March & April 2016 ~ If You Have the Means

Renee and Friends - Starfish and Coffee  Prince had a notoriously complicated relationship with the internet, as detailed in this great NPR article from about a month and a half before he died. Needless to say, when it came time to find something on Spotify to mark his passing, things got a little dicey. This is a competently done cover of my all-time favorite Prince song (featuring Maya Rudolph as a bonus!). Generally out of character for a Prince song, it manages to maintain his musical DNA, but with the innocence turned way up. Originally appearing on Sign O' the Times, it sparkles even more in the context of that tremendously eclectic double album (which many critics at the time call his best album - I agree). 

I was in a meeting with my boss Jodi the day Prince died, and uncharacteristically checked my phone when it buzzed. It was a text from my buddy James Lee, saying simply "Prince died." It was such a jarring bit of information, and I struggled to hold it together, sharing the news with Jodi, who definitely did not feel the same way I did about it. It was actually a little comical, after a few minutes went by and I kind of had to abruptly end the meeting, saying something vague about needing to process the information. It's not really that I was thrust into a deep mourning, but I definitely needed to learn a little bit more. Everyone in the office knew about it in what seemed like an instant. My thoughts were mainly with my old friend Sean Dixon, who is a professional musician and worships Prince. I texted him with condolences, and when he got back to me the next day he said that he and our friend Scott had played at a Prince tribute jam that night. In a tiny little text he mentioned the same moment I had been thinking about, when he and Scott played at my wedding years ago, and called me up to sing "Purple Rain" during the reception.  

Anna Wise - BitchSlut The Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman has often been a highlight of my infrequent Twitter sessions, especially as she's been at the center of several to-dos about the way women in music are treated - both by the media and by individual men. One of the most significant was her instigation of an avalanche of accusations against a prominent music publicist (read about it here). But she seems to frequently get into tiffs that touch on a whole range of issues faced by women in music, including things I would have thought were extinct, like "Chicks don't play guitar." I'm sure this is happening all over Twitter, but I love how unmeditated she is, taking strong stands while also managing to be vulnerable and open. 

Because of this reputation, when she recently tweeted about the new single from Anna Wise (an artist I'd never heard of), called "BitchSlut," I really wanted to see what it was all about. I can see why she liked it, as it's full of the same energy she manifests on Twitter - unapologetic feminism rooted in real life, every day encounters. The EP the song comes from is infused with sparkling production, smart and edgy lyrics, tremendous vocals, and lots of promise. Of course, unbeknownst to me Wise is already a Grammy winner for her collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. I guess I may have been the only one sleeping on her. 

Yeasayer - Silly Me I haven't got a whole more to say about Yeasayer, other than that everything they do sounds like gold. 

Billy Paul - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right I had never heard of Billy Paul before hearing a story about him on NPR following his death just three days after Prince's. I was interested in the story, but became absolutely riveted when they closed with his cover of this Dylan song that I've heard and played hundreds of times. Talk about owning someone else's song. This accomplishes with aplomb what a good cover always does, shining new light on both the coverer and the coveree. 

Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones From the new duet album featuring the son of Faux Sounds favorite Richard Thompson. Naturally, I kind of expect Teddy's strength to be the guitar, and while that may be the case in other contexts, on this album it's his voice - especially as a counterpart to Jones'. I love this kind of close harmony singing, and frequently wish I had someone to do it with. It's no small feat to be able to blend voices like this non-stop over the course of a whole album, especially if you're not brothers (see Louvin, Everly, etc). Of course, when one remembers that the lovely-voiced Linda Thompson is equally responsible for Teddy's genes, it makes a little more sense. Great songwriting and perfectly tasteful production. 

Buena Vista Social Club - Black Chicken 37 A fun little instrumental jam, built on the scaffolding of a dynamic percussion section. It's amusing to imagine what the previous 36 Black Chickens sounded like. 

Third Coast Percussion - Music for Pieces of Wood I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that this piece of music will drive many people crazy, as it nearly does me. As part of my ongoing education about Chicago's family of new music ensembles (see eighth blackbird's entry from January) I wanted to include something from Third Coast Percussion's recently released album of Steve Reich compositions. While repetition and seeming monotony are hallmarks of Reich's music, this piece's near lack of any harmonic color make it an even likelier candidate to test a listener's patience. There are several other shorter more dynamic pieces on the album, but I just could not escape this one. The meditativeness that accrues eventually, once you move past the annoyingness (a pretty neat corollary to actual meditation btw), and the subtle virtuosity and focus needed to pull something like this off. I also love the devilishness of making such a major work from nothing but some pieces of wood, and making no effort to dress it up with the title. If you can stand it, watch the video below of TCP playing it with eighth blackbird's Matthew Duvall.

Kaki King - Goby and White Zombie - Soul Crusher Kaki King's ...Until We Felt Red has been my #1 music to work to for years. This month, for some reason, I have found the need for something really stimulating to keep me going at the end of the day, and White Zombie came to me like a flash of inspiration. Part of the fun of it is watching all my coworkers go about their humdrum business while White Zombie pumps in my big headphones. Little do they know...

Big Black Delta - Steer the Canyon I first learned about BBD from my old roommate Surachai, who I think knows the main guy Jonathan Bates as an acquaintance. The new BBD album is full of delicious moody pop grooves, and the comeback of Debbie Gibson (!), which makes a lot of sense for someone so masterfully updating the late-'80's/early '90's synth sound.  

Wire - Numbered From the new Wire album Nocturnal Koreans, whose title just tickles the hell out of me. Wire is a funny band, because their early stuff (especially the classic Pink Flag) stands out for its relative eclecticism in its native punk milieu. These days Wire has a very recognizable, kind of unchanging sound. Which is a great sound, don't get me wrong. I'm just curious about the phenomenon in which a band that exhibited a lot of early experimentation and flexibility settles into a single track as they age. The Rolling Stones come to mind, actually. This song is the closest on their new album they come to deviating from that track, peppered with little specks of their old insouciance. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Symphonic Dances, Opus 45: I. Non allegro The greatest perk of my job at the Harris Theater is the opportunity to see some incredible dance - something I love, but would never do if I didn't work there. This month it was the Miami City Ballet, which, like the Hamburg Ballet, did a two-night stint featuring completely different programs. The first night closed with breathtaking choreography by Alexei Ratmansky to Rachmaninoff's final composition. One of the things I've learned seeing so much dance recently, is that, because I'm not a dancer, the music accompanying a dance can really color my impression of it. It seems pretty clear to me when a choreographer cares about the music - and it can just wreck a dance for me when either the music is terrible or it just doesn't seem to have anything to do with the dance. Don't get me wrong, as a company the MCB is transcendent, even more so because of the way they channel the energy of hometown Miami, from their restless, ambitious, rambunctious energy to the smaller, more compact bodies of their heavily Latino company. Still, hearing this music played live by the Chicago Philharmonic was frankly flooring, and made a tremendous dance all the more moving. I've thought a lot about why this sticks with me so much, and I think part of it is the recurring theme and the way it's similar to a rock and roll riff. That descending bass line (dun. dun. DUN.) sounds like a hook that would translate without too much trouble to a heavy metal song. Just lovely all around, full of modernist digressions but centered in classic melody. To quote Ferris Bueller, "If you have the means, I highly recommend" seeing MCB perform this.