I saw The New Pornographers at House of Blues in Boston recently. For as much as I dislike the atmosphere of the two House of Blues venues I’ve been to (Dallas is the other), this was a very fun show. I haven’t heard the new album yet and so I didn’t know those songs but that doesn’t matter much. The great thing about this band is its faith in the sound of the human voice. With up to 5 people singing at once, it becomes a transcendent party of voices. And of course the songs are so fun and the music so happy that it is almost impossible not to have a good time at a New Pornographers show. It’s also interesting that A.C. Newman sings with an audible lisp, which is not something I think I have ever heard before. I say that only as a curious point, not that it adds or detracts from the music. From the point of view of justice and acceptance, it’s a pretty great thing. Another pretty great thing is seeing Neko Case play anything, but then I don’t have to convince anyone of this.
Waxahatchee opened, which was also great, even if Katie Crutchfield’s songs don’t quite translate that well to a big room with a crowd only half paying attention and a lot of talking. This is of course the peril all opening acts face. Sometimes, the opening act is the better act and while I wouldn’t necessarily say that here, it’s close.
On Tuesday I saw the Old 97s play in Millvale, Pennsylvania, which is just outside of Pittsburgh. It was outstanding. Old 97s has been one of my favorite bands for the last 20 years, yet the only time I had seen them was opening for Drive-By Truckers in 2013. Not sure how that happened. So I was glad to see a full show. Of course it’s Rhett Miller’s band and his party lyrics and ass shaking and windmill guitar have always made it work. But their secret weapon has always been guitarist Ken Bethea, whose driving riffs define the band’s sound and that really came through live. Being 2 feet from the stage always helps bring this out. They played a good variety of songs from their career, heavily focused on the new album (see below), their brilliant last album Most Messed Up, and their 1997 album Too Far to Care, which has many of their classics such as “Timebomb,” “Four Leaf Clover,” and “Barrier Reef,” all of which were played. Being the Pittsburgh area too, a city festooned with old Catholic churches from its steel days, the club was inside an old church and so that was also a cool venue.
I was in Detroit the other week. We stopped by this dive bar called Nancy’s Whiskey. At this bar was just some Detroit bar band. Except that this bar band was made up of old Detroit people doing Motown, soul, and 70s and 80s pop tunes. I could imagine all of these people around the Motown scene in the 70s or early 80s. And it was really outstanding. The bass player especially was sick. And there’s something about random musical experiences that blow your mind that are really great. Back in 1997, I was backpacking around Sumatra. I was walking down a road once and passed this house. There was this band playing, getting ready for what I think was going to be a wedding later in the day. There was this mix of Indonesian and western instruments. And these guys could really play. I just hung out outside for 30 minutes listening to these guys do their thing. I don’t know that this Detroit experience quite met that standard, if for no other reason than that the melding of musical cultures is a wonderful thing. But it was probably the best random no name, pick up bar band I’ve ever encountered.
I don’t have the same level of strong feelings about The Rolling Stones’ songs ranking as many of you did. “Bitch” is too low. And I don’t really agree with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as #1 either. Although I don’t feel strongly about the right song. “Sway” is my very favorite but that’s a personal choice. I suppose “Gimme Shelter” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Or “Honky Tonk Women,” which is a long favorite of mine.
I’m not sure you were looking for a career retrospective interview with Kim Carnes, but here’s one for you anyway.
Revisiting the music of Midnight Oil in a new era of protest. I always thought this was a highly underrated band. Patterson Hood agrees.
The last time I wrote one of these posts, I noted that I had recently seen Wadada Leo Smith play in New Haven. Here is a lengthy essay on those shows and Smith’s legacy.
Allan Holdsworth died recently. He’s someone who I know is a great guitarist but I just did not like his music. He hated that some tapes were released as the album that became known as Velvet Darkness, but for me, that’s actually my preferred music by him. I didn’t care for his heavily processed 80s albums at all and while I hadn’t heard any recent albums, he just never moved me.
Col. Bruce Hampton died too. On stage, while playing his own 70th birthday concert. Thing was, his own bandmates thought it was an act at first, which did not help matters.
The recent Facebook meme of putting up 10 concerts you’ve seen and then people guess which one you are lying about was useful is learning what terrible taste a lot of people have in music. They probably eat ketchup too.
Lori McKenna, The Bird and the Rifle
One of the 8 million Dave Cobb-produced folk/country/Americana albums a year these days, McKenna provides a very solid set of songs and a good sound. McKenna is most known for writing songs that more famous country singers record. What’s interesting about this is that while mainstream Nashville is an open sewer, there are great songwriters making music that might get recorded by people I disdain, but whose own versions are not only far better but don’t even have that cliched Nashville sound. That’s McKenna, whose songs have been recorded by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, among others. In fact, the McGraw cover of “Humble and Kind,” which is on this album, won some country music awards. But whatever, McKenna is better. There’s no fake twang for one thing (McKenna is from Massachusetts). There’s just good songwriting.
