This goes out to everyone who wants to talk about something else than politics on Super Tuesday.
This is going to be a very heavy Drive-By Truckers based post. Album review is below. I saw them twice in the last two weeks: the February 22 show in Somerville, Massachusetts and the February 25 show in New Haven. They were actually pretty similar shows. They had played a show between the two and that one was quite different than either of them. Well, these things happen. They have a bit more of a setlist than usual, starting with Cooley playing “Made Up English Oceans” at almost every show and then playing three of the songs off the new album, then a mix of older songs, and then another set of the new songs, and then closing usually with “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” and “Angels and Fuselage.” The New Haven show did feel like it had more energy, probably because it was a standing show instead of a seated one. And they also played a brand new song that I am sure is a Hood written piece called “The Unraveling is Happening” that the bass player sang. This is I assume the first time the bass player has ever sang lead at the show. Song certainly sounded good live anyway. Somerville show was the first time I had ever heard “Tales Facing Up,” which is an old song that comes out every now and again. Overall, neither were my favorite shows, but both were quite solid.
This was my 15th and 16th show (17th is coming in April) and when you’ve seen a band like this so many times, you see a lot of interesting moments. I saw a New Year’s Eve show in 2010 in New York where they played 36 songs, Hood’s father came out and they played a bunch of the Muscle Shoals soul songs he played on, Cooley decided to cover “Delta Dawn” to ring in the new year, Kelly Hogan played with them for awhile, and they played “The Flying Wallendas” while the Flying Wallendas were performing on trapeze above them. Then during the set break, the Wallendas did sword swallowing. This was incredibly awesome, the best show I’ve ever seen. Less dramatic but still very important, I saw the first show where they displayed the Black Lives Matter sign they used for a couple of years and which many fans who did not like the new political bent were furious about. I saw them the night my house was broken into, which got me through. I saw them on my anniversary last year too. I saw Spooner Oldham play with them on “The Dirt Underneath” acoustic tour they did to clear their heads after the Isbell breakup nearly ended the band. I almost saw him play with them again a couple of years at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he got sick and is of course really old. But they still played a bunch of his old songs, which was fun.
With exceptions of the first show I saw, in Albuquerque right after A Blessing and a Curse came out in 2006, the setlists for all the shows are online. I decided to make a little database of all the songs I’ve seen them play live and when. In 14 of the 15 shows, Cooley has played “Women Without Whiskey” and he’s played “A Ghost to Most” 12 times. For Hood, the leaders are “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” with 10 and “Sink Hole” with 9. But it’s at the bottom of the list that it’s more interesting. For instance, Cooley has this great little song on Brighter than Creation’s Dark called “Perfect Timing.” Turns out they only ever played that 13 times live, which is fewer than many covers. I have no idea why, but I saw him sing it at a show in Dallas in 2008. That’s song that would be very much worth reviving, but then he chose to barely even play it when it was released. Who knows why singers get sick of a given song, even when it’s good. That show they did with Hood’s dad was the only time they’ve ever covered The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” The show that Spooner was too sick to play is the only time they’ve ever played the great “Cry Like a Baby.” I saw the first time they ever covered Percy Sledge’s “Take Time to Know Her,” which they’ve played a couple times since. In terms of the songs they’ve played the most that I’ve never seen, the top of that is “Feb 14,” though they probably did play it in that Albuquerque show when it was brand new, “Love Like This,” and “Steve McQueen.” Anyway, just a fun thing to keep up on.
To mark the new album, Paste has a list of the 15 best DBT songs. The problem is that this list is beyond bizarre. Many of the songs on there are not only not their best–but actually some of their most forgettable. “A Blessing and a Curse” is maybe their worst song on their less successful album! “Tornadoes” and “Cottonseed” are fine enough songs, but among their best? I will say my Top 15 DBT songs is a far better list, even if I am kind of winging it here:
- Women Without Whiskey
- Puttin’ People on the Moon
- Uncle Frank
- Ramon Casiano
- Grand Canyon
- Ronnie and Neil
- Decoration Day
- The Living Bubba
- Marry Me
- Sink Hole
- Space City
- What It Means
- The Day John Henry Died
- The Opening Act
Of course, that list could change at any time and I already can’t believe I don’t have “A Ghost to Most” or “Let There Be Rock” in it.
I don’t have to travel to New Orleans to experience hip-hop as a soundtrack to gentrification and displacement. On a corner in my Philadelphia neighborhood, Graduate Hospital, a once-Black-owned all-hours neighborhood bar, was bought out and eventually replaced by a white-owned taqueria. On any given night you can hear Black music playing in the restaurant, almost as if they were phantoms of the old owners and clientele. You’ve undoubtedly heard Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” while shopping at a fancy boutique in the heart of a city, Blood Orange’s “Charcoal Baby” in a chic coffee shop adorned with hip baristas in knit caps. Now that hip-hop is no longer seen as a threat, the way it was when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s become the default ambiance in the kinds of high-end spaces that include few Black people.
When I enter one of these spaces I understand, in my bones, the weight of that displacement. I start looking around Philadelphia and seeing a city that’s gradually cordoning off the Black community with bars with coded dress requirements and expensive homes that few can afford. Not long after some new homes were built near Broad and South streets, new neighbors started complaining about the live reggae music that’s long been featured in the backyard of the Jamaican Jerk Hut, a city staple. Not long after, summer beer gardens started popping up around the city, with one of the first built flush against the Jerk Hut. On summer nights you can now hear hip-hop with your craft beer, as suddenly loud music’s no longer an inconvenience and Center City continues to hollow itself out.
At a Flywheel gym in Center City, the Saturday class theme is “Lizzo,” and so for 45 minutes we drive our bodies into grime to a playlist of Lizzo songs. It’s me and a coterie of largely young white women, clad in workout Lycra, hair tightly wound, lips pressed or teeth gnashed, hunched over a squadron of bikes. All around me the cyclists are rapturously singing along to this Black woman who has become the latest familiar avatar for white women, with her unbridled confidence, her beauty, and her liberated sound. Near the front of the semicircle arena, where we stationary stormtroopers attempt to bike in unison, one woman is so passionately engaged she looks more like she’s at church than at the gym. And as I pedal, I am watching her and her athleisure-wearing counterparts whip their bodies to songs by this large Black woman.
It took me out. How inviting are these spaces for Black women? How often do these companies’ Instagram feeds highlight Black women’s stories—of beauty, of power, of confidence, of independence, of camaraderie? And how has the music of Black women become a kind of sonic drill sergeant for a mostly white group of cyclists who turn these Black women into their avatars, costuming themselves in their personas and music in a way that cheapens and flattens them? Flywheel itself is more like a macabre megachurch; as the miked instructor bellows to the flock, you’re asked to give your body up to something bigger, and the music is meant to fuel this transformation each week. These hip-hop songs become hymnals to the body temple, tools to assist with punishing and improving the body, making it better, able to endure more and more.
Of course, white people stealing black culture for their own ends has an endless history in America. Play that Drake, just don’t make sure Jaylen and Madison have to go to school with people who look like Drake.
Speaking of black music appreciated by whites but black artists not appreciated by them, here’s a good piece on Roberta Flack and her legacy.
Bobby Rush decided to be blunt about racism in the music industry during a talk about the blues and what he has to do as a black man to make it, much to the chagrin of some of the white people in the audience who just can’t understand why everything about to be about race because they are racists and don’t want to talk about it.
The great Joseph Shabalala, founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, died at the age of 78. Like almost everyone else, I first ran across his great work on Paul Simon’s Graceland, but of course it was so, so much more than that.
Another major death in the music world is that of Paul English, the legendary drummer of Willie Nelson. English was a, uh, complicated guy, a former pimp and thug who actually also served the latter purpose at those raucous country shows of the 1960s and 1970s, often protecting other members of the band from audience members, including Willie, who is not a large man. Great drummer and the subject of Willie’s classic song, “Me and Paul.”
Forty years of The Clash’s seminal London Calling. I will confess that I’ve never been the biggest Clash fan, largely because I don’t care for the reggae influences. But it’s a great album, no question.
