“Sound Unheard, Word Unread” (January 12, Columbia, Missouri)

Who are the artists whose releases you buy sound unheard, critical word unread? I am assuming this is a practice of yours, and that you do still buy music. Mine have changed over the years. In my twenties: George Jones, Minutemen, Replacements, Husker Du, Prince, anything George Clinton-related, Tom Waits. In my thirties: Public Enemy, Mekons, The Oblivians, James Carter. Over the past 17 years, though (my forties and fifties), skepticism’s cold hand has fallen on my shoulder and my coin has not been offered so automatically. When it has been, it’s been for artists with unique vision who live on the margins, like Tyler Keith, Swamp Dogg, Bobby Rush, MF Doom. Today, I spent time with two of those.

Ever since I first laid ear to Jean Grae, she’s been one of my favorite MCs. She has a flintiness of tone that reminds me of Rakim, a winning emotional tension created by toughness and vulnerability, a deadly and surprising pen, and, until recently, a consistency that satisfies my preference for album artists. One terrific Grae record even fans of hers may have missed is Evil Jeanius, created in collaboration with Blue Sky Black Death. All the above qualities are in play, but of special note is the mesmerizing “Threats,” which features multiple cascading Etta James samples that reinforce them:

Elsewhere, the team makes use of one of John Cale’s violin stabs from “Venus in Furs.” Though I can’t help but encourage Jean’s recent attempts to diversify artistically (into singing, television, and books), it’s not been great for her rapping, but I’ll still buy any record she releases.

I have a weakness for old folks who’ve prospered doing very unconventional things on the margins for decades. Such is the case of Poughkeepsie’s finest, saxophonist/trumpeter/percussionist/composer Joe McPhee.

McPhee, who turned 78 in November, makes wonderful music out of blips, blaps, squeaks, squeals, wails and whispers. The unconverted have been known to say that all free jazz sounds alike, that such artists are “just playing” anything, but I’d know a McPhee performance a mile away. Joe’s new record, Imaginary Numbers, on Clean Feed, showed up in my mailbox yesterday, and did not disappoint. Try this:

Short-shrift division:

Roxy Music: For Your Pleasure. I love post-Eno Roxy, but I wish he’d stuck around a little longer.

Shame: Songs of Praise: Read in The Guardian today that these guys could be the next punk thing in the UK. I wasn’t knocked out, nor was I repelled–I guess I just want to note that today was the day I first heard them (across a room and hallway’s distance, and not cranked, so I need to return to the record).