The record Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady is a record about being a not quite middle class young man somewhere in the American Midwest. As a kid you probably went to Catholic school (maybe to about 6th grade), but your parents couldn’t afford one of the good high schools so you went to public school. You smoked your first cigarette in 7th grade and had your first drink soon after. You parents noticed, but they were working doubles so they ignored it. You were not bad at school, but you didn’t pay attention as well as you should have and were more interested in reading On the Road or skipping school to go to the Ramones show. Sometimes on Saturday night you went to church like you told your parents, but sometimes you sat on the bench outside and smoked cigarettes and read Spin magazine. When you shop lifted or sold weed you felt slightly bad about it. As you got older your friends started to diverge, but when things went sideways they really went sideways. You made friends who always had some idea that was suspect (you went along with it anyway) and you loved girls that loved maybe a little too frequently (weird loves better than no love as they say). You got some habits that were easy to start, but hard to quit. Despite that Jesus was something to you still and you felt low sometimes about the way life going. Things have their own trajectory though and they have to play themselves out. They work out or they don’t. It’s all in the dice throw. Then you come up for air and you see what the world looks like. Separation Sunday are the songs of that trajectory.
A number of years ago at Barley’s Taproom in Asheville, North Carolina I was talking to a man at the bar. His wife quietly interrupted him and said, “Why are you talking to that Bearded Riff Raff, we are from NEW JERSEY.” I couldn’t deny it, I am the Bearded Riff Raff and I am not from NEW JERSEY. I decided to own it. Bottoms up! Here’s to the Bearded Riff Raff!
In the 1980’s I liked rap, but it was one of those things I didn’t pay close attention to until the 1990’s when a friend gave me a tape with the with Tribe Called Quest, Black Sheep Squadron and Main Source on it. I realized there was more to the genre than just Beastie Boys, Fat Boys, and Run-D.M.C. There was the top selling tier of rap royalty that was on MTV, but there was a second tier that was maybe better than the first (although not much is better than King of Rock or Paul’s Boutique). I woke up to the idea that rap was record based art form succeeding on a broad scale. The 2019 record Psychodrama by the rapper Dave (full name David Orobosa Omoregie) is a concept album and it is a good as any of the classics I loved in 1991. The concept is a man facing down his demons in London talking to his therapist for one hour. The record follows the trajectory of a therapy session with intros and segues from the psychotherapist and is broke up in sections Environment, Relationships, and Social Compass. Some of the songs are searing, some are introspective, and some are just realistic depictions of the life as the child of Nigerian immigrants in modern London. The poetry and flow of the record are amazing. Dave is an eloquent and insightful MC. The music is low key, more constructed to match the lyrical content than vice versa, but Fraser Smith’s implementation of it is perfect. For me, the highlight of the record is the 11-minute rap epic Lesley a sorrowful tale of domestic violence, but almost every track is great. Dave is a rapper at the height of his powers and this record is a window into him working on growth as a man and self-awareness of the world around him.
On the evening news
Your attention is
The one thing
They can’t afford to lose
Stories like Hitchcock
Winding up and down
For secrets and motives
That aren’t really there
Sounds like Altman
Bleeding one into another
Cutting in and out
People trying to discern
Truths they whisper
From lies they shout
Faith like Scorsese
Still present, but
Beaten and torn
All the death and privation
Something better is born
Reality like Lanzmann
Laying bare plagues foul effects
On me and you
No soft lenses
Just a truth hard to view
Gene G. McLaughlin 2020
The monkey sees God in bananas
The tiger sees the divine in his claws
The crow sees God in the worms of the morning
As he cackles, preens, and craws
Man sees God in the unseen
The preacher sees the divine in his words
The zealot sees it in the crowds that gather before him
As he guides them like an unthinking herd
Let your eyes be your faith and your heart
Let your ears hear the sounds of the divine
Let your own steps guide you to your version of God
As I shall let my feet lead me to mine
Gene G. McLaughlin 2020
Bars of Gold record Shelters is a straight up rock record. There is no cleverness attempted and no frills. It is definitely a record that is in the tradition of Detroit rock legends the MC5 and the Stooges. I like to listen to it when I move because the record itself never stops moving. I find it even encourages dancing while walking down the street. Luckily I trained in Russia at the Bolshoi in the 90’s so it looks really good when I get down on the sidewalk. I don’t know too much about the band aside from some articles online. The drummer and lead singer were in a band called Bear vs. Shark and the other members were in an instrumental rock band called Wildcatting and they united to create this band 10 years ago. Apparently in 2018 before making this record they thought they might drop one of their three guitarist, but instead decided it would better to add a fourth guitar instead. That direction is represented in the record. They are all in with a big sound and big songs. Honestly it is record you probably know if you like immediately from the first song. Shelters might not be the best record for sheltering in place though. Maybe take a run or walk if you listen to it. Maybe even dance a bit while doing either.
If you were to recommend the record Ys by Joanna Newsom to someone they might ask you to describe it. You would say, well it is folk music with lots of harp and orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. That might not convince them. You might say there are only 5 songs, but the record is 55 minutes and one song is 17 minutes, but it all seems compact and not too long at all. That definitely might not sell them on it. You’d tell them the vocals might be considered odd by most people, but they fit the music perfectly. That probably would not work either. You could also tell them that maybe it was the most compelling record of 2006. That there was nothing else like it put out that year or in the years since even by Joanna Newson. That she has put out good records since, but nothing quite as otherworldly or ethereal as Ys. Maybe that would peak their interest. You could get more specific then and tell them when you listened to the record many times over one winter and you used to think it sounded like a fairy tale put to music. That it sounded not like a child’s fairy tale, but one about the realm of the fae where the stories are about when someone’s husband disappears and comes back after 10 years and looks exactly the same, but has purple hair and speaks a different language. That you used to wonder while listening to it on the train who around you might be one of the fair folk trying to trick you. The tales where the world is shown to you by one of the fairies through a door that is in the middle of a forest and the world you see is beautiful and glimmers brightly. It pulls you toward it. Yet you can tell everything has sharp edges and just going through the door might cut you and you’re allergic to the most beautiful of the flora and if you go there you better bring your EpiPen. You are glad you can see it through the portal, but you don’t really think you want to go there. You’ll just sit back and admire from a distance. After that they might want to listen to it or maybe not. I suppose it all depends on well you sold it.
I liked metal music in the 1980’s and early 90’s. I suppose much of the world did. Bands like Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Pantera played in front huge crowds around the world and sold millions of records. Somewhere along the line I lost track of the genre. It wasn’t on purpose, it just wasn’t on my radar. Fast forward a decade or so. In the early 2000’s I used to go to Manifest Records in Charlotte. At certain types of record stores there are always people who will talk your ear off. It is both a stereotype and true. Over the years I depended on this interaction for new music to listen to. Manifest has had those people over the years and one of them was an employee who was a huge fan of the record Leviathan by Mastodon. I didn’t pay heed to his recommendation when he told me and quickly forgot the conversation. Later that year I found the CD in the stacks and saw the cover. The Leviathan they were referring to was Ahab’s White Whale. That I did not expect. I decided I should buy it. I listened to the record that night and realized that metal music had continued onward when I wasn’t paying attention. Leviathan was a combination of Black Sabbath and punk music and worked perfectly for the subject material (Moby Dick, drums and riffs for descent into the watery abyss). I hadn’t heard metal music quite like it before. I wasn’t sure what to call it, but the record was great whatever it was. I saw Mastodon later that year at the Casbah at Tremont Music Hall ( a great club gone, but not forgotten). It was sold out in the small room and it was about as far from the arena metal of the Monsters of Rock as you could get. The music though was just as loud as an arena rock and hurtled forward relentlessly in the space there was. Thanks to the record store worker whose name I don’t remember, but who wore a trucker’s hat and had impressive sideburns at Manifest for helping me realize metal music still existed in 2004. In 2020 it is appreciated still.
The last concert I saw before everything shut down was Hiss Golden Messenger. Over the last twenty years I have always had a southern rock band that I went to see a bunch of times over a few years. Some years it was Drive By Truckers, some years Gov‘t Mule, some years Lucero. Whiskey drinking bands where you sit outside the club after the show with your new best friend from West Virginia or South Georgia. The last few years it has been Hiss Golden Messenger. MC Taylor writes Americana songs at a high level like Jerry Garcia or Will Oldham. The songs are evergreen. Folklore anthems in the present day. Phil Cook can play just about any instrument well and the rest of the band is always excellent They also have a devotion to the cause of public education which is a soft spot to me. I like all their records, but I think my favorite by them is Heart Like a Levee. It is full of sing along’s and crowd pleasers. For whatever reason they play small venues like Cat’s Cradle or Orange Peel still, but so do Drive By Truckers and Lucero so what do I know. Go see them when it is possible to see anything again.