Album Reviews, in which most of my favorite artists decide to release an album over a one month period:
Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling
I’ll say this for the rise of fascism in America–it’s been good for Patterson Hood’s writing. He’s written gem after gem on the last two albums after a bit of a slump on the previous albums. He’s always been productive of course, but it was Cooley who carried English Oceans. Then on American Band, they were both of their top of their game, which is why it may well be the best album of their long career. On The Unraveling, Hood is amazing, but Cooley has returned to another bout of his brutal writer’s block problems that have plagued him throughout his career. He only has two songs here. “Grievance Merchants” is especially good. But it’s Hood processing this horrible world that makes this work. On the other hand, it’s a downer. Songs with titles such as “Heroin Again,” “Babies in Cages,” and “Thoughts and Prayers,” speak for themselves through the titles. The latter is especially effective live. But until English Oceans, they always had a third voice in the band. Jason Isbell might have been the only really necessary third voice, but the lack of one is felt here because this is effectively a Hood solo album. And that’s why it’s a tick lower than the last couple of releases. Still very, very good though.
Algiers, There Is No Year
Algiers is an incredibly necessary band. Often described as a combination of gospel and punk, their straightforwardness and lack of irony in their politics has always left the Pitchfork crowd uncomfortable. This is an exhorting band surrounded by very creative musicians. If you ever get the chance to see them live, I highly recommend it. The Underside of Power is especially amazing. But I have to say that I thought There Is No Year was a bit flatter than the previous releases. The songs just didn’t quite signify with the same kind of political power as the earlier albums. Some of this is also trying new things. I thought “Chaka” a particularly ineffective song. But when the band delivers here and it does on the first half of the album especially, it is still very powerful. Moreover, their releases tend to grow on me over time, so it wouldn’t surprise if after a few more spins, this rises significantly in my estimation.
Torres, Silver Tongue
The tremendously talented Mackenzie Scott, playing under the name Torres, nearly left the music industry after her third album, 2017’s Three Futures. Finally being signed to a major label, she released a challenging but rewarding album based around women’s sexual desire and objectification that didn’t sell well and the label dropped her. To be fair, difficult might be a better adjective than challenging. The album was cold–like a St. Vincent album but with more challenging lyrics for listeners. But if she isn’t going to make music, what is she going to do? That was her thought and she went ahead and self-produced a fourth album that Merge released. Good thing too because it’s very good. Now in a relationship with the painter Jenna Gribbon, who created the album cover, the lyrics are more about the solace that brings and gives her the freedom to sing about her own emotions in a way that she didn’t before. The only down side is that the self-production does lead to some questionable choices that a professional producer probably wouldn’t have made. But given the near impossibility of an artist making a long career in music these days, who can blame her much for a couple of missteps.
Terry Allen, Just Like Moby Dick
The one and only Terry Allen. There is no one like this old Texas country singer/high end sculptor who is comfortable in both worlds. For nearly a half-century Allen has been making the occasional album in between his very successful sculpting career. These include foundational cosmic country albums Juarez and especially the brilliant Lubbock (On Everything), which no doubt contains the only 5-song set of country songs about the L.A. high art world ever made. Some of his albums have been more about accompanying artistic performances that a real vision, especially in the 1980s. But every 5 years or so now, he drops a fascinating new album and this is the latest, which its great title that gives away his unique mind. With songs such as “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists,” you are in for a treat. My only caveat here is that he brings in Shannon McNally to sing a couple of songs and while she is perfectly talented, I don’t think it works very well in this case, just distracting from the album’s narrative.
Soccer Mommy, color theory
Sophie Allison went huge in 2018 with the release of Soccer Mommy’s Clean. This was a very smart and very mature high school album that made her tons of fans from major acts and got her a boatload of exposure opening for people. But the colors in this theory on her followup represent no small level of depression in their blues and grays. Her mother is dying of cancer and that’s a huge part of it, something incredibly sad if you are in your 50s, nevermind when you are 22. That naturally enough is a big part of the album. She does a lot with the material, but the songs also kind of start blending together without signifying enough on their own to really reach true heights. But still, Allison is a real talent with a bright future, if in an industry that makes it almost impossible to create without driving yourself crazy trying to live and pay your bills.
This is officially a non-politics Super Tuesday post. We all need a relief from politics and this is it. Talk about whatever you want so long as it has nothing to do with politics.