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Music Notes

[ 115 ] March 12, 2016 |

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A few musical items of interest.

One of my ten favorite albums of all time is back in print. That is Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages. The great guitar player died soon after making this album, just as it landed him a major label deal. This is a perfect album that moves from swing to free jazz and back. Great band too, with Elvin Jones, Pharaoh Sanders, and Charnett Moffett. This is a great review of the brilliance that is Ask the Ages. If anything 10/10 is too low. What’s interesting about the album is that it is far and away the best album he ever made. While Seize the Rainbow is pretty solid, his early work isn’t very good and when he was coaxed back into recording in the mid-80s, it was something of a mixed bag. The album he did with Nicky Skopelitis really doesn’t work at all, for instance. But Ask the Ages is transcendent. Really makes me wonder what would have come next.

I saw the Drive-By Truckers on Wednesday. It was my 10th DBT show, which is the most of any band in my life. Oddly, not only has it been 10 different venues, but 10 different cities. So I’ve seen them in big halls and small clubs, dives and beautiful old theaters. I’ve seen them with Isbell, on The Dirt Underneath tour after the band almost broke up and when the legendary Spooner Oldham was touring with them to play keyboards, and in all their iterations since. I saw the epic 36-song show at Terminal 5 in New York (an awful, barren space) on New Year’s Eve 2010 that included Patterson Hood’s dad coming out to cover some of the Muscle Shoals soul hits he had played on, playing “The Flying Wallendas” while the Flying Wallendas were performing above them, followed by set break sword swallowing, followed by Cooley covering “Delta Dawn,” followed by walking through Times Square at 3 am on January 1 during the cleanup.

This show was good, but not the best I’ve seen, largely because Patterson Hood’s voice was completely shot due to a throat thing and he was really struggling to sing. Still, he wasn’t actually sick so the music was great and of course Cooley was wonderful and singing more songs than usual. Moreover, they had the organist for the Boston Red Sox sitting in with them on keyboards for the whole show. He was great. Also, they have a new album coming out this fall. Played a few songs off of it, sounded good.

I guess I should note that Keith Emerson, keyboardist in arguably the worst band in rock and roll history, has died.

Finally, a few short reviews of some recent albums I’ve heard.

Wussy, Forever Sounds. My favorite band turns up the noise for the new album. I love it, but I don’t love these songs as much as usual. There are some gems–“Dropping Houses,” “She’s Killed Hundreds,” “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” “Donny’s Death Scene.” But at least so far I haven’t really enjoyed the second half of the album much. And there’s not the great lyrics on any song that characterized songs like “Yellow Cotton Dress,” “Motorcycle,” or “Halloween,” to name a couple from the past. Of course, it’s pretty common for Wussy albums to grow on you as you listen to them because they are so designed as albums. So I may enjoy it more going forward. Still really good, but not in love with this. B+

This video makes me wonder if there’s some weird presidential bust collection in a field somewhere I need to go visit.

Richard Thompson, Still. I’ve listened to RT for more than 20 years now, having gotten into his work in college, around the time Mirror Blue came out. I stopped buying his new albums though after Front Parlour Ballads. Still is fine–I don’t think he is capable of a bad album–but it’s not something I can see listening to frequently. His guitar work is still great and the lyrics good enough. For someone working this long, his productivity and consistency are amazing and a late-career slow fade is entirely respectable. However, I found “Guitar Heroes,” where he intimidates the guitar playing of his favorite guitarists of the past, a really annoying song. B-

Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog. This was Christgau’s favorite album of last year. I could barely get through it. I respect Laurie Anderson but I’ve never liked any of her albums. The arrangements are great. Her talking about her damn poodle for 75 minutes is however not something I am ever going to listen to again. Yes, I know it’s also about her husband Lou Reed dying, etc. But it’s mostly about the dog. Might be more interesting in the movie form. C

Matthew Shipp, The Conduct of Jazz. This was my favorite Shipp album in a long time, an equal to those great albums he did for Thirsty Ear in the early 2000s like Pastoral Composure and Equilibrium. This is also for Thirsty Ear so maybe it really comes together when he records for that label. With Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums, The Conduct of Jazz is just a lot of fun to spend time with, with Shipp in full improvisational glory. This I will buy and listen to frequently A

This can also serve as a Saturday evening open thread on anything music, or really anything unrelated to the damn election.

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Buy New Music!

[ 209 ] February 21, 2016 |

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Since this primary season makes me want to melt my own face in acid, I imagine many of you feel the same way. So here’s a good argument about nothing political at all–stop listening to the music of your teenage years and explore new tunes. Nothing says “I stopped trying to listen to music years ago” than a person saying, “The kids these days just aren’t making good music.” Of course, exploring older music also has value so even going beyond listening to Dylan and Stones records to explore Sir Douglas Quintet albums is a good idea. But this is most important for listening to new music. Which you need to do.

In early 2012, Fusilli wrote about the Gee-Bees in a column for the Journal and started a website called ReNewMusic.net, devoted to introducing out-of-touch listeners to some of the best new music being made today—from Bon Iver to D’Angelo, Frank Ocean to the Arctic Monkeys, Janelle Monae to St. Germain. And the idea led to his new book, “Catching Up: Connecting with Great 21st Century Music,” which compiles 50 of his columns with short essays on the generational bias that too often passes for deep insight or sturdy critical thinking.

“We’re surrounded by people who, despite a narrow perspective, insist the music of their youth is superior to the sounds of any other period,” he writes. “Most people who prefer old music mean no harm and it’s often a pleasure to listen to them talk about their favorite artists of the distant past. But others are bullies who intend to harangue is into submission, as if their bluster can conceal their ignorance. They ignore what seems to me something that’s self-evident: rock and pop today is as good as it’s ever been.”

This is an important idea, especially in 2016, when pop music seems like a uniquely apt medium for a range of expression. Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, among others, are addressing African-American identity and police brutality in stirring songs like “Alright” and “Formation.” Adele and Taylor Swift are writing eloquently about female desire, while Sturgill Simpson and Kacey Musgraves are helping to overturn the gloss-country establishment in Nashville. And if guitar rock is your thing, look to Australia, where acts like Courtney Barnett, Royal Headache and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are producing some of the most exciting indie-rock anthems of the decade.

The idea that these young artists should be considered alongside the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan might be easily dismissed as another form of generational bias if it came from a millennial or even a Gen-Xer. But Fusilli is a Baby Boomer who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and has been writing about music for most of his life. He has a deep knowledge of pop history and even penned an excellent book on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” (as part of the 33 1/3 series), but more crucially he possesses a driving curiosity about the new music. That makes “Catching Up” a galvanizing read even for those listeners who can name every jazz artist on “To Pimp a Butterfly” or every sample on Kanye’s “The Life of Pablo.” But Fusilli says he wrote the book for “people who are the opposite of the Gee-Bees—that is, secure in their status and welcoming of new ideas.”

In that spirit, I’ve really enjoyed the music of John Moreland in recent weeks. This is off his 2015 album, “High on Tulsa Heat,” which I strongly recommend.

And the new Wussy album is coming out soon. The first song, “Dropping Houses” is typically great.

And in the spirit of older music you might not know if you aren’t of that age, allow me to introduce you to Sir Douglas Quintet, led by the single most underrated individual in the history of rock and roll, the late great Doug Sahm, not to mention Augie Meyers on the organ. Evidently Hugh Hefner had his own late-night show where he wore a tux, interviewed people, and danced to rock and rollers like Sir Douglas Quintet. If you look carefully, you can see Michael Caine dancing as well. 1969, what a time.

Glenn Frey, RIP

[ 277 ] January 18, 2016 |

Glenn Frey is dead. It’s a hard January for fans of aging rockers.

