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: 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.
“Magic in the Air”
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.
“Alabama at Night”
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.
“Not Gonna Kill You”
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.
“In Spite of Ourselves”
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.
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.
“Hand on the Wheel”
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.
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.
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.
“Are You Glad to Be In America?”
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.
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.
“Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet”
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.
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.