Another year, another chance to miss a lot of music. Or perhaps it would be better stated this way: Another year, another refinement of taste. There, that sounds better, doesn’t it? The past few years I have felt like my age is showing. I’m not as experimental. Not as willing to potentially waste time. More interested in looking back than forward. It’s not that I missed out, it’s that I consciously chose to spend my limited time listening to things I knew I would like. That makes for a less-adventurous list, perhaps, but something tells me I’ll be listening to most of these records long after the next calendar’s pages flutter away.
Some that are missing are in that state simply because I didn’t listen enough. I assume I would have fallen for the new Queens of the Stone Age, for instance, but I rarely found myself wanting to hear that particular sound, and thus never got into it. Others are things that did nothing for me. Savages, for example, seems great on paper, but I was never in the mood.
While the list is dominated by acts that are well represented in my collection, there were a few surprises. Jason Isbell finally lived up to his promise with the best album of his career and, for my money, the best of the year Mikal Cronin came out of nowhere to unleash a great garage pop album. Lee Ranaldo showed that a Sonic Youth album with only his songs was exactly what I’ve craved all these years. My favorite artist finally cracks the list! While I love Robert Pollard, his tendency toward uneven albums the past decade has meant a lot of favorite tunes from albums that didn’t make the cut. No more. Welcome back, Robbie Fulks! As for William Tyler, he emerged on the scene fully formed, with a tuneful, modern take on John Fahey’s American Primitive sound. Not only is Grant Hart still alive (!), but he just made one of the best albums of his career. This was a great year for jazz, with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Mike Pride among the best of the bunch. And how could I not love Parquet Courts? They essentially made the album I wish Pavement had made to follow up Slanted and Enchanted.
- 1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern
2. Yo La Tengo – Fade
3. Mikal Cronin – MCII
4. Lee Ranaldo – Last Night on Earth
5. Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak
6. Okkervil River – The Sound Gymnasium
7. Robert Pollard – Honey Locust Honkytonk
8. Richard Buckner – Surrounded
9. Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
10. Mavis Staples – One True Vine
11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
12. William Tyler – Impossible Truth
13. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get…
14. Billy Bragg – No One Knows Nothing Anymore
15. Baptist Generals – Jackleg Devotional to the Heart
16. Superchunk – I Hate Music
17. Grant Hart – The Argument
18. Mike Pride – Birthing Days
19. The Thermals – Desperate Ground
20. Parquet Courts – Light Up Gold
Best re-issues, etc:
Gene Clark – Here Tonight: the White Light Demos
Townes Van Zandt – Sunshine Boy:
Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait
I’m pleased to announce that I have joined the Fight Card team with my new novella, Get Hit, Hit Back. It’s an ebook for now, but if it was a nice, shiny hardback, the jacket flap would say:
“Ottumwa, Iowa 1954: Griffin McCann’s small-town world is rocked when the bank where he works as a guard is robbed. He chases the robbers out of the bank and into a gun battle, leaving one hood dead and one on the lam. Left alone with a dead robber and a bag full of cash, McCann makes a rash decision …
Knowing he’s made a bad mistake, McCann wants to return the money, but life is never that simple. He needs a plan, so he turns to the one thing he knows best – boxing. Now, his moment of weakness has put him in the ring against a deadly opponent who wants to destroy him.
But McCann remembers the most important thing Father Tim, the battling priest, taught him back at St. Vincent’s Asylum For Boys in Chicago: When you get hit, hit back …”
The books in the series are published under the pseudonym Jack Tunney (think Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney), a name that covers for the likes of series co-creators Paul Bishop and Mel Odom, Eric Beetner, Heath Lowrance and many others. A paperback version, under my name, will be available soon.
To help promote the book, I wrote up a little essay that discusses the roots of my interest in boxing, and reprint it here:
My appreciation of boxing stems, strangely enough, from basketball, Evander Holyfield’s ear and Buster Douglas.
Like every boy who grows up in the U.S., I took part in organized sports. The reasons for this are many. At the time, I played because it was fun. I realized as I grew older there were benefits from learning how to play on a team. As a parent, I now know the value of wearing kids out to make them more manageable at home.
That middle reason, of course, is the one parents and child-development experts will cite. Children need to learn how to work together toward a common goal, how to compensate for their weaknesses with others’ strengths, how to subsume their desire for personal achievement in pursuit of shared success.
And what does every kid do instinctively? They shoot if they are open. They swing for the fence despite the coach’s plea for a bunt. They head for the end zone instead of the sideline when time is of the essence. They know that their chance to shine is fleeting. If they have the ball, they are going to do something with it.
