50-worders: midsummer 2019 edition

Here we go—after a long absence from the airwaves—with another round of 50-word album reviews, rated on a scale of 1 to 10. Some new stuff, some old, organized chronologically by release date. Lots of me trying and failing to catch up to current trends. For a primer on the process and rating system, go here. For earlier entries: one, two, three, four, five.

raphael saadiqjimmy lee (2019) — 8.0
Imagine De La Soul’s “My Brother’s A Basehead” as concept album, and you’re halfway there. Melodic but throbbing, gospel but street, beats hard but voice honeyed, Saadiq portrays his addict brother empathetically but unsentimentally. Saadiq chose a different needle (turntable) from his sibling (heroin) but connects the two impulses thrillingly.
reminds you of: Daft Punk / Sly and the Family Stone / Earth, Wind and Fire
slay tracks:Something Keeps Calling,” “Kings Fall,” “My Walk”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

steve lacy
apollo xxi (2019) 9.0
Vocally laconic rather than audacious, comfier with simple clean riffs than with outsized guitar wizardry, Steve Lacy nevertheless shares his model’s penchant for falsetto and DIY recording. Also, gender-bending—which Lacy’s altogether more casual and less performative about. Ain’t quite Sign O the Times yet but that’s where he’s headed.
reminds you of: Prince (duh) / D’Angelo / Cody Chesnutt
slay tracks:Like You,” “Playground,” “Guide,” “Hate CD,” “Amandla’s Interlude”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

trey anastasioghosts of the forest (2019) 5.5
Too many echoes and vocal reverb; too many New Agey bromides; too many sky and water metaphors; too many un-rhymed diary entries set to music; too many arrangements; too many instruments and soul harmonies; too much flooding of wobbly despair—which maybe means the problem is more me than him.
reminds you of: Phish (maybe despite Anastasio’s best wishes) / Fleetwood Mac / Neil Young
slay tracks:Beneath A Sea of Stars” (yes, the 20-minute closing song), “Drift While You’re Sleeping,” “About to Run,” “In Long Lines”
just say no, Nancy: Friend,” “Halfway Home”

carsie blantonbuck up (2019) 8.5
She’s so lyrically sharp and snappy-slurry in flow, like a codeine-woozy Billie Holliday gone country, that the junkyard-circus arrangements and studio flourishes (mostly) delight instead of annoy. The horns coax out her horniness, plentiful indeed, but also let her smart leftist politics run wild, runny and juicy in her hands.
reminds you of: Madeleine Peyroux / Lucinda Williams / Pokey LaFarge
slay tracks:Jacket,” “That Boy,” “Bed,” “Moustache”
just say no, Nancy: Battle”

bob mouldsunshine rock (2019) 6.5
While this Mould/Narducy/Wurster combo technically outshines the Mould/Maimone/Fier trio of Workbook, or even (gulp!) the Mould/Norton/Hart trio of you-know-who, those earlier groups better balanced despair and jubilation. The wan string sections and synthesizer washes wallow alongside the lyrics. It’s hard to take. The sunniness and nostalgic despair feel equally forced.
reminds you of: The Cure / The Ramones / Sugar (duh)
slay tracks:What Do You Want Me to Do,” “Thirty Dozen Roses,” “Western Sunset,” “Send Me A Postcard”
just say no, Nancy: The Final Years,” “I Fought,” “Sunshine Rock”

phish kasvot växt: í rokk (2018) 8.0
Prog, funk, schlock, and anthem rock merge in this Cuisinart amalgam of 1970s pop impulses. The quartet hasn’t felt this unhinged, absurdist, or joyfully surprising with new material in years. With these guys, of course its best album post-reformation gets released as a concert covering a nonexistent band’s sole record.
reminds you of: Smashing Pumpkins / Kraftwerk / (let’s just go ahead and say for once) The Grateful Dead
slay tracks:Shaky Dog,” “Passing Through,” “We Are Come to Outlive Our Brains,” “Say It to Me S.A.N.T.O.S.”
just say no, Nancy: Everything Is Hollow,” “Death Don’t Hurt Very Long”

erroll garnernightconcert (2018, recorded 1964) 10.0
Midnight in a smoky Amsterdam concert hall, and there’s no place you’d rather be—and this was well before that smoke would’ve been weed-borne. Swaggering, sinuous, jiving, Garner (piano) and company—Eddie Calhoun (bass) and Kelly Martin (drums)—make the Great American Songbook anew, writing and refining it at once.
reminds you of: Fred Hersch / Oscar Peterson / Bud Powell
slay tracks:One Green Dolphin Street,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “That Amsterdam Swing”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

aphex twincollapse EP (2018) 8.0
The English Richard James works better in short mode than longform, plowing beats into the soil rather than aiming for the clouds. Here, he returns to club beats while keeping the spooky echoes that make him nonpareil. Either rage to it or bliss out to it; nothing works in between.
reminds you of: Chemical Brothers / Moby
slay tracks:1st 44,” “MT1 t29r2”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

