For much of his life, Andrew Savage, the 30-year-old singer-guitarist for New York indie-rock band Parquet Courts, went without health insurance. The musician suffers from epilepsy and suffers two or three seizures a year, the most severe of which have resulted in head trauma. He quit his day job six years ago to tour with the band, which was just starting to take off, but that meant no insurance to pay for his daily medication. He spent years shuffling payments on credit cards; once, he openly wept when a pharmacist told him a generic drug was available for $40 instead of $400.
The ACA would have helped, but by the time it took effect in 2013, the members of Parquet Courts were big enough, like most successful bands, to form a Limited Liability Company and purchase group insurance. “We were worried that if we got Obamacare, there would be a lot of limitations — the bill, when it was first conceived, was very different from the one that made it through because so many things got taken away from Obama and his original vision of the plan,” Savage says from his Brooklyn home. “Of all the cynical things promised by Donald Trump, this has got to be one of the most scoundrel-ish — this is taking things away from people who definitely need it.”
Even musicians who haven’t purchased insurance through the exchanges have benefited from Obamacare. Insurance companies can no longer raise rates for customers who have pre-existing conditions. That means sick people have an easier time than ever getting coverage.
Members of Drive-By Truckers, the veteran southern-rock band, run an LLC and share a group health-insurance plan. But 52-year-old Patterson Hood, one of the band’s lead singers, says the central Obamacare provision that prevents insurance companies from raising rates due to members’ pre-existing conditions has helped his family immeasurably. His wife and 12-year-old daughter have scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and his 7-year-old son has growth hormone deficiency that requires an expensive shot every day for the next decade.
“My son’s shots are in the thousands per month. I mean, it’s a lot of money. And we do not have it,” he tells Rolling Stone just before a Conan appearance in Los Angeles. “We’re paying $2,000 a month as it is just for the insurance. I’m lucky I’m gainfully employed — my band, we’re not stars, but we’re successful enough to where I can make ends met. But it terrifies me. It literally woke me up in the middle of the night last night.”
You ain’t the only one Patterson. You ain’t the only one.
But hey, I bet Pat Boone has the best health insurance. And that’s all the music we need in the new White Christian America.
As I have done for at least the last couple of years, here is my best albums of 2016 list. Of course, I can’t listen to everything so take it for what it’s worth. And each year this gets slightly harder to do because I have a huge list of albums from the last couple of years that I want to listen to and haven’t had time to yet (159 at this moment) and so all the new albums from 2016 go there first unless it’s one of my favorite bands. 2017 won’t be any easier. Anyway, here we go.
1) Darcy James Argue, Real Enemies
As the majority of jazz albums don’t have lyrics, the number of them that have really come to represent the poltiics and society of a particular moment are relatively few. Some of the standouts are Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s We Insist!Real Enemies is in this fine class. Taking as its theme the conspiracy theories that have become so prevalent in American life, this incredibly compelling album combines Argue’s great big band compositions with political speeches and recordings of conspiracy theorists over the past half-century or so. Of course, when he set out to write this album, he could not have known that its subject would become the theme of 2016.
Darcy is a long-time friend of the blog, but this rating would be the same if I had never heard of him before. This is an astounding album and I hope it wins the Grammy it is nominated for.
2) Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
The best country album made in some time, Price has a great voice, is a compelling performer, and writes very honest lyrics. She’s well within the traditional country vision, but also rejects all the gross Nashville bullshit in favor of a musical palette that combines what is great about the country tradition with a vision of directness in writing and music. She also put on the best show I saw in 2016, right after the election in Boston when her and the band were suffering as much as the rest of us. Just a fantastic record.
3) Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Now that it’s happened, it seems inevitable that DBT would go full protest band as Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley enter middle-age. This is the most stripped down DBT album in a long time and also the best. Taking on the NRA and the Confederate flag, supporting Black Lives Matter, writing songs about the massacre of students in Oregon and the meaning of southernness, and closing with a lament for the death of Robin Williams, this is a consummate album of 2016. And a great one.
4) Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
Another masterful album from the British poet and rapper, who imagines a world of insomniacs and their struggles. And if the other albums on this list have strong connotations with 2016 in the United States, “Europe is Lost” is the Brexit version of this.
5) Mount Moriah, How to Dance
The North Carolina Americana group created its most sophisticated album to date, with more of a band feel that allows Heather McEntire’s incredible vocals to flourish in a collaborative setting. “Baby Blue” is also my favorite song of 2016.
6) Lydia Loveless, Real
The country-punk songwriter adds a serious shot of pop music to her repertoire for her latest album, which complicates the music usefully and shows an artist still growing while not compromising on her songwriting. Very enjoyable music.
7) Rhianna, Anti
This is an album of liberation through sex and marijuana, which might seem pretty cliched and maybe in some ways it is, but the vocals are great and at some point in this horrible, don’t we need an album of simple liberation, especially from someone who has legitimately been through a lot of terrible things?
8) Robbie Fulks, Upland Stories
Fulks’ best album since Georgia Hard. He is still using the folk/bluegrass instrumentation of his last, slightly disappointing album, and that’s always worrying for a fan of country music given that a move to bluegrass-influenced folk is so often a sign of an artist without all that much left to say. But Upland Stories is a pretty great set of songs, some with the humor Fulks is known for (although not with his more offensive side which he has tamed more in the last decade) and some in the very serious and dark mode in which he often writes.
9) Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
This British artist has plenty to say about the racism toward black people that never ever went away but has had a disturbing resurgence around the world in the last few years. With songs directly referencing the murder of Trayvon Martin and other racial issues across the pond. Blood Orange has plenty to say to us.
10) Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Another fine album from this Brooklyn rock band, combining longer and profound songs with short one-offs that provide a lot of variation on a very interesting work.
Other good albums from 2016, in a vague order of how much I like them
Always skeptical of supergroups, but Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Viers sound great together.
12) Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny
I’m not a fan of Pat Metheny generally. His work always seemed uninteresting and geared toward more of an audience not too excited new sounds. But the trumpeter Cuong Vu has made some really interesting albums since leaving Metheny’s band. And this reunion works very well, with Metheny doing his best work in years. This pushes the envelope with the rest of the trio, Stomu Takeishi on bass and Ted Poor on drums, into some really interesting places. Metheny is of course a great guitar player so to hear him push himself into new sonic territory is refreshing. Really solid album.
13) Wussy, Forever Sounds
The noise is great. The songs are disappointing for a band with such a great pedigree of writing fantastic songs.
14) Laura Gibson, Empire Builder
Solid set of songs about traveling the nation and discovering oneself.
15) Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s no point arguing about Joanna Newsom. You either like her or despise her. I tend toward the former. But after an overwrought triple album a few years ago, her comeback is solid and relatively tight for her.
16) Taylor Ho Bynum, Enter the Plustet
I love a big sound on a jazz album and this huge band provides it. Highlights include Bynum’s frequent collaboration Mary Halvorson; both had great years on the many albums they appeared on.
17) Chvrches, Every Open Eye
This is a confident sophomore album from the indie pop band. It has an optimism in the lyrics that I really need right now and is catchy and hooky as can be. And while I will never truly love this level of synth, the overall quality of the album makes it more palatable than it usually is for me. I don’t love this, but I can see listening to it every now and then when I need something a little more upbeat than my usual fare.
18) Freakwater, Scheherazade
Any new Freakwater album is welcome and after a long time off, this is a solid attention to a solid catalog.
19) Mary Lattimore, At the Dam
A beautiful set of compositions by this harpist.
Finally, a few albums by great artists that really disappointed:
Frank Ocean, Blonde
This did almost nothing for me, a significant step down from Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. The best part of the album is his mom leaving him a phone message to stay off the weed. Not a bad idea really, maybe more sobriety would lead to more happening.
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Life
Overwrought and overproduced without very many good songs. Even seeing him live, a good show for sure, was a bring down because he basically played his catalog in order and the last 1/3 of the show did not hold up to the first 2/3, i.e., once he played the new album.
PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
It’s not a bad album per se, but as a cut-rate version of Let England Shake, it does not hold up to her best work.
Mary Fisher, owner of the Demon Bean in Kilburn, took desperate measures after an infestation of laptop-wielding ‘digital nomads’ threatened her business.
She said: “They’d sit there, typing away, not buying anything. I had to take desperate measures, so I put on Liege & Lief by Fairport Convention, the one band it is not possible to like in an ironic way.
“There is nothing remotely cool about Fairport and their sincere evocations of the English folk tradition, combined with equally unfashionable rock elements.”
Freelance digital marketer Francesca Johnson said: “It is impossible to do my job without feeling zeitgeisty, and beardy warbling about fields and blacksmiths is the least zeitgeisty thing on the planet.
“If they got in some nomadic Tuareg synth players to beef it up a bit, I could get behind this. As it stands, it is everything I hate condensed into an earnest, six-minute stomp.
“I bet everyone who likes this voted for Brexit.
“Fortunately, there are another 40,000 cafes in walking distance where I can blog about Italian horror film chic while nursing a single espresso for five hours.”
I would totally go to this cafe. And I’d buy a cup of tea.
The Country Music Awards basically always suck, but at least this year it tried to be interesting by pairing up Beyonce with The Dixie Chicks. The response of right-wing trolls was to be expected. Sadly, the CMAs didn’t seem to anticipate this and responded by stripping the performance from the internet. That is not the right reaction, especially for a musical establishment that has never exactly been in the forefront of fighting racism. The show is defending itself by claiming it is just getting rid of a promo in there, but that doesn’t quite past the smell test.
I saw Ryley Walker last week at the Columbus Theater in Providence. I have his Primose Green album and while I can’t say it’s a true favorite, I thought, he’s a pretty good guitarist and so the show will be worth a few bucks. In fact, the band was really cracker jack and I enjoyed the hell out of that show. One of the big surprises I’ve seen live lately. Check him out if he’s around.
Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
The new Kate Tempest builds on the strengths of her brilliant first album–a style that punches you in the gut with lyrics that rivet your attention. Both albums are thematic. Everybody Down was a relationship story about a low-level drug dealer. Let Them Eat Chaos takes a neighborhood full of insomniacs as its topic, binding together individual stories of desperation and anger, such as the character between Europe is Dead, an angry Brexit voter. What a talent.
Desert Mountain Tribe, Either That or the Moon
An interesting jam band with a pretty good rock sound. Lyrics are pretty iffy. Sound nears bombastic, which I don’t actually mind, but it might be a bit much for some. Good for the jam band circuit. Probably not something I am going to listen to much going forward.
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
Like most tribute albums (the great tribute to Johnny Paycheck, near perfect except for the unfortunate inclusion of Hank III, excepting), this a mixed bag. Tom Waits does 2 songs. Great. Lucinda Williams does 2 more. Also very good, a rare instance in the last 10 years of her doing something worthwhile. The rest of album is a big shrug of fairly predictable people doing predictable versions of the songs. Rickie Lee Jones, Maria McKee, and Susan Tedeschi all add up to old white people music. Given that’s the target audience, good for it. None of it is bad. The Waits and Williams make it even almost good.
I thought the new Rhianna was pretty outstanding. An album about getting high and partying, a subject hardly new to pop music, sounds cliched. And of course it could be. But like love or sex, these topics never truly get tiresome in the right hands. And these are the right hands for an album filled with great hooks and edgy lyrics. She isn’t changing the world here. Instead, she is just putting out a real solid album.
Oh yes, before I forget, giving Bob Dylan in the Nobel Prize for Literature was laughable. I mean, I like Dylan as much as anyone else, but c’mon. The fact that the committee is mad at him now for not speaking about it for a week is classic. Although now he has so I guess everyone is happy.
I saw Sturgill Simpson play a couple of weeks ago in Boston. He puts on a quality show. I still think the new album isn’t nearly as good as the last. The show didn’t really change my mind on this point. He played the whole album to close the show and most of the songs just don’t stir me much. But it’s certainly a quality show, complete with horn section and large band.
The hype around Frank Ocean’s release was intense and, of course, curated. The result is, well, pretty good. But it’s not as good as Nostalgia, Ultra and it’s not as good as Channel Orange. I could do without the Autotune and while the included message from Ocean’s mom about the dangers of marijuana is pretty great, in fact, the album is indeed the album of someone who probably does smoke entirely too much. Its every note sounds like it was produced stoned. That’s fine and all and he certainly has his artistic vision. But there’s also no “American Wedding” or “Novacane” or “Pyramids” here.
In the end, it seems somewhat inevitable that DBT would turn into a full-fledged protest band. The roots of it were always there, even if their songs were more elliptical than directly political. Now that it’s happened, it’s pretty great. “What It Means” has captured the most attention and it is simple and singable so it makes sense. But “Ramon Casiano,” about how the guy who turned the NRA hard right in the 1970s had murdered a Mexican immigrant by that name in 1931, is a superb opening song. “The Guns of Umpqua” is a powerful story about an ex-soldier now caught up in a new war, school shootings, referring to the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon. And their non-political songs like “Filthy and Fried” and “Kinky Hypocrite” make sure the album isn’t too serious. Interesting, it’s the tightest and shortest album since A Blessing and a Curse. Yet where that attempt at a tight album was disastrous, this time the lyrics make it brilliant. One of the best albums of the year.
This Norwegian experimental jazz band seeks to combine free-form jazz with funk and jam music. It’s not particularly challenging music even while seeking to move the conversation on jazz, making it accessible to broader audiences. And I think this band would be pretty popular in jam band festivals. They’d be perfect for a Phish fan seeking something a little different. But there really isn’t that much interesting music going on here. It’s an entirely decent album but one that, like a lot of jam band music, really fades into the background. And if you’re stoned, that’s perfect. Quite a bit of potential here, would like to see a little more grabbing the music by the throat and doing something with it.
This is a reasonably decent set of songs from the art-pop singer with one remarkable track leading it off. The title track is also her given name, which is Sanskrit. She rejected that name as she grew up and the song is a really interesting meditation on identity. For me anyway, the hazy singing style generally prevents the lyrics from signifying all that much or the songs mostly being particularly memorable.
Gibson rode Amtrak across the country, moving to Portland to record and to escape a dead relationship. She then wrote an album about it, an album with a lot of songs of hope. Gibson has a great voice and the music holds up around it. Pretty good stuff.
Dement’s second album, from 1992, was dedicated to her recently deceased father. The songs reflect this, as this is a sad but great set of songs. It’s worth remembering what a revelation her voice was when she started recording. She grew up so deep in the traditions of southern music, even though her parents had left the South, and she brings all of that into her gorgeous, emotional recordings. I really enjoyed hearing this for the first time in seemingly forever.
By the late 1960s, Buck Owens was still making good music but he wasn’t really pushing country music forward. Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson were taking the lead there while Buck was starting to do a lot of TV and a lot of shows in Vegas. A lot of the songs off this collections comes out of those appearances Soon he would be featured in Hee Haw. But the music was still pretty good. This 50-song collection possibly could be better as a single disc, but there’s not really a bad song here. An interesting retrospective of the later career of a huge star.
As always, this is your thread for all things music. Or really, anything but the election.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.