Category Archives: #features

American Tunes: “Black History”

resound

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

Goosebumps. Waves of them.

The singing here is exceptional — the execution, the creativity, the transitions… it’s all stunning. But what made me want to include “Black History” in this series is the way it tells a comprehensive story. The medley weaves together gospel songs that reflect significant moments from throughout the African-American experience, providing a long view that’s at once confounding and inspiring. (Click here to read more about which songs are included and why.)

Never in my lifetime has there been a bigger gap between the need for Americans to understand history and their willingness to do so. The past’s mistakes are being repeated at a dizzying rate. Too many congressmen take advantage of short memories by shamelessly arguing opposite sides of an issue, depending on which is presently advantageous. Too many people who benefit from systematic discrimination refuse to acknowledge that those systems discriminate.

What we need is more of the long view. More history. More of the kind of deep and broad understanding Resound is voicing here.

Resound — “Black History” [Spotify/YouTube]

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Seen/Eaten/Heard

Alternative Lyrics from Plan 9:

bulls-on-parade

Jimmy Buffett — “Bulls On Parade” [YouTube]

cheeseburger-in-paradise

Rage Against the Machine — “Cheeseburger In Paradise” [YouTube]

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Friday News and Notes

Lots to catch up on since my last news and notes post. To be honest, I’m having trouble posting these days because the world seems so grim, but there is still so much good music worth celebrating, and I’m trying to let the light in. Here are a few things that have been shining particularly bright for me lately:

  • This is almost a month late, but I’d recommend Amanda Petrusich’s thoughts on the Mariah Carey NYE debacle. After reading it, my first thought was that it’s a pleasure to read along as Petrusich makes sense of things. It reminds me of one theory about dreams — that they help you process and file away the things that are happening around you. That’s Petrusich’s writing to me.
  • While I’m tempted to say the outfits are the best part of this hour-plus video of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters performing in Germany in 1974, the groove is too damn good. Cheers to Aquarium Drunkard for posting it.
  • I included Spencer Tweedy’s Geezer Love in my best EPs of 2016 post, and just weeks later, his brother Sammy released his own EP, called Canoe Country, comprised of looping synth sounds and guitar. Really neat. Jeff Tweedy has some talented kids.
  • How’s about a recent Daniel Bachman live set recorded in Richmond? While you’re at it, check out the Liza Kate set from that same show that starts with the following joke:
    “What do you do when you see a fireman?
    “Put it out, man.”
  • This Phantogram cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” is precise and wonderful and I don’t know how you repeatedly and consistently arpeggiate guitar chords like this without your name being Jonnie Greenwood.
  • I didn’t go too crazy for Conor Oberst’s Ruminations album, but hot damn am I psyched for this upcoming Salutations album. (This NPR write-up had me at “Guests on Salutations include Gillian Welch…”) I’ve listened to this updated version of “A Little Uncanny” more than a dozen times and counting. Fuck Ronald Reagan. Seriously.
  • So Ryan Adams is coming to The National here in Richmond, and I’ve managed to snag my ticket for the Sunday (3/5) show. Tickets for that one and the next night’s show are on sale now, unless they aren’t because they’ve already sold out. This might be my favorite pairing of artist and venue since Landlady came to Hardywood last year. (Oh yeah, they’re coming to Richmond — to The Camel — on the second night Adams is in town, so I get to see him and them on consecutive nights. Pretty sure I’m going to happy cry at one or both.)

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American Tunes: “Will You Love Me”

Big Inner

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

I dunno about you, but given the way January 20 has been looming — ominously, darkly — on the horizon, the days before then have seemed unusually pregnant and worthy of cherishing. Today, especially, given that Martin Luther King Jr. preached lessons of love, progress, and decency that have, unfortunately, become urgently relevant of late. Holding up his example seems crucial, which is why I’m posting “Will You Love Me” — a song from Matthew E. White’s debut album that gently adjusts a King quotation on loving your enemies and refusing to co-opt despair:

Darkness can’t drive out darkness
Only love can do that

The original quote — “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” — appears to have first been said in a 1957 sermon, though it can also be found in King’s book Strength to Love. As it happens, I heard the very same quote at my mom’s church this past Sunday, when the rector included it in his sermon. With all the ugliness of the 2016 election, it may seem harder than ever to live up to King’s compassionate, loving example, but these words exude a deep, unchanging truth that’s bigger than any one politician, businessman, or political party, and I truly believe they represent the most direct line between where we are and where we need to go.

Matthew E. White — “Will You Love Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

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2016 in Review: Top 10 Albums

Last 2016 in Review post — I promise. That said, I lied about the “Top 10” part. I’ve included the rest of my top 25 at the bottom, as well as some albums that I couldn’t resist mentioning, because they’re also amazing.

Without further ado…

1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden

Lucy Dacus

Earlier in December, in a New Yorker piece about her favorite songs of 2016, Amanda Petrusich wrote something that helped me name the reason I so badly wanted to place Lucy Dacus’ No Burden at the top of this list:

Whole musical worlds were invented this year, and, perhaps most notable, listeners seemed better equipped than ever to accept and navigate them. I sensed both a collective ache for progressive work and a willingness to metabolize it.

Between the in-town excitement that accompanied the February release of No Burden, the wave of national acclaim that rushed in, the consistently excellent shows she played all over town, and the poised atmosphere she commanded at each of those performances, Dacus really did establish her own new world here in Richmond. It never ceases to amaze me how truly talented musicians can create something out of nothing but their own experiences and insights. It feels like an exception to the rule in physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

The second part of the Petrusich quote above also resonated — the idea that audiences are looking for something progressive. Something that will move us forward. I sense that in Dacus’ music in large part because meaningful change hinges on truth, and her writing displays an honesty that’s both outwardly and inwardly directed. It’s why she was such a joy to interview, and it’s why her lyrics have so much substance. Would this country still be in the mess it’s in if people took a hard, unflinching look at their own motivations? Probably, but the mess might not be quite so bad.

In these last days of December, I find it impossible to imagine what this year would have been like — what my world would presently be like — without No Burden in it. For that reason, it’s #1 in my book.

Lucy Dacus — “Strange Torpedo” [Spotify/iTunes]

2. David Bowie — Blackstar

David Bowie

In a word, transcendent. Blackstar turned out to be RVA Magazine‘s #1 album, and I was given the opportunity to write about it. I tried to put in context why it loomed so large over 2016, and talking about it ended up being strangely therapeutic. Here’s the first bit:

2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.

David Bowie — “Girl Loves Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

3. Frank Ocean — Blonde

frank-ocean

It was an honor to blurb this one as well for RVA Magazinetake a look here. I couldn’t help throwing a little shade at the start:

While plenty of artists in the realms of pop and R&B were out there cultivating a public persona drenched in faux sensitivity, Frank Ocean was quietly at work, making some of the most powerfully vulnerable music I can remember hearing.

Frank Ocean — “Self Control” [Spotify/iTunes]

4. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

radiohead

Another one I wrote about for RVA Magazine’s year-end bonanza. Such a beautiful album, such heavy subject matter. A Moon Shaped Pool acts as a reminder that lists and rankings pale in comparison to the lived experiences that make music and lyrics possible.

Radiohead — “Burn The Witch” [Spotify/iTunes]

5. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial

car-seat-headrest

To say that Teens of Denial grew on me would be misleading — you usually hear people say that when they were unsure about an album initially but learned to love it. But Teens of Denial did grow in my estimation in the sense that, every time I listened, Will Toledo’s genius would seem more profound. I was one of the people for whom Car Seat Headrest’s newest album acted as an introduction, despite the fact that Toledo’s already released more albums than many artists release in a career and a half. That said, I recently snagged a used copy of 2015’s Teens of Style at Plan 9, and I hear that same undeniable (sorry) gift for fusing melody and energy. I may be late to the party, but it’s great to be here regardless.

Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” [Spotify/iTunes]

6. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had a Dream You Were Mine

rostam

This one probably has the highest ratio of number of times I listened to it to number of words I wrote about it. I did write a quickie review of it for the Winter RVA Magazine, and here’s how I closed it:

Hamilton Leithauser’s smoky vocals ascend seemingly without limit; when paired with Rostam Batmanglij’s knack for producing in styles both old and new, that voice — “the same voice I’ve always had” — soars with an inspiring freedom.

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — “Sick As A Dog” [Spotify/iTunes]

7. Drive-By Truckers — American Band

drive-by-truckers

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in a really interesting position right now. They have roots in a red state but personal politics that lean blue, and because they’ve been consistently making some of the best and sludgiest Southern rock around for decades, they have the ears of fans from all over the political spectrum. In my mind, that’s why this album was and is so important — it represents a bridge spanning the huge chasm that separates America’s populated coasts from its rural center. It’s honest, just as the band is honest at their shows about where they stand when it comes to social justice. (“Black Lives Matter” was prominently displayed in their stage setup when they came to The National in November.) At a time when social media algorithms are making it harder and harder to encounter opinions that conflict with your own, the Truckers make me hopeful. Fingers crossed people are actually listening.

