Haven’t had a good music notes post in a very long time. Still in my concert drought, but that will be ending soon. With new albums on the way from Drive-By Truckers, John Moreland, and Waxahatchee, and a new song from Margo Price dropped this week, there’s a lot of promise for this year, at least in music if nothing else.
Nonetheless, some interesting stories in the music world. Moreover, there was Cuba. It hardly needs to be stated that Cuba is an incredibly musical nation. It’s not just Buena Vista Social Club and everyone reliving 1958 either, as good as that music is. Of course the Cubans have a legitimate claim to inventing salsa (though the Puerto Ricans of New York would dispute that strongly). But it’s also a place where the music of the United States has always been influential. Sure the island was pretty isolated for much of Castro’s tenure, but there were also plenty of people striving to hear the latest American sounds, either on smuggled in records or by trying to rig up antennas to hear whatever was coming out of Miami. Now, when you take students to Cuba, the company that sets it up knows that they are entertaining young people. And so there is plenty of music as part of the tour. Moreover, musicians need money. In Cuba, no one really has any of that. On top of that, a serious musician just isn’t going to be able to work as a teacher or engineer or whatever they are trained for, so they are going to have even less money. What that means for us is that fairly prominent musicians are actually quite accessible in Cuba because they will absolutely give a private talk or a performance for much needed dollars.
What this meant for us was a visit to a couple of Cuban hip-hop acts (this is how I got the story of the antennas; one of them told us about doing anything possible to hear Soul Train on a Miami station in the 80s). And then there was a private show by the great trova singer Frank Delgado, which was effectively a short tour of Cuban musical history. This was really cool as he is a known person with a real international following. Here is one of his songs:
Now, truth be told, the most popular form of music in Cuba these days is reggaeton, which is a horrible style of music, both in terms of sound and lyrics (it’s extremely over the top levels of sexist). Rap was more popular 20 years ago. But because they want to give a positive spin to the students and make them feel good about Cuba, that’s what is set up for us. The one group we got to see actually perform is a feminist hip-hop group called La Reyna y La Real and they aren’t bad at all, even outside of their very progressive message that is so needed in a very sexist Cuba.
In any case, as I said with my post-Cuba post, go there if you can. It’s a great place to visit and few countries are more interesting, at the very least.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did about as good with its choices, considering the finalists, as it could this year. Other than The Doobie Brothers (huge eyeroll emoji), it’s hard to complain about Notorious B.I.G., Whitney Houston, Depeche Mode, T. Rex, or Nine Inch Nails. I am not a fan of some of those acts, or to be honest any of them really, but they were all clearly very important in their genre. The Doobie Brothers is just a sign that every guitar rock band of the 70s that makes Jann Wenner hard has to be inducted someday. Could Grand Funk Railroad be next?!? And as for the tired conversations that the Doobies are RAWK and these other acts aren’t, this museum has clearly been the Music Somewhat Influenced by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a very long time, as besides, hip hop and R&B are rock and roll too, as this article from a voter argues. Personally, I would have chosen Kraftwerk instead of the Doobies, at least among the finalists. Of course, there’s a huge list of first rate acts that were hugely influential who will seemingly never get in–Warren Zevon, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Big Star, Sir Douglas Quintet, Los Lobos, etc. This isn’t even to mention that women are vastly underrepresented in the Hall–Sleater-Kinney, Dolly Parton, PJ Harvey, Sinead O’Connor, Roberta Flack, Pat Benatar–the list goes on and on and on.So there’s a lot of work to be done. But it is a respectable class this year.
Robbie Fulks is nothing if not interesting and he is also not really a fan of Gordon Lightfoot. So naturally he tries to revisit Lightfoot’s entire catalog, which doesn’t really go that well. Moreover, he notes the huge discrepancy between the perceptions of star 1970s musicians and their actual lives, in that some of them were seen as these very normal guys but were in fact engaging in really over the top personal behavior (Lightfoot) and others were seen as total weirdos but spent most of their time on the golf course (Alice Cooper, for instance). Pretty interesting essay.
Yes, Neil Peart died. And yes, Rush is a terrible band and his horrible lyrics are a big reason why. Rush fans should feel bad about themselves.
