Shockingly, it is now almost two years ago that I boasted on Facebook that I would review in this space any recording sent to me by the general public—a rash offer that came about because I was sort of bored with what I was hearing through the traditional channels. I felt like I wasn’t having the emotional engagement with music that I wanted to have, that I have had in the past. And so I appealed to you, listeners of the world. In short order I was inundated with gifts, from people near and far, so many that I didn’t really know where to start, or how to complete the task that I had undertaken.
But the thing about receiving music from other people is this: there is always some grace associated with the transaction. The giver is telling you something, and you are completing the message by wrestling with the tunes, trying to figure out what is being conveyed, what particular emotional color is inflected therein. Thus the mixtape, that currency of the young, which has apparently given way—and this I learned from my niece—to the playlist.
And so it has become important, in honoring the grace of the gifts of 2015 (and since), that I try to finish the project that I began two years ago, even if I have had to chip away at it, a little bit at a time. If I made a music column in 2009 to try to get around the music business to the art made by musicians out of love and joy and delight and creative enthusiasm, then there is a genuine purpose to trying to hear the gifts of listeners who are telling me what they love, regardless of whether it finds favor with record executives or A&R guys. This is the first installment, therefore, of my attempt to respond to the gifts, and it features some musicians that I have written about in the past on Swinging Modern Sounds, and some we all know very well, and some I encountered in this engagement for the very first time. Sometimes the musicians sent me the music themselves; sometimes the music was sent to me by civilians who are passionate listeners. In every case, however, it was freely given, which is a truly important and human-scaled way to insure that good art, memorable music, music that is deeper and more fully created than the current Top 40, continues find an audience. (You can do this too, therefore. Give music you love to a friend.)
In summary: these are all recordings that were given to me in the last two years. There are about forty or fifty more that were associated with my original solicitation for this project. Which means I will continue to be busy in this regard on some periodic basis. And you can ensure that the project endures beyond the original sampling by sending me something new that you really love, or something from the past that you think deserves attention anew.
Love Away, Chris Hickey (Work-Fire Recordings)
Once in long bygone days my cousin-in-law (!) sent me a copy of an album by a Midwestern band called Uma. The album was Fare Well, which I think might have been the only Uma album widely released. I became obsessed, in the weeks that followed, with a song on that record called “Lullaby.” It took a very long time to track down the people responsible for this song and album, because I was getting in on the story after it was mostly over.
The principals in Uma turned out to be Chris Hickey and Sally Dworsky, and they were married at the time I tracked them down, having moved to Southern California from, I think, Minnesota. Somehow, I became friendlier with Sally than with Chris, but when Chris made a solo album recently (this as distinct from an earlier solo project he did where he recorded a song every day for a month on hand-held recorder—I was very moved by those songs too), he sent me a copy.
It happens that Chris and Sally separated, and the album seems to postdate this, and perhaps accordingly, at least to me, Love Away is still, sad, reflective, and very moving. I think there’s a Buddhism hovering around the edges here, and in my experience that can be a dangerous a thing, because sometimes in rock and roll, Buddhism can flatten out some of the urgency. But just the opposite seems to happen on Love Away. It makes the album more unflinching, and devoid of self-pity. The passions are the passions, and they pass through the songs, which have a lot to do with the Byrds (Hickey is sometimes a dead ringer for McGuinn), and with R.E.M., and, maybe, Miracle Legion and Neutral Milk Hotel, but with more resignation and middle-age.
For me the standout track is “Down the Turmoil,” which features Sally Dworsky on vox, and which therefore constitutes a sort of Uma reunion. (These happened periodically on one another’s solo work throughout their marriage.) It’s just a great folk-rock song with a chimey Paisley Underground feel. There’s another track that I will one day include in a roundup of all the really good pop songs written about hospitals, which is called, of course, “Hospital.” Hickey’s album reverberates with a certain desperate adult quality, and if there are not endless amounts of gimmicky robotic musical ideas on Love Away, it is instead wise, weary, and frequently genuine and true.
