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Music Notes

[ 37 ] February 18, 2017 |

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We need to talk about the amazing awesomeness of Drive-By Truckers live shows. I saw my 11th show in New York last weekend. It was supposed to be my 12th, but the Boston show the previous Thursday had to be rescheduled because of snow. For all their great albums (and some more just OK, but mostly they are great), the live show is really where to see them. They bring the Rock. Especially early in their career, they created signature guitar riffs for the best songs that are just awesome live. For a bunch of middle-aged guys, they bring tremendous energy. I’ve seen amazing shows and I’ve seen less amazing shows, but not only have I never seen a bad show, usually the less successful shows are for an external reason, either a bad venue (it’s remarkable how much this matters) or, in the case of the show I saw last spring in Providence, Patterson Hood’s voice was totally shot. And with Hood and Cooley switching songs the whole show, nothing ever becomes repetitive.

There two sorts of a shows for a constantly touring band like this. There are the shows where they are supporting a new album and shows a year after the last album when they are playing whatever they want. I prefer the latter because by then they’ve figured out what songs are better live and which can be dropped. But this was the former, supporting the excellent American Band album. One of the many great things about DBT is that you can follow them for a whole tour and still get at least 1 song they hadn’t performed before on the given tour by the end. They played 8 of the 10 new songs, leaving out “Baggage” and “Sun Don’t Shine,” which are my two least favorite songs on it. You know you are going to always get “Sink Hole,” “Zip City,” and “Hell No I Ain’t Happy.” You will probably get “Women Without Whiskey” and “Let There Be Rock.” And then there’s probably 50 back catalog songs they choose from in a given set. In this show, they were focused on the older albums. In fact, outside of the new album, they played no songs less than 10 years old. I was a bit concerned about this, but then looked at the set the night before, where they had played 6 or 7 songs from those albums. In this show, we got the first three great songs the band wrote: “Uncle Frank,” “The Company I Keep,” and “The Living Bubba,” about a musician Hood knew who was dying of AIDS but played until the end. All of these are treats. Also got “Gravity’s Gone,” “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” and “Where The Devil Don’t Stay,” all Cooley classics. And speaking of great riffs, Hood played the always awesome “Lookout Mountain.” So that’s always fun, not knowing what you are going to hear.

And of course the songs off the new album were great. “Ever South” is epic, “What It Means” sadly gets more timely every day. I imagine that “Ramon Casiano” and “Surrender Under Protest” are going to be long-term staples of Cooley. And then they closed, as they have on most shows of the tour, with a medley of “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” with “Sign O’ The Times.” And then “Rockin’ in the Free World.” I saw them do that in a show in Dallas in I think 2008. Then, it was a cool old song that rocks pretty hard. Today, it was tremendously insistent, a necessary message. That’s a horrible thing. But it’s a great performance. Then Hood started leading the crowd in a chant of “R-E-S-I-S-T” and that was it. Just a great show from an amazing band. Really, you should take the time to go see them next time they are around. After all, the Big Rock Show can’t go on forever.

Here’s a whole show you can watch with pretty good sound.

In other news:

The great jazz pianist Matthew Shipp claims he is not going to record any more albums. I do not approve. I very strongly recommend any of the albums he has recorded for Thirsty Ear, especially Equilibrium and Pastoral Composure.

Aretha Franklin says she is retiring. I kind of thought she mostly was already. But anyway, she deserves it.

Al Jarreau died. It’s funny; after listening to music constantly for the last 20 years how there can be major musicians about whom I basically know nothing.

Some album reviews:

Rachid Taha, Zoom

This French-Algerian singer has made a career of making connetions with western rock and rollers, most famously covering The Clash in Arabic. This 2013 album builds on those connections, with Mick Jones and Brian Eno both appearing. Personally, I could not care less about famous collaborators, especially on albums of non-westerners, except to the extent that they get people more listeners. Singing both in French, Arabic, and English, Taha deserves your ears, even as this did not move me to purchasing it. He’s not a great singer, but the music is pretty excellent and the songs politically solid. There is a certain cliche here of “musician from the developing world who can sing in western languages fusing world music broadly defined and liberal lyrics together to make white people feel cosmopolitan” thing going on here that gives me some hesitation, a la Manu Chao. If it wasn’t so blatant, I wouldn’t mention it, but there is a genre of sorts here that I inherently distrust.

B

William Tyler, Modern Country

William Tyler’s album of instrumental guitar rock made me very skeptical, despite the good reviews. So often I find rock instrumentals utterly pointless; often less skilled or instrumentally creative than jazz musicians, they can end up being snoozefests or exercises in bloated pompacity. But I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is Tyler a fine guitarist, but these are excellent and evocative compositions that bare some resemblance to the work of Bill Frisell. This is atmospheric music that avoids boredom. Tyler is a huge Grateful Dead fan and it shows in both the experimentation and Americana touches. The latter is intentional as Tyler attempts to place his work within the geographical landscape of the United States. This means a very particular type of sound, another similarity to Frisell, with a mix of blues, jazz, rock, and folk, often played at a medium but propelling tempo. As per normal, Americana is never in the cities but rather part of a long drive on two-lane roads across rural America. So at some level, Tyler doesn’t escape the cliches that do limit self-conscious Americana, but this is a really successful and interesting album.

A-

Glitterbust, Glitterbust

People forget that before Kim Gordon because arguably the greatest New Yorker of the late 20th century, she was a stoner Deadhead kid from California. Of course she’s always loved her noise music. So now that Sonic Youth is no more, she is fully engaging in whatever projects she wants. That includes creating an album with another stoner kid from California, Alex Knost, a pro surfer and guitarist. This 2016 album is a kind of surfer noise album with just occasional vocals from Gordon. Mostly it works pretty well. I like the compositions and love the guitar work. The only thing this really could use is more vocals. Gordon just kind of makes vocal noises from time to time. I like her voice enough that I really wanted more of it. Plus, the 5 songs are pretty long and more vocals would add to them. But if you wanted to take surfing and place it in guitar noise in ways that are not surf music, this would be a good way to do it. Interesting stuff.

B

Tacocat, Lost Time

This is a good feminist band out of Seattle. This 2016 release, their third, continues their heavily political themes, including songs about how techdudes have ruined Seattle, a topic always close to my heart, as well as mansplaining and internet trolls. The music is sort of pop-punk. The attitude is both funny and irritated. I don’t know that this is a great album or anything. Reviewers seem to like their first two albums a little better, fwiw. But it’s a solid album and worth your time. I think I am seeing this band on Monday, so I will have more.

B

While not musically related, this is also a good time to note my deep gratitude for readers who occasionally buy me things off my Amazon wishlist. A reader recently purchased for me some nice tea accessories and the collected stories of the mid-century writer John O’Hara, which are really blowing me away. So I do appreciate it.

As always, this is an open thread on music or anything else unrelated to politics.

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Music Notes

[ 100 ] February 4, 2017 |

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A brief music notes, just to get our mind off politics.

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours just turned 40. Here’s a ranking of the songs on the album. Putting “Don’t Stop” last is the correct call. The whole ranking is basically right.

Pop Matters ranked the best post-punk albums. Have it with your thoughts.

Album Reviews:

Dale Watson, Live at the Big T Roadhouse: Chicken S#!+ Bingo Sunday

Watson is one of the finest practitioners of old-school country music in the land. He’s a man right out of the 1960s and 1970s style, with electric guitar and outlaw feel, with lots of songs about trucking, heartbreak, drinking, and the other classic topics of that era. He’s an excellent vocalist and a solid guitarist. He’s also an Austin institution who I used to see quite a bit when I lived there. His Live in London album is an outstanding live country album. So I was excited by this follow up. But, well, it has an interesting theme. See, Watson hosts these occasional gatherings called Chicken Shit Bingo Sunday. He plays a show. And he has a chicken. The chicken walks around on a wooden board with numbered squares. The audience puts in guesses on the square where the chicken will take a shit. And if they win, they win some money.

So the album is pretty typical of a Dale Watson show, with the additional of this oddity. But the oddity is pretty odd. And it does distract from the album. The songs themselves are of his usual classic quality, both his own songs, a couple of Haggard covers, and a couple of other covers. But it’s not exactly something you are going to listen to very often. And that limits its appeal.

B-

Gary Lucas’ Fleischerei (Featuring Sarah Stiles), Music from Max Fleischer’s Cartoons.

