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Music Notes


Pour one out for the memory of Prince Markie Dee of The Fat Boys, who died at the age of 52. I guess this was not a group of guys destined to live to 90, but it’s still a big loss from a band that was important in the history of hip hop.

My friend Charles Hughes has some thoughts at Slate about Douche Country singer Morgan Wallen’s racism and what it means for country music. He is not sparing:

Morgan Wallen’s callous use of a racial slur is not unprecedented among country music artists. Black country stars of previous eras, like Charley Pride and O.B. McClinton, reported hearing racist comments and words from their colleagues. These were sometimes said in the “joking” fashion that white folks use as rationalization, and sometimes used with more obviously hurtful intentions. Beyond this, Black artists have faced racialized mistreatment from both audiences and the industry since the genre’s early days, as white artists (especially men) are afforded greater musical and professional opportunities. And the genre itself was initially structured through a central racial conundrum: despite its multiracial sound and audience, country was established as the sound of whiteness.

Record labels and country radio stations have generally targeted white listeners, ignoring – as scholar Amanda Martinez has shown in her work on the subject – the significant presence and buying power of non-white country fans. Country artists and executives doubled-down on this by aligning with prominent conservative politicians; in the late 1960s, “New Right” leaders like Richard Nixon and George Wallace championed country as the soundtrack of the (white) Americans being left behind in the Civil Rights era. And major artists have embraced “Lost Cause” revisionism and neo-Confederate nostalgia through songs, iconography, and even band names. While country’s political history is complicated, the genre has consistently affirmed its relationship to white identity. Advertisement

There have been several Black country stars throughout the genre’s lifespan, from DeFord Bailey in the 1930s through Darius Rucker in the 21st century. Even so, the space has remained notoriously narrow (especially for women of color), despite the music itself having always been heavily marked by white performers’ incorporation of Black musical influences. Morgan Wallen, for example, is one of several recent hitmakers to incorporate the woozy textures of post-Drake hip-hop into his crossover-friendly sound. Put simply, country music has been defined by the presence of Black sound combined with the absence of Black people.

Even as the erasure of Black musicians remains the most visible example of country’s tenacious whiteness, the systemic problem extends to other communities who have both contributed to country and been marginalized within it. The sounds of Latinx and Indigenous traditions have both been critical to the genre’s development, but artists from those backgrounds have almost routinely failed to find industry support. Country’s myopic racial identity makes little room for the acknowledgement of Latinx and Indigenous artists within the music’s ongoing evolution and popularity—perhaps even less room than it has available for Black people. And Wallen’s caught-on-camera slur, and his continued top spot on the Billboard charts, serves as an extreme illustration of this racial power dynamic.

He goes on from there.

Over at The Boot, they rank their top 10 Drive By Truckers songs. To say the least, mine is very different. And here’s my top 15. At least today’s list. Also, I can cheat, it’s my blog:

  1. Women Without Whiskey (Southern Rock Opera)
  2. Outfit (Decoration Day)
  3. Ramon Casiano (American Band)
  4. The Living Bubba (Gangstabilly)
  5. Sink Hole (Decoration Day)
  6. What It Means (American Band)
  7. Grand Canyon (English Oceans)
  8. Uncle Frank (Pizza Deliverance)
  9. The Day John Henry Died (The Dirty South)
  10. Space City (A Blessing and a Curse)
  11. Hell No, I Ain’t Happy (Decoration Day)
  12. Used to Be a Cop (Go-Go Boots)
  13. Goode’s Field Road (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark)
  14. A Ghost to Most (Brighter Than Creation’s Dark)
  15. Ronnie and Neil (Southern Rock Opera)

The hugely influential salsa master Johnny Pacheco has died.

We have also lost the Minnesota fiddle Peter Ostroushko, at the age of 67. Sound suspiciously COVID-related, but who knows. he was a frequent Prairie Home Companion musician. The music really was the only redeeming thing about that show.

If you were to create a list of 25 jazz songs to follow the genre over a century, which is kind of a hopeless task, you could probably do worse than this. Speaking of jazz lists, this is an interesting list of 10 highly underrated saxophone-based albums.

Daft Punk breaking up means more to a lot of people than it does to me.

Is live music possible this summer?

On the racist, imperialist norms of the world that infect every technology, in this case electronic music software.

The role of art and music in the Arab Spring.

Willie Nelson is writing a book!

Brandi Carlisle writes a tribute to The Indigo Girls.

Album Reviews:

Park Jiha, Communion

If you like interesting modernist compositional work made primarily with traditional Korean instruments, this is the album for you. Some regular instruments too, with Kim Oki on sax and bass clarinet, John Bell on vibraphone, and Kang Tekhuyn on percussion. But this is definitely Park’s album, with her leading on the piri (a Korean flute), the saenghwang (a mouth organ), and the yanggeum (a hammered dulcimer). Of course, who cares what the instruments are if the compositions aren’t interesting. That’s not a problem here. This is a very fine album.


Moon Duo, Mazes

This is basically the platonic ideal of what a psychedelic garage rock album should sound like. It’s an old album, from 2011, but it only came across my radar recently. I often feel like this subgenre of rock has its limitations; lyrics are often not great and the musical ability is frequently more aspirational than real. But this is real good.


