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Music Notes

TELLURIDE, CO – SEPTEMBER 16: Jason Isbell performs on September 16, 2016 in Telluride, Colorado. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

It has been entirely too long since I have written up one of these posts. I am very busy this semester, partially explaining less blogging than usual. But hey, one of those reasons is that I have seen a lot of shows in the last few weeks.

I saw Jason Isbell play at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York on September 14. This was the 5th time I have seen him, excluding once with Drive-By Truckers right before he left the band. It’s very strange to me. I remember the first couple shows I saw were in Texas in 2008-10. He was a fat drunk mess. But those shows really rocked. Then he cleaned up. Southeastern came out. It was a great album but in my view a very boring set of songs to see live in a large theater, or at least it was the night I saw him. I didn’t see him for a couple of years. Then I saw him in Pittsburgh last spring the day after he won his Grammy and the first day Amanda Shires joined him on that tour and it was a pretty great show. This was somewhere in between those. It was fine. He’s been milking these same songs for a long time now and he only changes up the set moderately, which doesn’t help all that much. The performance was fine, with some decent energy, but it wasn’t a knock your socks off night. The Sadies opened. I had never seen that bunch of weirdo Canadian alt-country guys before. I only caught the last portion of their set, but it was about what I thought about their albums–some cool songs but then all these weird short little instrumental numbers that seem pretty pointless to me.

On September 20, I saw the great Malian band Tinariwen at The Royale in Boston. Tinariwen is the band that brought the desert blues to the United States, with their first big album in about 2007. Great musicians with that wonderful west African drone. The whole thing was on a simmer. They could have easily blown the top off the thing had they wanted, but that’s not quite their style. Sometimes I wish it was, as the sameness can sometimes shade just slightly toward dragging a bit. It was also frustrating that thanks to Trump’s fascism that has infected CBP, the drummer was not allowed into the country. They found a serviceable replacement here, but it’s a reminder of how our fascism hurts international musicians. But who needs Tinariwen when Real Americans go see Lee Greenwood?

On September 27, I saw the Ingrid Laubrock Sextet at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, where they were recording a new album for the label by that name. Laubrock is a very creative saxophonist from Sweden. This is a great band. Brandon Seabrook is on guitar and who remains the man with the best guitar face I’ve ever seen. Tomeka Reid, who is a wonderful cellist I had never seen before but certainly knew of, was in the band, providing a little string section with Mazz Swift on violin. Michael Formanek on bass and Tom Rainey on drums filled out the band. It was a pretty great show, with all that wonderful creative energy making a glorious noise. Now, I know no one actually wants to see what used to be called “free jazz” and now is called, well, a bunch of different things. OK, there were like 40 or so people there. Not many for such astounding musicians. But I will say this. There is no other music where the bands routinely are so integrated by race, age, gender, and nationality as this sort of jazz. In this case, it was 3 women and 3 men, 4 white and 2 black, 4 in their 40s (probably) and 2 in their 60s (probably), and 5 Americans (I think) and 1 Swede. Where else does one see this? Anyway, I can’t wait to hear the album.

On October 2, I saw a strange little bill at the Columbus Theater in Providence. The main band was another west African band–Les Filles de Illighadad, from Niger. Like Tinariwen, this band operates in the desert blues drone world. Except that this band is 3/4 women, a very unusual thing in this male-dominated part of the world. They were pretty great. The guy was more of a shredding guitar player. The women switched off some what they played, but one was on guitar, one on a traditional hand drum, and the other playing what I think was some kind of bloated goat bladder or something, which was in a bucket of water. She hit it with a large drumstick. Anyway, it was pretty great to see. What didn’t make sense was that the opening act was Kath Bloom, the late 70s-early 80s indie-folk figure. I know some people really love Bloom. I never have. She’s a heck of a songwriter, but her voice is so fragile, even the version of 40 years ago, that the music seems ready to just disappear the moment it leaves her mouth. The style of singing didn’t work all that well for me then. It didn’t really now either, plus her voice has suffered some over the years, naturally. But hey, she’s a big enough indie figure that it was actually pretty cool to see her live once and, again, she is quite a fine writer. A little local band named Museum Legs started the set and wasn’t bad.

