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Music Notes


We lost Pharoah Sanders today. This is just terrible. One of the great saxophonists in jazz history and other than Coltrane, probably the single most important figure in the free jazz scene of the late 60s, Sanders was a total legend. He was a critical figure as Coltrane’s side man on the latter’s late albums that changed the history of music. When he died, so young back in 1967, Sanders recorded several albums with Alice Coltrane that also changed music history in a somewhat different way. Then he returned to Impulse for his own work. These late 60s albums are example of pure beauty in improvisational music. Karma and Summum Bukmun Umyum are especially important. Sanders struggled to stay at the top of the scene in the 80s and 90s, but occasionally showed up with amazing work, such as his blowing on Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages, which I believe is the greatest jazz album ever made. There are some very good albums in this period, but like a lot of the early free jazz guys, he did have some trouble adjusting to the new movements in jazz and maintaining that level of creativity. His last album was one of the very best made in any genre last year, Promises, with Floating Points and London Symphony Orchestra. What I love about this album is that it is variations of a theme, which is a level of discipline Sanders usually didn’t aspire to, but it works so well here.

Don’t miss out on reading this New Yorker profile of Sanders from 2020.

What a huge loss.

Normally, the lead story this week would have been the awesome Yola show I saw at Big NIght Live in Boston on Wednesday. The loss of Pharoah took that from the headlines. But let’s not ignore just how great that show was. She is so wonderful. First, there’s that voice. And what a voice it is! In fact, she expressed a bit of frustration at the show that everyone listens to her voice and no one pays attention to the songwriting, at least in the media. She did a couple of stripped down versions of her songs to highlight that. Total respect for that frustration. But I can hardly blame the media. Who has a better voice today? Like the Neko Case show I saw a couple of weeks ago, just hearing that voice is like a warm blanket that makes you feel good.

It doesn’t hurt that Yola is also a very funny person. First, her neo-soul rooted in Nashville roots music is as American as it comes, but her accent isn’t just British, it’s high British. She’ll sing like Aretha and then call the audience “cheeky bastards.” This is amusing enough, but it also comes out in her politics. She has a song about how much she hates Theresa May. She went on this rant about May during the show, saying she was “made of moths” and calling her a “dust witch.” I thought, damn, the British really are much better at insults than we are. This was great stuff.

The opening act was very interesting as well. Peter One was a big star in west Africa in the 80s. Performing with his musical partner as Peter and Jess, they released an album at that time that was a big hit and put them at the frontline of the African music scene. But Ivory Coast was not a particularly stable country and they both ended up migrating to the United States. Sure, he wanted to continue his musical career in the U.S., but how? He also needed to work. So he ended up in Nashville, where he’s spent the last twenty years working as a nurse. He tried to get into the American country scene. He considered his music the Ivory Coast version of country. But in the country scene of the 90s, there wasn’t a lot of room for outside influences, either from Black people or from foreigners of any kind. Hell, northerners might be suspect. However, in the years since, two things have happened. First, the Nashville alternative scene revolving around people such as Jason Isbell and Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves and others has opened up a lot more space for people such as Yola and a lot of Black musicians generally. Yola then pays it forward to Peter One. Here’s a good story on him.

But also, the interest in African music of the 80s eventually caught up to him as the Awesome Tapes of Africa label guy tracked him down and got him recording again. So he’s got a new album coming out, with songs in English, French, and his indigenous language. Is it country music? I dunno, who cares. Notably, he claims to have been influenced by Don Williams his entire life, which is super interesting. But the key to good country music isn’t the steel guitars or the Nudie suits. It’s the honest emotion for working people. This is why R&B and country musicians have crossed over for so many decades, even if their audiences haven’t. They each recognize the kind of working class honest emotions that appeal to their audiences. That’s what Peter One offers too. So yeah, that was pretty cool.

Speaking of big losses to music, we also lost Anton Fier this week. Fier never became as famous as Sanders, but he was one of the key figures in the underground 1980s music scene. He was a cofounder of The Feelies, which would be enough to secure someone’s legacy. But then he cofounded Golden Palominos, one of the iconic underground bands of the 80s. Such music was not always easy to listen to–combining No Wave with jazz, turntables, and improvisational music was bound to make some for harsh sounds. But if you like that kind of thing–and I very much do–Fier was a legend. In this, he worked with Bill Laswell, Nicky Skopelitis, John Zorn, Fred Frith, and later…..Kevin Kinney of Drivin n’ Cryin’, which is a totally fascinating move by that great vocalist of 80s southern rock. Official Friend of the Blog Glenn Kenny has a nice remembrance of Fier.

