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As I have only recently returned from Japan, I don’t have any big music news. That means it’s time to go into one of my favorite albums again. This week, it’s Blood Orange’s amazing Freetown Sound, from 2016. This is by far the newest of the albums I’ve profiled since I’ve started these deeper dives and it absolutely deserves the status of a classic album. Dev Hynes is a British producer and musician who got his start in Test Icicles in the mid 2000s, moved to New York in 2007, formed a band called Lightspeed Champion that had some notoriety for dressing in Star Wars costumes for shows (eyeroll) and then in 2009 started an R&B act called Blood Orange. Since then, he’s released five albums that I like, though Freetown Sound is the only one I really love. Some of the albums lack of a bit of focus and need to have a few more places one can grab ahold of at the electronic R&B swirles around you and the lyrics remain subdued within a haze of fuzz. I find this a common problem in a lot of contemporary R&B, with The Internet and Frank Ocean being a couple of other examples of really talented bands/people who sometimes need to put the bong down and deliver some music without the haze of smoke.

For Blood Orange, this is was with Freetown Sound. Part of the reason this works so well is that it is a mediation on the Black diaspora, giving the proceedings more meaning than usual. The name of the album comes from the capital of Sierra Leone, where Hynes’ father immigrated from. It’s about being Black in a world of white images of beauty in the media, of police violence, of neocolonialism, of poverty, of homophobia. He stated the album is for “everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.”

The album starts with a bang, with Hynes providing a song about the history of Black music with all kind of references to the various sounds and then the Atlanta poet Ashlee Haze coming in with a powerful work about how seeing a big woman like Missy Elliott shaking it on TV meant so much to her and so many other Black girls. This is typical of the album, where great collaborations are the name of the game, as it is so often in contemporary R&B and hip hop.

Then “Augustine” which references the saint himself, makes Hynes wonder about why he moved to the U.S., a place where Black people are routinely slaughtered by the cops.

“I Know” is about the need to not change people and the power of being yourself. “I know that it’s not mine to change” is the powerful refrain of this slow burner that moves into a pretty big beat with Hynes and his British accent talking over it about choosing your worth.

Then there’s “Better than Me” which pulls the Haze poem from the first song to prelude the video but then goes into the original song which is a real banger with Hynes telling some partner to pick the person (referenced as she/he/they at various points) better than him. I think this is just a really great song, one of the best R&B songs of the last decade.

The whole album is full of gems, both musically and politically. In “Desiree” he celebrates the drag queen Venus Xtravaganza and the New York radical subcultures, but also as a Black man from Britain, notes that he can never really be at home in the city. Ta-Nehisi Coates shows up in “Love Ya” to talk about the importance of fashion when he was a teenager but how this was also a political statement in a world where the cops can kill you for anything. “Hands Up” brings us to Black Lives Matter itself and George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin, with footage of people chanting “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” ending the song.

In the end, this is just an absolutely stunning album, both musically and politically. If he’s never quite reached these heights in the two follow-up albums, that’s OK because they are still pretty good albums and most artists will never have anything as close to as magical as Freetown Sound. I assume many of you do know this album, but I also assume many of you are not of the, uh, demographic to listen to contemporary R&B. This is well worth your time and, yes, your money. It’s an album as key to own as Sticky Fingers or Blood on the Tracks or any other album you cherish from the 70s. It’s that good.

In other news….

Great New Yorker profile on Mavis Staples.

This is from a couple of years ago, but it’s a great reminder that if you like your media, you need to own a physical copy of it, even if it just sitting on multiple disc drives for example. I get that owning a ton of CDs is a space killer and I have gotten rid of most of mine too (though I have a lot of jazz albums that will probably never see the light of day even on streaming so I keep those), but let me put it this way–why would you trust a corporation?

Good profile of Sophie Allison, i.e., Soccer Mommy, as she releases her third album. Looking forward to listening to this one.

On the far too short life and career of Nicolette Larson, who you probably know from her work with Neil Young in the 70s.

Bandcamp piece on Ghanaian music of the 80s and the Ghanaian diaspora.

Megan Stabile was a key figure in connecting jazz and hip hop in the current underground New York scene, someone who worked to take contemporary jazz out of the fancy dinner clubs and into the tiny space around regular people. She committed suicide at the age of 39.

Playlist for the last two weeks:

  1. Norman Blake, Back Home in Sulphur Springs
  2. Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose
  3. Jason Isbell, Reunions
  4. George Jones and Melba Montgomery, Singing What’s In Our Hearts
  5. Fred Anderson Quartet, Live, Volume 5
  6. Torres, self-titled
  7. Elvis Costello, My Aim is True
  8. Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man
  9. BR5-49, self-titled
  10. Hank Thompson, A Six Pack to Go
  11. John Moreland, Big Bad Luv
  12. Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams
  13. Sad13, Slugger
  14. Whit Dickey/Mat Maneri/Matthew Shipp, Vessel in Orbit
  15. Drive By Truckers, Decoration Day
  16. Mount Moriah, Miracle Temple
  17. Chris Stapleton, From a Room, Volume 1
  18. Drive By Truckers, Welcome to Club XIII (2x)
  19. Drive By Truckers, The Dirty South
  20. Junior Brown, Semi-Crazy
  21. Iron and Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle
  22. Rosalía, El Mal Querer
  23. Billy Bang, Vietnam: The Aftermath
  24. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man
  25. Miles Davis, Live-Evil, disc 2
  26. Tom T. Hall, I Wrote a Song About It (2x)
  27. Soccer Mommy, Color Theory
  28. Grateful Dead, Hundred Year Hall, disc 1
  29. Merle Haggard, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive
  30. Tom T. Hall, We All Got Together And….
  31. Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages
  32. Yola, Walk Through Fire
  33. Bomba Estéreo, Amanecer
  34. Laura Veirs, My Echo
  35. Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, Songs from the Workbench
  36. Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
  37. Joe Henderson, Relaxin’ at Camarillo
  38. Tracy Nelson, Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country
  39. Jane Weaver, Flock
  40. Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer
  41. G&D, Black Love & War
  42. Doc Watson, self-titled
  43. Gary Stewart, Out of Hand
  44. Freakwater, Scherezade
  45. Norman Blake, Wood, Wire, & Words
  46. Ches Smith, Path of Seven Colors
  47. Bonnie Prince Billy, The Letting Go
  48. The Libertines, Up the Bracket
  49. L7, Bricks Are Heavy
  50. Modest Mouse, The Lonesome Crowded West
  51. William Parker, Double Sunrise over Neptune
  52. Neil Young, Zuma
  53. Chuck Cleaver, Send Aid
  54. Old 97s, Twelfth
  55. Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
  56. Guy Clark, The South Coast of Texas
  57. Mulatu Astatke, Afro-Latin Soul, Volumes 1 and 2
  58. George Jones, The Essential George Jones, disc 1
  59. Roger Miller, The 3rd Time Around
  60. Gang of Four, Solid Gold
  61. Big Thief, U.F.O.F.
  62. Van Morrison, Hymns to the Silence, disc 2
  63. Cat Power, Sun
  64. Chris Gaffney, Loser’s Paradise
  65. Leyla McCalla, The Capitalist Blues
  66. Raye Zaragosa, Woman in Color
  67. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

Album Reviews:

Halsey, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Now there’s a title I can get behind! But this album isn’t about political power. It is about personal power for young people in a world that has left them nothing and it’s about a woman who has had a baby through a rough pregnancy. Whether you think this is some grand statement, well, maybe it isn’t. But it is a solid pop music album, especially when it isn’t trying to make any grand statements. I found the songs less oriented to pop radio somewhat better than the more obvious single material, although it’s worth noting here that one of the interesting things about this album is the lack of preparing the way with single releases.

This is a big enough deal that there’s an IMAX video/film related to the album too, but I haven’t seen it. And it doesn’t sound like something to see unless you are really into this.

B

Esperanza Spalding, Songwrights Apothecary Lab

I’ve been a bit mixed on Spalding’s career. She’s tremendously talented and has a real vision for moving her jazz background into more popular forms. But the projects, while always at the very least OK, haven’t generally blown my mind. I thought her latest was above average for her releases, if not truly great. In what is a very contemporary jazz move, she consulted with psychologists to create each song for a very specific emotional state. Specifically Spalding’s goal here is to demonstrate the healing power of music, something out of the world of Alice Coltrane. While I listened to this streaming, evidently if you buy a physical copy of the album, there’s actually an explanatory essay about what each song is supposed to do. Without that, well, it sounds like a pretty good jazz album. Some songs use a vocalist, others are duets with the trombonist Corey King. Overall, it’s a pretty useful album.

B+

Axel Boman, LUZ

Club music. Some boops, some beeps, some beats. Guess it’s OK for club music. Will probably never actually find this entire genre appealing. At least I made it through the whole thing without taking MDMA or whatever. I deserve a cookie. Of course Pitchfork gave it a Best New Music label. I dunno sometimes….

C

Fontaines D.C., Skinty Fia

I think it was Elizabeth who first let me know about Fontaines D.C. and I am sure glad she did. I thought this new release the best of their albums, which I’ve always liked but seemed more A-/B+ material. This one is a tick higher. Despite one or two songs that I wasn’t sure totally worked, the album as a whole is a real banger. Now kind of a star band, this Dublin group has to see their way forward without becoming bogged down in fame and they make it through this album with flying colors. They do so by doubling down on being Irish in a still ethnically and class conscious England and what that experience is like. One thing I liked about this album too is avoiding the pub anthems that can always drag down your British and Irish bands and instead, well, performing solo accordion songs about watching your neighbors do weird things. Just great guitar rock and OK, accordion rock.

A

Fred Moten/Brandon Lopez/Gerald Cleaver, Moten/Lopez/Cleaver

This is just outstanding. Spoken word is a real mixed bag. Here’s the thing. The poet has to have something to say. And they have to be able to say it in a way that people would actually want to hear. In the case of using musicians, you have to find the people who are going to allow you to express your vision. This almost never works. Some side of this falls apart–the voice, the words, poorly chosen music, questionable production. Even when a huge artist such as Kae Tempest basically made a spoken word album it became the most boring of their albums.

So you wouldn’t expect this to work except that it totally does. Some of this is because Moten has a big deep voice, he’s pissed off, and this is a Black Power set of words. In fact, Moten has long been a leader in Black Studies, teaching presently at NYU but lots of other places over the years. Meanwhile, Lopez and Cleaver are each among the best bassists and drummers in improvisational music. So yeah, this works really well. Lopez especially does wonders with his bow across the bass, highlighting Moten’s words with just the right tone of dissonance. Overall, this is just a powerful work of art. One of the best albums I’ve heard this year.

A

Elvis Presley, From Elvis in Nashville

Hell, why not listen to this and think about it a little bit? These are the original recordings from his 1970 recording session with A-Team Nashville studio guys to make country and country-adjacent music. These became the sessions that created That’s The Way It Is, Elvis Country, and Love Letters from Elvis, all among his better albums. As a whole, this is a lot of fun if you don’t take it too seriously. At this point, Elvis is more like Charlie Rich than anyone else, though Rich could never pull nearly that level of cultural weight. But this is blue-eyed soul masquerading as country through the ultimate king of rock and roll who had struggled to do anything with that crown since he returned from the military. This would be about as good as it got for Elvis, as the later 70s before he died saw more ennui. But these sessions? They are fun. Elvis seems almost like one of the guys, swearing during some takes and engaging with actual banter with the band, most of whom he probably didn’t really know at all. I didn’t listen to the two discs of out takes. That’s a lot. But the two discs of real music I found not only good, but something I’d listen to again. A bunch of times probably. It’s good country-rock-soul, especially if you forget this is ELVIS.

B+

Kenny Wollesen/Ben Goldberg, Music for an Avant-Garde Massage Parlour

This 2020 album by the well known drummer and clarinetist needed a mention for the title alone. It’s not meaningful; evidently Wollesen just decided it was a good album title. This kind of project can be a bit disappointing. Two musicians of instruments that don’t often go together can lead to some sharp bits, even in music where you like some sharp bits. But I thought this clarinet/drummer combination worked fairly well. It’s not a groundbreaking release, but it’s solid enough improvisational music.

B

Reid Anderson/Dave King/Craig Taborn, Golden Valley is Now

Fascinating album from 2020, although not my favorite. Anderson and King are members of Bad Plus, Taborn is one of the greatest living jazz pianists. They grew up together in Minneapolis. So they decided to do an improvisational instrumental album that is based on 80s pop. That makes Taborn, playing 80s style synthesizers, the centerpiece. The extent to which you like this rests on how much you care about 80s synth pop. I don’t like 80s synth pop, so I don’t exactly like this album. But I do respect the hell out of it. It’s really a quite fascinating experiment and works on its own terms. I just don’t care much for the terms. The album and its conceit are fascinating enough to get like a 3,000 word essay in the LA Review of Books, so check that out.

B-

Gordon Grdina, Oddly Enough: The Music of Tim Berne

Grdina is an outstanding guitarist. Berne is a saxophonist who specializes in difficult music. But he’s also something of a legend in the free jazz community who has either given artists his works to record or has inspired musicians to take on his tough compositions. This is the former. Berne would write music for Grdina and the guitarist would then record it, not only on guitar but on oud and other strings as well as Midi stuff. I thought the oud recordings worked the best here, giving that Middle Eastern exoticism to what are pretty far-out songs generally. I retain my position that solo instrumental releases are never my favorite and that remains true here. But it’s certainly a valuable release.

B

Walter Smith III/Kris Davis/Dave Holland/Matthew Stevens/Terri Lynne Carrington, In Common III

A nice enough if rather subdued set of compositions. You really feel the musicians are enjoying each other’s company in these warm songs. Holland, as always, is especially excellent here. There’s some nice ballads, some good improv, mostly staying at a simmer. I like the music to get closer to boiling than simmer, so that’s my reservation here. But it’s solid.

B

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

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