Been quite awhile since I did one of these posts!
I’m not sure why, but there’s a whole bunch of Sun Ra stories appearing. Here’s a nice little profile of the great one in The New Yorker. And here’s a pretty cool story on Sun Ra in Egypt. As it so happens, I rewatched the best of the Ra films, Space is the Place, the other day. In its own way, it’s quite a good film. Ra and a pimp battle for the soul of the Black race, with Ra using music and his strange words to take Black people into space instead of letting the pimp destroy everyone’s morals and spirit in the city. There’s obviously going to be some scenes that really don’t work here. I mean, this film was made for close to nothing. But there’s some good moments: the scene where Ra and his fellow musicians dressed in ancient Egyptian sort of costumes are riding down the streets of Oakland in a convertible and you can see a woman on the street background mouth “what the fuck is that?” Then there’s the employment agency scene, where Ra scares off all the people who want to come work for him, with a real highlight being the white hippie woman who wants sex, which Ra has no interest in. Ra’s words are basically those of a lunatic. I’ve read some of his early writings from the 50s that were published in a book about 20 years ago and they are nonsensical. But hey, that’s his vision and no one is a greater pioneer of Afrofuturism than Ra. George Clinton, Earth Wind and Fire, Mandrill, Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and so many other pioneering Black artists borrowed from Ra. Incidentally, I don’t think that highly of the Space is the Place album, as its not really the greatest motif of the Ra catalog. But the movie is just a lot of fun, so long as the music doesn’t turn you off too much.
Live music is returning! I haven’t seen a show yet, but I will be starting off right, with my first ever Newport Folk Festival in late July. Super pumped. Already have some tickets for some shows and festivals in the fall too.
Courtney Barnett has a new album coming out this fall. The last one was pretty disappointing and I think was pretty clearly affected by her not being sure how to respond to her stardom, so hopefully this is a return to form.
Dave’s Psychodrama was an astounding debut, one of the best albums of the last few years. So I have very high hopes for his next album, coming out later this month.
Given Portland’s music scene, any list of its best new bands probably does deserve your attention. For that matter, here’s a list of some of the top album releases out of the Seattle scene so far this year.
Pop Matters has released its Top 50 albums of the first half of 2021. Despite all the music I hear, I’ve listened to all of 2 of these. Guess I need to up my game. NPR does the same with its Top 27 songs.
The Museum of the City of New York has a new exhibit about the city’s music scene from 1980 to 1986. Hope I have a chance to see it. Looks cool.
Recent Album Acquisitions:
- James Brown, Night Train
- Dave Dudley, Songs About the Working Man
- Duane Eddy, Have Twangy Guitar, Will Travel
- Rattlesnake Annie, Rattlesnakes and Rusty Water
- Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness
- Vince Staples & Larry Fisherman, Stolen Youth
- Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billy, Superwolves
- Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed, & Delivered
- SOB x RBE, Gangin’
- The Regrettes, How Do You Love?
- The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers
- Vassar Clements, Vassar Clements
- Conjunto! Texas-Mexican Border Music, Vol. 1
- Guy Clark, Dublin Blues
- Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs
Album Reviews, featuring a lot of releases I thought were fine, a couple slightly disappointing, and a couple that are pretty great:
Onipa, We Be No Machine
Super fun Afrofuturism funk. The musicians come from around Africa, but this more a Ghanaian band than anything. A kind of meld of the pop music from around Africa over the last half-century, updated to our electronic and connected age. Worth your time.
Rising Appalachia, The Lost Mystique of Being in the Know
Wasn’t real sure how I would respond to a pair of white sisters incorporating their Appalachian music with African musicians. As has become well known in recent years, the banjo is an African instrument brought over by slaves and then adopted by whites. So intellectually this makes sense. But would it remain on the level of gimmick or would it really meld? The answer, thankfully, is most the latter. With Biko Casini on djembe and Arouna Diara on ngoni and balafon, the music is more than a little African and at the very least not whites trying to play these instruments. At the very least, it’s an interesting and heartfelt melding of two traditions that works better than most of these sorts of projects.