A few other links of note:

The women of the Spanish indie rock scene.

Was Henry David Thoreau an early punk?

The 25th anniversary of Dig Me Out is leading to a cover album of it with a lot of great artists. Also, any Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that doesn’t have Sleater-Kinney in it is a total joke.

Psychologists try to figure out why people are attracted to death metal. I don’t care for the music myself, but like most things, they psychologists are probably massively overthinking this.

More dumb Best of Lists, this time the top 75 albums since 2007.

Top 10 Herbie Hancock albums. Notably all but one is 1973 or before. Herbie did not adjust well to the last several decades.

New Margo Price album should be fun

John Prine’s favorite books

This week’s playlist

  1. Tom Russell, Borderland
  2. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods
  3. Al Green, Call Me
  4. Mourn, self-titled
  5. James McMurtry, Childish Things
  6. Gillian Welch, Revival
  7. Richard and Linda Thompson, First Light
  8. John Zorn, The Big Gundown
  9. Millie Jackson, Caught Up
  10. Arthur Russell, Love is Overtaking Me
  11. Curtis Mayfield, Curtis Live
  12. Grey DeLisle, The Graceful Ghost
  13. Torres, self-titled
  14. Doc Watson, Doc and Son
  15. Bonnie Prince Billy, I See a Darkness
  16. Willie Nelson, Stardust
  17. Billy Swan, I Can Wait
  18. Camper Van Beethoven, Telephone Free Landslide Victory
  19. Speedy Ortiz, Twerp Verse
  20. Rhiannon Giddens, Tomorrow is My Turn
  21. Leon Bridges, Coming Home
  22. Sonic Youth, Dirty
  23. Melissa Laveaux, Radyo Siwel
  24. Gibson Brothers, Long Way Back Home
  25. Jane Weaver, Modern Kosmology
  26. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2
  27. Drive By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera, disc 1
  28. Bomba Estereo, Amanecer
  29. Loretta Lynn, Fist City
  30. McCoy Tyner, Sahara
  31. Archie Shepp, The Magic of Ju-Ju
  32. Silver Jews, American Water
  33. Sugar, Copper Blue
  34. Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out
  35. Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight
  36. Bill Frisell, Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: The High Sign/One Week
  37. Butch Hancock, You Could’ve Walked Around the World
  38. Tom Russell, Blood and Candle Smoke
  39. Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
  40. Bill Callahan, Dream River
  41. BR5-49, Coast to Coast
  42. Quantic and Nidia Gongora, Curao
  43. The Hacienda Brothers, What’s Wrong With Right
  44. James Brown, Live at the Apollo
  45. Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
  46. H.C. McEntire, Eno Axis
  47. Torres, Sprinter
  48. Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Re-Facto
  49. Tanya Tucker, Delta Dawn
  50. Anteloper, Kudu
  51. Stevie Wonder, Talking Book
  52. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper
  53. Eric Taylor, Resurrect
  54. Matthew Shipp, New Orbit
  55. Wussy, What Heaven is Like
  56. Snakefarm, Songs from My Funeral
  57. Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, Sidelong
  58. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
  59. Drive By Truckers, American Band
  60. Wussy, Ghosts
  61. Townes Van Zandt, self-titled
  62. Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
  63. Johnny Paycheck, Slide Off Your Satin Sheets
  64. Johnny Paycheck, Modern Times (I don’t listen to the same artist twice in a row often, but it’s Paycheck)
  65. Richard and Linda Thompson, Pour Down Like Silver
  66. Purple Mountains, self-titled
  67. Billy Joe Shaver, Old Five and Dimers Like Me
  68. Leyla McCalla, The Capitalist Blues

Album Reviews:

Girlpool, Forgiveness

I was very curious about this album. Girlpool came up as two women singing these soft harmonic songs together. But then one of the singers transitioned to a man, including all the hormones that involves. So how would this affect their sound? The answer was not as much as I feared. They sound differently together, sure, but they still sound good. Sounds more like a traditional George and Tammy duet now than it might have five years ago. Unfortunately, they have decided to go their separate ways as artists but we’ll see what the future holds.


Unscientific Italians, Play the Music of Bill Frisell Volume 1

I have noted here many times my sadness that Bill Frisell’s music has become so boring in recent years. Someone described it as soundscapes for aging boomers and I am sad to agree. But that doesn’t take away Frisell’s great guitar and compositional ability that was his career before about 2007. His early songs don’t generally get as much attention as his work between the mid-90s and mid-00s, which most people take to be his peak period of creativity. But a bunch of the players in the contemporary Italian jazz scene (about which I know nothing) got together and decided to record their favorite early Frisell tunes. It works pretty well, especially in the relatively big band style that they choose. Especially on the latter tracks–“Rob Roy,” “Twenty Years,” and “Verona”–they really nail the spirit of Frisell’s music of that era. Fun album if nothing else.


Superchunk, Here’s to Shutting Up

Decided to check out this old Superchunk album from 2001 and yeah, not only is it a real classic of the era–even if Mac never really could sing–it made for a great t-shirt that I bought and wore to my department meeting yesterday.


Sault, Air

On most albums, Sault is amazing collective of the Black diaspora, producing some of the best albums in recent years. But sometimes, it is a collective of the Black diaspora that makes questionable choices and I guess I don’t really care about the background or the politics when the result is just easy listening orchestral pablum that wouldn’t be out of place as the background music in some restaurant in the 70s. You can claim (and hear) the Alice Coltrane influence, for example, but her work moved conversations forward. This does not, at least not any want to be around. It’s just boring.


Jim Lauderdale, Game Changer

When you talk Jim Lauderdale, you are talking about solid country music, the way it should be. He’s a good songwriter and a good singer with a good sound. It’s true enough that the various albums may blend together and that his newest one follows a pretty familiar road. But there’s nothing wrong with a familiar road when it is paved with steel guitars and songs you want and need to hear.


Calexico, El Mirador

I’ve always liked the idea of Calexico more than the band itself. The best thing Calexico brings to the table is combining the traditional music of the US-Mexico border with rock and roll; in this it is a descendant of Sir Douglas Quintet and almost contemporaries with The Gourds and Los Lobos, who are a little older. But what made those bands more interesting to me is that they were dedicated to a fun version of rock-country-conjunto while Calexico is both Very Serious and also tends toward adult contemporary. So as a backing band, they can be great, but I find both the albums and the live show a bit lacking in ass kicking.

This album is basically the same thing. It’s completely fine. It’s also Dad rock for people who like the border.


Les Bains III & the Glory Fires, Old-Time Folks

If you like angry southern folk punk, this is the music for you. Bains is an Alabama-based songwriter and his band is pure southern rawness. Produced by David Barbe, who often produces Drive By Truckers albums, this is definitely an album for DBT fans. Barbe attempts to get what is known as an epic live band to reproduce that performance on album. If he doesn’t quite succeed, it’s because this is music really meant to be seen live.


Helado Negro, Far In

Big sounds for the veteran, as he makes probably the best album of his career. I grant that a 70 minute album is long, but this one works thanks to the production and the quality of the songs. It’s a chill out album where the chill out is actually interesting, where the thinking overtakes the beer and weed, where the instrumentation realizes that you don’t create a good album by remaining in the background ether, where the songs remain smart and relevant.


Shintaro Sakamoto, Like a Fable

Hard album to evaluate.

I admit to hating the first song. I always hated early 80s electronics in music, including much of the music made in the early 80s. But at least then, it was new. Today, the Casio sound is just nostalgia. It doesn’t help an album, with the minor exception that the repetitive flatness of the sound can serve a particular function of a very simplistic beat. Much of the album then revolves around Latin rhythms that I am not used to hearing with Japanese vocals, but whatever, that’s cool. However, Sakamoto has an unfortunate love for the cheesiest production and sounds of the 80s and this does undermine the power of the album in that it distracts you in not a good way. Depending on the song, I either like the album or I roll my eyes at it.


As always, this is an open thread for all things art and music and none thing politics, especially your political off topic bullshit.

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