Now I Got a Reason (October 15th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I am not sure when music put a hook in my lip, but I was quite young at the time, and it could have been any one of the following moments:

  1. When I received the Banana Splits theme song 45 (I feel like it came out of a cereal box, but I don’t remember–did you know Al Kooper, Barry White, and Gene Pitney contributed music to the show’s soundtrack?).
  2. When I first heard Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy”–my childhood best friend’s dad owned a jukebox stocking and repair shop, and when we’d visit, he’d always let me have a beat-to-hell record, and this was probably the first. I didn’t care about the forest-fire surface noise, and it was probably the first song I memorized. I don’t think I ever flipped it over….
  3. When my parents gave me my first album: Sgt. Pepper’s, of course (that would have been ’70 or ’71). I could not get enough of that one, then I subjected it to a long, long, long period of avoidance, which ended late last year when, after reading a couple Beatle books, I once again found myself infused with affection for it.
  4. When I first heard Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman”–I think my mom had a crush on Glen, thus we had the albums (I tended to stare at Bobbie Gentry on the cover of one of those), thus we watched his show, and…man, I caught the vibe of this song. I think it was the first time I ever heard loneliness. 40 years later, when I read the story of its recording, I ended up playing it every day for about a month.
  5. When I first heard either The Spinners’ “Mighty Love” or Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” on the Carthage Municipal Pool jukebox: the former sounded like pure, unadulterated joy on wax and probably caused my junior and senior high romantic life to be torture, because that was what I expected having a girlfriend to feel and be like (whatta sap!); the latter seemed like I would need decades of research to fully understand, and with a title like that, I just had to play the “B” side instead of the “A.” (What a 45 that was!)

I mean, I can sort out the chronology, but I’m not sure which moment was the one that really struck me with the fever. Most definitely, one of those was the cause.

I bring all of this up because this morning I found myself recalling the moment that ensured the hook of music remained sunk, as it still is and will likely remain, unless I lose my mind, which these days is very much a possibility.

Most of my high school friends probably remember me as a music nut. I wrote reviews for the Carthage High School student newspaper; the first couple enthused about Boston’s Don’t Look Back and Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True. I skipped lunch frequently to spend my money at Ken’s Records, which was just a few blocks from the school and right next door to our favorite lunch joint, so friends often saw me “eating” there. My friend Todd Freeman and I regularly arrived to school early just to man the senior lounge stereo, its speakers wired out into the lobby, and philosophize, girl-watch, and heckle underclassmen–we had an East Coast thing going for some reason, so Springsteen and Billy Joel were our eight-tracks du jour. Even then a drooling Dylanophile, I successfully lobbied to make “Forever Young” the theme of a homecoming dance–o former classmates, please forgive that, for I was young and foolish and my dreck-detector was ill-calibrated! I sat patiently next to my home stereo, cassette tape on “REC” and “PAUSE,” waiting for KSYN in Joplin to play my favorite songs that hadn’t made “Casey Kasem’s American Top 40” yet; back then, kiddies, you had to have the bucks and hope the local shop (if your town even featured one) carried the 45 or album if you wanted a chance to hear it over and over and over again. Speaking of Dylan, I heard “Hurricane” on the radio exactly once on KSYN during my entire high school career, and I didn’t have a blank cassette ready. Once. Why didn’t I just go buy Desire at Ken’s?

A) I wasn’t made of money.

B) I wasn’t yet reading reviews every week, and thus I might not have known it was on Desire.

C) Ken’s might not have carried it, or might have been sold out–I didn’t hear “Hurricane” until way after Desire was released, anyway.

Back then, simple listening on demand did not come easy. We did, though, have KSYN’s late-night show that played new albums in their entirety (thank you, programmers, for Live Rust and for 2112, two seemingly vastly different albums that, come to think of it, have much in common).

Well, that was the good stuff. The frustrating stuff was, I was (and still am) a restless seeker after new sounds and knowledge, and I didn’t then know anyone, really, who was also down for the search. I’m pretty independent–I don’t tend to need much validation for my interests–but you have to admit few moments are more fun than discovering new sources of exaltation, amazement, and enlightenment in good company. Try as I might, I had zero luck enlisting anybody for deep dives into Armed Forces, Darkness on the Edge of Town, London Calling, 1969 Velvet Underground Live, The Essential Jimi Hendrix, Night Moves, Never Mind the Bollocks, or The Basement Tapes. I mentioned Live Rust earlier; elsewhere on this blog, I documented the pain and suffering inflicted upon me when I dared to foist its revelatory content on high school friends (and potential more-than-friends). One can see I wasn’t getting a ton of positive reinforcement, and since my seeking also extended to non-musical paths, the possibility that I might have jumped off the musical hook at some point in the near-future was…distinct.

At the time, music and sports ran neck-and-neck for my attention, with sports leading by a nose. I played basketball, football, soccer, and baseball (very, very poorly and mercifully briefly in the last case); I also ran track, and swam competitively. I wrote almost all of the sports copy for the school paper, as well as covered junior varsity (and some varsity) sports for the local paper, and, most tellingly, when it came to a career, I just wanted to watch, record statistics for, and write about the NBA for a living. I headed off to college at the University of Arkansas with that intention, as well as the promise of a gig as the school’s baseball statistician. With me, I hauled about 19 records (why do I remember that number?) and a faux-leather case of 12 eight-tracks (Queen, Head East, Alice Cooper); if that tableau doesn’t indicate the potential for my musical passions becoming fleeting–or at the least stunted–I’m not sure what would (though I had bought a rubber stamp with my name on it and stamped all my records–that’s a tad strange and obsessive).

