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Music Notes

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It’s been entirely too long since I did one of these posts. Since I published the last, I’ve seen three live shows.

Most important is seeing Kris Kristofferson playing with The Strangers, Merle Haggard’s old band, at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford, Massachusetts. I had seen Kris once before, at an event in Santa Fe in maybe 2004 where he played four songs, so it wasn’t a real concert. That was great though. But this was really fantastic. He can’t really sing anymore, but then he never could. He always had basically the worst voice of any successful musician in the history of recorded music. But those songs–those amazing songs. And now especially, he has no range, yet is able to convey so much feeling despite that. I wasn’t expecting “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to be the crowd favorite, but it really was. Maybe that’s because of the definitive Johnny Cash cover, but then of course he did “Me and Bobby McGee” and even that didn’t get quite the same rousing applause, despite being even more famous because of Janis. Of course, most of the songs he did were from his first few, truly classic albums, but he threw in some worthy songs from the last thirty years too, which was also great. Playing with Haggard’s band was an interesting choice too. They are really cracker jack. They also played about a half-dozen of Hag’s songs, sung by various members of the band, including Merle’s son on guitar. That was fun, though the tone changes between those and Kristofferson’s music could be a bit stark. The only disappointment there is that one of the Hag songs was “Fighting Side of Me” and it was weird to see Kris singing along with that revanchist awful song, but I guess at this point, it’s just an old classic for most people, stripped of its terrible politics. Anyway, that was a cool show.

I also saw Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson, and Ron Miles play at the Sanders Theater at Harvard. This is the kind of classic space you might think of as where classical music takes place at an Ivy League school–tall ceiling, all old and dark wood, great sound. Indeed, it is a beautiful space. I had seen Halvorson before once and have seen Ron Miles a few times, usually with Bill Frisell but once with Dave Douglas. I had never seen Moran. This was a much larger space than I had ever seen modern jazz in before and for me at least, I did feel that a little of the intimacy that helps bring home what these days is often pretty quiet music was a bit lost in such a space. Of course, the talent on stage was astounding and it’s always an honor to see people like that perform.

Finally, last night I saw Laura Gibson play at the Columbus Theater in Providence. Gibson is one of my favorite recent songwriters, a very evocative writer who can spin a great scene using a very few words. The thing about seeing performers like this on the road is that it is all very bare bones since they aren’t making any money on it, so it was just her and a stand-up bass player. A bit bigger sound would have made this even better. On a couple of songs, they did have that, as former Decemberists drummer Rachel Blumberg, who plays as Arch Cape, opened with her experimental project of drum and keyboard sounds accompanied films she had made. Her work was pretty interesting too and the couple of songs she played with Gibson did fill out that sound quite well. Anyway, I was a huge fan of Gibson’s Empire Builder album from a few years ago and she played a few cuts off that, including “Damn Sure,” which is probably my favorite song ever about a divorce and I will put it here.

Someone mentioned on Twitter recently the legendary show the Grateful Dead in 1970 in Binghamton with the acoustic first set. That is a great show. Great. And it made me wonder why the Dead never played more acoustic sets. Their music was so set up for that, especially those first sets where they played more Americana than the psychedelic second sets. I might not need to hear “The Other One” acoustic but more versions of “China Cat Sunflower?” Oh yes.

Elizabeth Cotten wrote “Freight Train” at age 11? Wow.

An interesting conversation with Claudia Gonson of The Magnetic Fields.

I have highly mixed feelings about Vampire Weekend, thinking them talented but also douchey at the same time. So I did very much enjoy this piece by Drew Magary about hearing a Vampire Weekend album for the first time and how much he hated it.

Here’s a nice interview with Richard Thompson that the author sent to me. Always happy to promote an LGM reader’s work! Looking forward to seeing RT again next month.

I think we all need another example of pleasant old Lou Reed in our lives.

Album Reviews!

Orchestra Baobab, Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

What is there even to say about one of the greatest African bands ever constructed? Not much. After a good bit of time off, after Dieng died, the rest of the band got together for the first time in a decade to record an album for him. This may not be their greatest album or their most envelope pushing, but it is certainly a solid addition to their great canon and for a bunch of old guys, really good work.

A-

Leyla McCalla, Capitalist Blues

Who doesn’t have the capitalist blues, a system of unbelievable degradation and moral turpitude? McCalla is speaking to you on this great release, one of the best I’ve heard so far this year. This is Americana for an audience that recognizes and appreciates that Americana is not just white people music based loosely around country music when it was good with the black influences in the background. McCalla is Haitian-American and that comes through very strongly, with clear Haitian influences and a few songs in Creole French. She’s a cellist by training, but went to the guitar and banjo (also used for her contributions on the great Our Native Daughters album, also from this year). There’s plenty of Haitian musicians on this, as well as New Orleans based players, where McCalla lives.

A-

Magos Herrera and Brooklyn Rider, Dreamers

I feel like I review a bunch of albums like this that pop up–world music for the NPR listeners that is pretty and fine, but not really all that interesting. That’s very much this–Herrera is a nice singer from Mexico and Brooklyn Rider is a good string quartet. Put them together and you get NPR music magic. For me, this falls kind of flat; at a faculty dinner party, good god people will eat this up.

