Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "music"

Music Notes

[ 34 ] September 24, 2016 |


Here’s an interview with Laura Ballance, Superchunk bassist and CEO of Merge Records. Question for you. Is Merge the greatest label in rock history? I have to say that it is. In my view, it’s up with the greatest labels of all time like Atlantic and Motown. They’ve never put out a lot of albums and that’s because they make sure product is first rate. You can’t argue with the results.

Here’s a New York Review of Books essay on Miles Davis. I haven’t seen the Don Cheadle film, but the essay is pretty good, particularly as it focuses on his electric period. For me, that is far and away the greatest period of Miles’ career, a career that was unparalleled in American music history (outside of the 80s, which, well….). The period between In a Silent Way and his retirement is simply an incredible musical achievement, not only because it was great music but because with each album, he was moving music forward by leaps and bounds.

Bomba Estéreo’s new video has received a ton of buzz for its inclusive message and that’s awesome, but regardless, it’s worth noting what a great band this is.

Leonard Cohen turned 82 this week. To celebrate, he released the title track to his upcoming album. And yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

And now to the album reviews. Been lucky that most of the new albums I’ve listened to the last couple of weeks have been really good.

Andrew Norman and Boston Modern Orchestral Project, Play

This is an outstanding recording of a composer whose music hits you in the face. I’m not going to try and fool you all: although I enjoy orchestral music, I really suck at writing about it. So let me quote The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, from his own personal blog:

Will Robin has gone so far as to declare that Play “might be the best orchestral work that the 21st century has seen thus far” — an announcement that spurred a lively Twitter discussion of other candidates for that accolade, with emphasis on purely orchestral works more than half an hour long. I seconded Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s nomination of Adès’s Totentanz and Czernowin’s MAIM, but, having listened to Play at least a dozen times, I won’t dismiss Will’s suggestion out of hand.

A must purchase for me.


Dilly Dally, Sore

This is an excellent young rock band from Toronto with a vocalist named Katie Monks who has a great screamer voice. Will she be able to sing when she’s 40 with vocals like these? Don’t know. Doubt she cares. Good lyrics worth actually trying to understand are a bonus.


Mount Moriah, Miracle Temple

My favorite album from this year so far is Mount Moriah’s How to Dance and I’m really excited to see them in November. It wasn’t on the first listen, but it’s become my go-to album recently, slightly over the Margo Price album. Heather McEntire just has an astounding voice. So I picked up Mount Moriah’s 2014 album Miracle Temple. This is a good album, but not as good as How to Dance because it lacks that one great song like “Baby Blue” or “Calavander.” What you have is a very solid set of tunes and great singing. And who is going to complain about that.


James Vincent McMorrow, Post Tropical

At first I found this a little annoying. McMorrow sings not unlike quite a few indie singers these days with what feels to me like an affectation where prettiness is valued over expression, to the point where the voice almost disappears. He also sings in a very high falsetto that doesn’t quite work for me. But this 2014 release is more interesting than it first seems because despite this indie folk core, the album goes in places you don’t expect because he engages in his love of hip-hop and electronic music, both of which he integrates in unexpected ways in an album where he played every instrument. I don’t love this, but it is worth a listen.


Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood, and the Rajasthan Express, Junun

In the spring of 2015, the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, and the Rajasthan Express, a 15-member Indian band all hung out togehter in India and made music. Paul Thomas Anderson filmed it and released it as a documentary. I have not seen the film. But I can say that the soundtrack is outstanding. The Rajastahn Express is the real star here, dominating the proceedings with this really great somewhat droning music that comes out of the Qawwali tradition. I believe Tzur wrote the tracks. Greenwood doesn’t really do much that stands out, not that this matters. He’s just part of the band. This is just fine music.


As always, this is an open thread about music.


Buckwheat Zydeco, RIP

[ 19 ] September 24, 2016 |

Another great musician is gone.

Music Notes

[ 284 ] September 3, 2016 |

Time for one of my occasional catch-all music posts.

Pitchfork released a list of the Top 200 Songs of the 70s. To say the least, this represents a hipster’s modern taste without a real representation of the variety of 70s music. Way too much David Bowie, a few nods to country, jazz, and anything outside the English speaking world at the bottom, and then the precise songs that seem the hippest today. It’s not a bad list, but it’s way short on a lot of genres. And again, too much Bowie.

Sturgill Simpson got very angry this week that the country music establishment is naming everything under the sun after Merle Haggard. He’s angry because the establishment eschewed Haggard for the last three decades of his life and Merle hated them. But as David Cantwell points out, this stance is really contradictory, not only because Simpson himself is to say the least not nearly the traditionalist he makes himself out to be, but also because Haggard himself frequently changed his style to stay popular and because Simpson’s rant is just another in a long tradition of authenticity police officers of the genre that don’t help:

But as I reread Simpson’s posts, I started getting a bad if-all-too-familiar taste in my mouth. There was the militant opposition between what gets played on the radio and what Simpson termed “actual country music.” There was the condescending claim that country audiences are dupes, the unwitting victims of “formulaic cannon fodder bullshit” that’s been “pumped down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years” (and this about a genre that hasn’t been primarily “rural” since before Merle Haggard started cutting records in the early 1960s). There were the studied sour grapes of complaining you haven’t been embraced by either the mainstream country industry or the mainstream radio audience even while boasting you neither need nor desire such acceptance.

And then there was that here-we-go-again sign off, which surely reminded at least few of us older Sturgill Simpson fans of a 1997 song by Robbie Fulks called “Fuck This Town.” Fulks was (and is—his new album is super) a hyper-talented singer-songwriter in his own right. But his music was also a ’90s version of what Slate music critic Carl Wilson has more recently termed “Country for People Who Don’t Like Country.” In the song, Fulks laments that Nashville’s mainstream country music industry will survive “as long as there’s a moron market/ And a faggot in a hat to sign.” “Fuck This Town,” the song, in other words, is an alt-country forebear to Simpson’s “Fuck this town,” the Facebook rant. The times they are a-changin’, but the sneer remains the same.

Or, as historian Charles Hughes (author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South) wrote to me earlier this week about Simpson’s Facebook posts, “You know what’s worse than radio’s Bro-Country? Country Bros.” The evocation of a stereotypical Bernie Bro—rigid, self-righteous, sneering at those who disagree while bro-splaining to the rest of us just what constitutes real country music—was spot on, right down to the elitist class connotations.

None of this is to say that modern country radio-friendly country music is good, or at least I don’t think most of it is. I was getting my hair cut this week and country radio was on. One song was literally a namecheck list of all the nostalgic points of the genre (pickup trucks, summer days, the lake, mom and dad, the dog, etc). It was utterly awful.

Among the musical deaths of recent weeks that I have nothing particular to say about but that some of you might are Alan Vega, Toots Thielemans, Rudy Van Gelder, and Juan Gabriel.

And now some short album reviews:

Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

I found the music of this harpist oddly compelling. It’s hard to really describe what is going on here. She traveled around the West and wrote compositions based upon her experiences and thoughts at the time. The recordings are pretty hypnotic and really just quite beautiful.


Glenn Jones, Fleeting

Glenn Jones is a fine guitarist and banjo player. He writes some nice compositions. But the problem with this, as it is often is for me with solo guitar albums, is that it turns into wallpaper very quickly. Others who are more favorable to this genre may find something here. I found it a little boring.


Richard Buckner, Surrounded

I’ve always liked Richard Buckner’s voice, finding him rather soothing. The problem with that of course is that it can extend into background music. Buckner’s 2013 album mostly avoids that problem with enough sonic diversions to keep the attention. I know this doesn’t sound all that positive, but with a singer-songwriter like Buckner, you either like it or you don’t. The songs aren’t transcendent but they are solid. I don’t like it as well as Dents and Shells, which has long been my favorite (I know the standard choice is Devotion + Doubt), but this is a fine album if you like Richard Buckner.


PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project

I don’t think PJ Harvey is really capable of making a bad album. But she is capable of making a fairly mediocre album and that’s where Hope Six Demolition Project. It’s unfair to compare anything to Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, an A+ album is one exists, but the rightful comparison here is to Let England Shake. It’s the same place-based attempt at social and political commentary, but removed from her home and the World War I era to contemporary Washington, DC. But I’m not sure why. The music on this album is pretty first rate, preferable to her previous album. But the descriptions of Washington are fairly on the nose without any real insight into the city. This is a fairly enjoyable album if you don’t think too much, but Harvey wants us to think about it. And when I do, I am left a little indifferent.


Mourn, Ha, Ha, He

I fell in love with these teenagers from Barcelona on their first album. It was raw as hell with, as one review stated, lyrics that read more as a status update than a song. But the 15 year old singer someone manages to sound just like PJ Harvey, especially on “Your Brain is Made of Candy” and the other songs are short, loud punk songs. I’m not sure that the follow up is really an advancement. It’s solid. But it doesn’t particularly stand out. I’m still interested to hear where they go in the future.


Lydia Loveless, Real

Lydia Loveless’s third album is another advance. I didn’t think I would like this more than Somewhere Else, largely because that’s a really good album. But I do like this more. The songs are a little less raw and a little deeper, a little less about getting drunk and being pissed off and a little more about relationships and a more mature emotional state. The music advances too, with a bit more experimentation that the standard rock of the last album or the punky country of Indestructible Machine. Really a great talent.


And, as I also like to do, a couple of older albums that I revisited

Tom T. Hall, I Wrote a Song About It

This 1975 album shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this very skilled but very inconsistent artist. At his best, Tom T wrote these incredible songs about everyday people with an incredible amount of sympathy and understanding. Songs like “The Girl Who Read the Same Book All the Time” and “The Trees in Philadelphia” are great. But he could never resist the cheap novelty and while I like the sentiments, “I Like Beer” is a really stupid song. It’s not as utterly horrible as “I Love,” one of the worst songs ever written and, to my worry, the song Jason Isbell now has played over the sound system after he leaves the stage. But it’s bad enough. Does it counter his best songs? On this album, no. It’s a good album. On others, it does.


Willie Nelson, Country Willie: His Own Songs

In 1962, Willie Nelson, after years peddling his great songs to the biggest country music stars, finally recorded his first album. It was him recording his own songs. I don’t really know why, but in 1965, he did the same thing, with many of the same songs. That was Country Willie. The production is a little higher on this album but not so much that his signature style would be overwhelmed as would happen a few years later on his many mediocre studio albums before he left Nashville and reinvented himself (which was 99% for the better. Unfortunately, he basically stopped writing good songs once he became famous). But even if it just a somewhat different version of his debut, it’s still a good album by a voice that was just finding its way.


As always, let this serve as an open thread on all things music.

Irving Fields, RIP

[ 9 ] August 23, 2016 |


The wonderful Irving Fields has died at the age of 101. Fields was a brilliant piano player and probably the last living man on the Catskill circuit of the postwar years who in the 1950s combined Jewish music traditions with Latin rhythms. His most famous album is 1959’s Bagels and Bongos, the height of this combination. It’s simply a wonderful album that is a tremendous amount of fun to listen to. Fields, having great success on that album, recorded a bunch of other albums combining European lounge and Latin traditions. I also Champagne and Bongos, which builds on French cafe music. It’s good, but not as good as Bagels. In his late career, he was picked up in the John Zorn circle, which allowed him to record some albums of Zorn’s Tzadik label. His album Oy Vey! Ole! with the percussionist Roberto Rodriguez is absolutely fantastic. His solo album on Tzadik, My Yiddishe Mama, is quite good, although in my view it has the limits of most solo piano albums which is a lack of varied sound. Fields played weekly in an Italian restaurant in New York until just a few months ago. I am disappointed with myself for not finding a reason to go see him play. Here’s a few available clips from his long career. RIP.

Music Notes

[ 80 ] July 16, 2016 |


Time for another Saturday evening music conversation. A few notes:

Rob Wasserman has died. Best known for his work with Bob Weir, Wasserman was a truly great bassist.

Pop Matters is ranking the top 100 alternative singles of the 1990s. These sorts of lists are good for nothing but an argument, which is of course the point.

Here’s an interesting essay on how the ubiquity of headphones is transforming how we listen to music.

One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds. (The original music video for “Eye of the Tiger” features the members of Survivor marching down the street in combat formation, their collective gaze unblinking, their strides assured; it turns out they’re simply walking to band practice in a garage.) These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!

As more and more people choose to listen to music on headphones—and we are now nearly forty years deep into portable audio; I have a friend who claims he only listens to music on headphones—it seems silly not to wonder how that technology might be beginning to dictate content. If headphones allow for more introspection, do headphone users favor introspective sounds? If there’s been a thematic through line in the past several years of pop music, it’s been messages of self-reliance and liberation, songs that place us at the center of our own heroic arcs. Obviously, that’s hardly new terrain for pop, but I’d argue that it has reached a noticeable apex this decade. Are headphones partially responsible for the shift?

I’ve seen one live show since the last time I did one of these, which was Wussy at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. That’s my 3rd Wussy show. As always, it was great. They are a fantastic live band. Unfortunately however, they do not mix up the setlist. That’s always a little disappointing, to know exactly what songs you are going to hear when you walk into the show, and often in what order. My understanding is that this is basically because Chuck Cleaver thinks of a set of songs as something that improves over time they more they are played so when they hit the road, they will play the same ones repeatedly. They’ve basically come to the point where there are two songs on Strawberry that will ever be played again, one off of Left for Dead, even only three or maybe four off Attica. Given all the good material they have, I wish they’d play more of it.

Now some reviews of recent albums:

Lake Street Dive, Show Pony

Listening to Lake Street Dive caused me to think a lot more than the music intends one to think. This is a band of New England Conservatory of Music graduates making retro soul of the Aretha Franklin and Supremes style. The musicians are good and Rachael Price has an excellent voice that she uses effectively. The lyrics are reasonably witty. That said, this music lacks any sort of edge or grit at all. When I first listened to this, I thought I might be missing something in a band a lot of people think is pretty great. But then I realized that everything they do, other bands do better. The problem isn’t that they are retro–Charles Bradley, among others, does an overtly retro style quite well. It’s certainly not that this is a white band playing soul–Alice Russell or Amy Winehouse make (or, sadly, made) some pretty great music. And a band doesn’t really have to push the envelope musically or conceptually, but boy does Janelle Monae and Shamir make more interesting music. Finally, I just came to the conclusion that I don’t think Lake Street Dive is a very interesting band. They are capable and this is perfectly pleasant and some of you may find it quite enjoyable. It would work fairly well at a cocktail party or a little dance party in your house. Still, they are playing in Providence in October and maybe I will go to see if I am missing anything.


Chris Stapleton, Traveller

The former lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steel Drivers and a long-time Nashville songwriting hand, Stapleton’s solo release took the country music world by storm last year. He is a very talented singer, a good songwriter, and a charismatic performer. He plays on the outlaw country tradition without trying too hard. He does a great version of “Tennessee Whiskey” that David Allan Coe and George Jones had hits with in the 80s. My only hesitation about this album is that it is too long. Few albums need to be 65 minutes and pretty much no country albums need to be that long. That’s not some arbitrary standard. It’s really hard to write 14 good songs without filler and in a genre where the arrangements don’t really value experimentation, 65 minutes means some bloat. The back half of the album drags at times and occasionally Stapleton over-relies on vocal pyrotechnics where a more subtle approach might be better. This is good stuff and I look forward to his next project, but Traveller is not quite as great as has been advertised.


Mount Moriah, How to Dance

When I first heard this, I would never have thought it was released by Merge, except that like almost everything else that label puts out, it’s excellent. This is a country band made up of indie rock singer Heather McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller of the metal band Horseback. Does such genre hopping mean this isn’t an “authentic” band? Only if one thinks authenticity is something real or something to strive for. How to Dance is just a very solid country album with good tunes, good vocals, and good lyrics. Mount Moriah is less ambitious than Chris Stapleton but I can’t help but believing they have the better album.


Parquet Courts, Human Performance

In one of these threads awhile ago, someone suggested I listen to Parquet Courts. I realized that a friend had given me one of their albums so I did. I loved it. So I bought their new album, Human Performance. I love this too. Parquet Courts is just a great rock band. These are really interesting songs lyrically and like all their albums, there’s a great deal of variance in their arrangements, including the length of songs. It’s arresting music from a very productive band.


And now a couple of older albums I had long forgotten about.

John Cale, 1919

I’ve always felt I should like John Cale’s post-Velvet Underground material more than I do. I like his experimental side and of course I love VU. But although I really love a few of his songs (“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” especially) I still can’t get into his albums, even though I just tried again with 1919. Basically, I don’t think he’s a consistent songwriter and the arrangements are surprisingly boring. It’s a smart enough album, but I guess I will just never be a Cale fan.


Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey

For years, I basically hated reggae. I confess that this was without really sitting down and listening to it hard. When you go to college in Eugene, at least in the 1990s, reggae gets associated with white dreadlocked hippies getting stoned and listening to boring music. And that’s basically what they were doing. Then, doing a bit of traveling over the years, but especially during my year in Asia after college, you can’t enter a restaurant or bar catering to tourists in many nations without hearing “No Woman No Cry.” All of this is a bit unfair to the music itself. Over the last few years, people have snuck in a reggae album or two in stuff they have given me. I slowly started to realize there was a bit more here than I had recognized. So I put on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, really listening to this for the first time. And I have to say that it is pretty great. Yeah, reggae is still repetitive, while also being slow and mellow, making the repetition harder to listen to than, say, North Africa’s trance-like music traditions. But if you turn it up loud enough you can really hear the great horn arrangements. The politics on the album are of course fantastic without being trite. Reggae is a form of modernized folk music, at least in its early days before it became the music of stoned white dreadlocked hippies, and I don’t know how many albums do it better than Marcus Garvey. I mean that in a literal way–maybe there are a lot that do and I don’t know them. But I actually enjoyed this a lot.


As always, this is an open thread on all things music.

Music Notes

[ 46 ] June 25, 2016 |


I’ve been so busy that I haven’t done one of these in several weeks. I don’t even really have any good stories to link to, but I have slowly listened to a new or long-forgotten album every now and then over the last few weeks and wrote them up here.

First though, another day, another musician. The truly great Bernie Worrell, RIP.

It’s not that 2016 is some sort of musician apocalypse year. It’s that you are getting old, I am getting old, and the musicians who did not take care of their bodies for decades are really getting old. Imagine what 2020 is going to look like.

Ludovico Einaudi, Taranta Project

This is fairly interesting music. Einaudi fuses Sicilian, North African, and Turkish folk music with electronic and contemporary compositional music into a swirling set of compositions. The sounds work pretty well. My one caveat is that this sometimes sounds a bit too New Agey-type world music to me, a genre I have long found repulsive. Not that I need “authenticity,” whatever that is, but borrowing music of the world to provide background music for white people to feel authentic rubs me the wrong way. Mostly this avoids this and stays in the world of worthy music, but sometimes I felt on the border.


Deerhunter, Fading Frontier

This is a very solid, not great, rock album. Deerhunter is one of those bands that I am happy when it comes on the shuffle, but don’t listen to the albums much. I own both Halcyon Digest and Microcastle, both solid enough. Clearly playing for a classic rock sound, Deerhunter mostly succeeds here. I probably won’t buy it, but you might well want to do so.


Sherwater, Jet Plane and Oxbow

This is a decent rock album, although the singer sounds a bit too much like whiny 80s British pop to me. I’ve always hated that Cure-esque sound. Fans of that scene may disagree. 80s nostalgia has never worked for me. Lyrics are fine, music is fine. Overall, a perfectly acceptable album that I won’t ever listen to again. But if someone puts it on while I’m in the car with them, that’s totally fine.


Kasey Musgraves, Pageant Material

The critics love Musgraves. And she is a solid performer. But this is not an exceptional or even particularly great album. A lot of that critic love is that she sings about smoking marijuana, questioning religion, and being cool with gay people, topics that are risque in the right-wing world of Nashville. And that’s all great. But it does not mean that she has a great set of songs on Pageant Material. She wrote a perfectly acceptable set of songs for it.


Gardens & Villa, Music for Dogs

Mostly I just found this to be irritating synth-pop. Not much for me to grab on to here.


The Pretenders, Packed.

I forgot how much this album sucked. Mitchell Froom was a really terrible producer. I guess no Pretenders album can be that bad. But this is pretty lame.


I have seen one live show since I wrote the last of these posts. That was the percussionist Adam Rudolph at The Stone in New York, with Hassan Hakmoun on sintir, Hamid Drake on drums, Graham Haynes on cornet, and an unlisted North African musician on also sintir and hand percussion. This was pretty amazing. Those mesmerizing North African vocals and music with the two drummers can really take you away. And then Haynes popping in with cornet, which really served as another voice, was just great. I don’t have a good YouTube clip of anything quite like this, but here’s some of Rudolph’s music with Yusef Lateef.

As always, this should serve as an open thread on all things musical.

Ralph Stanley, RIP

[ 32 ] June 24, 2016 |


The great Ralph Stanley died last night at the age of 89. Stanley was the last major living figure of the early bluegrass era. He began recording with his brother Carter in 1947. They never had major financial success–really only Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs did. They were a great band, pretty squarely within the emerging bluegrass tradition. But when Carter died in 1966, Ralph took his music back in time a bit. He always thought of himself as an old-time singer and banjo player, not a bluegrass musician. And that’s accurate. Bluegrass quickly developed into something pretty slick, with fancy instrumentals and a certain sense of virtuosity. Monroe developed the music by taking old-time and combining it with jazz, pop, and country music. While Stanley never completely rejected that, he emphasized the old-time Appalachian music much more. This led to some really outstanding music in the years after Carter’s death. I want to point out a few starting points for Dr. Ralph’s (he received an honorary Ph.D. from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee) discography. His 1969 album, Hills of Home, is an outstanding entrypoint. While I don’t care about the subject matter, the 1972 gospel album, Cry from the Cross, is probably the best bluegrass gospel album ever recorded. During these years, he mentored a number of young Appalachian singers, including Roy Lee Centers, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs. The last two of course became stars after switching to country music while Centers was pointlessly murdered. My collection of Stanley is this 2-CD set from these years, including live performances from all three. Really amazing stuff.

I saw Ralph Stanley perform twice. The first was in about 1998 at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. By this point, he was signing with his son, Ralph II. His son doesn’t have a good bluegrass lead voice. Good enough for country music, but not good enough for that style. So it wasn’t like seeing him in the 1970s, but was a ton of fun nonetheless, especially in front of a crowd that cared deeply about that style of music. I saw him again in about 2002 in Albuquerque. By this time, his late-career revival thanks to O Brother Where Art Thou had kicked in. He played to a packed house, played “Man of Constant Sorrow” like 3 times, and during the set break, shook every hand and sold every piece of merchandise he could. An old man now, he was going to cash in while he could. And who could blame him, given his long struggle to be financially successful, even if this meant the set break was a full hour.

Rest in Peace, Ralph. You were a true giant of American music. A few sample cuts:

And since this is a political blog, let’s not forget his endorsement of Barack Obama in 2008.

This One Goes to 11. But It Should Only Go to 6.

[ 90 ] June 15, 2016 |


It’s Wednesday night and it seems like a good time to point out a cranky old man argument that I don’t agree with but that should create an amusing thread. In other words, kids these days record their music too damn loud!

Dave Swarbrick, RIP

[ 11 ] June 3, 2016 |


The great British folk-rock violinist has died. Like Guy Clark, Dave Swarbrick did not exactly lead a life that one would call healthy. He was actually reported dead in the 90s, but was only in the hospital. I will always remember him primarily for his fiddling on “A Sailor’s Life” when he was with Fairport Convention.

Guy Clark, RIP

[ 31 ] May 17, 2016 |


The great Guy Clark has died. One of the finest country-folk singers ever and a foundational figure in the alt-country genre, Clark had been sick for some time. He was not only good friends with Townes Van Zandt, but his partner in crazy living, as you can read about in this great late-life profile. Clark was a lot more emotionally stable than Van Zandt so he lived a lot longer, but he did not live a life that was going to reach 90 (although Ramblin’ Jack Elliott still lives so sometimes you can do that). Clark had the songwriting skills to become wealthy if he played the Nashville game. On the other hand, he was pure Texas. He split the difference, moving to Nashville in the early 70s (sort of the opposite of Willie Nelson here) to keep a hand in the business but remained fiercely independent his entire career. This plus his generous nature made him a mentor to a whole generation of young Texas musicians such as Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell.

Guy Clark’s albums themselves are something of a mixed bag. His first album, Old No. 1, contains a number of classics that were often covered by others. This includes the wonderful “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Texas, 1947.”

A lot of people love his second album, Texas Cookin’. I’m a bit more mixed on it, although it does have “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.”

The South Coast of Texas is one of the most underrated albums in all of music. This is basically a perfect country album, with each song revolving around some Texas story, from the Kentuckians getting ready to move to Texas in the 19th century in “New Cut Road” to the shrimpers and their ladies in “The South Coast of Texas” to the young man falling in love with an older waitress in the great closing track “Lone Star Motel.” I love this album tremendously.

He had a series of decent albums in the 80s and 90s, culminating in the pretty excellent 1999 album Cold Dog Soup. But probably the place I would start is with his live greatest hits plus some new ones album Keepers, from 1997. Good band, fun performances.

In the end, anyone who can write a song like “The Randall Knife” is worth remembering.

I only saw Guy Clark play once. It was in Santa Fe, maybe around 2004, a show with just him and his long-time guitarist Verlon Thompson. It showed the delicate nature of live performing. Mostly, it was great. But some drunk guy started shouting during the set and Clark walked off until someone kicked him out. Then, right in the middle of the powerful song “Let Him Roll” about a bum who dies still loving the prostitute he knew decades ago, someone’s damn cell phone rang. Totally ruined the moment. Such things happen in a live setting. In recent years, by most accounts, his shows had taken a turn for the worse with his physical health.

