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Music Notes


We need some more discussion of Aretha. Here’s a bunch of remembrances. All Songs Considered. Turns out she liked playing a little golf. Her episode of Murphy Brown. Christgau. Finally, this is a good piece by her biographer on her deep complexity as a human.

After an unfortunately long break from seeing any live music, last Saturday I saw the Spanish punk band Mourn at Great Scott in Allston, Massachusetts, which is basically Boston. I really fell for Mourn’s first album. Just a bunch of kids who had obviously listened to way more PJ Harvey and Ramones than any modern 15 year old could be expected to making some good punk music. I thought this was a really promising band. The second album, Ha Ha He, was a bit of a disappointment. There were some songs but it didn’t have the same immediacy as the first. I thought, well, there are lots of bands that have a sophomore slump and lots of bands who only have one good album in them, so we will see. The new album, Sorpresa Familia (reviewed briefly below) was a return to form. Turns out they were having trouble with the label. The new album reflects that with songs about how bad that was and how they are happy to be free.

The show was pretty good too. Tiny women (and in the case of the lead singer, very small) singing loud punk music is something I’ve always aesthetically enjoyed, I think because what I didn’t like from the grunge and punk scenes of my youth, when I didn’t listen to much of this at all, was the masculine violence and mosh pits and even worse, especially with scene around bands like Black Flag or the angry masculinity of the early 90s Northwest scenes. I just find that overly masculine thing really repulsive and since I have lots of political anger but very little emotional angst, it didn’t appeal to me emotionally either. This is just a different kind of scene. There is lots of energy and some anger but also just a lot of fun and love. For the opening band, the Canadian punk band Chastity, that kind of peace and love through loud music is the entire reason for existing. I haven’t heard the album yet and I loved the band’s music, even though I thought the singer was too shoegaze for me. But it turns out upon reading reviews that they donate what they can for mental health care and suicide prevention programs and the like and that they music is really about living as an outcast in the suburbs. Not necessarily the freshest topic, but you have to respect living the idea of healing through music.

So the show was a ton of fun, good venue, everyone was pretty cool, had a couple of Stone IPAs. But I did have one disturbing moment. I was looking up reviews for the Chastity album before Mourn came on. So I Googled “Chastity review.” And OMG. If I had to see this hell of people reviewing the products they use to maintain chastity, then you have to do as well. I remembered when people used to be scared by the idea of going to punk shows. What’s scary is the people who don’t go.


Also, Mourn had all their albums available for sale–on cassette. What is with the return of cassettes among the young people? There are cassette-only releases all over the place these days! This really makes no sense to me at all. It has to be pure nostalgia. Cassettes were always a terrible way to listen to music, between the hiss and the breaking. I mean, I had more than my share for a long time, but as a nostalgia trip, at least records look cool and, if you put enough money into your sound system, sound good too. Tapes provide what? A small size? But hey, maybe CDs will become the new hipster move next! I am actually in the process of getting rid of my CDs, which I only listen to because my car may be the last year Ford didn’t put any phone adapters in its cars, so I only have a CD player. In my last apartment, between old CDs and ones I burned to listen to in the car, I had a room where half of it was dominated by stacks of CDs. It was totally ridiculous. So other than the rare jazz albums and a few other rare or special ones, I am finally dumping them. I am ambivalent about it, but it’s time. At least the office looks better.

The public playlist is a tricky thing. So many of them–in restaurants and bars most notably–are bad. Questionable Spotify playlists, the same artists over and over, cliched songs, rarely anything interesting. That’s not always true. I once bought an album from the band Snakefarm after hearing it on a playlist in a hipster clothing store in Albuquerque. But usually, it’s between forgettable and annoying. But does it have to be that way? This is an interesting take on this issue, with the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto offering to create a playlist for his favorite Japanese restaurant in New York because the music was annoying him so much that he didn’t want to go anymore.

I haven’t heard the recent release by the great cellist Erik Friedlander based on his seeing Picasso’s absinthe glasses, but this is a good interview that gets to how artists, or at least Friedlander, think through project ideas.

Bill C. Malone’s legendary 1968 book Country Music, USA, probably the most important book ever written on the genre, has turned 50. Here’s a good look at the book a half-century after publication.

Album Reviews:

Feist, Pleasure

When Feist was the Music It Girl back in the mid-00s, the hype around her was incredible. She had a New Yorker piece before the first album was even released, as I recall. I listened to it a few times. And then I listened to the second one a few times too. But what I realized was that Feist was really adult contemporary music for the Pitchfork crowd. It was just….boring.

I hadn’t listened to her work in a long time. But I heard good things about last year’s Pleasure and figured I’d give it a spin. And, well, it’s slightly less boring than her earlier work. The sonic palette is bigger and the musical choices are more mature. That said, it still fades into the background pretty quickly. The world has a place for that, but it still runs too close to hipster adult contemporary than my tastes like.


Charles Lloyd & The Marvels with Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens

The veteran saxophonist and his current band, which includes the great Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, team up with Lucinda Williams on half the songs here. It works reasonably well. Lloyd is great, but perhaps because I was such a huge fan of Frisell for so long, everything with him on it sounds like a Frisell album to me. That’s also because his guitar playing is so distinctive, really unlike anyone ever. I do think that Frisell’s work has slipped a lot in the last ten years and it’s been awhile since he did anything too interesting under his own name. But he’s still the greatest. Lloyd still sounds good too and he is not a young man. The Lucinda contributions, well, they are OK. I’ve stated before how poor I think her work has been since Car Wheels, or at least since Essence. Here she records some of her more recent tunes with the jazz band. She sounds alright, which is better than what has become a mumbling way of singing. I certainly wouldn’t call any of this exceptional, but for fans of Lloyd, Frisell, or Lucinda, it’s a worthy listen.


Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon

Sun Kil Moon albums can be a bit on the boring side, as Mark Kozelek’s long and self-involved songs accompanied mostly by himself can drone on. He’s a skilled songwriter and a decent enough guitarist, but because he’s not exactly a tight editor and because he releases too many albums for his own good, his music can all blend together. At his best, he’s an all-time great, but you have to be pretty selective. What helps here on this 2016 album, is the addition of the band Jesu to back him up. Making his music louder and more muscular, it forces Kozelek to sing louder and turns him into what perhaps describes him better than a whiny introvert–a deranged lunatic. At times, these songs sound like someone totally off their rocker screaming into a microphone. And that’s not such a bad thing. Jesu gives Kozelek’s music more life than it’s had in awhile. A worthy album, the first of two collaborations.


Mourn, Sorpresa Familia

Escaping from record contract hell on their second, slightly disappointing, album after a great debut, Mourn is back with a force, pissed off at their own record label and singing about it. I don’t need to go into much more detail because of the discussion about the live show above, but these are good little punk songs from a fun band. Sure, it might be nice if they could expand the palette a little bit and extend a few of these songs out to 3 minutes, but for what they set out to do, it is accomplished.


77:78, Jellies

It’s interesting when you find yourself feeling pretty whatever about an album halfway through, thinking this is a completely solid but not all that memorable piece of work and then realize you are actually enjoying this a good bit. Such was the case with the new 77:78 album, a band made up of two of the guys from The Bees, which was a British band heavily influenced by 60s pop. The first half of the album is really just alright, but it picks up on the second side. “Chilli” is definitely the highlight with its anthemic, upbeat, and catchy tune and horn section to close the song. That’s followed by another real winner in “Shepherd’s Song.” The closer is a bit obvious as a Beatles-influenced number, but there’s no real harm in that. There’s no real shortage of indie bands influenced by 60s-era psychedelia and I don’t know that Jellies transforms the way we think about this, but it’s at least a worthy album to check out.


Rayland Baxter, Wide Awake

The modern singer-songwriter indie-folk is a frequently frustrating if rarely outright unpleasant genre. There are two reasons. First, a lot of these singers don’t have songs that signify much. Second, they have listened to too much 70s California laid-back rock. Rayland Baxter is pretty typical, someone mining the same sonic vein as Father John Misty but probably not quite as intellectual, if far less annoying. This is perfectly fine background music and I don’t want to say too much bad about it. But it does remind me a lot more of listening to Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and Eagles albums than, I don’t know, Willie Nelson or Ed Askew or The Band or whoever might be a better influence. It’s fine, but forgettable.


Femi Kuti, One People One World

It’s hard being the child of a famous musician. Very few can match their parents, even if they have real talent of their own. Following Fela Kuti is even harder, as he is one of the all-time legends of global music. Femi produces another completely capable album following in his father’s footsteps, although there’s not much new in the “political lyric followed by blast of horns” that dominate this album.


King Crimson, Live in Vienna, Austria, December 1, 2016.

Although my flirtation with prog disappeared almost immediately upon trying to listen to Emerson Lake and Palmer or Yes, because I entered it through King Crimson’s great work of the John Wetton era, I have always held more of an interest in this band, whatever Robert Fripp decides to do with it. I am one of the only people it seems who thinks Court of the Crimson King is kind of a mediocre album and that the following albums are uniformly terrible. But the Wetton era was amazing and the Adrian Belew era of the early 80s was entirely worthy, if leading to diminishing returns after Discipline. I even saw the renewed band in 1995, with Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, and Pat Mastelotto. It was a very interesting, if not great show. But then I lost track of whatever they were doing. Knowing they have been playing in one form or another fairly consistently since, I thought I would try this new live album.

What I did not know is that Fripp and Belew had a falling out and that the latter had been replaced by a singer with maximum late 60s pretentious prog singing. I’m sure Dave Weigel loves this shit, but I thought it was way over the top. Fripp has brought back the flute and sax player Mel Collins from those early days and I guess that works OK, but I don’t know who was really asking to hear new versions of “Pictures in a City”, “The Letters”, and “Cirkus”. I know I didn’t. This beast is 3 1/2 hours long so I figured I wouldn’t quite get through it all. I made it through about halfway into the second disc, when they played the only Belew song in the set, “Indiscipline.” Only Belew can really do the “I repeat myself when under stress” bit the right way and the version done here was so laughably awful that I turned it off right there.

For true fans of the oldest versions of Crimson only.


Brandi Carlile, By the Way, I Forgive You

Carlile is another artist I know I should have engaged with earlier given how much people I respect love her. So I finally did so with her new album. It’s an interesting album to start with because, as I read her biographies and about her previous albums, it’s one where she really engages with her sexuality and her activism, which is much of what I knew about her before this, more than before. The title itself is directed at the Baptist preacher who refused to baptize her because of her sexuality. There are other songs here about female empowerment, about kids who aren’t gender binary, and about more prosaic topics, such as motherhood. But while this is all good, I maintain it is icing on a cake. The music has to shine on its own regardless of how much I like (or dislike at times) the political message. And it does. While the Dave Cobb-era of Nashville alt-country production may become a cliche soon, it certainly works well enough here. This is a solid album and I look forward to checking out more of her catalog.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and none things politics.

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