December 2014: Bringing the Music Home

Van Morrison – Domino - For a couple years running, my mom has suggested every once in a while that I should help my dad and her get their stereo working again. It's something I always think is a great idea, and then do nothing about. This year for the holidays I finally got my act together, spent a half-hour on Craigslist and tracked down the speakers and amp they needed. I wish I could say that my motivation was purely selfless.  My dad's record collection, while not enormous, is a thing to behold - full of incredible blues, and peppered with lots of other great traditional music. For about the past decade those records have been sitting upstairs in my parents' house - neat, orderly, and completely unplayed. I wanted to hear those records!

I drove up to Milwaukee early in December and surprised them with the new gear, spending the early part of an evening getting it set up. It was a group project, with my dad and I testing the new and old equipment, my mom putting her two-cents in, figuring out where in their living room to put it, etc. 

When it came time to actually play a record, my dad ran upstairs and grabbed one. I had no idea what it would be. He dropped the needle, out came "Domino," and I was instantly transported back more than 25 years. I hadn't thought about it in probably decades, but hearing this song brought back a vivid memory - I'm probably about 11 or 12, sitting in my living room with my mom and dad and they're DJing for me. I'm just at the stage when I'm starting to develop my own distinct tastes in music, but don't really have a very broad set of musical references. I distinctly remember hearing this song and saying that it sounded like Bruce Springsteen, who I liked. They both immediately let me know, "Well, actually, Bruce Springsteen sounds like him." I can still feel that pre-pubescent indignation at being corrected on what seemed to me like an academic distinction. In my world, without any real grip on history, Springsteen came first. 

Back in 2014, the rest of the evening unfolded in the most perfect way. My dad DJed for about two hours, with some strong suggestions from my mom. Them sitting close together on the couch, holding hands. Me sitting on floor next to the record player. The Band. Ike and Tina Turner. Some crazy instrumental guitar record I'd never even seen before. As usual, my dad kept dropping names I didn't know. "You don't know who ____ is?" "No Dad, I don't know who ___ is!" Around 11:30 I was feeling really sleepy. When I went upstairs to go to bed they were still sitting on that couch. Listening, being excited, remembering, just being together. 

I knew that the whole thing was going to be partly a present to myself, but I didn't anticipate just how special it would be to be able to share music like that with them again, to get an unfettered glimpse at the essential glue that binds our family. 

And, "Domino" - when those horns kick in through the warmth of vinyl. Man!!

Geno Delafose – Hey Geno! - Gabe and I took our third annual Christmas trip out of town, continuing our tour of Southern Music Cities, this time to New Orleans. On the recommendation of her friend Cheryl, we headed on December 25th over to the Rock'n'Bowl, a cavernous wonderland of bowling, hula-hooping, fried food, and Zydeco. It was one of those great traveling moments when you get to abandon all the tourist trappings and feel embraced by an idiosyncratic, totally unique local vibe. Geno Delafose and his band set the dance floor a'buzzing. From what I can tell, New Orleans has a clearly recognizable set of cultural priorities - food, drink, music, dance - not necessarily in that order. People of all ages, abilities, and styles tore up the dance floor in front of the stage. We tried our best to get in the fray, but it was not easy going. Let's just say that, when it comes to coordinated partner dancing, I'm at my most autistic. No matter how much I want to get it right, it just doesn't make sense to me and in about two minutes I'm throwing a hissy fit. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and patient though, and a couple of older gentlemen took the opportunity to lure Gabe onto the floor and show her how it was done. Hopefully we'll get there together some day. In the meantime, I'll listen to this funky accordion and freestyle in the safety of home. 

Magnolia Electric Co. – Little Sad Eyes - Upon hearing that we were going to New Orleans, my dad sat down and wrote a list of places we needed to go, including the Louisiana Music Factory, on Frenchmen Street. That was pretty great, and I'm glad we went. But - the true vinyl epiphany happened the next day when we made our way to Euclid Records, in the funky Bywater. Maybe it was the life-altering, tear-inducing sandwich I had just eaten (homemade pastrami at The Joint. Seriously. OMG.), but I knew immediately that this was going to be the one. Inspired by the rapidly dwindling space in my record cabinet, I've recently made some revisions to my attitude about buying records - namely that I need to start buying things I want to have in my collection, not just things that cost less than $10. Josephine has been a favorite of mine for a while, so I grabbed it immediately. Maybe Molina's warbly ju-ju isn't for everyone. I love it.

Sylvan Esso – Hey Mami - The Sylvan Esso record has filled my annual "what the hell was my problem" quota, being something that I'd heard about from lots of different places, but dismissed because of some unwarranted problem with the name. Finally, way after the rest of the world, I listened to it and was immediately in love. This song, in particular, just nails me right in the gut. The perfect combination of -fis lo and hi, the whole record sometimes feels to me like the formula that groups like Postal Service were trying (and failing, IMO) to work out has finally been solved. Conclusively. I don't know if it's her lovely voice, his stellar production, the combination of both. I hope someday that this is what people play when they're trying to find that "2014 sound." 

