Friday, October 30, 2020

Music Week

October archive (final).

Music: Current count 34260 [34222] rated (+38), 214 [215] unrated (-1).

I haven't been in much of a hurry to get this week's post out. (Cutoff was Thursday, Oct. 29, but didn't get the post up until Oct. 30.) I was delayed a day by Weekend Roundup. I missed two or three days of listening mid-week as I was preoccupied cooking an abbreviated version of my annual birthday dinner, so I didn't have much to show for the week anyway. I hadn't updated my Music Tracking or Metacritic files for a while, so had quite a bit of catching up to do there. I also wanted to take a pass at assembling my EOY Jazz and Non-Jazz files -- if nothing else to get a sense of whether my own grading was still historically consistent in this very abnormal year. All those things took lots of time. Besides, after the weather turned bad, I turned 70, and my massive report on last week's news fell on (evidently) deaf ears, I convinced myself no one much will miss a few days here. Plus we have extra days in October, so taking a few extra days just helps round up the monthly compendium (link above).

For the record, birthday dinner consisted of:

  • Yogurtlu kebap: marinated and grilled lamb cubes, served with tomato and yogurt sauces over toasted pita bread (my initial plans to bake my own Turish pide bread -- not the same thing -- fell through), with grilled long peppers and spiced butter.
  • B'stilla (or bisteeya), a cinnamon-flavored onion-chicken mixture plus a layer of almonds wrapped and baked in filo dough.
  • Filo rolls (or "cigars"), stuffed with feta and cream cheese. (Not something I planned for, but I had leftover dough.)
  • Green bean ragout (Turkish: fasulye).
  • Eggplant-tomato salad (Moroccan: zaalouk).
  • Cumin-flavored carrot salad (Moroccan).
  • Cucumber-yogurt salad (Iranian: mast va khiar).
  • Spinach with preserved lemon peel (Moroccan).
  • Onion-orange-olive salad (Turkish and/or Moroccan).
  • Coconut cake (Mom's classic recipe).
  • Flourless chocolate cake.
  • Vanilla ice cream (store-bought).

We tried eating in the backyard. (One reason for going with Turkish is that it always seemed like camping food. Indeed, I've cooked some over a wood fire at my late Idaho cousin's rustic cabin.) I reported on this dinner on Facebook (should be public -- for photos, here's one of the spread, and another of a plate). Laura finally finished the cake today, and I took the last four filo rolls and refried them in butter with an egg. (There may be some carrots left.)

Another factor in the delay was that I wanted to follow Weekend Roundup with some more reflective comments. I posted on Monday a few minutes after the Senate confirmed Trump's appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, but before I had seen the news reports. The vote wasn't unexpected, but it feels like the country has taken a sudden turn for the worse. Of course, it won't until she starts ruling on cases, but the curse of consciousness is that you can rationally anticipate disasters. And while that runs the risk of exaggerating the peril, I've found through long experience that my fears are usually warranted, and most of my errors were on the low side. In particular, I tend to expect people in a position of power to react rationally to reduce the damage caused by their initial delusions. One can cite instances of this happening, like how the Fed struggled to save a banking industry which in 2008 seemed hell bent on self-destruction. On the other hand, we've seen numerous instances of dysfunctional ideology tightening its grip trying to save face, as with the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are few examples of mindless delusion taking charge as in Trump's recent campaign of defiance against the rising wave of pandemic. How disastrous Trump's course will prove depends a lot on Tuesday's election results. A very grave prospect would be lessened: if Trump loses decisively, and if Trump concedes with any measure of grace, and if Trump refrains from using his lame-duck months deliberately sabotaging the incoming administration. While I remain hopeful of the first point -- my prediction is that Trump will lose worse than any incumbent president since Herbert Hoover -- nothing in the past or current behavior of Trump and those deluded enough to follow him suggests that the transition will be peaceful, let alone smooth.

I've been wanting to say something about what I've learned about politics over the 60 years I've been following closely. I've come to the conclusions that two points are of fundamental import:

  1. We live in a world of bewildering complexity, far beyond the abilities of individuals -- even really bright ones (like myself) -- to understand and maintain in sufficient working order. Accordingly, we need and depend on experts for guidance and direction, and since we cannot know enough to direct them, we need to be able to trust that what they do will be in our collective interests. This is hard to do when individuals are subject to so many competing interests, a list which starts with the profit motive and extends to all manner of tribal and political allegiances. Policy needs to be designed so that we have sufficient expertise, and that it be wielded by people who can be trusted to put our collective interests above their own special interests. Transparency helps here.

  2. Collective interests may be expressed through government, but even more important is their provision of justice. Government itself must be viewed as just -- as fair, respectful, trustworthy, orderly, and predictable. Just governments are usually based on a popular mandate, but are most often and critically tested in their treatment of minorities. Injustice is a perception, and it doesn't take many people viewing government as unjust to undermine its ability to function.

I didn't design this to support a case for voting for Biden-Harris to defeat Donald Trump, but my steadfast horror and opposition to Trump ultimately derives from these two points. Trump and his Republicans have decided that politics is the sole arbitrator of truth, and that they can impose their will on the world. This isn't some novelty that Trump invented. Karl Rove offered a clear statement back in the early "feel good" days of the Global War on Terror, when he insisted that as an Empire Americans were creating facts that others could only contemplate after the fact. The folly of their ego has become clear with their denial of climate change, which has become an article of faith with them despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But Trump's evasion and denial of the Covid-19 pandemic has an even more immediate impact: the latest (October 30) Map and Case Count shows cases up 42% (to 90,728 per day, over 9 million total) over 14 days. And while it's widely acknowledged that we've gotten better at treatment, deaths are up 16%, to 1,004 for the day and 229,239 total.[*] This is not just the consequence of bad policy based on contempt for science and, for that matter, the US Constitution's mandate that government should "provide for the comon defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty." It's what you get when a ruling clique decide that they can get away with anything by lying about it and/or blaming others.

More troubling still is the degradation of the view that the US government is just, fair, and inclusive. I hardly need to enumerate the myriad ways Trump has added to this perception, but should stress that even before 2016, the American economy had become more stratified than at any point in history. (Past peaks typically occurred just before major recessions, like 1893, 1929, and 2007, but the recovery from the latter -- rescuing banks and stocks while letting mortgages and wages dangle -- went almost exclusively to the already rich.) Moreover, thanks to lobbying and unlimited campaign funding and the political suppression of unions, power has flowed to business, and the most common source of injustice is the concentration of power. As Clinton and Obama did little (if anything) to stem this tide, Trump was able to take advantage of a widespread sense of decay, but being himself a creature wholly made by the privileges of wealth, he's done absolutely nothing to right past wrongs, and added more of his own devising. The most troublesome aspect of this has been the resurgence of racism under Trump -- early on, mostly coded against immigrants, but recently Republicans have found a target in Black Lives Matter, to the point where they actually seem to be celebrating police shooting unarmed blacks. Republicans may fantasize of repressing protests so violently they vanish from fear, but injustice eats away at the moral underpinnings of society, ultimately destroying the victors as well as the vanquished.

I had a few more political points, but will hold them off until Weekend Roundup, which starts whenever I manage to close this.

EOY lists were collected from the Year 2020 file, but I haven't gotten around to resorting them yet. One thing I noticed is that early albums ranked relatively high in the lists. That's probably an artifact of incremental list building. The current split is 54 jazz A/A-, 43 non-jazz. First pass on the lists usually splits like that, but evens out in January as I catch up with EOY lists. I was a bit worried that I was generating more A- records than is my custom, but if anything I'm a bit low. Last year's totals wound up with 77 jazz and 77 non-jazz. As February-October represents 75% of the rating year, a 12-month linear projection would expect the current list to expand to 72 jazz, 57 non-jazz.

I don't have a way to compare rating rate to same time last year, but I have 982 records rated so far this year, vs. 1252 for all of 2019. The 2020 tracking file at present lists 3667 records, vs. 5178 for 2019. Using the same time projection, I'd expect 1309 records rated this year (up 4.5%). The total listed would scale up to 4889 (down 5.6%), but I expect the number will rise instead. (Most of the list growth occurs during the EOY list period. The file will contain every record mentioned.)

Metacritic file (link above) is mostly updated through last week (based on AOTY, but not other sources), but doesn't yet include October 30 releases.

Did a brief check for recent deaths, knowing that Billy Joe Shaver (81) had passed. I gave Unshaven: Live at Smith's Olde Bar (1995) an A- in October. Great songs, cranked up a bit by a band that included his guitarist son.

One death I hadn't noticed was that of Jan Myrdal (93). Myrdal was Swedish, the son of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, who wrote what in 1944 passed for the definitive study of racism in America: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. His parents were big believers in America's liberal tradition, but Jan Myrdal was decidedly more radical, with an early fascination with Asia and the Chinese revolution. I read two books by him: his early memoir Confessions of a Disloyal European (1968) and Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism (1970, with his wife and illustrator Gun Kessle). The latter's critique of imperialism had a huge influence on me personally. I can't recommend it too highly.

[*] As Donald Trump Jr argued: "I went through the CDC data, because I kept hearing about new infections, but I was like, 'Why aren't they talking about deaths?' Oh, because the number is almost nothing." The "nothing" number on that day: 1,004.

New records reviewed this week:

Benny the Butcher: Burden of Proof (2020, Griselda): Buffalo rapper Jeremie Pennick, has two cousins also in the game (Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine), second album. B+(**)

Benjamin Boone: The Poets Are Gathering (2017-20 [2020], Origin): Saxophonist (soprano/alto), previously released two good albums with poet Philip Levine, entertains twelve more poets here (two each for Patricia Smith, Patrick Sylvain, T.R. Hummer, and Edward Hirsch). Mixed bag, some impressive, some righteously angry. Especially like the saxophone. B+(***) [cd]

BTS: Map of the Soul: 7 (2020, Big Hit): Korean boy group, the biggest international phenomenon in K-pop with 20+ million albums sold. Seven singers, draw on hip-hop, discography complicated by mix of Korean and Japanese albums, drop in the occasional line in English. Seen live, their dance act can be captivating, but they're harder to follow aurally, and the rewards are less than conspicuous. B+(*)

The Cadillac Three: Tabasco & Sweet Tea (2020, Big Machine): Southern rock/country group, from Nashville, fifth album since 2012, Jaren Johnston the singer-guitarist. Title song is about a girl. Got some funk licks. Remind me a bit of ZZ Top, minus the Texas shtick. B+(*)

Clipping: Visions of Bodies Being Burned (2020, Sub Pop): Los Angeles hip-hop trio, rapper Daveed Diggs the best known -- has a solo career, but also for his roles in Hamilton. Genre listing is "horrocore," and there are references to horror films -- something I generally abhor, but am more simply puzzled by here. B+(***)

Bootsy Collins: The Power of the One (2020, Sweetwater Sounds): Bassist, major contributor to James Brown and George Clinton, first solo albums credited to Bootsy's Rubber Band. Not much credit info, but name dropping for George Benson, Christian McBride, Branford Marsalis, and others. One foot in classic funk, the other dancing about. B+(***)

Open Mike Eagle: Anime, Trauma and Divorce (2020, Auto Reverse): Underground rapper, gets catchier on the second spin before I start to lose track. B+(**)

Kahil El'Zabar: Kahil El'Zabar's America the Beautiful (2018 [2020], Spiritmuse): Chicago percussionist, leads an impressive set of horns (including baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett's last performance before his 2018 death) and strings (violin, cello, bass). I don't really care for either version of the title anthem, but the African-tinged "Jump and Shout" is terrific. B+(**)

The Flaming Lips: American Head (2020, Warner/Bella Union): Long-running (since 1983) psychedelic rock band, from Oklahoma City. A group that I never expected to like, but the few records I've sampled have held a few pleasant surprises. B+(*)

Fred Hersch: Songs From Home (2020, Palmetto): Pianist, prolific since 1984, cut this solo at home during pandemic, two originals, lots of standards. Nothing very splashy, just taking it easy. B+(***) [cd] [11-06]

Homeboy Sandman: Don't Feed the Monster (2020, Mello Music Group): New York rapper Angel Del Villar II, steady stream of records since 2007, most close to the EP/LP divide, this one of his longest (15 songs, 53:21), produced by Quelle Chris. B+(***)

The JCA Orchestra: Live at the BPC (2018 [2020], JCA): I've tended to associate this big band with Darrell Katz, but he is only represented by one (of six) pieces here, along with two each from Mimi Rabson and David Harris, and one by Bob Pilkington. Modernist big band plus strings (Rabson plays violin) and voice (Rebecca Shrimpton). Has some moments, but could do without the latter, or indeed most of it. B

James Brandon Lewis Quartet: Molecular (2020, Intakt): Tenor saxophonist, perhaps the most impressive of his generation. I rather prefer his recent duo with drummer Chad Taylor (Live in Willisau for sheer power, but he's pretty deft in this larger group, with pianist Aruán Ortiz so clever and Brad Jones on bass, spinning their solos into gold. A-

Low Cut Connie: Private Lives (2020, Contender): Adam Weiner, from Philadelphia, plays a mean piano, sixth album since 2011. I thought the first three were pretty good, then lost interest. B

Lera Lynn: On My Own (2020, Ruby Range): Singer-songwriter, born in Houston, raised in Georgia, half-dozen albums since 2011, done some soundtrack work, with or without T-Bone Burnett. B+(*)

Lyrics Born & Cutso: Lyrics Born & Cutso Present Rapp Nite (2019, self-released, EP): Rapper Tom Shimura with DJ Paolo Bello, 7 tracks, 20:50, slipped by unnoticed in 2019, although it's easy enough to find the video for "Hit Number One." A-

Major Lazer: Music Is the Weapon (2020, Mad Decent): Dance music trio, originally billed as Jamaican-American but producer Diplo and MCs Walshy Fire and Ape Drums were all born in US. Still draws on dancehall (and maybe reggaeton), to distinctive effect. B+(**)

The Mountain Goats: Getting Into Knives (2020, Merge): Singer/songwriter John Darnielle, 19th album, 2nd this year. He has a knack for tunes and memorable turns of phrase. B+(***)

Pop Smoke: Meet the Woo 2 (2020, Victor Victor/Republic): Brooklyn rapper Bashar Barakah Jackson, second mixtape, commercial breakthrough (certified gold), released 12 days before he was shot dead, age 20. Plays much older than he was. B+(*)

Pop Smoke: Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon (2020, Victor Victor/Republic): Posthumous debut studio album, topped charts around the world. Opaque. B+(*)

PUP: This Place Sucks Ass (2020, Rise, EP): Toronto punk band, acronym for Pathetic Use of Potential, three albums since 2013, this a 5-song, 17:19 EP. B+(*)

Joel Ross: Who Are You (2020, Blue Note): Vibraphonist, second album, first widely picked as "debut of the year" but I'd chalk that up to being on a "major label." Has some rhythmic ingenuity, and credit labelmate Immanuel Wilkins for the alto sax. With Jeremy Corren (keyboards), Kanoa Mendenhall (bass), and Jeremy Dutton (drums). B+(**)

Sa-Roc: The Sharecropper's Daughter (2020, Rhymesayers): Rapper Assata Perkins, originally from DC, studied biology at Howard, tenth album since 2010 (per Wikipedia; Discogs has 4 since 2014). B+(**)

Darrell Scott: Jaroso (2020, Full Light): Second generation country singer-songwriter, more prolific but less impressive than his late father, Wayne Scott (1935-2011). B+(*)

Sturgill Simpson: Cuttin' Grass Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) (2020, High Top Mountain): Metamodern country singer, seems like his progression through 2019's Sound and Fury was to make his work larger and grander than ever, but he had something extra that mere arena rockers (like Eric Church) didn't -- I was starting to think of him as the Wagner of Nashville. But when the pandemic threw him a curve ball, he choked up and slapped it down the left-field line. He scrounged some of these songs from his early albums, giving them a down-home bluegrass treatment. Presumably he's got more, and I could see the fascination fading, but for now this is the most likable he's every been. A-

Songhoy Blues: Optimisme (2020, Transgressive/Fat Possum): Saharan rock group, from Timbuktu, Mali, third album. Guitar band, best when they ululate like other Saharan blues groups, but sometimes you get the sense they'd really rather be playing metal. B+(**)

SPAZA: Uprize! (2016 [2020], Mushroom Hour Half Hour): South African group, second album, a live soundtrack improvised for a documentary on a 1976 uprising. Words, presumably, from the film. B+(*)

The Soft Pink Truth: Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? (2020, Thrill Jockey): Alias for Drew Daniel, half of Matmos, fifth album since 2003, started in house but seems to have wandered widely (one subtitle is Electronic Profanations of Black Metal Classics). After an erratic start, eases into ambience. B+(*)

Bruce Springsteen: Letter to You (2019 [2020], Columbia): Recorded last November with the E Street Band, features a couple of winning ballads, but most of the record is pumped up to classic proportions. If you're nostalgic for something like Darkness at the Edge of Town, you'll love this. I'm not, but I like it much more than Western Stars (or Darkness). B+(**)

Josh Turner: Country State of Mind (2020, MCA Nashville): Neotrad country singer, eighth studio album since 2003. All covers here, most duets with guest stars: John Anderson stands out, possibly due to his contrast with Turner's deep voice, and Randy Travis delivered the single. B+(**)

Loudon Wainwright III With Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks: I'd Rather Lead a Band (2019 [2020], Search Party): Sez here this album "travels back to Wainwright's big-band-era youth," but he's not that old. Randall Poster supervises, Giordano rounded up the 15-piece band (playing bass sax, tuba, and string bass), and Wainwright croons, mostly 1930s standards. B+(**)

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:

Allman Brothers Band: The Final Note: Painters Mill Music Fair, Owings Mills, MD 10-17-71 (1971 [2020], Allman Brothers): Guitarist Duane Allman's last gig, 12 days before he was killed in a motorcycle accident. So-so sound. Adds nothing to the band's legacy. B-

Wanda Jackson: The Capitol Singles 1971-1973 (1971-73 [2020], EMI Music Nashville): Rockabilly star from the mid-1950s, touted as "the queen of rockabilly," recorded for Capitol 1958-73, moving on to gospel label Myrrh -- most of her later records were religious, but she recorded I Remember Elvis in 2006, and The Party Ain't Over for Third Man in 2011. This is the tail end of her Capitol recordings, material that Rhino skipped when they ended Rockin' in the Country: Best of Wanda Jackson at 1970. After an over-the-top "Battle Hymn of the Republic" this settles into a ballad groove. B+(*)

John Lennon: Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes (1969-80 [2020], Universal, 2CD): Capitalizing on that would have been the ex-Beatle's 80th birthday, this 2-CD solo (plus Yoko Ono) survey recycle the title from their 70th birthday 4-CD box. This includes 3-7 songs each from six albums, one each from three more, plus a few singles. The miscellany isn't as brilliant as that collected for the soundtrack The U.S. Vs. John Lennon (2006), and three of the albums are worth owning whole. (Some argue for Double Fantasy, but I've never been a big fan, and the seven songs sound like the weak spot here -- snapped hard by Milk and Honey's "Nobody Told Me.") Still, a remarkable, tragically shortened career, nicely summed up. B+(***)

Leyla McCalla: Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (2013 [2020], Smithsonian Folkways): Carolina Chocolate Drops cellist, also plays banjo and guitar and sings, first solo album, wrote music to frame the poet's words, mixing in some Haitian folk songs. B+(***)

Edward Simon: 25 Years (1995-2018 [2020], Ridgeway, 2CD): Pianist, from Venezuela, studied in Philadelphia and New York, more than a dozen albums since 1995. Fine selection here, including a SFJazz piece. Most tracks have horns -- alto saxophonist Dave Binney most impressive -- and many have Luciana Souza scat, nothing much to complain about. B+(***) [cd]

Johnny Thunders: Live From Zürich 1985 (1985 [2020], Johnny Thunders Archive): Second banana in the New York Dolls, name Gemzale, went on to form the Heartbreakers (L.A.M.F.) and record a couple solo albums -- So Alone (1978) is a favorite -- before succumbing to the inevitable drug overdose at 38 (or was it?). Live date, past his prime but looks as far back as the Dolls, band includes a saxophone as well as some primal guitar. A-

Old music:

Skip James: Blues From the Delta (1966-68 [1998], Vanguard): Mississippi bluesman, plays piano as well as guitar, high and lonesome voice, recorded 18 songs in 1931 -- many people revere those sides but I've never warmed to them, partly due to the poor sound quality -- then, like John Hurt, Son House, and others, vanished until the folk blues boomlet in the 1960s. This compiles most of two albums -- 9 (of 12) each from Today! and Devil Got My Woman plus two previously unreleased. Best cuts from the latter album. B+(***)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Susan Alcorn Quintet: Pedernal (Relative Pitch) [11-06]
  • Noah Bless: New York Strong: Latin Jazz! (Zoho)
  • Carla Campopiano: Chicago/Buenos Aires Connections, Vol. II (self-released) [11-01]
  • Ikue Mori/Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura: Prickly Pear Cactus (Libra) [12-04]

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