My piece on the Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues in the Village Voce.
As I’ve said before I’ve never been more uncertain that I hear all the releases I should every year. The outlets and information sources have never been so scattered. I’ve never felt so many PR providers have no idea what I cover.
But every year I hit a point, usually around this time or a little later, when I conclude that enough innovative, captivating and durable music is being produced to keep me jiggling for another year. Here’s the three that put me over in 2017 (all played for the first time in the last few days):
Bearthoven, Trios (Cantaloupe) Karl Larson piano, Pat Swoboda bass, Matt Evens percussion/drums. Six piece belonging to the vague New Music category, the only writers I know at all being Anthony Vine. Best effect: breaks ways loose of the often too-cozy tent of piano-trio sound.
Jay Som, Everybody Works (Polyvinyl). Jay Som belongs to the vague bedroom pop category and is a solo project of Melisa Duterte, with a few added voices. A fresh twist of intimacy and a needed reminder that all single-soul projects don’t have to sound stunted or samey.
Migos, Culture (Quality Control). I don’t pretend to keep up with hip-hop like I should, but I’m still abashed this trio slipped under my radar until now. In the grand tradition of Atlanta rappers, they’re rootsy and funny and sensual and casually scary at times. Still probing the personalities.
My first published review was of Tom Robbins’s debut novel, Another Roadside Attraction. I am proud to say I got it pretty much right, claimed the guy would become wildly popular and have a flashy career.
So when I read that Robbins stated he found his voice when he wrote a 1967 review of a Doors concert for the alternative paper in Seattle, I had to track it down and read it. I mean, a favorite part of my career was spent doing the exact same sort of piece for the exact same sort of outlet!
So this afternoon there it was, in Wild Ducks Flying Backward: The Short Writings of Tom Robbins.
Yes, that would be doors. But, my God, what doors are these? Imagine jewel glass panels, knobs that resemble spitting phalluses, mail slots that glow like jack-o’-lantern lips — and not a welcome mat in sight. Enter if you dare, my children, exit if you can.
The Doors. Their style is early cunnilingual, late patricidal, lunchtime in the Everglades, Black Forest blood sausage on electrified bread, Jean Genet up a totem pole, artists at the barricades, Edgar Allen Poe drowning in his birdbath, Massacre of the Innocents, tarantella of the satyrs, bacchanalian, Dionysian, LA pagans drawing down the moon.
That’s that voice, alrighty.
I like to dream that, had I been Music Editor at the Helix in ’67, I would have had the insight to run that as is — evocative, funny, worthy of Jimbo and the Boys.
A decent enough farewell piece (I was directed to it by a tweet from London Lee). But I think one of the five points is particularly bad and one particularly relevant and telling.
The first point is the clanger. “It’s a myth that critics could make someone popular.” WHAT!?! — If this is a major insight to you, you don’t understand what criticism does. The “make popular” tripe is just another duff variant on the canard that “critics tell people what to like.” Good criticism deepens your appreciation and understanding of what you listen to — and if an ace critic can’t turn you on to something fresh that you love, your tastes are too narrow to need criticism, anyway.
Although I’m not certain I know what’s going on with the second half of the first point — what are these “stories” exactly? — it seems to say: “serious criticism is out, backstory and profiles are in.” Nothing new about that — been Rolling Stone‘s basic agenda for 40 years.
The fifth point is the winner. I agree with every word about the dire narrowing of styles and experiences. I have spent my entire career trying to avoid situations where I would have to write about a performer for the fifth time — who cares if I had anything new to say — because everybody else is doing it and their latest release has really hot sales right now. I think it’s inevitable that fewer and fewer people will become passionately engage with music — there’s no adventure, no jolts, it’s boring.
On the exact same beam with Merritt/Magnetic box (which I have quite a history with already — still sorry it didn’t work out, Joe). With an ace full band and more variety in vocals, it would be a masterpiece for the ages. But terrific as it is. I enjoy the parade of musical styles, which catches you up more with each listen. The unexpected wowser is Merritt’s unconventional Boho childhood, which he reacted to by (thank Yod) not becoming a reactionary but by becoming a complex crank. And the song about the stepfather snapped my head around hard the second time I heard it. First time, I thought he was swatting away a particularly persistent asshole he worked for. Second time, with a flash it was plain this was, wow, about his Dad (or a stepdad).
I’ll settle on the excessive packaging of the five CDs because I think it’s among the graphic treats of the year. (That microscopic print, though …)
And after this latest re-listen, there’s no more doubt I need to go to the show both nights.
The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice were the bookends of my literary fantasies about New York and the East Coast in general, back when I had never been out here. Brainy/wild — lively/civilized … they could make you feel less lonely out in the thickets and ranges. One aspect I most admired about NY Review is that it was thorough.