An occasional blog about populist politics and popular music, not necessarily at the same time.
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Monday, June 14, 2021
Music: Current count 35610  rated (+46), 214  unrated (-3).
Turned my attention to new music this week, drawing on sources too numerous to recall, but one was Robert Christgau's June 2021 Consumer Guide: I already had graded Gyedu-Blay Ambolley (**), Dry Cleaning (**), Loretta Lynn (A-), Mdou Moctar (A-), and Olivia Rodrigo (A-) graded, and Chai earlier in the week. Bumped up Dry Cleaning's grade, and checked out old EPs. The other "old music" entries were background for current records, unlike the last month-plus, when I've been working off old music lists.
Another source was the highest-rated 2021 album lists at AOTY and Metacritic, although they rarely led to significant finds. Working as fast as I do, I rarely spend enough time on a record to get a deep feel for whatever's unique about it. So what I offer are first impressions, hoping that breadth makes up for lack of depth.
Finally, it occurred to me that there must be some mid-year best-of lists popping up. I searched out a few, and added the records mentioned to my hitherto skeletal tracking file. The lists I consulted are (unranked, unless noted):
In past year, I would have been tempted to tote them up, but I've given up on that sort of tracking this year. I doubt I can even guess most of a top ten, but most likely are (in alpha order): Julien Baker, Nick Cave/Warren Ellis, Japanese Breakfast, Olivia Rodrigo, St. Vincent, and/or Wolf Alice, with J. Cole about the only hip-hop breakout, and Floating Points and Sons of Kemet possible jazz crossovers. My own picks, which include two of the above (Rodrigo and Sons of Kemet) are here. (Note that with 26 A/A- in what we'll generously call 4 months, I'm on track to wind up with 78, which would be my shortest list since the 1990s, if not much farther back. The current jazz/non-jazz breakdown is 16/10.)
I did an update of the Christgau website tonight, picking up five months of Consumer Guides (although the timelock is, if memory serves, eight months, so you can't read them there, but the records do show up in various indexes, like this 2021 release index. Christgau has 13 A/A- grades on new music releases.
I especially want to point out Perfect Sound Forever's Ed Ward Tribute, with Jason Gross interviewing Greil Marcus. Would be lovely if Marcus were to follow up with an anthology of Ed's writings (and broadcast transcripts?), like he did for Lester Bangs.
I've had a number of horribly frustrating days, which I realize would probably sound silly if I tried to enumerate my complaints. One thing clear is that as one gets older, little things get ever more troubling. The biggest of the little things was that I spent a couple hours working on installing some porch railing, and wound up behind where I was when I started. Doesn't help that it's gotten so hot the least exertion fails me.
One thing I can announce is that I'll return with a new version of my links-plus-comments post. I'm thinking it will come out on Fridays, and the focus will be on picking pieces I want to comment on, as opposed to ones I merely wanted to keep track of. I won't call it Weekend Roundup, or any kind of Roundup, as that isn't the intent. Tentatively I'll revert to my old Weekly Links, but I hope I can come up with something better.
New records reviewed this week:
Susan Alcorn/Leila Bordreuil/Ingrid Laubrock: Bird Meets Wire (2018 , Relative Pitch): Pedal steel guitar, cello, and tenor/soprano sax. Two public domain songs, five joint improvs. B+(*)
Michael Bisio/Kirk Knuffke/Fred Lonberg-Holm: The Art Spirit (2018 , ESP-Disk): Bass, cornet, cello (and electronics), effectively avant-chamber jazz. Grows on you, especially the cello. B+(***) [cd] [06-25]
Black Midi: Cavalcade (2021, Rough Trade): British math rock group, 2019 debut Schlagenheim was widely hailed by critics, but impressed as I was (reminded me of Pere Ubu) I found it even more annoying. This starts better, and ends worse. B
Namir Blade: Namir Blade Presents Aphelion's Traveling Circus (2020, Mello Music Group): Underground rapper, producer, multi-instrumentalist from Nashville, first album. B+(*)
Chai: Wink (2021, Sub Pop): Japanese girl band, third four-letter title after Pink and Punk, conceived like thesis/antithesis/synthesis. B+(**)
DJ Black Low: Uwami (2021, Awesome Tapes From Africa): South African DJ, Sam Austin Radebe, various featured rappers. Love the beats here. Don't know much more. A- [bc]
Nahawa Doumbia: Kanawa (2018-20 , Awesome Tapes From Africa): Singer from Mali, earlier albums were reissued as several volumes of La Grande Cantatrice Malienne. B+(***) [bc]
