I haven’t done one of these in quite awhile, largely because until the last week, I was too busy to listen to many new albums. Then I listened to so many this week that it’s really too many for one post, but whatever. But in the meantime, I have seen two real shows and one impromptu one worth mentioning.
On August 1, I was fortunate enough to see Screaming Females for the first time, at a little club in Worcester. Despite being nearly the oldest person there and nearly the only person without tattoos (this sort of middle aged realization that I am now the old guy at the shows is combined with a self-admitted smugness that most of these hipsters now will not be seeing new bands when 20 years from now, when I am probably still dragging myself to the occasional loud rock show. That guy is always at a show and I respect the person more and more), I had a great time. Screaming Females is such a fantastic band. Marissa Pasternoster not only has a great punk voice, but she has the guitar chops to more than match it. The whole thing about punk musicians being unable to play their instruments was always vastly overrated, if sometimes true and sometimes the point. But people such as Billy Zoom and Phil and Dave Alvin were early counterexamples. Pasternoster is another. She is an awesome, amazing guitarist and has no compunction in showing it. This is indie punk with a lot of space for guitar solos and the sort of showiness that punk was once against, at least in its own way. She simply shreds. And of course the songs are fantastic in their own right, with smart lyrics that propel one right through an album or a show and leaves you wanting a lot more. Moreover, when she started talking, she has this tiny little squeaky voice. It’s hard not to be amazed that this talking voice can turn into that singing voice. Here’s one of my favorites that they played that night.
The next night, I saw Wussy in Boston, the 4th time I’ve seen them. They don’t tour much at all anymore, playing only a couple of shows to support the last album, partially because Chuck Cleaver is old and fat and has a bad back that makes it hard to travel much and no doubt because it’s hard to justify when you make absolutely no money. This was also an unusual tour in that it was a stripped down trio, just Chuck and Lisa and the bass player, Mark Messerly. They call this thing “Folk Night at Fuckys,” which is also one of Chuck’s songtitles, in their usual self-deprecating way. So they were sharing songs, each taking a turn. Mostly, it was pretty awesome. They were playing songs that just don’t get played as a band. Wussy is one of those bands that rarely changes a setlist much, mostly because Chuck believes in the idea that a band gets better as a tour goes on and the songs get tighter. But that approach does come at the cost of some excitement, especially when a band develops a large and great catalog, as this one has over the years. So this was a refreshing change to that, as they were mostly improvising what they were playing. Thus, you got a lot of great numbers that one would never hear otherwise. I mean, Lisa played “Crooked,” which is one of those fantastic songs off Funeral Dress that one never hears live. Mark sang “Conversation Lags” off that as well, even though he doesn’t actually sing on Wussy albums. Lisa also played two of my favorites “Halloween” and “Donny’s Death Scene,” neither of which I’ve ever heard live. Chuck played mostly old Ass Ponies songs and “Happiness Bleeds,” off the self-titled album. I guess the only less than perfect thing here was that with Mark playing every third song, well, let’s just say that while he’s a funny guy and excellent musician, singing is not his forte and nearly everyone there would rather hear more Wussy songs. But it was a cool show and I am very glad I got to see them in this light.
Back in July, when I was in Mexico, I had a couple of friends who were also in town. So we met at this bar for a mezcal and snack. While we were there, all of these people started showing up. It was clear that some kind of music was going to happen. We were going to leave, as we were there to talk to each other after not visiting for a couple of years. But there was a bite that one of my friends wanted to try so we decided to stick around for awhile. And then this amazing thing happened. The band that was playing was this folk group from Veracruz that I guess got stranded in Mexico City when show was cancelled and it needed to play to get enough money to go home. And they were just amazing. It was these two guys on what looked like basically homemade guitars. The teenage son of the main singer was doing various rhythm things. There was a guy playing was is basically a box with large metal bars to plunk with his hands, a sort of vibraphone I guess, but with a lower sound (and one that honestly didn’t resonate very loud in that setting), and then a woman on a box doing a form of clog dancing. This band was absolutely first-rate, astounding Mexican folk music at its very best. And then they pulled out the jawbone of a donkey, which they played with a stick. It makes this wild clacking song unlike any music I’ve ever heard. Everyone in the audience just about was from Veracruz and evidently the bar owners were too, which is why it was there. Some old man, a professor at a local university I think, then started getting up during a couple of songs and started doing what can only be described as improvised free verse, almost like hip-hop. And many of the lyrics, both of the old man and the singers themselves, were about the environment and the need to protect it. The whole show was just astonishing. I knew that Veracruz was a center of Mexican folk music and I had picked up a couple of real great albums of that stuff over the years, but I had never seen it live. Wow.
The only sort of random experience like that I’ve had before was back in 1997, when I was traveling in Sumatra. I was walking down a road and there was this band warming up before what I guess was a wedding. Using a combination of western guitars and Indonesian wind instruments and percussion, they were playing this incredible music that I had certainly never heard before. I felt at that moment that I was hearing something I’d never hear again and I hung about for about a half an hour to check it out. That’s how I felt that night in Mexico City.
Matthew Lux’s Communication Arts Quartet, Contra/Fact
In 2017, Lux, a stalwart of the Chicago creative music scene, released this album, but just on cassette on Bandcamp. Then last year, he bought in Wilco’s Leroy Bach to re-edit it and give it a proper release. Why anyone, not to mention jazz guys, releases cassette-only recordings is beyond me. In any case, this is a pretty interesting release of accessible slightly avant-jazz with quite a bit of Latin rhythms. Lux plays bass and guitar but doesn’t dominate the proceedings, letting his horn players and drummer have a lot of room to explore. There are references back to much of the Chicago music scene over the years, from the AACM back to Chicago blues. It also fits in with a lot of the other great work from other lights of the current Chicago scene, such as Rob Mazurek (who Lux plays with frequently) and Jaimie Branch. Worth a listen.
I like Julien Baker. She’s got a great voice of course and she is a strong writer. But her work is often so confessional and prayerlike that I find it not always my favorite thing to listen to. So when Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers released this EP last year, I didn’t rush to hear it, despite its universal acclaim. Now that I have heard it, I can see why people liked it so much. These three very different voices not only sing great together, but their musical styles also come from far enough different places to avoid anything that might sound like repetition or sleepiness, with a lot more guitar than is often in Baker’s work, providing a bigger sound palette. Of course, it’s the lyrical work that attracted most people to this work and the six songs do not disappoint in the world of confessional love and loss songs.
Another well-known album from 2017 that I’m not getting around to hearing until now. It’s a weird document–no one can question Jay-Z’s skills and they are on full display here. And he’s really honest here about his own shortcomings and mistakes that nearly led to Beyoncé leaving him. I know that cheating on your partner has much more to do with the individual than the partner–but the idea of cheating on Beyoncé seems flabbergasting. Anyway, this is old news and doesn’t matter her. What makes this a weird album is that Jay-Z is so rich and that’s what this album is ultimately about, the trials of a very rich man who screwed up. That’s a very different kind of album than the standard hip-hop album about wealth–the people who want to get out of the ghetto to get rich and the people who–through music or drugs or whatever–are on the way. No, this is an album from a genuine American elite man about that perspective, albeit of course an elite black man, which is never the same thing as an elite white man. His embrace of the NFL in a cynical ploy by both sides to move beyond Colin Kaepernick’s political blacklisting is just gross and says a lot about Jay-Z (and Roger Goodell). And yet, this album works really well. It’s not as if Jay-Z has given up on his sociopolitical talk or turned into a Trump-curious weirdo rich freak like Kanye, even though there’s still plenty of hypocrisy. Well, in any case, it’s simply a great album about a topic I would rarely find interesting.
Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice
Like a lot of people, I was really excited when I heard Barnett and Vile were putting an album together, all the way back in 2017. And they played in Portland when I was on sabbatical out there, so I bought a ticket immediately. But then the reviews of the album were pretty mediocre and I didn’t quite get around to hearing it myself before the show. Then the show was surprising lifeless, even with Janet Weiss in her home town surrounded by a thousand adoring fans. So I never did get around to the record. Until now. It’s fine. But yeah, it’s disappointing. The opening track is killer, making me think that people maybe underrated the album. And then Vile covers Barnett’s “Out of the Woodwork,” which works really well. But by the second half of the album, things aren’t good. “Blue Cheese” an atrocious song, just an amazing piece of lazy writing by two people this talented. I guess this was just a fun project for two friends to hang out and play. But it’s not a very successful album, despite a couple of good points.
Major Murphy, No. 1
This indie band from Grand Rapids released their debut last year and it’s a completely fine set of indie rock. Lots of obvious references that often change song to song; like quite a few young bands, sometimes it feels a bit more like imitation than a particularly developed or unique voice. Lot of it sounds like kids who have listened to a lot of 70s AOR and want to relive that vibe. But “Radi-Yum” is an especially strong song and most of the album is pretty listenable. Not life-changing, but a promising enough debut full-length release.
Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth
That Mark Kozelek has reached self-parody level with his endless songs where nothing happens and he starts talking pointlessly about boxers, his fans, whatever he is eating that day, is well-known. It’s sad–the man has talent and has put out some really good albums over the years. But that era feels long ago. Jesu is an interesting band and provides a little more heft to Kozelek’s music on this 2017 release. But my god–the 17 minute “Wheat Bread” is a song that is basically about nothing, with an aside about some threesome he was in when both women left for reasons he can’t understand, etc. I don’t really care that Kozelek is a homophobe and misogynist per se, or at least I don’t care in evaluating his music. I certainly don’t want to know the guy though. But the problem is that while he says a lot, it’s not clear that he really has anything to say, or anything that’s really worth hearing. He occasionally still has moments of clarity where he does something positive. But this is not a good album. Barring a moment where he releases another acclaimed album, I think I am done trying anymore with him.
Laura Jane Grace and The Devouring Mothers, Bought to Rot
Grace is a brave person, probably the most important transgender voice in rock music. The singer of Against Me!, she has spent years as part of her transition explaining what is happening, singing about it, and singing of course about other political themes. Against Me! is not one of my favorite bands by any means but I respect what is going on here. This was meant as a side project and it is, but it also feels like a cut rate Against Me! album, one that really lacks much identity of its own. That’s fine I guess, but it’s a minor work at best, minus the song about hating Chicago. I always appreciate a good hate song, even if I mostly like Chicago.
Lonnie Holley, MITH
Holley is a fascinating person, a man who spent decades on the economic edges as a poor black man from Alabama, one who spent some time in the criminal injustice system, one with 15 kids over the years, one who spent much of his life living in shacks. But a couple decades ago, he found a calling as an artist, basically doing found art. He received some notoriety when his shack near the Birmingham Airport was condemned and he forced the airport to put him in a new house, by which time his art had many supporters. Holley also plays the piano and sings these long improvisational songs about black life and politics, or just whatever is on his mind. Think of a really weird Gil Scott-Heron, who was plenty weird himself. I saw him once, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, opening for Bill Callahan, and was somewhat entranced. So I checked out his album and was somewhat less whelmed. What can take one away live does not always translate that well to a recording, especially improvisational vocal material. But, since he is opening for another show I am seeing next month, I figured I’d check out his latest album, from a couple of years ago. To me, this is somewhat more compelling, but basically your love for this is going to equal your love for found art. Still, “I Awoke in a Fucked Up America” should have its appeal to us all.
Eumir Deodado, Os Cathedraticos 73
The re-issue of this classic Brazilian jazz album is highly welcome. As so much of Brazilian music is from this era, Deodado’s work and especially this album is extremely enjoyable, both innovative and pleasant, while also being fairly innocuous. It’s hard to see how someone would not like this music, or at least be OK with it. Still, you can hear the one downside of this genre here, which is the case with much of Brazilian music, that being the slide from this to smooth jazz and total cheese is not that steep.
Lil Nas X, 7 EP
Lil Nas X has received a lot of ink around his hit “Old Town Road.” It has topped the country charts, despite many people being outraged by this because they say it is not country. Now, the question of defining country music has a long history. In this case, when the song topped the country charts, then was taken off, and then put back on after outrage over it, is really about race as much as anything. Can a black hip-hop guy also be a country singer? Even if he openly gay an ddresses like a pimped out country artist? For a lot of country fans–especially those who listen to the shit that makes the charts in Nashville–a guy like that–i.e. an outrageous gay black man–can not be country by definiton. Of course, I might argue that these cheesy stadium 70s rock that makes up douchecountry isn’t real country music either. It sure as hell isn’t Hank or Lefty or Willie. Hell, it isn’t even Garth, whose I name I would usually curse. So I don’t really care about this question, except to say that authenticity politics are inherently reactionary, no matter whether we are talking about food or clothing or music or whatever. And when we are in Nashville, authenticity politics are especially reactionary.
The question that matters here is whether the music is any good. One can see why “Old Town Road” is a hit. It’s a very fine pop song, regardless of genre. The rest of this EP? Meh. There are a couple of highlights, but a lot of it is pretty vanilla and forgettable. Lots of talent here. Let’s see if he can pull together the team to provide the consistency he needs to make it work.
Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes
Another solid release from an artist who has put together a fine career. It’s not groundbreaking–a Justin Townes Earle release is not going to be breaking new ground at this point. But this is a strongly written album about fairly standard Americana topics–road trips, the decline of the working class, Appalachian drug crimes, plus a good song about environmentalism. It’s a good release.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music, or whatever art stuff you want, and absolutely nothing to do with politics.