More important to our musical legacy were two musicians less known to the world. The singer-songwriter David Olney never received much fame, but he was hugely popular among other songwriters, many of whom covered him. His recorded work is pretty inconsistent, but his live albums are really great. Live in Holland is a fantastic place to start. I know there’s a recent sequel but I haven’t heard it yet. Also, if you asked musicians how they would like to die, I’d bet no small number would say the exact way Olney did–playing a gig, feeling his heart give out, saying “I’m sorry” to the crowd, and dying immediately while never dropping his guitar.
Jimmy Heath also died. I am more familiar with the saxophonist’s early career as a major sideman in the bop era than with his later family soul-jazz band. He was a real titan and one of the last of the 1950s era still with us.
Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New
One of the most lauded jazz albums of 2019 and highly recommended by our esteemed jazz expert howard, Reid’s album definitely lives up to expectations. I had seen the cellist once before, in Ingrid Laubrock’s band, but had heard her in many different formats, including Jaimie Branch’s amazing Fly or Die album of a couple of years ago. Working with the certified guitar genius Mary Halvorson, the outstanding drummer Tomas Fujiwara and the bassist Jason Roebke, this is a very strong example of the amazing work being done by a new generation of creative jazz musicians that do not repeat the clichés of the past and make music that is both challenging and highly listenable.
Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Balance
This Guadalajara duo released my favorite album of 2019, so I thought I’d check out their previous LP, from 2016. It’s not quite where De Facto took them, but this is a very solid album in its own right, a combination of psychedelic noise rock, sweetly sung vocals, and sonic jams. I think I like the songs in Spanish more than the ones in English (Lorena Quintanilla is fluent in both languages) because they lyrics don’t signify a whole lot most of the time and are best as just part of the sonic experience rather than something I really need to work through the noise to get at. This is just a really fascinating band and I highly recommend them to all of you.
Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
This extremely literate British songwriter has a fairly singular passion in her lyrics: lesbian sex. Sexual obsession in lyrics can get old pretty fast no matter the gender or sexual orientation, but Hackman pulls it off with great aplomb in what was rightly considered by many to be one of the best albums of 2019. Part of the reason this is works is the sonic palette. I was concerned with the opening song, an acoustic folky thing, which can be transcendent but can more often be boring. But then at the very end of that song come the synths and noises and they remain through most of the rest of the album, creating a release that is as much fun as it is lyrically fascinating. Sometimes moving toward pop music from your indie-folk background is a great move. It’s worked wonders for Meg Remy of U.S. Girls, for instance, and it does for Hackman here as well. Very fine album.
William Parker, Lake of Light: Compositions for Aquasonics
I don’t have a lot of heroes in my life, but William Parker is about as close as they come. The amazing bassist and composer has created some of the most riveting and amazing jazz of the last quarter century in any number of formats, from working with anti-war spoken word poets to a violin trio with the great Billy Bang to big band stuff. He’s getting older now but he never stops innovating. In recent years, he’s made some of his most challenging music and this 2018 release is certainly among those albums. In fact, my wife thought there was something wrong with my computer. This is music he and three others made with something called a waterphone, which is described at Wikipedia as:
“a type of inharmonic acoustic percussion instrument consisting of a stainless steel resonator bowl or pan with a cylindrical neck and bronze rods of different lengths and diameters around the rim of the bowl.” A small amount of water is usually placed in the bowl. The result is an instrument that can be played for percussion or bowed. It produces shimmering, alien sounds that have been widely used in movies (especially in the horror genre).
Yeah, that fits pretty well. It also makes for a bit of a tough row to hoe in terms of repeated listenings. But I have to give Parker a ton of credit, as always, for never, ever stopping to repeat the same kind of work.
Le Trio Jourban, The Long March
This oud trio is popular on the world music scene and certainly these guys can really play. Being a Palestinian band, they are also global ambassadors to let the world know about the unbelievably awful levels of oppression they face from Israel. The album is dedicated for all the people who have died for Palestine and others who have died for their own lands. Roger Waters even contributes a track, to somewhat mixed results. Overall, from a musical standpoint, for me this is a solid release but also not something that grabbed me to the point that I need to hear it repeatedly. You may feel differently though and I’d understand why.
Empress Of, Us
There’s always room for solid pop music and this 2018 release from the L.A. musician Lorely Rodriguez was largely well-received upon his release for a good reason. She deals with a lot of issues that one runs into in pop these days–open discussions of anxiety, for example, that we didn’t use to see. The musical arrangements are not overwhelming and the whole thing may not be life changing, but it is pleasant enough to check out a few times.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music or other forms of art, and no things politics.