So, my parents had dropped me off at Reid Hall–I was clearly an early arrival–I’d gotten comfortable in my dorm room on the fourth floor, a nice breeze was blowing through my open window and door out into the hall…and I decided to just blast something annoying to test the waters and find out as soon as possible if I were indeed going to continue to seek new sounds alone (if, alas, at all). I remember feeling pessimistic about that process continuing. The obvious album for the task was The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. Though I didn’t have a fucking clue about most of what Mr. Rotten was raving about, though I had not yet listened to it with anyone, though it had essentially gotten me kicked out of Sunday school forever a couple years before (that’s another blog post), I thought Bollocks would be the perfect album to blast, mark my territory with, and measure the degree of alienation from my peers I was bound to suffer/cause. I didn’t know Whitman yet, but also, underneath all that bullshit, it was, probably, “Noiseless Patient Spider” time for me. I snapped the eight-track into its slot, turned the knob to seven, and sprawled out on my bed to await the results.

No sooner had those four opening seconds of marching boots led into Steve Jones’ first chord than a dude walked right into my room, pointed at my stereo, cocked his head slightly to one side, and asked (note the implied question!), “Ummm…The Sex Pistols?”

I sat up and said, “Yeah?”

The dude enthusiastically proclaimed, “Hello!” This was not a greeting–that five-letter word, as he used it, would have many meanings, depending on the context, over the course of our still-ongoing friendship. In this case, it was an affirmation.

The dude was from Little Rock. Turned out he was ensconced with his cousin Bruce in the dorm room next to mine. He was distinctly not angry with my selection or the stereo volume.

“I’m Kenny. You heard of The Ramones?” he asked.

“Well, some kids I never met spray-painted that name on the baseball stadium wall in my hometown, but no.” (Ken’s did not carry Ramones records as far as I knew, but I also hadn’t yet read about them.)

“We can fix that. Are these your records? Hello, eight-tracks!”

“Yep.”

“Ooooooooooh. Elvis Costello!”

Soon, we were over in his room. Kenny introduced me to Bruce, slapped on a record, and I quickly realized The Ramones were a subject for serious further research.

His vaguely dangerous-seeming cousin was into Sabbath, whom I knew well, but also Funkadelic and Jerry Clower (HAW!) and Monty Python, whom I didn’t. And that wasn’t all. Without checking with us, Bruce took Leave Home off the turntable and replaced it with a yellow-covered album he’d snatched so quickly out of a nearby crate I couldn’t make out the other artistic details. Waggling his eyebrows and darting his eyes about manically, he lowered the needle into the record’s groove. Sounds from a deeply weird space slithered out of Kenny’s speakers, and Bruce launched into an almost threatening solo dance, at which point I took a step backwards:

 

If you haven’t already deduced it, this was the moment I hearkened back to this morning. I honestly think it not only re-set the musical hook in my lip, but also insured that music wouldn’t just be a hobby for me–that I’d ride that line like the shark in Jaws. Before long, I got bored with baseball stats and found myself rifling through the university bookstore’s handy cut-out bin for Kinks and Howlin’ Wolf records. I didn’t end up sitting at an NBA scorer’s table, but I did end up playing in three bands (absolutely unaccountably–I’d never imagined the possibility). My writing was diverted from a sports focus to a near-exclusive attention to records, whether I was knocking out an essay for a course (I became very adept at manipulating my professors’ assignments to allow for that subject), scribbling lyrics on the back of a Taco Bell sack before a gig, writing reviews for college newspapers and Xeroxed fanzines–or designing assignments for the English classes I ended up teaching for 35 years (and counting).

I’ve always been deeply impressed by the power and significance of chance, and one thing that stereo-cranking on the fourth floor of Reid Hall taught me is that you can best take advantage of chance’s bounty by putting yourself (or, rather, your self) out there. Kenny, Bruce: thanks for helping to save me from a fate worse than death–crunching sports numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

Tierra Whack / Sophie: Socratic Seminar College Girls Gone Critically Wild (October 11th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, MO)

The assignment:

Assignment

The on-site guidelines (with some context for the reader):

I’ve been leading these discussions and choosing the records, but a student asked if they could pick, and–why the hell not? The moderators in this case are the ones who chose the respective albums. A gender-bending anti-capitalist charter school advocate from St. Louis chose the Sophie album (which, in preparing myself for the activity, I’ve come to really like!) and a rural SW Missouri kid with a hearing disability who’s also the first college student in her family chose Ms. Whack. I will not participate verbally; I’m documenting the discussion, and their scores will be based on participation (they can gain some points simply by being attentive) and preparation (I’ve required annotated notes on their listening, reading, and viewing experience). This is a stepping stone to their writing reviews of their own, which Austin is also going to assist with.

Here’s the assignment:

Tips for Today’s Discussion of Tierra Whack’s Whack World

…and Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides:

Moderators (Emmalee and Emil):
Initiate, guide, and enhance the discussion—in other words, make your participation about inspiring conversation, involving as many folks as possible, and keeping it on track. You should mostly ask questions, not make statements.

General Participants:
• Have your notes out and mentally prepare for how you would like to enter the conversation, and use your notes to support your comments.
• Self-monitor: realize everyone needs to participate, so be specific and concise. Think twice about entering more than once.
• No hand-raising: wait for space and enter it with politeness.
• Do not interrupt speakers—but, again, speakers? Self-monitor.
• You are welcome to ask other speakers to clarify their opinions; moderators are expected to do this, but it is not exclusively their job. By the same token, you may invite students who seem to be struggling to get involved to enter.
This conversation is about exploring how best to review these albums, since that is your next task. Keep your commentary confined to what you’d write about these albums if you were required to.

My notes on the proceedings:

Re: Tierra Whack:

“…she’s pretty brave because she avoids rap stereotypes for women–she’s odd and that’s GOOD…”

“…if were white, this’d be more popular…”

“…the silliness provides a neat contrast, or subtlety, or something for her serious thoughts…”

“…how does the short format impact her hopes for sales…?

“I found the abruptness, or lack of transitions, to be hard to deal with first listen, but the videos smoothed those out…”

“there is a sadness undercurrent she doesn’t need a piano to communicate…”

“She’s so inventive musically and visually–you really need to watch the videos too–but she’s so fast it’s hard to process!”

“She’s a female Chance the Rapper…”

“Do you think she defies genre…?”

Re: Sophie:

The moderator surprised me and went around the room asking each fellow student to offer an adjective to describe Sophie, which she listed on the board as a menu for her Socratic. At first, I was annoyed with her asserting that much authority over the rest of the group (she is a strong personality, and I’d asked her to temper that a bit for this activity), but she then receded back to her seat and the menu worked great!

“Is discomfort in reacting to an art a band thing…?”

“I didn’t know she was trans…! (?)”

“I love this album but it disturbs me… the music doesn’t fit into a genre, but she doesn’t, either…!”

“How do you…or CAN you…evaluate the album separate from the times…”

“I was listening to this in the car by myself, and just had to turn it off and ask myself, ‘Is everything ok?’…”

“I was shook!”

“Now that I know she’s trans I LOVE THIS ALBUM!”

“She’s basically saying ‘Fuck you, I can change myself anyway I want to….”

“…it sounds like, with her music, she’s making the audience feel what it feels like to BE trans in public in this country…shook, yeah, but also beautiful and multi-dimensional.”

 

My last comment was, “Well, from now on I am just going to assign you material and have you teach each other–I do not appear all that necessary, and Socrates would agree!” Kind of joking—but kind of not.

Guilt (October 6th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

What a disgusting week. True: we little people can’t really know what happened between the now Supreme Court judge and the professor. It’s entirely possible that, after the hearing where the two parties aired their takes, and after the FBI in rushed manner nosed into the deets, the “Senate” didn’t see enough hard evidence to support the prof’s testimony. All we had to go on, really, were the personalities and the probabilities.

I’ve known many women who have struggled through Dr. Ford’s experiences (1 in 4 American women have); Kavanaugh reminded me of a good 50-100 blowhards I’ve known (family, friends, and acquaintances–all men) who are aghast that anyone should question their graspings. Or imagine that they had, indeed, grasped at all. I’m a white man. I sprang from a midwestern Christian environment, but I sprang out of it once I realized there wasn’t much of a commitment to the spirit of the texts. Prejudice. Judgement. Greed. Fear. Insulation (yeah: insulation). Idolatry (“sniffing the jocks of the rich and famous and loud”). I love this country in many ways, but I hate it in others–it is not, by a long shot, an entirely benevolent force in the world, but it does, no doubt, have potential. Right now, with a schmuck–a zit, a boil, an abscess–as a president, it’s an embarrassment. Surely, for you, he’s brought folks into the light that you once loved and now behold with horror. Lou Reed: “You can’t depend on the goodly hearted / The goodly hearted / Made lampshades and soap.” We didn’t think it could happen to us, but it had already happened (Africans, immigrants, natives), and it is happening, in a different iteration, again.

As usual, needing some ballast to keep me from sinking into total darkness, some music appeared out of the ether to keep me afloat. I hadn’t listened to Marianne Faithfull in a bit, but she was a favorite of my mother-in-law, who passed in 2013 from brain cancer. Nicole and I were revisiting some of Faithfull’s music on her mom’s birthday (Lynda loved her), and, while luxuriating in tracks from Broken English, Strange Weather, and Blazing Away, I sat bolt upright in realizing it was just what I needed. That craggy, outraged, authoritative voice, declaiming against male force, was stronger than any of the bullshit emanating from social media.  It was, indeed, what I (we) needed, and continue to need, and it was a bulwark versus despair. The weather is strange, but the bravery, resistance, anger, and sarcastic wit in her interpretations helped me feel we’ll come out on the brighter side of it.

Short-shrift Division:

I must say, Television’s Adventure sounds even better than it did at the time. If Marquee Moon is an A+, Adventure is an A: the lyrics might actually be better, and, while the guitar pyrotechnics may not be as ecstatic and explosive, they might be more lyrical. “Glory.” “The Fire.” “The Dream’s Dream.” For tapping into the spiritual-abstract realm of human experience, those are hard to beat. Personally (see above), I needed to be transported, and this album was potent. My only question is what licks Richard Lloyd is playing, because it all sounds like Verlaine.

 

 

Rockin’ Records–Check These Folks’ Rock Records!: A Weeded-Out, Rearranged, Expanded Top 120 for 2018 (and Not Just Rock) (October 3, 2018, Columbia, MO)

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I’ve updated my sprawling list of very strong records released in 2018 with some really sharp new releases from September (see the above slideshow for most of those–plus I’ve bolded them below), plus I’ve trimmed some items that just weren’t hanging through further listening. Highlights?

A new record by the Aussie band Tropical Fuck Storm that may assist you with your stored rage and despair.

JLin’s terrific follow-up to the amazing dance record Black Origami, a bit of a soundtrack entitled Autobiography.

A stunning exhibition of lyrical flow and shining intelligence, riding atop a sparkling stream of beats, by the Chicago rapper Noname: Room 25 (approved by my students, who are no dummies).

The latest entry by the Nigerian-American MC Fat Tony, representing for Houston, TX, as well, 10,000 Hours, which stands with Room 25 as a bit of a shot across the crowded hip-hop bow. Mother Wit, in full effect, in both cases.

A haunting, raging, energized Cajun-rock slab from south Louisiana, courtesy of Lost Bayou Rambler fiddler Louis Michot’s Melody Makers side project: it’s called Blood Moon, and it’s storming up my chart.

A desolate, beautiful release by an old soul-music vet who’s never been associated with that first adjective and has a complicated relationship with the second: Swamp Dogg’s Love, Loss, and AutoTune. It’s a joke–and it’s not.

…and the second record from an exciting, smart band from Brisbane (just kids–including one with a Go-Between pedigree), The Goon Sax. It’s called We’re Not Talking:

  1. Tracy Thorn: Record
  2. CupcaKe: Ephorize
  3. Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed
  4. Tropical Fuck Storm: A Laughing Death in Meatspace
  5. JLin: Autobiography (Music from Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography)
  6. Zeal & Ardor: Stranger Fruit
  7. Noname: Room 25
  8. Sly & Robbie and Nils Petter Molvaer: Nordub
  9. Orquesta Akokan: Orquesta Akokan
  10. Michot’s Melody Makers: Blood Moon
  11. Pusha T: Daytona
  12. Elza Soares: Deus É Mulher
  13. John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness
  14. Blood Orange: Negro Swan
  15. Chloe x Halle: The Kids are Alright
  16. The Internet: Hive Mind
  17. Janelle Monae: Dirty Computer
  18. Parquet Courts: Wide Awake!
  19. Berry: Everything, Compromised
  20. JD Allen: Love Stone
  21. Superchunk: What A Time to Be Alive
  22. Mary Gauthier and Songwriting with Soldier: Rifles and Rosary Beads
  23. Toni Braxton: Sex & Cigarettes
  24. Joe McPhee: Imaginary Numbers
  25. Nidia: Nídia É Má, Nídia É Fudida
  26. Fat Tony: 10,000 Hours
  27. Swamp Dogg: Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune
  28. Subtle Degrees: A Dance That Empties
  29. Daniel Carter: Seraphic Light
  30. Alice Bag: Blue Print
  31. The Necks: Body
  32. Young Fathers: Cocoa Sugar
  33. Quelle Chris & Jean Grae: Everything’s Fine
  34. Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis: Wild! Wild! Wild!
  35. James Brandon Lewis: Radiant Imprints
  36. Mitski: Be the Cowboy
  37. Sons of Kemet: Your Queen is a Reptile
  38. Lisbon Freedom Unit: Praise of Our Folly
  39. The Goon Sax: We’re Not Talking
  40. Grupo Mono Blanco: ¡Fandango! Sones Jarochos from Veracruz
  41. Ken Vandermark / Klaus Kugel / Mark Tokar: No-Exit Corner
  42. Knife Knights: 1 Time Mirage
  43. Angelika Niescier: The Berlin Concert
  44. Young Mothers: Morose
  45. No Age: Snares Like a Haircut
  46. Kids See Ghosts: Kids See Ghosts
  47. Sidi Toure: Toubalbero
  48. Wynton Marsalis & Friends: United We Swing–Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas
  49. Jonghyun: Poet / Artist
  50. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: Hope Downs
  51. Dave Holland: Uncharted Territories
  52. Halu Mergia: Lalu Balu
  53. Mekons 77: It Is Twice Blessed
  54. Jeffrey Lewis: Works by Tuli Kupferberg
  55. Bombino: Deran
  56. Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids: An Angel Fell
  57. Rapsody: Laila’s Wisdom
  58. Sarayah: Feel the Vibe
  59. Maria Muldaur: Don’t You Feel My Leg—The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blu Lu Barker
  60. Jinx Lennon: Grow a Pair
  61. The Thing: Again
  62. Tierra Whack: Whack World
  63. Lori McKenna: The Tree
  64. Nas: Nasir
  65. Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse
  66. Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel
  67. Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy
  68. Makaya McCraven: Where We Come From (Chicago x London Mixtape)
  69. Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Paul Lytton: Music for David Mossman
  70. Salim Washington: Dogon Revisited
  71. Beats Antique: Shadowbox
  72. Jon Hassell: Listening To Pictures (Pentimento, Vol. One)
  73. Charge It to The Game: House with a Pool
  74. JPEGMAFIA: Veteran
  75. The Beths: The Future Hates Me
  76. Various Artists: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun…and Rights!!!
  77. Apolo: Live in Stockholm
  78. Mdou Moctar & Elite Beat: Mdou Moctar meets Elite Beat In a Budget Dancehall
  79. Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing
  80. Wussy: What Heaven is Like
  81. Kiefer: happysad
  82. Meshell Ndegeocello: Ventriloquism
  83. Freddie Gibbs: Freddie
  84. Kamasi Washington: Heaven & Earth
  85. Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy
  86. Shopping: The Official Body
  87. Cypress Hill: Elephants on Acid
  88. Dana Murray: Negro Manifesto
  89. Shame: Songs of Praise
  90. Henry Threadgill: Dirt..and More Dirt
  91. Ceramic Dog: YRU Still Here?
  92. Marc Ribot: Songs of Resistance 1942-2018
  93. The Coup: Soundtrack to the Film Sorry to Bother You
  94. Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco: You’re Driving Me Crazy
  95. Various Artists/Sahel Sounds: Field Recordings
  96. L.E.S. Douze: The Stoned 1
  97. Kendrick Lamar, et al: Black Panther—Music from and Inspired by the Film
  98. Tal National: Tantabara
  99. Rodrigo Amado (with Joe McPhee): History of Nothing
  100. Hop Along: Bark Your Head Off, Dog
  101. MAST: Thelonious Sphere Monk
  102. Tirzah: Devotion
  103. The Chills: Snowbound
  104. Eddie Daniels: Heart of Brazil
  105. Big Freedia: Third Ward Bounce
  106. Old Man Saxon: The Pursuit
  107. Amy Rigby: The Old Guys
  108. Busdriver: Electricity Is On Our Side
  109. Lonnie Holley: MITH
  110. Del McCoury Band: Del McCoury Still Plays Bluegrass
  111. Dr. Michael White: Tricentennial Rag
  112. Migos: Culture II
  113. Yo La Tengo: There’s a Riot Goin’ On
  114. The Carters: Everything is Love
  115. Sleep: The Sciences
  116. The English Beat: Here We Go Love
  117. Princess Nokia: A Girl Cried Red
  118. Santigold: I Don’t Want—The Gold Fire Sessions
  119. Nicki Minaj: Queen
  120. Chad Popper: A Popper People

OLD MUSIC NICELY OR NEWLY PACKAGED

  1. Sonny Rollins: Way Out West (Deluxe Reissue)
  2. Neil Young: Roxy—Tonight’s the Night
  3. Erroll Garner: Nightconcert
  4. Various Artists: Voices of Mississippi—Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris
  5. Prince: A Piano and a Microphone
  6. Various Artists: Listen All Around–The Golden Age of Central and East African Music
  7. Gary Stewart: “Baby I Need Your Loving” / “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yester-Day”
  8. Peter Brotzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm: Ouroboros
  9. Oneness of Juju: African Rhythms
  10. Bruce Springsteen: 1978/07/07 West Hollywood, CA
  11. The Revelators: In which the Revelators perform live renditions of selections from the Billy Childish songbook
  12. Against All Logic: 2012-2017
  13. Grant Green: Live at Oil Can Harry’s
  14. Entourage: Ceremony of Dreams—Studio Sessions & Outtakes 1972-1977
  15. Kuniyuki Takahashi: Early Tape Works 1986 – 1993 Volume 1
  16. Various Artists: Africa Scream Contest, Volume 2
  17. Wussy: Getting Better
  18. David Bowie: Santa Monica ‘72
  19. Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet: Afro-Latin Soul, Vols. 1 & 2
  20. Various Artists: Two Niles to Sing a Melody—The Violins & Synths of Sudan

Wash My Face / In Ice-Cold Water (September 18-24, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Thursday was my freshman comp/pop music class’ second stab at a kind of data-based Socratic seminar. Last time, as documented here, the youth mostly took Mitski to task–if a tad unfairly, without the preferable amount of supporting evidence–but, in retrospect, I can understand their chagrin. On the pop music spectrum, from the vantage point of young fans, this seems more a time for authenticity and sincerity (for all the traps built into those terms) than ambition and pretension (and I’m not really using those terms pejoratively)–thus the majority of my class having raised their eyebrows at Mistki’s work. I still admire it, as do a handful of women on my roster.

Our discussion of Blood Orange’s Negro Swan seemed to bear this out. The minute I finished blabbing about intro shit (otherwise known as “set induction”), hands shot up in the air: “Can I talk first?” “I’ve got something to say about this one!” “Ooooooh, this is my album?” As I scanned the room, I could see that almost every one of them had taken voluminous notes, and as I called on folks to talk, it was obvious that both the album’s music and content had energized them. Music: “It’s a new kind of r&b for these times–music evolves in its society and this album seems to  show that!” “It’s new but it’s old–it’s funky, but it’s also chill, and it’s soul music but it has the r&b thing.” “It has a depressive vibe that I just love–it’s how I’m feeling!” (Think about that one.) “This album’s just got a great flow–” (most of them thought the opposite of Be the Cowboy, though I don’t think musical flow was its point) “–that I could really get into!” “The music made me feel so good I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics–”

On that last exaltation, I responded. “So, is the music so seductive that it obscures its content? And is that a mark of success or failure?”

Much furrowing of brows. I had to ask it, because I’d experienced it myself. I even told ’em, “Someone [I think it was Zappa…or his boy Varese?] once said that pure pleasure was counterrevolutionary!” So then the boosters became more specific: “No, the spoken parts, the ones by Janet Mock, that’s the content, so it’s so much a big deal that you don’t notice the lyrics.” Most of the students in that camp also made it very clear that they identified with Mock’s commentary, especially when she addresses the idea of building a chosen family, finding a space among others to be yourself and cease performing, and doing as much stuff as you can (as opposed to doing little). I have to admit: I dug that stuff, too. Others pointed to the way the videos dramatized the songs, though they still didn’t quote many actual lyrics.

Finally, a student posited the following: “I found that the spoken stuff distracted me from the music, which I thought was the thing. It kept me from having some continuity thinking about the music, then, after I reflected, it occurred to me that without the spoken stuff, the music isn’t really all that powerful–it isn’t really that dynamic.” Woah. This idea was seized upon; we even came to the conclusion that inserting “spoken stuff” by important humans might well have become a trend (think Solange, Beyonce, SZA), and hit the end of the hour puzzling over if it were a trend, why was it one, and was it a good one?

This ritual is working. The point has been to get them used to talking about music specifically, force them to examine artistic problems, and start them thinking about transferring the discussion to their writing. They have an expository essay on deck (they have to choose from among 10 expository modes the one that best enables them to say what they want about a pet musical concern), with an actual record review in the hole. We’re already past where we were with these issues last year, and on top of that, the students seem less reluctant to criticize model writings I’ve given them: they’ve already pointed out music writing trends such as hive mind, precious little constructive criticism, and celebrity hypnosis.

Also, I’ve turned the artist choice over to students: Tierra Whack’s Whack World is next up, followed by Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides. I’m having fun–can you tell? (One thing is, they’re working harder than I am–an objective classroom teachers should always be shooting for.)

On fronts with lower stakes, I simply hunkered down and enjoyed some old records. One was Ray Charles’ Sweet and Sour Tears, an ABC label concept album of sorts (it’s songs about tears!) packed with all the devices that can make this Charles period a challenge for listeners with high aesthetic standards: soupy choral arrangements, blasting brass, and material of very erratic quality. When I was younger, I assumed that these “offenses” had been forced on Ray by the company, but once I learned the music was exactly as the man wanted it, I was forced to re-evaluate them. I’m not adding anything that new to the debate, but with surprising frequency Charles engages in soulful call-and-response with the choirs (who are decisively not the Raelettes), devises arrangements that push that brass to KICK, and invests crap songs with vocal guts, often of a rascally nature, and that resonant gospel-tinged piano, which is mixed up higher than one has come to expect with the ABC output. The reissue of Sweet and Sour Tears includes Atlantic “tear-songs” as bonus tracks, but honestly I don’t hear them sounding any better than the official album. If you’ve somehow skipped this one, give it a spin.

I also took an old standby out to the truck; it’s now on its third repetition, and I’ve probably played it 200 times since I saw the band live. It’s on the long-gone Joaquin Records (named after the great steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy), it’s by a bunch of crazy Canucks called Ray Condo and The Richochets, and it’s called Swing, Brother, Swing. The record just hits my sweet spot with serious juice: call it what you want–Western swing, rockabilly, hillbilly boogie, jazz, blues, rock and roll, hardcore honky tonk–the band just loves all that stuff and mixes it into a stunning elixir. If that isn’t enough to tempt you, they were crate-diggers at least as good as Lux and Ivy, and–as much as I love those two–without the schtick. Billie Holiday, Rudy Toombs, Lew Williams, Hank Penny, Carl Perkins, and–especially, on the above song–Glenn Barber come in for revved-up treatment here, and the next two records they released before Condo’s untimely death were almost as surprising. The band was hot, sharp, and tightly loose (if that makes sense), Condo’s goosed-up “regular guy” vocals, in the grand tradition of Western swing, are sly and engaged, and the man plays the kind of saxophone fans of Don Markham (of Hag’s Strangers) will appreciate. Just great stuff that I can yell myself hoarse to just driving around the block.

 

And what about the new Prince album?

Let me quote Nicole: “He’s doodling. That’s a genius doodling.” She’d just asked me if she’d heard him sing the word “omelets”–and yes, he does. But that quote is a compliment–you’re hearing a master musician and songwriter in the midst of his process, rolling out some stuff he’s been thinking about for awhile, some bits he thinks (rightly) might have some potential, some O.P.s that he digs the most that he plays around with. Latter case in point (listen for the omelet line):

Also, I should point out that he works a piano, he stomps a bit, and he didn’t just save those eye-popping vocal dynamics for official recording sessions. We’re happy we bought it.

 

 

 

Holiday (September 11-17, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I am on a Billie Holiday tear. John Szwed’s revelatory book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth is the culprit. Szwed’s intent–to strip away calcified notions about the great singer, examine the concrete artifacts (musical, literary, historical), close-listen to her art and rebuild a fuller, more complex and authentic picture of her–is pretty largely realized (though Szwed admits to mysteries that are unlikely to be successfully parsed), and the book’s clearly and passionately written as well. Among the many surprises is Szwed’s “rehabilitation” of Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday’s memoir written with (some say by) William Dufty; of course, I’m about to crack it today after years of turning my nose up at it due to its professed disconnection from truth. Also, I loaded the CD changer with multiple Holiday disks, primarily my favorites from Columbia’s Essential series and the argument-starter Lady in Satin.

Listening to Holiday for hours on end Friday, I thought back to an experience I once had in the classroom. We were reading a text that featured a lynching, and I thought my students might be stimulated to interesting thoughts and feelings by Holiday’s studio version of “Strange Fruit.” These were 10th graders who had not previously succeeded in English, and they’d self-segregated themselves when choosing seats on the first day; the class was roughly 50% white kids and kids of color. For my part, I was utterly convinced the Holiday was not only the greatest jazz singer of all-time, but impossible to dislike; I was equally convinced the subject matter would be powerful to both “halves” of the population.

I played the track on a clunky portable CD player I’d checked out from the media center, but the sound was pretty good. “Strange Fruit,” in the unlikely case you haven’t heard it, does not exactly produce exuberant moods in the listener. It creeps out of the speakers and its horror unfolds funereally—Holiday doesn’t enter until relatively late, and this delay had the students looking quizzically at each other: “Did dude play the right track?” Also, pre-WWII jazz was not and is not high schoolers’ music of choice; I sensed a stiffening in the ranks. But then Billie took over, and the students’ turned their eyes to the song’s lyrics, which I’d copied for them. I was hypnotized by the precision of her delivery as it was applied to the subject matter–and of course, since I was still a green idiot, I assumed they were, too.

I paused a couple of beats after the song ended, then launched a very broad query: “So, what did you think of her singing?”

“SHE’S THE WORST SINGER I’VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE!!!!!”

The answer, yelled angrily by one of my quietest students, a young lady named Toni, froze me in my pedagogical tracks. I am sure my eyes bugged, and that my jaw slackened. I had been punched in the face, and I’d been leaning into the punch to begin with. Sadly, I was also expecting that, since she was a woman of color, she had to like Holiday’s singing. (I’ve evolved.)

I was so stunned that I have little recollection of my response. I ‘d become reasonably reliable in dignifying students’ responses (that now sounds to me like a condescending enterprise), so I’m sure I tried to figure out, or have her help me figure out, what she meant, but she was adamant, much snickering abounded, and the next thing I clearly remember is getting (desperately) to the actual lesson. But later, at home, I sniffed to Nicole, “The kid thought Billie Holiday was the worst singer she’d ever heard–can you believe that?”

So what’s the point? Well, Szwed’s sharp analysis of Holiday’s hard-to-pinpoint style makes clear that Holiday was not always easy on the ear: her delivery was frequently sharp, raspy, crying. Her timing was consistently eye- and ear-popping, but that’s a subtler thing to hear unless perhaps you’re a musician yourself. It occurred to me that, actually, young Toni was in fact listening intelligently and had no need of her response being dignified. From a reasonable perspective, her assessment had an anchor in fact–well, not that she was a horrible singer, but that, in the context of what Toni had listened to, the worst she’d heard. 28 years later is not a satisfactory response time for recognizing a teaching mistake–but better extremely late than never. Sorry, Toni! (We’re Facebook friends.)

Tony's

Friday nights, Nicole and I often head out to Tony’s Pizza Palace, a family-owned pizza joint we’ve been patronizing for most of our nearly 30 years together. We always sit in the booth that abuts the window with a bullet or pellet hole in it (look closely at the above photo and you can spot it). We always order a cold pitcher of Bud, two small Greek salads, and a Tony’s Special (green pepper and sausage). We always get a little caught up with the server, and check in with the head honcho, a charming young man named Daniel whom I taught the same year as Toni, featured above. Then we grab an additional libation, go back home, sprawl out on the couch, and meditate upon three of four specially selected tracks. It’s relaxing, stimulating, fun, and the perfect transition into the weekend. True to form, we followed our ritual last Friday, and selected the following three tracks, the first two of which we’ve worn out in the past, the third indicating I still couldn’t get Szwed and Lady Day off my mind.

To evoke our beloved NOLA, and to electrify our ears, minds and bodies:

To revisit a romantic favorite from our days of penury:

To engage with pure desolation–but also with an alert artistic mind at the end of its rope:

 

During the weekend, I chose to explore the work of a young Chicago MC one of my current students had begged me to check out. Perhaps still feeling guilty from my earlier revelation, my conscience was the driver, but this young lady, from Oklahoma City by way of Salt Lake City, was, like Toni, right (only less problematically). I loved her recommendation so much I bought some of the artist’s work. She goes by the handle of Noname, and she’s something–smart, mischievous, funny, and skilled. I’ll go out an a limb and say she’s gonna be a star. Thanks for the tip, Juniper!

The new one (soon to appear way up on my annual list):

The previous one:

 

Coming attractions: I’ve assigned my comp class the following listening, reading and viewing for our next semi-Socratic (you’ll recall my reportage on our Mitski’s Be the Cowboy lesson last post). Feel free to engage if you need some homework!

How Dev Hynes Became a Miracle Worker for R.&B., Pop, and Everything Else You Can Imagine (Lizzy Goodman, New York Times Magazine)

Premature Evaluation: Blood Orange, ‘Negro Swan’  (Briana Younger, Stereogum)

Blood Orange builds a refuge for black stories on the exquisite Negro Swan (Judnick Mayard, The Onion AV Club)

 

 

 

In the Classroom, With The Dogg, and Between the Pages (September 3-10, 2018, Columbia, Mo)

I am constantly tweaking my teaching strategies for my freshman comp/pop music class at Stephens College. Thinking about data-based questions, I stumbled upon what I thought would be a stimulating lesson plan:

1) zero them in on an artist with fresh work out, and ask them to sample the entire album;

2) ask the kids to read some new and quality reviews and/or features on the artist;

3) funnel them to some good and recent performance and video clips of the artist;

4) ask them to annotate as they explore, listen, think, and reflect;

5) convene for a kind of Socratic seminar, with the above serving as the data.

Actually, the lesson was pretty successful. Since we’re a women’s college, I thought Mitski and her new album Be the Cowboy would be an ideal subject. The young woman’s an intense singer, a talented writer and musician, and loves to mine her (justifiably, I feel) turbulent emotional life for material. Myself, I like her and her new album very much, but, honestly, that had nothing to do with my choice: I simply thought it would be reliably stimulating for my class of 18.

