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Music Notes


Among the most fun I’ve had at any show recently was attending the Old 97s 30th Anniversary Show in New York, at the Rooftop at Pier 17. What’s more Drive By Truckers and American Aquarium opened. I only caught the very end of the American Aquarium set (traffic into NYC is a thing). They seemed fun though. It was my 28th DBT show and in fact it was more a 2/3 set than an opening act. Got about 15 songs in, which was great. Nothing too exceptional here in the setlist except for seeing their cover of “Adam Raised a Cain” for the first time. But no need to talk about DBT here, I’ve done more than my share of that. So let’s talk Old 97s!

Old 97s are 100% one of my top 5 rock bands ever, along with DBT, Wussy, Sleater-Kinney, and….I dunno Sonic Youth maybe, though I have no interest in reading Thurston’s memoir. It’s interesting to me in that I never was a fan of grunge (which SK quickly transcended after starting there) and the post-grunge stuff I dislike even more. So I feel disconnected from my generation’s music except all my favorite bands are Gen X bands (might as well include Yo La Tengo, Bonnie Prince Billy, Bill Callahan/Smog, PJ Harvey, and Silver Jews in this conversation too). To me, Old 97s is the soundtrack of post-college life, especially Fight Songs, which is the album that really stuck with me and always has. I have seen them only 3 times, plus 1 Rhett solo show. But they are always super fun. No, the songs aren’t profound–they are about broken relationships, new relationships, drinking, that kind of thing. And as Rhett Miller ages and still tries to play the sexy alt-rock star he threatens to age like Mick Jagger (he’s obviously dying his very good hair). But the band still remains a tremendously fun rock and roll band. Other than covering “Driver 8” the set was pretty standard but no one is complaining about that.

Other than my show to frame the post, I really just want to talk about one thing and that’s Jason Farago’s long critical piece about the stalling out of cultural innovations in the 21st century. I thought this was great because Farago managed to thread the needle of being worried about how everything is just recycled in the last 20 years without being too cranky about it and while noting that a) a lot of is is really good and b) there’s a huge positive to having the history of recorded music at your fingertips, though he is talking about more than just music. I think he’s basically right–modernism was all about the need for something new and we are just modernists anymore and this is a profound shift in culture. I mean look at the history of popular music. Each decade from the 20s to the 90s feels completely different, but what is really different between the 2000s and 2020s? I mean, there are subtle shifts, sure, but they are more about which previous artistic form is more popular at a given moment than anyone really just doing something completely new. I completely reject the idea that music is over or that we can’t create a completely new form. But that’s hasn’t happened since the development of hip-hop and that’s 40 years ago now.

And this is a pretty provocative claim:

We are now almost a quarter of the way through what looks likely to go down in history as the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press. There is new content, of course, so much content, and there are new themes; there are new methods of production and distribution, more diverse creators and more global audiences; there is more singing in hip-hop and more sampling on pop tracks; there are TV detectives with smartphones and lovers facing rising seas. Twenty-three years in, though, shockingly few works of art in any medium — some albums, a handful of novels and artworks and barely any plays or poems — have been created that are unassimilable to the cultural and critical standards that audiences accepted in 1999. To pay attention to culture in 2023 is to be belted into some glacially slow Ferris wheel, cycling through remakes and pastiches with nowhere to go but around. The suspicion gnaws at me (does it gnaw at you?) that we live in a time and place whose culture seems likely to be forgotten.

But I don’t see how I could disagree with it.

There’s also this interesting discussion of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black as a moment where you can really feel things change, while also admitting that it is a fantastic album by a great artist.

If there is one cultural work that epitomizes this shift, where you can see our new epoch coming into view, I want to say it’s “Back to Black,” by Amy Winehouse. The album dates to October 2006 — seven months after Twitter was founded, three months before the iPhone debuted — and it seems, listening again now, to be closing the door on the cultural system that Manet and Baudelaire established a century and a half previously. As the millennium dawned, there had been various efforts to write the symphony of the future (the last of which was probably Missy Elliott’s “Da Real World,” a “Matrix”-inspired album from 1999 that promised to sound like “not the year 2G but the year 3G”). There had also been various retroprojections, trying to inaugurate a new century with pre-Woodstock throwbacks (waxed mustaches, speakeasies; perhaps you recall an embarrassing circa-2000 vogue for swing dancing).

“Back to Black” was the first major cultural work of the 21st century that was neither new nor retro — but rather contented itself to float in time, to sound as if it came from no particular era. Winehouse wore her hair in a beehive, her band wore fedoras, but she was not performing a tribute act of any kind. Her production drew from the Great American Songbook, ’60s girl groups, also reggae and ska, but it never felt anachronistic or like a “postmodern” pastiche. Listen again to the title track and its percussive piano line: a stationary, metronomic cycle of D minor, G minor, B-flat major, and A7. The bass line of the piano overlays the chords with a syncopated swing, while a tambourine slaps and jangles with joyless regularity. We are back to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, we are waiting for the Shangri-Las or the Ronettes to come in, but instead Winehouse delivers a much more ragged and minor-keyed performance, with a vulgarity in the song’s second line that Martha Reeves would never pronounce. There is a discrepancy between vocals and instrumentation that is never resolved, and the artistry is all in that irresolution.

What Winehouse prefigured was a culture of an eternal present: a digitally informed sense of placelessness and atemporality that has left so many of us disoriented from our earlier cultural signposts. Each song on “Back to Black” seemed to be “borrowing from all the last century’s music history at once,” as the media scholar Moira Weigel once observed, though there was something contemporary about that timelessness too. Extracted from the past into lightweight MP3s, all the girl-group and jazz prefigurations began to seem just as immediate as Winehouse’s North London present.

I dunno, but….it’s worth arguing about!

This week’s playlist, short due to conference and travel and all that stuff:

  1. Bonnie Prince Billy, Summer in the Southeast
  2. Kris Kristofferson, Third World Warrior
  3. Old 97s, Twelfth
  4. Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking
  5. Peter One, Come Back to Me
  6. Tom Russell, Love & Fear
  7. Chuck Cleaver, Send Aid
  8. Bluegrass Alliance, Tall Grass
  9. John Moreland, LP5
  10. John Coltrane, Live at Birdland
  11. Margaret Glaspy, Born Yesterday
  12. Dua Saleh, Nür
  13. The Beths, Future Me Hates Me
  14. Tom Ze, Canções Eróticas de Ninar
  15. Rob Mazurek & Exploding Star Orchestra, Lightning Dreamers
  16. Wussy, Strawberry
  17. Ethiopiques, Volume 8: Swinging Addas, 1960-1974
  18. Lizzo, Cuz I Love You
  19. Norman Blake, Fields of November
  20. Norman Blake, Old and New
  21. Noname, Sundial
  22. Downtown Boys, Full Communism
  23. Ibeyi, Ash
  24. The Regrettes, Further Joy
  25. Kae Tempest, The Line is a Curve
  26. William Parker, For Those Who Are Still
  27. Weyes Blood, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow
  28. Wet Leg, self-titled
  29. Buck Owens, Buck ‘Em, Volume 1
  30. Kae Tempest, Everybody Down
  31. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Album Reviews:

Tammy Rogers and Thomm Jutz, Surely Will Be Singing

This is a highly refreshing album that should remind us of something about bluegrass music. Too often, bluegrass in the 21st century has split off into one of two unproductive models. The first is that it is a cover music of the classic tunes from the 40s-60s with a lot of tight instrumental work but very little real soul. The second is that it is jam bands, which is largely a complete abomination.

What happened to the idea of bluegrass as a place for good new songs? That’s what made bluegrass great after all. It wasn’t just that Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs could play–though they most certainly could. It’s that songs such as “Molly and Tenbrooks” or “Uncle Pen” were fantastic songs, soulfully sung. And yet it’s amazing how forgotten this history is today. People say they like bluegrass, but what they often like is either being drunk or high on the festival lawn listening to Billy Strings in his 15th minute of a solo or they want it to sound just like they imagine it in 1952, with no deviation from that.

And yet, there have been plenty of people over the years who try to break this by using this music to write new songs. Don Rigsby is one person I really love who has done this–his great album The Midnight Call is exactly how one should approach any music in my view–take the tradition and write your new material to move it all forward. This album is a good solid example of this too. I didn’t know Rogers or Jutz before this. But that’s what they are doing here–writing new songs and performing them with real emotion based on their own experiences in writing and thinking about these lyrics–is what we should want.

Now, to be fair, I think this is a more a good rather than a great album. They are good songwriters, but none of these are transcendent songs. Nothing wrong with that. The album itself then is more good than great. But we can think more about what they are doing and ask why more people aren’t doing this when even bad douche country is at least performing new songs.


Lucy Dacus, Home Video

I’ve seen Dacus once (or part of a show) and I like the Boygenius project a lot but I had never actually sat down and listened to a Dacus solo album. It’s pretty good! She operates pretty firmly in the slightly sad emoting and often slow singing genre of young women that very much includes her Boygenius friends and a lot of other folkish music by young women today. Sometimes, I wish these people would turn up the guitars or do something to change up the tempo. It puts a lot of pressure on each song to keep your attention otherwise. But Dacus is skilled enough to pull it off, at least mostly. It’s the kind of searching autobiographical and relational album that explains a lot of her appeal. She simply can pull people in with her emotional heft. And like a lot of young people who grew up in a church that no longer accepts them, she can appeal to a wide swath of people looking for something to replace that.


Blue Lake, Sun Arcs

A lovely meditative album. At first I was wondering how a Dane could write an album that sounded so American. So often European jazz and even ambient music sounds like it comes out of a classical tradition that does not have any Black people in it. This is a guy going into a cabin for a week and writing a bunch of stuff and then playing all the instruments, mostly the zither, but lots of other stuff too. Well, the answer is that the guy is actually from Texas and then it made sense. This sounds like something a Texan would make–the big spaces of the home state comes through this album. It’s a quintessentially American piece of instrumental music, reminding one of William Tyler or Bill Frisell.


James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon

Red hot material from the superb young saxophonist. The quintet includes Kirk Knuffke on cornet, William Parker on bass, Chris Hoffman on cello, and Chad Taylor on drums. I didn’t know Hoffman before this but the rest of the band are legends and Parker is the leading figure in jazz this century, in my opinion. So it’s hardly surprising that they would take to Lewis’ direction with aplomb. The theme here is the educational efforts of George Washington Carver, long a hero to Lewis. Whether you can hear anything in there that really connects to Carver is irrelevant, because that’s not really what this is about for the listener. What I’d say is critical here is the connection between this amazing rhythm section and the base it provides for the horns to float across it. That rhythm section is almost danceable, which is high praise for this kind of music. Cool stuff.


Living Hour, Someday is Today

I wonder if I’ve ever listened to an album by a Winnipeg band before? Well, now’s the time!

Sounds more than a little bit like Girlpool, very similar kind of emoting and very very similar style of melodic whisper singing. And that’s cool enough, but I’d say the songs are mostly acceptable than great. As a cute rate Girlpool though, it’s fine.


Ronnie Foster, The Reboot

Foster is a long-time soul organist and this is a comeback album. If you like groove of that style, this is going to be up your alley. If you find that kind of thing little more than background music, then it will serve that role too. I like it mostly, but it is a bit background too.


John Zorn and Bill Laswell, Memoria

Collaboration between two legends of the New York scene to honor three passed heroes–Pharoah Sanders, Milford Graves, and Wayne Shorter. Laswell provides some really sick atmospheric bass and Zorn squawks across it. I respect that squawks enough, but at this point in my life, I don’t find his playing nearly as compelling as his composing and vision. So this is good stuff if you like real squawky sax and it’s outstanding for big Laswell fans. I don’t know that it is something I need to listen to again though.

None of this on YouTube, but here’s another collaboration between Zorn and Laswell.


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

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