First, my apologies–I unintentionally scheduled this for sometime last week when it was about 10% completed so there’s a bunch of comments about what the heck is going on here. My bad. I also finished this at the last second–please don’t yell at me about typos, I already have my wife yelling at me to come upstairs and take her out!
I recently saw Iris Dement, in Natick, Massachusetts. I had never seen her before and I was so happy to do so. As reviewed below, I found her new album more than a little uneven and really you can say that about her whole career. There’s a few really good albums and a few kind of OK albums and often long gaps between them. So she’s not a prodigious songwriter. Whatever, that is a lot of people. But she can write truly great songs at her best. And then there’s the voice. Even though she left the South as a young child, Dement grew up in the southern migrants to the west coast in the 1960s, which largely transplanted their religious experiences to a new geography. So many of my favorite female singers come out of the church and so many of them are now atheists (very much including Dement). But that style of singing has such power. It has even more power with that voice. My god, Iris Dement’s voice. Astounding. I could listen to her sing the entirety of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and it would be great.
The show itself was quite strong. She has a couple of young women playing with her–a guitarist and a bassist and they were probably the youngest people in the entire show for that matter. Hell, I was definitely in the youngest five percent. Given that she is only 13 years older than I am, I found that rather disconcerting, but in any case, old people love her. It was funny in that at one point, Iris said that she was told that the audience would be extra quiet in this venue. Someone shouted that it was like church. And Iris was like “That’s not any church I grew up in!” Well, whatever, the band sounds great together and they also kind of keep things together, since one gets the sense that Iris is a bit flightly. A guitar string broke and it clearly disconcerted her big time but the young guitarist quickly took care of the situation, handing over her guitar and running backstage with Iris’ guitar to restring it real quick. No one has put up the specific setlist from that evening, but she played quite a bit of the new album and then some selections from her career, including a couple of her great album Sing the Delta, which I love to death. Here’s a fairly typical setlist from a recent show and I am sure this was very close to what I heard.
Cool show, so glad I finally took care of this experience.
If you don’t know Dengue Fever, you should check out this discussion of the band that combines the pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia music with modern punk and surf.
Yes, we most definitely need better and more music education. But of course, it’s not STEM, by which everyone actually means T&E, since no one cares about math or biology either.
Playlist from the last two weeks:
- The Paranoid Style, For Executive Meeting
- Thelonious Monk, Monk’s Dream
- Midlake, The Trials of Van Occupanther
- Led Zeppelin, IV
- Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
- Van Morrison, Saint Domimic’s Preview
- Parquet Courts, Content Nausea
- Ray Price, Night Life
- Waxahatchee, Great Thunder
- George Jones and Melba Montgomery, Singing What’s In Our Hearts
- John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
- Tish Hinojosa, Culture Swing
- Willie Nelson, Teatro
- Conjunto: Tex-Mex Border Music, Vol. 3
- Johnny Paycheck, On His Way
- Led Zeppelin, I
- Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
- George Jones, The Essential, disc 1
- Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted
- Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages
- Palace Music, Lost Blues and Other Songs
- Queens of Fado
- King Crimson, Red
- Torres, self-titled
- TJ Kirk, self-titled
- Drive By Truckers, English Oceans
- Taylor Ho Bynum, Enter the Plustet
- St. Vincent, Actor
- Allman Brothers, Eat a Peach
- Los Caimanes del Tampico, Sones Huastecos
- Matthew Shipp Trio, Critical Mass
- Hamid Drake and Joe McPhee, Emancipation Proclamation
- James McMurtry, Live in Aught Three
- Tacocat, Lost Time
- Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys, Turntable Matinee
- Jose Gonzalez, In Our Nature
- Robert Earl Keen, Walking Distance
- Ennio Morricone, The Legendary Italian Westerns
- Sleater-Kinney, The Hot Rock
- Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
- Jason Isbell, Southeastern
- Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kerouac’s Last Dream
- Paul Simon, Graceland
- Buck Owens, Buck Em! Vol. 1, disc 2
- Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues
- Dave Douglas, High Risk
- Sonic Youth, Dirty
- Siouxsie and the Banshees, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
- Priests, Nothing Feels Natural
- Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise
- Sonic Youth, Goo
- Craig Taborn, Junk Magic
- Cat Power, You Are Free
- Newport Folk Festival: Best of Bluegrass, 1959-66, disc 2
- Guided by Voices, Bee Thousand
- Sleaford Mods, Spare Ribs
- Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else
- Richard Thompson, Small Town Romance
- Plains, I Walked with You a Ways
- Rosalía, El Mal Querer
- Lone Justice, The Western Tapes
- Janelle Monae, Dirty Comptuer
- Drive By Truckers, The Dirty South
- Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc.
- Bill Frisell, Floratone
This week’s album reviews, heavily leaning into various forms of contemporary jazz.
Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings E+F Sides
Probably the best album I heard in the last two weeks. Working heavily with the guitarist Jeff Parker (discussed below as well), McCraven pulls together a bunch of recordings with a bunch of friends that is both thrown together and pretty brilliant. McCraven has done a lot to bring new fans into jazz through his interest in hip-hop and ambient music that centers through his recordings. While I tend to think the world around Kamasi Washington is pretty overrated generally, McCraven is more than an exception. All sorts of great collaborators show up here–Tomeka Reid, Nubya Garcia, so many others–which not only shows how much people love working with him, but also what a great collaborator he has become. Plus he’s such a great drummer. It’s just a cool ass release.
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz
Like the Rough Guides tend to be, this is a perfectly fine overview of a musical genre which generally plays it all a bit more conservative than one might like. This means that the editors chose some pretty interesting pieces but also some pretty lame ones that might appeal to your Kenny G listeners. Still, a good intro into a scene about which you probably know nothing and thus a useful place to start exploring.
Jeff Parker/Eric Revis/Nasheet Waits, Eastside Romp
These guys know each other so well and it shows. But I do have to say that this fits more into the good rather than great category, as these particular post-bop explorations maintain your attention but perhaps doesn’t move the music forward in any totally new ways. That said though, this is very fine release. Not everything has to revolutionize jazz of course and hearing three superb players who clearly love each other’s work create together has tremendous value in its own right.
Surprisingly, none of this is on YouTube, but here’s some other work by some of them together.
Iris Dement, Workin’ on a World
A good but often too preachy album. There are a lot of political songs here and while there is some level of bravery here given that not all her audience is necessarily liberal-left, these songs are also really on the nose and thus not very good songs. Dement is singing about what she feels she needs to sing about and that makes all the sense in the world, but a lot of these songs are not playing to her strengths as a songwriter.
In fact, we need to talk about this a bit. What makes a good song about a subject? To me, the difference between a good political song and a not good political song is not that different than the difference between a good and not good song generally–which is mostly summed up by the question of whether you have anything interesting to say or is the song just a list or a series of cliches? A great example is two songs about Doc Watson, the wonderful guitarist and singer of traditional music. A few years ago, Peter Rowan released a song about Doc that is really just a biography of him. It’s OK, but it’s a list. Rowan has written some truly wonderful songs so he can do this. But this was a miss, even if a loving one. Meanwhile, Guy Clark once wrote the following line in his song “Dublin Blues”:
I have seen the David, mmm
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too
And I have heard Doc Watson
Play “Columbus Stockade Blues”
Boom. That’s it. In one line, Clark said everything that needs to be said about Doc Watson. That’s a brilliant lyric. Without going into endless details, he just said Doc Watson was the equivalent to the David and the Mona Lisa. Having seen the David, the Mona Lisa, and Doc Watson (I’ve had a hard life), I’d say that they are all pretty equal to me.
So this is what Dement’s new record lacks. These songs are the Peter Rowan version of protest songs.
And of course, I am not going to evaluate art by the politics of the creator. No aesthetic Stalinism here please! Iris has fantastic politics. I mean, she name checks Rachel Corrie in “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas”! I want her politics. But as for the album, I want her to write songs that don’t name check but rather have something to say. “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas” has a great conceit–she doesn’t really want to play in Texas because she’s scared of getting shot by some lunatic since the state has open carry laws. Fair enough! But rather than say something about this, she just talks about all the liberals and leftists she likes instead. Then there’s the song about how much she likes John Lewis. And then there’s the similar song about Mahalia Jackson. I mean, c’mon. The best of these songs is “Let Me Be Your Jesus,” which as others have noted is like a version of Randy Newman’s “Slave Ship” in that it tells the story from the point of view of the oppressor. So that works pretty well. But good politics doesn’t make good political songs, let’s be very clear here. And this album suggests why.
All this said, the non-political songs, including the title track, are quite good and the album is still worthy.
Ekiti Sound, Abeg No Vex
Fairly interesting album from this Nigerian producer that brings in a lot of electronica into the Nigerian scene. It’s kind of like a combination of club music and folk music. This means the songs vary a lot and sometimes it sounds more like a compilation album than a consistently solid whole. That said, it is worth your time and worth more listens for me.
Jake Shears, Last Man Dancing
I didn’t actually think I’d like an album of dance music so obviously nostalgic for he 80s club scene, but….I kinda did like it. Or at least I thought it worthy, which is pretty good for me and this kind of thing. It’s just flat out good dance music. For me, this was a good justification as to why I keep trying to hear albums in genres I don’t really like, metal most commonly but dance music too. That’s because you never know when something will strike your ears and brain in just the right way, at just the right time, to change your perspective on the world. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you anyway, you waste 40 minutes of your life? And in this case, there was no waste. I just flat out liked it. Maybe I didn’t think it was overly profound or anything, but it was fun.
Mark Dresser, Tines of Change
First, this is not a typo–it is the name of the album. Second, this is rare solo bass albums. I am not generally a huge fan of solo instrumental albums anyway because I often feel the listener (or this troglodyte anyway) needs to hear different sounds to stay engage. Even when I do check out a solo jazz album, it’s a lot more likely to be piano than bass. But Dresser is an astounding bassist and as he likes to point out, he sees the bass as an orchestra in itself. I gotta say, he makes a compelling case here. He does about everything one can do with the instrument, from innovative pickups to sounds I’ve never heard from a bass, to of course picking, slapping, and bowing. That said, unless you are a committed bass aficionado yourself, I can’t see why you would listen to this album very often. I’m certainly glad it exists, but this is niche album, no doubt about it. Still, Dresser has a strong artistic vision that deserves expression just as much as a tenor or piano player.
Jean Carn/Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Adrian Younge, Jean Carne JID012
I love the Jazz is Dead series so much, just because it is Muhammad and Younge both doing whatever they feel like doing and because they really want to record with their living legends before those people pass from the scene. Not every album is great, but I haven’t heard one that isn’t at least fun. That goes for their work here with the vocalist Jean Carne, who was a pretty big player in the Soul Train era but then mostly disappeared. She still sounds great. This is a great, if minor, funk fest, featuring both her vocals and their groove based playing. Again, this is not some profound album, but it’s a fun one and there’s plenty to be said for that.
Paolo Nutini, Last Night in the Bittersweet
The first album in eight years by the Scottish songwriter (I assume of Italian descent) is solid, though I don’t think it touched me like it did a lot of real critics. But then again, I’m not really familiar with his older work. There’s a fascinating start, which is some real rock and roll surrounded by samples from Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance. That’s pretty cool though it’s a stand alone on the album, which is mostly more atmospheric than rocking. The influences are worn openly on the sleeve and sometimes that gets a bit old, since you can be like, oh here’s the Peter Gabriel song and here’s the Carpenters song, etc. Even the first one is basically a Led Zeppelin song.
V/A, Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson
Anderson remains an underrated figure in modern country music and this tribute album attempts to bring him more attention. Mostly it works, but it also suffers as a concept with the reality of all tribute albums, which that you are relying on a wide range of performers who don’t always bring their A game. In this case, you also have some douche country acts bringing the proceedings down with their crappy versions of his songs. So basically, the songs by John Prine and Sierra Ferrell are a lot more interesting than the ones played by Luke Combs or Eric Church.
Dave Green Trio Plus Evan Parker, Raise Four
An odd choice to start an album with a 5 minute interview. I get that it came first before the music, but it’s not really a choice that encourages listening. Put it at the end as a bonus track if you really want it. But whatever, this was a live performance that mostly just blitzes through with brilliance and aggression and savagery in the playing of Monk covers. In fact, it’s one of the best Monk cover albums I’ve ever heard. I am just perplexed at the interview choice.
John McLaughlin, Liberation Time
New John McLaughlin, eh? You know, he was such a legend in the late 60s with his work with Miles Davis and then the early Mahavishnu Orchestra albums. Groundbreaking work, groundbreaking way of playing guitar. I saw him one of his tours with Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia in the late 90s and while I don’t care about the other two, it was amazing to hear him play live. But then he moved off into the New Age and it’s been hard to care that much about his releases for….40 years? Well, this is his 2021 album. No question he can still play. The best tracks rock pretty good, even if they then inherently invite comparison to the best Mahavishnu tracks. Less useful are two McLaughlin piano solos, which don’t add much if anything to the proceedings. He’s functional on the piano, but let’s be clear, no one is listening to these albums to hear a guitarist play piano. So it’s an OK release.
Tough Age, Waiting Here
This is not a great album, but it is an album I like. I feel that way about Tough Age generally. Their poppy, catchy punk is not changing the world, but it is ticking boxes in my brain that I really like. This isn’t a guilty pleasure; after all, I would certainly argue this is good music. But I probably like it more than it really deserves. The 6 minute Ira Kaplan-style guitar freakout is a nice change here and I hope for more of it in the future. Otherwise, it’s just a good catchy pop-punk group producing music I like. If you don’t think much of it, I get that. But I like it and that’s all I care about.
Ethel Cain, Preacher’s Daughter
Strange topic, too typical production. I am kind of amazed this is her debut album. It tells the story of a girl who runs away from her overly religious home, has a bunch of adventures, and then is murdered by a psychopath. Also, the character is named Ethel Cain. It’s certainly an interesting ride. What brings this down a good notch though is that even though she clearly has influences from everything from country to metal, and they come through at the right times, this is also a very typical pop album from a production stand point and while that probably has served her sales with younger audiences, I don’t think it serves her artistic strengths that well. However, anyone who writes like this clearly deserves greater attention so let’s watch and see where she goes.
Lil Nas X, Montero
I have no idea whether Lil Nas X is “country.” I’ve never been convinced that “Old Town Road” is a country song, but I also don’t care. I don’t have much interest in policing boundaries and the larger point here, which his 2021 album really reinforces, that whatever genre you want to put him in, Lil Nas X is a very good artist. I love the open homosexuality in the songs. He is long past giving a fuck what you think about that. I am a little less enamored of all the songs when he talks about the awards he’s won and how great he is, which I know is a staple of hip hop but is also lazy writing. Still, the guy kicks a lot of ass, country or otherwise.
Wild Billy Childish & CTMF, Failure Not Success
Childish is such a fun weirdo. This is just great grungy garage rock, with covers of Richard Hell’s “Love Comes in Spurts” and Hendrix’s “Fire.” Like Guided by Voices, he just churns them out over and over again and yet they are pretty good. Sure they all sound the same. But not all of them have “Bob Dylan’s Got a Lot to Answer For,” which is a hilarious shot at hippies and folkies.
Alt-J, The Dream
The latest by this now venerable English alternative band, though I felt this not one of their stronger releases. They go quieter and more reflective here and I am not sure either move really fits their strengths. On the other hand, they have song making fun of cryptocurrency (one assumes LoomCoin is excluded here). So you have to like it more or less just for that.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics.