The big news this week is sad. The great bluegrass guitarist and, at one time, vocalist, Tony Rice died at the age of 69. Seems to have been sudden and at home, so probably a heart attack. I saw Rice play once with Peter Rowan and of course he was amazing. The sad thing about Rice is that he lost his ability to sing due to muscle tension dysphonia, a syndrome that can be treated but Rice never had the money to do so. At that show when I saw him, which was in Knoxville in probably 1998 or 1999, the guy sitting next to us started to talking about Rice. He hated the guy actually, called him a real jerk. But he also noted that Trisha Yearwood had the same problem and she was able to get treatment. These are the kinds of conversations one had in east Tennessee at that time. People knew bluegrass musicians and I was lucky enough to see many of the greats of the period. Even without a voice, he still had that amazing guitar playing, at least until the last few years when arthritis and tennis elbow took that from him too. Rolling Stone has perhaps the best article on his legacy, if you have access to it. Here’s an hour long set from 1986 to give you a sense of the man and his music.
Too many damn deaths this week in the music world. Another death was Gene Tyranny, a relatively minor figure who nonetheless found a guy named Iggy Pop to play drums in his band and later was a big influence on the composer Robert Ashley. The jazz pianist Stanley Cowell has also died. So did Mountain guitarist Leslie West, for those of you who like BIG RIFFS. For everyone thought Cream wasn’t loud enough–clearly a problem for those guys!–there was Mountain.
COVID-19 has again struck the country world, taking K.T. Oslin, who had a bunch of big hits in the late 80s. She’s an interesting story, a woman who didn’t even start her career until she was in her mid-40s in an industry and town that prefers hot young things. But she had a ton of success.
There’s a new book out on the complex legacy of Louis Armstrong, arguing that his legacy is much more radical than the near blackface carictature that he often gets portrayed as.
Laura Veirs, My Echo
Veirs describes this as her divorce album. She has long worked with her now ex-husband, Tucker Martine, with him producing her albums. That’s the case here too, but the marriage was falling apart during the making of it. And while this is not Shoot Out the Lights, replete with Linda Thompson kicking Richard in the shins while onstage during shows, it is the album of a woman who is a little depressed, a little disturbed by aging, and extremely worried about the horrors of the world. Perhaps the most telling song is “End Times,” which is about the fires in Oregon and the fears of a climate apocalypse but also clearly about the end of a relationship too. This also has a lusher sound than most of her work. Very nice.
Jerry Joseph, The Beautiful Madness
Joseph is someone who has been on the edge of my consciousness for probably 15 years but I had never sat down and listened to him. The reason I did now is that Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers produced the album and most of the backing musicians for it is DBT. That might have been enough, but before one of the Hood streaming shows this summer, he filmed he and Joseph and a backing band of some of the best musicians in Portland, including Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, playing some of the album to promote it. And…holy shit. “Sugar Smacks” is one of the best “this world really sucks” songs that I have ever heard. And “Dead Confederate” is a powerful story of the legacy of racism on the white South, told from the story of a slave trader. Those are real highlights.
Joseph can’t really sing, but you forgive that. Interesting guy too; he’s traveled to Afghanistan to participate in what are effectively underground rock camps for both boys and girls. His last album, Full Metal Burqa, is inspired by his time there. He and his band have also just chosen random spots around the world and gone and set up music festivals, including in Rivas, Nicaragua a few years ago. So he’s a trip and these are really good songs.
Spiral Stairs, Doris and The Daggers
I mostly enjoyed this 2017 album from the band led by former Pavement guitarist. Solid indie rock, the kind of themes one expects from a guy who must be in his 50s now (rock and roll about teenage girls is a very different deal when sung by the ex-Pavement guitarist/father of the song’s subject than by, say, Chuck Berry or Mick Jagger). It’s not exceptional rock and roll. It’s just a good, solid album, the kind that you like to hear every now and then even if it’s not going to be in heavy rotation.
BC Camplight, Shortly After Takeoff
Brian Christinzio is a pretty clever guy. He even starts a song with 1 minute standup routine that isn’t bad at all. But I don’t care for the way he puts together his albums. The singing is just so mannered, overrun by too many effects that start bleeding into 80s cheese. There’s also plenty of middle-aged whining about life that one more expects from a 22 year old. He at least knows this; in fact, he sings about his mom telling him to grow up. Again, clever guy. But of limited appeal to me.
Lolina, The Smoke
This is a weird, unsettling, brilliant little album from 2018 by the British experimental musician formerly known as Inga Copeland. At first, it sounds cheap, with slightly silly sing-song and cheap Casio effects. But….it’s a lot more than that. There’s nothing here that one can call anything but abnormal. It’s as if a deeply trained pop singer decided to take a lot of wild drugs and engage in experimental music. The lyrics seem simple at first but then reveal a mysterious singer who isn’t going to let you know anything about her at all. The weird synth effects should annoy the hell out of me but yet they are deployed in such a way to actually build toward a powerful album. I dunno, this is really hard to describe, but it kind of a great album that I am going to have to listen to more often to really figure out.
A-Wa, Bayti Fi Rasi
Fascinating album by three Israeli sisters with Yemeni backgrounds taking Yemeni music traditions and turning it into modern pop. They were a huge hit in Israel back in 2015 with a single they released, the first song in Arabic to top the Israeli pop charts. This is their 2019 album and it’s kind of great. Obviously, I do not speak Arabic, but in this case, they wrote the songs themselves, vaguely around their grandmother’s move to Israel in 2015. This is big production music from three women with serious attitude and a modern sound. Really interesting.
Sons of Kemet, Your Queen is a Reptile
This is the 2018 release from this British jazz band. It’s rooted in Afrofuturism, with strong science fiction leanings in the vocals that come out of Reptilian conspiracy theory, as well as a political bent based on the lack of real representation Black people have in British society. The musicians are excellent and the vocals work well. That leader Shabaka Hutchings has sometimes played with the Sun Ra Arkestra is a very unsurprising thing to discover, as the influences are obvious. This is a kind of globalized Black jazz, with influences from Black music across the planet channeled through a strong musical and political vision. Each song is dedicated to “My Queen” of the song, ranging from Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis to the South African anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu and 18th century Jamaican anti-slavery leader Nanny of the Maroons. Worth a listen if nothing else.
Adrianne Lenker, Songs/Instrumentals
I like Big Thief fairly well, but I confess I was a bit skeptical about Lenker going to a cabin in Berkshires and recording a bunch of acoustic songs during lockdown. I just wasn’t sure this kind of project would hold up. It does and it doesn’t. The Songs album is actually quite outstanding. Her songwriting is really great here and she channels the rural setting to her advantage. This is a nice album. The Instrumentals album, consisting of two long pieces, really doesn’t work unless you are really into her as a musician specifically. She’s certainly a fine guitarist, but I wouldn’t say that compositionally this holds up very well. For fans only.
B but really A-/C+
I will be back on the 31st with my Best Albums of 2020 list.
This is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics.