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Music Notes


I saw the Australian legend Paul Kelly last month in Portland. Nearly unknown in the United States, he’s perhaps best introduced to Americans as a sort of Australian version of Springsteen and utterly beloved Down Under. He doesn’t play in the United States all that often, but if he does, you should see him because a) you are seeing a legend in a small club and b) every drunken Australian within 100 miles will be there, singing along. His albums are admittedly inconsistent, and there are a lot of them, but he’s well worth your time to explore. Among my favorite songs of his is one that he played at the show, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” which is based on a Raymond Carver story about a group of guys on a fishing trip who find a murdered woman in a river and decide to leave here there for the weekend since she’s dead anyway. While I was slightly familiar with him a decade ago because of his friendship with American musicians I like a lot, frequent commenter Thom, who was also my former department chair and the person who first hired me in an academic job (blame him for everything!) really knows Kelly’s catalog and allowed me to explore its depths.

I also saw Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile last month in Portland. I still haven’t listened to their album and the reviews are sort of mixed on it. The show wasn’t the greatest I’ve ever seen but it was a lot of fun. Barnett and Vile are both outstanding and they were having such a good time up there. Plus Janet Weiss was on drums and she’s a Portland legend. In fact, before Vile closed with “Pretty Pimpin,” which got the crowd more excited than any other song they played, he dedicated it to Weiss, calling her “The Pimp of Portland.” Barnett played some of her great songs, such as “Depreston” and “Avant Gardener” and also led off the encore with a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues.” Overall, a good time.

I felt like I should have had something more to say about the death of Fats Domino. A legend and all, but outside of “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’,” I realized that I don’t really know his work well at all.

The great pianist Muhal Richard Abrams also died recently. One of the critical players in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that has so defined the creative jazz scene in the last 50 years, Abrams great work is highly underrated. I only have his album One Line, Two Views, which is outstanding. Finding this out through a private conversation, our esteemed commenter Howard decided to fix this gap in my knowledge through a lovely gift and so I will have more to say about Abrams in the next one of these posts.

Shots at mainstream country music are a dime a dozen because it is shooting fish in a barrel (see Sturgill Simpson), but this essay on how mainstream country is bound and determined to ignore the present and focus on nostalgia and fantasy is pretty good.

I confess that I have never listened to a Joni Mitchell album in my entire life, but there’s a new biography of her that people seem to like so I thought I would mention it.

Bono is an asshole.

Album Reviews:

Waco Brothers, Going Down in History

Jon Langford’s country punk outfit hadn’t released a studio album in a decade, but this album from last year is an entirely worthy and enjoyable short album. Only 29 minutes long over its 10 songs, they provide almost exactly what you expected–short, loud, somewhat catchy songs with good riffs. Some of the lyrics are pretty sharp, others are kind of whatever. Overall, it’s an enjoyable album that actually reminds me somewhat of country albums of the 60s and 70s in that every song might not hold up, but 30 minutes of fun music is sometimes just the right amount.


Downtown Boys, Full Communism

This is a Providence band headed by local activist Victoria Ruiz. It’s very screamy but also a relief for the very bad times in which we live. And I’d rather claim this as the protest music of the present than the sleep-inducing folk of the 60s. At least it is loud and some of the songs are also in Spanish. Call the politics a simplistic leftism if you want. What do you expect from a punk band, careful discussions of Hillary? It’s good cathartic music for a time that needs it. Plus, we should all commit to class warfare and expropriation of the rich’s wealth, as this band suggests. They have a new album too and I will try to get to it soon.


Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead’s last album required a listen. It was basically what I thought it was. Mildly interesting songs occasionally interspersed by slightly more interesting songs. Somewhat memorable electronic work surrounded by somewhat uninteresting electronic work. Plus I have trouble with an album whose songs seem so unimportant as to their order that the band just put them all in alphabetical order. None of which is to say that the band is not historically important. But there’s not much of interest here. Yes, I know I am a heretic. HOW DARE SOMEONE NOT LOVE RADIOHEAD!!


Margo Price, All American Made

Margo Price is an amazing talent and the kind of country singer we all wish we had more of. Her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was a revelation. But that album was so overwhelmingly personal that I did wonder how the songwriter would stand up when she inevitably moved on to other topics. To say the least, my concerns were allayed. Do you like feminist country songs about the pay gap between men and women? How about country songs that reference Iran-Contra? Or maybe Willie Nelson duets that work exceptionally well? This is the album for you. A near perfect piece of work.


Coathangers, Suck My Shirt

I completely fell in love with this Atlanta punk band’s 2016 release Nosebleed Weekend, so I finally got around to listening to their 2014 album. It’s not quite as outstanding as the newer one, if only because there aren’t as many singable anthems on it. But it’s still very solid. This band’s 2 singers work great together, because the guitarist has a cooing voice and the drummer sings like she has gravel in her throat. The change up leads to different styles and very fine punk sounds. Superb opening track, featured below.


Algiers, The Underside of Power

The second album by this political Atlanta band combines gospel, funk, and noise to create an interesting sound that reminds me more of a sort of updated Living Colour than anything contemporary, although this could be me engaging in the classic sports announcer rule that one can only compare a player to someone of their own race. This is a pretty openly anti-capitalist band and that always gives one a leg up in my book. Direct and strong, filled with dense and sometimes obscure cultural and literary references and inspired by the terrible behavior the lead singer saw white people engage in while watching hip-hop shows at the New York club where he ran the coatcheck, some have called the album too bombastic, but I think that might be because it doesn’t engage in the irony that the Pitchfork crew is a lot more comfortable with. I don’t think this is a great album, but it’s certainly a worthy and necessary one.


And a few older albums:

Harry Nilsson, Pussy Cats

I feel like Nilsson is an artist from the 60s and 70s that has now completely slipped under the radar of consciousness for anyone under the age of 45 or so. It’s not that his music is old. It’s that no one talks about it all–not classic rock, hasn’t been discovered by hipsters, doesn’t seem influential on modern artists. So I had never heard one of his albums or even knew anything about him except that he existed and was once popular. So I took a shot at this 1974 album produced by John Lennon when they were both hanging out and behaving very badly. And mostly it holds up pretty well. I could live without the “Rock Around the Clock” cover, but his take on “Subterranean Homesick Blues” works OK and I liked his version of “Save the Last Dance for Me” quite a bit. Of course, he’s primarily known for his own songwriting and there’s plenty of that here too. I think this is hurt by the silliness in some of the songs, but I found the album largely holds up well as an example of 70s singer-songwriting.


Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders, Garcia Live, Volume 6

I imagine there is no guitarist on the planet with more recorded material than Jerry Garcia. It’s hard to believe that despite all the touring with the Grateful Dead, in his spare time he did little but continue to tour and play with his friends. The Garcia Band was certainly less vital than the Dead but there were moments. This is a pretty fair one, thanks in no small part to Merl Saunders’ keyboard work that features prominently here. I don’t know if we need 19 minute covers of “After Midnight,” but overall, this is a fine representation of Garcia in 1973.


Waylon Jennings, Cedartown, Georgia

I had long heard about Waylon’s bad pre-Outlaw albums, when he was ill-fit for Nashville. But I had never actually listened to any of those albums. So I picked one up. Cedartown, Georgia, from 1971, is not good. This is just an overproduced mess that includes an unfortunate cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which was basically a required recording by every country artist seeking to record some filler material for their 3 albums a year at this time. I am not a believer that the Outlaw movement saved country. There were really only a few good albums out of that movement and it very quickly became wrapped up in a self-referencing cocaine induced haze. Plus there were lots of good albums coming out of the Nashville sound. But for Waylon, going outlaw was a critical move that saved his career.


Marty Robbins, Saddle Tramp

Speaking of good music out of Nashville, there is nothing more pleasing than listening to Marty Robbins sing western songs. Everyone knows “El Paso” and “Big Iron” and maybe they have the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, where those songs first debuted. But people don’t really explore the deeper Robbins catalog and there are a lot of good albums in there. This 1966 album is one of the very best. There aren’t any great hits here, but just some really pleasing solid music, including Marty singing in Spanish.


Chet Atkins, In Hollywood

To complete this trilogy of old country albums, this is Atkins’ 1959 attempt to move into the easy listening market. It’s bad. I don’t really mind the Sinatra/Mancini world of music, but this is so sappy. He’s a great guitarist. In fact, I saw the last show he ever played, in Knoxville in 2000. And even though his body was totally falling apart (he was recovering from a broken hip) and his mind was starting to slip a bit too (his guitar came unplugged from the amp and he didn’t know it until someone plugged it back in for him) he could still pick like crazy. But the one thing Chet cared about more than anything was making money and that’s fine, but it does lead to albums that really don’t stand up well at all (see also Dolly Parton). Others disagree and some really love this album. I do not.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music.

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