What does this have to do with boxing? Well, I still play pickup basketball games – have for twenty-five years now. Sometimes I shine, sometimes I dog it and let someone else do the work. But what I like best is when there are just two of us on the court – one on one. In that moment, there is no one to set a screen and free you for a jump shot. No chance your opponent hung back to catch a breath while his teammates were left to pick up their slack. It’s just you and what you can do. It’s your quickness, your endurance, your ability, and nothing more, stacked up against that of another in the same situation.
These are the most grueling, demanding games I play, and their frequency diminishes with each passing year (much to the relief of my creaky knees). If you’re doing it right, there’s no way to feel anything but spent when you’re done.
Now imagine that your opponent is trying to knock your block off. Sure, one-on-one basketball can get rough, with a shove here and an elbow to the head there. But your opponent isn’t trying to hurt you, to cause enough physical damage to stop you.
How do boxers do it? That question popped into my head a lot during my late high school and early college years as I watched Mike Tyson destroy all comers. Tyson is that rare athlete who transcends his sport. Like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky, his accomplishments drew attention from beyond the core of people who care about his sport. It’s why at college I would often find myself gathered in the apartment of some rich kid from the Chicago suburbs who bought the pay-per-view rights to the latest Tyson fight. He’d ice a keg and then sell a seat for ten bucks to cover his costs (and probably make rent for the next month in the process). Red Solo cups in hand, a group of us would gather to watch the bout.
You had to get there early and pay attention since Tyson’s fights rarely lasted long. I don’t recall all of the specific fights, but I’m guessing we saw him stumble against Frank Bruno and then demolish Carl The TruthWilliams.
It was Tyson’s fight against Buster Douglas, however, that cemented my status as a fight fan. By that point, Tyson seemed unbeatable. Age, perhaps, would be the only thing to slow him down. It certainly wasn’t going to be Buster Douglas, right? But as we watched in someone’s apartment, a couple dozen guys – only a couple of years younger than Tyson – all jammed into a living room furnished with pressed-board furniture and sagging couches, the impossible happened. Douglas, a forty-two-to-one underdog, knocked out Tyson in the tenth round to take his titles.
Experts cited Douglas being affected by the recent death of his mother, or the turmoil in Tyson’s life thanks to fractured business relationships and a dissolving marriage. Tyson’s camp complained about a long ten count in the eighth round that saved Douglas. Still and all, it was a case of two men entering a ring where anything could happen – experts and bookmakers be damned.
It wasn’t just the anything can happen feeling that hooked me on boxing. It was that someone like Douglas could have the confidence to step into the ring with a monster like Tyson. Not only do you need to believe you will survive, you need to believe you will win – that your raw strength and stamina and skill will be enough to counter the same in your opponent. Douglas had no one else to lean on when he stood toe-to-toe against Tyson round after round. There was no one to set a screen and free him for a good shot. No one to pick up the defense while he sucked air in the corner for a moment. That, more than the brutality – perhaps even more than the strategy – is the appeal of boxing for me.
And Evander Holyfield’s ear? Well, all high-mindedness aside, boxing is singular in its embrace of the absurd. So it was that I found myself, again with red Solo cup in hand, standing in someone’s backyard, watching a big-screen TV back when this was a novelty, before everyone had one bolted to their living room wall. This one perched precariously on some table of some sort in the sloping lawn of a college rental house. A friend had heard about this party to watch the second Tyson-Holyfield fight, and so there we stood amid dozens of people arrayed around the yard as the sun went down on a warm, June evening.
You know the story – first one nip on the ear, then another fierce enough to actually rip part of Holyfield’s ear off. After a disappointing first fight marred in controversy, we shouldn’t have expected much more. Still, after waiting five years for the first and another year for this, it was a disappointment from a boxing standpoint. Yet, in a way, it was exactly what we expected. Tyson, by this point, had proven himself to be crazy, and clearly lacked the fire and explosiveness that he’d left on the other side of a prison term for a rape conviction.
If I could be entertained solely by the physical exploits of two athletes going head-to-head, I’d probably follow wrestling. But for that little added bit of theater – the kind professional wrestling must manufacture to achieve – boxing has it all.
So it brought a mixture of surprise and amusement to see that Matthew Shipp’s new collection was dubbed Greatest Hits. Never mind that it covers only one 11-year swath (and on only one label, at that) of his voluminous career. Or that none of the songs came close to being a “hit” (it’s possible none have even been played on terrestrial radio or sold more than a few thousand copies).
This is not, of course, a perfect world. And even if it was perfect, Shipp probably would not have enough hits to fill an album. Not that his work isn’t to be admired or that he should not be wished all the success in the world. But if the world truly was perfect, then there must be something edgy and abstract enough to appeal to those who don’t soak up popular culture like brainless sponges. If a perfect world means that every good thing is seen as such, worth the same amount of attention and praise, that’s worse than the homogeneity of current popular music, and far from perfect.
So what is this, then? Is it the best of Shipp’s work on Thirsty Ear Records? A strong case could be made in support of that statement. But it is indeed a collection of Greatest Hits in the only place that matters: In Matthew Shipp’s mind. That’s not to suggest that he is deluded. Rather, given the parameters defined by the kind of music he likes and wants to make, this is the best there is. Reviewers ought to judge things at least in part based on what they perceive to be the artist’s intent. The Ramones should not be judged by the same criteria as Wayne Shorter, for example, for they are trying, on the micro level, to achieve very different things. On the macro level, however, they both are wildly successful at entertaining their audiences by doing what they do very well.
Such is the case with Shipp. When he was asked a couple of years ago about his tenure at Thirsty Ear, he said:
It takes me outside myself, which as an artist it is so easy to be completely self absorbed – but bringing in other people and having a hand in some CDs is very gratifying because it reminds you that there is a whole big world of music out here and it’s not just about you. And it’s easy to think it’s just about you because it’s so hard to survive as a jazz musician that that mindset kicks in just as a defense mechanism. And also, yes, it’s giving me a chance to explore how others deal with organizing sound in a way that I would not if I was not as involved.
With that goal in mind, it is clear from the songs on Greatest Hits that he has achieved it. While his music has been varied enough — and was so even before his association with Thirsty Ear — over his career, it has gone in directions over the past decade that would have seemed unlikely without that push and pull from the artists with which he has worked and the aesthetic of which he was a part.
Take the album-opening “Gesture,” from 2000′s Pastoral Composure. He plays with musicians he had played with before — William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums and Roy Campbell on trumpet — if not in this precise configuration. Shipp’s insistent block chording still serves as the bedrock, here, but there is a feel to this, an augmented lyricism, perhaps, that wasn’t as present in his earlier work. It is no more or less rewarding than what came before, just different, illuminating a path that he would explore more fully moving forward.
Much is made (and not too much, mind you) of Shipp’s embrace of electronic collaborators in the Blue Series, and the third track, “Cohesion” from Equilibrium, is the first of that example here. It’s a fairly standard Shipp song, the melodic content put across by Khan Jamal’s vibes instead of the horns found on the first two tracks. But it isn’t long into the song before it becomes obvious that this is something different. That is when Flam’s synths and programming pop up. They affect the song most rhythmically, the beat suddenly chopped up, staggering and lurching forward. The effect is immediate: the listener must sit up and pay attention. How does this rub up against Parker’s bass, Cleaver’s drums and Shipp’s piano? More to the point, how do those musicians respond? This is where Shipp is “exploring how others deal with organizing sound,” and the result is a driving, propulsive track.
All is not bleeps and bloops here, however; far from it. Shipp drops two solo piano pieces here: “Module” from One and “4D” from the album of the same name. Rather than stick out, they seem to adapt to their surroundings. Shipp’s playing, so wonderfully dense and rich, seems to suggest accompaniment even when it lacks it. “4D,” in particular, needs no assistance, but the mind fills it in anyway, ascribing bass and drums to Shipp’s heavy left hand.
At other times, he plays in ways that seem informed by those electronic interactions even when they are not present. The staggering beat to “Stage 10,” coupled with Shipp literally playing every part of the piano — he plucks strings inside it and stomps the pedals to create sound — make it sound like there is more going on than would seem possible by piano-bass-drums format. Would he have gotten to this point in 2012 without the collaborations of the previous decade? Knowing Shipp’s restless nature, it is safe to say he would be somewhere in this vicinity. But all of those interactions surely have affected him for the better, have delivered him to this particular address.
That’s why, ultimately, this album feels more cohesive than one would have a right to expect. Even though there is a core of musicians — Shipp, Parker, Cleaver, and drummer Whit Dickey chief among them — that made a majority of the sounds here, the various configurations and intents here would lead one to expect a rather disparate listening experience. But these all sound like — no surprise — Matthew Shipp songs, and so there is a flow here that makes this sound of piece.
That, as we started out talking about goals, would seem to indicate a successful album, one that set out to entertain and enlighten, and met that goal with amazing results. There will be days that this will be your favorite Matthew Shipp album because it touches on such a large chunk of his back catalog in one shot. But you’ll do yourself a disservice if you stop here, for this isn’t just a compendium of radio hits that saves you from pulling out a dozen other CDs to hear them. It is a primer, the old iceberg tip. Hear this, fall in love, and then keep digging. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
The cops asked me afterwards if I could identify the clown who threatened me, and I just laughed. How the hell can you identify a clown? I mean, enormous rainbow wig, whiteface, exaggerated lips and a red bulb nose… sure, let me see a lineup, officer.
This was a long-gestating story, so I’m happy to have it out in the world. It leads off what looks like a splendid issue of PULP! so you would be wise to pick up a copy. It’s in convenient paper or ebook versions.
The story started life as a possible song title. Listening one day to the Pontiac Brothers’ song “Clowns Join the Circus” from the great Fuzzy Little Piece of the World album, the term “even clowns know when to cry” popped into my head. It sounded like a great country music song title, and at times I took a crack at writing it… with little success.
Years later, I got the image in my mind of a guy in the hospital being visited by a clown… who threatens him with violence. Over the course of several months, with a handful of false starts along the way, I wrote what became this story.
While you wait for your copy of PULP! to arrive (there’s hardly any waiting at all if you go the ebook route… just sayin’), listen to the sweet sounds of the Pontiac Brothers.
In past years, I would pontificate a bit about each, etc. This year, I won’t even pretend that this is anything other than what it is, records that earned repeat listens in my world in 2012.
1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
2. Jack White – Blunderbuss
3. Tame Impala – Lonerism
4. A.C. Newman – Shut Down the Streets
5. Bob Dylan – Tempest
6. Bob Mould – The Silver Age
7. Divine Fits – A Thing Called…
8. Chuck Prophet – Temple Beautiful
9-11. Guided by Voices – Let’s Go Eat the Factory/Class Clown Spots a UFO/The Bears for Lunch
12. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
13. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
14. dBs – Falling Off the Sky
15. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
16. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
17. Kelly Hogan - I Like to Keep My Self in Pain
18. Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent
19. Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves
20. The Sea and Cake – Runner
Some artists certainly left me wanting this year, but with the end of the world coming tomorrow, I’ll give them a pass. I will note some welcome returns, however. It was great to see names like Young Fresh Fellows, Redd Kross, Paul Buchanan (of the Blue Nile), Graham Parker and the Rumour, and Dwight Yoakam back on the racks, among others.
Maybe 2013 will bring the time needed to actually get back to listening critically and taking notes and… aw hell. If we’re still here, I could do worse than to do what I did this year: steal a spare moment here and there and enjoy.
Get ready to hear from me and Josh Stallings, Jedidiah Ayres, Jonathan Woods, Eric Beetner, Les Edgerton and Dan O’Shea, all reading from our recent Snubnose releases.
If the Noir at the Bar held during the 2011 Bouchercon in St. Louis is any indication, it will be a fun night of reading, drinking and merrymaking (not necessarily in that order).
Everyone ought to have copies of our books for sale, so bring some cash and a thirst for hard-hitting noir fiction (and booze) and come out!
I didn’t know what to expect from Stew. The musician has shown he has bountiful chops when it comes to telling stories in song — his Broadway musical, “Passing Strange,” is on Netflix, and is highly recommended, and this from someone who hates musicals — but what would he do with this commission from Hancher to write songs about Iowa City? He’s a New York guy. Worldly. Sophisticated. Sure, he spent a couple of days here doing research. But how could he possibly do justice to our fair town?
What I should have realized is that Stew is at his best when he writes about… Stew. Yes, Iowa City was his putative subject, and the songs include enough references to both bring a smile to locals’ faces and surely a frown of confusion to those of outsiders. But have no doubt: Stew was singing about Stew last night. And that’s why these songs worked so well.
His clever song about the Black Angel was not about the famous statue in Oakland Cemetery. It was about a black woman who moved here from Chicago seeking a better life, a journey he has covered before. His song about “Dirty John’s,” the affectionate name for John’s Grocery, wasn’t about that family-owned corner grocery store with the stunning beer selection, but rather about his own decision to quit drinking in public. He wrote not of our flood, but of the similar devastation on a personal level brought about by the end of a relationship. There are writers who create characters through which they can tell stories far removed from their own experience — Bruce Springsteen or the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, who Stew mirrors with his speak-singing style, come to mind — but there are others, like Stew, who filter everything through their own experience.
Superficially, that might have been a disappointment to some. Why not write about someone’s actual flood experience? Why not spend some time hanging out at George’s/ the Library/ the Ped Mall/ etc. and write about that? Why not a song about the City of Literature designation (OK, that might not be a criticism shared by all)? That surely would have pleased those who attended the two shows last night. But to give the songs resonance, and frankly, the universality that a good song requires, Stew had to comment on Iowa City by singing about Stew.
He did so with stunning backing. The band of locals more than did justice to Stew’s songs, taking the opportunity to color in the corners of the often-loose arrangements and add their own personalities. In fact, the only criticism to be leveled is that Stew cut them off too soon in spots, more worried about getting in his next line than in letting these talents find a groove and play there a little while.
Later that same night…
If I ever make a movie, Dirty Three will be on the soundtrack. The trio’s dark, sinister songs have a truly cinematic quality, slithering along quietly, contemplatively, before the coiling tension of these three musicians reaches a point where all of that energy must be released. The amount of sheer sound coming from this guitar-drums-violin combo is stunning, and the variety of textures coaxed from those instruments is impressive.
To someone not paying attention, the band name might seem a misnomer, perhaps “Dirty One plus Two” seems more fitting. Violinist Warren Ellis is a dominating stage presence, a larger-than-life, sort of outback Ian Anderson stalking around the stage, hunched one minute, unleashing a wicked kick the next. And his playing, when he enters a song, drives every piece to new heights.
But no matter how compelling Ellis’ playing may be, it wouldn’t work without the percussive drive of drummer Jim White or the soundscapes of guitarist Mick Turner. These two — who make wonderful music on their own as the Tren Brothers — lay a foundation of roils and squalls that often sit in counterpoint to Ellis’ lines, creating a stormy sea from which the violin’s sonorous wail can burst.
At its best, the band’s music has the qualities of adventurous jazz, with enough of a structure to keep the listener grounded while allowing each of the three to venture off and explore a while. The band’s latest work misses that structure, more free-flowing in nature, seemingly truly improvised. That’s impressive in theory, but the strongest moments Thursday night came on the band’s older, more composed work.
What you miss when only experiencing the Dirty Three as a studio band, is Ellis’ stage banter. Every song is introduced with, “This song is about…” followed by a sprawling, tangent-filled story that seems to loop back on itself before coming to a close around the time Ellis runs out of breath. One could balk about being robbed of the chance to come to your own conclusions about the inspiration for these instrumental excursions, but then you realize that a) Ellis is full of shit (though entertainingly so), and b) you can’t remember what he was talking about by the time the song begins anyway.
I was left with a head full of thoughts about my town and ears full of a faintly persistent ring. All in all, a night well spent.
He opened with the first song from his new album, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive‘s “Waiting on the Sky.” Earle sounded in fine form, his mandocello (that’s my guess, anyway) and voice both strong. The sound mix wasn’t great, as the electric guitar of Chris Masterson (who doubled as half of the show-opening duo The Mastersons) drowned out everything else whenever it came in, and Will Rigby’s drums (would that he’d have brought his reunited dBs to open) seemed mixed with a full-on rock band, rather than the folk band in front of him, in mind.
Still, these quibbles were rendered moot as the set progressed. Earle took things from quiet folk to country-folk to folk-rock to straight-up rock as he went. Early on he dropped in three songs from his debut, Guitar Town – “My Old Friend the Blues,” “Someday” and “Guitar Town” — and sprinkled back catalog tracks liberally throughout the set. Most surprising were the four songs he plucked from the 15-year-old El Corazon — “Taneytown,” “N.Y.C.,” “Telephone Road” and the penultimate “Christmas in Washington.”
The latter was requested earlier in the day, when Earle read from his novel, also called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. After fielding several questions that actually pertained to his writing (a pleasant surprise, that), people began making song requests for that night’s show. One person asked for “Christmas in Washington,” calling it “Come Back Woody Guthrie.” Given that Guthrie’s 100th birthday is being celebrated this year, it seemed like a safe bet. Sure enough, Earle’s second encore started as a solo version of the song, preceded by an intro/lecture about the importance of voting this year. His band rejoined him halfway through, with Masterson finally making use of the pedal steel that teased us all night. They then launched into a version of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” complete with the later verses that have been conveniently left out of school song books.
It felt more like a career overview than a tour stop in support of a specific album. Perhaps that was because Earle had already been through town once in support of the record, though I’d like to think it was more a function of the artist having reached a point in his career where he’s comfortable simply playing what he wants to play, promotional concerns be damned. Either way, it was a good show that reminded me how much I like and appreciate Earle’s music after a few years of finding his albums a bit lukewarm.