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Music Notes


Two last shows I saw in 2023. Both were at the Columbus Theatre in Providence. The first was The Bad Plus. Oddly, I had never seen them before and I am not sure how or why. In any case, this excellent free(ish) jazz but commercially successful quartet now consists of the hilarious Reid Anderson on bass and David King on drums (these are the two founders of the band who remain), Ben Monder on guitar, and Chris Speed on sax. I don’t think I had seen any of them play before in fact, even though I know Monder and Speed’s work especially from various projects. Anyway, it was a lot of fun. They were playing in the huge downstairs theater space, which was too big for them, but they didn’t care, it was a blast. I have always thought it wonderful but random how the occasional jazz acts gets big. Medeski, Martin, and Wood was about the groove and how that fit into jam band stuff. Kamasi Washington, about whom I am fairly indifferent, got the Kendrick Lamar stamp of approval. But Bad Plus? Not really sure actually. In any case, they are all fantastic musicians and the interplay between them, especially Anderson and Reid, is so great, developed over all these years. It’s not that common for the same guys to play together in a jazz band forever like the two of them, so that’s really special. And it’s not like they stayed away from the more difficult stuff in order to please the crowd. The show ended basically with a wall of noise. It was wonderful.

Then I saw Algiers, which might be the best live band in America. This is the 3rd time I’ve seen them and they just kill it each time. This is such a visceral show. First, they play in small venues because they haven’t really broken through commercially, which is a real shame. So you are right there with them. Second, the band is just so intense. Franklin James Fisher is just an unbelievably charismatic lead, with his roots in punk and hip hop and electronic music all wrapped up together with these great political lyrics. Then there is the guitarist and the electronics guy providing the background. Usually Matt Tong, who you might know better from his years with Bloc Party, is on drums, but he wasn’t there. Not sure if he’s in the band anymore or what. Anyway, what adds to this wall of political electro-rock is now these video presentations that go with the songs that sometimes print the lyrics (which can be helpful given the noise unless you know the songs really well) but are also collages of Black Power or the disasters taking over the planet or of whatever they are singing about on this given song. It’s just an utterly visceral performance that blows you away. Great show.

Here’s Nick Cave’s obituary for Shane MacGowan. This is well worth your time.

We lost Psychedelic Furs saxophonist Mars Williams, who had an interesting career.

On the dominance of reissues of old music in 2023. There was a lot of this. It’s more than a little frustrating, even though these are great bands. But bands today are great too! Listen to them!

Drake, being a massive douchebag, helps bring Morgan Wallen back into respectability despite the country star being an unreconstructed racist and overall scumbag. Of course he did.

Between Maestro and Tar, there sure have been a lot of high end movies about conductors lately. If there’s an Arthur Fiedler biopic in the works, we will know it’s a trend!

The 30 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time.

On Maren Morris telling the country music establishment to go fuck itself for being a bunch of racist, homophobic, misogynist Trumper pieces of shit and inspiration from the Dixie Chicks in doing so.

Who gets the tell the jokes in the pop-punk world?

I know this is the season for Best of 2023 lists, but how can I possibly put that up before December 31? I could hear more albums or change my mind about others! So hold on for that. I know you are waiting with baited breath.

Playlist for the last two weeks:

  1. Jade Jackson, Gilded
  2. The Beths, Future Me Hates Me
  3. Daddy Issues, Deep Dream
  4. Patterson Hood, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
  5. Bomba Estereo, Ayo
  6. Marianne Faithfull, Broken English
  7. James McMurtry, Where’d You Hide the Body
  8. Tough Age, Which Way Am I?
  9. John Coltrane, Coltrane Jazz
  10. Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, disc 2
  11. Tacocat, Lost Time
  12. St. Vincent, Actor
  13. Tom Russell, Poor Man’s Dream
  14. Nick Drake, Pink Moon
  15. Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding
  16. Camera Obscura, Let’s Get Out of This Country
  17. Junior Brown, Semi-Crazy
  18. Patsy Cline, Showcase
  19. Quantic and Alice Russell, Look Around the Corner
  20. Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney
  21. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  22. Terry Allen, Lubbock (On Everything)
  23. Merle Haggard, Down Every Road, disc 1
  24. Billy Bang, Vietnam: The Aftermath
  25. Tom T. Hall, We All Got Together And….
  26. Camper Van Beethoven, Telephone Free Landing
  27. Angel Olsen, Big Time
  28. Lydia Loveless, Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way
  29. Greg Brown, One More Goodnight Kiss
  30. Jason Isbell, Weathervanes
  31. Butch Hancock, West Texas Waltzes
  32. Wussy, Left for Dead
  33. John Moreland, Birds in the Ceiling
  34. Yo La Tengo, I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick Your Ass
  35. Rodney Crowell, Ain’t Living Long Like This
  36. Drive By Truckers, The Unraveling
  37. Old 97s, Too Far to Care
  38. Harriet Tubman, Araminta
  39. Fauxe, Ikhlas
  40. Meridian Brothers, Salvadora Robot
  41. Charlotte Adigery and Bolis Pupul, Topical Dancer
  42. Wet Leg, self-titled
  43. Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins
  44. Johnny Paycheck, On His Way (x2)
  45. Kasey Chambers, Barricades and Brickwalls
  46. Amanda Shires, Down Fell the Doves
  47. Nina Nastasia, Riderless Horse
  48. Peter Gabriel, Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ
  49. Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues
  50. Neil Young, Hitchhiker
  51. Bill Frisell, The Intercontinentals
  52. John Coltrane, Traneing-In
  53. Jerome Harris, Hidden in Plain View
  54. Sam Rivers, Waves
  55. Tom T. Hall, I Witness Life
  56. Robbie Fulks, Bluegrass Vacation
  57. Dolly Parton, Jolene
  58. Iggy Pop & James Williamson, Kill City
  59. Wussy, Getting Better
  60. Noname, Room 25
  61. Lone Justice, The Western Tapes
  62. Midnight Oil, Blue Sky Mining
  63. Frank Lowe, Fresh
  64. David S. Ware, Go See the World
  65. Radney Foster, Del Rio, TX, 1959
  66. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You
  67. Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things
  68. William Parker, Winter’s Painter
  69. Buena Vista Social Club
  70. Doc Watson, Southbound
  71. Raye Zaragoza, Woman in Color
  72. Spider John Koerner, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Been
  73. Angaleena Presley, Wrangled
  74. Old Crow Medicine Show, Tennessee Pusher
  75. The Freight Hoppers, Waiting on the Gravy Train
  76. Prince, Purple Rain
  77. Richard Thompson, Mock Tudor
  78. Steve Earle, El Corazon
  79. Ana Tijoux, 1977
  80. Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
  81. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
  82. Silver Jews, Starlite Walker
  83. Pavement, Terror Twilight
  84. Doug Sahm, Doug Sahm & Band
  85. Old 97s, Satellite Rides
  86. Rusty and Doug Kershaw, Louisiana Man
  87. John Coltrane, Ole
  88. John Prine, Sweet Revenge
  89. The Bug, Fire
  90. Jethro Tull, Warchild
  91. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Theory of Ice
  92. Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages
  93. Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal
  94. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, The Mountain
  95. H.C. McEntire, Eno Axis
  96. Peter Rowan, Texican Badman
  97. Wussy, Funeral Dress II
  98. Cracker, From Berkeley to Bakersfield, disc 1
  99. The Who, Live at Leeds (the good disc, not the one with that Tommy crap)
  100. Sleater-Kinney, The Woods
  101. The Music of Islam, Vol. 1: Al-Qahirah, Classical Music of Cairo, Egypt
  102. Dale Watson, From the Start

Album Reviews, mostly 2023 albums so I can have a more reasonable top 10 list coming:

Gold Panda, The Work

Surprisingly warm electronic album. I can’t see why I would listen to this by choice–if I want warm instrumental music, jazz will do just fine thank you and it is played by people on real instruments to boot. But within what I consider to be the pretty sharp confines of modern electronic music, this ain’t bad at all.


Ruen Brothers, Ten Paces

A kind of weird version of a British Americana. Not that British Americana is weird, that’s existed basically ever since the English realized how much better American folk traditions were than their own in the early 60s. But this is just kinda odd. This band has a rather theatrical singing style that you don’t see often in anything considered Americana. Which I grant you is a worthless name to describe anything, but it’s what we have these days. I think what really works here is that this is clearly music borrowed from American traditions, especially country, but it isn’t just interpreted through a couple of northern English rock and roll boys but that specifically English version of rock is central to the music. Plus the vocals are different than what you might expect. Merciful lack of folkie strumming and whispered vocals on pastoral subjects. “Hi-Yo” is a real favorite here.


Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension

Darcy is an official Friend of the Blog, but I am not biased when I say that he is one of the most important voices in jazz in the last two decades. He has the Grammy to prove it too. Unlike most jazz legends, he doesn’t put out that many albums. As a composer and conductor, he is crafting these songs to our collective past and present with great care over a series of years. So it had been seven years since his astounding and prescient Real Enemies came out, timing the rise of Trump with a jazz album on conspiracy theories.

The wait was worth it. Dynamic Maximum Tension is another fantastic release. I don’t know if he would like this description, but he’s a deeply postmodernist composer to my ears, by which I mean the mashing of styles is very in your face and used to multiple effects that replicates a postmodern era. But his interests in writing are rooted very much in modernist figures–Buckminster Fuller, Mae West, Alan Turing, Levon Helm, Duke Ellington. In doing so, he has created a deeply felt masterpiece that doesn’t just require multiple listenings to understand, but insistently demands them and then forces you into it by the sheer compelling nature of the work. Astounding. Also, great collaboration with Cecile McLorin Savant.


