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Music Notes


Been way too long since I’ve finished one of these posts. That me not finishing things coincided with the start of classes is not a coincidence..

One thing I’ve noticed over the years, and maybe this is something that has clotted in my mind just in recent months, is the way jazz legends are remembered. When one first gets into jazz, assuming that even still happens these days, at least for me it was a story that began with Miles and Coltrane. These were the legends that people I knew–coming out of the rock world–listened to first. Then you might move on to Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders and Ellington and John McLaughlin. But this is where it started. And I held to that for a long time. Given that I am particularly interested in the post-bop explorations of noise that both Miles and Coltrane pioneered, I kept with them as my key touchstones for a long time. And I still do in many ways. But what I’ve realized is that in the actual jazz world today, Coltrane seems far, far, far more influential than electric era Miles. Obviously Miles has the influence in the rock and fusion worlds. But when I think of both the aging generation of musicians who came up in the 1960s and early 1970s (Wadada Leo Smith, William Parker, Charles Gayle, etc) and the younger generation of amazing musicians (Mary Halvorson, Jason Moran, Tomeka Reid, so many others), it feels that not only is Coltrane the one who is the real influence on them, but Miles seems to fall well below Monk too, if not quite a few others. This observation could be completely false. But it feels true to me.

Stanley Crouch was far from my favorite cultural commenter, due to his inherent conservatism about music that made him think Wynton Marsalis’ attempt to turn jazz into a canon was great and the hip hop what with the kidz and the baggy pants is an atrocity. But he was also a very important figure in the history of jazz criticism and his death needs to be noted.

Speaking of Black cultural commenters on jazz, here’s a good piece on the wonderful Albert Murray. I’ve covered Murray in the grave series.

About Eddie Van Halen, I basically have nothing to say at all. Was never moved by the band, but didn’t hate them either. It is however very much worth noting the loss of Johnny Bond. And as for Mac Davis, let’s just say that when I drove through Lubbock and saw that there’s a street named for him, I was very excited. Much more so than I ever was by his music anyway. Helen Reddy only brought me back to the tapes my parents owned when I was a kid.

The enormous impact of the Casio keyboard on pop music.

Music and poetry--not the same thing!

This documentary on the support of rock and country musicians for Jimmy Carter in 1976 looks pretty cool.

Rob Halford on his history as the queer man of heavy metal.

I would approach the idea of Madonna co-writing and co-directing her own biopic with great trepidation.

There’s been a whole slate of albums in multiple genres that have responded to the pandemic by being very quiet. I really don’t know about you, but when my life is very boring and at home, I do not need to be reminded of that through listening to quiet music. Let’s make some noise to fill the space!

I just have trouble imagining Trump loving Guns and Roses’s November Rain, largely because I can’t imagine him listening to and enjoying music other than Sinatra.

New book on Louis Armstrong looks pretty interesting (nearly typed that as Louis Anderson and that would be a different topic!)

I haven’t heard the new Drive-By Truckers album yet, but Cooley’s quote in this Rolling Stone story on it about living in the present is both awesome and the purest distillation of the guy imaginable.

Cooley sees the world just a bit differently. “I’m glad we’re putting something out, so the world knows we still exist,” he says. “I’m really running out of optimism, honestly. I never had much to begin with. I’m not a [glass] half-full or half-empty guy, I’m just a half, because it’s a measurable amount. It’s not a matter of fucking opinion.”


Album Reviews:

Niia, I

A basically fine high-production pop-R&B album. The lyrics are basically forgettable, the production a bit too glossy but with some good compositions and certainly an excellent singer.


Mandolin Orange, Tides of a Teardrop

I’ve heard good things about this band for years and am glad I finally got to them. This 2019 album very much reminds me of some of the better male-female combos of the early alt-country era. They don’t really sound like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, but there’s a similar vibe between Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin. Thematically, the material is a downer–much of it is a reflection on the death of Marlin’s mother when he turned 18. But it’s really a nice meditation on the issue that wallows in the sadness like what is far too common with this genre (hello Mount Eerie!).


The 1984 Draft, Makes Good Choices

This anthemic punk band made of middle aged guys from Dayton aren’t necessarily breaking new ground, but if you like Sugar albums, this may well appeal to you. Plus a song titled “Lutheran Heat” which amused me for personal reasons.


Bill Callahan, Gold Record

After I thought, in a minority position, that Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest didn’t really work that well after an absence of several years, Callahan immediately releases a follow up album that is mostly a return to form. His observational abilities are at their peak at times here, especially in “Pigeons,” the powerful opener where he is a limo driver and a newly married couple asks his advice and then he feels like an idiot after he gives it. I assume that Callahan may actually be working as a limo driver, as I doubt he makes enough money on even a pretty successful and very long career to not have to work otherwise. There are however a couple of duds here, including a kind of half-baked tribute to Ry Cooder and a song about seeing a pop singer sing a protest song on a TV show and being disgusted by that. Callahan always seemed about as oppositional to a political song as one can and that’s fine, he doesn’t need to do down that road, but there really isn’t any problem with others doing it and even if it is poorly done, not sure it is worth a released song. But despite some reservations about those two songs, overall, this is a very welcome album.


Elizabeth Cook, Aftermath

Cook has become one of my favorite artists over the past few years. She’s country as hell but really a rocker with a solid sensibility that avoids the cheese that kind lead to and combines great lyrics with solid arrangements. This is a real winner here, one of my favorite albums so far in 2020. “Perfect Girls of Pop” is a fantastic song, “Thick Georgia Woman” is a tribute to non-traditional bodies (not autobiographical in this case), and “Mary the Submissing Years” is basically a rewriting of John Prine’s “Jesus the Missing Years” to locate the story in Mary and placing her in a modern trailer park. But it’s Cook’s rough yet pretty voice that really puts her work over the top.


