Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Happy Fifth Birthday!

Today marks the official fifth anniversary of this blog's first post. I began this blog shortly into my grad school career, which means this blog has accompanied me throughout adulthood. Through excitement, heartbreak, tragedy, pride, and failure, I've had this music to hold me up. Thanks for reading. Thanks to this blog I've met and befriended my heroes, been inspired to try my own hand at songwriting, and have met amazing people around the world. I've been invited to music festivals and received a top nod the Daily Boast (if only Howard Wolfson's taste in mayors was as good as his taste in music.) I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Von Cloedt at Americana Rock Mix and Charles Hale of Ajax Diner Book Club (and formerly of Ninebullets), and David Horton of Popa's Tunes for their early advice and support; Neville from a band I didn't write too much about called Thee Shambels who encouraged me to post on No Depression, and Kim Ruehl for selecting my work to appear on the front page. (I promise I'll begin reposting to the site routinely again!) Of course I'd like to thank the artists who have given so freely of their art and time and, of course, you (whoever you are) for reading.

Nothing's going to change much -- maybe the genres of music I cover. Also, by the time this is done you should be reading this at our new URL -- I'm hoping to throw a fifth anniversary bash sometime in 2017. No plans to change the site layout for now but watch this space. As much as I loved posting every weekday, my new job means I get to catch up on the last four years of having a social life. Perhaps my rhythm will change next semester. For now, I'm sticking with the MWF schedule.

Below are my favorite albums from the last five years. These are the albums I turn to when I'm sad, angry, affirmed, all of the above. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have listened to them. They've changed my life for the better and I hope some of the music you've heard on here has done the same for you. They're presented from oldest to newest. (I didn't include anything from this year.):

John Moreland, Everything the Hard Way -- Right before he got all weepy with his acoustic guitar (Huh? I'm not crying, you're crying!) Moreland kicked ass with this collection of heartland rock.

State Champion, Deep Sheet -- Five years later, I'm still finding new layers in this album. Incredible.

High Dive, High Dive -- Fantastic queer punk from Indiana. Makes me proud to be a queermo. Check out "Tennesee."

The Sparklers, Crying At the Low Bar -- I don't think we'll be hearing from these guys anymore, but that's a shame. The best bar band I've ever featured.

Two Cow Garage, The Death of the Self-Preservation Society -- The band's devastating takedown of neoliberalism and single-minded individualism is, in my opinion, their best record to date.

Anchor Bends, First Four Songs -- Unfortunately, there weren't too many more songs after this. But these songs' combination of yearning and drive help me feel invincible.

Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues -- Like many people, I was not super familiar with the band until Laura Jane Grace transitioned. I love this album for its defiant, joyful, angry sense of self-determination. It doesn't matter how I feel when I listen to it, I always feel empowered after.

Karen and the Sorrows, The Names of Things -- I have set it many times before and will say it again. If I could liquify this album and mainline it I absolutely would. Karen's gorgeous lyrics and soulful vocals give a slightly gothic tinge to heartbreak, but leave us with my favorite love song in the world, "Star."

NQ Arbuckle, The Future Happens Anyway -- Gorgeous prairie rock. Another album for all seasons, but particularly comforting in your darkest moments.

Animal City, Bump Head Go Home -- This album feels like an accurate recap of my 20s, minus the drugs.

Joey Kneiser, The Wildness -- Kneiser's zen approach to life makes all of his work -- with Glossary and by himself -- a true pick-me-up. Kelly Smith's vocal talents make The Wildness an almost spiritual experience.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tumbling Wheels -- The No Counts

I learned of the Tumbling Wheels through my pal in music and fellow Redwall enthusiast Gabe di Chiara (of Ninebullets and Ajax Diner Book Club superstardom.) The Tumbling Wheels embody all of the good stuff about the "new" New Orleans with none of the horseshit. If five-part harmony country is your jam, the Tumbling Wheels is your new favorite band. The No Counts opens with a gently swaying ballad that serves as a primer for the rest of the album. The Wheels are in no rush, reveling in their beautiful vocal arrangements and understated but masterful musicianship.

But this is a New Orleans band, so, to be clear, they know how to have a great time. While the band writes ballads to great effect, songs like "Oh Shit!" and "On Account of Me" are sublimely silly. (There's also a song in there about a mafioso boss.) Mostly, I'm impressed with the way the Tumbling Wheels can pull off slyly humorous old-timey music without affectation or parody. I'm excited to see where they go.

The Tumbling Wheels -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Friday, December 2, 2016

Gui Gui Sui Sui -- Wu Xing

I've taken this blog with me all around the world, so to speak. I think probably one of the coolest things to happen since I've been working on it was meeting Dann Gaymer (nee, Gui Gui Sui Sui nee Gui Gui), a British expat in China, at a concert in Tokyo. If, for whatever reason, you find yourself in Beijing, check to see if he's playing somewhere. Gui Gui Sui Sui's cocktail of dirty blues guitar, punk, and Game Boy music is a heady brew. For Wu Xing, he appears to have expanded his sound by transforming the act into a duet with someone whom I've yet to meet who goes by Susu. Gaymer is pushing his own boundaries by further exploring electronic music -- not something generally found on this blog, but his is enthralling.

Wu Xing will be the first of three EPs that explore a pair of characters -- Lord Kamehameha and Lady Chakra [I'm so hoping that this is a Dragonball Z reference and not to the Hawaiian royal family] as they eulogize neoliberalism. If that sounds a bit heady, don't worry about it and dive in -- most of the album appears to be in Chinese anyway. The opening track, "Low Interest Salvation," is a rascally ode that taps into Gaymer's British punk roots. As the album spirals out into more abstract musical realms, it feels to me that Wu Xing invites us to consider the possibilities -- both musical and political -- beyond what we can currently conceptualize.

Gui Gui Sui Sui -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, November 28, 2016

Xenia Rubinos -- Black Terry Cat

Emma Goldman, one of my many favorite revolutionary queer Jewesses, famously wrote "If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of your revolution." Goldman was referring to overly serious men who felt their sense of humor -- and therefore humanity -- needed to be drained for the cause. Goldman knew that solidarity is built just as much on ideology as it is on human bonds and connection. I think she would have been a huge fan of Xenia Rubinos.

Black Terry Cat is one of a wave of R&B and hip hop albums by women of color that blends the personal and political. Though Solange's Don't Touch My Hair is arguably the crest of that wave, Black Terry Cat anticipated that album by a few months. Rubinos, a Puerto Rican-American from the real Williamsburg, is the full package -- crunchy guitar riffs ground excellently-produced tracks, lyrics tight enough to compress coal into diamond, and stunning vocal performances that sleekly transition from crooning to spitting rap lyrics. I'm posting the video for "Mexican Chef" here so you can see the lyrics and music juxtaposed:

I think Americana music often gets a free pass from entering the political sphere. Obviously, there's an amazing political tradition reflected in its many subgenres. But the fact is that it's possible to have an entire critically-acclaimed career and never write a song about the government. Sure, there are songs about poverty and addiction, but they rarely point to the causes. That's because being straight, white, able-bodied, Christian, and cis-gendered is often viewed as the "default" and not worthy of discussion. But for anyone who falls outside that category, the personal is always political. As a queer Jewish masculine-presenting woman, I am acutely aware of the ways in which government policy intertwines with social norms to constantly remind me that I am, to some extent, on the outside. That's the extent to which my experiences are similar to Rubinos and her contemporaries, of course -- and I'm not claiming that we're in the same boat at all. My point is that it would be great to go through my daily life without these constant reminders that a significant portion of the world doesn't want me around, but it's an intrinsic part of my existence. Any form of self-expression (like this blog) necessarily includes that lens. If that's something that you, as the reader or listener, can't stomach, then you're ignoring a very important aspect of somebody else's existence.

Solange, Rubinos, Jamila Woods (whose album I'll write about soon, but I want to get it into your ears ASAP because it's gorgeous) and many others are drawing those connections explicitly, and that's where I feel their music resonates with me. These are pointed barbs at "mainstream" (ie white) conventions, made all the more compelling by coating their messages -- both explicitly critical, like "Mexican Chef" and implicitly like "Don't Wanna Be" -- in humanity and emotion. That's where the seeds of change begin to grow.

Xenia Rubinos -- Official, Facebook, Purchase

Friday, November 18, 2016

CONCERT: Lydia Loveless -- Bowery Ballroom 11/16/16

I was trying to convince some friends of mine who are decidedly not country fans to come with me to this show. I struggled for words to describe Loveless' sound. Country but...not anymore? but it has a steel guitar?

I don't think it would have persuaded them to come, but "shoegaze country" seems to fit. Loveless and her band create an immersive wall of sound that only makes Loveless' soaring vocals all the more remarkable. Sturgill might have coined the term psych country, but Loveless was doing it long before him and, like many sisters before her, isn't getting the credit she deserves.

If you haven't been listening to Loveless, you should. Women in alt-country are starting to make a big comeback, and if that trend indeed rings true then Loveless is going to be our outlaw icon. Real is still one of my favorite albums of the year, and seeing the band invest in the music live -- everyone brings a beautiful, physical quality to their performance -- drives home the intensity and true uniqueness of Loveless' sound.

I was leery of making this a "women in rock" post, but unfortunately for me and for Loveless, the audience made it that way. It seems like Loveless had a lot of friends in the audience, but even so she graciously endured more audience requests and shout-outs than opener Aaron Lee Tasjan (also fantastic), who made a name here before shipping down to Nashville. One gentleman in the front continuously called out requests, including songs by other artists. Loveless dryly brushed him off, but when she came out for her encore -- a sublime, heartfelt cover of Justin Bieber's "Sorry" (unlike Justin, she actually meant it) -- she improvised lyrics that completely wrecked that dude. In what universe is it okay to boss someone around while they're doing their job? And why does anyone think it's okay to do that while they're doing their job AND pouring their soul into it?

It's all just a reminder that when we take the stage, when we totally destroy, we're still not seen in the same way as our male (or male-presenting) counterparts. It was a small moment of blowing off steam, and maybe it was a little mean but I don't care -- in that moment, all of the love in my heart went out to her. Lydia Loveless is my new rock'n'roll hero.

Lydia Loveless --  Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Bill Mallonee -- Lands & Peoples

A few months ago, I read an impassioned plea on No Depression reminding us to buy Bill Mallonee's music. I joked that in the five months between reading this review of Lands & Peoples and my getting around to writing it, Mallonee would probably release another five albums. I was only off by one. But I chose to go with Lands & Peoples since it feels especially topical now. Hopefully I'll be able to keep up with Mallonee and write a timely review of his most recent album, The Rags of Absence.

Mallonee is an unsung national treasure. The almost compulsive rate at which he records and releases songs is a testament to this blog's tagline -- music like your life depends on it. And there's never a dud.

At this point in his career, Mallonee has certain stylistic preferences -- almost a signature -- of certain chord progressions, cadences, melodies. That doesn't mean Mallonee is bored or boring. It means that his poetic lyrics get to take the spotlight. Mallonee has a knack for tying beauty and folk rock. These lyrics could stand alone on paper, but it's Mallonee's salt-of-the-earth voice and forthright delivery that make the words accessible. In Lands & Peoples, Mallonee's customary carefully observed moments of decay and desperation are turned outward into the characters of his songs. But we're also lifted up by Mallonee's trademark twist of taking those tiny moments and finding beauty in them. (And, of course, his amazing baseball metaphors -- "Swing It, Joe" comes to mind.)

Mallonee had to hock some of his equipment to make this album. It's worth the sacrifice. And it's certainly worth the smaller sacrifice on your end of a few bucks so he doesn't have to sell more of his tools to support his living.

Bill Mallonee -- Official, Bandcamp

Monday, November 14, 2016

Becky Warren -- War Surplus

One of my immediate reactions when I heard news of the election was that Trump is going to send my students (those who have enlisted and who are yet to) off to war and get them killed. Becky Warren's War Surplus came to mind. When they do make it home (and God willing, they will), War Surplus doesn't paint a rosy picture.

First of all -- holy cow. Where has Becky Warren been? This is some of the best songwriting I've heard all year. Listening to "Dive Bar Sweetheart" sent off an internal stream of laudatory swearing -- her wit is just so effortless and her delivery so cool. It's that wordplay that could turn a cynical remark in anybody's hands into an emotionally devastating moment in Warren's. The album is inspired by Warren's own experience with her veteran husband, but at the end of the day, the war seems almost a secondary backdrop to the everyday traumas that civilians face. Country songs are populated by self-destructive people from all kinds of experiences. At the end of the day, the album suggests (at least to me) that while war itself may be unimaginable, the lingering pain is universal -- and that should give all of us empathy for each other.

Becky Warren -- Official, Facebook, Purchase