It was. But. A few students responded very positively and strongly to her work; a few (not necessarily the same few) skillfully used evidence and analysis to back up their opinions; most, however, found her a little much. What did that mean? All over the place musically (I was thinking that range was more a tour de force, if not more simply the artist matching setting with material, as were a couple kids; most wanted a groove). Providing too much information (for example, there is a masturbation line) and relying too much on lyrics. Not being chill enough. And–this was probably the most interesting thread of the conversation–cannily packaging herself as having a foot in pop and a foot in avant garde in order to be easily commodified, for the convenience of consumers, with Urban Outfitters. As you might be suspecting, we have a passionate anti-capitalist in the house, which I am enjoying immensely, but, while she accused the writers of the three articles I’d assigned them of “fellating” Mitski with no real supporting arguments (unfair in some ways, though none of the writers did supply any caveats or constructive criticism about her work), the student herself had a little trouble supplying specific support for her own attack. Since one of my ulterior motives was getting them to effectively substantiate their contentions–or at least start practicing same–perhaps the ensuing provided an obvious model of what to avoid. I don’t know, but I’m always surprised to find in this course that, often, women hold female artists to a very (too?) high standard. I’ll have to continue letting that phenomenon marinate.

I was very encouraged by a very quiet student’s lone contribution, though, which followed the above barrage: “You know, she’s a very young artist. Shouldn’t the fact that she’s still developing earn her some room to be messy?” (Yes.)

 

HOT TAKE: Swamp Dogg’s superbly titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is one of the best–and the strangest–r&b records of the year. Only The Dogg could take Auto-Tune and make something deep out of it–except that it really appears to have been Justin Vernon’s idea (why, Lord, why?), so that hurts, but I have to admit it works, and Swamp’s the show. His songs, lyrically speaking, aren’t as eccentric as usual (“Sex with Your Ex” the exception)–in fact, the covers are among the brightest highlights–but the shot of loneliness and alienation with which the much-maligned effect injects them is…a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Bon Iver…POWERFUL. Great cover art and liner notes, as one would expect.

 

Otherwise this week, I indulged in some very, very good music-related reading. Sam Anderson’s wild and wonderful Boom Town focuses on Mr. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips as one exemplar of the spirit of his subject, Oklahoma City. I’m not a huge fan of Coyne or his group (though seeing them when they were just kids was a trip), but Anderson makes a convincing case that to understand the city and its travails and aspirations, you have to consider them. Elsewhere, a star weatherman, the OKC Thunder, and several “city visionaries” flesh out his analysis. This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and it’s as much about us as it is about Oklahoma City, looked at a certain way.

Playing Changes

More exclusively about music is Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A test any music book must pass with me is, “Does it hurt my wallet by sending me to stuff I never knew about or unfairly dismissed?” Well, technically, with Apple Music, I don’t have to fork over any green, though that’s a sad fact I’ve addressed elsewhere and don’t feel like going into here. Chinen’s book easily passes the test; as I read, I constructed a playlist from the chapters’ subjects and his extensive discography that will take me until the middle of the next decade to fully absorb. The main thing it did for me is pry me out of my stubbornly resistant attitude toward jazz that’s flavored by new-millennium r&b and hip hop. Examples: Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy (shitty band names can hurt a group!), and Lalah Hathaway, all of whom Chinen induced me to like). He’s also great in chapters on jazz education and international influence, innovation and practice, but I pouted when I realized he would not be including Scandinavia or Portugal in the latter discussion. I am biased, but how he could skip over Joe McPhee in looking at the role of “the new mentors” in the transfer of methods and ideas to the new generation leaves me nonplussed.

 

An article about Jelly Roll Morton showed up in my feed, courtesy of (hmmm) The Wall Street Journal: “Plotting His Way Into Jazz History.” John Edward Hasse, a writer previously unknown to me, presents Morton as “jazz’s first theorist,” which I’d heard argued before, but he hooked me with this paragraph–I don’t play an instrument, so I can’t initially hear this stuff when I listen to jazz:

“…Morton took on several problems. In just over three minutes, how do you create interest and drama? In a musical style taking shape, how do you prove the full potential of jazz to integrate the planned with the spontaneous, the notated with the improvised?”

Even better is how Hasse succinctly explains Morton’s solutions (exemplified in the classic “Black Bottom Stomp”)…but read the article yourself for that. Suffice it to say that I went straight from reading the article to JSP’s great Morton box set and Wynton Marsalis’ Morton tribute, Mr. Jelly Lord, my favorite record by my favorite musical tight-ass. Why? Well, the band is effin’ cream: Don Vappie on banjo and guitar, Dr. Michael White on clarinet, Herlin Riley on drum kit, Wycliffe Gordon on ‘bone, tuba, and trumpet, and Marsalis himself as loose and playful (and masterful) as you’re gonna hear him. Did you ever wonder if Harry Connick, Jr., ever really applied on record anything he learned from James Booker? He does here, and does justice to his mentor. The selections are perfect and often surprising (“Big Lip Blues,” for example), and the arrangements, execution, and production do not embalm them. And you get lagniappe in the true NOLA fashion, with Wynton and pianist Eric Reed nailing “Tomcat Blues” via wax cylinder from the Edison Museum:

 

I swear, right now books are like heroin to me (yes, I listened to the Gun Club this week). I should count myself lucky. I also picked up John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, which sets out to vaunt the former and puncture the latter. It’s note-perfect in doing so thus far, and has convinced me that I do too need to to read Lady Sings the Blues. I didn’t know Billie made it to film at 19, singing an Ellington song with Duke backing her and already exhibiting the mastery that would make her legendary. She begins singing at about the 4:40 mark:

Szwed also wrote the best book yet on Sun Ra. Check him out.

Short-shrift Division:

David Virelles: Mboko (WOW!!!!!!)

The Gun Club: The Fire of Love

Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (expanded edition)

George Coleman: Live at Yoshi’s

Robert Glasper: Black Radio

Lalah Hathaway (feat. Snarky Puppy), “Something” (ZOINKS!!!)