It is Fiona Apple’s world and we are just living in it. I review her album below, but there’s plenty of great material on her in recent days and weeks. Apple is the peak of the tortured artist and one who has self-medicated for a very long time in many different ways. And the work has been slow to get finished. But when it does, it’s great album after great album. She’s made herself quite open to interviews lately. There’s this fantastic classic long New Yorker profile by Emily Nussbaum, who was obviously very excited to get to spend time with her. Apple comments on that article in this lengthy interview with Rachel Handler at Vulture. The New York Times music reviewers (all men, natch) review the new album here.
COVID-19 continues to murder our musicians. This was a brutal week in the jazz world. For me, the most personal loss was the great bassist Henry Grimes. I saw Grimes once, about 5 or 6 years, playing in a quartet with Marc Ribot, Cooper-Moore, and Chad Taylor. This was part of a birthday weekend in New York and it was a real highlight of my musical life. Absolutely astounding show. Grimes’ story is interesting as well because like a lot of the free jazz generation, he was really living on the edge for a long time and stepped over that edge too. Grimes was a major figure in the 60s. Then he decided to move to California, had to sell his bass for money, and disappeared from the music scene for the next 35 years. He was finally rediscovered by a researcher and then the wonderful bassist and person William Parker (arguably the most important person in jazz over the last 3 decades and a genuine hero of mine) gave Grimes a bass. From that point forward, Grimes was once again a major player in the scene.
A very similar story to Grimes is Giuseppi Logan, the saxophonist, flutist, and clarinetist who was part of the October Revolution of jazz in 1964 but also suffered from mental illness and homelessness and then reappeared in the 2000s. COVID-19 took him this week too. Here is a nice discussion of both Grimes and Logan.
And then in the general jazz world, there’s the loss of Lee Konitz, at the age of 92, also from the virus. Konitz is by far more famous than Grimes or Logan and more influential ultimately too. He was of course a critical player in the cool jazz scene and also as it moved toward free jazz, though he never fully embraced the extreme experimentation of it. In non-COVID deaths, we also lost Moraes Moreira, the genius from Brazil, and Matthew Seligman of the Soft Boys.
Remembering the great John Prine. Turned out, not surprisingly, that Prine had plenty of preexisting conditions, including COPD from decades of smoking, plus he had to cancel the last of his European tour because his hip had collapsed. Interestingly, his last ever show was in Paris, where somehow he had never played before. In any case, this is a really great piece. Also, Tom Waits remembers his friend Hal Willner, who died of the virus.
David Berman was not just a great songwriter. He was a great poet, and no, those are not the same things as Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie DuPuis made clear after Berman died. Anyway, he’s got this whole bootleg literary collection and this is an interesting piece about it.
It’s 2020, everything sucks, we are all bored at home, so why not a recent list of the top albums of 2010. Not a bad list.
Album Reviews, in which spending too much time at home leads to me clearing the deck on a lot of albums that have been on the list for a long time:
Margaret Glaspy, Devotion
I loved Glaspy’s debut, Emotions and Math. It’s one of my favorite albums of the 2010s. She followed that up with a very solid EP titled Born Yesterday. A smart and edgy songwriter with a great voice and equally great guitar rock sound. Her new album expands the sound palette to some extent with more effects. She still sounds great. But overall, this is more pleasant than great. What made the earlier work stand out was her attitude. She pretty much only writes about relationships, which is fine of course. But whereas earlier, she was a master of the kissoff for a jerk of a guy, here she comes across more as vulnerable and needy. In other words, the attitude isn’t there. Moreover, her guitar is not as centered as before and the synthesizers, while fine, don’t shine., Devotion feels a little more generic than her earlier work, although still highly listenable.
Daddy Issues, Deep Dream
These Nashville punk girls grow up a little bit in their 2017 album, moving beyond the adolescent high-school based concerns toward those of the early and mid 20s. They are still melancholy but rocking, depressed but funny. More importantly, they still shift suddenly from quite contemplation to some serious noise. And then they throw a hilarious cover of Don Henley’s awful “Boys of Summer” on there.
Kalyn Fay, Good Company
This is a lovely folk-country album from Fay, a Cherokee singer from Oklahoma. The title track is especially strong. She’s a fine songwriter and has a good band here with very nice arrangements. The only real drawback is that of so many of these types of artists, which is that the lack of changes of tempo between songs does lend to it blending together. Further listens may well help differentiate more between the songs.
Brent Cobb, Shine On Rainy Day
Brent Cobb’s type of country music is best described as “conversational.” It mostly sounds like a talk you are having with a friend over a beer on the front porch. It’s nice. But my hesitation here is how much Cobb relies on a rather easy nostalgia for his inspiration. “South of Atlanta” may be a pretty good song on small-town Georgia life, but it does tend to be a list of rural life that is the same as a zillion other songs. Cobb’s cousin Dave is the prominent producer who has worked with Jason Isbell among others. He produces this and it has that laid-back feel that most of the albums he works on have. But sometimes his production needs a good shot of rock and roll and I’d say that would be useful here too.
Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over
Another excellent release from one of the masters of contemporary jazz, this from 2017. This sextet album from Iyer on piano, Graham Haynes on cornet and other instruments, Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor sax, Stephan Crump on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums is highly varied, ranging from some good blowouts to the chamber contemplative music that its label, ECM, is so famous for. Lehman and Sorey especially are well-known for their own amazing chops and the whole band comes together here for a very satisfying album. Interestingly, for all his prodigious output, this is the first album as a bandleader he had ever released with a frontline of horns.
David Virelles, Gnosis
Another 2017 ECM release, Virelles is a Cuban-American pianist who here tries to split the difference between modern chamber music and Latin jazz. Mostly it works. Between the interplay of the piano and percussion and the use of a wide variety of other instruments from track to track, the first 2/3 especially is quite compelling. Virelles is an amazing pianist. But while the end of the album, mostly featuring Virelles doing solo pieces in the modernist chamber style, is interesting enough, to me it jarred with the fusion aspects of the earlier pieces and made the whole slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Aminé, Good for You
Aminé is a Portland-based hip-hop artist who puts a much cheerier face on the music than many of the big stars. He’s not a gangster and doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, he’s a socially conscious young man who also wants to have a good time, meet women, and have fun. It’s not pop-rap, though possibly a bit too cute at times. Rather, this 2017 release it’s an enjoyable listen with some quality guest stars who also has some biting words about white paradise Portland with its gentrification and homogeneity that people need to hear.
Lizz Wright, Grace
Wright has been around for nearly two decades, but this 2017 release, her latest album, is the first I’ve heard. This singer from rural Georgia splits the difference between gospel and secular music, clearly singing in the gospel tradition but primarily with well-chosen songs out of the American songboo sung with huge jazz influences. I’m usually a bit skeptical of cover albums. Yet there is a place for this kind of song interpreter and Wright does a great job here. Highlights include Allan Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do Without You,” and k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean.” Joe Henry produced it and presented her with about 70 songs to choose from. This is a smart, fun project from a woman in total control of her outstanding voice.
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Not only is the album the perfect title for how we are all feeling right now, but it’s a genius work from one of the greatest musical artists of her generation. That great piano and even greater vocal work backed up with all sorts of weird percussion and her barking dogs makes for an outstanding sound that I needed to hear. And then the lyrics, so many of them revolving around her coming to terms with the people around her, understanding and sympathizing with other women, and trying to break free of her demons make for an album that is as lyrically satisfying as it is musically satisfying. Easily the best album of the year so far.
Poppy Ackroyd, Resolve
This 2018 album by the composer and pianist combines minimalism with electronics to create a consistently fascinating album. There’s bits of improvisation, flashes of cello and flute, and odd sounds but this is also quite accessible, much more so than a lot of modernist classical.
Jeff Rosenstock, Post-
An enjoyable, raw, pissed off album about Trump’s America released on New Year’s Day of 2018, this is the kind of short rock-punk album that rewards the listener. No fancy instrumentation or unusual time signatures here. This is straight ahead rock-and-roll with dejected lyrics about an America that has betrayed everything he (and we) thought it could be. On occasion, singing about his personal depression is less satisfying than his anger about politics, but the latter wins out most of the time.
Hamilton, Original Broadway Cast Recording
OK, here’s the deal. I’ve seen a pirated version of Hamilton. It was fairly entertaining. I’ve always thought the politics of this were ridiculous and said much more about the desperation of liberals to have a Founding Father that is ONE OF US than it did about Hamilton. The play creates a hero out of democracy-hating aristocrat and fabricates a strong anti-slavery position out of a man with much closer ties to the institution than Lin-Manuel Miranda admits, influencing many people to believe things about Hamilton that are just not true.
But that’s not what I am evaluating here. I don’t really care about the politics of music per se, especially around someone who has been dead for over 200 years. With this endless COVID quarantine, I finally decided to sit down and listen to this for real the other day. I….did not much care for it. I recognize this is an unpopular position. But it comes down to three interrelated factors. First, if I want to listen to hip-hop, I am going to listen to some real hip-hop. Second, I just don’t care for musicals in general and so the entire style turns me off. Sure, Miranda has created a different kind of musical here and that’s great for people who are into that, but it still doesn’t work for me (and how many times can he rhyme “Burr” with “sir”….) Third, I think that some of the love of this musical has to do with people who are interested in politics really wanting to nerd out over some music that reflects that. I have zero interest in this way of being. I am actually curious what the musical listening habits are for people who love this. I have a suspicion that it’s especially strong among liberal whites who don’t listen to a ton of new music generally, don’t listen to a whole lot of hip-hop, and who like to listen to the same album over and over. That’s not me being snotty. It’s just a theory.
I listened to this right after the Rosenstock album I reviewed above. Toward the end, by which time I was very annoyed, I tried to imagine a scenario where I would ever choose to listen to Hamilton over that album. And I could not think of one. It’s of high quality for what it is, but it’s charms are completely lost on me.
Sidi Touré, Toubalbero
This is an absolutely smoking hot 2018 album from the Malian master. Touré brings together the different parts of music from this fascinating nation–desert blues-rock, Afrobeat, the kora–into a dance-oriented sound that must absolutely kill in a live setting. Touré is a great singer on top of the sound. The songs seemingly switch genres two or three times during each track without losing the beat or being jarring in any way. Fantastic.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music (or other art) and none things politics.