B-

Priests, The Seduction of Kansas

This DC punk band had a huge breakthrough debut in 2017. Then their bass player left and they didn’t know if they would break up. This is interesting to me because one of the things that most impressed me about the new album is the role of the bass by whoever the person is who they had sub in for this album, as right now the band is just a trio without a permanent bassist. One thing that made their full length debut and the EP that preceded that so compelling was the political bluntness of the songs that really fit the times. The Seduction of Kansas is a title borrowed from the (meh) Thomas Frank book about the state, but this takes a somewhat more ambivalent position, a band trying to understand everything bad about America by placing themselves in the Midwest and creating fairly complicated characters when it would be easy to just make fun of rednecks and conservatives. It’s an interesting approach that I think works. You get more about that in this Pitchfork interview with them. Now, this is not a band that does well with melody. If that bothers you, you aren’t going to like them. But I like a band with a great sound that understands that punk music isn’t about nihilistic destruction or posturing (common enough today) but a political form of music that seeks understanding about the oppressions of our time.

A

Mdou Moctor, Ilana: The Creator

I saw the incredible Moctor earlier this year and it’s highly unlikely I will see a better show this year. He’s simply the best guitarist I have ever seen live, as I’ve seen a lot of guitarists. His latest album is pretty great too, with the only drawback being that it is tighter than the live shows, with more defined songs that are a lot shorter. That’s not really a complaint though, for the album may not replicate the live show, but it certainly should interest you in checking him out if you can.

A

Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!

As Parquet Courts is one of my favorite bands of this decade, I can’t believe I waited so long to listen to their album from last year. The only excuse is that I have too many other albums to check out I guess. Anyway, these hyper Brooklyn hipsters have put out another excellent set of danceable and almost obnoxiously over the top but never quite punkish songs, this time with production from Danger Mouse The songs are often political but never didactic and are always enjoyable.

A-

Lorde, Melodrama

As I slowly move my way through the divas of modern pop, I finally got to Lorde. And you know this is fine. The songwriting is probably a step better than the average big pop hit. The music is more alright than anything else, certainly less compelling than that of Beyonce or Janelle Monae. But the production isn’t overly slick and there are some genuinely memorable songs here. Not sure that I need repeatedly listening, but if I had a teenage girl, I’d be fine listening to this again in the car.

B

Henrik André and Vitor Garbelotto, Loro Project

As stated in one of the above reviews, I have an instinctive distrust of throwing musicians from different traditions together to see what happens, mostly because it often leads to a boring prettiness. But it doesn’t have to be this way and this is an exception. André is a French violinist and Garbelotto a Brazilian guitarist. Most of these songs are covers of Brazilian classics from Jobim, Baden Powell, and others, as well as some new compositions. The result is a great set of music from masterful players who meld these different styles into something new and refreshing. A very worthy project. I don’t seem to be able to find anything on YouTube for this, so below is another piece of Garbelotto’s work.

A-

Delta Rae, After It All

I’m not sure why this 2015 album was on my list of things to listen to, but I decided to pick off something that had been on there forever and check it out. A poor choice as this album is pretty terrible. The pretentious, bombastic arrangements are completely intolerable, sort of a cross between an Arcade Fire without a vision and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer without the pointless wankery but with the self-importance. Both singers in this band are surely talented, but nothing could overcome the awful production choices and most of the songwriting doesn’t rise above cliché anyway. When I found out this band formed among siblings who went to Duke, the pretension and unearned sense of self-importance all made sense. Been awhile since I hated something this fiercely.

D+

Craig Brown Band, The Lucky Ones Forget

This is basically a Detroit bar band getting a recording contract. Brown’s not a great singer, but this is a fine set of country-rock songs, more than competently rendered by the band. I didn’t find this overly memorable to the point I need to buy the album, but I’d not complain if any friends put it on at a party.

B

E.B. The Younger, To Each His Own

I feel like I hear this very album about 15 times every year. Someone, usually a bearded white guy, does his version of the 70s California soft rock scene. This can work if the sound and songwriting is interesting enough to recover from the general boring malaise of this whole scene, whether 1977 or 2019. Iron and Wine was an example for awhile, though Sam Beam’s sell-by date was a good while ago now. This is a….fine version of the style. But not more than that.

B-

The Mountain Goats, Goths

John Darnielle is someone I’ve always more or less enjoyed, but I’m not the hardcore fan that so many are. I’ve never heard a Mountain Goats album I didn’t like and I’ve never heard one I’ve loved. What I hear is a smart guy singing smart songs, often around themes of modern culture. In this case, it’s the goth scene. I understand that this album is somewhat controversial within the fan community, but I thought it was pretty similar to all the rest in overall style and tone. Never having particularly cared about goth, I’m not too invested in the topic, but then I enjoyed the professional wrestling album and that’s the same for me, as I will no doubt enjoy the new Dungeons and Dragons album, a game which I find incredibly stupid. It doesn’t really matter whether I like the topic, it’s about the music and words. This is a good song cycle about the life of a goth. Why not? Darnielle is certainly smart and talented enough to pull it off.

B

Juliana Hatfield, Pussycat

For a long time, I had forgotten about Hatfield. Then I listened to her new album a couple of months ago, enjoyed it a lot, and thought I’d check out her response to the 2016 election. It’s also a pretty good set of songs. As songs flowing out of you after a horrifying political event will do, not all are particularly subtle and some are ham-handed, but as an angry indie rock response to the election of a serial sexual assaulter surrounded by horrible people such as Kellyanne Conway, who gets a song of her own, this is pretty enjoyable. I’ve definitely heard a lot worse responses to the election.

A-

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


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