Born in Clarinda, Iowa in 1904, Glenn Miller moved around the Great Plains in his early years, eventually settling in Fort Morgan, Colorado where he became a prominent high school football player. He picked up the trombone at an early age and became especially interested in the dance band music of the early 1920s adapted from jazz. He attended the University of Colorado, playing music more than attending classes. He dropped out and joined a series of bands. By 1928, he realized that he had a greater future as a band leader than a trombonist. He started writing and publishing his own music while playing in bands with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman to keep himself fed. He struggled to make his name as a bandleader He finally managed to have success in 1938 when he developed a new band around clarinets and saxophones that made his music standout compared to the other white jazz bands. By 1939 he was a national star. He got his own radio show sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, appearing three times a week until Miller joined the military in 1942. His biggest hit was his recording of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in 1942, which went gold. Despite making up to $20,000 a week in 1942, he wanted desperately to volunteer for the war. He was too old for a volunteer soldier, but he convinced the army to bring him on to develop military bands. He was very successful at this, bringing the military’s music into a post-Sousa era and creating another popular radio show around this music. He based his military band first in New Haven, but then in New York and London, where they performed over 800 times. After the Allies retook Paris, Miller planned to move his band there to continue supporting the fight against fascism. However, flying there on December 15, 1944, his plane went down over the English Channel, probably for mechanical reasons. His body was never found.
Miller appeared in a couple of films, Sun Valley Serenade in 1941 and Orchestra Wives in 1942. He was also a band member in the 1935 film The Big Broadcast of 1936. Of course, he was also famously portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s 1954 film The Glenn Miller Story. Ray Daley also played him in the 1959 Melville Shavelson film The Five Pennies.
I suppose I should say something about Miller’s music. I personally don’t think it holds up real well and it’s hard for me to hear it, or that of the Dorseys and Goodman, that it’s a black cultural form completely bleached so white that even mid-twentieth century white Americans don’t feel threatened by it. Of course, he had a great sense of melody and the band was successful for a reason, but listening to Miller and then listening to Ellington or Armstrong, well, it’s hard to think so much of Miller.
Glenn Miller’s memorial stone is in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.
Another Saturday evening, another discussion of the glories of music.
On Sunday, I had the tremendous honor of seeing Wadada Leo Smith at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. Smith, the great trumpeter and one of the most amazing living musicians, was a founding member of the AACM and a man who is making the best music of his career in his 70s. These guys never play a whole lot, especially outside of New York and Chicago, so I had to take advantage of this opportunity, realizing it would probably not come back. And it was pretty amazing. There were 3 parts to the show. The first was quite special. Smith played a solo quartet of Thelonious Monk pieces. Now, you might say “big deal,” you see Monk covers all the time. But here’s the thing: in his entire 5-decade career, Smith had never played a Monk piece in public. He discussed how much Monk meant to him and that he didn’t feel ready to do this until now. So that was pretty special. At least until some idiot’s cell phone went off in the middle of “Round About Midnight.”
The second part of the show was one of Smith’s chamber pieces. It was him, an electronics guy, and four violas. This was also outstanding. He said he chose the violas because no one else likes them. Among the viola players was Jason Kao Hwang, who I have heard on many recordings.
Finally, the third piece was the second half of his amazing America’s National Parks album with his Golden Quartet. Smith had played the previous night too, with different compositions and he played the first half of the national parks deal that night. This was just absolutely unbelievable. Not only are these amazingly beautiful compositions, but the band is shockingly great. I was most excited by sitting right in front of the great drummer Pheroan akLaff, who I have long admired for his work with the legendary Sonny Sharrock in the late 80s and early 90s, before the great guitarist died far too young. To see his amazing work up that close was incredible. The band also included his long-time collaborator (47 years!) Anthony Davis on piano, Ashley Walters on cello, John Lindberg on bass, and Jesse Gilbert doing the video instillation that went along with it. A great night of music and just a very special occasion.
He then concluded by keeping everyone for an extra 15 minutes talking about random things, such as how tired he is after taking care of his grandkids.
I also want to point out that in the national parks set, Smith was lined up to the side of the stage. So I could see his music stand. His scores, they look like this.
One of the many mysteries of creative music.
