On this Friday evening it’s worth remembering how amazing Doc Watson was.
I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.
So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.
Pitchfork: When it was originally misreported that Vulnicura was produced by Arca, instead of co-produced by you and Arca, it reminded me of the Joni Mitchell quote from the height of her fame about how whichever man was in the room with her got credit for her genius.
B: Yeah, I didn’t want to talk about that kind of thing for 10 years, but then I thought, “You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” So around 2006, I put something on my website where I cleared something up, because it’d been online so many times that it was becoming a fact. It wasn’t just one journalist getting it wrong, everybody was getting it wrong. I’ve done music for, what, 30 years? I’ve been in the studio since I was 11; Alejandro had never done an album when I worked with him. He wanted to putting something on his own Twitter, just to say it’s co-produced. I said, “No, we’re never going to win this battle. Let’s just leave it.” But he insisted. I’ve sometimes thought about releasing a map of all my albums and just making it clear who did what. But it always comes across as so defensive that, like, it’s pathetic. I could obviously talk about this for a long time. [laughs]
Pitchfork: The world has a difficult time with the female auteur.
B: I have nothing against Kanye West. Help me with this—I’m not dissing him—this is about how people talk about him. With the last album he did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second. If whatever I’m saying to you now helps women, I’m up for saying it. For example, I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats—it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album. [Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him. It really is strange.
It’s hardly surprising but it’s terrible. And these things aren’t just restricted to music journalists, but I think are pretty ingrained in the popular imagination, albeit the popular imagination of people who care this deeply about albums, which is not all that many people.
I’m not going to make any claims to a “Best of” list for 2014 because there are too many albums out there and my budget is too small to buy very many of them. But here are some 2014 albums I liked, in the order I thought of them. I’m not providing much commentary because I suck at writing about music.
St. Vincent, St. Vincent
My album of the year.
Drive-by Truckers, English Oceans
Not one of their greatest albums, but that still leaves it as quite good.
Tom Ze, Vira Lata na Via Lactea
This ancient Brazilian weirdo is still covering new ground.
A little indie pop band out of Seattle that I heard on KEXP and just thought were a lot of fun.
Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class
A country album actually about class. Huh. My only criticism is that the linked song below, in its recorded version, opens with Presley’s father talking about working in the coal mines. That’s not middle class. That’s working class. Even in an album about class, it always has to be about the middle class. If coal mining isn’t working class, what is? Well, it’s black people on welfare, which is the subtext of this song and it’s frustrating. This country sometimes. Good album though.
The New Pornographers, Brill Bruisers
Always fun. Also, Neko Case’s pants.
The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
Good rock album
Lydia Loveless, Someone Else
Awful lot of potential here.
Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Just heard this for the first time. Maybe the best country album of the year. Very Waylon.
Jerry Lee Lewis, The Knox Phillips Sessions
Archival release of the year. Jerry Lee recorded this in the late 70s with Sam Phillips’ son. “Bad Leroy Brown” is a really stupid song. Unless The Killer makes it about himself. Then it’s insane.
It’s a bit hard to believe that Wussy was featured on CBS. But so they were, including an interview about how an acclaimed rock band can be acclaimed but make absolutely no money, meaning everyone has to work day jobs. Here’s the interview:
And here’s one of the songs they performed on CBS:
A good tale of a successful band that tours well, sells out shows, and comes up $11,000 in the hole for the tour. The whole “we don’t need to buy our albums because the artists will make the money on tour” is nothing more than justification for not buying albums. The artists aren’t making money on the tour.
Since it is quiet here tonight, I might as well talk about music.
I had the occasion to have a slightly extended weekend thanks to giving a midterm and thus drove out to the far distant school where my wife teaches. In my world, that means listening to a lot of music. I know there are good podcasts out there. But none of them are as good as a good album. So I don’t listen to them. Instead, I listen to albums. And usually full length albums as opposed to what the kids these days call “playlists” what with their baggy jeans and the like.
So, on the way out there, I listened to the following:
Wooley/Rempis/Niggenkemper/Corsano, From Wolves to Whales
Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight
Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi, Friendly Pants
L7, Bricks Are Heavy
V/A, Festival in the Desert (a collection of live recordings from the annual festival in Timbuktu, although I don’t know if it still going on with the whole violence and all)
Roky Erickson, The Evil One
Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
Merle Haggard, Down Every Road, Disc 3
Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart
Bruce Cockburn, High Winds White Sky
Bonnie Prince Billy, Ease Down the Road
Sonny Rollins, Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume 2
And driving back today, here was my playlist:
Ralph Stanley, Classic Stanley Disc 1
Osborne Brothers, From Rocky Top to Muddy Bottom
Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
Herbie Hancock, Live September 1973 (some radio show recording a friend gave me years ago. As I attempt to reconstruct my music collection following the theft, I am really glad I burned this on a CD at some point)
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted
White Stripes, Elephant
Mates of State, Mountaintops
Flying Burrito Brothers, Farther Along: The Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers
Bill Frisell, The Intercontinentals
Townes Van Zandt, Townes Van Zandt
Irving Fields, Bagels and Bongos
Overall, a reasonable facsimile of my normal listening patterns.
Talk about whatever music you want.
I spent my Halloween evening in New Haven, seeing the legendary saxophonist Joe McPhee play with drummer Chris Corsano and cellist Daniel Levin at Firehouse 12. This was amazing and someone I never thought I’d get to see live. I’ve been listening to McPhee for years, especially his groundbreaking early albums like Nation Time and Trinity. This is as close to an approximation as I can get on YouTube, albeit Evan Parker gives a very different dynamic than a cellist. Technically, it was also Levin’s trio. Firehouse 12 is also an outstanding space, especially when compared to the terrible space (albeit necessary and with great shows!) that is John Zorn’s Stone on the Lower East Side. Lower rents and all that.
A note about the merchandise table. When I go to a show like this, I want to support the cause by buying a CD or two. That’s especially true at a jazz show because CDs are released on so many tiny labels that I would never hear of otherwise. But at both the Jon Dee Graham show I went to on Wednesday and this, the merch table was not exactly a priority of the musicians. Graham was talking about his CDs for sale and then immediately after the show went outside to smoke cigarettes for at least 15 minutes. I waited around that long and then couldn’t wait any longer as I had a 45 minute drive ahead of me. Last night, only Corsano hung around after the first show (I really couldn’t stay for the second as it is 100 miles from New Haven to Providence and I was tired enough when I got back to RI as it was). McPhee and Levin went to have a drink downstairs. The problem here was that McPhee hadn’t even bothered to put his music out for sale and Corsano had no idea how much Levin was selling his albums for. So I bought a couple pieces Corsano was on and that’s great–I am really excited to listen to them. But you’d like to think there’d be a bit more of a concerted effort to actually sell this stuff.
Last night, I went to see the great Jon Dee Graham at a bar in Newport, Rhode Island. I used to see Graham all the time when I lived in Austin. The gravelly-voiced songwriter is maybe the not greatest singer in the world but he is witty and funny and cranky and writes some outstanding songs. Soon after I left Texas, Graham was driving home to Austin from a show in Dallas, fell asleep, wrecked his car, and nearly died. But he’s back, albeit with about 50 more pounds on him than he had a few years ago. What this show was for me was a lesson in the difficulties of being a lifer on the road. This bar is an excellent beer bar, one of the best in Rhode Island. It was also way, way too loud for a show like this because there was no cover and most of the people didn’t care. This was just background music for them. When you are playing an acoustic guitar, that has to be incredibly frustrating and indeed it was for Graham, even though he’s probably played this kind of show 200 times. Still, he soldiered on and as the people who didn’t care about the music petered out, things got better for him and for the show. It wasn’t the same as seeing him on Wednesday night at the Continental Club performing before James McMurtry’s famed midnight sets, but it was as good as it’s going to get in Rhode Island.
Below is a clip of his most famous song. Mike June, with whom I was unfamiliar, accompanies him here. He also opened last night to a crowd that cared even less and was even louder than when Jon Dee played.