Time for one of my occasional catch-all music posts.
Pitchfork released a list of the Top 200 Songs of the 70s. To say the least, this represents a hipster’s modern taste without a real representation of the variety of 70s music. Way too much David Bowie, a few nods to country, jazz, and anything outside the English speaking world at the bottom, and then the precise songs that seem the hippest today. It’s not a bad list, but it’s way short on a lot of genres. And again, too much Bowie.
Sturgill Simpson got very angry this week that the country music establishment is naming everything under the sun after Merle Haggard. He’s angry because the establishment eschewed Haggard for the last three decades of his life and Merle hated them. But as David Cantwell points out, this stance is really contradictory, not only because Simpson himself is to say the least not nearly the traditionalist he makes himself out to be, but also because Haggard himself frequently changed his style to stay popular and because Simpson’s rant is just another in a long tradition of authenticity police officers of the genre that don’t help:
But as I reread Simpson’s posts, I started getting a bad if-all-too-familiar taste in my mouth. There was the militant opposition between what gets played on the radio and what Simpson termed “actual country music.” There was the condescending claim that country audiences are dupes, the unwitting victims of “formulaic cannon fodder bullshit” that’s been “pumped down rural America’s throat for the last 30 years” (and this about a genre that hasn’t been primarily “rural” since before Merle Haggard started cutting records in the early 1960s). There were the studied sour grapes of complaining you haven’t been embraced by either the mainstream country industry or the mainstream radio audience even while boasting you neither need nor desire such acceptance.
And then there was that here-we-go-again sign off, which surely reminded at least few of us older Sturgill Simpson fans of a 1997 song by Robbie Fulks called “Fuck This Town.” Fulks was (and is—his new album is super) a hyper-talented singer-songwriter in his own right. But his music was also a ’90s version of what Slate music critic Carl Wilson has more recently termed “Country for People Who Don’t Like Country.” In the song, Fulks laments that Nashville’s mainstream country music industry will survive “as long as there’s a moron market/ And a faggot in a hat to sign.” “Fuck This Town,” the song, in other words, is an alt-country forebear to Simpson’s “Fuck this town,” the Facebook rant. The times they are a-changin’, but the sneer remains the same.
Or, as historian Charles Hughes (author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South) wrote to me earlier this week about Simpson’s Facebook posts, “You know what’s worse than radio’s Bro-Country? Country Bros.” The evocation of a stereotypical Bernie Bro—rigid, self-righteous, sneering at those who disagree while bro-splaining to the rest of us just what constitutes real country music—was spot on, right down to the elitist class connotations.
None of this is to say that modern country radio-friendly country music is good, or at least I don’t think most of it is. I was getting my hair cut this week and country radio was on. One song was literally a namecheck list of all the nostalgic points of the genre (pickup trucks, summer days, the lake, mom and dad, the dog, etc). It was utterly awful.
And now some short album reviews:
Mary Lattimore, At the Dam
I found the music of this harpist oddly compelling. It’s hard to really describe what is going on here. She traveled around the West and wrote compositions based upon her experiences and thoughts at the time. The recordings are pretty hypnotic and really just quite beautiful.
Glenn Jones, Fleeting
Glenn Jones is a fine guitarist and banjo player. He writes some nice compositions. But the problem with this, as it is often is for me with solo guitar albums, is that it turns into wallpaper very quickly. Others who are more favorable to this genre may find something here. I found it a little boring.
Richard Buckner, Surrounded
I’ve always liked Richard Buckner’s voice, finding him rather soothing. The problem with that of course is that it can extend into background music. Buckner’s 2013 album mostly avoids that problem with enough sonic diversions to keep the attention. I know this doesn’t sound all that positive, but with a singer-songwriter like Buckner, you either like it or you don’t. The songs aren’t transcendent but they are solid. I don’t like it as well as Dents and Shells, which has long been my favorite (I know the standard choice is Devotion + Doubt), but this is a fine album if you like Richard Buckner.
PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
I don’t think PJ Harvey is really capable of making a bad album. But she is capable of making a fairly mediocre album and that’s where Hope Six Demolition Project. It’s unfair to compare anything to Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, an A+ album is one exists, but the rightful comparison here is to Let England Shake. It’s the same place-based attempt at social and political commentary, but removed from her home and the World War I era to contemporary Washington, DC. But I’m not sure why. The music on this album is pretty first rate, preferable to her previous album. But the descriptions of Washington are fairly on the nose without any real insight into the city. This is a fairly enjoyable album if you don’t think too much, but Harvey wants us to think about it. And when I do, I am left a little indifferent.
Mourn, Ha, Ha, He
I fell in love with these teenagers from Barcelona on their first album. It was raw as hell with, as one review stated, lyrics that read more as a status update than a song. But the 15 year old singer someone manages to sound just like PJ Harvey, especially on “Your Brain is Made of Candy” and the other songs are short, loud punk songs. I’m not sure that the follow up is really an advancement. It’s solid. But it doesn’t particularly stand out. I’m still interested to hear where they go in the future.
Lydia Loveless, Real
Lydia Loveless’s third album is another advance. I didn’t think I would like this more than Somewhere Else, largely because that’s a really good album. But I do like this more. The songs are a little less raw and a little deeper, a little less about getting drunk and being pissed off and a little more about relationships and a more mature emotional state. The music advances too, with a bit more experimentation that the standard rock of the last album or the punky country of Indestructible Machine. Really a great talent.
And, as I also like to do, a couple of older albums that I revisited
Tom T. Hall, I Wrote a Song About It
This 1975 album shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this very skilled but very inconsistent artist. At his best, Tom T wrote these incredible songs about everyday people with an incredible amount of sympathy and understanding. Songs like “The Girl Who Read the Same Book All the Time” and “The Trees in Philadelphia” are great. But he could never resist the cheap novelty and while I like the sentiments, “I Like Beer” is a really stupid song. It’s not as utterly horrible as “I Love,” one of the worst songs ever written and, to my worry, the song Jason Isbell now has played over the sound system after he leaves the stage. But it’s bad enough. Does it counter his best songs? On this album, no. It’s a good album. On others, it does.
Willie Nelson, Country Willie: His Own Songs
In 1962, Willie Nelson, after years peddling his great songs to the biggest country music stars, finally recorded his first album. It was him recording his own songs. I don’t really know why, but in 1965, he did the same thing, with many of the same songs. That was Country Willie. The production is a little higher on this album but not so much that his signature style would be overwhelmed as would happen a few years later on his many mediocre studio albums before he left Nashville and reinvented himself (which was 99% for the better. Unfortunately, he basically stopped writing good songs once he became famous). But even if it just a somewhat different version of his debut, it’s still a good album by a voice that was just finding its way.
As always, let this serve as an open thread on all things music.