November 2014: The Past Didn't Go Anywhere

Unspecified – Songs, Sermons, Shouts, Prayers, Testimony - For years I've had an (uncomfortably sincere) running joke with my friends about how I don't like old people. While I tend to exaggerate the strength of this distaste for humor, it's true that I've never really felt the kind of affection for the elderly that so many people seem to feel. I've thought about it a lot, trying to get to the bottom of what the hell my problem is. What I've landed on is that the strong relationship that people have with their grandparents, one in which grandparents serve as a source of wisdom and experience, is something I've never really had. My grandfathers both died when I was a kid, and, while I loved them both, neither of my grandmothers ever seemed to have much wisdom to pass on to me. At least not that I was ready to soak in. So, while I understand in the abstract that older people hold wisdom, my personal experience has been more that they are inflexible thinkers unable to see past the limits of their own (very outdated) experience. 

Of course, like a snotty teenager who can't understand why the world sucks so bad, the main issue is the chip on my shoulder. Now that my parents and their generation are grandparents, I feel much more ready to start listening to the wisdom of the elderly (yes Mom and Dad, you're old). Or keep listening really, since my parents have always been a source of wisdom for me, particularly when it comes to politics and society. Their experiences as young people during the sixties - their involvement with the anti-war movement and other social movements, their subtle working-class pride - set the template early on for my thinking about the world, and I continue to be inspired by their commitment to what they believe in. Shortly after Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin a few years ago, I had the privilege of going to Madison to march and protest with my parents, something I'd heard many stories about over the years. Of course, the cops weren't trying kick our asses, but it was still thrilling to do something with my folks that holds a kind of mythological quality for me. 

This Thanksgiving I got to spend some serious time with Danny Lyon, an incredible photographer and iconoclastic warrior for social justice, who is responsible for some of the most iconic photos from the civil rights movement. Danny is not shy about sharing his opinions or telling stories about his experiences in the past. There's a ton of wisdom bottled up in his messy head and it's impossible not to get whacked by some of it as it whirls around him like a pack of feral satellites. The thing I appreciate most, though, is the way he remains as engaged as ever in "the fight," proclaiming Edward Snowden a national hero, documenting the Occupy movement, and seizing on a recent speech for National Geographic to criticize the magazine (and the American media generally) for being too conservative. Spending time with him, you get the feeling that he doesn't see any difference between the social justice battles of the '60's and those of today, that he doesn't experience the world in tidy, delineated eras, but as one long, messy continuum. 

I mentioned to him, as casually as I could, that I'd recently been in a record store with friends where I came across this album, and how I'd excitedly pointed out to them that the cover photo had been taken by Danny (who I know, you guys!). Unconcerned with the thinly-veiled star-worship tenor of my story, Danny immediately asked if I'd bought it, and distractedly scolded me when I said no. Then he talked about watching the guy who recorded it (who I assume was Moses Moon) set up his big microphone boom in all of the different places this was recorded.

I was impressed, of course. There's just no way not to be when talking to the person who took a photo like this, who was a part of it. Then I actually listened to the record. Then I wasn't impressed anymore, I was moved. The passion, ferocity, pain, hope, talent, rawness, and just pure humanity captured on these recordings is stunning. Just, blow-you-down-and-render-you-incapacitated stunning. Everything about listening to this is overwhelming, each individual vignette and the tumble-down, avalanche of the way they're stitched together with no breaks. 

This has all come together for me as I try to articulate, mostly to myself, how I feel about the dominant news stories these last few weeks. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Riots. Grand juries. Police in military gear. Justified anger. Etc. I think about the Daily Show and their montages of talking heads spouting racist propaganda veiled as well-meaning conservative points-of-view. I think about the continuum that Danny lives in, how it can't really mean that different a thing for people living in a mostly black community to be afraid of a mostly white police force in 1964 and 2014. To realize that the only way to say that these situations are not about racism is to believe (or pretend to believe) that racism has somehow been solved, that at some point in history there was a clean break. I just want to ask these people, "When did racism end? Can you name the exact day? The month? The year?"

And then I feel thankful for the wisdom of the elderly. I feel so incredibly grateful for our world that there are people who can stand up and say, "This is not a new thing! This is simply the old thing with new people!" I feel incredibly fortunate to know people like my parents, Danny, and many others. People who have dedicated their lives to trying to live right, investigating what that means for them, renewing their sense of compassion and their sense of outrage as much as possible. I feel so grateful to people like Moses Moon who made sure to record these sounds so that we can live a little piece of this history, connect to it with our hearts and understand in some small way how far we've gone and how much farther we have to go. 

N.W.A. – Fuck Tha Police - Aaaaaand now for a completely different way of looking at things. I know it's an obvious choice, but I can't resist. There's something so wonderful about all the rage and violence endemic to this genre being turned against an objectively legitimate grievance. What a difference a couple decades makes. 

Priests – Powertrip - My buddy Colby (congratulations, Colby!) and I recently saw this D.C. group open up for Deerhoof at Bottom Lounge. I don't have to, but will admit that the singer's, um, look definitely helped capture my attention. The band is pretty good too, and even if (like Colby) you're not a fan of her gonzo, slightly tuneless vocal style, I would say I'm seriously impressed by her ability to holler like this for a whole set, much less night after night. She's got some serious pipes. 

Run The Jewels – Early (feat. Boots) - I fell for both Killer Mike's voice, in both senses of the word, back when his album R.A.P. Music came out in 2012. This is the second album from his collaboration with El-P (really their third, since El-P helmed R.A.P. Music anyway). The album is chock full of unexpected, always slamming beats and superb vocals by Killer Mike and others. The thing I appreciate most about this music, and Killer Mike in particular, is the absolute refusal to be just one thing. Alternately incredibly political, broadly braggadocious, silly. For a sample of Killer Mike's spot-on perspective, check out this video of him talking on stage shortly after the grand jury decision not to charge Darren Wilson. All heart and all brains. 

TV On The Radio – Lazerray - I think they've been headed in this direction for a few years, but TV On The Radio has managed on this new album to achieve the kind of artistic clarity that they seemed to purposely eschew early in their career. I love watching an already great band continue to grow and change. It's like they finally figured how and when to disentangle all the different colors they weave with. 

Luluc – Without a Face - The All Songs Considered guys have been lavishing praise on this Australian/Brooklyn duo. As I've written about recently, I'm a sucker for deadpan female vocals, and even better if their this unabashedly pretty. 

The Commands – Don't Be Afraid To Love Me - This begins the three-song Stevie Rocketship portion of this month's list. He's been on a serious vintage soul kick and got hipped to the Numero Group compilations, which are numerous and often startlingly great. I've been listening to this song over and over, and trying to figure out if "eccentric" is actually a good descriptor. And, if so, what exactly is eccentric about it. There's something just very slightly amateurish about it, if you compare it to classic Stax or something like that, but it ends up lending the music a kind of off-kilter charm. And the sentiment is so great, so in need of being said. 

Dorothy Ashby – You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To - In a Minor Groove, 1958 - Steve sent me a message attached to this album saying "I didn't even realize this existed." By which he meant jazz harp. I've written about Dorothy Ashby recently (back in April to be exact), so I won't go on about how great she is here. The pairing with flute, another unexpected jazz instrument, is great and they manage to completely sidestep any of the saccharin one might expect. 

Little Milton – Without My Sweet Baby - Oh man, at least twice as bad. Probably more. 

Perfume Genius – Queen - A recent All Songs Considered podcast featured all three members of Sleater-Kinney, who have reunited after 8 years and will release a new album early in 2015. At one point they quizzed Carrie Brownstein (who was a contributor to the program for a while) about what she was listening to now, and she named two current obsessions - the Run the Jewels album, and this. Consistently quite original, the album has a lot of gentler moments, mixed in with fun stuff like this. Pretty camp, heartfelt, groovy, smart as hell. Definitely lots of Arthur Russell flavor in the mix, which I love. Every once in a while his voice reminds me of Craig Wedren (Shudder To Think), which I also love. He has a great voice and obviously knows a ton about using it. Highly recommended. 

The Kinks – I Go to Sleep - Demo Version - Ray Davies was recently interviewed on Fresh Air. Not that it isn't obvious from the music, but I was kind of blown away by the understated genius flitting around his brain, even today. At one point Terry Gross pushes him to talk more about a near death experience he had in the hospital at age 13. He seems incredulous that she would want him to talk about it, asserting that there really isn't anything that interesting to say about it. Then, after one more push from Terry, he launches into an utterly breathtaking description of a vision he had that involved two skinless horses (just muscle and bone) slamming into each other over and over, then dissolving into a fantasia of lights moving about the room. Yeah Ray, not very interesting. As well-regarded and beloved as the Kinks are by the music intelligentsia, every time I hear them I feel sorry for the world that their catalogue is not more well known. Even this slight demo is an absolute diamond, and not one you would ever expect if all you know is "Lola" and "All Day and All of the Night." Kinks for president!

Sly & The Family Stone – Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) - Single Version - This song popped into my head recently, and for the life of me I can't remember why. There was a connection... somewhere    out         there... Oh well. Not going to sweat it too much when it's so g.d. fun to listen to.