American Tunes: “Witness”

[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.]

Now’s a time for questioning assumptions, biases, and conventional wisdom, and I’m always drawn to songs that make me rethink language that I’ve taken for granted. The beautiful title track to Benjamin Booker’s new album does just that by shining a bright light on that word — witness — from every possible angle.

The electrified gospel tune features Mavis Staples, who repeatedly asks “Am I gonna be a witness?” between verses that describe oppression, injustice, and violence. (“Everybody that’s brown can get the fuck on the ground.”) The repetition of Staples’ question actually reads “Am I/Am I/Gonna be a witness/Gonna be a witness,” which echoes like rumination when you type it out, and it invites you to consider all the ways you can be a witness to something.

A quick list of relevant definitions:

  1. You see something illegal happening that has little or no impact on you.
  2. Something illegal happens, you’re impacted, and you’re able to give an account. (You don’t die.)
  3. You know something illegal is happening but don’t do anything to prevent the situation from continuing.
  4. You’re present during an exceptional time or event and can give an account.
  5. You can validate someone else’s experience.

5 connects beautifully to the gospel tradition the song draws on (“Can I get a witness?”), and I think we can agree we’re all experiencing 4. They all invite and warrant serious rumination. Which have you experienced? Why or why not? Which might you be experiencing without knowing? Now is a time for questioning.

Benjamin Booker — “Witness” [Spotify/iTunes]

2015! Holy Crap! Part 3: Excellent EPs

Dead Professional — Young Hardware

Dead Professional

I’m either too lazy or scatterbrained to do a post compiling my favorite songs of 2015, but were I more industrious, “You Heard What You Wanted” would definitely be on that list. I called it an “architectural marvel” when I first wrote about it, and I can’t wait to hear what John Harouff builds next.

Dead Professional — “You Heard What You Wanted” [Spotify/iTunes]

Landlady — Heat


Landlady is one of my favorite groups making music right now, and they gave us a wonderful EP in June, with covers of Sly Stone and Talking Heads songs and originals that had been shelved for different reasons. Their gift wasn’t just musical — frontman Adam Schatz also gave us (via the liner notes on Bandcamp) a most elegant description of what an EP can achieve. Like everything else Landlady does, those notes and the songs they describe feel a little more thoughtful — elevated, somehow — and I’m left feeling very, very thankful. So thankful, in fact, that I ending up buying a cassette copy of Heat for a coworker whose car has a tape deck. Then I started feeling jealous about not having a tape deck in mine. I have a problem.

Landlady — “I’m Afraid” [Bandcamp]

Natalie Prass — Side by Side

Natalie Prass

I had an A+ freakout trying to order this from Rough Trade when I found out that the UK label had pressed a small number to vinyl. Their checkout system was down, and I think their account registration system was on the fritz, too (this was my first order from the site), so I’m pretty sure I now have accounts via three different email addresses. Whatever — it’ll all be worth it when Side by Side arrives. It’s an excellent companion to Prass’ self-titled debut, giving her voice a chance to breathe via some sparseness and giving us all a chance to enjoy the electricity she creates in the live setting. Fingers crossed that Rough Trade order went through…

Natalie Prass — “REALiTi” (Grimes cover) [Spotify/iTunes]

Mavis Staples — Your Good Fortune

Mavis Staples

From when I first posted about Your Good Fortune:

-New EP from Mavis Staples? Check.
-Savvy electronic production from labelmate Son Little that lays down a haunting and murky atmospheric foundation while threading the reverence+newness needle? Mhmm.
-Two songs written by Son Little? Yup. One by Blind Lemon Jefferson and another by Pops Staples? Yuuuup.
-Perfectly unsettling background vocals (Son Little’s, I think) on “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”? Damn right.
-Worth a listen? You better believe it.

Mavis Staples — “Your Good Fortune” [Spotify/iTunes]

Thundercat — The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam


Have y’all started listening to Song Exploder yet? It’s a great podcast (short episodes — usually in the neighborhood of 15 minutes) in which musicians pull songs apart and piece them back together to share insight on how they were made. (The songs — not the musicians. I think we all know how the musicians were made.) Thundercat did an episode that detailed the production of “Them Changes,” and it changed the way I look at the song. What Stephen Bruner does can sound extremely complex, but when he describes his music, he makes it sound so natural. Off-the-cuff, even. And I loved hearing about how the vocals took shape. Long story short: Listen to Song Exploder, listen to The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, be happy you did both.

Thundercat — “Them Changes” [Spotify/iTunes]

More retrospective fun!

Part 1: Fav Physical Releases
Part 2: Blasts from the Past

Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples

  • New EP from Mavis Staples? Check.
  • Savvy electronic production from labelmate Son Little that lays down a haunting and murky atmospheric foundation while threading the reverence+newness needle? Mhmm.
  • Two songs written by Son Little? Yup. One by Blind Lemon Jefferson and another by Pops Staples? Yuuuup.
  • Perfectly unsettling background vocals (Son Little’s, I think) on “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”? Damn right.
  • Worth a listen? You better believe it.

Continue reading

Mavis Staples

A while back, maybe six months ago, I spotted an album cover on the wall at Steady Sounds, and the image totally invaded my consciousness:

A head, either disembodied or perched atop a person who’d been buried up to the neck… an afro… dirt… straw… screaming…

Seriously creepy stuff. Not unseeable. I was struck by its brutality, but also by the fact that it seemed mysteriously important, like it was glowing in some barely perceptible way. (Does that ever happen to you? Don’t certain covers just seem to vibrate with significance?) I was intrigued, but I didn’t know anything about it, certainly not enough to justify buying the thing, so I left it there. Looking creepy. Glowing slightly. 

Fast forward to present day, and I’m seriously pissed at myself for not buying Maggot Brain when I had the chance.

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The Incredible Shrinking Tour of Chicago

Do you like books, but find it to be complete bullshit that they don’t play songs and YouTube videos for you? Me too! I blame that a-hole, Johannes Gutenberg. Movable type? More like type that’s just sitting on there on the page, putting me to sleep. Amiright or amiright?!?

THANKFULLY, Wilco is here to save the day (they did say they’d love us, baby). The group has released an iBook entitled The Incredible Shrinking Tour of Chicago, documenting a 5-show mini-tour of their hometown that took place last December. The book is free of charge, and includes set lists, photos, audio from one performance of “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” and a YouTube video of the band rehearsing “The Weight” with Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe. It’s a really slick experience, one well worth checking out, even if you weren’t in attendance at any of those 5 December shows.

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Dr. John

Locked Down

The role of the record producer has always been somewhat mysterious to me. I mean, I think I have a pretty good idea of what they do — recruit backing musicians; oversee tracking, mixing and mastering; provide general creative direction, yadda, yadda, yadda — but when I was younger, I pictured the producer as a suit-wearing, arms-crossing grump who hung out in the control room, called people “baby” and yelled things like “You tell that sonofabitch that I’ll rip his head off and shit down his throat!” into a Zack Morris cell phone. Crazy, right? And I realize now that the linchpin that held this warped mental image together was the assumption that the producer was older, wiser and more powerful than the musicians.

Two recent albums have helped sweep away the few remaining shards of this ridiculous image, in large part because their producers are a whole generation younger than the artists they’re advising, and because the artists are already legends in the recording industry. The first of the albums was Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone, on which Jeff Tweedy of Wilco — 28 years her junior — has the producer’s credit (he wrote a few songs and played some guitar as well). In a way, it felt like he was curating as much as he was producing and participating, given Staples’ place in the soul canon and the reverence that Tweedy showed in all the interviews that accompanied the album’s release. The whole project had a wonderfully positive feeling to it, and the album itself is fantastic (I wrote a short post about it last May).

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OK, Dawes. I understand that you can’t help writing beautiful and moving songs. But that’s no reason to go around making people get all misty in public places. See, I had no idea what I was getting into when, during one of my embarrassingly frequent trips to Panera, I hit play and heard the opening piano line of “A Little Bit of Everything.” All I knew was that my friend Mike liked the song and that it involved biscuits and beans — this much I gleaned from Mike casually singing a few lines. Maybe I’m alone here, but in my experience, beans haven’t often been part of emotionally charged songs (though the lyric in “We’re Gonna Make It” about having to eat beans every day offers a quality exception), so let’s just say I was caught a little off-guard. But I’m so glad it happened. Not knowing what “A Little Bit Of Everything” was about afforded me the most wonderfully pure, tear-jerking listening experience I could have hoped for. But this is not sentiment for sentiment’s sake. And I think I know a thing or two about sentiment for sentiment’s sake, having rewatched two-thirds of The Notebook last weekend. Each of the song’s three verses tells a nuanced story that hits on different emotional pressure points, as if Taylor Goldsmith imagined himself an engineer at a power plant, deftly opening and closing valves to maintain just the right level of internal pressure, ensuring that the whole thing doesn’t explode (as opposed to The Notebook, which is of course the Chernobyl of this analogy). See what I mean by checking out the acoustic performance of “A Little Bit Of Everything” above, the studio version and Dawes’ infinitely lovable anthem “When My Time Comes” below, and click here to buy Dawes’ most recent album, Nothing Is Wrong.

Dawes — “A Little Bit Of Everything

Dawes — “When My Time Comes

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes EP

Alabama Shakes, Part 1
(Editor’s note: I’m so excited about last night’s Alabama Shakes show that I’m splitting my reaction up into two parts, one offering a macro view of the experience, and one that gives a little more detail. Hope you enjoy!)

“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you”
— Sam Cooke

Over the course of 28 years, I’ve become an expert at certain things. Choosing which tunnel to use when traveling from Richmond to Norfolk is one. Choosing non-mealy apples at the grocery store is another. And I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I consider myself the Michael Jordan of choosing the wrong checkout lane at Costco. Soul music, however, is not one of my (apologies to John Hodgman) areas of expertise. Soul is such an influential, historically rich and culturally significant force that I’ve always approached it with a sense of cautious reverence. And while I’m somewhat familiar with greats like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples, it’s always seemed like a broader understanding of the genre’s history and icons is just too steep a hill to climb, and that I’m destined to remain on the outside looking in. Lately though, a number of bands that have caught my attention are making it more and more difficult to stay on the soul music sidelines. Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing one of these bands in person, a group called Alabama Shakes. I’d been hearing this 5-piece outfit’s name everywhere, often lumped in with the present wave of so-called soul revivalists, so I came to the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA prepared to find out firsthand where they stood within this movement. But as they worked their way through a powerful, confident and wildly entertaining set, it became clear that they weren’t reviving anything. What I saw felt like an authentic act of creation, not one of imitation or recreation. It felt like something totally new. Maybe I’m inclined to think this way because I lack the baseline of knowledge to make proper comparisons, but to say that frontwoman-extraoridnairre Brittany Howard has pipes like Aretha, or a 5th gear like Janis Joplin, or moo-oo-oo-OO-OO-ooves like Jagger (sorry, I really tried to stop myself from typing that) would, as accurate and complimentary as those comparisons might be, situate Alabama Shakes in the past, which is not where they belong. Sure, you can call them neo-soul, or something like that, but it really doesn’t matter, because you don’t need to be a soul savant, or an expert in musical taxonomy, to enjoy Alabama Shakes. And the proof was standing all around me last night. The crowd was as diverse as I’ve seen — black, white, young, old, hip, unhip — and while that could be a side effect of being relatively new and not having been pigeonholed yet, I’d like to think it’s because there’s so much to enjoy in their music that almost everyone can connect with it. See what I mean by listening below to “Hold On,” the first track off their eponymous EP, which you can snag here.

Alabama Shakes — “Hold On

Mavis Staples

You Are Not Alone

Collaboration Week: Day 1. The Collaborators: Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy. The Album: You Are Not Alone.

It’s a collaboration celebration! Sometimes they work, sometimes they’re strange, but collaborations are almost always entertaining, and can be a great way to find music you were destined to love. My first introduction to Mavis Staples was the result of another collaboration – the Staples Singers performing with The Band in The Last Waltz – but I hadn’t sought out her solo music until Jeff Tweedy came into the picture. The Wilco frontman produced her latest album, You Are Not Alone, and even wrote two of the songs. It’s outstanding from start to finish, full of tenderness, soul, joy and a heaping helping of Jesus. Who knows if I would have given the album a chance without Mr. Tweedy’s involvement, but I’m deeply thankful these two got together. Check out title track “You Are Not Alone” below, and brace yourself for a heartwarming listening experience.