Girlpool, What Chaos is Imaginary

Girlpool’s ethereal indie-harmonies have appealed to me for awhile now. But the band is different now. With Cleo Turner transitioning to a man, testosterone has changed the vocal interactions with Harmony Tividad. I wouldn’t really say it has hurt the band though there are older songs that I don’t think they can really sing anymore. They still sing well together. I don’t think this is a great album, but it still remains solid as a queer indie album, with more of a noisy sound palette than usual.


Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tell The Devil I’m Gettin’ There As Fast As I Can

If I told you that we needed more older white men singing songs about the mystery of the blues and guitar chords and the devil, you’d probably say that no, no we don’t. And usually that is true. But Ray Wylie, who over the last twenty years has turned from a rather second-level outlaw country figure with his big “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” hit into a senior figure of brilliant songwriting that seems to be reckoning with the constant battle between Heaven and Hell in the human soul, if with rather predictable touchstones like Lightnin’ Hopkins. He can’t really sing that well, but then does it really matter? There’s just not anyone working the same way as Hubbard these days. Even if he is working around cliched themes, he can write his way right through them in fascinating ways.


Sacred Paws, Run Around the Sun

Fun, energetic art-punk here from this Scottish band made up of a guitarist and drummer. Strong Sleater-Kinney vibe here, with strong sounds and strong lyrics.


Flaming Lips, King’s Mouth

Wayne Coyne is never going to be anything more than an aging bro-hippie. That’s led to some terrible decisions and the occasional really great album (Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots). This is a rather solid if still kind of ditzy album with a ridiculous story narrated by Mick Jones of all people. The story has something to do with gigantic severed heads, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s just a nice sounding album with Coyne’s vocals the best they’ve sounded for years and, which doesn’t seem right for such a ridiculous concept, a pretty disciplined album.


Lori McKenna, The Balladeer

McKenna is one of those great country songwriters who writes hits for everyone else and has a minor career themselves. McKenna deserves to be a big star herself though. She’s such a great writer and a perfectly good singer. This is another solid addition to her catalog.


Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground

For some reason I avoided Jarosz’s first few albums. Every few years, there’s some new bluegrass phenom who is not really bluegrass and appeals mostly to an audience much, much older that is primarily interested in rather bland country-folk-rock. With traditional bluegrass basically a dead genre outside of the jam band hippies and cursed by its musically fascist fans who treat the introduction of a new instrument like a crime against humanity (drums! OMG drums the real music has ended!!!), it can lead me to mistrust of acclaimed new talent. And then she was heavily promoted by the Nickel Creek people, which is a band I never really liked, feeling its audience was NPR listeners. That in itself was not helped when the dude from that band took over Prairie Home Companion.

All of this is to say that while I don’t hear a lot of bluegrass in Jarosz’s new album, what I do hear is a very mature and excellent songwriter who clearly deserves her acclaim. I will be listening to this repeatedly and will check out her older albums too. This is why not to follow my instincts and give as much music a chance as possible.


Dan Penn, Living on Mercy

Penn, the writer of so many soul classics such as “The Dark End of the Street” and “Cry Like a Baby” is an old guy now who is making the exact same type of songs that he had such huge hits on (with far better singers of course) back in the 60s when he was part of the Muscle Shoals blue-eyed soul crew. He never was a great singer, which is why others recorded the songs. But he can sure write. And even if there aren’t really artists today who are going to record his good songs, there should be. I’d love to see, say, Leon Bridges record a bunch of these songs and sing the hell out of them. He can still write a quality soul love song and this is a welcome release.


Jason Isbell, Live from the Ryman

While I’ve long thought Isbell is a next world songwriter, I haven’t really felt he’s a great live performer. It’s not necessarily fair to compare him to his old Drive By Truckers bandmates, but he doesn’t really have the charisma of either Hood or Cooley on stage. Oddly enough, he kind of did when I was seeing him during his drunk years in small Texas clubs. But I guess that’s a false charisma. Anyway, I think this set from 2018 represents that pretty well. It’s a solid set. Any Isbell set is going to be solid. The songwriting carries it. I’ve always thought that The 400 Unit is a kind of pedestrian band, and that means Amanda Shires’ fiddle really makes a difference in his music. That musically Isbell’s career has not taken any other risks makes her contribution that much more valuable, raising the material from musically standard, if extremely well-written, folk-rock singer-songwriter, to something a bit more interesting. Still, this doesn’t really pop. It’s merely good.


The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers

My favorite New Zealand indie band are back after their amazing debut (and well-titled), Future Me Hates Me. That energetic bout of great written indie rock was one of my favorite albums of the last few years. The follow up is pretty good, but definitely not up to that standard. There are some good songs, but the energy is not as high here, with some spots of the album that drag and are even forgettable. Still, I like this band.


Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?

It’s hardly fair for me to evaluate a modern disco club album since it’s not really my genre. But while people really like this British artist and this has been well-reviewed by those who like this genre more than I do, to me it was just a very standard disco album. It’s true enough that the anti-disco backlash of the late 70s was homophobia in action. And a lot of that music does hold up for me, more or less, even if it will never be a big part of my listening rotation. But to me, this was just too rote a regurgitation of the era.


Chouk Bwa & the Angstromers, Vodou Alé

Now this is interesting. I am often highly skeptical of cross-cultural projects because they tend to allow no one to really shine while creating music that fits more in the background at faculty parties by those who want to see hip and cool and international than in anywhere this music might be played. But this surpasses that by a good bit. Chouk Bwa is a Haitian band with vodou roots. The Angstromers are a dub duo. The deep percussion of the former is enhanced by the club work of the latter. The singing is great. Really, one of my favorite albums of the year.


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