JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else (Bloodshot, 2014)
Naughty prodigy from rural Ohio grows up a little, but remains bad to the bone. In the taxonomy of music genres, Lydia Loveless, now all of 23, is consigned to the country bin. Perhaps. But this is country music with a punk sensibility: fierce, reckless, and acrid. Loveless can sing and she can rock, but her supreme talent is as a songwriter. She’s as gifted a lyricist as Rodney Crowell, but without a shred of Crowell’s sentimentality. “Everything is Gone” is the best song about the decay of the Midwest since fellow Ohioan Chrissie Hynde penned “My City is Gone.” Loveless doesn’t sound nostalgic about the ravages of ruthless bankers and shithead real estate developers, but dangerously pissed off (“If I ever get back home, I’ll find that rich man’s and I’ll burn it down, I’ll burn it down.”) There are also plenty of songs about cheating, giving (and receiving) head, busted relationships, getting drunk, losing control—all standard country fare, except Loveless turns these rusty tropes inside out. Her songs are not cautionary tales, but unapologetic endorsements of debauchery, of loving hard and living free. I have no idea (and don’t much care) what the country DJ’s will make of a song like “When Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” with its searing couplet: “Verlaine shot Rimbaud cause he loved him so / and, honey, that’s how I want to go.” I just know that I want to hear more songs like it. So don’t go just yet, Lydia.
Mehliana: Taming the Dragon (Nonesuch, 2014)
In other hands, the synth-powered sonics of Taming the Dragon might have turned into the kind of sterile exercise in electronic high-jinks that you get with Klaus Schulze: proficiency in pursuit of tedium. But thankfully Mehliana does not subscribe to Schulze’s brand of Aryan trance. Instead, they draw from bebob, hip-hop, rock, dub and fusion. In other words, black music that makes you want to move. Mehliana consists of the sublimely talented keyboardist Brad Mehldau (who has played with Miles’ drummer Jimmy Cobb, saxman Joshua Redman, bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Pat Matheny) and percussionist, trombonist and electronicist Mark Guiliana, who says he grew up in New Jersey playing “garage jazz.” Taming the Dragon is the duo’s first, genre-meshing collaboration. Taming the Dragon plays like a concept album from the 70s, but here the concept is to find a deep groove and ride it as far out as it will take you. The playing is uniformly sophisticated and adventurous but you don’t realize the high stakes because the spacy vamps and pulsing beats have a swirling, gravitational force, pulling you in almost against your will. Mehliana makes experimentation fun and funky.
Joe Louis Walker: Hornet’s Nest (Alligator, 2014)
Hard-charging blues road warrior Joe Louis Walker takes a break from touring to record his 10th album, which proves to be his best and most challenging yet. For a few months in the early 1970s, Joe Louis Walker shared an apartment in San Francisco with Michael Bloomfield, the greatest white blues guitar player. Bloomfield turned Walker on to Jimi Hendrix, Creem and the Grateful Dead, showed him a few magician tricks on the Stratocaster, and, for better or worse, introduced him to psychedelia. Walker proved a fast learner. In a few years, Walker was sounding a lot like Hendrix in a blues format. But as the 70s dissolved into the dead-end of disco and the rise of neoliberalism (I have a theory they are cultural handmaidens), Walker grew bored with touring and tried his hand at preaching and fronting a fantastic gospel group called the Spiritual Corinthians. In the mid-80s Walker suddenly returned to the blues. I saw him in 1988, shortly after the release of his scorching Cold is the Night record, and his band didn’t play up to his level. That problem has been long resolved and Walker’s group is now so tightly focused that they even push the master and he returns the favor, especially on their juicy cover of the Stones’ “Ride On, Baby.” Hornet’s Nest, which gallops from hard-rock to doo-wop to gospel, shows how Walker, even at 64, continues to evolve musically. Unlike Buddy Guy, Joe Louis Walker refuses to surrender to camp or indulge in shameless self-parody. He takes his craft too seriously and this fierce dedication shows in his marvelously inventive playing.
Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, once played two-chord guitar in a Naptown garage band called The Empty Suits.
X – Under the Big Black Sun (Real Gone Music, 1982)
It’s the third album the late Ray Manzarek produced for X, the great punk-rock band from Los Angeles. John Doe’s partner Exene Cervenka shines bright on this classic, which often gets lost in X’s early catalogue. The tune Come Back to Me is a highlight, in which Exene sings about her sister who died en route to an X show a year prior. It’s X at their most soulful.
Dead Moon is more Portland to me (where I lived for years) than the trite and annoying show Portlandia. Indeed Fred and Toody Cole exemplify the gloomy Northwest far better than the sunny dispositions of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. If X is LA punk, a bit polished and extroverted, Dead Moon is quintessential Portland punk, a bit haggered and introverted. This live collection is Dead Moon during their heyday, before soggy Portland became a utopia of hipster transplants and baby strollers.
Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch, who as a teen wrote biased album reviews for Indianapolis, Indiana’s first (now defunct) underground hip-hop magazine The Seed.
This week, I’ve been unplugged and rewiring, listening to icy streams rushing, frogs croaking twilight seductions, and Pacific tides breaking. But, occasionally, I do need my fix, and return to the din of culture. Although nothing beats the squeals of raccoons mating at midnight under a full moon outside my cabin door, here are some tunes I’ve loaded for my trip to Anacortes and Orcas Island. All are local favorites in these parts of the Northwest, as they are regulars at the Doe Bay music festival, held here on Orcas every August. I should add that if you don’t like the country-a-rockin, skip to the next col.
The Moondoggies: You’ll Find No Answers Here (Hardly Art, 2010)
Leading this beard-porno are Seattle’s Moondoggies. They do three part-harmony in the style of Crosby, Stills and Nash, but the feel is the lonesome call of Alaskan fishermen far out to sea. My favorite is their first album, which succinctly summarizes my life philosophy: You’ll find no answers here.
The Maldives: Listen to the Thunder (Spark & Shine, 2009)
The geographically confounding Maldives also are based in Seattle, but they took their name from the South Pacific. Listen to the Thunder – when there is no thunder on the West Coast – further vexes me. But I forgive them because the songs are great for bellowing on the highway with the windows rolled down. A lovely woman, six dudes, and a husky sing, “Goodbye!” and “The time is right now!” over and over. There is plenty of fiddle and pedal steel. Big sound. Makes My Morning Jacket seem like the flaccid hipsters they are.
Bobby Bare, Jr.: Young Criminal’s Starvation League (Bloodshot, 2002)
Bobby is a frequent visitor to Orcas. His first album is his best. It’s quirky, with plenty of wit to entertain me, like the song, “Flat-chested Girl from Maynardville.” And if you are a Smiths fan, his country cover of “What Difference Does It Make” is hands-down brilliant, as the cabal of Moz fans with whom I associate concur. It must be daunting to follow the path of his father, the genius musician Bobby Bare, but he’s created his own unique sound and done his daddy proud.
Kristin Kolb writes the Daydream Nation column for CounterPunch magazine.
Today is J. S. Bach’s 329th birthday and that turns out to be a big anniversary year for those who maintain that he was obsessed with numerology. In the number alphabet B+A+C+H adds up to fourteen and so does 3 + 2 + 9. The composer inscribed fourteens in various forms in many of his works and it’s a figure that can even been seen in his accouterments like the famous portrait of him made late in his life in which wears a jacket with fourteen buttons. So on this, his 329th, here’s a sampling of three cherished Bach recordings from my youthful library.
Brandenburg Concertos (Seon, 1997)
This classic (originally recorded 1977) brings together the early music aristocrats of the Low Countries in the service of these most cosmopolitan of concertos: assembled at this sumptuous table are Franz Brüggen, Gustav Leonhardt, and many others. Individually these musicians are for many vital contributions to the rediscovery of 17th– and 18th-century repertories, their instruments and playing techniques. Assembled into a single band these musicians play with inspired ensemble élan as well as tremendous individual flair. There is plenty of room for the latter given the vast range of instrumental and stylistic combinations called for by Bach’s celebrated set. This is a group of musicians so renowned it doesn’t need or want a name. But on hearing them deliver the stately opening of the first concerto, with its unruly horns calling as if from a distant wood and disrupting the elegant banqueting music of a princely residence, one immediately realizes that they are too good to want merely to impress. Where many other groups since have indulged in rampant displays of technical prowess, these two discs exude the noblesse oblige that these works demand.
Cello Suites (Sony, 1993)
Among the army of generals in the just-mentioned Brandenburg campaign is the cello giant Anner Bylsma, who has made two recordings of the suites (BWV 1007-1112). This evocatively resonant recording (the second of two done by Bylsma) was made on the magnificent Stradivarius cello from 1701 owned by the Smithsonian. Bylsma presents these endlessly enthralling pieces in all their profundity and playfulness. The parry and thrust of his bow will keep you dancing and move you from elation to melancholy with the most subtle, but no less cutting, of gestures.
Actus tragicus (Decca, 1998) Cantatas
On the first of these two discs, famed Bach interpreter and scholar Joshua Rifkin leads his Bach Ensemble in the composer’s earliest cantatas, pieces devoted to that most unfathomable topic: death. Noted for his use of small forces in the performance of these works, Rifkin’s interpretations attain a directness and intimacy obliterated by bombastic approaches involving large choirs and extravagant interpretative interventions. From the colossal Romantic Bach of the nineteenth century, emerges a music less grandiose but, paradoxically, far more powerful.
David Yearsley, author of “Bach’s Feet,” once played the world’s oldest piano and didn’t damage it … much.
Erykah Badu: Live (UMVD, 1997)Motorhead: 1916 (SBME, 1991)Ruben Blades: Buscando America (Elektra, 1984)
Lee Ballinger co-edits Rock and Rap Confidential and writes about music and politics for CounterPunch magazine.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY
Ann Peebles, “St. Louis Woman: Memphis Soul.” (1996, Hi Records.)
The Velvet Underground, “The Velvet Underground.” (1969, MGM Records.)
The Allman Brothers Band, “Eat a Peach.” (1972, Capricorn Records.)
Kevin Gray’s latest book, Killing Trayvon, (co-edited with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair) will be published by CounterPunch this spring.
Sarah Jarosz: Build Me Up From Bones (Sugar Hill Records, 2013)
Though only 22 years old, Build Me Up From Bones is the third solid album from Americana/folk artist Sarah Jarosz. I heard a few of her covers a couple of years ago; this was how I first came across her music—a magnificently creepy “Shankill Butchers” is out there as well as a version of “Come on up to the House” that holds a plucky folk channeling and something beyond her years. She extends a weary voice, singing “Come down off the cross…….we could use the wood.” with perfection. There just aren’t enough wry lyrics that shut down whiners out there. She made a good choice to do that song. Anyway, that’s how I heard Jarosz initially, but this album is all hers, and the effort is stable and satisfying. She won’t be a transient youthful voice of the moment; she has far too much talent for that. She’s the owner of graceful, skilled hands that work the guitar, mandolin, and banjo. A recent graduate of the New England Conservatory, there’s definite firm talent behind these drops of Appalachia. At times the album almost seems like a studied version of Americana, but this isn’t to say it isn’t still wonderful—simply that there’s room for something more unhinged to emerge in future albums, something to allow for growth and spontaneity. Her voice is lovely enough that the relatively dutiful lyrics can be overlooked. A dark underside seems necessary to this type of music, a bit of angst—that sort of thing, but the emotions are relatively placid here. This is a minor thing, though. All of the songs on this album contain a depth of talent certainly missing from most of the more commercial offerings from young artists. The title track is gentle and well-crafted. It’s as if all the seams are in place. “Anything Else” has something of a tender hammock swinging quality to it, mist descending. “Fuel the Fire” comes to the cusp of frenzy, but retreats—not unsatisfying, the restraint is relaxing, but I do hope for something of a moonshine/whitewater sloshing give me that goddam fiddle —I’ll show you style when her 4th album arrives (this is actually a subset of Americana music, possibly not taught at the Conservatory). Build Me Up From Bonesis a gratifying work and I’m happily listening as I wait to hear what direction Sarah Jarosz slips towards in the future. She’s young…
Kathleen Wallace writes about music and culture. She lives in the Midwest.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill (Reprise, 2012)
Like that other old but still touring “Sixties guy” (who is much more than that) Bob Dylan, Neil Young has his flaws. However, when it comes to straight out true rock guitar, plainspoken poetry, and a disc that plays long, Neil Young and Crazy Horse are near the top of the list. This is a rocker, no doubt about it.
I See Hawks in LA.: Shoulda Been Gold (American Beat, 2010)
A collection of tunes from this California rock band that includes their college radio “hits.” If I were driving east-to-west across the US, this would be on my player. It’s not just good driving music, it would remind me of where I was heading. You know, right back where we started from….
Kronos Quartet: String Quartet #8, Op. 110 Dmitri Shostakovitch.
Written over three days in 1960, this piece is an emotionally charged beauty dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” According to a friend, this was to be Shostakovitch’s epitaph and Shostakovitch actually planned to commit suicide upon its completion. It was written in Dresden, site of one of the most hellish firebombings in World War Two. There are few quartets better equipped to play this piece than the Kronos Quartet.
Ron Jacobs’ book on the Seventies, Daydream Sunset, will published by CounterPunch this summer.
PETER STONE BROWN
Various Artists: A Tribute To Bob Dylan in the ’80s Volume 1 (ATO) (about to be released, streaming now at Wall St. Journal and Rolling Stone)
Lengthy collection by various artists, with arrangements that range from creative to standard to forgettable. Only Glen Hansard seems to realize that Dylan songs should be sung with guts and intensity.
North Lawrence Midnight Singers: Last Great Saturday Night (indie release)
Original roots-based band from Philly, but more than that, with striking originals. Singer Jamie Olson is a talent to be watched, and is particularly soulful on “Let’s Let This Be.”
Trio Nova: Suspicion Street
Innovative jazz pop trio from around Philly, superbly played and recorded.
Peter Stone Brown is a musician and musicologist.