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!!!)

 

 

Three Spaced Masterpieces by “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” (February 25th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

PhasesSpiritDecember Day

My Sunday afternoon was graced by these three magical records recorded across forty years by Willie Nelson, the man accurately dubbed “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” by Kinky Friedman. If Nelson had left nothing but these albums, he’d be in the pantheon; it’s truly awe-inspiring to consider that outside of these masterworks lay hundreds and hundreds of diamonds. I have often casually said to friends and students that Hank Williams wrote 50 of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time and he only lived to 29. In tranquility, and hypnotized by the man’s stunningly eloquent and accurate way into our moments of darkness and light, I think that Willie just picked up that mantle and extended it, as if to rebuke an unjust universe.

All three of these albums are humbly conceptual, the first two linked by the lyrical thread of Johnny Gimble’s fiddle, the last two by big sister Bobbie Nelson’s piano, all three by crack bands and Willie’s unmistakable acoustic guitar. Phases and Stages (1974) plumbs the heartbreak, humor, and illumination of both a woman’s and a man’s side of a break-up–taken outside the context of the concept, each of the songs is a classic, either major (“Bloody Mary Morning”) or minor (“Sister’s Coming Home” / “Down at the Corner Beer Joint”). Spirit (1996), sparer, drumless, linked mostly by the instrumental passages titled “Matador” and “Mariachi,” meditates on loss and perseverance, and its songs, perhaps, rely on each other for their eternal air. December Day (2014) is one of the most startling road-band studio recordings I’ve ever heard. The concept’s pretty simple, and seems to have come from Bobbie: as she’s quoted as asking in the studio, “Why not record our favorite songs like we play them for ourselves?” It works–the listener does feel like he’s eavesdropping on a little corps of musicians (on a family of musicians) laying back and sharing what’s always made them happiest. In that way, December Day might be the most successful of the three, and its song list may well have been assembled much more casually than the others’: three Irving Berlins, a Reinhardt, a Jolson, “Mona Lisa,” and “Ou-es tu, mon amour” surrounding several old Nelson copyrights (for example, “Permanently Lonely,” ’63) and a couple of very poignant–and dryly funny–new ones  (“I Don’t Know Where I Am Today,” “Amnesia,” and “Laws of Nature,” of which the Dalai Lama himself would surely approve). The effect is confidently valedictory: “This is the stuff I’ve loved all my life, and, by the way, do you notice how my stuff stands up in the American pop canon?” Not too valedictory, as it turns out, as Willie’s released several albums since then, and probably has more in the chute. I don’t doubt that he might also have another masterpiece in him, and that it’ll be 2028 before we know it.

Dig in:

Short-shrift Division:

Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul–Willie got me hankering for more mastery, and when I called this up on Apple Music I was stunned by what sounds like an expert aural restoration.

Swamp Dogg: Gag A Maggot–“Just call me wife-sitter / I’m a mighty happy critter! / Don’t be bitter / ‘Cause I’m wit’ her….”

Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra (Horace Tapscott, conductor–and pianist): Flight 17–I have yet to hear a Tapscott-associated album I didn’t love, and this is no exception. It’s wayyyy out of print, so I had to throw my bobber out on Discogs Lake and wait for twitch…and wait…and wait. But was it worth it! Recorded at Los Angeles’ Immanuel United Church of Christ, it’s a large group recording of power and delicacy, with no Tapscott compositions but two strong ones by the departed honoree (pianist Herbert Baker), one by saxophonist Sabir Mateen (who’s on board, and how), and a winning foray through a Coltrane medley.

 

Good to My Earhole: Listening Top 10, April 5 – April 11, 2014

I guess it is going to become regular…

destruck624

1) Holly George-Warren: A Man Called Destruction–The Life and Music of Alex Chilton from Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (Viking) I am a mass devourer of pop music tomes, but also a bit of a Chilton skeptic: even the brilliance of the best Big Star material is largely attributable to Chris Bell, and too much of the man’s notoreity is connected to things other than music. But George-Warren not only makes a great case here, taking the reader behind the scenes to bedroom rehearsals, bent late-night studio experiments, eccentric apprenticeships, and a long, disciplined, sober road to demonstrate Chilton’s hands were on the wheel more often than reported–even when he was barely conscious. More important, she shapes meticulous research (oh, to have grown up in the Chilton home!) into breezy and fascinating narrative, and balances that with insight into the making of the music. Plus, she passes my first test of good music books: her book sends you racing back to the music (the proof of which you will see in this week’s entry). In fact, my Brit Lit class enjoyed a Big Star block party today while they worked on their writing portfolios. Note: it does share something significant with a recent Zevon tome— this was a guy who, despite his charisma and multiple connections, was very, very lonely.

2) “Every night I tell myself, ‘I am the Cosmos, I am the wind’/But that won’t bring you back again….” Easily one of my favorite rock and roll couplets. Chilton didn’t write it; his partner Chris Bell did, though the sound of his post-Big Star productions (captured on the Rykodisc release I Am the Cosmos) revealed that band’s sonic architecture might well have sprung initially from Bell’s mind. I love the combination of metaphysics and heartbreak, and, really, the whole “record” (Bell died before he could complete a solo album) is fascinating:

3) Doris Duke: I’m a Loser–The Swamp Dogg Sessions (Kent) Jerry Williams, Jr., is one hell of a producer, songwriter, and bandleader, but seldom did he oversee someone else’s record that topped his own eccentric and piquant output. Working with luminaries like Irma Thomas and Gary U. S. Bonds, he wrote nice material and created solid settings, but somehow the artists didn’t catch fire. Not true on these 1969 recordings with one of soul’s great lost treasures, Miss Duke from Sandersville, Georgia. She rises to the occasion of great Dogg titles like “Ghost of Myself,” “Divorce Decree,” and “To the Other Woman (I’m the Other Woman,” selling them with a smoky, soulful, very country authenticity that’ll make you wonder why she didn’t become a star (I’d argue, a late start in the soul game).