A few notes:

Patterson Hood’s memories of the recently departed Muscle Shoals musician Jimmy Johnson, who worked and played with his father, is fantastic.

Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” has long provided great inspiration and power to the LGBT community.

The great Robert Hunter died. It’s important to remember that the Grateful Dead wasn’t just a great sonic band. At it’s best, it was a great song band and Hunter is the biggest reason why. Songs like “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and even “Dark Star” are really fantastically written songs of that era. The biggest reason I still listen to the Dead and not Phish or any of that shit is that the Dead actually have good songs (even if they weren’t the best singers). Phish has great singers and musicians but the songs are intentionally stupid, throw offs that represent that neither they nor their fans really care about that part of the show.

Thoroughly appreciated this Pete Townsend interview where the interviewer tries to get him to say that modern music sucks compared to what The Who did in the 60s and he absolutely refuses to take the bait and defends hip-hop and electronic-oriented pop.

How society forgets people and culture, with a focus on John Lennon.

We are getting toward Best of the 2010s time. I am going to try and do some big lists on this. But Scott filled out the Pitchfork form for the top 10 albums of the decade and I then threw a possible top 10 together in about 5 minutes. We’ll see what this looks like when I get serious about it.

Was glad to see the great guitarist Mary Halvorson win a MacArthur Genius Grant. She certainly is a genius, grant or no.

A beginner’s guide to Coltrane. I’d start with A Love Supreme and then Giant Steps, personally.

There are only 4 songs with more than 1 billion YouTube viewings. One is “Take On Me” for some reason. At least “November Rain” had that good video, although that’s kind of odd too.

Album Reviews:

The Mountain Goats, In League with Dragons

While there’s never been a Mountain Goats album I’ve truly loved, I pretty much like all of them. And while I think Dungeons and Dragons is perhaps the worst activity in human history, this D&D inspired album is very, very good.


Ladytron, Ladytron

Many years ago, I picked up Ladytron’s 604 album. Even though I don’t like much electronic-based music, I always appreciated that album, though I guess I don’t listen to it a whole lot. Anyway, I thought I’d check out their recent album. And while it didn’t change my life, it’s not only another solid album, but I was surprised how sophisticated the music had gotten over the last decade. I guess that happens with a good band you kind of forget about it. Good stuff, mostly.


Sleater-Kinney, The Center Won’t Hold

The latest Sleater-Kinney album became infamous when Janet Weiss left because she hated it and the slick direction the band was going. And I am real curious what seeing them live without her later this month is going to be like. But the album itself is actually not bad. It is however minor and the worst album the band has ever released. For a band with such high standards then, it is disappointing. But taken on its own, it is solid, just frustrating. The same great band that has always been there is just dying to break out of St. Vincent’s production.


Jade Jackson, Wilderness

I really fell in love with this California songwriter’s first album, produced by Mike Ness, whose wife discovered her in a coffeehouse. This is a somewhat less successful followup, also produced by Ness. What this feels like is a pretty solid but standard country songwriter album, where the first had a feeling of freshness and excitement to it. The talk here was that she was writing about her personal life this time, whereas she hadn’t felt brave enough to do that before. Well, that’s fine, but it doesn’t per se make it better. Good album, just not great.


Todd Snider, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol 3

Snider is one of those artists who has always existed on the edge of my consciousness, someone lots of people I know really respect, but who I hadn’t spent much time with. And this album reflects what I had already mostly thought: a tremendous talent and great songwriter who sometimes lets his facility with lyrics get the better of him when he tries to get too cute. The political songs seem less successful than the non-political songs, even though I agree with him about the content. That is often the case.


Frank Turner, No Man’s Land

This is not exactly terrible, either musically or lyrically. But Turner, a British rocker with a known penchant for sexism, seems to have decided to fix that by singing a bunch of songs about women. As one reviewer said somewhere, it seems Turner took his lyrics out of Wikipedia. Moreover, the music is just kind of tepid. If you are going to see about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the music needs to be up to her standards. If you are going to provide a biography of Sally Ride, just stop writing the song.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and absolutely nothing political, unless it is related to the art.

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