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Music Notes


I saw two shows in the last week, both of youngish female Black artists and I think discussing both of them together makes sense.

First, I saw Noname at the Paradise in Boston. I attend very few hip hop shows, but I love Noname very much and so I thought it would check it out. It was cool, though not a truly great show. She’s wonderful and charismatic and her lyrics are so sharp. She also had a great band with her, funky as all hell. So what’s the problem? It’s that you really, really have to know the lyrics to follow along live because her rapping is so conversational that it is almost like talking. In short, she’s kind of hard to understand live. I knew some of the songs better than others because I’ve listened to the new album a few times but I don’t every song by heart.

Then I saw Allison Russell at the Sinclair in Cambridge. This was the third time I’d seen her but the first full show. I saw her at Newport Folk Festival where she organized a huge convocation of Black women to end the festival (Chaka Khan!!) but she didn’t play a ton herself. Then I had seen her open Big Ears earlier this year and that was astounding. This was a great show too. Her songs are so powerful, her band The Rainbow Coalition–all women of color–just rules.

There are some interesting commonalities worth discussing and some differences too. First is the reality of being Black women playing in front of mostly white audiences. This has been an issue in Black music going back a long time now. I mean, Louis Armstrong had to reckon with this. I know it was a struggle for Public Enemy. The Noname audience was more diverse–I think half the interracial couples in Boston were there–but still, it was definitely majority white. In her case, because she also uses the N word in her raps, she has to deal with white people rapping along to her and saying that. This I find kind of difficult to deal with. Like, do you have so little clue that you think it is OK to do that? But the answer is quite obviously yes, even with the rapper in question is a leftist who has stated before that it’s not alright for her white fans to do this. She is pretty committed to disciplining the audience (which I always appreciate) and she was telling people to stop shouting and such at the show and to just act normal. But audiences are a beast of their own, as any artist knows. Russell on the other hand is working in a more “Americana” genre I suppose and so probably struggles a bit less with the audiences being pretty white. She’s part and parcel of the Black folk music revival that is growing and has lots of wonderful people in it, but the audience for this music is pretty overwhelmingly white. I have no idea how Russell feels about this, to be clear. But she is quite promotional of her fellow Black folk musicians (there were a couple in the audience and she was shouting them out). Well, you play your music and you have the audience you have I suppose.

The second thing to discuss is how each of these women is turning trauma into art. For Noname, this is more the trauma of capitalism and racism broadly construed. I don’t know to what extent her personal experiences are traumatic, but she is furious about the world. And then being a Black woman who got semi-famous with a debut album addressing these issues while also addressing her love of weed and dick, she had a lot of men telling her what she should and shouldn’t be doing with her music. So when the latest album wasn’t exactly the same as the first, some people were unhappy by these choices. I think it’s pretty clear that she has no fucks to give about what anyone thinks except herself. This I respect a great deal.

But Russell, I mean, she’s a great musician and a visionary artist, but more importantly, she’s an astounding human being. She went through ungodly personal trauma. Born a half-Black girl, her white mother married a white supremacist who proceeded to rape his stepdaughter from the time she was 5 until she ran away from home early in her teenage years. She was a homeless for a bit, then found her way, went to an alternative school, and recovered her life. That she can both sing about this every single night while maintaining this enormous amount of love for her band members, her audience, her own daughter, it’s amazing. How much therapy she has gone through or continues to go through, I do not know, but she’s a brave, incredible person. So there’s lots of talk about consent, about racism, about puberty (which her daughter has recently entered), about uncomfortable subjects. And it is all in this incredible atmosphere of love and accepting.

So yeah, I am still processing both of these shows.

Some more memories of Shane MacGowan seem appropriate. So here’s the story of “Fairytale of New York.”

I was never a fan of Hall and Oates and when John Oates played at Newport last year, I was like, why would I bother seeing him, legend or no. So I have no stake in this lawsuit between them but it is so nasty in the way you hate to see a long musical partnership end. Ugh.

Denny Laine died, so I guess we know who Jimmy Carter blames for the breakup of Wings.

If you missed Elizabeth’s interview with Patterson Hood, check it out.

Was The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” really overlooked at its release? I mean, it took a few months for it to take off, but it’s not like it was some unknown band reaching big on a song years after its release or something.

This week’s playlist:

  1. Guy Clark, Cold Dog Soup
  2. Gary Stewart, Out of Hand
  3. Lydia Loveless, Real
  4. Alejandro Escovedo, Room of Songs, disc 1
  5. The Coathangers, Nosebleed Weekend
  6. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
  7. Drive By Truckers, Brighter than Creation’s Dark
  8. Quantic & Nidia Gongora, Curao
  9. Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
  10. Richard & Linda Thompson, First Light
  11. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
  12. Whitney Rose, Rosie
  13. Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet, Way Out East
  14. Tanya Tucker, Sweet Western Sound
  15. The Hold Steady, The Price of Progress
  16. Wussy, self-titled (x2)
  17. Neil Young, Zuma
  18. Palace Brothers, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You
  19. High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  20. Jason Isbell, Reunions
  21. Quantic & Nidia Gongora, Curao
  22. Drive By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera, disc 2
  23. Patsy Montana, Best of
  24. Bill Frisell, East/West (West disc)
  25. Peter Brotzmann, Medicina
  26. Ashley Monroe, Like a Rose
  27. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man
  28. Smog, Supper
  29. Wussy, Attica!
  30. And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell Street
  31. Laura Veirs, Year of Meteors
  32. Neil Young, Comes a Time
  33. Merle Haggard, The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde
  34. Drive By Truckers, American Band
  35. Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy
  36. Kae Tempest, Let There Be Chaos
  37. Townes Van Zandt, Rear View Mirror
  38. Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
  39. Joe Ely, self-titled
  40. The Tubs, Dead Meat
  41. Bomba Estereo, Elegancia Tropical
  42. Eric Dolphy, At the Five Spot
  43. Doc Watson, Doc & Son
  44. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings
  45. Mourn, self-titled

Album Reviews:

Maria Jose Llergo, Ultrabelleza

This is pretty cool. Llergo is a part Romani Spaniard who grew up in Andalusia and is trained in the flamenco tradition. As RosalĂ­a has shown in recent years, flamenco serves as a great base for fusing traditional and modern music and Llergo really follows in her path here. This is very much flamenco, but also very much beat-oriented electronic music that would do just fine in at least some dance clubs. While my Spanish isn’t very good, though I can understand some of what is going on here, it is also an album about family, grief, and hope. And basically, if you like Rosalia, you are very likely to enjoy this too.


PJ Harvey, I Inside the Old Year Dying

I suppose we should consider this a minor PJ Harvey album, but she sure is one of the great weirdos of modern culture. Making an album of her own poetry, combined with the work she has done to change her voice, her twisted version of field recordings, I mean, this is a unique artist who has dedicated herself to moving beyond the rock and roll that started her career without totally leaving it. Now, lyrics like this are not likely to create an album as deeply meaningful as Stories from the City or Let England Shake. But what it reminds me of more than anything else is a late era Tom Waits album, where she is just going to see her artistic vision through, without trying to make hits, but very much trying to combine accessibility and experimentation, mostly successfully.


Cherise, Calling

Quite solid, if not totally mindblowing, British soul. Works well enough within this established genre, always popular in a Britain that has needed to borrow from American Black tradition and then build on its own immigrant waves in order to create a music that works in the global market. This didn’t get a ton of attention upon its release and I am not sure why as it is stronger than a lot of British soul. That she herself is Jamaican-British should hardly surprise us, given how skilled she is in this work. Lyrics are generally positive, about family and growth and love. Again, this didn’t change my life, but if you put it on, I’d listen again.


Rostam, Changephobia

Quirky and occasionally charming folk pop by Rostam Batmanglij, which makes you understand why he just uses his first name professionally. Fun cover of The Clash’s “Train in Vain.” But this works a bit too much in the Vampire Weekend mode of rich guy singing about privilege while using acceptable but vaguely cliched global musical forms for my tastes. Of course, given he has produced VW, it’s not surprisingly. Anyway, it is acceptable.


Skullchaser, Quiet the Room

You’d think a band called Skullchaser would be a metal act, but in this case you would be quite wrong. In this case, it is is a LA-based artist who does the whispered folk singing thing that remains surprisingly popular these days, plus lots of ambient effects to create soundscapes around it. It works….alright? It’s certainly inoffensive at worst, periodically interesting at best.


Katy J. Pearson, Sound of the Morning

OK, this I liked pretty well. Catchy and rhythmic driven enough to make me dance in my seat (which is something no one should ever see). Serious worm-ear action here. People say she sings like Dolly Parton. I dunno. She can sing though and what does such a comparison really do anyway except put pressure on someone. But I kinda like the way you see a British woman work in ideas from American country music and European synthpop. In that, I guess one can compare her a bit to Lydia Loveless, even if Loveless is more firmly in the American musical tradition. But given my love for Loveless, I at least am a little smitten with Pearson.


Zoh Amba/Chris Corsano/Bill Oructt, The Flower School

Chris Corsano is an amazing drummer. For years now, he’s played with Harry Pussy guitarist Bill Orcutt. I got to see them perform at Big Eats last year and yes please more of that. Now they’ve added the hotshot young saxophonist Zoh Amba to their noise jazz and omfg. Amba is a fascinating story in her own right. Still in her early 20s and from the, uh, not exactly jazz center of Kingsport, Tennessee, she is like a fully formed figure in the Ayler/Sanders tradition. This works very, very well. One of my favorite albums of 2023.


Kirk Knuffke, Gravity Without Airs

Powerful set between the cornetist and astounding rhythm section of Michael Bisio on bass and Matthew Shipp on piano. This is great and it is a full 90 minutes. I mention that because one of my frequent critiques of jazz projects is that they can be too bloated and long. But this works at 90 minutes and I think the biggest reason is that Bisio and Shipp manage to develop incredible rhythms without a drummer and with Knuffke blowing his cornet over the top of it. The three of them have such intense interplays and you really have to respect Bisio especially for being able to ground this. It’s hardly a blowout or some noise jazz. I don’t know how much I would call it “accessible” for general audiences, but it’s certainly not inaccessible either. It’s just a damned fine piece of modern jazz.


Charli XCX, Crash

I feel about this like I feel about everything I’ve heard by Charli XCX. It’s fine. It’s a solid pop music that, like so much pop these days, really is just nostalgically borrowing from past forms of pop. She used this album to get out of a deal with Atlantic that she hated, so it’s possible that more interesting things happen in the future. As it is, this is a reasonably interesting set of songs that works fine.


Corb Lund, Songs My Friends Wrote

Veteran country singer does cover album of his favorite songs. These albums are a genre of their own. It’s completely solid. Nice cover of Tom Russell’s “Blue Wing.” Not exactly breaking any ground here though. But who cares. It’s country music. Playing your favorites is a venerable tradition. Let’s encourage that. Good songs professionally recorded and honestly sung is a good thing.


As always, this is an open thread of all things music and art and none things politics. There’s been a recent increase in OT comments. Get that shit outta here.

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