This was quite the last couple of weeks for music in my world Not only did I get lucky enough to listen to some really great albums for the first time, but I also saw a few outstanding shows.
First, I saw my 14th Drive-By Truckers show, at the Cabot Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts. That this coincided with my anniversary was all the more awesome. Luckily, my wife is also a fan! Dispensing with the important news first, they announced they have a new album coming out in January, which is awesome. They played a few cuts off of that–a couple of very political Patterson Hood songs (“Babies in Cages” does not have to be explained to LGM readers) and what I think is one of his small town crime songs. It was hard to tell what Cooley’s “Slow Ride Argument” is about hearing it for the first time live, but it’s a tight little rocker.
For a band like this–a veteran group with a ton of great tunes that also plays songs from all across their history, seeing them a half-year before a new album comes out is really the perfect time. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a band when they are supporting a new album, but you don’t necessarily want to hear 9 songs of the album when the back catalog is so deep and not all of those songs work that well live. They are touring less this year because they don’t have the album to support, but if you can see them, you should because you are likely to get cuts they rarely play. They started this show with “Self Destructive Zones,” Cooley’s great diss about the 90s grunge scene off of Brighter than Creation’s Dark. This was the second time this had been played since 2016. Then Hood went with “After the Scene Dies,” one of the only really good songs off the disappointing The Big To-Do and a song not played live by the band since 2014. So that right there is pretty cool. Other fairly rare songs played included “Give Pretty Soon,” one of the more minor cuts off Decoration Day, and Wednesday, off the largely forgotten A Blessing and a Curse album. These are choice songs that it was a real treat to hear. And of course you still got your “Sink Hole” and “Women Without Whiskey” and “Ramon Casiano” and “Lookout Mountain.” Just a great show.
Second, I saw Richard Thompson at the Narrows Center in Fall River, Massachusetts. This was my 4th RT show. I saw him all the way back in 1996 opening for Joan Armatrading (RT should open for no one), with a full band in 2009 or so, and then acoustic a couple years back. This was another acoustic show. Seeing Thompson is always a treat. His wit is razor sharp and always amusing (at this show, he asked if anyone in the audience was actually from Fall River. Like 2 out of the 200 or so people were from there). Even if the man never sang a single song, just watching him play guitar is worth the price of admission. It’s simply incredible. His unique tuning, his amazing facilities with the instrument, it’s almost unspeakable. He might be the greatest guitarist I’ve ever seen. And of course the songs are incredible. My only critique is that he basically plays the same songs every set, even though he has a huge catalog. YOu know you are getting “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Beeswing,” “Tear Stained Letter,” “Wall of Death,” etc. Now, those are great songs. But there really aren’t many surprises. He did agree to play “Cooksferry Queen” when someone suggested it, so that was cool to see. Anyway, this is a mild complaint. It was another excellent show by a true legend.
One major death in the music world to report, that of Dave Bartholomew, the legendary New Orleans producer and musician who worked closely with Fats Domino. 100. Not bad.
The only plus side to Morrissey being a flaming racist is that I always thought his music was terrible.
Album reviews, in which I happened to hit a lot of jackpots.
Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Eilish is the latest pop sensation. I always listen to these artists with a sense of trepidation–although sometimes I like them more than I think. But the huge over the top pop sounds and production sometimes drives me a little crazy. The attempt to make Maggie Rogers into a pop star instead of the folkie she obviously is can serve as one example, although that album is not bad. But Eilish has a whole different thing going on. This is heavily produced too, but with a more minimalist, bass-heavy aesthetic. This New York Times piece on how Eilish is a sort of anti-Ariana Grande, no slouch herself, is pretty interesting. In any case, the album works pretty well. Some of it is pretty silly, as teen-pop can often be, but then I’m not really the intended audience anyway. A promising debut in any case.
Arthur Alexander, Self-Titled
Another exploration of the old soul sounds that are so great. Alexander’s 1972 debut is perhaps not a full-fledged classic, but it’s only a step below it. He was a long-time songwriter whose songs were covered by everyone, even The Beatles. In 1972, at the age of 32, he finally put out his own album. It’s full of quality tunes. Sometimes, I find his voice has its limitations. But it’s a very solid work. Unfortunately, despite having a hit or two after that, he never really could break into the charts on his own much, still mostly relying on others covering his work.
Daymé Arocena, Cubafonía
Decided to check out this nuevo-classic Cuban artist. She had been on my list for awhile and then I saw she is playing nearby in the fall so I figured it was time to listen to her. But I thought this wasn’t much more than OK, a kind of sleepy album for the NPR audience that would be into this sort of thing. She’s only in her mid-20s, but it’s as if all Cuban music past 1959 never existed. And the island does produce cool music influenced by more current trends. She’s certainly a talented singer, but this didn’t really move me.
Carrie Rodriguez, Lola
I first ran across Rodriguez over a decade ago, when the venerable songwriter Chip Taylor (writer of “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning” among many other gems) discovered this talented young singer and violinist and they released a couple of albums together. I knew that Rodriguez had released a bunch of her own work since then but I hadn’t listened to any of it. But then one of those early songs with Taylor came up on my shuffle and I decided to check out one of her more recent albums. Lola, from 2016, is really great. This is an album and artist of the border and these songs reflect that. Some are in English, some in Spanish, most deal with life on the border, including immigration issues. Awesome backing band too, including Bill Frisell, David Pulkingham, and Viktor Krauss. Some of the songs are hers, some are covers of classic border tunes. Really first rate stuff.
Screaming Females, Ugly
Screaming Females was probably my favorite discovery of 2018. All at Once is such a great album. I have a ticket to see them in August as well and am super excited. So I decided it was well past time to check out their back catalog, starting with 2012’s Ugly. And yep, also pretty awesome. Marissa Pasternoster is such a great guitarist and vocalist. It’s a long album and it just doesn’t stop–riff after riff, pissed off lyric after pissed off lyric. The Zeppelin-esque “Doom 84” is especially awesome.
Adia Victoria, Silences
I was pretty impressed with Victoria’s debut from a couple years ago and found her new album also quite solid. Attempting to reclaim the blues from its ossified state, she doesn’t really sound very bluesy, but then it’s always more a state of mind. Victoria writes forthrightly about being black in the South and the need for social and political change. The title is borrowed from a novel by the radical and largely forgotten white novelist Tillie Olsen (Yonnondio is a pretty good Depression era novel by the way). She sings about how much she needed to escape the South, samples Billie Holiday, is honest about her problems. While it often sounds more like a indie rock album than anything else, Victoria’s voice, attitude, and writing skills make this stand out.
Kate Tempest, The Book of Traps and Lessons
Tempest is a writing talent of epic proportions. The winner of multiple writing prizes and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, when not writing traditional poetry, she expresses her art through hip hop. Her first two utterly astounding albums–2014’s Everybody Down, about a guy and girl trying to escape their marginal lives of low-level crime amid London’s grit and 2016’s somehow even better Let Them Eat Chaos, a series of stories about insomniacs on the same London street among the backdrop of the British austerity era, are among the best albums of the decade. Tempest has finally released her third album. The Book of Traps and Lessons continues to press forward lyrically, although I’m less sure about the musical choices. Rick Rubin produced this and he chose a very minimal formula, making this more of a spoken word album in some places. That still works fine–Tempest can more than carry your interest without any music at all–but I’d like to see bigger sound here. But lyrics about about Brexit, climate change, racism, but also hopefulness in the face of all of it might be the best you hear in 2019.
Bill Callahan, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Bill Callahan is one of the most interesting artists of the early 21st century. He never had much of a voice and in the 90s he put out these low-fi home made albums under the Smog name that were mostly about male anxieties. They had their moments for sure–“Prince Alone in the Studio,” for instance–but were uneven. Then, around the turn of the century, he began showing stark improvement as a songwriter, all while his limited voice lowered a full octave. Now, it’s great album after great album, mostly writing in an observational tone about everyday life, for better and for worse. Songs such as “Riding for the Feeling” and “Summer Painter” don’t seem like much at first but then become really profound reflections on every day life.
Callahan just released his first album in six years. In the meantime, he got married and became a father. He put aside music for awhile to just live his life and presumably be a good husband and father. Now he’s back with a different sort of album–20 short songs instead of the 7 or 8 long songs he used to create. These songs are much more about the joys of everyday life than they used to be. The melancholy is mostly gone. He’s happy and now he’s also happy to be playing music again. The songs grow on you here as well and no doubt will for me again as I listen to this more often.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music (or other arts) and no things politics.