Time for another Saturday evening music conversation. A few notes:
Rob Wasserman has died. Best known for his work with Bob Weir, Wasserman was a truly great bassist.
Pop Matters is ranking the top 100 alternative singles of the 1990s. These sorts of lists are good for nothing but an argument, which is of course the point.
One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds. (The original music video for “Eye of the Tiger” features the members of Survivor marching down the street in combat formation, their collective gaze unblinking, their strides assured; it turns out they’re simply walking to band practice in a garage.) These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!
As more and more people choose to listen to music on headphones—and we are now nearly forty years deep into portable audio; I have a friend who claims he only listens to music on headphones—it seems silly not to wonder how that technology might be beginning to dictate content. If headphones allow for more introspection, do headphone users favor introspective sounds? If there’s been a thematic through line in the past several years of pop music, it’s been messages of self-reliance and liberation, songs that place us at the center of our own heroic arcs. Obviously, that’s hardly new terrain for pop, but I’d argue that it has reached a noticeable apex this decade. Are headphones partially responsible for the shift?
I’ve seen one live show since the last time I did one of these, which was Wussy at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. That’s my 3rd Wussy show. As always, it was great. They are a fantastic live band. Unfortunately however, they do not mix up the setlist. That’s always a little disappointing, to know exactly what songs you are going to hear when you walk into the show, and often in what order. My understanding is that this is basically because Chuck Cleaver thinks of a set of songs as something that improves over time they more they are played so when they hit the road, they will play the same ones repeatedly. They’ve basically come to the point where there are two songs on Strawberry that will ever be played again, one off of Left for Dead, even only three or maybe four off Attica. Given all the good material they have, I wish they’d play more of it.
Now some reviews of recent albums:
Lake Street Dive, Show Pony
Listening to Lake Street Dive caused me to think a lot more than the music intends one to think. This is a band of New England Conservatory of Music graduates making retro soul of the Aretha Franklin and Supremes style. The musicians are good and Rachael Price has an excellent voice that she uses effectively. The lyrics are reasonably witty. That said, this music lacks any sort of edge or grit at all. When I first listened to this, I thought I might be missing something in a band a lot of people think is pretty great. But then I realized that everything they do, other bands do better. The problem isn’t that they are retro–Charles Bradley, among others, does an overtly retro style quite well. It’s certainly not that this is a white band playing soul–Alice Russell or Amy Winehouse make (or, sadly, made) some pretty great music. And a band doesn’t really have to push the envelope musically or conceptually, but boy does Janelle Monae and Shamir make more interesting music. Finally, I just came to the conclusion that I don’t think Lake Street Dive is a very interesting band. They are capable and this is perfectly pleasant and some of you may find it quite enjoyable. It would work fairly well at a cocktail party or a little dance party in your house. Still, they are playing in Providence in October and maybe I will go to see if I am missing anything.
Chris Stapleton, Traveller
The former lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steel Drivers and a long-time Nashville songwriting hand, Stapleton’s solo release took the country music world by storm last year. He is a very talented singer, a good songwriter, and a charismatic performer. He plays on the outlaw country tradition without trying too hard. He does a great version of “Tennessee Whiskey” that David Allan Coe and George Jones had hits with in the 80s. My only hesitation about this album is that it is too long. Few albums need to be 65 minutes and pretty much no country albums need to be that long. That’s not some arbitrary standard. It’s really hard to write 14 good songs without filler and in a genre where the arrangements don’t really value experimentation, 65 minutes means some bloat. The back half of the album drags at times and occasionally Stapleton over-relies on vocal pyrotechnics where a more subtle approach might be better. This is good stuff and I look forward to his next project, but Traveller is not quite as great as has been advertised.
Mount Moriah, How to Dance
When I first heard this, I would never have thought it was released by Merge, except that like almost everything else that label puts out, it’s excellent. This is a country band made up of indie rock singer Heather McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller of the metal band Horseback. Does such genre hopping mean this isn’t an “authentic” band? Only if one thinks authenticity is something real or something to strive for. How to Dance is just a very solid country album with good tunes, good vocals, and good lyrics. Mount Moriah is less ambitious than Chris Stapleton but I can’t help but believing they have the better album.
Parquet Courts, Human Performance
In one of these threads awhile ago, someone suggested I listen to Parquet Courts. I realized that a friend had given me one of their albums so I did. I loved it. So I bought their new album, Human Performance. I love this too. Parquet Courts is just a great rock band. These are really interesting songs lyrically and like all their albums, there’s a great deal of variance in their arrangements, including the length of songs. It’s arresting music from a very productive band.
And now a couple of older albums I had long forgotten about.
John Cale, 1919
I’ve always felt I should like John Cale’s post-Velvet Underground material more than I do. I like his experimental side and of course I love VU. But although I really love a few of his songs (“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” especially) I still can’t get into his albums, even though I just tried again with 1919. Basically, I don’t think he’s a consistent songwriter and the arrangements are surprisingly boring. It’s a smart enough album, but I guess I will just never be a Cale fan.
Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey
For years, I basically hated reggae. I confess that this was without really sitting down and listening to it hard. When you go to college in Eugene, at least in the 1990s, reggae gets associated with white dreadlocked hippies getting stoned and listening to boring music. And that’s basically what they were doing. Then, doing a bit of traveling over the years, but especially during my year in Asia after college, you can’t enter a restaurant or bar catering to tourists in many nations without hearing “No Woman No Cry.” All of this is a bit unfair to the music itself. Over the last few years, people have snuck in a reggae album or two in stuff they have given me. I slowly started to realize there was a bit more here than I had recognized. So I put on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, really listening to this for the first time. And I have to say that it is pretty great. Yeah, reggae is still repetitive, while also being slow and mellow, making the repetition harder to listen to than, say, North Africa’s trance-like music traditions. But if you turn it up loud enough you can really hear the great horn arrangements. The politics on the album are of course fantastic without being trite. Reggae is a form of modernized folk music, at least in its early days before it became the music of stoned white dreadlocked hippies, and I don’t know how many albums do it better than Marcus Garvey. I mean that in a literal way–maybe there are a lot that do and I don’t know them. But I actually enjoyed this a lot.
As always, this is an open thread on all things music.