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Music Notes


The last show I’ve seen was Indigo de Souza in Boston. She’s not a total favorite of mine, but she is a gifted young songwriter with a strong following and I figured it was worth the cost of admission, which is absolutely was. What I didn’t quite realize is how beloved she is by young lesbians. I have definitely never seen so many 25 year lesbian couples at a show. Of course, this is a generational thing and the lesbian community do a good job of embracing their own, whether it is women of my generation in love with Brandi Carlisle’s music or women of the generation ahead of me who have followed Indigo Girls forever. I think I knew de Souza is queer, but then what young people aren’t? In any case, it was a fine show. I’ve only heard her albums a few times, so I don’t know the songs as well as most of the audience, but she puts on a solid show, helped by the love her audience as for her.

A huge loss in the musical community–the great German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann has died. Nate Chinen provides a good remembrance.

Brötzmann’s sound could be gruff and garrulous, or knifelike and squalling, always with a ferocious commitment to the moment at hand. Few figures in free jazz ever sustained a voice so unsparingly intense, over so long a tenure. “His medium is screaming energy music with a deliberately manic edge,” wrote the American critic John Litweiler in his book The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958. That pronouncement was made nearly 40 years ago; remarkably, Brötzmann only kept expanding that legacy, keeping a working pace as prodigious as his style.

He began his recording career in 1967 with a steely provocation: For Adolphe Sax, named after the inventor of the saxophone, and featuring a trio with German bassist Peter Kowald and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johansson. Brötzmann self-released that album on his own label, Brö, signaling rugged independence from the start.

His second album on the label had a seismic impact; he called it Machine Gun, and its release in 1968, coupled with the hair-raising bluster of the playing, resonated with worldwide protest against the Vietnam War. “In general, the ’60s were quite violent times,” Brötzmann explained in a 2018 conversation with the Red Bull Music Academy, alluding not only to Vietnam but also political violence and assassinations in the United States and beyond.

“On the other hand, our generation of the after-war guys, we wanted one thing: we wanted to get rid of old remains of Nazi stuff,” he added. “We didn’t get any answers from our parents. They didn’t want to talk about it. So we had to find answers for our questions somewhere else.”

He found those answers in the saxophone. Brotzmann is probably the most influential European jazz player in the last half-century. He was noted as well for his work in the great Last Exit, with Bill Laswell, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. He’s not an easy listen–no, this is not your nice jazz. This is your pissed jazz. I highly recommend The Complete Machine Gun Sessions, anything from Last Exit, and anything from his Die Like a Dog Quartet, which includes William Parker, Toshinori Kondo, and Hamid Drake. I saw Brotzmann once, in about 2007 in Austin. He was playing with his long-time partner in crime Han Bennink, and it was one of the most remarkable shows I have ever seen. Honk those angry notes at the afterlife Peter!

Another legend, of sorts, passed as well. Teresa Taylor, i.e., Teresa Nervosa, one of the drummers for Butthole Surfers and, more iconic, the legendary scene stealer from Slacker, died at the age of 60. Losing her is a very Gen X moment. Sigh. Need to revisit that band too. Been a long long time.

Good retrospective on DBT’s Decoration Day after 20 years.

The historian Jefferson Cowie on Jason Isbell.

Mexico is a tremendously diverse musical nation and those regional traditions are starting to get a bit more attention internationally.

On queer performance and country music.

Bandcamp retrospective on De La Soul

It seems there is going to be a stage adaptation of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album. Huh.

Never too early for lists, so here’s a half-year top 30 albums list.

This week’s playlist, a relatively short one due to being forced to listen to [gasp] the radio while I drive my dad’s car while visiting him.

  1. Wussy, Attica! x2
  2. The Gibson Brothers, Bona Fide
  3. Wussy, Strawberry
  4. Drive By Truckers, American Band
  5. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
  6. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
  7. Smog, Wild Love
  8. Melba Montgomery & Charlie Louvin, Something to Brag About
  9. The Clash, London Calling
  10. George Jones, Blue & Lonesome
  11. Gary Stewart, Out of Hand
  12. Torres, self-titled
  13. Richard Thompson, Mock Tudor
  14. Silver Jews, Starlite Walker
  15. Willie Nelson, Shotgun Willie
  16. PJ Harvey, 4-Track Demos
  17. Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest
  18. Natalie Hemby, Pins and Needles
  19. Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped
  20. Sleater Kinney, The Hot Rock
  21. The Paranoid Style, Underworld USA
  22. The National, Cherry Tree
  23. Don Rigsby, The Midnight Call
  24. Colombia! The Golden Age Of Discos Fuentes. The Powerhouse Of Colombian Music 1960-76
  25. Ray Price, Night Life
  26. Butch Hancock, We Coulda Walked Around the World
  27. Marika Hackman, Any Human Friend
  28. Rashied Ali, New Directions in Modern Music
  29. Peter Gabriel, Security
  30. Fontaines D.C., A Hero’s Death

This weeks’ reviews. Dedicated most of this to catching up on 2023 releases by favorites that I needed to hear.

Jason Isbell, Weathervanes

Isbell is of course one of the core artists of the LGM crew, and really of middle aged whites everywhere. There’s a good reason for that–his work kind of represents the experience of a generation of people between their 30s and 50s. This is the latest edition. Now, sonically, Isbell frustrates me. He’s become the King of the Midtempo. He can rock the fuck out of anything he plays, but he mostly chooses not to. Having seen him with Drive By Truckers once and then seeing him do solo shows early in his career, I know what that looks like and what it looks like is kicking a lot of ass. But that’s not what he is going to do anymore. I really do wish he would change up his sound in some way. Any way almost. Incorporate some country if you aren’t going to rock. Doing some blue-eyed soul stuff. But again, that’s not what Jason Isbell is now.

Luckily however, what Isbell remains is a first-rate songwriter. These songs aren’t so much a change from his past albums as a relaxation. It has felt for awhile that he always wants to write An Important Song. Sometimes he does that! Then there are the sobriety songs, which are obviously very important to him but which end up with diminishing returns the more often he visits the topic. While The Nashville Sound was the best album of his career, on Reunions, it really felt he was trying too hard and it wasn’t his greatest album. Here, he seems to have just settled down and wrote some really nice songs about both where his life is right now and stories about other people that are also nice. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would probably fade away into a sameness that got boring. But this is not a lesser talent. It’s a very greater talent.

“Save the World” is a great song about dealing with the school shooting in Uvalde and the cops just letting the kids die. “Cast Iron Skillet” is a fantastic song about an interracial marriage when your family doesn’t speak to you again. But probably at 13 songs this is a bit too long for an album that doesn’t rock much. You could drop “If You Insist” without missing it. You do get a little stretched out rock at the end of the album, which is nice, though the rock isn’t really ROCK. In any case, this is a set of songs that will probably be central to my playlists for years, even if it is not going to be one of my all time favorites.


Terence Blanchard, Absence

Blanchard is among the most famous living jazzmen today, but I have only paid him moderate attention over the years. That’s probably a mistake. This is a pretty good album. Not surprisingly, it is something of a tribute to Wayne Shorter, as it sounds a good bit like Shorter’s better late life albums such as Emanon. Good reason too–most of the songs, though not all, are Shorter covers. But I actually didn’t know that when I started listening to it. He and his band worked with the Turtle Island Quartert to expand the sound places Blanchard hasn’t really gone before. Blanchard is sometimes a bit too traditionalist for his good and this is more interesting and useful than much of his music. I might argue that it moves into cheesy jazz-rock on “Envisioned Reflections” reminiscent of a later Weather Report album, which, again, makes sense. But this is a solid tribute and good, strong jazz music.


Jenny Lewis, Joy’All

I really wanted to like this and I kind of did in spite of myself. Rilo Kiley was one of the great bands of the 2000s, but since Lewis broke it up, the solo career hasn’t been great. Although she remains popular with people around my age to maybe a decade younger, it’s more on her self-presentation as a super smart middle aged sexy stoner LA chick than the music itself, or at least that’s how I see it. Part of the problem with her is the problem that I see over and over again–nostalgia for LA music in the 70s. This relaxed, chill studio sound of people desperately wanting to be Linda Ronstadt or David Crosby just isn’t healthy in breaking new ground. Now, there are good songwriting highlights here. In fact, I’d argue the songs are her best in years. And at times, this breaks into fairly interesting country rock. But too much of it is just boring. The band is great, some of the really first rate session musicians working today. Lewis just doesn’t give them room to work. So it’s frustrating. I may buy this anyway due to the songs I do like on it and the countryesque sound that also appeals to my ears. But damn it, this had every chance to be a big return to form and it’s just not.


Janelle Monae, The Age of Pleasure

Janelle Monae has zero fucks to give. Well, actually Monae has lots of fucks to give other women. Lots and lots and lots. Just not to you. But as for other women, that is this album. Monae wants to fuck and wants you to know it. This is an interesting turn from a woman who initially played as more or less asexual and then had all these interludes about accepting robot sex on The Electric Lady. Monae came out in a pretty big way on the excellent Dirty Computer and this is an extension of that. This isn’t a great album. It’s a good one. But it lacks the level of banger that made Dirty Computer so great. Moreover, the singular emphasis on sex does wear a bit as an album theme. But this still mostly works for two reasons. First, it is short. Early in Monae’s career, it felt like album filler was required; if you had 70 minutes, why not use it? This is a sleek 35 minutes (or so). Second, the concept is tight and while it gets a bit weary, it never drags. Commitment to the bit helps a lot. In the end, this is breezy summer music for a hot, wet summer. Have fun with it folks.


U.S. Girls, Bless This Mess

I saw Meg Remy’s project recently without actually hearing the album. I might argue this is a tick below her recent work and it is less directly political, but it is still a fun dance rock album about birthing, babies, how being a mother turns the body into a machine, etc. Not surprising since she wrote the album while pregnant and giving birth to twins. There’s a bit of politics here, especially a song about profit and real estate. But while you might want a bit more of a return for that, desperately needing to dance while listening to retro electric-funk songs about breastfeeding is hardly a bad way to spend your time.


Boygenius, The Record

Talk about being more than the sum of their parts. Individually, I’ve never fell in love with the work of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, or Phoebe Bridgers. Taken together though, this is wonderful. Sometimes you just need to work with your friends and together, these three are major representatives of the songwriting world of the present. They just push each other to new places, most importantly Baker being pushed out of the self-pity that too often dominates her solo work. They are all great singers and they work together for songs about the patriarchy, friendship, standing up to the world, being a teenager trying to figure out who you are. Some of the songs are more solo works for one of them while the others sing backup, others are true collaborations. Literary allusions abound; in fact, the friendship between the three of them started over books. Taken all together and this is one of the best albums I’ve heard in 2023.


Tanya Tucker, Sweet Western Sound

Brandi Carlisle did a ton of work to get the country legend Tanya Tucker back in the studio and this is now the second album in the latter’s comeback. God bless Carlisle for bringing back and updating this total country legend.

The opener is a phone message Billy Joe Shaver left Tucker from some windy place where he sings a little song about her on her answering machine. It’s a very touching starter. We are a long ways away from “Delta Dawn” and “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” here. This is an older woman who has seen it all, been through a lot of shit, and survived to tell the story. And she does in these songs. She doesn’t write a lot of them, but then country has always been a songwriter’s world more than a singer-songwriter thing. Carlisle is still here to produce and Shooter Jennings is on the assist. Arguably, this could use one more up-tempo tune, but otherwise, this is just a fine example of modern country music.


Gang of Youths, Angel in Realtime

I of course sympathize with the death of any parent. I even kinda feel bad for the families of the billionaires who died of libertarianism, as our colleague Steve Attewell said in comments the other day. So I am always going to be sympathetic with anyone artist who wants to write an album about a dead father and discovering the second family he never knew (in fact, his family was the second family). But this doesn’t go very well with the big arena rock sound these guys are about and in the end, this sounds like a very cut rate version of a War on Drugs album. Not for me.


Jess Williamson, Time Ain’t Accidental

Like many people, I didn’t know Williamson until she and Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) did a wonderful project called Plains last year, which was basically a country album. So when Williamson released a solo album last week, I had to put it at the top of my list. This is an album of losing a man, finding another, and traveling across windswept lonely western roads. It’s nice. It has a bit of the sameness that you see with a lot of female Americana artists, in that it is nice singing over a nice piano with some nice guitar and it is nice. But nice has its limits. Still, pretty strong songwriting.


Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Datura

This great Guadalajara-based duo is back with their first release since the outstanding De-Facto. I loved that album. Checked out their earlier work and liked it slightly less. Love this too. Basically, they are a psychedelic band that has slowly left that behind toward a Sonic Youth-esque noise and they go all the way here. But it’s not quite No Wave. There’s still a strong sense of rhythm and you’d be surprised the harmonies that come out of the noise. That noise though, that glorious noise. Lorena Quintanilla is Lorelle and Alberto González is The Obsolete. She writes the words and sings, they write the music together. There’s a lot of guitar, a lot of synths, a lot of percussion. It’s a glorious, beautiful, wonderful noise. Fantastic album.


Algiers, Shook

An interesting and successful flex for this great, great band that combines earnest hard rock with sophisticated production techniques from electronica and hip-hop to produce a sound like no other band. On all their albums, they’ve expressed those intense politics and they do here too, but this time they bring in a boatload of guests to create a community of fury. It’s like a giant gathering of radical artists feeding off each other from hip hop, from Rage, from spoken word poetry. It’s just a brilliantly conceived piece of work.

Truly one of the best bands working today.


Robbie Fulks, Bluegrass Vacation

When Fulks started shifting from country to bluegrass arrangements, I was a bit disenchanted. For no shortage of people (very much including Ricky Skaggs when his country career petered out), moving to bluegrass is a lazy move that intends to bring not very interesting music to a different audience. But I think the problem in part was that Gone Away Backward wasn’t that great of an album. In 2016, Fulks released Upland Stories, which is fantastic and completely justified the turn. Plus I learned that he has a real background in this music from his childhood, which made it all make more sense. Well, he doesn’t really release too many albums these days. He did release a cover of the entire Street Legal album in 2019, but that was it until he put out Bluegrass Vacation a couple months ago. Here, he fully leans into the music and it works pretty well. Fulks has always had singing limitations, but that’s no uncommon thing in the country world. He works around those limitations and has always been able to mood switch between songs like almost no other. The man can write a weeper and a hilarious song and make them work together. Here, he continues that tradition, plus a great song called “Long Haired Bluegrass,” which celebrates the hippie bluegrass that Fulks has hitting the scene in 1973 and how pissed Ralph Stanley was about having a bunch of hippies around. He’s always been a cover master, though he tends toward full albums of this rather than including them on his original albums. He does a great version of the traditional “Nashville Blues” here. While I still prefer his 2000s countrypolitan era, where he revived that music better than anyone I’ve heard this century, this is a fine, fine release.


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

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