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Last weekend was Big Ears, which for me and many others is far and away the best music festival in America. Approaching this festival for a second time, I took a somewhat more relaxed attitude toward it. The biggest reason for that is that there were fewer sets that I HAD TO SEE. Last year, John Zorn had two days to work and William Parker had a couple of sets and those were simply not missable. This year, there was merely a zillion shows I wanted to see but fewer where I would cry if I missed them. In some ways, it made for a more fun, if slightly less mind-blowing weekend.

There are many different Big Ears. Reading different critics and what they saw is a good way to get at that for me, because their festivals were often different than my own. A lot of this is the brutally difficult choices that happen at least once a day, when there are three sets all happening at the same time and you would pay a ton of money to see any of them on their own, but in the end you have to make a choice. Sure, there is set-hopping happening all the time, but at the top end of your priorities, you just aren’t going to miss any part of those given sets.

I saw 26 sets in 4 days, which I think was 2 lower than last year, largely based on the principle of eating better and not staying out until 1 AM to see the final set when you were operating on 6 hours of sleep to begin with (I like my sleep). Let’s run through them real quick:

Thursday:

Thursday started real hot, with Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus. Threadgill was one of the featured artists this year and I had never seen him so I was pretty excited. As it turns out, a bunch of the bands here were things he put together but where he doesn’t play. He likes to decide on people who should play together. This was one of those bands. He was there, hanging out, cheering them on. He looks pretty good for his age too. But I didn’t get to see him play. That would have to wait an entire extra day. That said, this was freaking good. You had Brandon Ross and Miles Okazaki on guitars, Marcus Rojas and Jose Davila on tuba, Gene Lake on drums, and Noah Becker on saxophone. The double tuba and no bass set up was really fun. Ross and Okazaki are both ridiculously good on guitar.

I had a bit of time between things I had to see, so I decided to check out a bit of Third Coast Percussion, which is a group performing a lot of contemporary orchestral works but also pop songs, all on percussion. These guys can really play, but I thought the whole thing pretty gimmicky. Let’s get people into this music by all of us charismatically banging on the same giant vibraphone! The electronic musician JLin did show up for a song, so I guess I can say I saw her. But it was one of three shows that I popped into between things I wanted to see that I found to be pretty whatever. Didn’t have a lot of luck on that side of the festival this time.

Much better was Amythyst Kiah. I saw more folk/country/rock this time than last year. Kiah, best known for her work on Our Native Daughters with Rhiannon Giddens and company, played mostly new work from her forthcoming album and it sounded great. The festival is highly skeptical of mainstream country music (for good reason), but is quite welcoming to the burgeoning Black country scene. Kiah is also openly queer and that fits the festival’s mood. She had a nice band and the new material sounds real good. I had seen her very briefly once before, as part of a larger project Allison Russell organized to close the Newport Folk Festival, but I had never seen her do her thing, not really. So that was nice.

Then……well, I saw Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief perform her new solo album the day before it dropped. My friends, this was a treat. You had 1,000 people or more and you could hear a pindrop as she sang her amazing songs. I was wondering, is this what seeing Dylan was like in the 60s? Her work is so strong, her songwriting so touching, her persona so vulnerable and yet so tough. This was among the finest shows I have ever seen in the single person with a guitar genre, and I have seen a lot of that stuff. Her lyrical structures just have so much power, singing a line early in a song and then bringing back later in the song to devastating emotional effect. I had chills.

I closed the day by seeing one of my all-time heroes for the first time. That was Fred Frith. He was another featured artist here, but the schedule was so packed with awesome that I only saw this show. Here he was playing with his kick ass trio (see Another Day in Fucking Paradise for an amazing album of what these guys sound like), plus a trumpeter who I didn’t catch her name. I only wish I had gotten out of the Lenker show sooner to be closer to the stage, but yeah, that was some good noise.