James Francies: Purest Form (2021, Blue Note): Pianist, from Houston, second album, mostly electronic keyboards, trio with Burniss Travis and Jerey Dutton, plus spots for label stars Immanuel Wilkins (sax) and Joel Ross (vibes), plus vocals. Blue Note seems to be the only jazz label that can break stars from scratch, and there's no reason to doubt the talent they find, but what they do with it rarely pans out. Francies is hot enough for Chris Potter's latest trio, but this is a scattered mess, space warp and bent cocktail music at best, and rarely even that. B-
Girl in Red: If I Could Make It Go Quiet (2021, AWAL): Norwegian singer-songwriter Marie Ulven, first album after a couple EPs. Band is bigger, songs flashier, lots of reverb. B+(***)
Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee (2021, Dead Oceans): Singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner, born in Korea, but grew up in Oregon (mother Korean, father Jewish-American), third album, has written a memoir which will be filmed. First half is glorious pop, tails off a bit after that. B+(***)
Jonathan Karrant/Joshua White: Shadows Fall (2021, self-released): Standards crooner, originally from Ft. Smith, Arkansas, accompanied by pianist. Two previous albums (one live). B+(*) [cd]
Kuzu: The Glass Delusion (2018 , Astral Spirits): Free jazz trio -- Dave Rempis (alto/tenor/baritone sax), Tashi Dorji (guitar), Tyler Damon (drums) -- fourth album in fairly short order. B+(**) [bc]
Andy Fairweather Low & the Low Riders: Lockdown Live (2020 , Secret): Welsh singer-songwriter, started in Amen Corner (1968-69), had a stretch out of memorable albums in the mid-1970s, got cut loose after 1980 with nothing more until 2006, when he released a fairly good comeback album. Since then he's been coasting, which for Brits of his generation means doubling down on the blues. B+(*)
Vic Mensa: I Tape (2021, Roc Nation, EP): Chicago rapper, last name Mensah, father from Ghana. One studio album, one mixtape, half-dozen EPs. Six tracks, 24:04. B+(**)
Ashley Monroe: Rosegold (2021, Mountainrose Sparrow): Sometime Pistol Annie, fifth solo album. Shows she's past her upstart phase, as well as any hint of rebellion. Her orchestrations are real pretty. Makes me suspect they're hollow inside. B
Naeem: Startisha (2020, 37d03d): Baltimore rapper Naeem Juwan, previously dba Spank Rock. Don't know what to say about this, but gets catchier and more intriguing with each play. A-
Larry Ochs-Donald Robinson Duo: A Civil Right (2018-19 , ESP-Disk): Sax-and-drums. Ochs plays tenor and soprano, is part of Rova and has many more albums. Robinson is from Boston, has a couple albums under his own name, a previous duo with Ochs, was also a member of Ochs' Sax & Drumming Core, plus other side credits (mostly as Donald Robinson). B+(***) [cd] [06-25]
Genesis Owusu: Smiling With No Teeth (2021, Ourness/House Anxiety): Rapper/singer Kofi Owusu-Ansah, born in Ghana, moved to Australia when he was two, first album, after an EP and a bunch of singles. He doesn't fit any mold, shifting genres, looks, and hooks. I'm impressed, if not quite as delighted as seems to be his goal. B+(***)
Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Warszawa 2019 (2019 , Fundacja Sluchaj): Group formed 1990 as a sextet, released five albums on ECM 1997-2009, recorded a live album in 2010, revived as a tentet for this set. Long-term members are Parker (soprano sax) and Paul Lytton (percussion/electronics). This edition adds trumpet (Percy Pursglove), clarinet (Peter Van Bergen), piano (Sten Sandell), bass, and various electronics. B+(***) [bc]
Ralph Peterson: Raise Up Off Me (2020 , Onyx Music): Drummer, started as second to Art Blakey in 1983, and remained devoted to Blakey's memory. Recorded this in December 2020, then died (cancer) in March, so this is his last record. With the Curtis Brothers, Zaccai and Luques, on piano and bass, with guest spots for Jazzmeia Horn (vocals) and Eguie Castrillo (percussion). Peterson plays a spot of trumpet. B+(**)
Chris Potter Circuits Trio: Sunrise Reprise (2020 , Edition): Saxophonist (tenor/soprano, clarinets, flutes, sampler/keyboard), reunites with James Francies (piano/keyboards) and Eric Harland (drums), the trio on his 2019 album Circuits. Potter can be terrific, and he has a few moments of that here, but not many. B
Dave Rempis/Tomeka Reid/Joshua Abrams/Tim Daisy/Tyler Damon: The Covid Tapes: Solos, Duos, & Trios (2020 , Aerophonic, 2CD): Chicago avant-saxophonist, alto/tenor/baritone, like most musicians spent last summer holed up, which gave him time to release a trove of old tapes -- 15 digital albums one per week from May through August -- but he also recorded some new music: solos at Unity Lutheran Church, plus a few duos (with drummers Daisy and Damon) and trios (with Reid/Abrams and Abrams/Damon). Choice selections here, including some fine takes on standards. A- [cd] [06-15]
Serengeti: KDxMPC (2020, self-released, EP): "KD" is David Cohn's alter-ego Kenny Dennis. Kenny Segal produced, "adds more to Ajai world." Haven't figured out what MPC means, but appears in first two tracks. Nine tracks, 21:06. Fourth album of 2020, not that anyone noticed. B+(*) [bc]
Serengeti: Curse of the Polo (2020, self-released): Getting difficult to keep up with him: Bandcamp shows six releases so far this year -- all short, but only one with less than 6 tracks. This one has 9 tracks, 31:43. Still, seems like diminishing returns. B+(*) [bc]
Squid: Bright Green Field (2021, Warp): British post-punk band, Ollie Judge singer/drummer, first album after three EPs and more singles. Heard "Narrator" during a thunderstorm and didn't enjoy it at all. Still, something here. B+(**)
St. Vincent: Daddy's Home (2021, Loma Vista): Annie Clark, sixth album, last four (inclusive) have charted 19-12-10-16, gets a lot of good press. Co-produced by Jack Antonoff, who shares five song credits. Could be more (or less) to it, but just on sound and occasional words: B+(**)
Thomas Strønen/Ayumi Tanaka/Marthe Lea: Bayou (2018 , ECM): Norwegian drummer, previously in the group Food with Iain Ballamy. Trio here with piano and clarinet/vocal/percussion. All pieces jointly credited, but not all in the same order. B+(*)
Jazmine Sullivan: Heaux Tales (2021, RCA): R&B singer, fourth album since 2008, first since 2015. Short (32:21), didn't connect enough, although I may have missed a point or two. B+(*)
Too Much Joy: Mistakes Were Made (2021 People Suck Music): Alt/indie band led by Tim Quirk, had a run from 1987 (debut album title Green Eggs and Crack), best one was Son of Sam I Am (1988), but I only heard two. Quirk took a day job at Rhapsody, and gave me a free subscription (one year), which I decided to repay by writing up notes on what I heard there (much longer). First album since. First question: is label name v.t. or v.i.? Not their best joke, but gets them started. Also some wisdom: "a decent mattress is a must." B+(**)
Marta Warelis/Frank Rosaly/Aaron Lumley/John Dikeman: Sunday at De Ruimte (2020 , Doek RAW): Polish pianist, based in Netherlands, second album of hers I've heard recently, with drums, bass, and tenor sax. Four pieces, nicely balanced free jazz. B+(***) [cd]
Wolf Alice: Blue Weekend (2021, Dirty Hit): English alt/indie band, principally singer Ellie Rowsell (also guitar/piano) and guitarist Joff Oddie, plus bass and drums. Third album, currently the top 2021 release in Metacritic's metascore (96, but just a 7th place 86 at AOTY). I don't get the excitement or interest, or didn't until "Play the Greatest Hits" caught my attention: intense, uplifting. Next cut is a change of pace, which seems promising until it isn't. B+(**)
Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries:
Duck Baker: Confabulations (1994-2017 , ESP-Disk): Guitarist, recorded five 1975-80 albums for Kicking Mule, one titled The Art of Fingerstyle Jazz Guitar, and along the way recorded with folkies like Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn, but since his 1994 encounter with Mark Dresser, Baker has gravitated toward jazz, with albums of Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk pieces to his credit. These are scattered pieces over the years, with musicians like Roswell Rudd, Michael Moore, and Derek Bailey. The mix keeps this interesting, without detracting from the focal guitar. A- [cd] [06-25]
Billy Bang: Lucky Man (2008 , BBE, 2CD): Born William Walker in Mobile, sent to Vietnam in 1967, picked up a violin in a Bronx pawn shop and became the greatest jazz violinist ever. He returned to Vietnam c. 2000, and recorded two brilliant albums drawing on their music: Vietnam: The Aftermath (2001) and Vietnam: Reflections (2004). In 2008, he returned, accompanied by a film crew with Jean-Marie Boulet and Markus Hansen. This is audio recorded on that trip, a dozen snippets of Bang talking, ten pieces playing with various Vietnamese musicians. B+(**)
Hailu Mergia & the Walias Band: Tezeta (1975 , Awesome Tapes From Africa): Ethiopian keyboardist, cut a number of instrumental albums in the 1970s before a military coup shut down popular music. Mergia moved to the US in 1980s, gave up performing, and was working as a taxi driver when Brian Shimkovitz's label earned its name with the reissue of one of his albums. He's since released new music, but this is old, his second, a simple and seductive groove. B+(***) [bc]
Duck Baker: There's Something for Everyone in America (1975, Kicking Mule): First album, solo, cover promises "Finger Picking Guitar Virtuosity." Old songs, even the ones he claims as new, most delightful. B+(***)
Duck Baker: The King of Bongo Bong (1977, Kicking Mule): Third album. Cover explains: "Hot tunes, Pop tunes, Blues, Instrumentals, and Hilarity." Baker plays guitar and sings some, with Mike Piggott on violin, and producer Stefan Grossman taking the guitar lead on two songs. Not quite hilarity, but definitely fun. A-
Duck Baker: Les Blues Du Richmond: Demos & Outtakes 1973-1979 (1973-79 , Tompkins Square): From the finger-picking guitarist's folkie period, fourteen pieces that missed his five albums on Kicking Mule. Solo aside from "That Rhythm Man" with bass and violin, a few vocals. B+(**)
Duck Baker: Plymouth Rock: Unreleased & Rare Recordings, 1973-1979 (1973-79 , Tompkins Square): Fifteen more pieces from the guitarist's Kicking Mule era, a couple pairing songs, like the opening "Take Me Out to the Ballgame/America the Beautiful," which is followed by a vocal on "Dr. Jazz." Outlier is "New Song of the South," which reminds me how much I once wanted to escape from my life (although I wouldn't have featured my mother's cooking among the reasons). B+(***)
Duck Baker: Spinning Song: Duck Baker Plays the Music of Herbie Nichols (1995-96 , Avant): Solo guitar. Nine songs by the legendary, short-lived jazz pianist, whose work remained a touchstone for avant-jazzers like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd. B+(***)
Duck Baker: The Roots & Branches of American Music (2009, Les Cousins): Solo guitar, some vocals, mostly trad. pieces, the names starting with Scott Joplin, the outlier by Salif Keita -- the Malian griot whose own search for roots finds common ground with our own. B+(**)
Dry Cleaning: Sweet Princess (2018 , It's OK, EP): Six-track cassette/digital debut, 22:06. Opener emphatically drives their concept home. B+(***)
Dry Cleaning: Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks (2019, It's OK, EP): Six more songs, 21:02, doesn't jump out quite as strong as its predecessor, but unless you're the type who obsessively parses lyrics it's hard to tell the difference -- other than that they hold the strongest track back for the closer. B+(***)
Lisle Ellis: What We Live Fo(u)r (1994 , Black Saint): I would normally parse the cover credit to bassist Ellis, but later group album covers don't single him out like this. Trio with Larry Ochs (tenor/sopranino saxes) and Donald Robinson (drums). B+(*)
What We Live: Never Was (1996 , Black Saint): Side note here: Napster has pretty much everything released on Black Saint/Soul Note, the Italian label that more than any other kept jazz active and creative during the 1980s. However, they've filed most of the records under the wrong names. This is credited to Dave Douglas, and I found it looking for Wadada Leo Smith. Neither appear, nor seem to have anything to do with this trio, but I figured I'd listen to it anyway, because members Larry Ochs (tenor/sopranino sax) and Donald Robinson (drums) have a new duo out (above), and it's long been on my Penguin Guide shopping list. Other member is bassist Lisle Ellis: listed first, but order probably alphabetical, with all song credits shared. Very solid work, especially from Ochs. B+(***)
What We Live: Trumpets (1996-98 , Black Saint): Presumably where Napster's confusion comes from: same trio (Lawrence Ochs, Lisle Ellis, Donald Robinson) but with trumpet added: Dave Douglas in 1996 (31:54), [Wadada] Leo Smith in 1998 (36:44). Score it for Douglas. B+(***)
What We Live: Quintet for a Day (1998 , New World): Sax-bass-drums trio, plus trumpets, together this time: Wadada Leo Smith and Dave Douglas. B+(**)
Records I played parts of, but not enough to grade: -- means no interest, - not bad but not a prospect, + some chance, ++ likely prospect.
What Goes On: The Songs of Lou Reed (1967-2019 , Ace): Not available for streaming, but I tried constructing a songlist, and found 17 (of 20) songs -- nearly enough (missed Lloyd Cole, Echo & the Bunnymen, Soft Boys), but lost track early on, only to find a few later tracks clicked. ++
Grade (or other) changes:
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (2021, 4AD): English post-punk band led by singer Florence Shaw, first album after EPs and singles, dry talk over measured guitar riffs and choppy beats. Reminds some of Gang of Four. Less political, or maybe just more discreet about it. [was: B+(**)] A-
Unpacking: Found in the mail last week: