I haven’t seen any shows in five months, which is terrible. But I have read a lot and that has included a few books about music. Might as well discuss them. First, I read Stephen Foehr’s Waking Up in Nashville, which is a 2002 book that was both good and extremely frustrating in equal measures. Foehr, a British writer, came to the topic of country music without knowing much about it. That’s fine. He hung out in Nashville and talked to a lot of people trying to make it. A couple of them even sort of did, at least on the margins of songwriting success, people I’m familiar with nearly 20 years later. But the book is undermined by massive factual errors and even the misspelling of many names of well-known musicians. Editing matters. Grumble.
I then read Richard Smith’s Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass. This is probably the definitive history of Monroe. It does a good job of portraying him as the genius but also cranky bastard that he was. But it falls short of being a great music bio for two reasons. First, Smith is a bit too apologetic for some of Monroe’s very bad behavior, including his treatment of women, which was not violent, but which was otherwise really awful. Second, he’s just a wooden writer and given that most biographies of people are going to have slow spots just because that’s life, the prose drags.
I then read Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. I can’t say I enjoyed this much. Hale is a good historian of race in America. And she was part of the Athens scene of the 80s. However, she doesn’t provide the rigor of analysis that the book needs. For a historian of race, she sure elides the fact that the Athens scene was lily white. Race is on the cusp of being mentioned, but in the middle of Georgia, there were effectively no Black people involved in the Athens scene. There’s a way to deal with that–honestly state that, yeah, a lot of these musicians had the racial problems that lots of white people do. But she’s more concerned with pushing the idea that alternative culture scenes can still be relevant. I’m actually not real sure of this, not in the age of the internet, where location has disappeared and you can have basically the same kind of alt-rock scene in Portland, Austin, and Brooklyn. But in any case, it ends up sounding like an aging person bemoaning the kids not being edgy enough like she was. Also, she so clearly resents REM’s success.
The one book that I mostly did like was Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. This is of course a classic that I had never read. Basically, it’s great because everyone is a horrible human being. For all of the terrible antics of everyone, you are surprised any decent music got made. I was also amused that for all the emphasis on the New York Dolls, David Johansen stayed way away from participating in this book. Two caveats to my enjoyment. First, I really, really, really don’t care about Sid and Nancy mythology, which is where so much of the latter part of this book leads. The Sex Pistols were by so far a lesser band than Ramones, The Clash, Television, etc. And the actions of two really pretty awful and messed up people are not romantic. Second, evidently Los Angeles never had a punk scene and only New York and London count after the Detroit scene around The Stooges and the MC5 disappears by 1975.
Presently reading Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, which I will discuss later. I am pretty cranky about music books, more so than most because of my investment in the topic. Very much enjoying this though.
Fascinating essay on Sun Ra’s language and vision of Afro-futurism, based around a collection of photographs of him.
Great list of 20 underrated classics in the Blue Note catalog. I don’t know a lot of these albums so I have work to do.
Can “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” be redeemed by rewriting the lyrics? Personally, I don’t think it is even a racist song, even if it does sing about the Confederacy. It’s a perspective that comes out of the vision of the Civil War that was prominent in the 1960s of course, which is inherently racist, but the song itself tells a story about the poor white farmer in the South at a given time and I am not sure that is per se a problem. That’s irrespective of the fact that it is a great song. But hey, if someone wants to rewrite it to tell it from the perspective of someone who is putting down the Confederacy, OK.
The 50 Best Rock Bands Right Now–including The Paranoid Style! Congrats Elizabeth! What unnerved me is how many of these bands I don’t know. Again, more work to do!
Great profile of DeFord Bailey, the first Black country star who the Grand Ole Opry threw away in 1941. He lived the rest of his life in obscurity and poverty.
Since the Newport festivals can’t happen this year (I’ve never gone because I’m never around here in August except for this crappy year), there are going to be some old performances of the Newport Jazz Festival streamed out this weekend.
It’s actually been awhile since we lost a major musician to COVID-19 after the initial onslaught of horror. But the great Zimbabwean mbira player Cosmas Magaya died of it earlier this month, at the age of 66. So did Helen Woods, who struggled through the racist jazz and classical worlds in the 1930s and 40s, finally giving up music. It also killed the Dominican star Victor Victor and the Jamaican singer Dobby Dobson. Sad times all around.
Matthew Shipp, Zero
This 2018 solo piano album is another piece of evidence that Shipp is simply one of the greatest pianists in jazz history–in every way equal to Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner or anyone else you want to name. His work remains consistently challenging and inventive. He can go pretty far off into the atonal direction but he can also do great work with heavy grooves and with hip hop groups like Antipop Consortium.
Solo piano albums, or really solo anything albums, are not my favorite as a genre. The singularity of the instrument makes them tiresome fairly quickly, even if they are by truly great musicians, such as Wadada Leo Smith. But Shipp’s solo piano album maintain my attention every note. They never waver and they are never less than super interesting. Great work here.
Oh Sees, Orc
I’ve always respected Oh Sees (formerly Thee Oh Sees) more than I’ve loved them. I’ve reviewed a few of their albums over the years here and always given them a perfectly respectable writeup, but I never buy or listen to them again. This continues in that vein. It’s a perfectly fine noisy psychedelic album that just doesn’t quite click for me. One of the album’s Bandcamp supporters describes it as “a bit like if the Pixies, Pavement and Sonic Youth made an album together, in the 70’s.” And I can see it. But though I like all those bands a lot, I find this more in the highly worthy category than beloved.
Donny McCaslin, Blow
McCaslin worked a lot with late-era Bowie and it shows. Much of this 2018 album is a semi-interesting exploration of kind of pompous art rock featuring McCaslin’s sax. Sometimes it’s worth the time, sometimes it is kind of boring. This album gets downgraded by a full grade though for featuring an utterly pointless appearance by Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) that goes on for 6 minutes with him…wait for it….blathering on about boxing and dealing with fans. Other than a basic groove, there is nothing interesting about this and it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album at all.
The Armed, Only Love
OK….sometimes I like to push myself in my listening. Everyone has certain areas of music that they just don’t like very much. That’s OK. Mine is the type of hardcore that just consists of screaming. I don’t get it. I just don’t. And I say this as a huge fan of the noisiest free jazz out there. But hey, some of these albums are beloved. So why not check one out. The Armed’s Only Love came out in 2018 to critical acclaim in part because it had hooks in addition to the screaming. And sure, there are a few here. I still just don’t get this. I’ll give it credit for moving this a tick in the more accessible direction and because even though I don’t really like it, I can see the talent in there. But not my thing. At all.
Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at Firehouse 12
This 2019 release is from a show at Firehouse 12, the wonderful venue in New Haven that I miss so very very much through these horrible times. Cleaver is an outstanding drummer who I have seen 2 or 3 times, though I don’t think ever as bandleader. He is a verstaile drummer who can do crazy free jazz or more straight ahead bop with equal aplomb. Here he is more toward the latter on a release that reminds one of the great albums of the mid-60s. The band he puts together here is called Violet Hour to represent music for that time as the sun is going down–I think of that as have a beer on the porch while reading a book time but consider it however you want. The rest of the band is J.D. Allen on tenor, Andrew Bishop on bass clarinet, tenor, and soprano sax; Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Ben Waltzer on piano, and the always welcome Chris Lighthouse on bass. Maybe the highlight is “Detroit,” which closes the album, a tribute to Cleaver’s beloved hometown. Very enjoyable recording that many of you will like.
Passenger is the stage name of Mike Rosenberg, a British singer with an American father who is in love with the United States. In other words, this is a pastoral folk-rock album by a guy hanging out in the nation’s natural beauty and singing with a very strong British accent. As with a lot of these sorts of albums, the atmospherics do more work than the songwriting, which remains a bit superficial. The thing about so many acts like this is that they are more interested in being the LA folk-rock scene of 1975 than the Texas country scene of 1975 and that’s not the right choice if you want to make striking music. It’s not that he doesn’t have skills. There’s a very good immigration song about his grandparents. And there are so many unique musical styles to America that he, like a lot of artists, will pick up on some of them from song to song–mariachi for instance. It’s just that there’s another step on the road to greatness and some aesthetic choices in this scene that often get in the way of taking it.
Satoko Fujii, Emaki
Fujii is often classified as jazz, but she really isn’t. This is outre modern piano improivsation that fits into a musical world a lot nearer Schonenberg and Messaien than Davis and Coltrane, or really even Cecil Taylor. This is a set she recorded recently in her house. If you are a pianist and you can’t travel anyway or play with anyone else, you might as well record a solo record at home. The skill is incredible. She’s truly a great pianist. It’s not exactly accessible for a lot of listeners and is even at the edges of what I will listen to, which can be pretty far out in this kind of music.
Not surprisingly, none of this is on YouTube, but here’s a different clip of her playing a solo piece.
Anna St. Louis, If Only There Was a River
A nice album, though again as is so common in the folk-rock style of this era, it really could use some songs that reach out and grab you by the throat. This is better than the average though, including than some reviewed above, because of the nice arrangements and excellent voice. Solid, but not overly memorable in the end.
Peter Oren, Anthropocene
OK, here’s a better example of what I’ve been saying above. This 2017 album from the Indiana songwriter is a step above some of these others not because he’s that much more of a skilled songwriter or vocalist or musician, but because he has more of a vision. First, he’s really singing about something. This is a very angry man about climate change and environmental destruction and he is creating good art to encourage you to fight for the future of humanity and the planet. It’s not that great songwriting needs to be political–quite clearly not true–but it does need to take a stand for some kind of vision–about love, about yourself, about anxiety, about politics, whatever. Add to this a group of very solid musicians and you have a quality album. I enjoyed this a good deal.
Thomas Rhett, Center Point Road
This is terrible. This was well-reviewed when it was released last year, but yeah, it definitely sounds like a guy who wrote hits for Florida-Georgia Line. It’s not that it isn’t country. Who cares about that? It’s that it is really shitty pop music, poorly written and really poorly produced with incredibly cheesy arrangements. How reviewers wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt because people like him is beyond me. I mean, just listen to the opening song of the album below. Ugh.
Wayne Kramer, Citizen Wayne
I’ve never been the world’s biggest MC5 fan. Their politics were mostly a put-on and they were in fact a lot more interested in heroin than revolution. Kramer’s long prison term put an end to his career for a very long time. This 1997 album is usually considered his best post-prison album. Thought I’d finally check it out. And it’s pretty good! I might even say it’s better than High Time. The one thing maybe not quite getting me there is that there’s some filler on the back half. But it’s probably a more politically engaged album that MC5 and it rocks pretty well too, even if there are a few dated arrangements from late 90s rock in it.
Jamie Saft/Joe Morris/Charles Downs, Mountains
This is a fantastic improvisational set from these three great musicians. Morris is a legendary guitarist, though he’s mostly on bass here. Saft is on piano and Downs on drums. This is an hour long conversation in front of an audience as much as it is a set of three songs. For me, Saft is the real star of this particular set, though I’d need to listen to the drums more carefully to really be able to evaluate that properly and that takes a couple more listens. Pretty out there for some people, but I thought this a very fine set.
Natalia Lafourcade, Un Canto Por Mexico, Vol 1
This is an excellent introductory point into the sounds classic mid-20th century Mexican popular music. Lafourcade is a major Mexican singer today and as part of a benefit effort, recast some of her songs in that classic style and did a bunch of standards as well. I like the lushness of that music so this is appealing to me. Sure, like almost any standards album, it has inherent limitations, but you might really like this.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music or other art and none things politics or disease.