I like many records that Mark Kozelek has done over the years. His career has been varied between band projects he was the dominate force in and completely solo projects. I think think the lovely Ocean Beach record is my favorite though. It is a record that I think reproduces the feels of joy and melancholy on an open beach on a windy week day in early summer well. The first three songs on the record (Cabezon, Summer Dress, and San Geronimo) are a perfect opening for the effect the record is trying to produce. They hook you and show you Red House Painters intentions immediately. I find the record somewhat more sincere than Kozelek’s later ironic or absurdist stream of consciousness songs. I love his record Benji, but this early record seems like it was almost from a different person and I suppose being they are about 20 years apparent he likely was. It is a record I like to put on for a rainy work day, perhaps a Monday, when you might need some vision other than you office. In my book a classic.
In 2016 I would listen to the record Telefone by Noname when walking in mornings often. It is an easy smooth rap record, good not great. It did show signs of greatness though. Noname has great writing ability and wry sense of humor. Her rapping and rhyming were solid if not quite great yet. Her 2018 record Room 25 is fulfills that promise. It didn’t get a huge amount of notice in 2018 from rap audiences despite her association with mega-star Chance the Rapper. The content is basically tales of a girl from Chicago living in Los Angeles navigating relationships and the industry. There is sexual content and imagery which is much different than Telefone. The guest vocals are timed well and enhance the record greatly. The music and rapping are purposefully slightly low-key and the lyrics and rhyming are intricate. It definitely feels like a Chicago hip-hop record, with lots slam poetry style rapping and lots great lush jazz style arrangements. I know when Noname toured the record she sold out places like the Orange Peel in Asheville, but she expressed disappointment at the audiences being all white and didn’t have a strong desire to ‘dance on a stage for white people.’ She also expressed interest in quitting if this continues to be the case. I hope that doesn’t come to be and her audience expands and is a broad as she would like it to be. She is a unique talent and I think many people hope to hear more from her. It would be a shame to lose her voice in hip-hop.
I guess you would call Black Midi’s Schlagenheim math rock? Maybe noise rock? I am never sure where the genres cross over and become something else. Let’s just say it has a lot going on. They are kind of somewhere in between the howling fury of The Jesus Lizard and atmospheric chant rock of Alt-J with an ever present undercurrent of Don Caballero. They play fast, well, and loud with tons of percussive elements and tons of atmospheric changes in tempo. The first time I listened to the record I thought there were barely any lyrics, but maybe the third time through I realized the songs had full sets of lyrics when them some with actual semi-stories to them. I am not sure the lyrics matter that much, they seem more like an addition of an instruments to the mix than a necessary element, but they are present. The vocals are well done, but they are definitely secondary to the music. To describe it in terms of how you would listen to it I would say you would take a walk and listen to something else and then reach a park bench and sit down and watch the world go by and listen to this. It doesn’t make you want to move as much as ponder. This not a style of record I would typically recommend to people, but it is definitely one of the best records of 2019 to me and I think people who might not normally enjoy math rock/noise rock might like it. Some people might find not find enough melody or emotional engagement, but to certain listeners it is relaxing (almost) and compelling. I think the phrase that describes the record to me most to is thought provoking. It sends my mind off on tangents. It is music that makes you neither want to dance or sing along which is sometimes very welcome in life.
Dirty Three might be my favorite post-rock rock band. I’ve never been 100 percent sure where the category begins and end or when a band is considered an instrumental progressive rock band instead, but when you category includes Mogwai, Tortoise, and Sigur Ros competition to be the best in the small genre is pretty fierce. Warren Ellis’s violin is so diverse in it’s sound and range you don’t miss the notion of a vocalist. His composition skills have been on display on display via his scoring of numerous movies (with Nick Cave with whom he is one of the Bad Seeds) and any given Dirty Three record is pretty cinematic on it’s own. I’ve listened to the Dirty Three records Horse Stories and Ocean Songs the most and they are both terrific. I guess I give Ocean Songs the edge as my favorite, but it is close to a draw. Ocean Songs attempts to evoke of the sounds of water and echos and beat of the Pacific Ocean. As a band that comes from Australia where almost everyone lives by the water this seems like a task that would be intriguing, but daunting to them as a goal. The record achieves good results. I think for me the thing I like most on the record (compared to other Dirty Three records) is Jim White’s (of the currently very popular Xylouris While) drumming. On many of the songs with the looping sounds of the violin and the rhythmic sound of Mick Turner’s guitar the drums come to the forefront as if the ocean were speaking it’s mind through crack of the waves. Oddly Ocean Songs is in many ways a less calming record than Horse Stories despite it’s approach and subject material. It makes you pay attention a bit more, is a bit less like a soundtrack and more like the plot itself. The drums in the forefront make the record a bit more present and a bit less passive than Horse Stories. I’ve never seen Dirty Three live, but their a band I’d like to. They seem liked they be the kind of band that was like a storm coming in from an ocean, something that would build up and they drench drench everything with sound.
I listened to the record Distant Satellites by Anathema many times in 2014. I also listened to 2012’s Weather Systems almost as much that year, but Distant Satellites gets the edge for most played I think. I am not sure how to describe the music Anathema makes. It is definitely progressive rock, but there is a very romantic melancholy easy listening element to it also. The music is emotional, but never saccharine. This record is similar to their others of the past 12 years or so has two lead singers Vincent Cavanagh (male perspective vocals) and Lee Douglas (female perspective vocals). The song cycle acts a sort of loosely related dialogue between the two vocalists. The pacing of the record almost borders on rock based musical theater. I don’t actually know if it a type of music that will work for all listeners, but for some reason it was a direct hit for me in 2014. I think you could listen to any of their recent work and it might evoke the same experience, but it might just be the familiar case of its what you listen to first from an artist that impacts you the most. For whatever reason like many Kscope label artists Anathema has never really caught on in the United States. It is possible the sincere emotional nature of the music doesn’t translate for the American audience. I hope they are able to continue to grow their fanbase because for a certain type of progressive rock devotee their music is wonderful.
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.
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.
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.