Gary Lucas, who became known as Captain Beefheart’s guitarist and who has went on to have a fascinating career of noise, jazz, and soundtrack albums, created a band to recreate Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop soundtrack. Sarah Stiles, a Broadway singer, plays the Betty Boop character. The arrangements are appropriately Jazz Age but with a modern tinge. This might sound kind of uninteresting to many of you, but it actually works pretty well. Stiles’ voice is appropriately childlike for the part, which might annoy me usually, but she’s really good at it. Plus one forgets that these lyrics were all about sex, making them pretty fun. The musicians are pretty fantastic. Plus “Barnacle Bill” in context of a Popeye cartoon is pretty tough to beat.

B+

Julianna Barwick, Will

This is a lovely listen. And yet “lovely” isn’t quite the unfettered compliment that it might seem. It does share the same problem as a lot of ambient music, which is that I get sleepy listening to it. Yet her voice is great and the arrangements, well, lovely. How much you like this depends on your genre preferences.

B

Venezuela 70: Cosmic Visions of a Latin American Earth

This is an absolutely outstanding compilation of Venezuelan rock from the 70s. Containing a huge variety of music in its 16 songs with sounds I have never heard before, this was some extremely original work. Some of it is propulsive Latin sounds, some of it is weird electronic stuff, all of it is fantastic.

A

Wadada Leo Smith, America’s National Parks

The legendary trumpeter and AACM founder decided to rethink the meaning of a national park as the National Park Service turned 100. After watching the Ken Burns series, he was dissatisfied.

The idea that Ken Burns explored in that documentary was that the grandeur of nature was like a religion or a cathedral,” Smith says. “I reject that image because the natural phenomenon in creation, just like man and stars and light and water, is all one thing, just a diffusion of energy. My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.”

This doesn’t per se make very much sense to the average reader, but then the spirituality of jazz musicians is often this way. With Anthony Davis on piano, Ashley Walters on cello, John Lindberg on bass, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums and recorded at the absolutely lovely Firehouse 12 in New Haven (I travel there to see a couple of shows a year and it’s a great space), this is a fascinating concept and a very good album. Taking traditional national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but also what Smith thinks a national park could be (song titles include “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC”), he makes his own contribute to the intellectual and cultural product of the American landscape. His work tends to combine experimental jazz with a deep immersion in the classical tradition, creating soundscapes that are both heavily compositional and envelope-pushing. A very interesting work.

A-

As always, an open thread for all things music, or whatever so long as there are no politics.

Music Notes

[ 25 ] January 21, 2017 |

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A few music notes for these horrible days of fascism.

If you haven’t read the Rolling Stone profile of John Prine, do so. It’s really great.

Remember that the first person Donald Trump killed due to his presidency was Sharon Jones.

The Nigerian musician William Onyeabor died. Atomic Bomb is a really great album.

The influential music writer K-Punk is also dead.

Arcade Fire and Mavis Staples team up to try and give us hope in these dark times.

If I was to pick 5 songs by leftist white men to shove in Trump’s face, I don’t think these are the songs I would pick. But whatever, any and all are good.

And remember what the NEA does and won’t do anymore thanks to Emperor Tangerine.

Historically, the agency has awarded thousands of grants for orchestras, jazz, operas, chamber music, and beyond. And just looking back through the past year or so, the array of specific programs affected by the endowment is dizzying. If you saw a video last year of David Bowie talking about working with Lou Reed, that was part of an NEA-funded digital archive. An Esperanza Spalding performance at Manhattan’s Baryshnikov Arts Center, a Steve Reich 80th-birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall, and a Quincy Jones tribute at the Monterey Jazz Festival are among endowment-boosted events from 2016.

Album review time:

Dinosaur Jr., Give a Glimpse of What You’re Not

I’ve never been the J. Mascis fan boy that some are, but certainly Dinosaur Jr has put out some excellent albums over the years. Give a Glimpse of What You’re Not is not quite an excellent album. But it’s solid. It’s precisely the type of album where an old band justifies its continued existence (unlike, say, The Rolling Stones) even if it’s unlikely to attract new fans. It’s a completely decent Dinosaur album. If that appeals to you, buy this album.

B+

Margaret Glaspy, Emotions and Math

I don’t much care for emotions or math, but I did like this album pretty well. A tight little grunge-rock album that has solid songs about the life of a woman in her late 20s, for all the potential and frustration and disappointment that means. Various reviewers compare her to Liz Phair or Fiona Apple, which feels a bit lazy and obvious, but is useful enough to get a sense of what Glaspy sounds like. This is some solid rock and roll and some solid singer-songwriter stuff. And that’s not a bad combination. Especially at 34 minutes.

A-

The Internet, Ego Death

This is a solid 2015 album from this R&B band out of Los Angeles. The lead singer/rapper Syd the Kid ignores the deep homophobia with hip hop to write love songs for the women she loves. Like Frank Ocean or Shamir, she is a product of an increasing acceptance of gender fluidity among young people. More important than the politics is that this is a good band making good music. It doesn’t come out and grab you like the very best of R&B in the last 5 to 7 years, but it pulls older forms of the music with new ideas to create a solid piece of art. It’s also extremely listenable and enjoyable.

B+

Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There

I wasn’t sure whether I would like this 2015 album for two reasons. One is the inconsistency of Yo La Tengo. For as much as I love I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One and as much as I like I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, there are also a number of pretty boring albums in their catalog. Two is that I am always a little skeptical of covers albums, which probably comes from years of listening to filler on country music albums of the 60s and 70s. But I liked this a lot. What’s more is that I preferred Georgia Hubley’s tunes to Ira Kaplan’s, which is unusual given her limited voice. But do I need to her do “I’m So Lonesome I Can Cry” and “Friday I’m in Love”? Yes, actually. The only thing I wish here is that Kaplan would rock out a little more, which we all know he is quite capable of doing, but they always have preferred dreaminess. And that’s for better and for worse.

A-

Thayer Sarrano, Shaky

I first heard of Serrano when she opened for the Drive-By Truckers last year. Given how often I have seen DBT (seeing my 11th and 12th shows in February), I have really been exposed to some awesome (Old 97s as an opening act!) and some terrible opening acts that have included an atrocious buttrock band opening for them in Pawtucket but also the worst Son Volt show ever and the execrable Shooter Jennings. Sometimes though they have interesting young artists open for them. Serrano is one, Houndmouth is another. With both bands, the albums proved slightly less successful than the live show, although entirely decent. (Houndmouth because their drugged out gangster lyrics belie a bunch of middle class white hipster kids from the Louisville suburbs). Serrano, based out of Athens, created a completely solid rock album, although one would like her voice higher in the mix. The lyrics are about sadness and sorrow, the music atmospheric. Worth a listen.

B

Run the Jewels, RTJ3

Dropped as a Christmas present to the desperate hordes out there but a 2017 album, this is the first great album of the year. I like Killer Mike significantly more than El-P but these guys are always great together and this is a critical album of resistance at a time when I really need it. “A Report to the Shareholders” is a killer song, not to mention a great title, demanding justice and ready for the fight ahead. The production is outstanding and the guests, as always for RTJ, add a lot, including Kamasi Washington. RTJ3 is basically just a fantastic album all around.

A

Maren Morris, Hero

There were some very good reviews for this young country star but I don’t get it. Morris has an excellent voice. But while she works a little blue (as is the norm for female country singers these days and in fact, it’s one of many ways in which hip hop has influenced country in the last 10 years), the songs are mostly forgettable, the arrangements standard, and the whole package too geared for mainstream country radio for my tastes. The single “My Church” got a ton of accolades, but basically because naming Hank Williams and Johnny Cash in a song is a way to claim authenticity that critics die for. I thought it was whatever. I find myself with strongly different reactions to the young women remaking country music, loving Angaleena Presley and Margo Price and really not getting Kasey Musgraves and Maren Morris at all. I guess that’s a good thing, but I think there is going to be some settling out in the next few years between the real talent and the ones who are really just the next forgettable thing in a genre full of that.

C

Band of Heathens, Duende

Pretty good new album from Band of Heathens. Much sunnier than my mood right now. Great for hanging out and listening to music, drinking a beer. Maybe while having a picnic this summer, maybe while going to the beach. In fact, it has a Beach Boys feel to me. Highly enjoyable.

B+

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

This probably isn’t at the very top of Cohen albums, but for a dying man making what he knows is his album, it’s right up there with Zevon’s The Wind. “You Want It Darker” is a stunning song while “Leaving the Table” and “Traveling Light” are close behind. Sure he couldn’t sing anymore, but then he never really could as he knew and joked about in “Tower of Song.” Yet he still was able to use that rasp with great power and expression.

A-

And a couple of reviews of older albums:

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Pronto Monto

For some reason, this album had never even had a CD release until last year. The McGarrigles were always poorly served by basic releases of their older albums until just a few years ago. This is a fine album from 1978, but one can see why it wasn’t a priority among their catalog. For fans, this is very listenable. Of course the melodies are great and the songs are perfectly functional within their catalog. There are songs about motherhood, songs about men leaving women at home, songs about swimming. What there isn’t is a really first rate song or anything really even all that memorable.

B

Cat Power, Sun

In the late 2000s, I really liked Cat Power. Chan Marshall was a mess and that was clear in her music. The one time I saw her play, she very nearly went into total meltdown mode. It was distinctly uncomfortable, possibly because I was right next to the stage and could really see it. But albums like Moon Pix and especially You Are Free were great, outside a couple of songs like “Names” that were almost parodies of how depressing one could try to make a song. But I didn’t much care for The Greatest and Jukebox was a waste of time. I really forgot about her except for the occasional listen to an old album. I’m not sure if I even knew Sun came out in 2012. But I was made aware of it recently so I gave it a spin. And I was pleasantly surprised. This is almost a pop album and its near sunniness was refreshing. The songs aren’t as profound as some of her past, but it’s a solid collection and quite enjoyable. It’s 5 years since this came out so who knows what the future holds for her, but if it is her last album, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on.

A-

As always, open thread on music or whatever else is going to keep your soul alive in the next 4 years.

The ACA and the Republican War on the Arts

[ 145 ] January 19, 2017 |

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Repealing the ACA would decimate the lives of musicians who rely on it to stay healthy. This is of course part of the point for Republican “governance” that is launching a head-on attack on the arts.

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.

Best Albums of 2016

[ 29 ] December 31, 2016 |

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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

11) Case/lang/Viers

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.

British Music Humor

[ 44 ] December 1, 2016 |

This should be true and not satire.

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.

Music Notes

[ 28 ] November 5, 2016 |

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The great country songwriter Curly Putman is dead. He wrote such hits as “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” “D.I.V.O.R.C.E” “Dumb Blonde” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Pretty amazing writer.

In the world of music and work, the Fort Worth Symphony is on strike. These aren’t unions we think about much so the politics behind it is pretty interesting.

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.

Some reviews:

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.

A

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.

B-

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.

B

Rhianna, Anti

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.

A

On a non-musical note, this is a good place to thank Patricia for finding my Amazon Wish List and sending me the new Library of America collection of Albert Murray’s nonfiction writing. I really appreciate it when someone does this. Makes the writing worthwhile.

As always, this is an open thread for all things music or anything else except for politics.

Music Notes

[ 60 ] October 29, 2016 |

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If you have not read this New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen, do so now.

Also, here’s a great profile of the wonderful guitarist Mary Halvorson. We all need to go to school for biology and then randomly meet Anthony Braxton.

Here’s an interview with the great Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso about politics and lyrics.

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.

And now for my brief album reviews:

Frank Ocean, Blonde

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.

B+

Drive-By Truckers, American Band

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.

A

Jaga Jazzist, Starfire

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.

B

Charlie Hilton, Palana

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.

B

Freakwater, Scheherazde

A solid, if not truly remarkable return, by this chestnut of a 90s alt-country band. Always welcome, this is just a good album.

B+

Laura Gibson, Empire Builder

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.

A-

And now time to revisit some old albums:

Iris Dement, My Life

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.

A

Buck Owens, Buck ‘Em, Volume 2

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.

B+

As always, this is your thread for all things music. Or really, anything but the election.

Music Notes

[ 34 ] September 24, 2016 |

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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.

A

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.

A-

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.

A-

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.

B

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.

A

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.

A-

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.

B-

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.

B

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.


B

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.

B

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.

A

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.

B+

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.

A-

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

Irving Fields, RIP

[ 9 ] August 23, 2016 |

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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.

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