Matthew Shipp, The Piano Equation

I’ve reviewed so many Shipp albums over the years here that I hardly even know what to say. This is another astonishing solo piano album, which I reiterate is not even a genre of jazz I find interesting. For instance, I can respect the hell out of Keith Jarrett but also not really want to listen to his many solo piano albums more than once every very long while. He is now 60 years old and he continues to push the piano forward as an instrument of modern music in a way far surpassing anything Herbie Hancock was doing when he was 60, or even 40, actually. Simply put, Shipp may be the greatest jazz pianist since Monk and thus perhaps the second greatest in history. His recent acclaimed album here is just a great way to enter into his solo work.


Chatham County Line, Strange Fascination

Whether Chatham County Line is a bluegrass band or not at this point is not an interesting question. I guess they aren’t, not really. But then bluegrass has proven a pretty limited genre because of its fans refusal to tolerate new styles or instruments. In any case, this is a pretty interesting album with a lot songs about history and a lot of percussion, the definitive statement of not being a bluegrass band any longer. Though I guess the banjo player leaving the band after the recording might be even more definitive.


Dave Alvin, From an Old Guitar

Dave Alvin is a long-time favorite, though his recent work has been a bit wobbly. This is an odds and sods collection that has some real nice work and also suffers from being 15-20 minutes too long. His cover of “Highway 61” is one of the best Dylan covers I’ve heard in a long time. Interesting cover of “Amanda” as well, the 70s country song that Waylon had a huge hit with. But there’s not 16 songs worth of first-rate material here, especially because Alvin’s blues guitar is a bit repetitive when the album goes north of 60 minutes.


Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son

I’ve never been the biggest Ry Cooder fan, though certainly he has his moments. This 2018 album does a good job of showing both his strengths and limitations, his love of gospel that he doesn’t quite pull off that well himself, his solid politics that sometimes get weighed down by his iconic love for the old music he doesn’t quite transcend in his own. By no means a bad album, it will be quite good for the Cooder fan who is also a lefty, which I actually assume are most Cooder fans at this point.


Bruce Cockburn, Bone on Bone

I always have a soft spot for Cockburn, though I tend to like his earlier work and his 80s political work a bit better than more recent albums. This 2018 album was his first since 2011 and the songs are solid and so are the arrangements. His voice isn’t what it once was, though that’s not real surprising for his age. I wouldn’t say anything here really reached out and grabbed me, but it’s certainly a perfectly fine album.


Rob Mazurek/Emmett Kelly, Alien Flower Sutra

I’ve never really been a family of the freak-folk band The Cairo Gang, which Emmett Kelly leads. But I do tend to like the experimental jazz and electronics work of Rob Mazurek, who is a lynchpin of the Chicago scene. So I thought I’d check out their 2016 collaboration just to see what the heck is going on here. They seem like an unlikely pair. It’s kind of interesting, but I don’t think works particularly well. Mazuerk plays his cornet under Kelly’s slow mumbling words a bit, but mostly him making electronic noises under it and the album is just really slow. Even the electronic-based instrumentals are only moderately successful, and in the case of the album’s last song far too long at 21 minutes. Not uninteresting for those looking for a different musical experience than normal, but not my thing.


Battle Trance, Blade of Love

As a general rule, bands consisting of the same instrument are not my favorite thing. I saw Anthony Braxton lead a 5 saxophone blowout once and while it was something to see, I can’t say it’s my favorite show ever. Even the venerable World Saxophone Quartet, for as much as I respect the musicians, isn’t really something I’m going to listen to a lot. So I approached this 2016 Battle Trance album with some trepidation, as another saxophone quartet. But it’s pretty strong, particularly the final of the three long cuts, which starts in a very quiet manner before slowly building to quite a crescendo to close out the album. Again, I don’t think this is the kind of thing that I need to hear too often, but it’s a very solid outing.


The Steve Spiegl Big Band, The L.A. Sessions at Capitol Studios

This is a nice enough big band recording, though certainly not challenging in any way. Spiegl is a long-time big band guy in Los Angeles and this was his last concert before retirement. That’s fine and all; he’s got great musicians around him and he’s a very skilled bandleader. On the other hand, if I want to listen to Stan Kenton, I will listen to a Stan Kenton album.


Swearin’, Fall Into the Sun

Swearin’ was the band co-led by Allison Crutchfield, sister of Katie Crutchfield better known as Waxahatchee, and her then boyfriend Kyle Gilbride. I’ve read many times that if you like Waxahatchee, you’ll probably like Allison’s work too. But I thought it more OK. She’s not the songwriter or bandleader that her sister is. Can’t exactly fault her for that. A bigger problem is that Gilbride can’t sing at all and that really got in the way for me here.


Baxter Dury, The Night Chancers

This almost is like if Leonard Cohen became a British hipster. A lot of this is a sort of spoken word narration from a terminally depressed guy observing the world around him in fairly poetic language and with synthy backgrounds (thus the I’m Your Man-era Cohen comp). This could be disastrous of course, but he’s a pretty compelling storyteller. Really quite interesting.


Siti Muharam, Siti of Unguja: Romance Revolution on Zanzibar

Muharam was a singer of the first half of the twentieth century on Zanzibar, that island that is part of modern Tanzania that was a critical trading route for hundreds of years in the Indian Ocean trade. She died in 1950. This project takes her vocals and provides modern arrangements for them from Mohamed Issa Matona, who is a producer and musician who lives on Zanzibar. It’s an interesting album in that the vocals certainly don’t sound like they were recorded in the 40s. The new instrumentation and even the electronic bits work pretty well. Perhaps not my favorite piece of global musical history ever, but a quite worthy project.


As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.

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