Since tis’ the season, I thought I’d write a little bit about Christmas albums. I really, really, really do not get this subgenre, based on the principle of who the hell would want to listen to tossed off covers of Christmas songs by the pop star of the day? But the answer is evidently enough. Within country music history alone, the number of Christmas albums is absolutely astounding. I mean, we all expect Dolly Parton to have like 10 Christmas albums because that’s who she is and she does. But would you want to listen to a Johnny Cash Christmas album? You can, because he’s got a bunch of them. Or what about Waylon? I love the idea of a coked out Waylon belting out terrible versions of “Silent Night” while thinking about another line and cashing the check. There are lots of lists out there of the worst Christmas albums of all time or of recent years. I was just impressed by this one since evidently Scott Wieland recorded a truly dreadful example of the Christmas album, which I am not going to suffer to hear.
As this is a Drive-By Truckers blog, any commentary on an introduction to DBT is very welcome. Not sure these albums are what I would choose, but hey whatever.
A new Frank Zappa documentary by Alex Winter. Although I very much went through my Zappa phase in college, the problem with him is that he was a malevolent misogynist asshole who let his sophomoric humor get in the way of his quite prodigious musical talents with terrible, awful lyrics and dumb jokes in the middle of his interesting compositions. The only thing I listen to by him anymore is some of the instrumental material such as Hot Rats and The Yellow Shark and a few of the live performances from his red hot early 80s band.
Rhiannon Giddens has taken over Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and is creating a project on the Transcontinental Railroad. That certainly sounds fascinating.
Bob Mould Q&A! He seems mildly less cranky these days.
Marshall Allen, 96 years young and still leading the Sun Ra Arkestra. Amazing. And a real nice profile of the great one.
Allen may not ever retire, but Arlo Guthrie is hanging it up.
Good to know that the death of Kenny Rogers is leading to that old-fashioned way of mourning artists: lawsuits over the money and rights.
Florida-Georgia Line, quite possibly the worst band in America, is making a musical. That ought to be just dandy.
In a question I never would consider, can one calm monkeys with some nice piano?
Mercifully, we haven’t lost a lot of enormously important musicians in the last couple of weeks, but I do want to note the death of Hal Ketchum. Due to the early 90s era when he became popular and the production choices that meant, Ketchum was never my favorite country singer. But he was a neotraditionalist at a time when that was getting harder to pull off in Nashville. Sadly, even though he was only 67 when he died, his last years were spent dealing with dementia.
Album Reviews, in which I spent A LOT of time listening to new music this week, even if most of it was clearing the list of 2018 and 2019 albums. Yes, I have listened to each of these albums since the Music Notes post from last Saturday.
Jenny Lewis, On the Line
After a good start, Lewis’ solo career has had pretty significantly diminishing returns. The album with her then boyfriend was a boring nadir and then she came back with an OK album. This is her album from 2019 and it’s…fine. “Heads Gonna Role” is a strong enough opener for sure. But much of this is filler and it’s just clear at this point that Lewis peaked in the 2000s and while she might be able to release some albums and tour and keep her up her career, there’s probably not going to be anything pushing forward any envelopes any longer. In other words, she’s now really a nostalgia act from people ages 35-50.
Vince Staples/Larry Fisherman, Stolen Youth
Staples continues to just be brilliant and this mix tape from all the way back in 2013 with Fisherman (Mac Miller’s stage name) is fantastic. Staples and Miller are both at the top of their game, with the former going into his life growing up in Long Beach and the latter laying down some fantastic beats and samples. Staples may be a bleak guy, but surrounded by Miller’s sounds, this is great.
Tune Recreation Committee, Voices of Our Vision
A fun and sometimes interesting album from this Cape Town jazz quartet. Not that it should matter one bit, but there’s a lot less obvious South African influence here than I’d expect. Rather, it’s a fairly creative album by fine musicians that explores the borders of drum/bass and even Balkan folk music. Solid, if not spectacular, album.
Maps & Atlases, Lightlessness Is Nothing New
I don’t know exactly why this didn’t do much for me. It’s seemingly a solid album. This band provides a pretty upbeat, almost Vampire Weekend-esque, take on, of all things, the death of the singer’s father. While it’s certainly melodic and an interesting concept, this just fell flat to me in execution, creating perfectly functional indie pop-rock, but not too much farther than that.
Anandi Bhattacharya, Joys Abound
Bhattacharya is the daughter of the legendary Indian guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya. I always wonder about these generational talents coming out of the African and Asian music scenes. Are they are really that great or are the advantages coming out of their families and the name recognition for the international market that music companies want? As an outsider, it’s not always something that I can tell. Bhattacharya is promoted as the voice of a new Indian music, taking those traditions and applying them to youth culture. And she is only 22 and very talented. I guess personally, I prefer the work of more traditional singers such as Jyotsna Srikanth. But what do I really know.
