It's been a doomy, gloomy spring around these parts--a period of seemingly constant, often torrential rain amid a deepening global recession that's beginning to look like a dark, endless tunnel. Precious little of the popular arts in the quarter reflected our grim reality, and I wonder why. Maybe artists and audiences alike are yearning for feel-good ecapism and we're due for an era like the one that gave us garish movie musicals when the new reels were all showing gray scenes of bread lines. Or maybe the popular arts have become a lagging indicator. Certainly the only pop art I came across in the quarter that reflected anything close to the story or sound of our times was Steven Soderbergh's quickie digital movie The Girlfriend Experience--a morose and compelling, if not exactly good, investigation of the detached transactional nature of human relations in the waning days of the recently departed New Gilded Age. Yet, even working quickly in a digital format, and releasing it first online--making GFE more immediate than most movies--Soderbergh's movie was like a transmission from a receeding planet.
So, if the musicin heavy rotation for me in the second quarter of 2009 seems like the soundtrack for a holding pattern, strangely detached from it's era, well, that's because it is, heavy on reissues, archival releases and retrospectives.
1. Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
I seem to like the Conor Oberst that the regular Conor Oberst fans don't care for all that much--the freewheeling, rockier, Band-ish kind of Conor Oberst, not the tremoulous, emo, Eliot Smithish kind of Oberst--the Conor Oberst of Cassadaga, not the Conor Oberst of, well, just about any other Bright Eyes album. In more of a cooperative effort here w/ a band of friends who split songwriting duties, Oberst comes closer to the roots rock feel I prefer out of him. Outer South ain't Cassadaga--it doesn't sprawl and it's short on ambition and concept. But though it lacks grandeur, it possesses an easy, charming warmth. And "Nikorette" was my number one earworm this quarter.
2. U.S. Music with Funkadelic
The finally-issued album by Plainfield NJ Funkadelic proteges (and soon to be full-fledged PFunk members) ain't exactly a lost masterpiece, but it is a raging slab of classic Funkadelia recorded around the time the band was working on it's 1972 classic America Eats Its Young, and that's never a bad thing. The wailing guitars of Gary Shider and Eddie Hazel have long made The Rat Kissed the Cat a popular rarity among PFunk collecors. Nice to have it commercially available at last. A welcome bit of nostalgic freedom and rock in these hard ass, vocoder-like autotune times of cookie cutter dance pop.
3. Joe Lovano's Us Five - Folk Art
Multi-reed man Lovano always makes interesting records although he seems to form new bands as often as teenage girls change their minds. This quintet of musicians mostly younger himself inspires Joe to explore the style I enjoy hearing him play best-- a kind of darting, swinging free bop--but a style in which he hasn't recorded all that frequently in recent years. A nice breath of fresh jazz from a big corporate label at a time when the best-capitalized record companies have all but abandoned the genre.
4. Allen Toussaint - The Bright Mississippi
An eminence grise of New Orleans R&B producer-arranger-songwriter-pianst Toussaint, in cooperation with producer Joe Henry, makes a sumputuously recorded blues & trad jazz record--not a nostalgic recreation of turn of the century New Orleans styles, but a body dive into the wellsprings of it all conducted by a fully equipped modern expeditionary team including the great two way (inside and out) clarinetist Don Byron. Great music, great musicians, excellent audio. What's not to like?
5. The Hold Steady - A Positive Rage
The Hold Stead is, by far, my favorite working rock band, with a huge, loud, classic sound build on hooks, riffs, singalong choruses, great lyrics, and a charismatic front man. This record -- a live set from Chicago 2007 when the band was on the road touring behind it's breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America--feels a bit like a retreat for the group. It is, after all, a two-year-old set featuring the same songs the band has tirelessly gigged behind lo these past few years. I wouldn't recommend it over any of their last three studio albums, all of which are brilliant. Still, on any given night there's no rock band I'd rather see live and they sound great as ever here--loud and ebulliant. Accompanied by a DVD, but who cares? I never watch music DVDs, they're a yawn. Haven't even played this DVD once yet and I may never do so. If you get a chance just go see the band, you won't regret it.
6. Sun Ra - Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold
A reissue of sorts. Recorded in 1964 during a period when tenor star John Gilmore had left the Arkestra and New York new-comer Pharoah Sanders was subbing, excerpted tapes of this concert spawned one relatively rare Saturn LP. The concert is released here for the first time in its entirety though the second half of the show--which made the Saturn LP--appears in mono while the newly issued material appears in stereo. No revelations here. In fact the best thing remains the best piece on the original album--the first recording of Ra's classic polymetric, ostinato-driven composition The Shadow World (here dubbed The World Shadow). But it's nice to have the Sun Ra material delivered with sessionographical clarity (would that Art Yard had done the same thing with the tapes of Ra's great early 70s Egyptian concert and TV appearence which spawned three Saturn albums. Instead of issuing a double disk set recreating the original concert, Art Yard issued two separate CDs that track Saturn's disjunct original release program).
7. Benny Goodman Centennial Broadcast, WKCR-FM
WKCR-FM, 89.9 on your FM dial in NY, wkcr.org online, is one of the great treasures of life in NYC. The shamefully undersupported (the station has been broadcasting in mono for 8 years since the 9/11 attacks wiped out it's stereo transmitting antenna) outlet for in-depth jazz programming out did itself in May playing two solid weeks of the King of Swing in honor of the centennial of Goodman's birth. For two weeks, at anytime of the day or night, you could count on miraculously great and often rarely heard music on the radio offering listeners a chance to marvel once again at undoubtedly the greatest clarinetist ever to wet a reed (no one else ever played with such perfect intonation, and few soloists on any instrument in any genre were ever as consistently musical and ingenious). Two things in particular I heard that I had never dug before--the first was Goodman playing Morton Gould's Derivations for Clarinet and Band (I'd heard Goodman's classical recordings w/ Bartok and Joseph Szigeti before but never this rock'em sock'em Gould piece), the second was the recreation of the his 30s small band sides that Goodman recorded in the 1950s for the soundtrack of the film biopic of his life. Normally later recreations are something to steer well clear of, and these have neither the sense of discovery nor the brilliant players of the earlier recordings (only Lionel Hampton recreates his parts, no Krupa, no Teddy Wilson, and natch, no Charlie Christian who was dead by this time). Still, these performances cook. If anything, in these post-bop recreations, Goodman himself sounds even more inventive than he did in the 30s. And the music is recorded in excellent golden age stereo.
One dud from the quarter for me was Dylan's latest, Together Through Life, written in collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter,. It's a collection of familiar blues melodies wtih new lyrics--a fascile modus operandi that has become lifelessly convenient for Bob--and it seems mostly half-baked (for this the greatest songwriter of his generation needed a collaborator?!). The music sounds good, bluesy and raw, but there's precious little substance to chew on here. Not only is there nothing for the canon there's almost nothing you'll remember an hour after listening. After two strong albums in a late career resurgence (the good but over rated Time Out of Mind, the excellent and underrated Love and Theft) Dylan's last two suggest the man is running thin on new material. At least Modern Times had a couple of notable songs (When the Deal Goes Down and Nettie Moore). There's nothing half that good here, although It's All Good sounds like a promising idea that no doubt will improve on the road and My Wife's Hometown is pretty funny.
And a couple of late June albums that just arrived and are likely to be in heavy rotation for the rest of this summer--Brad Paisley's latest, American Saturday Night, and the second chapter in Levon Helm's post-cancer resurgence, Electric Dirt. Digging 'em both after a brief listen to each.