Drive-By Truckers — “Surrender Under Protest” [Spotify/iTunes]

8. Bon Iver — 22, A Million

bon-iver

I thought Bon Iver’s self-titled album would be a tough act to follow — maybe impossible — given that it was the realization of such a big, colorful, well-rounded vision. But 22, A Million is proof that Justin Vernon’s vision is a renewable resource. An unexpected joy this album has brought is seeing who it resonates with — identifying other people who like their musical beauty laced with a healthy dose of obfuscation. It’s like we looked at a Rorschach and all came up with the same answer.

Bon Iver — “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” [Spotify/iTunes]

9. Paul Simon — Stranger to Stranger

paul-simon

In terms of style, Stranger to Stranger is cut from cloth similar to that of Graceland, Paul Simon’s 30-year-old masterpiece. That said, his new album doesn’t feel retrograde, in part because Simon’s witty, acerbic writing seems sharper than ever. (Who else could turn concert wristband drama into a genuinely enjoyable, insightful song?) A piece of advice: If you missed Simon on this year’s tour — I did :/ — check out his recent Austin City Limits performance. It’s excellent and has probably earned squatter’s rights on my DVR by now.

Paul Simon — “Wristband” [Spotify/iTunes]

10. Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN

angel-olsen

I thought about splitting this year’s lists into weirder categories like “Albums I Was Going To Like No Matter What” (Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson) and “Albums I Know I’m Going to Like Later But Haven’t Spent Enough Time With” (Beyoncé, Solange). MY WOMAN made me want to create a category called “Albums By Artists Who Had A Whole Other Gear We Didn’t Know About.” I thought Angel Olsen had truly found her form with her last album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but Olsen’s direct, intense writing is just as effective in a setting that calls to mind early rock and roll. This may be my dad’s Memphis roots talking, but I hear a ton of Roy Orbison in MY WOMAN, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” is quite simply one of the strongest songs of the year.

Angel Olsen — “Shut Up Kiss Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

Here’s the rest of the Top 25 I submitted for RVA Magazine

11. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee
12. Wilco — Schmilco
13. Lambchop — FLOTUS
14. Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night
15. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Steve Gunn — Eyes on the Lines
17. Allen Toussaint — American Tunes
18. Dori Freeman — Dori Freeman
19. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
20. The Lumineers — Cleopatra
21. Julian Lage — ARCLIGHT
22. Solange — A Seat at the Table
23. Avers — Omega/Whatever
24. Durand Jones & the Indications — Durand Jones & the Indications
25. The Head and the Heart — Signs of Light

…and here are 15 more albums I loved dearly but am too tired to rank…

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Cian Nugent — Night Fiction
Daniel Bachman — Daniel Bachman
Kyle Craft — Dolls of Highland
Nels Cline — Lovers
The Avalanches — Wildflowers
Colin Stetson — SORROW
Anna Meredith — Varmints
Carl Broemel — 4th of July
Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Animal Collective — Painting With
Negative Gemini — Body Work
James Supercave — Better Strange
Andy Shauf — The Party

OK, I swear I’m stopping now. If you’re still reading, you’re a peach. See you in 2017.

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2016 in Review: RVA Albums

Lots of great RVA releases this year. Here are a few I particularly enjoyed, with one notable absence that will make sense when I post tomorrow’s list:

Avers — Omega/Whatever

Avers

RVA Magazine let me blurb this one for their best local releases list — check it out here. I wrapped up by saying:

They can crack off a breezy summer jam like “Santa Anna,” power through a charged rocker like “Everything Hz,” or sink into moodier tunes like “Don’t Care” with ease. That’s one reason Omega/Whatever is such a gift — we get the clearest glimpse yet of the plurality of Avers’ abilities.

Avers — “Everything Hz” [Spotify/iTunes]

Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night

clair-morgan

I wrote a longish review of New Lions & the Not-Good Night around the time it was released. I’ve been doing fewer of those lately — writing time is in short supply these days — but I felt compelled to dive deeper into this one, and I think this bit from the review explains why:

There are a lot of good albums out there, but music that can make you feel pure joy is rare. There has to be something about it that worms way down, through the topsoil of everyday stuff — Is this recycling week? Do I need to go to the grocery store on the way home? — to the core of what makes us who we are. The permanent stuff. The stuff that was forged years ago via childhood experiences we may have only snapshot memories of. New Lions & the Not-Good Night… gets to that place.

Clair Morgan — “How To Set Your Bed On Fire” [Spotify/iTunes]

Angelica Garcia — Medicine for Birds

angelica-garcia

I got to see Angelica Garcia perform a happy hour show at The Camel earlier in December. She was drinking tea and commented at one point about the possibility of losing her voice, which makes what I heard — a voice as versatile and expressive as any you’ll find — all the more impressive. In the span of just a few words, she’d jump between talk-singing, pure tones, pop ornamentation, bluesy bent notes, and a rapid waver that feels connected to the vibrato you might find in folk, only more natural and urgent, somehow. Medicine for Birds compiles all these sounds nicely, and while it’s tempting to frame the album as indicative of a wildly promising future, the polish of the production and the quality of the writing and singing make this a destination in itself.

Angelica Garcia — “Orange Flower” [Spotify/iTunes]

Noah-O + DJ Mentos — The Rain

noah-o

I only recently started listening to The Rain, but the partnership it features — Noah-O’s storytelling and DJ Mentos’ classic, jazz-inflected production — is clearly a winning one. They recently put up a vinyl pre-order — I look forward to snagging a copy and getting to know this one in person.

Noah-O + DJ Mentos — “Byrd Park” [Spotify/Bandcamp]

White Laces — No Floor

white-laces

This may turn out to be my favorite White Laces album. I wrote about it a couple of times, once on here and again in RVA Magazine. The latter review struck a heavier tone, since I’d learned by that point that White Laces were disbanding:

Landis Wine’s gliding voice pairs beautifully with synthetic elements that call to mind the ’80s, merging the past and present to create something truly timeless. I know it should feel final, but I’d rather think of it as everlasting.

White Laces — “Cheese” [Spotify/iTunes]

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2016 in Review: EPs

It’s hump day for 2016 in Review! Part three of five lists a handful of EPs that I enjoyed this year:

1. Moses Sumney — Lamentations

moses-sumney

Just as Moses Sumney’s voice can reach up and up, his music seems to find new heights of beauty with each song he releases. I’ll take a choir of looped Sumneys over just about any other vocal group out there.

Moses Sumney — “Incantation” [Spotify/iTunes]

2. Phil Cook — Old Hwy D

phil-cook

What a perfect companion to the outburst of joy found on Southland Mission. This compact set of pensive guitar tunes is great for working, driving, running… anything where you want to turn your active mind off and let the quiet murmurs of your soul bubble up.

Phil Cook — “Old Hwy D” [Spotify/iTunes]

3. Spencer Tweedy — Geezer Love

spencer-tweedy

Apologies for getting all parental about this, but my heart was warmed by Geezer Love in part by the combination of Spencer Tweedy’s voice — how much it sounds like his dad’s — and how he’s managed to make something all his own while building on his dad’s songwriting strengths. That thing Tweedy Sr. does by offering ear-pleasing patterns and then subverting them slightly via structural tweaks and manipulation of phrasing — Tweedy Jr. has it down pat. There’s a wonderful irony at work here: If the style you inherit is dependent on offering variation, you’ll never be a copy of what came before. In “Fawn,” Spencer sings “I want to be what you want me to be/I want to do what you want me to do,” and I can’t help thinking that in being himself, he’s already being and doing what his dad would want.

Spencer Tweedy — “Walking Home” [Bandcamp]

4. Heartracer — Eat Your Heart Out

heartracer

I had an opportunity to write a quickie review of this for RVA Magazine. Here’s a snippet:

Eat Your Heart Out’s literal centerpiece, “I Just Want U,” is an expertly crafted pop ballad that’s a joy to get lost in — lost in the harmonies, the guitar, and in time.

Heartracer — “I Just Want U” [Spotify/iTunes]

5. Thunder Tillman — Jaguar Mirror

Thunder Tillman

From my initial post about Thunder Tillman:

I love how narrative Thunder Tillman’s music is. I was hooked halfway through the EP’s first song, “Exact Location Of The Soul,” in large part because I felt like added elements and changes in mood were advancing a story.

Thunder Tillman — “Exact Location Of The Soul” [Spotify/iTunes]

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