Joey Purp, Quarterthing
Joey Purp is just fucking great. I love his raw, in your face raps. His work feels so natural, so raw, and yet so easy. It’s a voice from the street that just feels like a natural short story writer in action. His debut iiiDrops was a huge winner for me, probably my favorite hip hop album of the last 10 years. I guess one can say that the themes here are so similar, but one does one expect. The man is writing what he knows. Just a real great one here. What’s embarrassing here is that this came out over two years ago and I am just listening to it now. But I made this my weekly album purchase today.
I always enjoy a Beirut album. They aren’t my favorite band, but I am also happy to hear them again. The combination of smart indie rock sensibility, good instrumentation, and smart enough lyrics always enchants me a little bit, especially given their sound overall. If there’s any one significant critique, it’s that 2019 release this sounds mostly like every other Beirut album, so take that as you will.
Salif Keita, Un Autre Blanc
One of the kings of Malian music and this good but not groundbreaking album reflects this. His last album, from 2018, is indeed his album. He chose to make this his retirement statement. And like this sort of thing in the U.S., it’s filled with his contemporary stars, such as Angelique Kidjo and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A lot of the songs have social messages–the struggle of women in African society, Keita’s own albinism–though of course that’s lost on monolingual English listeners like my ignorant self. From that perspective, this is a perfectly fine release.
Tracey Thorn, Record
This 2018 release from the lead singer of Everything But the Girl reflects a lifetime of both pop music and feminism. Sometimes, her work can across a bit diffident I guess, but at her best, she’s really first rate. And on at least a couple of songs here, she is really at her peak. My personal favorite is “Sister” with Corinne Bailey Rae which really unspools as an angry but danceable track about discrimination against women and how that never seems to change. Another excellent one is the equally danceable closer, the appropriately titled “Dancefloor,” where you can let out your troubles. Nice work.
Matthew Shipp Quartet, Sonic Fiction
The greatest pianist of his generation and the greatest since Cecil Taylor, Shipp at one point about five years ago said he was going to stop recording. He has since recorded at least 50 albums, including what he’s been on without being bandleader. But to me, this is good because like Taylor or so many other free jazz musicians, every album offers something new. This quartet includes three of his long time collaborators in saxophonist Mat Walerian, drummer Whit Dickey, and bassist Michael Bisio. These guys know each other well and how to build off each other. I wouldn’t put this at the peak of Shipp’s work, which includes a ton of albums at that top level, but it is still a solid entry into one of the great catalogs in jazz history.
Big Star, Live at Lafayette’s Music Room
I’ve never quite loved Big Star in the way that some have. The band, short-lived as it may have been in its original phase, was incredibly influential on R.E.M. and, well, so many other bands. I enjoy their albums but they’ve never totally wowed me. But this performance from a Memphis club in 1973 really does represent what this band sounded like at its peak and its definitely pretty damn good. Chilton doing his own songs, plus some good covers (Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Hot Burrito #2,” Todd Rundgren’s “Slut,” a few others), the band tearing it up. Real solid release from all the way back in 2009.
Lydia Loveless, Daughter
One of my very favorite artists of the last ten years, Loveless’ songwriting has changed as she’s moved from her early 20s to 30. The songs are a little less about post-high school drugs and sex and more about the heartbreak and suffering of life. And she’s suffered plenty since Real was released back in 2016. She got a divorce and moved to North Carolina for a fresh start. She also went pubic with the severe sexual harassment she faced from the husband of one of the top execs at Bloodshot, which had been her recording home. Loveless has never exactly been a happy lyricist and this is no change, with songs about the failure of love but also songs about not putting up with bullshit from virtue-signaling wannabe male feminists who are not actually allies at all. Sonically, this doesn’t put the envelope on her Americana roots as much as Real did, but it’s still a very good album.
Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
It’s a bit hard for me to imagine Big Thief becoming as popular as they have because the work is so quiet. I mean, they’ve reached reasonably length New Yorker profile level of big. This album from 2019 is a set of pastoral songs cooed by singer Adrianne Lenker in a sometimes barely audible voice and yet one that shows a great maturity in songwriting as they wrestle with core questions of life such as love, longing, and death. Nice work.
Bonnie Prince Billy, Wolf of the Cosmos
In the last decade, Will Oldham has almost stopped writing his own songs (and many of those he has written has led to some dreadful albums, despite the fact that I think his best work holds up equal to anyone working in music the last three decades) and he has recast himself as a song interpeter. This has been to a mixed result. His Merle Haggard tribute was sublime, his Everly Brothers tribute with Dawn McCarthy more OK. This, a cover of the Swedish singer Susanna’s 2007 album Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos, is also at best OK. It’s so slow that to me it just doesn’t work well. Of course, I don’t know the original album so I’m coming at this more behind the 8-ball than on Merle and Everly covers. But as a first-time listener to these songs, it’s just not a riveting album.
Ivo Perelman, Heptagon
The great saxophonist released this album in 2017 with Matthew Shipp on piano, (yet again, it’s Matthew Shipp!) William Parker on bass, and Bobby Kapp on drums. This is a very fine work that continues to push the enveloped of modern music as these four have for decades. Perelman’s focus on lyricism within what can be difficult music helps ground it in a beauty that most of you can hear. Toward the end of the album, the players reach a beautiful crescendo of noise that sparks the soul of any fan of this music. Very solid release.
Ann Arbor Blues Festival, 1969
So this is an interesting historical document. The Ann Arbor Blues Festival was perhaps the first major blues festival in the nation. It didn’t last long because it lost money, but it brought together leading blues artists from the around the country. And it clearly kicked ass. These are top notch performances. The problem is that the sound is terrible. For some reason, the performances were not professionally recorded. So the only recording that exists is some guy with a cheap recorder. When J.B. Hutto & The Hawks are ripping through “Too Much Alcohol,” the performance is interrupted by the guy coughing into the recorder. That’s what you get here. Archivally, this stuff is pretty important. And there are some real highlights–especially a nearly 17 minute Howlin’ Wolf jam. But whether you want to actually listen to it more than once really depends on your commitment to this era of blues.
Peter Oren, The Greener Pasture
Discovering Oren’s work has been one of my great musical pleasures of 2020. A couple months ago, I reviewed his Anthropocene album from a couple years ago and thought it was a great protest recording. This is a bit more personal and just as strong. He combines a deep voice with fine grained songwriting, in this case about the turn inside as we spend so much time on our phones and how we need to embrace environmentalism. Now, the former is not the most useful topic in the world, at least in my opinion. I mean, that ship has sailed forever ago and ain’t changing. But who really cares. I’m not listening to any musician for political consistency or a manifesto. I’m listening for good songwriting and this is that.
Marcin Wasilewski Trio, Live
A perfectly serviceable 2018 set of somewhat interesting straight ahead jazz from this Polish pianist. Being an ECM album, it sounds like an ECM album, though recorded live at the Middleheim Jazz Festival, so a bit more energy and fewer classical overtones. Overall solid set, ending with an excellent cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof.”
The Magnetic Fields, Quickies
Whatever in Stephen Merritt’s brain that requires each album to have a theme, it does tend to get old. For his latest album, it’s that each song is very short. This is 28 songs over 46 minutes. That’s….an awful lot of changes and makes this a bit tiring to listen to. It’s a combination of his usual wit and writings about sex and genderfucking (from “The Biggest Tits in History” to “I Wish I Was a Prostitute Again”) with the desperate need of an editor to tell him which of his bits work and which don’t. It’s certainly not a bad album; probably a midrange Magnetic Fields album. We aren’t going to get another 69 Love Songs and maybe not even another Distortion. And it’s not fair to compare everything to an all-time great masterpiece. That’s OK. If you are a Magnetic Fields you want this. If you on the fence, this isn’t going to move you off it either way.
The Sounds, The Things We Do For Love
I was unfamiliar with this Swedish dance band that released a bunch of albums in the 2000s. I wasn’t listening to this type of music back then. Their new album is their first in seven years. It’s a perfectly functional dance album. Sometimes I find the beats a bit trite, sometimes I find them interesting enough. Not quite my thing, but perfectly acceptable.
Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death
This is an Elizabeth special, as she reviewed this album at Pitchfork when it came out and gave it a rave review. I’m just going to quote her since she’s, you know, actually good at writing about music, unlike myself.
The Horsemen of the Apocalypse do not thunder and gallop. They lurch and stagger, weighed down by the grim burden of their brief. Slowly, they stalk humanity with an Amazon Prime package of grief, war, and pestilence, their approach suggested only by the mechanized drone of social media and cable news. When the end finally comes, it’s all so quotidian and tedious; a whimper, not a bang. All around us, the party is ending, and Fontaines D.C. are the final house band. The setlist is A Hero’s Death.
Slinking seeming fully-formed from Dublin’s working-class neighborhood The Liberties, the five-piece established themselves as bona fide inheritors of a centuries-long socialist-bohemian tradition on 2019’s post-post-punk document Dogrel, an album that weaved together the enduring groove of Gang of Four and the psychically dislocating poetry of Allen Ginsberg with unnervingly precocious aplomb. Dogrel was a shouty revelation—part early Mekons, part cider-addled James Brown & the JB’s—all of it suggestive of a crucial talent abuzz with live-wire intensity.
The jet-black comedy of their follow-up A Hero’s Death does nothing to detract from this view, instead geometrically expanding their cantankerous field of vision. Heady, funny, and fearless, A Hero’s Death is a maudlin and manic triumph, a horror movie shot as comedy, equal parts future-shocked and handcuffed to history. Memorable tunes and unforgettable phrases erupt like brush fire over the course of 47 minutes, the mood migrating at a moment’s notice from insouciant nihilism to full-blown rage to radical empathy. As one does these days.
I will only add that this kicks quite a bit of ass.
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Apocalypse
I went through a very big John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra phase in college and in the years after. There’s certainly nothing to apologize for about this. His work with Miles was astounding, Devotion is an all-time great album, and his early Mahavishnu Orchestra albums are also great. But he went south pretty quick, running out of ideas and just repeating himself to lesser and lesser effect. This was already pretty evident by the mid-70s and sadly, he’s never really moved beyond this, occupying something closer to New Age than his pioneering jazz/rock fusion for decades now.
In 1974, with the original Mahavishnu Orchestra having disbanded, McLaughin created a new band with the same name and then recorded an album with Michael Tilson Thomas directing the London Symphony Orchestra. I had never actually heard this before. It’s really quite bad. It’s a hallmark of musicians who lack new ideas to bring in the symphony orchestra to back them. And this is no exception. There are brief moments where something interesting is going on, but despite the talent on hand here, it’s pretentious claptrap and just not worth a listen.
The Good Ones; Rwanda, You Should Be Loved
I should not be a cynical bastard like this, but this album brings it out of me. The reason is that this is a World Music Album with a Story, just the type to bring out the interest for global white liberals. The Good Ones are three Rwandan guys, all from different tribes and thus who were on different sides of the civil war in the 90s, who play acoustic instruments and write about their lives. They aren’t reconciling the war or rehashing that. They are moving beyond it to talk about everything from the illnesses of their children to dead spouses. It’s a nice sound and it’s soothing. But what Corin Tucker or Nels Cline is doing in here is beyond me. The band is perfectly fine, but it’s World Music with a Story and thus the attention from western musicians who want to Contribute to a Good Cause. Without the specifics of the story, it’s pretty unlikely they would be getting much attention globally.
Tough Age, Which Way Am I?
This Vancouver based band went post-punk for their new album and it’s a real killer. Sure they wear the Television and Feelies and The Bats influences on their sleeves. But it’s not derivative at all. Great guitars (this is a seriously guitar-centric album), great hooks, great vocals (both male and female, which never hurts). Fresh, excellent rock album, one of my favorites of 2020.
Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith, To Be Surrounded by Beautiful, Curious, Breathing, Laughing Flesh is Enough
This is outstanding. The incredibly productive Deerhoof (I think they have 4 releases this year) has always been heavily jazz influenced. So they put out this release of a show at a jazz festival where they play their brand of jazzed up spacey rock for 6 songs and then bring out the great trumpeter and free jazz legend Wadada Leo Smith for the last half of the album. While much of Smith’s solo work is often very quiet, he can let it rip and he certainly does here, blowing out to keep up with the rest of them. This is the kind of cross-genre collaboration that makes the entire hit and miss enterprise of them worthwhile. Sadly, there does not seem to be any excerpts of this album on YouTube, but you can check it out on Bandcamp.
The Mavericks, En Español
Always a welcome band if never a truly great one, it seems a bit surprising that this is their first album entirely in Spanish. This sounds like one of those classic albums from the age of Mexican chamber pop, with big arrangements and the crooning vocals that Raul Malo does so well. I do feel like Malo often oversings the material, a frequent issue for those born with the gift of a golden voice, but it works well with the production here.
Seaway, Big Vibe
Canadian pop-punk band nostalgic for the late 90s/early 00s era of this music. Big hooks, cheesy arrangements, cliched conception. They aren’t terrible lyricists. But this does absolutely nothing for me at all.
Miguel Zenón, Tipíco
Zenón has received many accolades for his work combining modern jazz with the influences of his Puerto Rican home. Of course, he’s far from the first person to do this; Latin jazz is a now ancient tradition. Still, Zenón, in a 2017 album of his compositions, does a good job of moving this tradition forward with some interesting compositions and very hot playing, at least at times. He’s less interested in the Afro-Caribbean percussion than many of his contemporaries who mine this genre and this leads to a refreshing take on the music. This is a tight quartet that had played together for over a decade by the time this was recorded. It shows.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.