Jason Ringenberg, Rhinestoned
Jason & The Scorchers is one of the original alt-country bands, doing Nashville punk before “alt-country” became a thing. Those are some good, if not great albums. This is Jason Ringenberg’s latest solo album. It’s alright. There are some quality songs here. The loud punk stuff still works well. But it’s not perfect. The problem is first, that Ringenberg isn’t really a very good singer and second, he’s choosing material that doesn’t help the matter. Comparing his version of “Storms Are On the Ocean,” to, say, Doc Watson’s, I mean, it’s not even close. And gospel numbers “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” just don’t translate to the rockabilly genre very effectively. Both of those songs are very vocal-oriented songs and Ringenberg doesn’t have the chops to do good versions of them. But outside of these questionable choices, it’s a pretty solid album.
Wolfgang Muthspiel/Scott Colley/Brian Blade, Angular Blues
Fine if not exceptional ECM release, which sounds a lot like a lot of other ECM releases. They are of course outstanding musicians, with Muthspiel on guitar, Colley on bass, and Blade on drums. It’s a nice album with a couple of uptempo tunes, but it also does follow the subdued ECM template.
Roscoe Mitchell & Mike Reed, The Ritual and the Dance
Caveat that I could only listen to about half of this on available streaming services as jazz remains the most hesitant to put material online, but what I heard was a pretty great. Reed is such a fantastic drummer and then of course Mitchell is a legendary saxophonist. This is a new release, but was initially recorded during a live performance in 2015 in Antwerp. Like much of this music, the live energy really brings this home. Sometimes I don’t find Mitchell’s releases as satisfying as I think I will, but this is an exception to that, at least what I was able to hear.
The clip before is from a 2013 performance from the two, but you will get the point.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Volunteer
A solid if not amazing album from a solid if not amazing band. OCMS has become a lifer band and that’s great. I find their work fun if sometimes inconsistent. That continues here. I could probably do with fewer songs about LIFE ON THE ROAD, but they sound great as always, taking their love of old-time music and country and just creating a really good band out of it.
Jimi Hendrix, Live in Maui
This has floated around forever, but never got a full official release until recently. One of Hendrix’s last concerts, he was in Hawaii to contribute to some horrible hippie movie. The problem with the recording is that the festival set was poorly set up and there was wind and so the tapes weren’t that clear. They’ve been cleaned up and this is overall a kind of interesting document of late Hendrix. The highlights are high. Even after all these years, Hendrix’s eruptions on guitar are just awesome. But this really falls apart in the second set, when it feels like a bad Dead set filled with endless minutes of noodling because everyone is too high. The one salvage to that is the occasional explosive guitar. But there are definitely better live Hendrix albums out there.
The Foxymorons, Fake Yoga
Do you like rock and roll? Then you will like this 2015 release from The Foxymorons. It’s not going to change your life. It has clear influences from 70s glam and punk and 90s grunge and alt-rock. They were those on their sleeves. But it’s also not derivative, moving the rock conversation forward just a bit. Good energy. Just what a rock and roll album should have.
Martha, Love Keeps Kicking
Another very solid rock and roll album, this time from 2019. A lot of punk, a lot of pop, a little alt-country even from this British band (though other reviewers felt this more than I did). They embrace the queer straight-edge world of punk, but the band isn’t really political. It’s mostly about love gone wrong and the need to survive that. The album had a lot of turmoil before this album, with one member getting caught up in MeToo allegations over his behavior and their producer then having the same thing happen to him. Whether that impacts your listening of this album is up to you. It did for me ever so slightly. Still, it is solid rock and roll, including feminist lyrics from their female bassist and co-frontperson.
Haim, Women in Music Part III
Having never gotten around to hearing these hit making sisters, I was at least somewhat impressed. It’s smart pop music. It’s interesting to me that mainstream pop has gotten a lot more mature in the last decade than it used to be. It’s always been about sex, but now it’s really about sex without euphemisms. There’s a lot of sophistication to a lot of artists as well, including Haim. I wouldn’t say I love this album. But it’s worth hearing for those who also find Taylor Swift worthy. She appears on one bonus track. I’m not really a fan at all, but this is where this album fits.
Sleater-Kinney, Path of Wellness
For the first time ever, the new Sleater-Kinney album has been received with general indifference because it’s an indifferent album. I didn’t particular think The Center Won’t Hold was a success–I mean, it forced Janet out of the band–but it was worth arguing over. The songs were good after all. It was a production issue. At least they were taking chances and putting out interesting music. That didn’t happen here. Maybe that reflects the lack of Janet.
But I also want to take a step back here. In my view, the two greatest rock and roll bands of all time are The Rolling Stones and Sleater-Kinney. You might disagree with the latter and feel free to do so if you choose. However, in our debates around these issues, we have entered a place where the only bands that can be considered for the greatest ever are those who stopped playing years ago or who are from the 1960s. I reject that entirely. There’s no good reason the greatest rock band in history can’t be forming right now. And I think S-K is right there. If the self-titled first album is slapdash, Call the Doctor, Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, One Beat, and The Woods is a run of albums nearly unprecedented in rock history. And the 2015 comeback of No Cities to Love was pretty great too.
If this album is kind of dull though, I want us to think about what the Rolling Stones were doing 26 years after their first album was released. That would be 1990, making it just after the less than epic Steel Wheels, which was preceded by….Dirty Work and Undercover. In other words, some pretty bad music. Arguably, they hadn’t put out a really stellar album since 1972, although Tattoo You probably makes that claim not true. So what S-K has done is a hell of a stellar run, one that is equal or better to any band in rock history. We forget that when talking about these great bands of the past that contemporary bands just can’t match for reasons. They burned hot and burned out fast, or they just kept on for no good reason except for cash.
There’s nothing really wrong here. It’s not a bad album. It’s alright. But there’s very little urgency. Carrie’s songs particularly are ineffective and sometimes even just feel like filler, something one can’t imagine on any previous albums. There are a few highlights. It corrects the bad production decisions of the last album. But it’s a mediocre album compared to the rest of their output. It happens. To every band who sticks around long enough for it to happen to.
Of course, I still had to get the album and will listen to a lot before I really give up here. When you are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, you’ve earned that right.
Dodie, Build a Problem
When I discovered Dodie was primarily known for a decade of YouTube videos, I was highly hesitant to listen to this, despite the good reviews. I guess I am now officially Old, but the appeal of watching people do whatever random stuff on videos, which I guess in this case includes a lot of getting drunk and confessing thins, is completely lost on me. However, this is in fact a pretty fine indie album, partially because she can really sing and partially because her years of confession on video also creates some excellent confessional songs for the mid-20s set, an age when a lot of people feel like confessing things. Song titles such as “Four Tequilas Down,” a highlight of the album for me, gives you the sense of what we are talking about here. I will say that the two instrumental tracks are completely pointless–sometimes I think that indie artists put some instrumentals in to look sophisticated even if it does nothing to move the album along. But whatever, this is good enough as is.
St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home
Another solid St. Vincent album. Despite her bad production on the last Sleater-Kinney album that broke up the band, her solo work remains strong, an prime example of electronic pop. Now, there is one really sour thing about this album. Annie Clark (her real name)’s father was a white-collar criminal who engaged in some massive stock manipulation, got caught, was sentenced to 12 years in prison and served close to a decade of that. She’s referred to this in past songs, but never so bluntly as she does here. But she makes a really tone-deaf mistake of the kind who is too immersed in the Hollywood stardom world: she actually references Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam” with a Black chorus on that song. And look, your dad is not reflective of Parchman Farm. I’m sure it sucked to have your dad in jail. But at any time–and especially in 2021!–you do need to check the way your white privilege spills into your work in a way that is kind of offensive. So that left a bad taste in my mouth.
I don’t want to over focus on that error. It’s a solid album. I really like St. Vincent’s work, especially now that she’s embraced sleaze as her M.O. If this was a guy, it’d be tiresome (hello Father John Misty!), but as a lesbian, co-opting this male gaze has artistic advantages. There is a coldness here, as there is to much of her work, that makes me hesitant to fully embrace it as a great album. But I’ll listen to it again.
Samo Salamon, Tony Malaby, and Roberto Dani, Traveling Moving Breathing
Solid trio album. I’m most familiar with Malaby, the superb saxophonist who I’ve seen a couple of times. Salamon is a guitarist from Slovakia and Dani is on drums. Salamon’s guitar is the highlight here, for me at least, with some great solos and just outstanding work all around. I look forward to exploring more of his work. I thought a couple of the tracks were less compelling, but it’s a good, if not great, release.
Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side of Air
The always amazing pianist Myra Melford has one of the best releases of her career with this 2018 album. Featuring Liberty Ellman on guitar, Ron Miles on cornet, Stomu Takeshi on bass, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, this quintet plays so beautifully together. The music seems to linger in the air and the spirit of improvisation sweeps the room. In the liner notes, Melford talks about the art of Cy Twombly and how it influenced her thinking about the music. And while cross-genre comparisons are hard to make, especially when one is audible and one visual but the comparison really does fit this music.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics.