Saturday, April 22, 2017

Blackstar 2: Kendrick Lamar Doesn’t Care If I Like It Or Not

So I guess I was lying about dinner with Kanye, but facts don’t matter anymore, so sue me.

It’s usually after dinner when the amazon $5 mp3s strike. They say don’t go food shopping while you’re hungry. I shouldn’t go music shopping when I’m full. It gives me too much endurance. Like Superman, I could climb tall record-store racks in a single bound. So paging through a few dozen pages worth of amazon mp3s is a snap. (But my advice is to stick to the $5 ones, the $3.99 ones - 400 pages worth - are a little sad, even for me.)

But it does give me more opportunities to catch up on this decade. It’s where I found an artist whose record will definitely show up on a lot of Best of the Decade lists.

And he’s already released a couple of new ones! So here I am, as usual, one record behind.


Kendrick.jpg
Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)

“Be honest. Do you really enjoy that album?” Mrs. Jaybee asked me today

It’s a fair question. Hip-hop isn’t a genre I’d ordinarily gravitate to. Plus, she must have found it funny to watch a sixty-year-old white guy listening to this.

So we both went through the album, rating each song from ick/meh/pretty good/great. And I showed her that my overall answer to her question was a guarded, but definite, Yes.

Not that Kendrick Lamar is losing any sleep over this. He’s got more important things on his mind.

But I’ll do my best to say why, with some half-assed observations based on my limited knowledge. I’ll use Kanye (as a crutch) for comparison purposes.

Like Kanye, when he bothers to meet me halfway, I enjoy it the most. I could swear he’s sampling Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” on “These Walls”, but can’t prove it. (It’s really “Hit the Quan” by Iheartmemphis.)

And my oh my, what a cool piano on “What a Dollar Cost”!

And where Kanye’s always talking about himself, Kendrick, in talking about himself, is really talking about an entire community. So while any of us can have a good laugh over Kanye bragging or feuding with someone, For Kendrick, the stakes are just too high.

And while I enjoy the parts less where he doesn’t meet me halfway, there’s no doubt that it’s my problem. The samples he uses are almost uniformly unknown to me, which puts into greater relief how African American culture is doing just fine without me, f*ck you very much.

And as difficult and painful as the story is, by the time you get to “i” (sampling the Isley’s “Who’s that Lady?”) the joy is real and well-earned.

So while Kendrick isn’t as funny as Kanye he’s also less of an egomaniac.

And where Kanye uses rock n' roll on Fantasy as an obvious crossover move, Lamar gracefully deploys jazz because he likes it.

Kanye’s first album ends with a 12-minute monolog about getting a record deal, this one ends with a 12-minute meditation on what it means to be an African-American man in America. (Kanye tries to do this on Fantasy, but could only come up with a dated and sexist Gil Scott-Heron poem.

So I give the edge to Kanye on sheer entertainment value, Kendrick gives me much more to think about.

I don’t get all of this, by any means, but that’s on me.

B+


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Blackstar 1: My Dinner with Kanye

The end of the decade (and the planet) is looming, so what can be more important than making sure my “Best Albums of the Decade” (assuming we make it that far) list is respectable?  And how can I do that if I continue to avoid what a lot of people think is the decade’s best music?

I became a little gunshy regarding hip-hop. Being a melody and electric guitar guy, I could only seem to enjoy it up to a point. And I want to love music, not merely like or admire it.

But there are just too many artists I’ve bypassed for that reason - Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, the Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Danny Brown. And as a self-respecting music fan, I must do my due diligence.

And Kanye scores!


Kanye.jpg

Kanye West: My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy (2010)

We all have a Kanye story.

We all have (at least) one occasion when - like President Obama - we deemed Kanye a jackass.

It’s like when they ask you "Where were you when Kennedy was killed?", or for the younger folk, when 9/11 happened. Now it’s "Where were you when Kanye said I’ma let you finish…?"

My last one was when he posed for pictures with Trump. Kanye, you may have thought that he was a fellow misunderstood genius, but he's not, and you mean nothing to him. You were used. I didn’t think you were that dumb.

Another one was when he married a for-profit attention whore whose name I refuse to further sully the internet with.

And then there was the time he trashed the Grammys for awarding Best Album to Beck (Morning Phase was my favorite that year) instead of Beyonce (or was it him? I don’t really care.)


Digression 1: My Purge of the Grammys

Now I’m always amazed when the Grammys like an album I like. (The time before that was The Suburbs by Arcade Fire) This is due as much to sheer demographics as taste. Now, I’m just too old to matter to the music industry. I was always too weird.

Throughout the sixties and seventies, I remember watching the Grammy's with frustration and ultimately disdain as they gave awards to unworthy musicians. (“Mrs. Robinson” over “Hey Jude” for Best Record? Please.) Sound familiar?


Digression 2: My Barbecue with Sara

A few years ago, we had the in-laws over for a barbecue. I was in the backyard cooking and listening to The Who Sell Out, (my all time favorite record) when my niece Sara - then a teenager - came out back.

Now, I should mention that I used to believe in the principle of Great Music Will Be Loved By Everyone Who Hears It.

Anyway, Sara says “Uncle John, what’s with the corny music?”

Another illusion shattered.

But I reassembled it somewhat, and it now reads Great Music Has the Potential To Be Recognized By Anyone Who Hears It. And I still believe this. Otherwise, I wouldn’t buy the records I do.

But I should have realized she'd react that way. Hell, I don't even think I liked the album the first time I heard it. Why should she?

But even given the chance, I still think she'd conclude it was corny because she just doesn't care as much about melody and electric guitars.

And although I haven't heard it, I suspect Beyonce's album is more to her liking and that she'd think Beck was corny, too. So, why shouldn’t Kanye? (Remember Kanye? It’s a post about Kanye.)


Dinner Time:

Which is why I can't get too annoyed with him. He cares, he's passionate. For all I know, he’s secretly in love with Beyonce. He sure loves himself. And now, after all these years, I can see how healthy that must be.

And judging from this record, he makes pretty great music too.

Up until now, I wasn’t sure. I liked his first record, but not the 12-minute monolog at the end about how he got a record deal.

This time out, he adds a hard rock texture - guitars (!) and melody (!!) - to a lot of the songs.

Every song has a great vocal, hook, texture or lyric to offer, and there are no dead spots at all. My only complaint is that he mars the otherwise stellar “The Blame Game” with a gross Chris Rock monolog.  But even that’s funny.

And while I still don’t quite love it, I’m really happy I got it. Kanye may have saved hip-hop - and my principle - for me.

So, to this impossible, egotistical, narcissistic self-proclaimed genius, I say, Damn!

A-

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Then She Died...

So there I was, just revving up for the new year, determined to catch up, not just with the current decade overall, but with the current year in particular.

I’d already gotten a couple of highly praised hip-hop albums (not exactly my go-to genre, but, damn it, I want to know) and then followed up with two more albums and an EP, because amazon $5 mp3s said so.

And then my mom died.

She was 95, so it wasn’t exactly a shocking development. I still managed to be surprised, though.

I was charged with/volunteered for creating a playlist for the funeral chapel.

We’re Irish and Mom was from the other side. In prior posts, I’ve described how Irish music was used by my parents as a kind of bulwark against the British Invasion of the early sixties. Me and my parents would always be at odds over music.

In a testament to his authority, my dad’s famous announcement in 1964 - “There will never be a Beatles album in this house.” actually held for almost two years. And our mutual incomprehension of each other’s tastes and enthusiasms would continue for the next two decades.

My dad had been long dead when mom moved to the assisted living facility. We sold the house and I somehow “inherited” their albums, which came in handy when I compiled the playlist. My siblings also gave me a couple of dozen suggestions.

There were some artists and songs that were obvious to me, like Bridie Gallagher, Larry Cunningham, The Clancy Brothers, The Wolftones and Anne Murray, plus anyone who’d do a song she really liked, like “The Patriot Game”.

And The Sound of Music.

Oddly enough, although she loved Bing Crosby, he didn’t make the cut. For some reason, none of his songs - even the Irish ones - stuck with me as being family favorites, no matter how popular they may have been.

So that got me about forty songs. But since the wake would consist of two sittings for a total of five hours, I felt I’d need quite a few more to fill that time. (Funny how simply replaying the list never occurred to me.) So I started going through my own collection and added songs I thought she’d like. Which was really just an excuse to add songs I liked.  (Uh, Jaybee, who actually died, anyway?)

Which I did and I ended up with nearly a hundred. I'll cut it down to 95, in honor of her age.

For the life of me, I couldn’t find “The Irish Rebel”. And forgot “Carrickfergus” (check out the Bryan Ferry version if you can) and a handful of others.

Sequencing them was a snap - I sorted them in order of duration. This is an extremely under-rated way to organize a playlist, by the way. Structure, pace and tone can be remarkably similar in songs that both run about 2:05.

So here they are. Sorry Mom! And may God have mercy on my soul:


  1. “At Last”, by Neko Case: A primal animal cry about our fragile existence, from the point of view of an unspecified animal.
  2. “Edelweiss”, from The Sound of Music, and one of mom’s favorites. And she’s absolutely right. It’s simple, beautiful, and patriotic.  
  3. “Redford”, by Sufjan Stevens. My choice. I’m not sure mom would have liked this haunting, mournful theme by Sufjan. I sure do, though.  
  4. “There’s a Heartache Following Me”, by Jim Reeves, included because I thought mom loved Jim Reeves and I knew the Pete Townshend version. In fact, she loved Eddy Arnold. My confusion continues below.
  5. “This Will Be Our Year”, by the Zombies. A song of renewal. I imagine it being about my mom and dad overcoming yet another tragedy and deciding they’d just carry on and things would get better.  
  6. “Faust Arp”, by Radiohead, included for no other reason than that it fits the mood I needed. 
  7. “The Sound of Music”. Not the famous version, with Julie Andrews shrieking like a B-52 strafing the Alps (although mom loved that one, too) but rather the one with the whole Von Trapp family joining in. It's quite touching when the Captain - a man who didn't think he'd ever sing again - joins in. It gives me hope.   
  8. “Snowbird”, by Anne Murray. I really want to hate this song, but the melody - and the words - wins me over every time.  
  9. “A Rose For Emily”, by the Zombies. This is a sad one a la “Eleanor Rigby”. It really doesn’t apply, except that it still does suck to get old.  
  10. “He’ll Have to Go”, another one by Jim Reeves, and pretty sexy, too. Mom liked to sing along to this one. Good for her. 
  11. “Last Thing On My Mind”Anne Murray again, and mom singing to it again. And as much as I’d like to dismiss her taste (she sure as sh*t dismissed mine) I can’t. A pretty folky version, too. 
  12. “Wild Mountain Thyme”, by the Byrds. I know she liked the song, but probably by the Clancy Brothers. But this is the version I love.
  13. “Lovely Leitrim”, by Larry Cunningham. We played Two Sides of Larry endlessly, and it actually “took” for us kids. There were some great songs on this album, but damned if I could find any on iTunes. This seems like a re-recording. But it’s pretty great nonetheless. 
  14. “Make the World Go Away”, by Eddy Arnold. This one used to drive me crazy when I was a kid, but mom loved it, so, given how much I like “Heartache” and “He’ll Have to Go”, and how I hadn't yet figured out that it was not Jim Reeves, I have to let this one slide.  
  15. “Underneath the Weeping Willow”, by Grandaddy. This one’s all mine. Mom would probably have mocked it as a real sad sack song. And it is! One of the sad sack-iest ever. Enjoy! 
  16. “Brennan on the Moor”, by the Clancy Brothers. This one is just about buried into my DNA. And yet, I don’t remember anyone ever referring to it. But we did play it, and I think I heard my brother - six years old at the time - singing it like he was one of the Clancys himself. 
  17. “Naples”, by Yo La Tengo. Just one of those happy collisions of mood and circumstance. 
  18. “Streets of Laredo”, by Marty Robbins. Just a perfect song, really. Yeah, mom had pretty good taste. And the story? Oh, just rip my heart out, why don’t you? 
  19. “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, by Smashing Pumpkins. I dare you to tell me that this doesn’t belong here.  
  20. “Kevin Barry”, by the Davitts. Another rebel song. I know that, deep down, she could identify with anyone who was oppressed and who rebelled against it. 
  21. “So Long, Farewell”TSOM again. I love the end when all the guests say good night.  
  22. “San Francisco”, by Scott McKenzie. I’m so glad she loved this one. She didn’t let the flowers in their hair part bother her.  
  23. “John Riley”, by the Byrds. Another unabashedly romantic song that I think she’d love. The story of a stranger who asks to marry a maiden, who cannot accept because she’s already given her heart to someone who’s gone away for seven years. Spoiler alert! There’s a twist at the end. But it brings a tear to my eye every single time. 
  24. “Gentle Mother”, by Foster and Allen. I’m not sure which version mom liked, but this one fit the bill.  
  25. “Strange Boat”, by The Waterboys. It is probably meant for something else altogether, but it fits my mom and dad’s stories perfectly. 
  26. “Hills of Donegal”, by Bridie Gallagher, or as I like to call her, “She Who Shall Not Be Named” Get through this if you can. 
  27. “Carrie and Lowell”, by Sufjan Stevens. From his album of the same name, about the loss of his mom, with whom he had a strained relationship. I can relate. 
  28. “Caide Sin Don Te Sin?”, by Atlan. One of the better ones from Celtic Moods, which I leaned a little too heavily on, and is too slick by half.  
  29. “Could I Have this Dance?”, by Anne Murray. Another one she’d single along to. (Christ, she was always singing to me!)  
  30. “Something Good”, from guess what? About Mom and Dad, I’d like to think. 
  31. “Strangers”, by the Kinks. For most of our lives, mom and me were strangers to each other. Neither one quite understanding the other. I went from black sheep to saint (a finicky one, I admit) in her eyes. Thanks, mom, but wrong on both counts. I wonder now what I got wrong about her... Strangers on this road we are on, but we are not two, we are one.  
  32. “Red is the Rose”, by Nanci Griffin and the Chieftains. This one is pretty and I love Griffin’s voice. The Chieftains totally nail it, of course. It’s just not one of my favorites, but this list is about mom, right Jaybee?
  33. “Home to Mayo”, by the Screaming Orphans. I tried to find the version by Bridie Gallagher, whose power-drill voice scarred all of us kids way back in ‘63. Thank god for the Beatles, who rescued us shortly after. But really, this is not a bad song at all.  
  34. “The Coolin”, by Celtic Roots. Meh, I've heard better.
  35. “Holland”, by Sufjan Stevens. This lovely song has the perfect tone for a quiet funeral parlor, but maybe not a full, Irish one, though.
  36. “Little Beggar Girl”, by Richard and Linda Thompson, is one of the most amazing songs of the 70s. So full of life, wisdom and delusion. The title sounds sad but the melody is joyous about a rather bleak situation. I think my mom would have loved it.  
  37. “Withered and Died”, by Richard and Linda Thompson. Okay, there’s no mistaking the mood here. One of the saddest songs ever, because nothing makes us Irish folk happier than sadness. 
  38. “When I Get to the Border”, by Richard and Linda Thompson, who almost make death sound good. Mom, I’ll see you on the other side of the border some day. 
  39. “Brief Candles”, by the Zombies. Even though she made it to 95, the candles are still too brief. 
  40. “My Life”, by Iris DeMent, is the single greatest song to hear if you ever fear your life hasn’t added up to much. 
  41. “The Crib of Perches”, by Matt Maloy. Celtic Moods again! But at least this one’s actually Celtic. Again, mom may not have gone for the sheer prettiness of it.  
  42. “Always on My Mind”, by Willie Nelson, who wrote and recorded hundreds of songs before he hit it really big with this one. But if it wasn’t for my mom hearing it and telling me he could really sing, I may never have checked him out.  
  43. “Has He Got a Friend for Me”, by Richard and Linda Thompson. Another really sad one, and at this point mom may have drawn the line.   
  44. “Four Green Fields”, by the Clancy Brothers. I was really looking for the Mary McGonigle version but couldn’t find it. In the throes of teenage rock n roll I mistook this for a stupid little song about a farm until my mom pointed out that the Irish practically invented metaphor. 
  45. “Blackbird”, by Sharon Shannon, who does a lovely, jaunty little instrumental. What’s not to like?  
  46. “Gentle Annie”, by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. A little too stiff  in the singing department, as are a lot of the Clancy songs. But I’m glad I avoided a Celtic Moods version! 
  47. “All of Me Wants All of You”, by Sufjan Stevens, The line about masturbation slid in there without notice. So it counts as an improvement over my adolescence.  
  48. “In My Hour of Darkness”, by Gram Parsons. With a reference to a beloved elder’s impending death, it fit my mood perfectly. 
  49. "The Patriot Game", by the Wolfe Tones. This is one of the greatest songs ever written. (Dylan stole the melody for "With God on Our Side”.) To this day, I can’t tell if it’s pro or anti- war.  
  50. “Bonny Boy”, by Kathleen Fitzgerald. I couldn’t find the Larry Cunningham version. But this one’s pretty good anyway. 
  51. “Find A River”, by REM, at their very best. The climax of Automatic for the People, their death album. None of this is going my way…
  52. “Questions for the Angels”, by Paul Simon. Sweet, gentle and earned after a full life. Art Garfunkel was never really needed.  
  53. “Try Not to Breath”, by REM. Also from AFTP, directly confronting death. I have seen things you will never see. I’ll bet you have.  
  54. “Endgame”, by REM, but this time from Out of Time, one of my all time favorite albums. As beautiful as “Near Wild Heaven” is, it was too obtrusive to be here. This will do just dandy. 
  55. “For the Widows in Paradise…”. Another Sufjan Stevens gem. He’s got so many. 
  56. “Death With Dignity”Sufjan again. Every road leads to an end. 
  57. “Electrolite”, by REM. Maybe the greatest song of the 90s. Your eyes are burning holes through me. Well, that’s mom. I’m not scared. I’m out of here. I’d like to think that’s her, too. 
  58. “Brokedown Palace”, by the Grateful Dead - I’ll get to the reason this is here a little later. 
  59. “Love and Hard Times”, by Paul Simon. The word "love" appears a lot in this song. I’m normally suspicious of that. But if you’ve been around as long as Simon, you’ve earned the right to use it all you want. 
  60. “Ripple”, by the Grateful Dead. When I was a teenager, I was forever playing records to convince my mom that "rock and roll was good". I’d try to be subtle and just put something on when she was in the room. It NEVER worked. (“Celluloid Heroes”? “John, I think there’s a scratch on that record!”). But one day, this song was just playing, and without any prompting, she said “Oh, now that’s a nice song there, John”  Thanks mom. I love you. And that’s why “Brokedown Palace” - and an even greater song later on - is here, too, 
  61. “Dusty in Here”, by the Go-Betweens. I wasn’t happy about what the new owners did to my parent’s house, but it relieves me and my siblings of having to see an abandoned house, like the one the narrator of this song visits.   It’s cold.. It’s cold, it’s cold,  and dusty in here.  Brrr. 
  62. “Long Journey Home”, by Elvis Costello, from the film The Irish In America. My mom and dad have as much right to this as anyone.  
  63. “Nightswimming”, by REM. Yet another on from AFTP, but not about death, thank god. About youth, I guess. But after all these sad songs we all deserve a break. 
  64. “Sweetness Follows”, by REM. Readying to bury your father and your mother. What did you think when you lost another? The song promises a relief I’m not feeling just yet. 
  65. “Return of the Grievous Angel”, by Gram Parsons. And I remember something you once told me, and I’ll be damned if it did not come true. Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down, and they all led me straight back home to you. AND I saw my devil and I saw my deep blue sea.  
  66. “When She Sang About Angels”, by the Go-Betweens. It just feels right here. 
  67. “Samain Night”, by Loreena McKennitt. She sings too good by half, but I have to hand it to her here. Another Celtic Mood. If I had more Irish records I might not have had to rely on it so much. 
  68. “Dazzling Blue”, by Paul Simon. By now, after all this mourning, we need that haunting electric guitar, the harmonies and Simon’s words: And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through, and dream our dreams of dazzling blue.  
  69. “Pilgrim’s Progress”, by Procol Harum. The words have all been writ by one before me, We're taking turns in trying to pass them on. The ending theme KILLS me. If you can hear it and not be moved, I don’t think I want to know you.  
  70. “America Without Tears”, by Elvis Costello.It seems we’ve been crying for years and years. Mom, Dad, I hope you copped some joy out of all of this.  
  71. “The Fields of Athenry”, by Paddy Reilly. Yet another Irish tragedy. 
  72. “Fourth of July”, by Sufjan. Maybe the most haunting one from Carrie and Lowell
  73. “Romulus”. Sufjan again. A painful song about an absent mother. Mom and I didn’t always get along, but she was always there. 
  74. “The Only Thing", by Sufjan. The most beautiful song on this album. 2:40 is the most sublime moment maybe ever. 
  75. “Don’t Be - Memory”, by the Chills - Kind of self-explanatory, really. 
  76. “Why Should I Cry for You”, by Sting. This list is so inclusive even this insufferable twit  makes it. 
  77. “Golden Slumbers”, by Jackson Browne and Jennifer Warnes. This version not only fits in better  at the funeral parlor, it has the bonus of ending with a gentle “Carry That Weight”. 
  78. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, by Gregg Allman. Of course the song belongs here, and of the many versions out there, why not Gregg’s?  
  79. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, by Elton John. My own seeds shall be sown in New York City. Yes, mom and dad. They were.  
  80. “I and Love and You”, by the Avett Brothers. These were always tough words for us to say. But we occasionally did, and Brooklyn did let us in. All of us. 
  81. “$1,000 Wedding”, by Gram Parsons. One thousand sounds about right, but mom actually went through with it.
  82. “The Bard of Armagh/Streets of Laredo”, by Vince Gill, Paul Leim, Michael Rhodes, John Jarvis, Stuart Duncan, Paddy Moloney, Se├ín Keane & Derek Bell. A nice combination of these two songs, the latter of which made an earlier appearance. The melody alone  deserves a second go round, doesn’t it?  
  83. “Deeper into Movies”, by Yo La Tengo. Again, there’s absolutely no thematic justification for the inclusion of this song, other than it sounds just right. 
  84. “From Clare to Here”, by Nanci Griffith. Mom liked this one, but for tales about failure and dissipation, I’ll take “Carrickfergus”.
  85. “Box of Rain”, by the Grateful Dead - The connection may not be obvious, but it’s about supporting someone through a hard time. I wonder if I ever played it for mom? One of my all time favorites.  
  86. “The Island”, by Paul Brady. Okay, another Celtic Moods piece, and nice enough. But "Box of Rain" - in its sheer empathy - blows it away. 
  87. “That’s the Way”, by Led Zeppelin. Yes, even those thieving bastards LZ deserve a spot here because of the sheer beauty and sadness of this one. 
  88. “Raglan Road”, by Loreena McKennitt, who very nearly overdoes it, but holds back just enough to allow this stunning melody to do its job. Did I say the Irish invented metaphor? They may have invented melody, too.  
  89. “In the Upper Room, Dance 2”, by Michael Riesman and the Philip Glass Ensemble. Wordless, but it may be the sound of going to heaven.  
  90. “Casimir Pulaski Day”, Sufjan, yet again. Young love abruptly ended by cancer, and yet the ending is so goddamned uplifting.  I think we’re nearing something approximating acceptance. 
  91. “Closing”, by Michael Riesman and the Philip Glass Ensemble. Still floating, but more mournfully. Maybe it’s for those of us left behind.  
  92. “On the Nature of Daylight”, by Max Richter - And what about that mourning? 
  93. “The Town I Loved So Well”, by Paddy Reilly. Okay the lyrics are slightly sappy, but again, the story is very real, and the melody captures every bit of the tragedy. 
  94. “Vito’s Ordination”, Sufjan again, with Jesus assuring us: Rest in my arms, Sleep in my bed,  There’s a design, to what I did and said.  But I’m so tired now I’ll have to take his word for it. 
  95. "In Reverse", by The War on Drugs - And I don’t mind you disappearing cause I know you can be found…  
So that's it.