Skypaint, Russell Chudnofsky
Best solo albums by important band sidemen or sidewomen? I have had this debate on a number of occasions, notably with Stevie Jackson of Belle and Sebastian. I like All Things Must Pass, Who Came First, Last Splash, Talk Is Cheap, Weed Forestin’, Star (by Belly), etc. In this context, let it be said that Russell Chudnofsky is a very highly regarded guitar player and session musician in the Boston scene, who has played with some of the very best songwriters there. (I met him at a Tanya Donelly gig.) He has that capacity that is so admirable in the very best guitar players: he has no particular methodology, but can apparently do anything. He serves the song, which is really the ultimate in talent.
Because of his unimpeachable greatness as a player, it would be easy to imagine that Chudnofsky would have songwriting skills. But the road to hell is lined, in fact, with solo albums by great guitar players who didn’t have vision. Mick Ronson, for example, wrote a couple of great songs, but could never quite emerge as a solo artist. Robby Krieger wrote some okay songs for the Doors (although Morrison tinkered with them), but there wasn’t much life in that songwriter outside of his band. I would argue that Jeff Beck’s career is more noteworthy for songwriting failure than success. The hitch, it would seem, is in the lyrics. A lot of great musicians, when it comes down to it, just don’t have that much to say in the medium of song. So the ambitious, whimsical, and almost preposterous aspect of Russell Chudnofsky’s solo album Skypaint is that it’s, well, one of those rock opera type of song cycles.
For me the touchstones of this approach are all from the mid-to-late sixties: S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things; Village Green Preservation Society, by the Kinks; and, perhaps, Tommy. These albums are riff factories; that’s part of what makes them so great, their endless inventiveness, and Chudnofsky’s eminence as a guitarist is such that Skypaint is similar in its craftiness. Every song has its superabundance of great guitar parts and insta-riffs. As with S.F. Sorrow, the singing is somewhat secondary. (Chudnofsky and Sarah Borges do most of the vocals, and are more than able, and Chudnofsky plays just about everything except the drums.)
It is true that Tommy has not worn terribly well. Many of the people who thought that Tommy was the height of profundity in 1969 now think otherwise. Some of its generalities, its abstractions, its lyrical aspirations, are a little embarrassing at this remove. Indeed, as a fierce adherent to all things Townshend, I can now say, as an adult, that it appears that Pete Townshend is in truth a pretty bad lyricist. Skypaint, which is a souped-up retelling of the Garden of Eden story, mimics the excesses of the rock opera approach in many ways, it genre hops, it includes rapping, and it plays fast and loose with lyrics. The rhymes are often cheap (as in Townshend), and the characterizations are sort of off-the-shelf, and the theme seems to be a digital age variant on the Joni Mitchell’s flower power line: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” As a commentary on the excesses of the rock opera, it is perfect. And the songs are infectious, in that mid-sixties/early-seventies way, very infectious, and played faultlessly, and the occasional moment of totally indulgent guitar virtuosity shines through here and there (more would be a violation of Chudnofsky’s serve-the-song ethics), and every single time this indulgence is more than welcome, is very satisfying.
This is one incredibly great guitarist you’ll hear on this recording. I found myself—and this is exactly how I feel about Tommy now, as well as all those Kinks operas from the early seventies—just listening to the songs, and not much caring about the story at all, and, as such, there is a great deal to enjoy about Chudnofsky’s very ambitious project. Who still does stuff like this? Apparently Russell Chudnofsky does.
Myths and Hymns, Adam Guettel (Nonesuch)
This came to me from a “serious music” composer friend of mine who did not formally identify himself to me. It just arrived one day. And, accordingly, I feel I should not belabor the gift-giver, though I know who he is. I believe, at first, he just sent me one song: “There’s a Shout.” This particular song is a gospel song (shading into funk in the horn arrangement), and my “serious music” composer friend, as a one-time horn player, is very obsessed with good horn arrangements. As a matter of fact, I too love great horn writing, which is why, e.g., I love Sun Ra or Frank Zappa, or, well, Duke Ellington.
The thing about Myths and Hymns, and Adam Guettel, however, is that it aspires to be a new, ambitious, smart show music, as you might see in, e.g., The Public Theater. Guettel is sort of what Sondheim would be if he had grown up listening to New York radio between 1975 and 1990. This is an honorable thing to want to be, because the old model of the Broadway show, the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of it, is dead, and the jukebox replacement model is too dumb to be withstood (although I did find The Book of Mormon pretty great, and Fela! wasn’t so terrible either).
Guettel based the lyrics for Myths and Hymns, as I understand it, on a series of myth stories that the author found in an antique hymnal. Thematically it skips around quite a bit, but Sisyphus and Icarus are both featured, as are a great many others, not all of them Greek. The music here is, it’s fair to say, very sophisticated. There’s some very adroit chromaticism, of a kind I associate with the high period of American musical theater, and there is some seriously beautiful string and horn writing, but there are also moments of pop and funk.
I suppose I was given this album as a kind of pedagogical lesson, as I am a guy who comes from the popular song end of things, but who has great ambition to understand “serious music.” Because of this, I have a somewhat dangerous confidence as regards the mechanics of the popular song—I feel I understand it conceptually and from a compositional vantage point. And it’s this kind of confidence that makes me hate, a little bit, “serious music” that thinks it understand what makes popular music interesting. Guettel, for example, clearly likes Stevie Wonder. “Icarus” is a dead ringer for Stevie Wonder, the balladeer, the “You Are the Sunshine of My Love” version of Stevie Wonder, the guy with the really flexible sense of the home key, and the love of blue notes and jazz chords. But for me “You Are the Sunshine of My Love” leads directly to “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and from there, to “Part-Time Lover.” Serious composers are always feeling like they should admit they like Sting or Paul McCartney, but that does not indicate a crossover sensitivity. This is the thing about the Bang on a Can composers: at the very least, they seem to have fine taste in the popular song. (The Bang on a Can recording of Music for Airports, e.g., is an album I really like.)
Adam Guettel, for all his considerable skills, and they are considerable, does not like in the popular song what I like. I like George Clinton better than Stevie Wonder, and I like Andy Summers better than Sting (I mean, if I had to pick a member of The Police). Accordingly, while there is so much to admire about Adam Guettel, Myths and Hymns is a recording I will probably not play often, once I am done writing this paragraph. I wish I did have more a heartfelt appreciation of this song cycle. I like the funk/gospel flavor of “There’s a Shout,” but I find it hard to sit still for the braying vibrato of a big group of Broadway-style singers stamping on the gospel sound, to prove they are very good at it. Sometimes, as I have said, the less effective performers are the more expressive performers…
Xoa, Anaïs Mitchell (Wilderland Records)
On paper, I should admire this album, or at least I should be receptive to this album, since I like things that are very acoustic, and/or things that are very minimal, and I like women singers of the acoustic realm (for example, I like Jolie Holland, Hannah Marcus, the Be Good Tanyas, Alice Gerrard, Victoria Williams, Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, and I even like certain albums and certain moods in the Ani DiFranco songbook, despite the difficulty of the Ani DiFranco myth), and furthermore, I really like and admire the former student of mine who sent this record my way. I like that Anaïs Mitchell loves the Child Ballads (she released an album of adaptations of the Child Ballads), and I even love the sound of Anaïs Mitchell’s song cycle Hadestown (which was also given to me, a few years back, by another friend whose taste I admire). She went to Middlebury! She’s an intellectual! And her dad’s a writer!
Why then, do I resist? What causes me to resist? And why am I ashamed of my resistance and feel it is so suspect? I feel, as someone who appreciates musicianship, I don’t have a leg to stand on here. I feel that even sketching out my resistance only confirms that I am on shaky ground. But I will now run the risk of being on shaky ground, just for the sake of history.
1) Proficiency with the human voice in the realm of acoustic music runs the risk of sounding exceedingly professional. And I have just made this argument, that in contemporary music things that sound professional are the obverse of expressive to me. Anaïs Mitchell is a very beautiful singer, and if she were a worse singer, if there were something less perfect about her voice, I would like her better. It’s not her fault. It’s just where I come from. Lucinda Williams is a great singer because she is bad at it.
2) Similarly, it is very hard to play the guitar in a way that doesn’t sound like everyone else these days, and a certain kind of fingerpicking runs the risk of sounding like all other finger pickers. This is one reason, e.g., why a Mark Rogers is amazing to me—because Mark Rogers somehow manages to make the guitar sound like a new instrument to me.
3) I am not interested in confessional lyrics unless the thing confessed is either novel, original, or remarkably well confessed. (This is why I almost never write confessional lyrics, myself.) I guess Hadestown avoids this problem, because it’s a story. But Xoa lives at the edge of confessional singer-songwriting, and as such, to me, it doesn’t sketch out a new spot for the feminine singer-songwriter, a new perspective, a new point of view. For some people, that is exactly why it’s good. It’s the latest iteration of a Janis Ian or a Karla Bonoff or a James Taylor, to pick a few great examples. But this is precisely why I would rather listen to, let’s say, Tanya Donelly, or Lisa Germano, or John Grant, where the point of view is skewed somehow, less traditional.
4) I actually don’t care about love songs, unless they break the mold somehow. The reason Stephin Merritt is such a great writer of love songs is because he isn’t, in the end, interested in saying something about love, not as much as he is interested in the formal properties of the love song. An album like Xoa believes that singing about love is inherently interesting somehow, because everyone goes through it, I suppose, but that just makes is harder to say something new. Loss is better than love, destitution is more interesting than bounty, poverty is better than affluence, for songs, for art, for literature. Even as I write these lines, I know that they don’t quite express what I’m trying to express here about Anaïs Mitchell, who seems like a very good songwriter and a rather extraordinary singer with a committed audience, and a brave soul to make an album of just voice and guitar like this (I know! I tried to make one!), and the world should be full of listeners who think that this record is as great as my student thinks it is, and I am just a failure, because I would rather the dial were turned five degrees in the direction of inability, unprofessionalism, uncertainty, or rage, and then I would like this record more than I do. It’s my problem really. But check this out:
Heavy Love, Duke Garwood (Heavenly Records)
Duke Garwood is a British guy who plays in the American style. In particular, what Duke Garwood plays a modified blues, which is an approach, these days, that is effectively off limits. What happened to the blues? The blues got enshrined in the American canon. The blues got a Martin Scorsese documentary. And once there was a documentary on public television the blues were effectively shut away behind Plexiglas and made impossible to touch. The blues were locked in a Plexiglas case on a national mall, and you could stroll past the blues, with your kids, and you could say, “Look, honey, it’s the blues! Watch how that black man sings about how he has had everything taken from him by a fascist agrarian vigilante schizo-affective culture!”
You are allowed to touch the blues for a millisecond if you are a kindergartener, but only on those days when the blues shows up for a visit to your classroom, in the form of an extremely old former performer of the blues, too ill to reconstruct his particular style. That is, you can touch the blues, as long as you do not assert that the blues might yet be living, that the blues might be still have a heartbeat, and a bad but human case of tertiary syphilis or late-stage alcoholism. The blues could still do what the blues once did, if the blues could be released from the museum or the cultural preservation circuit, if the blues could go back to wandering in the countryside, if the woe of the dispossessed were to be perceived as worthy of comment, the blues could be released back into the countryside where the lone gunmen bestride the despoiled landscape, lurching from honkytonk to disused storefront church. The blues could be released again into the dispossession of the people, whose only options are which slaughtering service economy job is left to them now, which killing floor on which to be made elderly and dissolute and hopeless before their murder-suicide. The blues could be released back into the wild. Taken away from the guys who went to school to learn the blues, given to the men and women who live the blues.
Duke Garwood is not American, so he has not lived in the landscape of the blues, except, perhaps fleetingly as a tourist of the blues. But in a way this is good. He knows only recordings. He knows only about a deracinated, or adapted, version of the blues, and that’s why his version is impure. It has the psychedelic admixed in, and it has cabaret admixed in with the blues. And yet: Duke Garwood apparently thinks Jim Morrison’s version of the blues might be more pure, more exacting, than Keb’ Mo’s version of the blues. Duke Garwood thinks Junior Kimbrough might be more genuine than Eric Clapton. In these surmises, he is exactly right. Eric Clapton, an unimpeachably great guitar player, plays an entirely dead idea of the blues, or an idea of the blues that only fleetingly has a pulse. If it ain’t got the dread, your blues is stone dead. That will be the shorthand for this idea of the blues that I’m trying to express going forward. Blues as an evocation of dread. Blues with a desperation to tell. Blues as a deathbed confession.
Rosary Beard #2, Rosary Beard (Unreleased)
Rosary Beard (and I don’t know why they are called Rosary Beard) is an acoustic guitar duo, consisting of Matthew Loiacono and Hunter Sagehorn. They are from the Albany, NY area. Each participant plays in a rather distinct style elsewhere. Loiacono (under the name Matthew Carefully, about whom I have written for The Rumpus before) makes experimental loop-based compositions that mostly have to do with the mandolin, though he also sings and plays anything else with strings, as well as drums. Sagehorn plays electric guitar in an indie rock band (with a sort of post-rock vibe) called Alta Mira.
Rosary Beard sounds nothing at all like these extracurricular endeavors. What does this Rosary Beard music feel like? At first blush, Rosary Beard is just acoustic guitar music. The idea is not terribly revolutionary, if, for example, you like the early John Fahey or Robbie Basho, etc. But first blush is exactly the wrong approach to Rosary Beard. It’s not just acoustic music at all. Rosary Beard’s acoustic field of sonic elements conceals rather bold conceptual thinking.
First, there is the fact that this is a duo. The “ancient art of weaving,” as one practitioner calls it, is a smooth, easy ride when the two guitars are electric and there’s a rhythm section nearby. Then, as in the Stones or the Velvet Underground, there’s somewhere to hide. But an acoustic duo is a more beautiful thing, and much harder to pull off. The telepathy between Sagehorn and Loiacono is the very purpose of this work. Often one player will be chording and the other picking and then, suddenly, the roles will be entirely reversed, with different vernacular shadings along the way. It’s almost imperceptible, this recalibration of roles, because the swap takes place in a compositional movement between sections, but it indicates the level of communication taking place between players.
And then: there are the dynamic shifts that are baked into these compositions. Dynamics are the aspect of music ruined by digital recording. (Well, variations in tempo are ruined by digital recording, too.) When the engineer hits the compression button in contemporary recording, all the drama is removed. And yet in this hushed Rosary Beard setting, you can hear all the dynamics, the way the music can rise up out of the meditative or sad and into the yearning and elevated. These shifts are startling, and remarkably beautiful.
Oh, and: Rosary Beard is recorded live. There’s nowhere put an edit, if you had one; you would ruin the interplay between the players. The relationship between the two instruments, the amount of space being filled, renders overdubs futile. So here they are, these two guys, playing together without singing, in these rising and falling instrumentals, all recorded as it happens. Which is to say that very, very few conglomerations of musicians can do what Rosary Beard does. You have to be extremely gifted to do it.
But what’s additionally beautiful about Rosary Beard is that this kind of music, this acoustic thing, gets sentimental easily, or blandly virtuosic. (That’s why it was in such disrepute in the eighties and nineties.) There’s an entire label devoted to the virtuosic and sentimental version of this kind of thing, namely the Windham Hill label. Rosary Beard avoids this deep, terrifying quagmire by being about the relationship between the guitar parts, and by avoiding the merely illustrative. (There are no suites about the seasons here.) I really love this band; in fact, I am captivated by them and their brave odyssey of understatement. They are musicians actually playing music in a room together, in a very minimalist idiom, but in such a way that they have vast sonic implications. This second album, which doesn’t have a title yet, is due to be released in April 2017, and it promises to be more revelatory, more uncompromising, than their first.
Childhood Home, Ben Harper & Ellen Harper (Prestige Folklore)
Look, Ben Harper has never interested me for even five minutes. I hate to say this, because he is a good musician. I’ll never be able to play with anything like the ease and facility that Ben Harper brings to what he does. He makes it look easy. Also: he has a great voice, which most evident on the ballads. I admire his activism a great deal. Still, rightly or wrongly I consign Ben Harper to a school of greatly proficient soul-inflected soft rock types that includes Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, and John Mayer. I would rather go for a visit to the proctologist than listen to an entire song by John Mayer. John Mayer makes me want to listen to Throbbing Gristle. (And don’t get me started on Ed Sheeran.) It’s not Ben Harper’s fault that I think of him in the same way that I think of John Mayer. But it’s how I think of him.
For me, it comes down to the writing. All other things being equal, a good song rises to greatness on the strength of the lyrics. Ben Harper is not a bad lyricist, but sometimes he is satisfied with lyrical formula, with bland assertions of love and its iterations, rather than with the actual power of actual Ben Harper subjectivity. The human thing. Interestingly, his mother, with whom he made this record we are talking about here, has none of these problems. His mother has a slightly weak voice, and she plays like an old folk singer, like one of those old singers who hasn’t played for a while, until being dusted off by a Lomax or a Seeger. But boy can she write a lyric. She has everything Ben Harper, with his unimpeachable gift, does not have. She is the correction. Her songs on this album are genuine, brave, and astringent.
There’s a thing happening now, a radical middle-aged and late-middle-aged feminine perspective (Viv Albertine, to me, in her solo work, is the great exemplar), that is so important in contemporary songwriting. So important! And Ellen Harper has this capability, to bring us to a neglected truth. She’s a lot sweeter than Viv Albertine, but her point of view is anything but simplistic. She has a radical folkie agenda, of the old variety (“It all belongs to Monsanto,” etc.). But that doesn’t begin to get to it. There’s a song here that starts with the line “It’s Christmas in the psych ward…” This song makes even John Prine’s song with a similar theme seem light and excessively cute by comparison. That’s what Ellen Harper brings about on this album. Ellen Harper brings out the best in Ben Harper.
The simplistic view, here, would be that Ben made a record with his mom because he’s a good boy and he cares about his mom, and he was doing her favor. The opposing view, also unnecessarily simplistic, would be that Ben Harper has fallen into the shallowness of the music biz, can’t get out, and his mom has all the juice here, and is doing him a favor. But the facts are more dynamic, and variable, and more complex. Each of the collaborators has a lot to bring to this project (Ben Harper’s playing, in a stripped-down acoustic space, shines with particular grace), and the album is better for each of their strengths. The harmonies here are an indication of what’s really happening. The harmonies are of that kind of perfection that only families can manage (another great recent album along these lines is the Haden Triplets album—great, great harmonies!). Ellen Harper is a beautiful harmony singer, and when Ben is singing in his ballad voice she locks in with him in a way that’s so smooth and unprepossessing it’s like you learn more about who Ben Harper is, a little spot in the spectrum of his voice is obviously the part he got from his mom. And Ben has the same capability in reverse. He sounds almost exactly like his mom when he’s singing harmony, and that’s significant because he is more often a soul singer who also plays a lot of rock and roll. A dynamic and sorrowful album by a mother and son that crosses back and forth across traditional music and raises questions about age, race, and economic oppression? For me, this record was a welcome discovery. There are some revelations here, and the collaboration brings out the best in everyone involved.
Nancy & Lee, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood (Reprise)
For many months, I hesitated to proceed with this column simply because of my vexation about Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. A friend of mine, with all good intentions, a friend I really like, a musician and writer, whose music and writing I like a great deal, gave me this album. How then can I report in good conscience that I admire the idea of Sinatra and Hazelwood more than I love the actual thing, that I like the sound but there’s a kind of campy ironic dimension to the actual thing that somehow defeats me?
I have heard many of these songs over the years, and they are the kind of thing, in all honesty, that I would allege, in certain arty company, to love a great deal, but, in a way, I would be fibbing. Even with “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” there’s so much eccentricity in the rendering that the whole of it seems, well, very funny to me. Lee’s voice, in a way, is horrible, sort of like Sonny Bono for the LSD crowd. (Also, they leave out the bridge, which was always my favorite part of the song.) It doesn’t really hold a candle to the Righteous Brothers version, which is marked by overproduction but also genuine pathos. And what about “Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman?” It’s really funny. But is funny enough?
In fact, this all reminds me of the early-nineties space-age bachelor pad lounge movement, the principle avatar of whom was Esquivel, the guy who really bounded back from obscurity then. But there’s the Esquivel revival always sort of had a condescending aspect to it. I know for those artists, Esquivel, et al., whose music was selling again in the early nineties, that the rebound was probably a welcome phenomenon, but what if it was just to couples wearing Hawaiian-print shirts and smoking a lot of weed? Whether or not condescension is the right word, whatever it is, it’s not exactly the relationship to music that I want to have, although there is music that I find funny and really deeply love (Raymond Scott, for example).
Maybe that is splitting the hair in a way that is extremely fine. But I feel like the comic element is built into Sinatra and Hazelwood, a wink and a jab, and that most of the people who really like the music are attracted to that meta-commentary. I like it, but I just am not going to put it on the turntable all that often, even to prove my bona fides as a meta-commentator myself. This could be because I don’t drink martinis or smoke a lot of weed. The band of the guy who sent me this record has a sort of tent-revival dimension, a simulation of country music that is recombined with some punk and some goth, so that the tent-revival aspect becomes horrible, threatening, and one feels the deep tolling of funeral bells beneath the surface of the thing, and so this band somehow transcends their country music origins, and don’t seem like they are kitschifying the country music. And Captain Beefheart loved the blues. And Frank Zappa loved doo-wop. And Lou Reed really loved Buddy Holly. And the Beatles really loved music hall. And so did the Kinks. And the Pogues really loved the Irish music and the punk. Where’s the love in “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling?” Is the song itself a commentary on having lost it?
Two Years, Emily Rodgers (Misra)
I have been a fan of, and occasional correspondent with, Emily Rodgers since her second album, Bright Days (2009), which I believe I wrote about a few years back, and this led me back to her first album Emily Rodgers & Her Majesty’s Stars, which is a very melancholy and slow-moving affair, somewhat in the realm of Vic Chesnutt or Cat Power. Bright Days and Two Years, the latter two albums, are both produced by Kramer, which means they have a lot of reverb and a real band sound, which serves Rodgers well, although as she has grown, she has let her voice move forward in the mix to become the lead instrument, in contrast to the mumbled continuo of the first album, and with this has come more songcraft, and more emphasis on lyrics. I really find her work incredibly moving, and it recalls an earlier period of music, one that I still miss. Two Years, which I think took seven years to make, is more adult, more crafted, but just as moving.
Since I have already raved about her, I thought I would ask for Emily’s input. And so I inquired into ten indie songs that influenced Emily Rodgers’s development as a songwriter:
“Anna Begins” by Counting Crows
“Metal Heart” by Cat Power
“This Is Not Like Home” by Great Lake Swimmers
“My Curse” by Afghan Whigs
“Your Ghost” Kristin Hersh
“Upward Over the Mountain” by Iron and Wine
“The Last Time” by Julie Doiron and The Wooden Stars
“Farewell Transmission” by Songs: Ohia
“You, Her and Me” by Nina Nastasia
“Wolves” by Last Night on Earth
And then, because I was interested in the idiosyncrasy of this list, I asked if she knew any of the artists personally. See below.
“Anna Begins” by Counting Crows
“Metal Heart” by Cat Power
No, but I know her keyboard player because he also plays with Harper Simon and I opened for him at the Andy Warhol Museum.
“This Is Not Like Home” by Great Lake Swimmers
Yes. Tony Dekker is the songwriter, guitarist, and singer for GLS. This is one I hadn’t heard of until I got a gig opening for them. I listened to their first album after biking a mile uphill in the rain on the way to take care of my boyfriend’s cat. I put the album on and was spellbound. Spellbound is a terrible word choice, but magical is worse. Both, however, express how I felt. I’d never heard anything like it—the reverb just right. I’d never even heard the word reverb. When said boyfriend returned, all I said was, “Why does Great Lake Swimmers sound like this? Can I sound like this too?”
GLS stayed with my roommates and me a number of times when we performed together at Garfield Artworks in Pittsburgh. We were all young and stayed up drinking until forever.
The last time I played with them was this year, so about twelve years later. They played a few of my favorite pieces from their first two albums. They were beautiful; I think there’s something magical about performing songs years after they were written. It’s like covering your own work, written by a different incarnation of yourself.
(Second place is “Various Stages” from their second album. I listened to that song over and over after my brother died from suicide.)
“My Curse” by Afghan Whigs
I know his keyboard player! Apparently I know a lot of keyboard players… I don’t remember why I know this keyboard player.
“Your Ghost” by Kristin Hersh
I sent her a fan letter once and she wrote back a nice, long reply!
“Upward Over the Mountain” by Iron and Wine
No. And I really disliked his albums post this one… That’s not why we aren’t acquainted. I’m pretty sure he isn’t concerned with my feedback regarding his artistic output.
“The Last Time” by Julie Doiron and The Wooden Stars
Nope. I think I tried to but, admirably, she doesn’t do the Internet.
“Farewell Transmission” by Songs: Ohia
Yes. Well, I did. Jason Molina. He was always so gracious. I opened for Magnolia Electric Company in 2006. The bill was me, Last Night on Earth, and Magnolia Electric Company. It was one of my first full band shows, and Magnolia loved the band and our sound and told us so. I was starstruck and was concerned they’d be aloof, but they were most certainly not. Jason’s output could be so dark and intense, but he wasn’t at all what I expected. He was friendly and kind.
I think that we often apply false dichotomies to artists; if one’s work is dark, one must be idiosyncratic and incapable of social interaction. My work can be very dark, and I’ve often felt somehow embarrassed that I’m able to competently socialize. I will say, though, that both before and after shows, I want to disappear. I really don’t want to speak to anyone, but I’m not famous enough to be sequestered before my set and whisked away after.
I’d honestly never heard of MEC before I got the gig, but Kevin Finn, the singer from Last Night on Earth, bought me two of their CDs and they are still two of my most treasured albums. I consider Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company to be major influences for me.
I actually got a nice email from Jason Molina a few months before he died; he addressed me as e-Minor Rodgers. I’m still in touch with Jason Groth (guitarist) from Magnolia. He invited us to Jason M.’s private funeral but we weren’t able to make the drive to Bloomington.
“You, Her and Me” by Nina Nastasia
Not really. Opened for her but had just quit drinking and ran away after my set.
“Wolves” by Last Night on Earth
Yes. At one point I was engaged to Kevin Finn, the songwriter and guitarist/singer of the band. I’d just moved to Pittsburgh from a wee town in Indiana when I wandered into a Polish bar and heard them for the first time. I was, again, spellbound. I’d never heard anything like it. His voice almost a whisper, an amazing violin player, Moog, bass, drummer, and percussionist. I stayed for their whole set and then through two surf rock bands just so I could find out the name of the band.
Last Night on Earth is one of the very best live bands I’ve ever seen, and will remain one of my favorite bands, though I’m slightly concerned that I broke up the band… Megan Williams, the violin player for LNOE, has played with me on and off since 2006.
Panic Prevention, Jamie T (Caroline)
One band I have always found mystifying is the Arctic Monkeys. If the Arctic Monkeys were declared endangered because of a lack of sea ice, a lack of ice floes in the northern wastes, I would not contact Greenpeace to make a donation. The comparison of The Beatles to the Arctic Monkeys, which was bandied about at one point, especially by a certain foaming-at-the-mouth alcoholic British publisher with whom I was once briefly associated… this comparison was always just a marketing ploy, a bit of a line dreamed up by other foaming-at-the-mouth British alcoholics in ill-conceived positions of cultural authority, not unlike saying The Knack were the greatest band since The Beatles.
How are those guys feeling now, the ones who said The Knack were like The Beatles? Those guys are trying to pretend they never said it. They have become insurance salespeople. Or what about the people who said Klaatu were The Beatles? Now I admit saying that Klaatu were The Beatles has a certain perversity that is at least admirable, but even so those people have moved on with their lives, and are worried about the privatization of Medicare. At least Klaatu wrote “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” which is truly one of the greatest songs ever written, especially in the interpretation by the Langley Schools Music Project. The Arctic Monkeys need to get out of their newborn-sized diapers, and start writing songs that deal with actual human events, like, say, political change. Or they need to study “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.”
Having said all this, however, what if the Arctic Monkeys were actually good? What if there were a British songwriter who had an accent similar to that guy from the Arctic Monkeys, but this musician couldn’t really play his instrument well at all, and didn’t want to, and he had awful panic attacks as a young person, such that he sympathized with the disenfranchised and powerless, and only had a range of about three notes, and he dashed off his songs as though he had to do them in order to live, and he rhymed “Navajo” and “average Joe,” and he wrote about riding on the local bus, and he was as desperate to tell as Paul Westerberg was once, and he looked so much likes he’s driven himself to the edge that he wrote a song about zombies and then filmed a video of himself looking exactly like a zombie?
Then you’d have Jamie T and his first album, called Panic Prevention. Which is really great. And well worth your attention. Whatever the punk thing was, whatever it was about, it wasn’t about the Arctic Monkeys and their groupies, it was about giving the hope of music to anyone who wanted it, and about giving the expression to anyone who wanted it, and nowadays that seems to mean you just plug a mic into your laptop and go—but what is really moving about Jamie T is that he’s still trying to do it primarily with a guitar, and for that reason he sounds a little bit like Husker Du sometimes, or like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, excepting that he has that excellent accent. This is a revolution worth having. Jamie T is a revolution, a blow for democracy in music, for turning the music over to the audience for them to do with it as they would like. And: this album was given to my by Adam Klein who has such excellent taste that I knew it would be really great, and it is. Adam plays in The Size Queens, whom you should also know better. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsLkOwx4C1A