Friday:

Got to the festival nice and early on Friday to make sure I was at the front of the stage for Hurray for the Riff Raff. They put on a fantastic show and I had never seen them before. Seeing someone like that at 12:30 PM is a little early! But they owned it, came out, and put on a kick ass roots rock show. Alynda Seggara is a queen. Incidentally, when thinking about choices at the festival, this was up against Christian McBride & Edgar Mayer doing a duo bass show AND Jason Moran’s amazing Harlem Hellfighters project. Luckily, I had seen the Moran project before, but this is the kind of thing you have to choose between.

After the Hurray show, I went to see a bit of Joanna Sternberg’s folk set on recommendation from a friend I trust, but I didn’t like it much. I don’t go for the childlike folkie thing of self-lacerating lyrics. Think of Daniel Johnston or The Moldy Peaches, not acts I like at all. Meh, left after a few songs.

It was easier to leave that when I got to see Brandon Ross (seen the previous day in the Threadgill set) do his own project Phantom Station (and yes, I chose this over seeing John Paul Jones, another featured artist, doing Zeppelin songs on his weird guitars). This project has Graham Haynes – cornet, electronics, David Virelles – keyboards, piano, JT Lewis – drums, and Hardedge – soundesign. It is just wonderful guitar-based funky free jazz.

Then I finally saw Threadgill play for real, in his Zooid project. This was him with Elliott Humberto Kavee, Liberty Ellman, Christopher Hoffman, and Jose Davila. The master on his flute and saxophone with his beautiful compositions. I was sitting there, as I often was in this festival, kind of amazed that I am here and seeing this wonderful music.

From there, I went to Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, the hottest bluegrass band in the nation right now. I had seen them once before, in an abbreviated set for a taping of Mountain Stage. So it was fun to see them do their bigger thing. Mostly, it’s great. Tuttle is fantastic on the vocals and the band is crazy tight. They are little hippieish for me. They don’t go too far into the jam band bullshit like Billy Strings, but there’s some of that. A lot of drug songs too, and I guess I don’t care, though I’m not totally sure I ever needed to hear a bluegrass cover of “White Rabbit.” Still, I’d see them again with pleasure.

Took a bit of break after that to get some food and a beer and then went to the Tomeka Reid Quartet set. I wasn’t going to see that, simply because I had seen it in February. But I talked it up so much to my friends that I just went along anyway. Doing this again, it is great to see Tomas Fujiwara actually beat the shit out of his drums, because usually he’s a reserved player. Reid is just the greatest cellist and Mary Halvorson on guitar, who doesn’t want to see that again?

Then we headed over to the Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet. This was a fun one for me. I had seen this band, with its unusual inclusion of a bassoon, back in about 2006 in Albuquerque, one of the rare interesting jazz shows to make it to New Mexico. I loved it and Way Out East has been a favorite album of mine ever since. It really bridges jazz and contemporary classical in the most beautiful way. Horvitz brought it back out of respect and memory of the great Ron Miles, who played trumpet in that band. I am not sure who the trumpeter was that night–it was announced as TBD and I didn’t catch the name in the announcement (always the problem of people clapping), but he was great and they make such beautiful music together. Seeing it in a church just seemed right.

From there is was the first of three Rhiannon Giddens sets and yep, I saw all three. This was mostly based around her new album and here she had a full band. Of course she genre-jumps song to song so there was her slavery-based songs and then hey, let’s play some Cajun music and let the fiddler take the lead. Somehow, although this was great, it way less incredible than the other two sets. Again, that’s what happens here. More on this shortly.

We closed Friday by seeing Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. We should note that Darcy is a Friend of the Blog and I actually met him at Lemieux’s wedding many years ago, so this had some personal excitement too. It was fantastic. You just don’t see big bands, if for no other reason than the finances of them make no sense at all. Argue is not only a great conductor and bandleader, but he’s also funny. When introducing his piece about the vile Erik Prince, he called him “the Zelig of fuckery,” which I will have to remember. Playing mostly new material off the latest album but a few older bits too, he demonstrated what a collaborative band can really look like. Everyone (or almost everyone) got their featured solos up front and while the 35 minute piece was long for midnight, I left with my mind totally blown.

Saturday:

One of things I really wanted to see came out of one of my very favorite subgenres of live music–live performances of music to silent films. In this case, it was the Chinese musician Min Xiao-Fien and the percussionist River Guerguerian doing live music to a couple of great Chinese silents from the 20s, one a comedy and the other a romance. How bad did I want to see this? I chose it over Kronos Quartet and Christian McBride playing with Brad Mehldau. I regret not seeing those shows, but I have no regrets over seeing this one. The musicians were great and plus I love old Chinese instruments. Very, very fun. I really wanted to see Kronos, but I really wanted to see this more. It was niche! But it was cool as shit!

Then I saw a little bit of one of the John Paul Jones shows, this with his Sons of Chipotle project with the cellist Anssi Karttunen. Jones is on piano for this project and they played some pretty challenging compositions. I am not sure the Zeppelin fans were that trilled with it. I thought it was fine. It was worth seeing half the set. At least I can say I saw a member of Led Zeppelin play live.

More exciting to me personally and one of my top shows for this year was Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet, which is an all-female all-star band doing Melford’s amazing compositions. That included Mary Halvorson on guitar, Tomeka Reid on cello, Ingrid Laubrock on sax, and Lesley Mok on drums. I had seen Halvorson and Reid many times and Laubrock once, but never Mok or Melford. Given that Melford is one of my favorite pianists, I was super pumped about this show and it completely exceeded my expectations.

Then, with a bit of a gap in the schedule for me, I went to see Horse Lords. It was terrible prog rock. Most prog rock is so pointless and bad. Then when you put it in a jazz festival? These guys just can’t hang. The drummer was good. But the guitars were just these droning things that did nothing interesting. It was vaguely interesting for 15 minutes. I tried to hang, but as soon as my friends were like, this sucks, I was very glad to get the hell out of there. Easily the worst show I saw.

Considering that we went from there to see Dave Holland play, it was even more ridiculous. Holland was another person I was seeing for the first time and it was somehow even better than I thought it would be. He’s a bit in the mainstream for what I usually listen to but I’ve always respected his work and was very happy to see him hammer that bass live. He here was playing with Kris Davis on piano, Jaleel Shaw on alto, and Nasheet Waits on drums. It was fun to see all these people, especially Waits. Really a very fine jazz show that a lot of people were happy to see. Beat the hell out of Horse Lords, that’s for sure.

Then, after missing another of Threadgill’s all star bands because in the end I just needed some food and some sitting time and a few minutes of watching hoops, I went to see Rhiannon Giddens with her husband and frequent collaborator Francesco Turrisi and….Christian McBride. Yep, Giddens and McBride playing off each other, two very different Black artists who totally love playing together doing their thing, man….And I had never seen McBride before either somehow. He was, not surprisingly, outstanding to see live. As for Turrisi, he’s a completely capable multi-instrumentalist, but as my buddy said, he’s the spousal hire. I laughed. It’s true. But if he makes his wife happy, then fine. There were a few sound issues here and the first time I saw Giddens, at a little folk festival in Rhode Island, I could see her blow up at the sound people (who had really fucked up) between songs. So hopefully things were OK back stage when she went back to talk to them! But it was a highly minor problem in a beautifully run festival.

Then came Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, which was so awesome. Ribot is a great guitarist, maybe the best living. He’s also a horrible singer and there is lots of him singing in this project. He doesn’t care and neither do I, not when the band is playing this amazing jazz-based rock and roll, with Ches Smith being a complete animal on his drum kit and Shahzad Ismaily on bass. Here, they combined jazz, rock, disco, and whatever else came to mind into a super powerful set of music. This really put the shame to a band like Horse Lords. Jazz guys messing around with something that one might call prog rock simply puts the lie to the idea that these actual prog rock bands are very good because they aren’t as interesting nor as proficient with the music as the jazz guys. God, this ruled.

Finally, we closed this astounding day by catching the last half of the Bonnie Prince Billy set. It was really a perfect way to end the day. Will Oldham was on his less weird side and was just playing songs and talking about them like a relatively normal musician. Walked in to him playing “I See a Darkness,” which about made me want to cry and then he played mostly his newer music from Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You. It was just lovely. Then it was time for bed.

Sunday:

Ok, was pretty tired by now!

That said, was I going to miss Rhiannon Giddens and the Silk Road Ensemble (now one of her many projects after she revived what was Yo-Yo Ma’s project) in their American railroad project? C’mon, no way. And that includes choosing it over another Threadgill show and Ches Smith’s Laugh Ash, both of which I am sure were astounding. But among other things, I was professionally required to see this project. There is so much history in Giddens’ work that I feel I should be able to write the expenses of seeing her off my taxes. Silkroad always did bring amazing musicians together from around the world so this include an indigenous singer, Japanese drummer, tabla, cello, and a bunch of other things. Such a profound meditation on the American past. Plus a killer closer of “She’s Got You,” made famous by Patsy Cline, though Hank Cochran wrote it, as Giddens was sure to point out. Again, I was like HOW I AM EVEN SEEING THIS?????

Then it was Fatoumata Diawara, the amazing singer from Mali. She can definitely deliver the goods. I was a bit less thrilled about her using canned backing vocals, though I suppose getting backing vocalists into the US isn’t so economically smart. Wasn’t my favorite show, but it was neat to see her.

Then I wandered over and caught the second half of the Henry Threadgill/Vijay Iyer/Dafnis Prieto set. Now I was really struggling to stay awake by this time, but seeing Threadgill and Iyer play off each other was something I knew I would never see again. Iyer was so pumped to be playing with him. Much of the festival was really a giant love fest to this aging master.

To close, I saw Ahlechatistas, which is a kind of prog/metal/jazz project out of the John Zorn universe fronted by the guitarist Shane Parrish, with Trevor Dunn on bass, and Danny Piechocki on drums. It was good, heavy music. 20 minutes was enough, but I can say that this is technically really skilled band.

I was going to try and catch some of the John Paul Jones/Thurston Moore show before I left to get a good sleep before a 10 mile hike up in Big South Fork National Recreation Area (astoundingly beautiful) the next day. But it was running way later than any Big Ears show ever does. I am going to blame Moore still being an old man-baby, even though he’s like 70 years old. Anyway, it was time.

There were so many shows I missed. But…..it’s such a great festival. Just a great time. One thing I didn’t like is that when the festival got Andre3000 to do a bunch of shows of his flute music, they had an extra charge if you wanted to go. I didn’t really care to see him fuck around on flute anyway, but the idea of paying this money and then having shows that cost even more, that just sat real bad on my stomach. Don’t do that. If you have to charge more, just charge more.

Anyway, see you all in Knoxville next year!

Playlist for the last few weeks or so, basically the month of March:

  1. The Dillards, Back Porch Bluegrass
  2. Tom Russell, Borderland
  3. Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward
  4. Tomeka Reid Quartet, Old New
  5. Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud
  6. Tom Waits, Bone Machine
  7. Merle Haggard, I’m Always on a Mountain
  8. William Onyeabor, Atomic Bomb
  9. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
  10. Bradley Walker, Highway of Dreams
  11. Leyla McCalla, Breaking the Thermometer
  12. Lorelle Meets the Obsolete, Datura
  13. Jazmine Sullivan, Heaux Tales
  14. Silver Jews, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
  15. Leonard Cohen, Various Positions
  16. Dwight Yoakam, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room
  17. Neil Young, Zuma
  18. Buck Owens, Together Again
  19. Drive By Truckers, The Big To Do
  20. Old 97s, Satellite Rides
  21. James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds
  22. Soccer Mommy, Clean
  23. Alejandro Escovedo, More Miles than Money
  24. V/A., High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  25. Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz
  26. Herbie Hancock, Speak Like a Child
  27. Bonnie Prince Billy, Master and Everyone
  28. Waylon Jennings, Waylon Live, disc 1
  29. Sonic Youth, Dirty
  30. Drive By Truckers, Go Go Boots
  31. The Gourds, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig
  32. Doug Sahm, Doug Sahm and Band
  33. Gil Scott-Heron, Pieces of a Man
  34. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man
  35. Joe Ely, Honky Tonk Masquerade
  36. Stevie Wonder, Talking Book
  37. Gibson Brothers, Bona Fide
  38. Neil Young, After the Gold Rush
  39. Delta 5, Singles and Sessions
  40. Tony Williams Lifetime, Emergency
  41. Sam Rivers, Streams
  42. Gene Clark, No Other
  43. X, Wild Gift
  44. The Coathangers, Suck My Shirt
  45. Plains, I Walked With You a Ways
  46. Merle Haggard, Down Every Road, disc 3
  47. Wussy, Funeral Dress II
  48. John Moreland, High on Tulsa Heat
  49. Emmylou Harris, Elite Hotel
  50. Jason Isbell, Something More than Free
  51. Flatt & Scruggs, The Story of Bonnie & Clyde
  52. Bill Frisell, Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: The High Sign/One Week
  53. Myra Melford Trio, Alive in the House of the Saints
  54. Gerald Cleaver & Violet Hour, Live at Firehouse 12
  55. Iggy Pop & James Williamson, Kill City
  56. Tom Russell, Love & Fear
  57. Chris Stapleton, From a Room, Vol. 2
  58. Gang of Four, Entertainment
  59. Terry Allen, Salivation
  60. Elizabeth Cook, Welder
  61. Caitlin Cary, While You Weren’t Looking
  62. Torres, self-titled
  63. Tom T. Hall, The Storyteller
  64. Wayne Hancock, Swing Time
  65. Lydia Loveless, Daughter
  66. Bobby Bare, Great American Saturday Night
  67. The Coathangers, Parasite
  68. Poppy Ackroyd, Resolve
  69. Tracy Nelson, Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country
  70. Brandy Clark, self-titled
  71. William Parker, For Those Who Are, Still
  72. Fontaines, D.C., A Hero’s Death
  73. Blood Lemon, self-titled
  74. The Bug, Split
  75. Robbie Fulks and Linda Gayle Lewis, Wild! Wild! Wild!
  76. Torres, Thirstier
  77. No Thank You, Embroidered Foilage
  78. Yves Tumor, Safe in the Hands of Love
  79. Jason Isbell, Weathervanes
  80. Waxahatchee, Tigers Blood
  81. Leon Bridges, Good Thing
  82. Yo La Tengo, There’s a Riot Going On
  83. Jose Gonzalez, Local Valley
  84. Konono No. 1 Meets Batida, Konono No. 1
  85. Bill Callahan and Bonnie Prince Billy, Blind Date Party
  86. Henry Kaiser and Ed Pettersen, We Call All Times Soon
  87. Yola, Walk Through Fire
  88. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Way Down in the Rust Bucket
  89. Tyler Childers, Country Squire
  90. Patsy Montana, Best of
  91. Tacocat, Lost Time
  92. Miles Davis, Agharta, disc 1
  93. John Zorn/Masada, Bar Kokhba, disc 1
  94. The Decembrists, The Crane Wife
  95. Joanna Newsom, Divers
  96. Hamid Drake/Joe McPhee, Emancipation Proclamation
  97. Illegal Crowns, self-titled
  98. Richard Thompson, Watching the Dark, disc 3
  99. Mourn, self-titled
  100. Jerry Lee Lewis, The Knox Phillips Sessions

Album Reviews:

Magdalena Hoffmann, Nightscapes

I certainly don’t listen to a lot of classical albums and I really don’t listen to a lot of solo harp interpretations. So I have no ability to talk about this album effectively except to say that is a very nice listen that works both as something to listen to intensely or if you are looking to read or write or something where you might want the music more in the background. This has proven quite popular; her version of Chopin’s “Waltz No 19 in A Minor” has over 11 million plays of Spotify, which is a lot for classical music and for which she has probably made about a quarter. There’s some other Chopin on here too, but there’s also a lot of Benjamin Britten, as well as some John Field, Ottorino Respighi, Fred Hersch, Henriette Renié, Jean-Michael Damase, Marcel Tournier, and Ildebrando Pizzetti.

A-

Nothing, The Great Dismal

Not terrible, but rather tedious “post-shoegaze,” which seems to be cutting the ham a bit too thin. I certainly don’t mind the guitars, but it is ponderous in a way that becomes boring. Actually that describes too much shoegaze generally. Boring.

B-

James Brandon Lewis, Eye of I

Astoundingly beautiful and soulful free jazz. He is rapidly becoming perhaps my favorite active saxophonist. His ability to combine the modern experimentation with a soul that sounds like it came from New Orleans jazz is almost unprecedented. This has Chris Hoffman on electric cello (why don’t we see more of this?) and Max Jaffe on drums and other percussion. They do his compositions and then also Donny Hathaway’s classic “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” which is fun. There’s so much energy and love here. This would have been close to the top of my 2023 album list had I heard it before now.

Incidentally, I am seeing his new project with the Fugazi rhythm section soon. Am very excited.

A

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the Garden

Now this is interesting! I only knew a bit about Roberts by reputation before this, but I am so intrigued to hear the rest of this Coin Coin series. Basically, this is a jazz and spoken word composition about a Black woman receiving an illegal abortion. Roberts is a saxophonist and on this horn-heavy large group, we also get to hear Darius Jones and Matt Lavelle, among others. Let me just quote the Bandcamp description:

Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the garden… is the latest instalment in composer, improviser, saxophonist, and visual artist Matana Roberts’ visionary project exploring African-American history through ancestry, archive and place. Weaving together elements of jazz, avant-garde composition, folk and spoken word, Roberts tells the story of a woman in their ancestral line, who died following complications from an illegal abortion. At a time when reproductive rights are under attack, her story takes on new resonance. “I wanted to talk about this issue, but in a way where she gets some sense of liberation,” Roberts explains. By unpacking family stories and conducting extensive research in US public archives, Roberts has created a rounded portrait of a woman who is, as their lyrics put it, “electric, alive, spirited, fire and free.”

If that doesn’t sound like something you’d want to hear, assuming you like jazz even a little bit, I don’t know why you are even reading these posts. What I can add is that both the spoken word material and the music are incredibly powerful, with everything from pure free jazz to rock to minimalism showing up here. Politically amazing, but musically so too. Just listen. Evidently, there will be more chapters of this, including exploring the indigenous side of Roberts’ ancestors.

A

Debit, The Long Count

It’s rare that you hear something entirely new but this about does it. Debit is a Mexican-American electronic musician (real name is Delia Beatriz). She was interested in the sounds made by the pyramid at Chichen Itza that was engineered to make sounds when you put your hands to it and which was central to Mayan rituals at that site, as well as the lost instruments of the Maya, which are described by archaeologists, but which exist today only in those collections. Debit has long been something of an outlier in the club scene and this can’t be described as club music at all. Here, she created electronic music based on what all of this might have sounded like and trying to recreate Mayan musical scales.

It’s fascinating and certainly worthy. It also sounds pretty New Age, which really limits its effectiveness in my view. I respect everything about the project, but am indifferent to the final result.

B-

Yelena Eckemoff, Adventures of the Wildflower

A completely fine, but very very long album that is a collaboration between Eckemoff and a group of Finnish musicians she has worked with over the last several years. At 35 minutes or so, this would have been relatively compelling. At 2 hours, c’mon, let’s edit ourselves unless we really have something to say. I would not say there is that much to say here.

B

Whit Dickey/William Parker/Matthew Shipp, Village Mothership

This was hard to review. Dickey, Shipp, and Parker have played together on like 50 albums (it wouldn’t surprise me if the number actually is close to that). They play together all the time. The question is how to rate that much work with each other. I think we have to use a different standard than we would normally. It has to be how it compares to the rest of their work. So while for a lot of really quite good jazz musicians, this would be an exceptional recording, for these masters, it doesn’t really rise to the level of their best work. There’s no real obvious reason why. It’s just that it’s fine in comparison with the rest of the work, but not better than that.

There’s no YouTube link to anything off this album, so here’s these three greats playing with the late, great David S. Ware.

 

B+

Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter, SuperBlue: The Irisdescent Spree

This isn’t per se my thing, but I can see why people like it. Elling is a very good vocalist of course. Hunter is an astounding guitarist. I used to see him play in different bands in college. In fact, he’s the first jazz musician I saw play multiple shows since he was in San Francisco and he used to play in Portland and even Eugene frequently. He is a funky ass player and it works well here. My only objection here, and it is strictly a personal aesthetic preference, is that this kind of funky jazz singing isn’t quite my thing. If it was real soul I think it would be better, but Elling is trying to merge a lot in here with his vocals and song choices. Also, Elling sounds so much like Lyrics Born’s rapping that I keep wondering who I am hearing. However, a lot of you would find this really fantastic and I do recommend it.

B+

MC Yallah, Yallah Beibe

Ugandan hip hop. If hip hop is folk music, which sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, it seems that being able to understand the lyrics is pretty critical to enjoying the music. So yeah, I don’t speak Luganda or Luo and Yallah does. Still, this is some fiery delivery with some highly enjoyable beats and atmospheric music around them. The farther I got into this album, the more I wanted to hear it again and again. I think I will buy it. I’m also curious to hear more off the label–Hakuna Kuala, which does a bunch of stuff around east African and Congolese club music. I sent to a critic friend of mine who some of you read and he said it was like hearing Nicki Minaj without all the baggage. That sounds pretty right to me.

A-

Haken, Fauna

Hmmm….prog metal from an English band. And Jesus Christ this is dumb. The arrangements are cheesy enough, but the vocals are awful, both in terms of lyrics and overwrought delivery. I guess the unifying theme to the album is supposed to be the spirit of animals, but if this represents the spirit of animals, maybe the sixth extinction isn’t such a bad thing.

D

Lisa O’Neill, All of This is Chance

Modern and pretty intense folk singer with a thick Irish accent. Some of this is like trying to listen to my wife’s family in County Kerry pubs and realizing that after they have a couple of pints, the percentage of what I am understanding drops from like 80% to about 30%. But she’s a very compelling singer. No trad blarney bullshit here (though to be fair, I like that when in the right place in Ireland). No, this is someone who is on her own path and doing music that means a ton to her while hewing her own path. You might know her for her cover of Dylan’s “All the Tired Horses” that was played in the last scene of Peaky Blinders. I found her to be a deeply compelling songwriter and an equally compelling singer. “I am frightened of dying… I am frightened of living,” well, doesn’t that describe the universal experience, or close to it?

A-

Panic at the Disco, Viva Las Vengeance

I always kinda avoided this band, thinking it was dumb pop-rock and yep, it is dumb pop-rock. Catchy though, give credit there. But still, pretty dumb.

C

Blues Lawyer, Sight Gags on the Radio

Completely solid EP from completely solid indie rock band. Not going to change your life or change the genre, but it works for what it is. I wish “solid indie rock band” didn’t describe everything you need to know here, but it kinda does.

B

Tomas Fujiwara, Pith

This is credited to Fujiwara alone, but is really is 7 Poets Trio, with Tomeka Reid on cello and Patricia Brennan on vibraphone. Brennan is the real star here. I highly recommend seeing her live if you can. The strength in her hands with how she holds those mallets must be tremendous. I assume she’d bring me to my knees with a handshake, even though she’s a normal sized woman. Even though this is his band, Fujiwara is really restrained with his drumming here. That’s most certainly not a bad thing; anyone who has seen him in other bands knows what he can do, but he’s not looking for a noise fest here. He’s looking for his musicians to have this tender, lovely interplay and he largely succeeds here.

A-

As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things music. And there’s been too much damn off topic shit on my posts lately. Let’s not see it here.

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