Thank you Sufjan, REM, Richard and Linda, and even you, Celtic Moods.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

2016 Leftovers:

Oh, how I long for the days when Donald was just President-Elect and not yet Actual President. Then I only had my fears of what could be – and music – to contend with. Now that I know what will be, I am feeling nostalgic for last year when it was all just theoretical.

Plus, there were a bunch of records I never got around to, what with Car Seat Headrest blowing everything else away and all.

But these records are pretty good to excellent - you might even love some of them - arranged roughly in descending order of quality:

Go Betweens.jpg
Go-Betweens: The Friends of Rachel Worth

Their first record after a hiatus of several years. So it’s sort of a reunion/comeback album, but with members of Sleater-Kinney as backing band. Sounds weird on paper but they provide perfect support. They drive at least as hard as the GBs of old. And why not? Lindy Morrison was their drummer for the longest time, and she banged it out as well as anyone, female or otherwise.

And it’s interesting to hear this current powerhouse incarnation paired with some of the more melodic songs they’ve ever done. “The Clock” shows how well it all goes together. That insistent beat and hard as nails guitar powering a lovely song.

I’m beginning to think I like the post-reunion GBs more than the pre. I find this record and Oceans Apart more satisfying that anything prior to the 1979-1990 best-of. Robert Forster used to go out of his way to sound out of tune. Now he’s calmed down a bit and the results are striking. Everything comes together here. Highly recommended.

A-

“Magic in the Air”


Robbie Fulks.jpg
Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories

Sometimes I think all you need to understand that you’re listening to a great record - besides your ears - is a quiet Saturday morning. That’s was put this one over the goal line for me. I could finally luxuriate in Fulks’ voice, lyrics and tunes all at once.

Nice and easy folk and country  The tunes are perfectly suited to his voice.  The lyrics - when I hear them - are very worthwhile.  And the accompaniment is perfect.

Some great songs came out of 2016 and several of them are here.

A-
“Alabama at Night”


Angel Olsen.jpg
Angel Olsen: My Woman

It’s not just because she slightly resembles Laura Palmer that this is my nomination for the soundtrack for the next Twin Peaks. It’s also that the music has the weird vibe of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But where Neko Case’s voice cuts through the wilderness like a fog horn, Angel Olsen’s despair is right out of Fire Walk With Me.

Her exaggerated, emotive singing - at a high enough volume to push the needle to red - is a bit too much for Mrs. Jaybee, who asked that I not play it when she’s around. The weirdness even got to me when I heard a perfectly nice song almost ruined by a rumbling distorted guitar underneath the otherwise smooth sound – seemingly calculated to make things unnecessarily weird yet again – until I realized it was the sound my fridge was making. So I'll own that one.

After that, the rest kicked in nicely, with both the songs and the band playing them not letting up. She’s got the talent and the courage to back up her craziness.

A-
“Not Gonna Kill You”


John Prine.jpg
John Prine: In Spite of Ourselves

Remember this guy? Back in the seventies he was considered one of the “New Dylans”, and he made several classic albums to almost back that claim up. Since then he’s continued down his own path, maybe not at the level of his early work, but still better than most.

This time around he does a duet album of country covers, which sounds like a really bad idea. After all, he’s a great songwriter. Why not do his own songs?

But he never had a great voice, and he’s got some great co-lead singers like Lucinda Williams, Iris DeMent, Trisha Yearwood, Connie Smith, Fiona Prine, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane and Patty Loveless

The odd thing is that I originally assumed he wrote these songs. Shows what I know about country music. It turns out he only wrote one. But with Prine that’s the type of mistake one can make, he’s that good.

But you know how these things can go. You put it on once or twice, enjoy the “gimmick”  and then file it away because when you get down to it, it’s all a bit dull.

But not here. And it’s all in the execution. He picks high-quality songs that don’t demand too much of his voice, and the co-stars shine.

A grower.

A-
“In Spite of Ourselves”


Mitsky.jpg
Mitsky: Puberty 2

She’s got a lovely deep voice. And sounds way more normal that Angel Olsen. But when the music kicks in, she’s like Bjork-lite. And I mean that in a good way, because Bjork gets on my nerves.

These are “insinuating” melodies. They take a little longer to resolve but they do so just in time - before my ADD kicks in.

But because she’s more normal than Angel Olsen, she leaves less of an impression. I think.

B+
“Happy”



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Willie Nelson: The Red-Headed Stranger

Years ago, when my mom said what good a voice Willie had, I didn’t take it as a ringing endorsement. I’ve lived to regret that.

I alway thought it was a woman thing to admire a guy’s voice. But it’s becoming more apparent to me that it’s Willie’s voice that really puts a lot of songs across. Stardust, for instance, might have been unbearable by anyone else. Now I can say I really like those songs.

Here, he’s doing country proud. Much more bearable than almost any country album I’ve gotten in years.

But it is about murder, so there’s that.

And there are a lot of melodies here that sound borrowed, but this record is over forty years old so it might just seem that way.

I think this one just got bowled over by the events of 2016. I’ll probably like it more as time goes on.

B+

“Hand on the Wheel”


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American Music Club: Everclear

AMC started out as an obscure late-80s alt-rock band and turned into a slightly-less obscure early-90s alt-rock band.

I first heard them way back then while driving home from work. I have no idea what song it was I heard -  it isn’t on this record, or the other one I have by them - but it was off kilter enough to catch my attention.  It started with a minor chord based melody (misery is my favorite company) and then went into an instrumental break dominated by an aggressively strummed acoustic guitar. Pretty cool, I thought.

So I sought them out, first getting Mercury from 1993, which is pretty good - one of those records with a few very striking songs, a few annoying ones and a bunch in the middle.

Everclear is it’s predecessor from 1991. It’s more consistent, more melodic, but like Mitski, not quite strong enough to grab your attention.  Those same pretty melodies and arrangements make it harder to tell some of these songs apart.

They are/were led by singer/songwriter/alcoholic Mark Eitzel, whose voice isn’t pretty but pleasant enough when he’s not straining too much. Then he sounds like Elvis Costello with a sinus infection. (And Elvis already sounds like he’s got one.)

He does strain a couple of times here, but if the band keeps up with him it’s not awful. They pay his tab and drive him home safe.

I get the feeling this one will be a once-in-awhile-go-to record I’ll enjoy quite a bit.

But then I’ll file it away for a while before I need to hear it again.

B+
“Rise”


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Elliott Smith: Either/Or

Elliot didn’t suffer fools gladly, himself included, and he’s having none of it here. Lots of songs about drinking and the ramifications thereof. You could find yourself humming a pretty tune with lyrics that will eat through your speakers.

But lurking beneath this is a very Beatle-y sense of melody and arrangement. Which doesn’t fully emerge until XO.

But this one’s got a bracing effect, like a person you respect who’s just thrown a cold drink in your face.  It makes you sit up and take notice. He may be mad, but you know he cares because he really wanted that drink.

Plus it’s got the right vibe for the times. Not giving sh*t. At least some of the time, right? Otherwise we’d all go mad.

B+

“Rose Parade”


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James “Blood” Ulmer: Odyssey

Kind of strange: guitar, drums, fiddle, but no bass. And the stuttering rhythms make me wonder if the CD has a scratch in it.

It’s really hard to pin down the genre here. Sometimes jazz, sometimes rock, and weird, weird blues.

And then the gruff, ancient voice. Jimi Hendrix from Hell?  No, more like Purgatory.

B+

“Are You Glad to Be In America?”



ATDI.jpg
At the Drive-In: Relationship of Command

Shrieky, and not at all what I had in mind for Thanksgiving, when I got it, but maybe what I need for the next four years.

Kind of like, Rage Against the Machine (Or was it System of a Down? I’ll have to ask my son.)

At first it nearly unbearable, but that was before the election. Now it sounds about right.

Compressed, focused, powerful. And maybe more than I can take.

B+

“Sleepwalk Capsules”


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Gavin Bryars: Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Holy sh*t, does this go on. The same musical phrase for nearly an hour and a half. How dare I recommend such a thing? I can’t in good conscience. But I will tell you that I like it a lot.

Absolutely insane in its serene hour-plus of the same refrain over and over and over (and over) again.

At times, it’s quite beautiful, and I’ll probably put it on when no one else is around. You may not have time for all that, though.

B+

“Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet”



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Joy of Cooking

This is old-style early-seventies blues played by white people. But that makes it sound really terrible. It’s not that bad. It is quite dusty though. I hear bits of Ani DiFranco, but it’s a little corny. That organ, ugh!

I hear enthusiasm but it’s hard to get past some seventies cliches.

The further back you go, the more time you have to give something.

B-
“Hush”


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The Libertines: Up the Bracket

Loud obnoxious British louts. Produced by Mick Jones of the Clash, who was pretty obnoxious himself, so he ought to know.

But me? I don't know yet.

“Up the Bracket”



Music For the Age of Trumpy:

A lot of this and other music will have to get me through the next few years.

Most of the above is quite diverting, but maybe not useful for this moment in time.

Gavin Bryars is meant for “special” occasions.
At the Drive-In are good for rage, but I’m too old for that.
Glassworks is for Solace.
The Chills are Endurance.
The Libertines are F*ck It.
Elliot Smith is F*ck You.  (Not you. But you get the idea.)




And they will all be needed.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sixth Annual JBBs: 2016, or Holy F*cking Sh*t


Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest


For once, I’m going to get this done before the Voice does their Pazz and Jop poll.

Anyway, it was the best of times (music) and it was the worst of times (everything else). You get the idea.

Unlike prior years, in 2016 there always seemed to be a really good record to listen to. Alas, like most prior years there didn’t seem to be any outright great ones (except one). But overall things could have been a lot, lot worse.


Resolutions:

I’m always trying to cut down on the CDs in favor of mp3s, and out of a total of 32 albums, only 15 were actual CDs. So I did pretty well not overfilling the house with plastic jewel cases, but I kind of miss the liner notes.

And in my struggle to stay more current, I’m treading water. As in 2015, I managed to get four albums from 2016. I’ve still got to work on that, since I can’t compete with Nutboy, who can spin off a Top 5 list and still say that Car Seat Headrest is great without including it. So I know he’s got a few more up his sleeve. I must do better!

And eat more vegetables.


Nutboy:

And speaking of Nutboy, here’s his list:

1. Bob Dylan: The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert 
2. Radiohead: Heart Shaped Pool
3. Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
4. Drive By Truckers: American Band 
5. Angel Olsen: My Woman

Now I have no doubt Nutboy can listen to the six CD Dylan The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965-1966  in a single sitting, and I wouldn’t put it past him to enjoy a collection of outgoing messages from Dylan’s answering machine, and good for him I say. But I’m guessing he’s onto something here.

Angel Olsen is the only one that I’ve got and I can understand why it made his cut. It kind of made mine, too.

And the rest have been on my radar, and now that they have the NSA (Nutboy Seal of Approval) I can proceed, but, as usual, I’m a dollar short and a year late.


Overrated, or Disappointments:

Without dwelling on it, I’ll just say that Elliott Smith’s Either/Or is Neither, and Joy of Cooking
stinks to high heaven of 1970. It’s not a bad smell, mind you, but it should have worn off by now.


Top Ten:

So here’s my list, which I’ll remind you contains whatever I got acquainted with last year, and is thus not limited to 2016 releases.

1. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial

2. Erroll Garner: The Complete Concert by the Sea

3. Chills: Kaleidoscope World

4. Fairport Convention: Liege and Leif

5. Kinks: Lola vs Powerman and the Money Go Round

6. Philip Glass: Glassworks (Expanded Edition)

7. The Go! Team: Thunder Lightning Strike

8. Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier/Art of the Fugue/A Musical Offering

9. Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder

and tied for 10th
John Coltrane: Afro Blue Impressions
Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories 
The Go-Betweens: The Friends of Rachel Worth 
Angel Olsen: My Woman


Top Songs:

This is just some of them, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few:
Car Seat Headrest: "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales"
Car Seat Headrest: “Vincent”
The Chills: “Cosmic Drift”
The Chills: “Rolling Moon”
The Chills “Doledrums”
Fairport Convention: “Come All Ye”
The Kinks: “Top of the Pops”
The Kinks: “Strangers” 
Philip Glass “Opening”
The Go! Team: “Bottle Rocket”
The Apples in Stereo: “Beautiful Machine Part 1-2”
The Apples in Stereo: “Seven Suns”
Elliot Smith: “Rose Parade”
Gavin Bryars: “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”


Most Awesomest:

Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier/Art of the Fugue/A Musical Offering: 7 CDs, after all


Most Funnest:

Car Seat Headrest: It’s got everything I need.

Bestest First Cut:

Fairport Convention: “Come All Ye”

Best Last Line:

I'm cheating, because there’s short “coda” after this, but Car Seat Headrest’s “Connect the Dots”  ends with F*ck All This!!


Thoughts:

So how could Car Seat Headrest be better than Bach or an album with "Lola” on it? The shock of the new I guess. And I have to learn to trust that more.

It’s amazing that the election didn’t ruin Kaleidoscope World for me. That makes it rank pretty high.

I considered not listing Erroll Garner at all since I’ve had the original album for years, but it turns out that more EG is better EG.

How the hell did Philip Glass end up making one of the more emotional records I heard this year?

This has nothing to do with any objective musical quality, otherwise Bach would be at the top. This is about subjective experience.


The Year of….

If it’s an artist (and it usually is):
Bach? Maybe. I mean, 9 CDs worth just this year? So if it was an artist, it would be him.

But maybe it’s a thing.
World History Project? No, this is just getting started, musically.

A Concept? 
Disappointment? Not musically, though.

Maybe it’s the year of Things More Important Than Music, and Not In A Good Way. That’s probably it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need music. As a matter of fact, it’s what gets me through it all.

And for the next four years, I’m gonna need a lot of it.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Holy Toledo!

I’ve spent the year wandering all over musical maps and past eras. This turned out to be a good strategy since 2016 itself was such a turd of a year.

But something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

There are a whole bunch of records I’ve gotten this year that were either fun, educational, deep, wide, etc. And as good as they all were - and there are a few I haven’t bothered to mention yet - there haven’t been any that I’d call great. Or Great.

Then it hit me. How about something new?  How about something from THIS year? I might have thought of this before but the whole year’s been like kryptonite so why would I bother with its music?

So I finally broke down and got something that I hoped would be worthwhile. What I got, though, is undeniably Great.

And I’m glad I got it after the election. Otherwise, it might have been ruined. It would have added to my depression with me blaming myself for getting distracted by a record instead of oh, participating in our democratic experiment.

Instead, I got it at exactly the right time. And now, I can enjoy it as pure “deal with the sh*t with a shout” music.

Car Seat Headrest.jpg

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (2016)

Will Toledo is a nerdy-looking young man:

Will Toledo.jpg

(see?) with a nasal voice a la Jonathan Richman, although I do hear a stressed out Ray Davies, too. In other words, not what you'd think of as a typical rock n' roller.

He writes lyrics about depression, boredom and drunk driving, and attaches them to great rock and roll music. He’s got a tight little band that is very sympathetic to those musical and lyrical leanings.

There is nothing revolutionary here.  But the tunes have the deft chord changes that you know in your bones but haven’t heard put to such good use in decades.

Lyrics filled with pain and insight and even humor. Surges and swells in all the right places. And even the rock n roll cliches (organ swells, shouted refrains, etc.) sound fresh.

Oh, it’s caused some controversies.  It was playing during a tense thirty-minute "family discussion". And it refused to play in the car a couple of times.  I have a sneaky feeling my son hates it, and that my wife thinks I love it more than I love her. (Not true, sweetheart!)

And everyone in the house is either talking to me when I try to play it, or telling me to turn it down when I do.

Ah, but it’s the troublesome ones that you love the most, isn’t it?  (Not really, but in this case, oh so true.) Plus, Mrs. Jaybee is coming around.

This is the best rock and roll record I’ve heard in ages, and the best record, both of the year 2016 (like I’d know) and my year, including all the other stuff I’ve gotten from 1725 through 2015.

In this time when there hasn’t been all that much to be joyful about, this record gives me hope. And that’s all I want.

I find myself wanting to shout some of the choruses in public.

And what better recommendation is that?

A
“Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”





Saturday, December 24, 2016

World History Project: Semi-Christmas Edition, or, Handel and Vivaldi Strike Bach!

So, in keeping with the holiday spirit (not really), here are a few more classical records - two out of three of which are God-themed, but only one of which is, oh, joyful! But that’s a better batting average than usual.

There’s one each by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. I keep comparing these guys when there’s really no valid reason to. These just happen to be records I have where the compositions were written around the same period (1725-1750 or so). But from that point, I’m just making sh*t up.

But since these same three guys keep popping up I considered giving them a humorously inappropriate nickname, like "The Three Amigos" (especially since, like Beethoven, Steve Martin actually lost some hearing during the making of that movie). But I’m not talking about Beethoven right now, am I? (That was a test.)

There’s also a part in the movie Don’t Look Back where poor Donovan plays a pretty song only to have Dylan blow him away with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. In other words, your song sucked. Christ, what a prick.

But I didn't have a third guy, so forget that.

Then there's the Three Stooges, but who is who? I mean, up until now, I could see Bach as Moe, slapping both Vivaldi

Vivaldi.jpg
who reminds me of Larry
 Larry.jpg

and Handel (which makes him Curly or Shemp. You pick) across the face in one swing, because he keeps being better than them.

Does that situation apply here?  Not exactly, but it’s funny how, no matter what Handel or Vivaldi do, Bach’s always there to outdo them.

But not today!


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Bach: Mass in B Minor

So Handel’s doing his thing with Messiah which is a bunch of people singing about Jesus, and of course, Bach says I can do that! and writes Mass in B Minor.  (Yeah, he's really reminding me of Dylan at this point.

And well, it’s kind of what you’d expect at Mass, which is a bunch of people singing together kind of slow - occasionally midtempo. And if they’re having a good time, I wouldn’t know because they’re singing in another language.

But let’s face it, even with the language barrie, you can usuallly tell when there’s a party going on. And it ain’t here.

Now I admit, I should have known what I was getting into. I already have Requiems by Mozart and Brahms and, well, they’re requiems. That word translates into “not quite as fun as Mass”.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised.

But they do occasionally pep up, but that’s really only when they’re kissing God’s ass, which is what people spent a lot of time doing back then.

So, I can’t say that it’s bad, because it’s not. But I’ll go to hell if I only give it a B, so

B+

Here’s the whole thing. Play it on Sunday, and you won’t have to go to church.


Messiah.jpg
Handel: Messiah

I mentioned this one before in comparison to another George (Harrison) because I like to play bother of them on Christmas.

For my money, Messiah beats Mass in B Minor, mainly because the latter IS IN B MINOR! Not the cheeriest key.

Meanwhile Messiah is a bunch of people singing (in English!) about how happy they are about said Messiah. So there’s really no contest.

And there’s usually someone singing lead, whereas in Mass it’s a bunch of people trying to convince you that, despite the key we’re singing it, it’s all good. (Actual lyrics!)

I’m not buying it.

The worst you can say about Messiah is that they like to repeat lines over and over, so a song with five lines may go on for ten minutes, a la:

BeHOLD a virgin shall conceive and bear a son!
Behold a VIRgin shall conceive and bear a son!
Behold a virgin SHALL conceive and bear a son!
Beho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-hold… etc.

You get the idea.

But one great thing is that there are individuals singing.

First, there's the bass dude, going on for a while about the good news, instead of actually delivering it.
And then, the lady - probably his wife - singing Will you get to the f*cking point? Praise the Lord!
And then the chorus comes in to take sides.
First the wives with He’s such an ass! How'd you let yourself get knocked up by him? God Bless Us!
Then the husbands come to his defense with Hey, she’s no bargain, whatever and ever amen

So it’s more entertaining. Like a family gathering. But as you can see it takes some time before the, uh ACTUAL MESSIAH shows up.

And while I’ve had this record for, oh 25 years now, I couldn’t be positive I’d know it when it’s on. But if you drop the needle on it somewhere I’d find myself enjoying it. (Mass not so much  It makes me feel like I should be sitting up straight.)

Oh, and on Messiah, I can hear people having a good time.

A-

Enjoy!


Vivaldi Mandolin.jpg
Vivaldi: Mandolin Concerto
Vivaldi: The Mandolin Concerti: Concerto in G Major for Two Mandolins, Strings, and Basso Continuo, P133; Concerto in C Major for Mandolin, Strings and Basso Continuo P134
Concerto in C Major for Two Mandolins, Two Theorboes, Two Flutes, Two (are you really still reading this? Okay, I’ll keep going) P16; Concerto a due Chori in B-Flat Major “Con Violino Discordato” for Strings and Basso Continuo P368

Which you probably can’t find anymore, but any of these should do.

Not much God here, this is just a really good album - maybe my all time favorite classical record.

You get to hear a string instrument you like and the style of playing is in a sweet spot between classical and pop. Some nice riffs and melodic turns, so it doesn’t feel like work at all.

It’s almost like the Grateful Dead doing an acoustic album.

A

"Concerto in G Major"


So, in your face Bach (or Dylan, or Moe or whoever you are)!

For the rest of us (rhymes with?) this Christmas, I suggest getting Mass out of the way early, rejoice for the coming of the Messiah, and then just kick back with a drink, and enjoy those wailing mandolins!