April 2015: Curmudgeons of the World Unite!

Solas – Pastures of Plenty Listening to the news this month, it become more difficult to stay locked in the bubble of my own day-to-day. Even as a sound in the background, it was obvious that something terrible was happening in the Mediterranean, and a visit to Wikipedia illustrates just how tragic it is: On April 13th a ship in the Mediterranean carrying migrants from Africa and the Middle East capsized, drowning an estimated 400 people. Six days later, another ship carrying 850-950 people capsized - 28 people were rescued. As an unrelated coincidence around the time of this news, I found myself with a serious hankering to listen to Solas, and was struck hard by the resonance of this Woody Guthrie cover. The details of the geography differ, but the desperation of people looking simply to work their way out of dire poverty and disaster, and the seemingly unavoidable predation and disaster that are intertwined with the journey that follows, seem mightily universal. Naturally, the indifference and hostility towards immigrants is not the sole expertise of Europeans, although they definitely seem to have perfected an especially potent formula. Reflecting on the particular history that birthed this song, it's hard not to see how, in the end, the suffering and sacrifice of the dustbowl refugees made possible the incredible prosperity of California and the U.S. Well, that's a formula that shows up all over our history, and Europe's too. I like to imagine that the defiance and strength of this song (both in its original form and in this ferocious rendition) could be a kind of battle cry for those who actually make it off of one of those death boats. 

Blake Mills – If I'm Unworthy Before hearing the superb WTF interview with Blake Mills this month, I probably couldn't have put any idea to the name, even though I've seen him perform with other people at least once. The list of people he's played with as a side man is very long, and very diverse. The sound of this album, and this song in particular, just knocks me out. An insanely talented guitarist, with a range as wide as the Pacific Ocean, Mills proves he's also an insightful, deft songwriter, and no slave to technique. (He openly disagreed when Maron called him a guitar wizard.) The sentiment of this song is like a puzzle I think I solve every time I hear it, only to realize I haven't quite gotten to the bottom of it. That guitar! And then, That guitar! Oh. And then, to have the perverse restraint to save those great drums until the last ten seconds of the song. Taste above technique. The fact that the album continually invokes Ry Cooder and Randy Newman (two-thirds of my holy musical trinity), doesn't hurt. If, like me, this stuff is your native musical language, do yourself a favor and sit down with this album. 

Alabama Shakes – Future People I had already set a new Faux Sounds record by including a song from the same album for a third month in a row when I realized there was something else special about this one. I'm torn on which way to gush - to spread more love on Alabama Shakes, or to geek out on the fact that this tremendous album was produced by none other than newfound idol Blake Mills. I guess he's on a roll. I had an emotional moment listening to the whole album on a road trip, just being gut-punched by song after song of unvarnished musical talent and passion. Couldn't be further from a sophomore slump, this one. I recommend to all.  

Blur – My Terracotta Heart I've never been much of a Blur fan, partly through circumstance and partly through taste. That's confirmed for me on this album, where the musical wit and mischief of Damon Albarn seem to get too often smoothed out with Britpop sandpaper. Consequence of Sound has a pretty interesting review, a little above my Blur pay-grade, but I think pretty insightful. This song seems like an outlier on the album, in a good way, full of Albarn's sneaky, sorrowful soulfulness. 

Punch Brothers – Familiarity What a GD group of black magicians these guys are. Invoking Radiohead, the Beach Boys, and Bill Monroe in the span of 25 seconds is no small feat, especially when there's not a whiff of gimmickry in the room. I'm sure there's a group of musicians who can just as successfully synthesize traditional, pop, and avant garde impulses, but I couldn't name them. 

J Dilla – Jay Dee 3 The perfect music for that mid-morning lag in work will-power. 

Public Enemy – Brothers Gonna Work It Out Another superb interview, with Hank Shocklee on NPR's Microphone Check, set me to driving in the car with Fear of a Black Planet on loud, which is the only real way to experience its claustrophobic funk. It's kind of amazing to me to hear how much dissonance PE and the Bomb Squad hid in plain sight, and it's super fun to hear Shocklee talk about how that was not a mistake. I've always considered Chuck D one of my favorite M.C.s, and I think I love him even more realizing how his style is actually kind of limited. He accomplishes a tremendous amount with boom and brains. Turn this up loud and after a while it's not hard to imagine why unsuspecting white listeners (like the ones lampooned on the album) responded with a kind of animal fear. 

Guerilla Toss – Billy Blood Idol Huh? Like, what? This bracing (abrasive?) Boston group hits me like an early-Red Hot Chili Peppers ice cream cone dipped in a Melt Banana hardshell, and sprinkled with Bikini Kill jimmies. As what I'm positive is a completely unintentional update to the Peppers' old sock schtick, the guitarist is apparently fond of playing shows sans pants, and sans sock. Love the music, pass on the penis. 

Mbongwana Star – Malukayi (feat. Konono No.1) Aw, yeah. Not what you thought at first, right? Superb space jam from the geniuses behind Staff Benda Bilili and Konono No.1. Groovy, undeniably African, but utterly unconcerned with any kind of World Music pandering. The video's appropriately weird and wonderful. 

Erik Satie/Pascal Rogé – Trois Gymnopédies: No.2 Mm. The perfect music for that mid-afternoon lag in work concentration. 

Phil Cook – The Jensens I finally got to see Hiss Golden Messenger this month, at Shuba's. In addition to being a masterful part of the HGM band, Megafaun's Phil Cook opened the show with a soulful, unpretentious solo set. He said he's working on a full solo album, which I assume will have his great singing in addition to his tasty guitar work, but in the meantime I'll settle for this instrumental appetizer. 

This show provided an opportunity for me to confront something that I've definitely encountered before, but which I've realized recently is a problem that is being commonly acknowledged by concert goers I know - people talking loudly through an entire concert. As Hiss Golden Messenger was finishing probably their fourth or fifth song, a particularly quiet section, my attention was overtaken by what seemed like a large group of people talking loudly in one section of the room. It's one of those things that seems so illogical and confusing, especially in a place like Schuba's, which has a whole separate room where one could talk completely unmolested by a live show. I don't know if it's a generational thing, but I've heard many friends talk about how bad its gotten. Maybe we're just getting old and grumpy? It just seems really weird that people would spend $15 to stand around and ignore a show, AND basically ruin it for everyone else. 

Well, I guess I've definitely crossed over into curmudgeon territory, because after the next song finished, when it became apparent that the talking was not a temporary thing, I yelled in the general direction of the group - "HEY! If you want to talk go out to the bar!" A general chorus of support from the crowd, a kind of confused/shocked quiet from the talkers, followed by a voice saying, "It's cool man." "No," I shouted, "It's not cool. Shut the fuck up!" With attention turning back to the stage, HGM's M.C. Taylor slyly commented, "Well, I think you all can work this out yourselves. <pause> But I agree with that guy." 

In conclusion, let's not be afraid to tell people to be quiet on behalf of the performers, who risk losing the good will of a crowd by "being mean." Okay. Rant over. 

Ryan Adams – In the Dark Thank god for Ryan Adams' occasional missteps, otherwise his prolificacy and consistent genius might make him seem like the world's most emotional robot. Just released on the fly, this modest but gorgeous three-song EP was reportedly self-recorded in Adams' house. Dude is on a roll. A long roll. 

Kero Kero Bonito - Build It Up Just for fun. 

Ava Luna – Tenderize I just can't get enough of this odd, offensively talented band. Get it while the gettin's good.