I have seriously been struggling to write about music. Not that I haven’t been listening; I’ve been applying it like a salve, but the words won’t come in the face of electoral surprise, four different little jobs adding up to one big one, weekend travel, and simply being silenced by the excellence of these artists and a lack of confidence in saying anything useful about them. Listening to TCQ’s new one for the fifth time in my truck cab today–especially to the song “Kids,” written to jolt them out of fantasy fixations–opened portals from my ear to my mind, and to my mind to the three fingers I type with.
Jinx Lennon: Magic Bullets of Madness to Lift the Grief Magnets and Past Pupil Stay Sane – 9.0 – I am not sure why Mr. Lennon, punk-poet chronicler of life in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, released these two excellent new records separately, rather than as a pair (the title song of the latter is the final song of the former, so the transition is there), but I am sure that the States need their own version of the man. I recommended him to anyone who misses Joe Strummer (or wishes Ed Hamell hadn’t gone just a little soft); Jinx’s M.O. is to attack the demons that kill working-class folks alive, with his guitar (God’s in it), his beats, his lovable exhortations (he’ll plug in an enthusiastic “Yeah!” or a similar grunt to unhypnotize the sprog), his lyrics (spewed out with demotic eloquence as if they are continuations of a pub gab he’s just walked away from), and his spirit, which appears not easily depressed. Sample lyric, from “Silly Fkers”: “When the people that you work with treat you like an old worn-out Anorak/And the walls of your house seem to constantly be laughing behind your back/And I look at you and you’re always trying to be the thing you’re always trying to be/It makes no difference at all ‘cos we’re all silly fkers, just a bunch of silly fkers/Point your telephones into deep outer space/We’re a billionth of a zillionth of a trillionth in significance in the whole of interstellar space/And still….” (My italics.) You’ll not find these in U. S. record stores, so hit up his Bandcamp site. You’ll also not find the song videoed above on either of these two releases, but I can testify it serves well as a daily mantra. Inspirational title: “Every Day Above Ground is a Good Day.” Holiday note: Jinx writes great Christmas songs, by the way, one of which is on Magic Bullets. Consumer Tip: If your budget confines you to purchasing just one–and I am hereby obligating you to do that–I’d opt for Past Pupil (really, though, it’s the best double album of 2016, and, yeah, I think Miranda’s is pretty damn good myself).
Sirone-Bang Ensemble: Configuration – 7.8 – The personnel: Billy Bang, my favorite jazz violinist behind Stuff Smith, a Viet Nam vet able to play inside or go out; Sirone, a bass player capable of distracting one from Cecil Taylor, which he proved on The Spring of Two Blue Js; Charles Gayle, a formerly homeless saxophonist who picks up where post-’65 Trane left off, at his best (for me, an exciting prospect); and a kid (at the time of release) named Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Bought it for the first three players; love it for the last, who holds everyone’s shit together and plays with amazing inventiveness, shifts effortless in and out of styles, and is quite obviously listening carefully (an essential in such sessions as these). He’s a known and feared master now; it’s fun to go back in time and hear him cutting heads, even though that is something he’d never deliberately have done.
Ann Peebles: Straight from the Heart – 10 – I strongly advise readers who are not familiar with this St. Louis, Missouri, native to change that by checking into Fat Possum’s LP reissues of her ’70s Hi recordings. Out of her “99 Pounds” comes a voice with serious bite and intensity: she adds a menace that contributes to her stealing “I Pity the Fool” from Bobby “Blue” Bland, and when she threatens to break up somebody’s home because she so tired of being alone, she’ll pull you up short as you suspect she means it. Stellar end-to-end, with that rhythm section you probably know so well from Al Green’s cuts from the same era, Willie Mitchell behind the board, and a line-up of classic soul songwriters (George Jackson, Denise LaSalle, Teenie Hodges, and, hey, Ms. Peebles herself) designing tunes to order.
Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat – 8.0 – The randiest octogenarian in Southern music–he calls his brand “folkfunk,” and that nails it–answers the bells that supposedly toll for him with the best record he’s put out in years, with folks like Dave Alvin and Keb’ Mo’ leaning in with some solid help. I’ve read several reviewers complain that it’s too polished, but it is not: it’s just produced professionally–Rush is nothing if not professional–and that certainly doesn’t intrude on the vibe and fonk of songs like the title track, “Catfish Stew,” “It’s Your Move,” and “I Think Your Dress is Too Short.” What a Rush fan should be worried about is remakes, of which there are none here, though as per usual he lassos a few floating verses from the blues and soul canon. By the way, play it back to back with the Stones’ blues album (see below) or Meet Your Death and tell me which old dog blows the best harp, because all three players are on form.
Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – 9.5 – Yes, it’s really that good. A comeback album by old heads that is truly unprecedented in rap, the bulk of which was written a year ago, it sounds as if it were directly inspired by–in fact, written right after–November 8’s shattering event. Within the first six songs, the fact that there’s no space program for n****s is mourned, Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, the poor, and the bad “must go,” the old heads make a case for their generation–without letting it off the hook–to the current generation, and the latter “Kids,” shook by their lapels, are encouraged to abandon the “fantasy” of Mainstream Rap circa 2016 (if not USA circa 2016). I’ll leave the rest to you, but all the MCs (including the deceased one, who sounds tragically alive) have lost no flow, and the music throbs and boom-baps: really, the record is a plea (powered by beats and rhymes) that isn’t sure whether it should be aimed skyward or downwards. Outro: “The Donald.”
The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome – 8.6 – They’ve resisted the “back to the roots” move for half a century, so they’ve earned the right to do it now. I think the production serves as a kind of sonic Viagra at times, but at the very least, this rekkid is a) a terrific blues harmonica showcase, just like Keith always dreamed Mick would unleash, b) a display of deep and loving mastery, and c) a parade of deep cuts that, other than perhaps Wolf’s “Commit a Crime,” only enthusiasts would know. Jolly good show, boys.
Jack Oblivian and The Sheiks: The Lone Ranger of Love – 8.7 – Third in a series of great garage-punk records issued this year; I’d rank it behind Tyler Keith‘s Do It For Johnny and Meet Your Death‘s eponymously titled debut (which is more garage-punk-blues). The one former Oblivian who’s relentlessly pursued the dirty noise ethic while out in soloville is also the one you need to watch your daughter around. He’s got quite a few moves (including a touch of honky-tonk), and a groove on Side Two.
Joe McPhee and Ray Boni: Live from The Magic City (Birmingham, Alabama) – 9.0 – The ageless, prolific jazz multi-instrumentalist McPhee (his late ’15 Candy is also going to make my year-end best-of list) teams with electric guitarist Boni for some of his most lyrical–and occasionally straight-ahead–playing in years. And dammit: if they can book him in Birmingham, they can book him in Columbia, Missouri.
Alicia Keys: Here – 8.8 – This is the year the queens of modern r&b knocked down my door, backed me into a corner, and forced me to submit. I have to admit: concepts, consciousness, commitment, and coherence are weapons against which I have little armor, and Keys, who I have appreciated but never much loved, uses them all with skill here. It’s not just about the lack of make-up; the vocal expression is the most unadorned and understated–yet, or thus, the most soulful of her career. Played it twice in a row with pleasure after listening to Hi-era Ann Peebles (see above), if you don’t believe me: that’s one tough juxtaposition to survive.
Aram Bajakian: Dolphy Formations – 9 – Bajakian has replaced one of his main influences, Marc Ribot, as the most stimulating guitarist in my listening life. From the storming, angular, and twisted post-blues attack of 2014’s there were flowers also in hell to late 2015’s Music Inspired by The Color of Pomegranates, in which he spontaneously created a spellbinding soundtrack to the film, recording himself while he watched it in his home, to this set, in which combines some theorizing by the titular titan with Bajakian’s absorption of chaos-era Sonic Youth with Morton Feldman with his experience gigging with Lou Reed and cooks up something Franz Mesmer could seriously appreciate, he’s setting fires all over the aural map. Oh, and they are under just enough control. Check out his output on Bandcamp.