A few tidbits:
If you like trolling, this list of the 10 lamest Americana acts is good for it. I think I am more angry about including Wayne Hancock than Jason Isbell or Lucinda Williams. Do not say bad things about Wayne, who among other things not only wrote “Thunderstorms and Neon Signs,” one of the greatest songs of all time, but who also got me through the night after the election with a show in Providence where I really needed the power of music during a very, very bad day.
J. Geils died. Largely this is notable for that fact that I’ve never known anyone whose taste I respect who had anything to say about this band at all. It’s also worth nothing the number of terrible yet popular rock bands from Boston over the years. Please take this opportunity to discuss what a terrible person I am because I am not respecting the departed.
I first heard Houndmouth when I saw them open for Drive-By Truckers at a show in Fort Worth in 2012, I think. They had a good sound so I bought their album. I still think they have a good sound. But the lyrics were so much about being tough and drugs and all that and honestly, their sound, which includes some great harmony, their look, and their background, all screamed being kind of poseurs on this stuff. For a bunch of white kids from suburban Louisville, they were sure claiming a lot. Still, the sound was good enough to keep me interested. This is their second album, from 2015. They usefully cut way down on the faux-toughness, although I still don’t think the writing is all that great. But boy they can harmonize well and they sing well as a collective. I am curious as to where this band goes, given that Katie Toupin, the only woman in the group, has left to pursue a solo career. They may well survive and make great music without her, but a female voice adds an awful lot to a band like this that relies so much on harmony and group singing. Anyway, still an interesting band, but still room for improvement.
William Parker, For Those Who Are, Still.
I am physically exhausted after listening to this 2015 release for the last 3 1/2 hours. William Parker is one of the most underrated musicians in the history of American music. His presence at the center of New York’s new music scene has been absolutely vital for nearly three decades now. His incredibly creativity and experimentation produces amazing work after amazing work. In recent years, he has returned to something a bit more like swing and funk, as well as the use of a lot more vocals. This is mostly not that. This is a 3-disc behemoth from 2015 that combines free jazz elements with Schoenberg-style modernist compositions. Each disc has completely different musicians The whole thing is great music, but each disc is different. The first begins with a 28 minute paean to Fannie Lou Hamer which describes in detail (Parker wrote the text and Leena Conquest speaks) Hamer getting beaten by Missisppi thugs, and then goes into the Schoenberg stuff, also with Conquest. As I have stated before, I am not a big fan of modern jazz vocals, in part because it doesn’t sound natural. That’s the case here too, but no one can say this isn’t interesting, at the very least. The second, a suite called Red Giraffe with Dreadlocks, brings vocalists from India, primarily Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, into Parker’s music for the first time (I think) which incredible results. This is an amazing piece of music, anchored by Hamid Drake, Rob Brown, Klass Hekman, Mola Sylla, and Cooper-Moore. This combines Indian and African music with Parker’s jazz compositions. As he said about it, “We don’t invent sounds, we are allowed to encounter them; we don’t own them, they existed before we were born and will be here after we are gone.” Even if this doesn’t really make any sense, it fits the music very well.
Most of the third disc is made up of a suite called Ceremony For Those Who Are Still, with the NFM Symphony Orchestra and of course Parker on bass. And then it ends with a 25 minute tribute to Sonny Rollins that features Charles Gayle and Mike Reed, who also play on the previous composition. It’s tiring just writing about this. Parker is a great artist and this is one of his greatest works.
No one seems to have put any of this album up on YouTube, but here’s another of Parker’s many amazing compositions, this one from his tribute to Curtis Mayfield.
Plus Sized Dan with Marshall Ruffin
This 2015 EP is from this Georgia-based production team called Plus Sized Dan and the singer and guitarist Marshall Ruffin. There are almost no reviews of this and it took me awhile to figure how I heard about it (Christgau). But this is a pretty solid set of folk-rock songs. A worthy listen.
Michael Kiwanuka, Love and Hate
I suppose at this point, there isn’t too much new to say in soul music. But working within an established genre can also be a completely rewarding thing. It’s no different than country music, where you probably aren’t going to see huge steps in some new creative direction, but where quality work can be deeply satisfying. That’s what I felt about Kiwanuka’s 2016 album, which reminds me a lot of something Bill Withers would have done in about 1972. I say that as a complete compliment. “Cold Little Heart” slowly builds over a 5 minute instrumental opening until Kiwaunka’s excellent voice takes over. Songs like “Love & Hate” and “Father’s Child” include excellent guitar work too. Fun album.
Grimes, Art Angels
The stage name of the Canadian singer Claire Boucher, this 2015 album was real popular with the Pitchfork set. It’s electronically creative. Boucher has an interesting voice. But that voice is also incredibly annoying. At times she sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks. The best track here is the one that features Janelle Monae. There’s a reason for that. It’s interesting pop music, but I can’t get over the voice.
Robert Glasper Experiment, ArtScience
I know people love Glasper because he’s all in with Kendrick Lamar and other leading pop artists. And he has a great pop sensibility. In addition, I have no investment in people trying police boundaries of genres, so I don’t care whether this is jazz or soul or funk or whatever (depends on the song). The question is whether it is good music. And I’m not always convinced. I picked up Covered awhile back and found it just kind of OK and even boring in some places. ArtScience is not boring, but I don’t think it’s overly successful either. Some songs are pretty interesting, others quite rote. “Day to Day” is really nothing but a cheesy 70s-style pop song. Yes, the musicians are good, but is this good R&B? I don’t really think it’s all that great.
The only story I have about Chuck Berry is that he was the opening act for the only Grateful Dead show I ever saw. This was in Portland in 1995. The last tour. I was as excited or more so to see Chuck than the Dead. But the traffic was so terrible that by the time I got in, Berry had just finished. I was super bummed. But at least I got to wait an hour and a half until the Dead came on stage and that gave me time to watch people trip on acid in 95 degree heat.
Neil Young studio albums, ranked.
1) Tonight’s the Night
2) Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
3) On the Beach
4) After the Gold Rush
6) Comes a Time
9) Harvest Moon
10) Ragged Glory
Del McCoury may be the last great artist in a dying tradition of music. I am loathe to call any music dying, but it’s hard not to feel that way about bluegrass. And it’s really too bad. Basically created by Bill Monroe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, who combined traditional mountain music with jazz, western swing, and Tin Pan Alley, this was an inventive, commercial music, even if it was also primarily regional music. It continued to evolve through the more mainstream Flatt and Scruggs and more mountain music of the Stanley Brothers and then especially Ralph Stanley’s solo career. In the 1970s, it became a favored music of the counterculture and moved in a number of different ways from there, including John Hartford’s deep respect for tradition that he combine with goofing off in fun ways to the Newgrass stuff of people like David Grisman and Sam Bush to the neo-traditionalism of Old and In the Way, the Peter Rowan and Jerry Garcia fronted group that was the first introduction to the music for a lot of people.
As with many forms of music in the 1980s, bluegrass went into a real down phase, with people like Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley (who both played in Ralph Stanley’s band as teenagers in the mid 70s) leaving for mainstream country. But when bluegrass was revived in the 1990s and especially after the release of O Brother Where Art Thou, it came back as an utterly ossified dinosaur of a genre that did not allow for experimentation or innovation. When Karl Shiflett decided to add a snare drum to his outfit in the early 2000s, which was not uncommon in bluegrass in the 1950s, there was such an angry backlash to it from traditionalists that he had to dump the idea. And since then, it’s remained just as mummified, with very tight but also bound bands playing pretty scripted numbers the norm. It’s a real shame. The music just doesn’t live and breathe on the stage or the album. It serves to fulfill the very narrow expectations of a decline number of consumers.
Del McCoury has been around forever and has lived through most of these changes. In the 1990s, his band that included his two sons became probably the best working bluegrass band, even if it also reinforced some of that stiff new music. He’s a fine guitarist with a good sense of fun. His album with Steve Earle was pretty great and it got him a lot of fame, even if the two men ended their collaboration on pretty bad terms (McCoury claimed it was that Earle swore too much on stage, Earle said Del wanted more money. Could have been both).
For 20 or so years now, Woody Guthrie’s family has been commissioning artists to record some of his many songs that he never recorded or left music for. Who knows what Woody would have thought, but this takes his words and allows musicians to play with them. There was the two albums that Wilco and Billy Bragg collaborated on and another done by The Klezmatics. Now there’s this with Del McCoury. It works pretty well. He largely avoids the political songs, which is so central to Woody’s worldview that it does undermine the album slightly, even as the politics are often overplayed in public discussions of the man. But it’s a worthy experiment and a nice late career move by McCoury.
Bonnie Prince Billy/Bitchin Bajas, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties
Will Oldham, aka, Bonnie Prince Billy, has had a long and varied career. At his best, some of his albums (Viva Last Blues, I See a Darkness, Superwolf) are among the finest of the last 25 years. At his worst, he is unlistenable. I respect him for continuing to experiment. And I am genuinely interested in his new Merle Haggard cover album that mostly covers obscure Hag songs. But this is awful. Bitchin Bajas is this sort of pointless post-rock sort of avant garde band that makes minimalist music. BPB mumbles some lyrics repetitively at low volume over this. Some friends of mine saw the tour of this album last year and said it was bad. So I was already a little skeptical. I should have taken their advice and not have given this a spin. Pitchfork called it a “jam session” created through “improvisational democracy.” Give me authoritarianism in the studio any day. Or if I can’t have that, at least make it loud.
Natalie Hemby, Puxico
Do you like solid country music by a good singer who writes good songs? If you do, you will find the new album by Natalie Hemby enjoyable. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s good. And in the world of country music, there is something incredibly soothing and wonderful about a woman writing and singing heartfelt songs that don’t reek of the cheap nostalgia or cliched production of mainstream Nashville.
Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana
I feel in love with Foil Deer, one of the best albums of 2015. So I went back and listened to this 2013 album. It is a fine album, but not nearly to the quality of Foil Deer. The guitars are nice and loud and Sadie DuPuis has a great rock voice. But the songs aren’t quite there, as they would be on the second album. This is hardly surprising and this is certainly a good debut. “Plough” is a particularly excellent song. Hopefully the third album will come out soon.
Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
I was ordered by a colleague to listen to Parker Millsap. Since my tenure decision doesn’t come for 6 days, what choice did I have? Millsap has a vibe pretty similar to Jason Isbell, although a bit more bluesy. A bit of Jimmy LaFave in this too, another Oklahoma songwriter you never have heard of. “Heaven Sent” is a particularly good song. And as a long-term believer in covers, I thought his version of “You Gotta Move,” the old Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell song of course made famous by the Stones on Sticky Fingers was pretty interesting. But I don’t love this. It’s completely fine, but then I am often a bit impatient with singer-songwriter material with a heavy blues tinge.
Beverly, The Blue Swell
Good quality indie dream pop on this 2016 album from this Brooklyn band. Drew Citron has an outstanding voice for this sort of music. Good lyrics, good guitars. I find myself listening to a lot of bands like this these days and I imagine Beverly will be the next.
Joey Purp, iiiDrops
This is a pretty fantastic piece of work. This Chicago rapper best known for his work with Chance the Rapper, he writes some great lyrics about the trauma of killing and about the social changes he sees in society. With lines like “Now up in the corners where killers used to inhabit/They built a row of new condos where they tore down project buildings” he sums up gentrification in cities like his own in about 2 seconds. As is all too common, his social observations don’t exactly extend to women. Alas. But great album nonetheless.
Angel Olsen, My Woman
The singing might be a touch melodramatic, but Angel Olsen certainly call pull it off. Ultimately an album about love and solitude and self-awareness, this also has consistently solid and interesting instrumental work. With a couple of long sounds telling big stories around tighter pieces and a stark piano tune at the end, this is a pretty good album.
Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
This is a classic rock album for the modern day. I was somewhat familiar with him from his work with Alejandro Escovedo, but then the latter’s albums over the last decade haven’t been very good. So I hadn’t ever really paid attention to Prophet before. But this new album got a lot of acclaim and I have to say that it is pretty impressive. It has a lot of classic rock influences in a way that I don’t listen to a whole lot anymore but which are enjoyable nonetheless and combines that with some really smart lyrics. The title track itself gives you a sense of what you are going to get here. This is primarily a rock album’s rock album, with songs about playing in crappy clubs, dead rock musicians, and Connie Britten, the actress who played the coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights. But it’s not apolitical either, closing with a paean to Alex Nieto, killed by San Francisco police, in a good rocker. A fine guitarist on top of it all.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music, or anything that is not politics.
On a recent trip to New Mexico, I saw a band called Lone Piñon play at the Historic San Ysidro Church in Corrales. This is a very interesting musical project. As you may know, over the past 20 years or so, there have been several projects that revive old, often nearly lost music. The Freighthoppers, reasonably popular in the late 90s and who I am very happy to have seen once, did it for Appalachian music of the 30s. Carolina Chocolate Drops received a lot of acclaim for doing the same for black Appalachian music. There are occasional Cajun revival bands and the like. What you don’t really see is much attention paid to the New Mexican musical tradition. Of course, New Mexican music has a tremendous amount in common with music from parts of Mexico the United States didn’t steal in a grotesquely unjust war to expand slavery. And because Mexican music hasn’t had the impact on American popular music and because it is sung in Spanish, it hasn’t received the attention of revivalists.
Lone Piñon is an attempt to change that. It plays New Mexican and Mexican music from the 1930s-1950s, learning field recordings of ancient tunes and adapting them to the present. What’s interesting about this band is that two of the three members are white kids other areas, including the singer who was trained in the Ozark tradition of Missouri. He’s fluent in Spanish but obviously has an accent. I wondered how people would respond to this; it’s not as if Hispano New Mexican culture is exactly all that open to outside appropriation. But certainly no one seemed to mind. They’ve been playing with a young fiddler of New Mexican heritage and see gave a really heartfelt little speech about how she loved this music but felt it was ossified and dead and now she didn’t feel this way anymore. And that summed up the tenor in the room. There were a lot of people, some Albuquerque area cultural aficionados and some people from the Hispano communities from around the area. Just a lot of love and joy. And they are a pretty great band. Very interesting stuff and a very rewarding show.
I then saw Tacocat play at the incomparable Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. This is the most unique concert venue I have ever seen. Basically, it’s a large building where they have a created a sort of Victorian house inside. They hire artists to design a different room. And to say the least, it’s a huge mind trip. Open the refrigerator in the kitchen and there’s a corridor leading to hidden rooms. Go into another room and see this weird light show that you can adjust by playing with video game knobs. Enter another have be bombarded with weird video installations. Enter the bedrooms and watch an alarm clock go on the fritz. Or go into the closet of another and find yet another hidden passageway. This is one heck of a unique place. It also fills an enormous gap in the New Mexico music scene. New Mexico is pretty terrible for music. Albuquerque is fine if you like metal. If you don’t, there’s not much. Bands just don’t play there, even though it has 500,000 people. Santa Fe is small and snooty. In the 7 years I lived there, the state simply lacked even a decent venue for an indie band. And then it built basically the best one ever. As for the music, Tacocat is a lot of fun live. Emily Nokes is a very good performative lead singer, not only with the voice, but with the dancing and the fashion and the posing. The band’s political yet fun lyrics about street harassment, mansplaining, menstruation, and other such topics work really, really well live. Also, evidently the shark costumes when Katy Perry performed in the Super Bowl were stolen from a Tacocat video. The opening bands were fine too. Daddy Issues is a fun straight ahead girl band of a genre I like. The Simple Pleasures are an 80s electropop band that brings in a lot of modern computer-based sound. Less my thing, but completely fine to see live.
The people who run SXSW seem nice. Also, thanks for ruining Austin for 2 weeks with your festival of music executive jerkoffs walking around with their huge badges and making downtown a nightmare zone. And this was 10 years ago, god knows how bad it is now.
Darius Jones, Le Bébé de Brigitte (Lost in Translation)
This 2015 album is a tour de force from this amazing saxophonist. Released on AUM-Fidelity, a label that consistently releases outstanding material, this album squawks, it honks, and it even has its moments of funk. With Ches Smith on drums, Sean Conly on bass, and Matt Mitchell on piano, this is a great band. I’m a bit less a fan of Emilie Lesbros’ lyrics at times, not because she sings in French but because she sometimes just makes mouth noises that can get in the way of the rest of the music. Of course, what is free jazz but a bunch of people making creative noise and I confess I am less a fan of jazz vocals of all styles than some. She certainly has a heck of a range and I do enjoy her more conventional vocals here. The songs tend toward the ballad but with the great range that free jazz provides. Overall this is very much worth a listen.
Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, Epicenter
I saw this band play a year or so ago in New Haven and they were great. Both of their albums are outstanding as well. This is the latest, from 2015. With the wonderful Craig Taborn not only on piano but also Fender Rhodes, Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek on saxophone, the wonderful Gerald Cleaver on drums, and of course Lightcap on bass, this band really sizzles. And while jazz covers of rock songs can be cliched, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is pretty great here.
Jesca Hoop, Memories Are Now
This confident album sounds a bit like a cross between Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom. She’s an interesting story, as she was the nanny of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and they encouraged her to become a professional musician. It was certainly a worthwhile discovery. With songs about escaping Mormonism and the excesses of consumerism and a voice with a wide range that go from the flighty (thus, the Newsom comparison) to the intense, it’s a solid album.
Yo Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble, Sing Me Home
Several years ago, a friend gave me a copy of the early Yo Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble album Silk Road Journeys. I enjoyed it a good bit, a combination of traditional classical music from not only the western but the eastern traditions, a blending of some very different styles in a great band. But I hadn’t paid much attention to their follow up work until Sing Me Home came out last year. This is a sort of world tour of this band, taking their style and bringing in guests such as Bill Frisell, Toumani Diabate, and Rhiannon Giddens, among many others. It works pretty well (Frisell is of course recognizable after the 2nd note), but I don’t think I like this as well as I did the focus on Asia of the earlier album. This seeks to consider ideas of home around the world and as such, it switches styles pretty radically from song to song. None of it fails and the version of “St. James Infirmary” is quite striking. But as a concept, I found the constant genre swapping a little distracting. It’s certainly well worth a listen though as the music itself is impeccable.
Erik Friedlander, Rings
Friedlander is part of the experimental jazz scene that revolved around the string quartets and other chamber music arrangements that John Zorn did a lot of 15 or so years ago. Along with people such as Mark Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier, Friedlander turned his writing and playing heavily toward modern chamber music. Rings is a 2016 entry in his catalog. He plays with his frequent collaborator Satoshi Takeshi on percussion and Shoko Nagai on piano. The album is sort of a journey around the world to a small extent weaving in different styles, but it’s subtle. Friedlander also uses looping technology for the first time, again in a subtle way. Primarily this is a pretty interesting album of often lovely music, although I’d like to be grabbed by the throat by it a bit more.
Chaya Czernowin, Maim
This Israeli composer has written a set of intense compositions. Written for a large orchestra, it provides 45 minutes of intricate soundscapes, full of oboes and other underutilized instruments. Seen as one of the most interesting and compelling composers working today, this is a pretty arresting recording.
Japandroids, Near to the Wild Heart of Life
I seem to remember listening to Japandroids’ last album all the way back when it was released in 2012 and feeling indifferent about it. I’m not really sure why because Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a really solid rock and roll album. Short at 8 songs because they claim so many of the best rock albums have 8 songs, this is a tight rock band playing at a high level. As bands do these days, they wear their classic rock influences on their sleeves, which is fine. I’m not saying this is some sort of brilliant work, but it’s a good rock album and we all need good rock albums.
A couple of older albums:
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg
I had never actually listened to this before. I have had Histoire de Melody Nelson for years and always loved it. These of course go very well together, largely because Gainsbourg combined a great musical sense with being a creepy old man into much younger women. Birkin was 22 when this came out in 1969; Gainsbourg was 41. “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus” is one of the great sex songs of all time and the whole thing holds together wonderfully behind his great arrangements. I don’t per se find Birkin’s vocals all that remarkable, but they certainly work well enough.
Henry Mancini, A Warm Shade of Ivory
Mancini is one of those mid-century figures that I knew primarily from him showing up on Christmas albums that I think my parents were given by my grandfather. I always thought of him vaguely in the Sinatra vein of mid-century music. But now listening to Sinatra a lot more than I used to, I picked this 1969 album up on a lark, primarily because it starts with “In the Wee Small Hours.” But I sure enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Evidently, it’s much more focused on Mancini’s solos than most of his albums, but I can’t compare it as it’s the first album of his I have listened to. What I heard was a great set of romantic songs, lushly orchestrated and just highly enjoyable, particularly for moments where maybe I don’t want to think too much.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music, or anything except politics.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As always, an open thread for all things music, or whatever so long as there are no politics.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As always, open thread on music or whatever else is going to keep your soul alive in the next 4 years.
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.