Guy Clark will be badly missed. He maybe wasn’t quite the level of titanic talent as people like Merle Haggard, David Bowie, and Prince, but in a regular year, the loss of Guy Clark would just about be the worst musical loss we could imagine.

Music Notes

[ 13 ] May 14, 2016 |



A very busy week so I didn’t read a lot of good music pieces. However, last Friday, I saw Waxahatchee at the Columbus Theater in Providence. It was just Katie Crutchfield and the bass player so it’s a bit less of a band effect as this video, but those are some great songs and I was very happy to be there.

Still managed to squeeze in some new albums this week. Reviews:

Oneohtrix Point Never, Garden of Delete

The way I feel about electronic music is I think something like a lot of people feel about jazz. I recognize the talent and the noise that moves in interesting ways but I just can’t really get into it. Probably the closest band to something I like that I know of is Oneohtrix Point Never, which is the performance name of Daniel Lopatin. He’s an interesting guy, even writing essays on Kenny G that are well worth reading. Lopatin’s compositions densely swirl around in some genuinely interesting ways. I’d almost listen to this a bunch of times. But I probably won’t. It’s my fault, I admit it.


Algiers, Algiers

Now this is interesting. Algiers is an indie rock/punk band with an African-American singer who has a powerful voice that channel slave chants and gospel into some pretty heavy music and heavy lyrics that force the listener to confront the racist past of America. It’s noisy and about slavery. What’s not to like? This is definitely deserving of additional listens.


Bill Fay, Who is the Sender?

Bill Fay had a couple of good albums in the 70s and then disappeared. I used to have one of those albums before it was lost in the Great House Robbery of 2014. He was one of those many weird folkies from the 60s and early 70s making some pretty decent music, in his case rather religiously oriented. In 2012, he put out an EP and in 2015, a full album, Who is the Sender? His voice isn’t what it was in the 70s but this is a very solid album of good quality folk music. He’s still singing religious songs, which might annoy if they weren’t really interesting. Bigger production than you’d expect, but it mostly works well.


Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Price is a Nashville lifer who finally got an album made after a decade trying. Interesting, it’s the first country album put out on Jack White’s label. She has an interesting back story, including a dead baby and the depression and self-medication that led to a DWI and a weekend in jail. She doesn’t shy away from any of this in her songs. The album itself has a great lead about herself and some other quite good songs about various parts of her life. It’s not a great album as a whole, as there are a few average tracks and she doesn’t really veer away from a pretty basic Nashville sound. But I’m glad she’s received a lot of buzz (even played Saturday Night Live!) and the financial success she deserves. A quality talent and I look forward to her next album.


Eszter Balint, Airless Midnight

Louis C.K. fans know Balint as his love interest in the last season of his show or they know her from her role in Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. She’s worked a lot of television and film and made a few albums as well. This is her first in a decade. Working with Marc Ribot among others, Balint surrounds herself with interesting musicians that make a more compelling palette of sounds than the usual singer-songwriter material. As for the songs themselves, they are eminently listenable, but not something that changed my life.


As always, let this serve as your open thread about all things musical.

Music Notes

[ 49 ] May 7, 2016 |


Haven’t done one of these in a few weeks. Here’s some interesting articles, album reviews, and tidbits.

Country music humor is almost universally terrible as comedy, from “Uncle Josh” routines performed by any number of old-time and country bands through World War II to Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones to Ray Stevens. Some of the music related to it can be alright. Those old enough to remember Hee Haw have a sense of this. Anyway, there’s a new generation of country music comedy.

The only known film of Louis Armstrong recording has been discovered. Pretty cool.

This is a really interesting essay defending greatest hits albums and reissue discs, something that is rapidly being lost in the digital age. It’s a pretty convincing argument: collections and greatest hits help define eras, salvage lost musical genres, and make vast troves of music accessible to listeners in easily accessible collections.

This is the definitive obituary of Merle Haggard. Read it.

Some album reviews from things I have recently picked up:

Shamir, Ratchet

After Prince died, Janelle Monae said she could not be what she is (a gender-bending weirdo) if Prince had paved the way. It’s safe to say the same about Shamir, a gender-fluid, high-falsetto, dance-pop artist from Las Vegas, who previously played country music covers before figuring out the money was better in pop music. He’s a weird little hipster dude who makes some really fun music.


Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins, Phantom Orchard

This 2004 collaboration between two titans of electronic and experimental jazz isn’t that easy to listen to. This is dense music of swooping sounds and effects from people used to composing and performing challenging music. But is largely a fascinating exploration of sound that I have enjoyed.


Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

That Sturgill Simpson has been able to do precisely what he wants to do on a country album, making no compromises toward slick Nashville sounds, bro country, country radio, etc. while using string sections, the Dap Kings, and other production elements not common in modern country music that he then releases directly to the top of the charts, is kind of amazing. Hopefully it spawns a new wave of interesting country musicians pushing boundaries.

It’s quite an artistic statement. However, I don’t love the album and don’t think it is as good as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Basically, I don’t think the songs are of the same quality as the last album. Simpson got a lot of buzz because he covered Nirvana’s “In Bloom” but it might be the album’s weakest song. There are real highlights–“Keep It Between the Lines,” “Sea Stories,” and “Call to Arms” in particular. But there’s nothing quite as rousing as “Long White Line” or “Life of Sin” off the last album. It’s a good record, but it’s not a great record.


Chris Lightcap & Bigmouth, Deluxe

I saw this band in New Haven a couple of weeks ago. It was absolutely outstanding, as is this album. Lightcap is the bassist, the wonderful Craig Taborn is on piano and Fender Rhodes, Gerald Cleaver is the drummer, and the saxophonists are Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek. An outstanding band in any circumstance, but with great tunes and that Fender Rhodes, it plays almost as a rock band at times. This is accessible modern jazz for people who might want to explore a bit, but who might be intimidated by, say, the Mori/Parkins album I reviewed above. Outstanding show, outstanding album.


Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories

Although I liked several of the songs on Fulks’ last album, Gone Away Backwards, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that he retreated from the country of his earlier albums (and specifically the rich 60s country sound of his brilliant Georgia Hard) for a folk/bluegrass sound, which is kind of a default for a lot of country songwriters these days when commercial success doesn’t match hopes. He continues with that instrumentation on Upland Stories, but this is a pretty brilliant set of songs. He mostly eschews the silly (or sometimes downright offensive) humor of some of his earlier albums and the exceptions (Aunt Peg’s New Old Man) are pretty effective and funny. Mostly though this is a great set of songs about both classic country themes and hard life in the present. Really rewarding piece of music, although perhaps there are a couple of weaker tunes toward the end.


John Moreland, In The Throes

John Moreland’s latest album, High on Tulsa Heat, is a revelation. What a great songwriter. So I checked out his first album, In The Throes. It’s like a lot of first albums from very good artists, which is that it’s close to great, but not quite there yet. There are some outstanding songs, such as the one embedded below, and some not quite up to what appears on the next album. But this is a real talent and I look forward to his future work.


And, as part of my lifelong quest to explore the history of country music, here’s few older country albums I recently acquired:

Merle Haggard, A Portrait of Merle Haggard

How good was Merle Haggard in 1969? In this year, he released 6 full albums. A Portrait of Merle Haggard included two #1 hits. One was “Working Man’s Blues.” The other was “Hungry Eyes.” He didn’t even bother releasing another popular song from the album as a single. It goes by the name of “Silver Wings.” The country music strategy of flooding the market with albums during these years usually did not work out well, but when someone was working at this level, it could lead to an astounding number of outstanding albums.


Glen Campbell, Country Boy

This 1975 compilation (I think it’s a compilation anyway) is pure cheese. At its best, the big production of 70s country could work great to accentuate excellent songwriting and singing, such as Billy Sherrill’s productions of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. But with weaker material, it just adds to the weakness. Even with his big hits like “Country Boy” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” included, its primary value today is an exercise in nostalgia. Given that Campbell had more talent than the average singer of the era, the production quality of 70s country makes a lot of the period’s music unlistenable.


Jerry Reed, When You’re Hot, You’re Hot

Jerry Reed was a heck of a guitar player. And he certainly had a lot of energy. He could also sing some really dumb songs and some super cheesy songs too. This was his biggest hit. The album is, well, OK. Did he have the emotional range to cover “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”? Not really. Kind of interesting cover of “Thank You Girl.” Not my favorite version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The songs he wrote were of mixed quality. The production of the hit song in the video below is very 70s.


Since I assume that you all, like me, listen to music for 12-14 hours of each and every day, this is your place for various and sundry musical conversations.

Page 1 of 1812345...10...Last »