4) Jessie Mae Hemphill: The George Mitchell Collection, Volume 45 (Fat Possum) I can’t get enough of one of Senatobia, Mississippi’s finest citizens. Hemphill, “The She-Wolf,” plays in the distinctive, trancy, north Mississippi style, and these are her first recordings (her mother and aunt often turn up accompanying Fred McDowell on his records). Along with two fetching cuts comes an interview with Miss Hemphill. Hear the whole thing right hyar:

5) Wussy: Attica! (Damnably) Sometimes I feel like arguing, “You either love Wussy or you don’t know they exist.” Living as we do in a world of fiberglass hoods, erotic teens, calendar cowboys/girls, and Mensa-folk conformists, it seems impossible not to support, encourage, and listen to (if not lionize) rockin’ and writin’ marrieds whose personae as well as music is as entrancingly homely and evocative of lived lives as Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker’s. On this brand-spankin’ new rekkid, the musical attack’s a little richer (helped by a member of Cleaver’s former band, The Ass Ponys) and the tart harmonies and wry words (the opener finds Walker lost in a corn maze) show absolutely no loss of concentration. Even their best records are a little uneven, but, on second listen, I feel safe dubbing this one their most consistent. Fans of George and Tammy (sorry), John and Exene (sorry), Thurston and Kim (sorry), Bruce and Patti (well, OK), Ira and Georgia (righteous), Fred and Toody (the MOST righteous), and Cecil and Linda (wait….) need to do the right thing and take this band for a ride. If I were in a band with my wife, I would want it to sound this honest and unique: “Attica, baby/Call it LOVE!” Also, I can relate to Chuck’s observation that, twenty years ago, he was more beautiful, but also more monstrous. For the benighted, an alternate version of a Wussy classic:

6) Guided By Voices: Bootlegged live, ’94. I don’t know much about this recording, though it seems to be made in Ohio from the apparent presence of Ron House in the audience; the recording was passed along to me by a long-time rock and roll compatriot. I’ve never been a fan, and I don’t know why, because in many ways they seem to have been made to hit my musical pleasure points: swift, concise, raw, literate, and tuneful. I think I thought Robert Pollard’s approach was too cute, that his writing and concept was, weirdly, too facile. Anyway, this changed all of that. Pollard and very likely the band are blasted (which was their rep, I guess), but as they rip through tunes from the just-issued Bee Thousand and before, they sound perfect to me, in all the previously enumerated ways. And it’s valuable to keep in mind that the Replacements, predecessors with much the same ethic, never left a live document this alive. Thanks to Mark Anthony of the much-missed website The Rawk. From the same time period:

7) Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) 20 years after she knocked the world on its ear as a young mother and avant garde progeny in a buffalo stance (that single STILL sounds marvelous), Ms. Cherry, fresh from fronting a free jazz record–not an easy VOCAL task–has issued this equally challenging project, where her still free-inflected vocals dart and linger in and around extremely crisp and deep trip-hop inflected tracks. It’s hard to judge it, because I haven’t heard much like it, but I have been encountering some age-ism lately, and Cherry’s work is argument against it.

8) Dry Wood (directed by Les Blank) and Bury the Hatchet (directed by Aaron Walker) One old, one new doc out of Louisiana, the former about Creole culture (specifically, music and food) in Mamou, the latter about NOLA Mardi Gras Indians (specifically, Big Chiefs Alfred Doucette, Victor Harris, and Monk Boudreaux). Both films are beautiful and do what they set out to do and more. But they are most striking in capturing Americans making and building (also, unfortunately, rebuilding) things themselves–they will strike you across the face with what you are missing out on. VERY, VERY highly recommended.

Dry Wood trailer:

Bury the Hatchet trailer:

9) Allen Toussaint: Life, Love, and Faith (Four Men with Beards Reissue) Toussaint’s mild, almost shy singing causes some listeners’ minds to wander, but here it’s backed by the original version of The Meters (notably including the drumming of Ziggy Modeliste, which is always interesting by itself) and some of the best tunes and arrangements Allen ever wrote for himself. Quietly and seductively funky, in the New Orleans way.

10) Fats Waller, 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Scrambling to get it together to meet my Science Olympiad crew at 6:30 at the local university, my stressors were vanquished when my wife Nicole got the right medicine out of the cabinet. If the world is too much with you, if you can’t pry your mind from lost planes, corporate control of your country, the frustrations of your job (if you even have one), or absent friends or family, let the mischievous Mr. Waller remind you that life is too important to be taken seriously. His deft command of the 88s, his phrasing-with-a-wink, his jaunty rhythm, his raffish charm–what more can you ask for to lift your tension?

 

 

So Who the Hell is Swamp Dogg?

swamp-dogg-band

Well, if you clicked on the link in my previous post, you know something. He is soul singer–not to mention a songwriter–from outer space, though on close inspection his feet are planted more firmly on Earth than most of ours are. He is also a very funny man. Read Perfect Sound Forever’s excellent interview with Mr. Dogg, or sample this Spotify playlist, rather than reading me rattle: