Obviously, the most important music news of the past few weeks was the death of the great Ginger Baker. One of the interesting things about him is that Cream wasn’t even a very good band. Obviously, all three were great players, but since they couldn’t or wouldn’t play together, they never gelled, despite the hype around them. In some ways, it was Baker’s later career that is the more interesting, especially his work in the Bill Laswell universe, including on the Material, Live in Japan album, which might be among my favorite albums he appears on. Another great one is the Ginger Baker Trio project with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, especially the first album. That Baker was a horrible human being was all too often excused as part of the bad behavior of rock and roll that has really fallen off since the grunge era, but was romanticized for far too long.
Great essay on how the Highwomen redeems country music for queer women. More on that supergroup below.
Someone stole Junior Brown’s custom made guit-steel guitar. This is actually kind of tragic. Just a smash and grab out of his back seat at a hotel just outside of Providence. As always, I’m very proud of southern New England.
The Pitchfork Top 200 songs of the 2010s is out and is really a terrible list. Nothing against any specific songs per se. Some I don’t really agree with, one or two I think are inspired (Bill Callahan’s “Riding for the Feeling” especially, which wasn’t even considered the best song on the album when it was released). The problem is that there is almost no diversity on the list. It really shows the extremely narrow range of music the people who write for that site listen to. Usually there’s at least some token recognition of other forms of music toward the bottom of these lists, before going to the current conventional wisdom toward the top. Not here though. The Top 200 albums list is slightly less bad, but it still suffers from the same basic problem. And the idea that Frank Ocean’s Blonde is the best album of the decade, I just can’t even. The best track is the recording of his mom leaving him a voice mail telling him to stop smoking so much weed. He should probably take his advice as his music has moved into a boring stoned haze after his amazing start.
Great feature story in the Times on the enormously talented Rosalía, who everyone should be listening to.
Album Reviews, reflecting a more concerted attempt to catch up on many albums on my list and the fact that with a busy semester, I haven’t had a chance to listen to as many new albums as normal.
The Steel Woods, Old News
Being a bigger fan of the components that make up southern rock than much of the music itself, I am always slightly curious why the genre leaves me a little cold. That’s especially true because those rare bands who can really do it right become some of my favorite of all time, especially Drive-By Truckers. I was thinking of DBT and of Chris Stapleton when I was listening to the new album by The Steel Woods, a Nashville-based band that is getting some buzz for their new release. And the answer to my quandary is that the cliches, both lyrically and musically, are hard to transcend in interesting ways. DBT does it by turning the genre on its head while Stapleton, whose voice actually can channel the outlaw cliche of southern white soul, is such as astounding songwriter that he overcomes it. The Steel Woods doesn’t quite do this here, largely because while there are some well-written songs here and Wes Bayliss can belt it out (he sounds quite a bit like Stapleton actually), there are also a lot of very predictable covers. Do we really need “Whipping Post,” of all things? Ending the album with Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Nearly Over,” “Whipping Post,” and Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” seemed a little like overkill. Moreover, while Hag’s political nostalgia had its place, it wasn’t his strongest move and one of the originals here, “Old News,” runs along similar lines of broadly liberal but milquetoast political commentary about how we all need to get along as Americans. This is an OK album for sure, but not a real favorite.
The Highwomen, The Highwomen
I am usually pretty skeptical of supergroups. The main reason is that they are usually lazy attempts at cashing in without trying. And there’s no greater example of this than The Highwaymen. You’d think that putting Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Kris together would lead to gold. It led to shit. That’s one of the worst famous albums in country music history. It’s simply awful.
So when Brandi Carlisle, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Nathalie Hemby decided to form their own version of this and call themsevles The Highwomen, I was torn between extreme skepticism and hope since these are all very much artists who are on the rise and are still trying. And as it turns out, they put together a great album. They all sing great together and many of the songs are really first. Carlisle’s excellent lesbian country song “If She Ever Leaves Me” is a huge highlight and just a great song. But it’s the Highwomen song that is the real killer, a remake of “Highwaymen” that instead of Johnny Cash singing about space for some reason is about violence against women and the struggles women have to survive in this world. Both musically and lyrically, this is a really great album.
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness
I like to think that I’m pretty honest about the holes in my musical background and the artists that have escaped me over the years. One of those is Aimee Mann, even though I have multiple friends who love her. Just not enough time and too much music. But I decided to fix that and listen to her latest album, from 2017. And yeah, pretty good. Not the happiest set of songs I’ve ever heard, but then I don’t need happy songs. What I need is great songwriting and Mann provides that in spades. This is such a finely drawn set of characteristics, even of which is dealing with different horrible tings in their lives, some of which is just the daily grind of life. And even if one is lucky enough to not have serious mental illness, it’s what we can all relate to. The relative slowness of the album absolutely worked for me, which given that if there was one critique of the album from critics, it was that it was less pop-oriented and slower than her usual work, is promising that I will like her other material even more.
Mary Lattimore, Collected Pieces
I’ve reviewed some of Lattimore’s work in the past. She’s a classically trained harpist who now writes and works more in the indie rock world providing atmosphere to some of the genre’s leading artists while also producing great material of her own. Combining her classical training with significant processing, she produces lush and beautiful compositions that don’t just speak to the classical fan, but to the rock world, including young people. This is a set of compositions written over time, often odds and sods. And yet this an astoundingly beautiful album for that, a true success.
I knew this band got great reviews, but given the hipster origin of them, I’ve never quite gotten around to them. Finally checked out their 2017 album and while I don’t think it’s awesome, I do think it is a very solid release. This is best described as a low-fi duet, but one that is more pissed off and less navel-gazing than that genre can produce. Evidently, this is the first album where they added a drummer and it does fill out the sound nicely. But the focus here is on the overall atmosphere. The lyrics can shift from the near-profound to the tossed off, but the overall sense of this album is one of really high quality indie rock with a punk edge mixed with that low-fi sound. The noisiness this leads to keeps anything from being boring and the short songs mean that they less successful ones never go on to long. The two singers work really well together. Will have to check out more of this.
Welcome to Zamrock Vol 2: How Zambia’s Liberation Led to a Rock Revolution, 1972-1977
Another of the great collections of 70s music from the developing world, Zamrock is heavy guitar-based music that shows more direct influence of, say, The Who and Zeppelin than most of the African music of this era, say Afropop and the like. For a rock fan, this is going to be pretty appealing. A lot of it is in English too given that it was the British who targeted Zambia for wealth stripping and stealing.
T.I., Us or Else: Letter to the System
I really enjoyed this 2016 political rap album explicitly made to support Black Lives Matter and address the racial violence in America. T.I. sees himself as an heir to Chuck D, KRS-One, and the other political hip-hop artists that helped define the genre in its first decade. He’s been around a long time himself and while I haven’t heard all his work, this is among the best that I have heard. Great writing and rhyming, excellent guest performances. Real solid.
Bad Religion, Into the Unknown
Going old time here, to one of the early Bad Religion albums that I had never actually listened to. That this is considered their sellout album by some fans because of the heavy organ use and prog influences that were supposedly unpunk is funny looking back on it. I thought the prog influences were relatively understated and that this is a really fantastic album, not a bold statement to make in 2019.
Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
I like Angel Olsen quite a bit and I think she has a great voice. But the songs can be kind of slow and this album is about 4 songs too long. I could also live without the string section, which I often think is not a great choice for artists. She’s always worked in atmospheric songwriting, often to great success. And there are plenty of successes here too, but the album as a whole isn’t quite awesome.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music or otherwise arts-related and none things politics.