Monthly Archives: June 2017

Sound ‘Round: Chuck Berry / Low Cut Connie

I like that old time rock n’ roll

Chuck Berry – Chuck (Dualtone)

Chuck Berry is a musical monolith who was denied a vast outpouring of grief upon his passing because — sorry, kids — Uncle Chuck was a salty old perv. As significant as his music remains, his troubled personal history makes him a hard figure to like, never mind admire. So three months after Berry’s death at the age of 90 and 38 years since his last studio release comes this posthumous effort that gives us nearly everything we could ask for from a Chuck Berry album in 2017. The guitars sizzle and burn with typical punch and fervor, and his slight Midwestern tenor largely remains spry and playful. The noticeable difference is the songwriting. Berry’s hits of yore were neatly packaged stories about teenagers driving Coup de Villes, but the best material here finds the brown eyed handsome man making amends to his long-slighted wife. Though her husband was a rampant philanderer and spent time behind bars for voyeurism, Thermetta Suggs stood by her deeply flawed man until he made her a widow. Her magnanimity is so gracious and compelling it spurred Berry to go out swooning over her like a schoolboy.  These songs don’t erase his transgressions, but at least they prove he died saying sorry. She already forgave him a long time ago. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Wonderful Woman” / “She Still Loves You” / “You Go To My Head”

Low Cut Connie – Dirty Pictures (Part 1) (Contender)

They’ve rocked on bandstands in their native Philadelphia, P.A., been arrested deep in the heart of Texas and likely vomited into Frisco Bay. In just six years front man Adam Weiner (lol) has helped turn this group of bar crawlers into one of America’s most hell-raising live acts. They dig cheap thrills —drag shows to wet t-shirt contests — and extol the virtues of hedonism with the fury of Jerry Lee.  But even booze hounds are catching the blues these days, and Weiner’s got reasons aplenty to feel flaccid. First came the departure of co-founder and creative partner Dan Finnemore, a dapper Brit who moved back across the pond. Then came the devastating election and subsequent reign of the Buzzkill in Chief. “Everybody’s actin’ like an asshole,” goes the opening line on “Death and Destruction,” the rare party anthem that dares capture the zeitgeist. Weiner’s distaste for the alt-right is matched only by his deep affection for Prince’s corpse. Hence the sturdy rendition of “Controversy” and the penultimate song that once more pays homage to the Purple One. Last call will come for this band someday, but their belief in the power of the boogie, along with their self-effacing humor, makes them a must-see when they visit a town near you. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Revolution Rock n Roll” / “Dirty Water” / “Forever”

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Sound Round: Orchestra Baobab / Mount Eerie

Making music whilst they still breathe

Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (Nonesuch)

This ain’t no typical tribute record. Though original member and album namesake Ndiouga Dieng remains with them in spirit after succumbing to an unspecified illness, his living band mates waste nary a breath on their fallen leader. They’ve been doing this for 50 years since forming at a nightclub in Senegal, making them old enough to know life goes on and wise enough to know life is worth celebrating. That realization continues to make their music — a harmonious mesh of Afro-Cuban influences — remain vital. What keeps them crazy after all these years? A deep admiration and respect for women that’d make them enemies of the state in Saudia Arabia or the White House. They dig wedding nuptials (translated lyrics, “A good marriage is beyond price”), dig parenthood even more (“Leaving your children lagging behind, that is not normal”), and express loving words with simplicity and grace (“All the beauty of a pretty woman is seen in you”). Salute to the long-tenured percussionists who provide the grooves that get you in the door, and praise be to Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis, who lean their leathered vocals into the beat and refuse to budge. With a love this immeasurable and the goal to make each day count, why should they go anywhere else? GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Woulinewa” / “Sey” / “Foulo”

Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Music this morbid is routinely overvalued by the literati, be it much of late-period Johnny Cash or widower Phil Elverum, who has been lauded by gatekeepers for this album centered on the death of his wife (artist Genevieve Castree) from pancreatic cancer. As empathetic creatures, our hearts should break for Elverum and his daughter — born just 18 months before her mother perished. As music consumers, however, we should remember meditations on death do not guarantee profundity, enlightenment or memorable tunes. Elverum’s goal here isn’t for collective healing. These songs are hyper-personal and written in a prose too wordy for melody or typical song structure. And while the austere production and minimalism signifies his grief, his depressive vocal delivery muddles these songs into an indistinguishable slab of sadness. But nestled in the gloominess are clues to his realization that life carries value even as we endure indescribable loss. Father and daughter move into a new house on “Ravens” because they need a new start in a death-free home, and later a task as mundane as taking out the trash becomes a quiet moment of clarity. But Elverum’s darkest line is likely the most hopeful: “We are all always so close to not existing at all.” That’s why we have to keep breathing. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Seaweed” / “Swims” / “When I Take out the Garbage at Night”

Sound ‘Round: The Mountain Goats / Zeal & Ardor

In celebration of the dark arts

The Mountain Goats – Goths (Merge)

Unless your name is Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking or Paul Allen, odds are John Darnille is smarter than you. Like the good English major he was at an uber-exclusive private school, his songs are more literary than lyrical: wordy, dense and as detail oriented as they are character driven. Characters on this concept record — Darnielle’s medium of choice — partake in Goth culture, an odd subject matter for anyone who hasn’t already made an album about professional wrestling.  This is no musical tribute, however. There’s no shoegazing, brooding or nine inch nailing, and those clarinets and woodwinds sound more like chamber pop than chamber drone. And while Goth icons like Siouxsie and Andrew Eldritch get their due, the best songs ponder the idiosyncrasies of the entire scene. He sympathizes with the nervous newcomer who isn’t hardcore enough to go through an initiation ceremony, bleaches his hair like the rest of his West Coast brethren and wears black every day of the week. Until the finale, that is, when Darnielle is wise enough to know that all scenes eventually end. “You and me and all of us / Are gonna have to find a job,” he sings. And the Dad Rock congregation said, “Amen.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Wear Black” / “Andrew Eldtrich is Moving Back to Leeds” / “Abandoned Flesh”

Zeal & Ardor – Devil is Fine (MVKA Music, 2016)

The most striking album of 2016 remains the most striking of 2017. It’s the brainchild of Manuel Gagneux — a Swiss New Yorker dared by a racist 4Chan user (surprise!) to mix black metal with “nigger music.” Not one to let the trolls win, he began meshing blues hollers with the very metal tropes Adult Swim parodied a decade ago. The chants are nonsense but cut to the heart of rock’s anti-establishment creed. The opening refrain of “Devil is kind / Devil is fine” is later followed by, “A good god is a dead one / A good lord is a dark one.” I doubt Gagneux is a Satanist (And what’s it to you if he is?). Instead, I suspect he’s a smart musical mind happy to demonstrate his brainpower at the expense of a faceless scumbag on the internet. The metal elements of this record impress most for their sheer virtuosity. Listen to those stabbing guitar riffs, how they’re enhanced by articulate arpeggios. Listen to tubular bells that could re-possess Linda Blair. Listen to his reverence for the source material and realize a century’s worth of black music is his birthright. Listen from start to finish and know that 25 minutes is just enough time for this one-off to warrant your respect. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Blood In The River” / “Devil Is Fine” / “Children’s Summon”

Sound ‘Round: Matt North / Craig Finn

A working class hero is something to sing about

Matt North – Above Ground Fools (MattNorth.net)

He dresses like Nick Cave and possesses an unremarkable tenor that resembles Stevie Ray Vaughn. He’s a drummer at heart that took up guitar and hired a crew of seasoned pros to spruce up these 10 songs. He was born in Michigan, raised in Illinois and wound up in Nashville because it’s one of the few places left where a white middle-aged singer-songwriters can find work. The music, instantaneous and punchy, is refreshing for its relaxed nature. He’s too old to strain for grandiosity and too addicted to old time rock n’ roll to adhere to any other formula: Big guitars, bigger drums and spirited vocals up front. Not sold, you say? Too conventional, you complain? What’s the secret, you ask? Simply put, ebullient lyricism that refuses quit. From the ex-lover he’s got no hard feelings for, the ex-wife who acquires an obsession for murder shows, or the quaint idiosyncrasies associated with life in the land of Jesus and fireworks, every vignette comes with a worthy couplet and endearing realism. Nothing’s more real than “I Sold It All,” in which he hocks his earthly possessions to get out of a jam. Spoken like an unashamed careerist who knows firsthand the struggle to make ends meet. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “No Hard Feelings” / “I Sold It All” / “Seventeen Days”

Craig Finn – We All Want the Same Things (Partisan)

The entirety of Finn’s musical career centers on lowlifes, be it his main gig fronting The Hold Steady or his more tranquil solo work. He grew up in a small Minnesota town and his character studies come from that place of little people sussing out life’s great dilemmas. Here his vignettes deal with tragicomedy and just plain ol’ tragedy. There’s the cash-strapped starlet who swindles a love-struck millionaire of his last penny (“Tangletown”), and there’s the sister who sells back the leftover stash of heroin that killed her brother (“God in Chicago”). Regardless of the means or the method, each character is treated by Finn as a flesh and blood being with real emotions, dreams and fears. His capacity for empathy is so great, I’m sure a few of his subjects even vote Republican. He has no use for being autobiographical, but he’s lived enough and toured plenty to know a thing or two about recognizing how the other half struggle. Blame it on my disdain for bombast, or credit Finn for knowing when to play it cool, but this album tops anything The Hold Steady have done in years. Not every guitar-laden story has to come with bar-band gunk attached to it. Sometimes all you need is the human element. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Birds Trapped in the Airport” / “Tangletown” / “Rescue Blues”

Sound ‘Round: Kevin Abstract / Syd

Black, gay and in love in America

Kevin Abstract – American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (Brockhampton, 2016)

If Frank Ocean is granted his wish for an early retirement to enjoy the suite life, rest assured Ian Simpson a.k.a. Kevin Abstract and other young, black, gay males on the wrong end of the sociopolitical spectrum would be quick to fill the void. But this Houston rapper-singer-autotuner doesn’t just share Ocean’s point of view, he also one-ups him with the kind of articulate beats and crisp hooks R&B tends to disavow these days. He digs formal songs over fluid sounds, and those formalities build this concept album worth more than the sum of its parts. The premise returns Abstract to high school along with a crush on the quarterback. I suspect his idea of beauty is less autobiographical and more a manifestation of his self-contempt. Aside from the penis, Kevin’s beau has everything he don’t: white skin, deep pockets, a social life, validation, unspoken privilege. Meanwhile, Kevin’s mom is a homophobe, his boyfriend’s parents are racist and he hates his blackness for all the historical baggage it brings. The subject matter is heavy and the music doesn’t always carry the weight. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful if not happy. Be encouraged the best song revolves around him quitting his day job. Where he’s going, he won’t need it. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Tattoo” / “Yellow” / “Miserable America”

Syd – Fin (Epic)

How Sydney Bennett’s first solo effort is distinguishable compared to her recent work with The Internet is beyond me. Perhaps the bass is a little less up front. Maybe she’s accepted her diminutive whisper of a voice for what it is. It could be more reliant on samples and cool factor than actual songs. The differences are minimal and hard to parse because of Bennett’s obsession with mood over melodicism. The details don’t matter as much as the vibes, man. That’s not to say there aren’t hooks, but they’re deliberately anchorless and fleeting on an album that’s meant to be more meditative than memorable. But credit the former Odd Future producer for sticking to her talking points. From front to back, these songs concern insecure and unstable love with another woman. No pandering, just real talk — exactly what we need for these terrible times in which gay rights are threatened the world over. It’s vital for someone like Syd to humanize such issues. But championing the cause ain’t her only goal. As he told NPR: “This (album) is like an –in-between thing. Maybe get some songs on the radio, maybe make some money.” We all gotta pay the bills. Maybe she can open a few minds while doing so. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “All About Me” / “Got Her Own” / “Know”