March 2018 ~ Born Under Punches

Angélique Kidjo - Born Under Punches Kidjo and her band have been playing the Talking Heads' classic album Remain In Light live in concert for little while, and finally the first single from the forthcoming record is available. It's everything we could hope for, harnessing the incipient groove in the song and amping it up to 10. The jagged synthesizers run rampant. More than anything, though, is the way Kidjo reinterprets David Byrne's idiosyncratic vocals, finding melodies hiding in the shadows of his white boy talk-singing, while also revealing the sharp political edge of the lyrics. I can't wait to hear this whole thing (out June 8), and to see Kidjo do it live this summer with Femi Kuti's band at Ravinia. (Shout out to the Harris Theater, where Kidjo will perform for the first time ever with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on Feb. 21, 2019.)

Adele - Send My Love (To Your New Lover) A cursory glance at this blog will reveal that I'm not a giant fan of mainstream pop music. But Adele has always stood out as someone with real talent, excellent taste, and genuine class. On a recent late night channel-flipping spree I landed on MTV, where they were playing a number of Adele live segments - both in studios and on stage. My god, what a voice. I wish the music was a little more interesting, but I gotta say - I like listening to her sing a lot. This song also does a great job marrying the neo-folk sensibility with an electronic hook in a way that makes each better. 

Solas - Song of Choice A deliciously relevant protest song/warning from Solas' third album, back when the original lineup was still in place. Featuring a number of guests and Irished-up versions of American folk songs, the album finds a plethora of surprising moments through juxtaposition. In this case it's the pairing of Karan Casey and Iris DeMent, whose voices are equally outstanding, but very very different. Even just the way they phrase words and lines is incredibly different, Casey pushing ahead while DeMent lags wayyy back. I love this song - both the version and the source material (by Peggy Seeger), and it (unfortunately) could not be more relevant in this moment of our history. The lyrics, filled with metaphor and anger, are in many ways a more expansive riff on the classic "First they came for..." saying. And choice. Yes, choice. We all have to a choice to make, the most dangerous of which is not making any choice at all. 

Courtney Barnett - Nameless, Faceless A slyly playful riposte to (what I assume is) an online troll, the now all-too-familiar anonymous attack on a prominent woman simply because she's a woman. There's been some really interesting reporting recently about the (mostly online) subculture of misogyny fueled by young men's feelings of rejection, loss of power, etc. This gets really interesting when lines are drawn between this rotten Reddit world and the election of Trump, which seems far-fetched, but is also quite convincing. Barnett indulges in some direct tit for tat in the verses ("I'm real sorry about whatever happened to you" etc.), but really boils it down to brass tacks in the chorus: "Men are scared that women will laugh at them / Women are scared that men will kill them". This so expertly exposes the asymmetry behind this type of male grievance, and (by not too much of a stretch) all kinds of other grievances by privileged groups (i.e. white people, and especially white men). It's about the way that the practical realities of living in certain bodies decimates the hypothetical framework of false equivalences. In short, there are real differences between negative feelings towards different groups, based on how likely those negative feelings are to contribute to the physical harm, or death, of their targets. And you thought you were listening to a jaunty indie rock song. 

Gramma's Boyfriend - I Forgot! Speaking of jaunty indie rock songs, this is a typical one from Haley Bonar (now just HALEY, apparently) side-project Gramma's Boyfriend, which is THE album of choice for my favorite 7-year old. 

Gwenno - Jynn-amontya An entrancing psychedelic dream, made all the more exotic by the fact that it's sung in Cornish, the ancient almost-dead then not-quite dead language of southern England's Cornwall region. I've begun to catch on to the fact that there's a real scene coming out of Wales, with artists like Cate Le Bon, H. Hawkline, Gwenno, etc. Quirky, very skillful, experimental. I love it. 

Bülent Ortaçgil - Sik latife I'm still hoping to ask my Turkish friend (also named Bülent, no relation that I know of) to translate or just describe what this song is about, but I don't need to know in order to love this. In addition to his wonderful singing, the production here is my platonic ideal - prominent, punchy-but-warm bass and drums, atmospheric winds and bells. I love this in the same way I love everything on Dylan's Desire. Great stuff. I'm telling you, 70's Turkey is full of great music. Right? Bülent, help me out!

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah - Our Lady of New Orleans (Herreast Harrison) A plainspoken, very direct jam from one of Scott's three 2017 releases, featuring the incomparable Elena Pinderhughes. I'm not exactly a scholar of jazz flute, but I think Pinderhughes will go down as a giant of the instrument. I can't wait until she starts a group of her own. 