Open Mike Eagle – Golden Age Raps - Reminding myself of my 2014 resolution to listen to more rap, I went out of my way to find some end-of-year lists focused on rap music. As should be clear to all at this point, I'm probably not rap music's most open-minded listener. I've got some grouchy opinions. The thing is, I don't shoot guns, run drugs, gang bang, sip syrup, know any bitches (well...), do molly, etc. I guess, like all other music, I want rap to speak to my life somehow. I mean, just even a little bit. So, a lot of what I stumbled upon on these lists just leaves me cold. Robotic, uninspired production and more more more stories about violence, misogyny, etc. I know. I sound like a middle-aged white guy. I can't help it. And, to me, rapping about these things, thirty years after they first came into vogue as topics in rap, feels kind of like an 80s rock band singing a song about a teenage badboy wearing a leather jacket and driving a hotrod. Can you imagine if that's all the Talking Heads sang about? Just, move on already! 

Rant over. Point is, Mike Eagle is a great rapper who talks about all kinds of things. Weird abstract stuff. About being a dad and doing dishes. About having bohemian friends who know how to make stuff. And he raps in all kinds of different ways, ones that demonstrate he's actually listened to the history of his craft in deep, meaningful ways. I guess you could say this applies across all genres of popular music (U2 is the number one record of 2014? Really, Rolling Stone? Really!?), but I feel like music journalists are failing rap music, promoting basically banal rap that trots out tired tropes. My point is, listen to Mike Eagle. (Also, Rolling Stones' end-of-year best of rap list actually has some really great stuff on it...)

Louis Armstrong & Earl Hines – Weather Bird (Rag) - After I spent about an hour downstairs in the rock section at Euclid Records in New Orleans, Gabe grabbed me and insisted I go upstairs. "Oh, there's a whole other floor?" "Yeah, with all kinds of great jazz stuff." I couldn't resist this gem 
J.B. Lenoir – Down In Mississippi - Another great cut from my dad's DJ session. I remember first hearing this back in college when he came and did a guest DJ spot on the radio show I had on WMCN. What a gut punch. Mournful, angry, swampy. The sparsity of guitar,  the near-drone of the vocals, the unusual percussion - it feels like a completely unforced attempt to take blues back to its African roots. 

D'Angelo – Back to the Future (Part I) - I remained a D'Angelo skeptic in the hysteria that gripped the music world when he released this album as a surprise in December, sending all kinds of year-end listmakers into seizures of revision. I've never completely related to the kind of loose, jammy funk of people like Erykah Badu. I'm not sure D'Angelo actually deserves to be put in that category, but I've never been compelled to listen enough to find out. My first several listens of this album left me with similar reservations. It just seems a bit too slippery and non-committal. The mumbling doesn't help. I want to like it, but...

In the context of this mix, though, it sparkles. I'm not sure why. Maybe the it just seems more defined in contrast to other sounds. Maybe the droney thing makes more sense following J.B. Lenoir. I don't know. 

t. hale, m. hawkins, s. polk – Reality Rap - Although I never met him, and really don't know too much about him, I was sad to hear about the death of Brother Mike Hawkins, a fixture on Chicago's hip-hop scene and highly visible youth mentor and warrior. Wanting to learn more about him, I checked out this album from his '90's rap group Poetree. A little strident, a little obvious - but the energy and production are great. I think I'll probably never recover from my love affair with this era of rap. It's also really nice to hear some great female MCs. 

Father John Misty – Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins) - A deceptively sweet sounding ditty. "I want to take you in the kitchen. Lift up your wedding dress that someone was probably murdered in." What!? 

Shudder To Think – GANG OF $ - Some FB friends this month were nostalgia-making about DC punk and hardcore, with the release of Fugazi archives and some other stuff. Besides Fugazi, who kind of transcend that label anyway, Shudder To Think are my go to faves. Off the wall riffs, uncannily surreal lyrics, loopy vocals. I love this whole album, which grooves when you think it's going to scream, and deconstructs rhythm without ever feeling "mathy." 

Angelique Kidjo – Orisha - A great find from Afropop Worldwide's "Stocking Stuffers" show. Mainly, I just love the horns - especially that baritone. 

The Wild Tchoupitoulas – Hey Mama (Wild Tchoupitoulas) - A holiday present from Gabe on vinyl. There can't be any stranger American tradition than the Mardi Gras Indians, which is almost impossible to explain without just showing (as the show Treme did so well) what the hell it's all about. Here, the great "Indian tribe" Wild Tchoupitoulas are backed by various Neville Brothers and Meters. 

King Tubby – Keep on Dubbing - Another great score from Euclid Records. What a vibe. I'm sure this music is good for all kinds of settings, but for my money it is very clearly designed with another famous rasta activity in mind. Listening to this reminds me of going to a "sound system" in Brixton, London many years ago with my Swedish rastafarian friend Alex. An amazing nigh (and I do mean all night) of dancing, good vibes, great food. A trance I'll never forget. 

Treme Brass Band – Treme Second Line (Blow Da Whistle) - Gabe and I got to see this effortlessly excellent group in New Orleans. I get the feeling that the personnel changes over time, so I'm not sure how similar this group is to what we saw. Some of the best trumpet playing I've ever seen. The hereditary and evolutionary aspect of the group was in evidence that night, with a teenage saxophonist sitting in with the group, later introduced as the son of the older tenor next to him. As one point the band goaded him into taking a solo, shouting out the changes as they went along. Talk about learning on the job. So much fun.