Mikal Cronin, MCIII
For some reason, I occasionally listen to a Mikal Cronin album, like it a good bit, and then think a week later that I didn’t care for it that much. I feel the same about Ty Segall, who I frequently put together, as do many since they come out of the same San Francisco garage scene. But then I listen to a Cronin album again and think, “that’s pretty good.” And indeed this 2015 release is pretty good, with great melodies, good hooks, and a solid beach rock sound. I’m not sure the second half of the album, a song suite about loss and discovery, really works all that well.
Lyrics Born, Now Look What You’ve Done: Lyrics Born Greatest Hits
My musical journey over the last 20 years has been very willful, with little interest in what was popular or what anyone cared about it. What that has meant is a deep exploration of creative modern jazz and 50s-70s country, two genres with literally nothing in common. Over the past several years, the limitations of this has led me back to a lot of genres I had ignored for a long time. That is I think clear from the variety of albums I review in these posts. But it does often leave me at a loss for words about artists or even entire genres people have thought a lot about. I don’t worry about this too much; like anything else, the only way to get better about writing about these types of music is to keep doing it, sound dumb, and learn. Such it is for basically the entirety of black music between 1990 and 2010. That includes hip hop, pop, and soul. Now, that has changed a good bit in the last several years, but it means that I often lack the vocabulary to talk about those two decades.
I say all of this because there are pretty important artists about whom I am totally clueless. One is Lyrics Born, the Japanese-American hip hop/soul artist from Berkeley who had a number of well-regarded albums beginning in the early 2000s. This greatest hits collection from 2016 is a great intro to a really strong artist who I wish I had known earlier. He’s a very solid singer, even if his voice isn’t perfect, he has tons of great guests on his songs, and this is music that holds up very well.
And if this is kind of vague because I don’t have the right language to talk about it fluently, that’s OK too.
Old 97s, Graveyard Whistling
When I heard that Old 97s was putting out an album about being on the road, drinking, and drugs, I was very skeptical, for as much as I have loved this band over the years. But Most Messed Up was an awesome album. So I had high hopes for Graveyard Whistling. And mostly this is a good album. This band is good enough with the rock and Rhett Miller is a good enough vocalist that it’s hard to imagine a bad album in any case. This first couple of songs here keep up the great rock and roll. There are some gems in other places as well. “Jesus Loves You” is pretty fantastic: “He makes wine from water, but I just bought you a beer.” The second half of the album doesn’t quite hold up and there are a couple of tracks that sound like cuts that didn’t make Most Messed Up. They have the same drinking and partying theme, but aren’t of the quality of that great masterpiece. Still, this is solid listening at the worst and there are several tracks I will listen to a lot.
John Moreland, Big Bad Luv
Moreland is a national treasure. His last two albums were absolutely mind-blowing, full of hard songs about love and loss and Oklahoma. Seeing him live last spring was also just wonderful. With his newest album, he brings a bigger sound that keeps him firmly within the Americana world, but with the same great lyrics as usual. “Sallisaw Blue” is a great opening track that really jumps out with the fuller sound. “Old Wounds” and “Latchkey Kid” are a couple of others that instantly grabbed my attention. Reviewers have wondered if all these stories are dealing with some personal trauma of terrible relationships. For his sake, I hope he just knows how to write a great song than has to draw too much from his own heartache.
Jyotsna Srikanth, Call of Bangalore
Srikanth is a master of the violin in the Indian Carnatic tradition, who also plays western classical music. This is squarely in the former, a masterful recording of Indian classical music, replete not only with her violin, but also outstanding percussion and stringed instruments. Usually this music is vocal-heavy but the violin serves effectively as the vocal here. The extent to which you like this or not depends on your interest in 39 minute compositions of Indian classical music, which is the length of one song on this album, but I find it pretty amazing.
The Pitchfork hipsters loved this 2015 EP when it came out. I found it to be reasonably mediocre pop music on top of a lot of annoying synthesizers. Not terrible, but not something I will be revisiting.
Finally, thanks to a couple of commenters for their gifts to me. One bought me an awesome Asian cookbook and another a couple of really cool Hawaii based gifts. As I’ve said before, we make peanuts from all this work and so the occasional unexpected benefit is a really wonderful thing and you can pull down our Amazon wishlists under our names at the top of the screen.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music.