piano Teacher” is a major influence, you know this isn’t going to be happy fun time per se. She certainly has a way with a phrase. “Be the cowboy you want to see in the world” is good advice for all of us. “Nobody butters me up like you and nobody fucks me like me,” off the song “Lonesome Love” is a pretty astounding line. And there’s plenty of this on what is already an interesting album. I’m going to give this additional listens because of the hype. I’m just not convinced this is a great great album, neither sonically nor lyrically. I can buy that it is a good album on both fronts, especially the latter.
And a couple of classic albums that are new to me:
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, I Love Rock & Roll
Obviously I knew the title track off this famous album, but as it came before the time when I started listening to music, I never actually heard the album. It holds up well! Jett at her peak was pretty great just as a woman playing this kind of rock. I don’t know if this is her best album or not, but given that much of what I don’t care for about it has to do with the era’s production values, I’d say if it is her best album, that’s a worthy peak.
Carlene Carter, Musical Shapes
The 80s was not a good time for country music. The Outlaw movement had revitalized the genre in the mid-70s, but those excesses were all too clear as the 70s turned into the 80s. The group of young songwriters around Guy Clark in Nashville had plenty of potential–Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle among them– and Dwight Yoakam would provide a revival of the Bakersfield sound later in the decade, but in the end, it was very hard for anyone to overcome the 80s production values, which were inherently anti-everything country music claimed to be, even if whatever it claimed to be had always shifted with the times. Still, glitzy electronics and brittle sound definitely did not gel well with a type of music that relied on warm relations between singer and audience to win.
So I didn’t have that much confidence checking out this 1980 Carlene Carter album. But it’s pretty OK. There are several really good songs here, even if the production is typically unfortunate. That bad production goes way over the top in her cover of “Ring of Fire,” which was written by her mother and not her stepfather, regardless of how it is remembered. This has the single worst production I have ever heard in a country song, something straight out of the disco club, if the disco club was really bad. So you have to forgive this, but if you can and you can handle the production values, it’s an entirely credible album.
Archie Shepp, Kwanza
Archie Shepp is someone I largely missed when I first got into jazz in the mid-90s. Since I was always more interested in modern sounds than the canon, outside of Miles and Coltrane, I didn’t often listen to pre-1967 or so artists, nor those who continued to make great music after that time. So it has taken me a long time to catch up. Shepp is one of those artists. And while I know much of his more significant albums now, I had not heard this 1974 release, although all the songs were recorded in 1968 and 1969. Like most of his work, this is pretty excellent. It swings, it rocks, and it sways in wonderful ways. I do admit that I thought the second track, “Spoo Pee Doo” and especially its vocals from Leon Thomas, pretty annoying. Otherwise, one of Shepp’s many fine offerings.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and none things politics.