The big news in music right now is the death of Justin Townes Earle. He had both the blessing and the curse of being the son of Steve Earle and named after Townes Van Zandt, but he was certainly a very fine artist in his own right. I wasn’t a huge fan of all of his albums, but certainly Harlem River Blues and The Saint of Lost Causes, from last year, were excellent and frequently listens. Earle was…not the most stable guy. He openly talked about his problems with addiction, though most of those stories were from his teen years. However, having seen him twice, he was the kind of guy from whom the instability vibes just flowed through the audience. I didn’t mind his sometimes hostile relationships with the audience though. The second time I saw him, someone was singing along. He stopped the song and asked the person if the rest of the audience was paying to hear some audience member sing or Justin Townes Earle sing. I felt bad for the guy, but honestly, I also respected someone taking control over their audience. Anyway, cause of death was not named, but it’s a huge tragedy for music either way. He was only 38.
Steve Grossman also died. Grossman became famous in 1969 for being the saxophonist who replaced Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis’ band. His work on A Tribute to Jack Johnson is really fantastic. He then went on to work with Elvin Jones and then to a solo career. I’ve never actually heard any of his solo albums.
Other recent deaths include Widespread Panic drummer Todd Nance, North Mississippi Allstars bassist Carl Dufrene, and Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali. Walter Lure of The Heartbreakers, the famed punk band where everyone was too wasted all the time to really be a band, also died, the last of its members to be alive except for Richard Hell, who was only in it very briefly.
It’s been 25 years since I was working in my campus work study job and Farley wanders in and joyously tells me that Jerry Garcia is dead. Here’s a list of his 50 best songs. Don’t necessarily agree with the order, but certainly he has a quite a legacy of songwriting and performing, much of it of course with the great Robert Hunter. And here is David Fricke’s list of the most essential live shows.
Last time we did this I focused on music books. Continuing to move ahead on this project. I finished Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and it was…all right? I enjoyed the beginning of it, when she writes about being young in California and getting into the art scene. But then it just kind of isn’t great. Gordon doesn’t really talk about Sonic Youth as much as one would think. I liked her emphasis on a few various songs that meant a lot to her and I don’t think we would be well-served by a book that exhaustively went album by album. And while I don’t think she is really doing this specifically to name drop, there’s an awful lot of name dropping. It’s one thing to meet this or that person, but it doesn’t really matter that you looked out at some late era show and saw Carrie Brownstein in the audience. She was always a pretty unknowable figure and her own autobiography doesn’t really change that much. It’s so much about recovering from her divorce with Thurston Moore, which honestly just isn’t that interesting. They were together 29 years, he cheated, the marriage fell apart–this is the most banal domestic tale imaginable.
I did enjoy Ted Gioia’s 2008 book Delta Blues, which is a pretty exhaustive look at the figures behind that great music. I’ve never really been so transformed by hearing Robert Johnson and Charley Patton as so many other people–I do enjoy the early blues, some more than others, but my bailwick of old-timey music is much more old country. But the stories of trying to figure out who some of these people even were and the poverty in which the music was created was worth my time. I learned a lot.
Bonnie Prince Billy, Pond Scum
Will Oldham has frequently re-recorded old songs through his career. It often leads to pleasant enough if not particularly necessary projects. This is a collection of songs he recorded back in the 2000s for John Peel that were released in 2016, many of which revolve vaguely around religion or death. He also covered Prince’s “The Cross” in his own inimitable way. In fact, Oldham has always done really fascinating covers. The one time I saw him, about 15 years ago, he played a completely reimagined version of “Kokomo” that was quite memorable. Overall, this is still not really exactly a necessary release, but it is very pleasant one. Might be more for Oldham fans than newcomers, but it’s a solid release.
Brett Dennen, Por Favor
This 2016 release is an album of pleasant folk rock. Though some of the lyrics are darkish, as this is a post-relationship album, his style is so breezy that it reminds one more of John Denver than just about anyone else. And I think that says a lot about the extent to which you might like this album.
Mary Halvorson, Code Girl
Halvorson is an astounding guitarist and certified genius. I have seen her play three times and feel blessed by the music gods for this. Code Girl is a highly acclaimed 2018 album. But…I didn’t care for it much. The reason is pretty simple. I just don’t think jazz vocals work well with less than pretty music. Halvorson is hardly Wes Montgomery here. There’s a lot of atonality and tricky playing that doesn’t lend itself to voice. This is nothing against the skills of Amirtha Kidambi, the vocalist, not to mention the other fine players on this album. But it just doesn’t work for me as I find the vocalist quite distracting.
The Residents, Third Reich ‘n’ Roll
Why not check out the 1976 album by this nutty Shreveport by the way of the Bay Area avant-rock band? In theory, this could be cool. A cross between Frank Zappa and Negativland, The Residents created a pastiche of 60s rock music and commercials, blended it together, and released it as a satire on the music industry. Functionally though, it’s a one listen only album. Interesting as far as it goes, which would have gone farther for me in 1997 than 2020.
Juliana Hatfield, Whatever, My Love
I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of going back and exploring Hatfield’s recent work of late. This is just another album of very fine indie guitar rock. Is there anything better than a good album of guitar rock? That’s a rhetorical question because the answer is no, there is nothing better. Hatfield always delivers, from strong to awesome. I don’t know that there’s anything on this 2015 album that quite matches her best work on 2017’s Pussycat (see especially “Rhinoceros,” about Melania having sex with Trump), but she once again put out an album anyone should want to hear.
Julianna Barwick, Healing is a Miracle
I’ve long found Barwick’s work more interesting than compelling, operating in that (Steve) Reichian/Tangerine Dream/Eno/maybe a little medieval choir music world splitting classical composition with modern electronic soundscapes. I think lots of people have musicians where they feel like they really respect what they are hearing while also knowing they probably don’t need to hear the album again. This is how I often feel with Barwick, who is a very fine musician with a clear and successful vision that just doesn’t quite fit into my ears.
Joe Ely, Love in the Midst of Mayhem
The great Texan singer-songwriter Joe Ely decided to make a little money during COVID times by recording some songs that he had never gotten around to releasing. It’s OK I guess, but there’s a reason a lot of these songs never made it to an album. He wanted to put out an album that focused more on love songs so that people would feel good during these awful times. But that’s never really been his strength. Fine for fans.
Ibibio Sound Machine, Uyai
This British band that combines modern dance music with the African sounds that they grew up with as the children of immigrants is a lot of fun. This, their second album, from 2017, is a mostly great combination of these elements, with lyrics in both English and Ibibio. Occasionally, the electronics get a bit cheesy, which is the only real downside to this album, but Eno Williams is a great lead to the band and I could see making this a regular part of my life.
Luke Bell, self-titled
Bell, a country singer from Wyoming, got a little buzz for his 2016 self-titled album. He’s sort of a combination of outlaw country and the harmless though sometimes corny humor of Roger Miller. As far as throwback country artists goes, this is fine, but not exceptional. It’s nice to hear something that isn’t about drinking and other bad behavior from a retro artist who only sees Waylon and Willie and Merle as his touchstones. Doesn’t seem as he has released an album since, a sign of just how hard it is to make even a modest career in the music industry work.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and definitely no politics or disease.