Land of Talk, Performances

Pretty boring singer-songwriter stuff from this Canadian band. The lyrics aren’t compelling enough to make up for the rote arrangements and general quietude. This is just too common among young women artists these days. Self-lacerating whispered lyrics that sound like they were recorded in a confession booth. I guess there’s a market for it. But you can be happy! Also, you can turn up the guitars! At least occasionally there’s some beats.


Shonen Knife, Our Best Place

It’s a Shonen Knife album. It’s pretty good punk, it’s funny, and it’s, I don’t know, it’s another Shonen Knife album. You know it before you hear it. “Spicy Veggie Curry” also made me hungry.


Brandy Clark, Brandy Clark

Clark is a fantastic fucking songwriter and a damn fine singer too. She’s also from Morton, Washington, a tiny town in the southwestern part of the state. My town is bigger than Morton, but when I heard “Northwest,” about going back to her town, it hit me like a truck. Is this me succumbing to a nostalgia that I usually abhor? It is, but I am human too. Plus it’s home and home has deep meanings in human life. Especially when you come from a place like the Pacific Northwest.

This is Clark’s 4th album, though it’s the self-titled one. Working with the other queer Brandi(y) of country music, producer Brandi Carlisle, who also appears on one song, Clark has created an album of deeply intimate songs about sex, love, music, and modern life. It’s a country album, more or less, but it’s also a work accessible across genres.

Also, key lesson of the opening song: you can murder the motherfucker who sexually abused you, but the killing isn’t going to end the pain. And yet, you are really glad you did it. Good lesson.


Mon Laferte, Seis

I am super glad I finally listened to this 2021 album by the Chilean but now Mexican singer. She brings Latin American folk music traditions into the present, especially those of Mexico, with often politically radical lyrics and a hatred of the right-wing elites who have run Latin America into the ground in so many nations. She’s a fantastic singer. For this album, she channeled the great Mexican singer Chavela Vargas to create new songs that take her classic mid-century vocal style and bring it to contemporary topics, but still mostly about love, lost love, the bad treatment of women, and other staples of that genre. This is super cool stuff. It sounds great. I happen to love mid-century Mexican music, so this might be an easy sell to me, but it’s as listenable and fun as any Buena Vista Social Club project, as a comparison.


Bonnie Prince Billy, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You

Back in the mid 90s, I wasn’t listening to a lot of new rock and roll. I kinda moved from the classic rock listening that lots of dudes do at that age to the jazz world and then country without much engagement in the indie rock of my era. I still think most of the grunge bands kinda suck, so it might not have just been me at that point in time. But I was listening to the Drag City crowd–Smog, Silver Jews, and Palace. All of those bands and their descendants as the people just started releasing records in their own name in Bill Callahan’s case or under different names in David Berman and Will Oldham’s cases always spoke to me.

Well, Oldham has had a very long career now. He’s a guy in his 50s who started releasing albums 30 years ago. It’s kind of amazing. Also, the relative lack of drugs (though Oldham is a huge weed guy) has led to a lot of these artists still producing pretty good albums, unlike a lot of their predecessors from the 60s and 70s. That very much includes Oldham, who under the Bonnie Prince Billy moniker he’s used since about 2000 or so, has become something of a legend of indie music. What has happened though is that the number of original albums has declined, even though other oddball projects means he’s been around pretty frequently. To say that he’s inconsistent is like saying Werner Herzog is inconsistent. It’s not only true but it’s the most true thing ever. And yet, the highlights are really high, even if some of the project suck. So I was happy to hear the new album and discover it is a very fine and touching release with songs that show continued growth as a songwriter, moving beyond his usual obsessions with sex (“Ease Down the Road” on the album of that title is the prettiest song about fucking your friend’s wife in the car on the road to go see him I’ve ever heard) and death. This is a mature artist making beautiful music, even if the arcaneness of some of the songs still mean they don’t all hit home.


Wednesday, Rat Saw God

Right, OK, this is a new rock and roll band from Asheville that has listened to a fuckton of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse and is making big loud rock that will appeal to Gen Xers as much as it will to the kids. I guess I write that slightly derisively, but I want to be clear that I actually like it a lot. It can be very loud and very riffy and these are good things in Erikland. But there’s a bit of derivation here too, as there so often is with bands that have imbibed so deeply in one particular period of rock history. Bet this rules live though. Also, there is a line about listening to Drive By Truckers songs very loud. And hey, c’mon now, you know that is going to play well in these parts. And “There’s a sex shop off the highway with a biblical name” is some writing. What this band does is want to get the fuck out of small southern towns and they know those towns suck. That’s why they live in Asheville. There’s a legitimate shot that this becomes my most played album in 2024 despite its limitations.


Tracy Nelson, Life Don’t Miss Nobody

Tracy Nelson is a musician’s musician, which is another way of saying she’s never really made any money off of it despite being a recording artist for a half-century. She was a minor but important figure in the San Francisco rock scene of the late 60s, moved heavily into blues and country in the 70s (Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country is a fantastic album), like so many of these people had no career at all in the 80s, and started recording again in the 90s with the roots revival. She’s been around ever since, releasing the occasional album. Now in her late 70s, she keeps moving forward, this time with a new guest-laden album that includes Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball, Charlie Musselwhite, and Mickey Raphael, among others.

Now, I don’t usually care that much for white blues people of the 60s. It gets so goddamned cliched. But Nelson is such an outstandingly soulful singer that she pulls it off for me. I do prefer her in country mode, but she’s really a blues singer and always has been. The quality of this is somewhat up and down and really depends on the song. As an older white woman doing her version of songs out of the Black tradition though (as well as one Hank, one Foster, and a couple songs she wrote), it is good enough.


Slowdive, Everything is Alive

Yeah, I never really did get this band and I don’t really care for the new album either. I have no objection to shoegaze as a form (if one can really call it a form rather a vague adjective that gets thrown around now and then), but if there’s one thing that does not do it for me, it is long instrumental pieces that don’t go anywhere, or instrumental pieces with vocals deep down in the mix that don’t serve much purpose except being backing vocals without a lead Because at that point, you end up being compared to other artists that also do instrumental music who are better musicians and more visionary than you are and this ends up just sounding boring. It may simply be that people who want to play rock and roll should listen to less John Cale.


Hozier, Unreal Unearth

The latest Irish folkie rock dude. Being Irish always gets you a blarney bonus from popular audiences in the Anglophone world. And I’m not surprised really, he sings very earnest folk music that sometimes gets turned up and has some big beats and maybe even some electronic touches. But nothing too out there. Nope, this fits real comfortable into a broad taste. Whether that’s your taste or not depends on you, but this was too background music for my tastes. If you are a Coldplay fan, a) don’t admit that publicly and b) you’ll probably like this album.


Kris Davis, Diatom Ribbons: Live at the Village Vanguard

After those last two albums, I really needed something that didn’t suck. The new Kris Davis project definitely filled that role. This was fantastic. The band is the reason–Davis on piano, Terri Lynne Carrington on drums, Julian Lage on guitar, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Val Jeanty on turntables and electronics. In some ways, it is Jeanty who takes this over the top, even though he’s the one I know the least about and the others are all completely genuises (I’ve seen Davis and Dunn and very briefly Lage). The use of turntables in the jazz scene has been around since at least the 80s but has largely remained a rare thing. Every time I’ve seen this live, it has added a ton of the atmosphere and it sure does in this live performance too. But of course much of it is also Davis’ compositions. He writes so broadly. Some of these are almost rockers, some are mid-tempo, some are balladesque. They all give a ton of space for interplay between the musicians, while being tightly controlled enough that it doesn’t turn into a noise fest of lengthy proportions. Both sets included here include covers of Wayne Shorter’s “Dolores” and there’s a Ronald Shannon Jackson cover as well. There’s also vocal overdubs from the past, including from the great composers Olivier Messaien and Karlheinz Stockhausen. This is, in short, a masterful piece of art. I’d really love to see this live.


Steve Lehman, Ex Machina

One last album for 2023 and that’s the new work by Steve Lehman, the saxophonist and composer. Here he writes for a big band, played by Orchestre National de Jazz. Lehman also brings a lot of computerized sounds into this, so this is an unusual listen. The large orchestra format thus builds upon the squeaks of Lehman’s sax and the otherworldly soundscapes he’s written for the computer. Then the thing gets larger and larger through the various songs as the orchestra kicks in. Lehman really is one of the most advanced composers working today in jazz and in many ways, it feels he is more of a modernist orchestral composer than a jazzman. This is some high-concept stuff, but presented in a reasonably populist way, at least for modern jazz/classical. Among the featured musicians outside the orchestra are the trumpeter Jonathan Finalyson, who has played on so many albums discussed here over the years, and the vibraphonist Chris Dingman.

There’s something else fascinating about this album–it used artificial intelligence to help create the composition. So I guess Lehman is playing around with AI now. That makes sense, as he has always looked to new frontiers in his music. Lehman gives an interview about the use of AI here and I imagine that will interest a number of readers. I have to think about all this more myself, though I guess I don’t really care one way or another. It’s up to the composer what they want to use to create their music.

Anyway, this isn’t quite among my very favorite jazz albums of the year, but it’s in the batch just below them. It’s quite good and I am sure I will buy it.


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

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