On a side note, I had the privilege of seeing Scott and his group (no Pinderhughes, wah) at the Harris Theater this month - something that resulted from an offhand comment I made at work about a year ago! In addition to putting on a tremendous concert, Scott spent more time with the audience (both before and after the show) than any other performer in my two years working there. I sincerely think he spoke with every single person in the building after the show, taking pictures, making jokes, giving pep talks. He even spent five minutes huddled with the high school jazz band the Theater hired to play in the lobby. My impression is that for him there's no line between performing and regular life. Meaning not that he's performative off-stage, but that the spirit of engagement, curiosity, generosity, and genuine-ness that make his music so great also guide the way he lives every moment of his life. A tremendous musician, deep thinker, very cool dresser, and tremendous human. If you have the chance, go see him. You'll learn something you didn't think you needed to, I promise. 

Dr. Dog - Go Out Fighting A band that just doesn't stop making great music. New album coming out soon. 

The Isley Brothers - Fight the Power - Pt. 1 & 2 This month Indivisible Chicago hosted the first annual Citywide Summit, an afternoon of panel discussions and speeches focused on the November elections (go blue wave!). Part of my duties was putting together a playlist of appropriate music. Between crowdsourced ideas from the IC community and my own digging, I ended up stumbling on some great songs I hadn't heard before - including the next three songs on this playlist. Until Lauren Tucker suggested this song I, naturally, always associated "Fight the Power" with Public Enemy. When you're looking for protest music that is also upbeat and fun, something like this is a dream come true.  

Pussy Riot - Make America Great Again I love the infinite chutzpah of Pussy Riot, taking this execrable slogan and turning it on its head. You've got to love a world where punk rock/feminist dissidents from Russia openly troll our big dummy of jingoist-in-chief. They're not earth-shattering musicians - or subtle lyricists, for that matter - but they make agit-prop fun as hell. 

The Byrds - The Times They Are A-Changin' The Byrds are a band that I kind of missed for some reason. It was a recent viewing of the Tom Petty doc Runnin' Down A Dream (available on Netflix) that opened the door for me. The Byrds are like the Rosetta Stone for Petty's music, explaining so much about where it comes from. Strangely enough, listening to them has served a similar function for R.E.M., a band that I could never quite wrap my head around. Big Star probably fits into this too. The Replacements? Man, this is a treasure trove. Anyway, this is one of several great revamps of Dylan songs, and (for now at least) the one that I actually prefer. 

Sonny Smith - Pictures of You The lead song from Smith's new album Rod for Your Love, very clearly influenced by The Byrds.

Clara Rockmore - Le Cygne (Saint-Saëns) I fell in love with this piece early in the month, and had a cello version on the list. Wanting to fill this month's playlist with as many women as possible, I went searching for a version with a woman soloist and stumbled on this wonderful (and wonderfully weird, of course) version by theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore. Not only the instrument's most famous player, Rockmore actually helped Leon Theremin improve and refine the instrument. Her story's really classic (she took up the theremin after having to quit violin due to physical problems attributed to childhood malnutrition in eastern Europe) and you should get the outline on Wikipedia

Wu Man - Wang Zhao Jun Speaking of virtuosos. I fell in love with Wu Man after watching The Music of Strangers, a documentary about Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble (which I highly recommend - it's on Netflix!). This piece doesn't feature the flashiness she's capable of in spades, but has a lot of soul. To me it sounds like Chinese blues. 

Ry Cooder - The Prodigal Son Speaking of blues. New music from Faux Sounds fave Ry Cooder. Just when you thought that might be it for this Americana elder statesmen. 

Bessie Smith - Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out  I've written in the past (here) about how I grew up surrounded by folk music (of all kinds), and how important to my identity being a part of a musical family/community is. When I was a kid, my parents performed pretty regularly as a duo - Dad on guitar, Mom singing. They tapered off for most of my adulthood, with my dad finding other people to play with and my mom only really singing occasionally at parties and things.

In the last year or so, a few things happened that made me think now was the time for a recording representing the best of the music they've been playing together for over 40 years - something I've been thinking about for years. This month, after several months of practice and planning, we finally went into the studio for our first session. This session was focused on the blues side of their repertoire, and included their great version of this Bessie Smith classic. I can't wait to share that music with the world, but it will be a little while more. In the meantime, everyone will have to settle for Bessie's version. Poor us.