The Eagles are about as polarizing as any band in rock history. Yet I am oddly indifferent. I find The Eagles pretty listenable but don’t own any of their albums. If a song comes on, I don’t go full Lebowski and get thrown out of the cab. I also don’t understand why their greatest hits remains one of the top selling albums of all time.

How Starsky and Hutch Shaped World Culture, Part the Zillionith

[ 57 ] January 17, 2016 |

Starsky & Hutch

Oh, OK:

When Mr. Bowie moved to Berlin, Mr. Pop occupied a room in Mr. Bowie’s apartment there “over the auto parts store,” he said. The title song for Mr. Pop’s next album, “Lust for Life,” germinated in that apartment.

Mr. Pop and Mr. Bowie, seated on the floor — they had decided chairs were not natural — were waiting for the Armed Forces Network telecast of “Starsky & Hutch.” The network started shows with a call signal that, Mr. Pop said, went “beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep,” the rhythm, which is also like a Motown beat, that was the foundation for “Lust for Life.” Mr. Pop recalled, “He wrote the [chord] progression on ukulele, and he said, ‘Call it “Lust for Life,” write something up.’”

The amount of cocaine involved in this story is unknown at this time.

I Want to Sign Up for Professor Ra’s Class

[ 29 ] January 3, 2016 |

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You need Sunday School today. Specifically, to listen to Professor Sun Ra lecture in his course he gave in 1971 at UC-Berkeley titled “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” The best part about this is that you can actually hear him writing on the chalkboard. I can only imagine what a whole semester of this was like. Also, what was on the final?

Sun Ra’s level of total awesomeness in all forms is unmatched in the history of American music.

Eleven Albums I Loved in 2015 And Nineteen More I Thought Were Worthy

[ 96 ] December 31, 2015 |

I don’t know how people really come up with definitive Top 10 album lists. But everyone loves them. Even the AARP has one! I listen to a ton of music, at almost every waking moment, and unless you are dedicated strictly to listening to new music in order to produce a list like this, I don’t see how you can come up with anything definitive. The number of albums compared to, say, the number of films released in American theaters makes the latter a possible task and the former impossible. Plus I still buy a lot of older albums as well (for whatever reason most of the new jazz I got in the last year is actually 2-5 years old so that’s really underrepresented here) In any case, here are my 10 favorite 2015 albums, a list that will probably look way different a year from now when I listen to a lot more 2015 albums in between listening to 2016 albums and all my older albums.

1) Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love. A perfect comeback album for one of the 10 best rock bands to ever exist. Let’s just embed an entire show.

2) Torres, Sprinter. I thought this was just great. MacKenzie Scott has a tremendous amount of emotion in every note of her voice. I’ve heard her songs described as storms because of that voice. A really powerful album.

3) Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. On everyone’s list and deservedly so. “Pedestrian at Best” was my most listened to 2015 song.

4) Ibeyi, Ibeyi. This is hard to describe. These are twin sisters, daughters of a famous Cuban musician, who sing in English and Yoruba using fairly sparse and often minimal instrumentation. And it’s just great.

5) Bomba Estéreo, Amanecer. This is a Colombian band combining elements of hip-hop, electronics, and traditional Colombian folk music, including a lot of traditional instruments. Really glad I ran across this.

6) Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color. I like the first Alabama Shakes album OK, but thought this was a huge artistic jump, with a serious move into psychedelic music.

7) Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp. Call it whiny hipster music if you want. The problem you’ll face is that Katie Crutchfield is really good at what she does.

8) Tal National, Zoy Zoy. This band from Niger is another of my favorite finds of 2015. Incredibly enjoyable music

9) Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Goin Down. Guitar rock for the 21st century.

10) DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet, Rebirth of a Nation. DJ Spooky decided to create his own soundtrack to Birth of a Nation. You can read about his thoughts on it here. He recorded it with the Kronos Quartet. Makes for one of the most interesting albums of the year.

Live Album of the Year is far and away Drive-By Truckers, It’s Great to Be Alive. This amazing live band had never put out a proper live album. At this point in their career, even a 35-song, 3 1/2 hour beast doesn’t feel like enough because a lot of your favorites weren’t on there. Songs that are often overlooked like “Sounds Better in the Song” and “Space City” are great while “The Devil Don’t Stay” is just awesome. Great stuff.

Others albums I liked to various degrees in 2015, many of which I will no doubt listen to a lot more next year:

1) James McMurtry, Complicated Game
2) Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
3) Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
4) Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
5) Ashley Monroe, The Blade
6) Christopher Paul Stelling, Labor Against Waste
7) Joanna Gruesome, Peanut Butter
8) Dave Rawlings Machine, Nashville Obsolete
9) Daniel Romano, If I’ve Only One Time Asking
10) Robert Glasper, Covered
11) The Go! Team, The Scene Between
12) Olivia Chaney, The Longest River
13) John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
14) Fred Thomas, All Are Saved
15) Shamir, Ratchet
16) Mbongwana Star, From Kinshasa
17) Dave Douglas, High Risk
18) Dwight Yoakam, Second Hand Heart
19) Sarah Gayle Meech, Tennessee Love Song

When James Brown Played the Grand Ole Opry

[ 51 ] December 29, 2015 |

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In the 1970s, James Brown and Porter Wagoner became friends. Wagoner was of course a major player in country music and so he managed to schedule the Godfather of Soul in the nation’s least friendly venue to his kind of music, the Grand Ole Opry. It shouldn’t have been so hostile, as country and soul musicians were borrowing from each other all the time during these years. But by the 1970s, the country music establishment self-identified with the politics of white backlash and social conservatism (it wasn’t actually true that Earl Scruggs was the only Nashville star who voted for McGovern but it was close enough) and its audience loved hearing Merle Haggard singing “The Fighting Side of Me,” even if Haggard may or may not have believed in the message. Country music of the period is full of one-off right-wing songs as everyone sought to take advantage of the culture wars.

James Brown, of course, was the opposite of everything the country music establishment stood for in the 1970s. He was a symbol of black nationalism, a man of flashy brashness that challenged the white supremacy of country music fans, a man playing at Zaire ’74 instead of the Grand Ole Opry’s Nixon rallies.

But Porter Wagoner didn’t care. He knew Brown was a great performer and felt that if country musicians and fans opened their minds, they would recognize how great he was in a county format. Thus, he managed to get Brown scheduled on the Grand Ole Opry in 1979. Sadly, it did not go well. Even before the performance, the Nashville establishment was angry.

“I could throw up,” said piano player Del Wood in the most eloquent of the Opry outbursts. “It’s not an antiblack issue, don’t get us wrong, it’s not racial. She went on to praise DeFord Bailey, O.B. McClinton and Charley Pride. Since her own piano style was strongly ragtime (Del was the only female country act to have a Top 10 instrumental hit), she was no doubt sincere. “The next thing you know, they’ll be doing the strip out there.”

Jean Shepard was Jean Shepard: “The Grand Ole Opry is supposed to be a mainstay in country music-and it’s fighting for its life. What’s he going to sing, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’? She condemned the Opry management and said Opry fans weren’t going to enjoy tuning in and getting James Brown. “And you can’t tell me rock n’ rollers are going to wait six hours to hear James Brown. It’s a slap in the face to those people who drive thousands of miles to see the Opry and have to be subjected to James Brown. If Mr. Brown’s on the first show, I’ll appear on the second. If he’s on both, I won’t appear at all.”

Justin Tubb said, “I don’t understand it. None of us do. If it was Ray Charles, I’d be waiting to hug him when he came off the stage,” recalling Ray’s albums of country songs. Ben Smathers of the Smoky Mountain Cloggers square dance act said George D. Hay would be turning over in his grave. Of Opry stars, only Skeeter Davis spoke publicly in Porter’s defense.

Skeeter Davis, it should be noted, was pretty awesome.

The performance itself was not particularly well-received, in part because the Opry hamstrung Brown.

At the Opry on the night of James performance, some of those opposed organized a boycott. Opry officials were worried that the backstage area was going to be very empty so Bud Wendell began offering backstage passes to anyone who wanted to see James Brown. It worked as it was reported that over 300 people showed up backstage that night.

When James performed on the Opry that night, he used Porter’s band and the Opry would not allow him to use his horn section. He performed a number of standard country songs including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” “Georgia” and “Tennessee Waltz.” He then kicked into “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and took off from there. He did the splits and the microphone tosses that he was famous for. The reponse was what you would have expected.

Roy Acuff was quoted as saying “I wish I could go out there and speak my mind, but I won’t.” Dolores Smiley said, “I drove to the Opry and heard James Brown over the car radio, and when I got there it was abuzz in the backstage area. I purposely arrived late. It sounded terrible on the radio. When I got backstage, everyone was outraged and upset. I thought it was funny.”

It was reported that he broke all Opry records and performed for over 30 minutes. Porter would later say that he recorded it and it was actually 17 minutes. It just seemed longer. He did do an encore, but it was reported that he received what most Opry acts get and that was polite applause.

Satoko Fujii’s Tobira

[ 15 ] November 21, 2015 |

I was lucky enough to see Satoko Fujii’s quarter Tobira, starring my college roommate Todd Nicholson on bass, at Firehouse 12 in New Haven this evening. This is a clip from a recent show in Buenos Aires. They have one last stop on a tour that can only end in one city if you start in Buenos Aires and that’s Troy, New York. That show is tomorrow and you should go if you live in the Capital Region.

Ibeyi

[ 2 ] October 4, 2015 |

One band I’ve been listening to a lot lately is Ibeyi. For fairly minimalist music, there’s a lot going on here. They have an interesting backstory too, daughters of a famous Cuban musician who sing in both English and Yoruba. Probably not for all tastes, but certainly for mine.

This is also a good place for a reminder that I will be speaking at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Tuesday at 7. I hope to meet many of you! Books will be for sale and I love signing random things as well.

Over the Tallest Bridge in the State of Ohio

[ 44 ] October 2, 2015 |

We haven’t had a thread about the nation’s best band of the last decade lately, so it’s worth noting that “Little Miami” might be the best song Wussy has ever recorded. Chuck Cleaver thinks so anyway. I can’t really argue, although there are 5 or 6 others that I think have a claim to the title.

Irving Fields

[ 6 ] October 1, 2015 |

The other day I was listening to an album by the great Irving Fields, the brilliant pianist who merged jazz, the sort of Jewish-American popular music I associate with Catskills resorts in the 1950s, and Latin music in the 1950s, making legendary albums like Bagels and Bongos and Champagne and Bongos, which are just flat out pleasant and fun albums to listen to. I knew Fields was still working even though he is very old. I did a little research and found out that he just turned 100 and still plays at an Italian restaurant in New York. I’ve actually known about that for awhile and have never gone when I’m in the city, which is a huge error, even when time is limited as it often is there. The video in the attached article plays him up a bit as a lovable and slightly silly very old man, unfortunately not uncommon in a society that infantilizes the very old. But he can still play. And if you haven’t heard Bagels and Bongos, do it. He also recorded some excellent albums for Tzadik, John Zorn’s label, and the one with the percussionist Roberto Rodriguez is really fantastic. Highly recommended.

Music Reads for Your Tuesday

[ 8 ] September 1, 2015 |

Oum-Khaltoum

Above: Oum Khaltoum

This is a great read taking you on a tour of the first recorded music from spots around the world in the mid to late 1920s. Well worth your time.

And a discussion on the evolution of the cheating song in country music.

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