lhasa de salalive in reykjavik (2017, recorded 2009) 10.0
Lhasa’s low-slung voice, sly in delivery but with quivering depths and spiky wit, mesmerizes all by itself. Her crackerjack band adjusts to her every hard swoop and delicate pause, and releases secrets slowly like perfume or a slow kiss. You’ll be spellbound as long as she wants you to be.
reminds you of: Cesaria Evora / Nina Simone / Susana Baca
slay tracks:Fool’s Gold,” “Is Anything Wrong,” “La Confesion,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Bells”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

yo la tengostuff like that there (2016) 9.7
Docked a few decimal points only because this is mostly covers, although, hey, they’re sometimes covering themselves, the Hoboken trio finds itself in other folks’s songs. Melancholy, yearning, aching, each track seems like an original, divorced from other contexts even while you think you’ve heard this song all your life.
reminds you of: The Roches / Indigo Girls / The Velvet Underground with Nico
slay tracks:I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Friday I’m In Love,” “Deeper into Movies,” “My Heart’s Not In It”
just say no, Nancy: n/a

trey anastasioshine (2005) 7.5
Beware of shiny surfaces. Anastasio, near the bottom of drug addiction and absent his anchoring band, offers up bright, beautifully catchy pop filled with New Agey lyrical fragments that he desperately wants to believe but which don’t disguise how often the ever-present water imagery (he’s always “adrift,” “floating”) evokes drowning.
reminds you of: Hootie and the Blowfish / XTC / The Beach Boys
slay tracks:Shine,” “Come as Melody,” “Tuesday,” “Sweet Dreams Melinda,” “Sleep Again”
just say no, Nancy: “Black,” “Invisible,” “Love Is Freedom”

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Top 5 (2018 edition)

 

It is time, once more, for the grand tradition of sharing my five favorite moments of the previous year with you. Better late than never, eh? (It’s been a weird January so far.) The Top 5 began its life in an Austin, TX, backyard, on a cold New Year’s Day 2002 that had just begun about 30 minutes prior. There were cigars and fireworks involved. Drinking, too. Daniel CouchLindsy Lawrence, and I “thought” it up back in 2002, and the three of us keep it going through letters & email exchanges, instead of in-person, since we’re all pretty far apart from each other geographically but emotionally close at hand. (See the 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 editions.) So, what follows was originally written and sent as a letter, with all the floridness and casual chatter that this implies. It has been, however, edited, tweaked, and smudged here (including one wholesale substitution of one moment for another), to elide things that should belong only to our trio.

Enjoy, and (belatedly) Happy New Year.

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Another year in reading (2018 edition)

Once more with feeling… my annual reading diary. As always, the usual caveats apply: 1) This includes only books I completed, not stuff I started and abandoned; 2) It leaves out all of the manuscript reading I do for the day job; 3) It also excludes the articles, reviews, and essays I read online, in magazines and litcult journals, and in (gulp!) newspapers; and 4) For the most part, the letter grades were noted as soon as I finished the book but the commentary was written this month, so there’s occasionally some reflective distance/dissonance in my notes.

All the same, here t’is. Dates on which the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. If it’s a reread for me, the title will be green. You’ll figure it out. (If you’re curious, see previous entries for 2014 and 2017.)

Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * *

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Commonplace

I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live—if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.

—Hayao Miyazaki

We often think of love as being eternal, at least in its ideal form, but I wonder… Is it possible to have transitory soulmates? A connection defined by temporality? If we feel affection, we’ve been cultivated to believe that it has to culminate in something physical or has to fit some projected idea of romance. But there’s beauty in the connection itself: where you feel lonely and then you suddenly engage with a person who resonates; they’ve been asking the same questions you’ve been asking.

—Kogonada, in response to Miyazaki’s statement

Both quoted in Noah Pisner’s interview with Kogonada (The Believer #119, 8 June 2018)

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Scenes from the occupation (6/30/18, Atlanta, GA)

Why even bother showing up? After all, as one speaker reminded us, it’s been a rough week for America. The Muslim Travel Ban was upheld. A moderate Supreme Court Justice decided to retire just when we needed him most. Over 1000 children, some as young as two years old, still remain separated from their parents because of a policy—not a law—that’s made even more cruel because it’s increasingly clear that the administration using it had no concrete plan for reuniting the torn-apart families. We all know damn well that our homemade signs and gravelly-voiced chants and Instragram-spread photos will not  change one iota of law directly or cause one single administrator in Washington to behave more humanely.

But, yesterday, we showed up anyway. I did, along with 10,000 men, women, and children here in downtown Atlanta, and hundreds of thousands of us around the country.

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Top Five (2017 edition)

Once again, it’s time for that grand tradition begun by Daniel Couch, Lindsy Lawrence, and me back in 2002, in an Austin, TX, backyard. (See the 2014, 2015, and 2016 editions.) Share yours.

Happy New Year!

1) New York, New York. I had not been to New York City since a quick winter sojourn in February 2005. It was time to go back, and I had an excuse: five nights of America’s best band at Madison Square Garden. I won’t spend too much time on the concerts—if there’s a band for which the phrase “Mileage may vary” applies, it’s Phish—except to say that, if you love them as I do, it was a pinnacle that it’s built up to for 30 years: thirteen shows at the most iconic concert venue in America, each built around the theme of a donut (hence calling the run “The Baker’s Dozen”), in which the band did not repeat a single song, and which the improvisation and song selection were inspired, surprising, and in some cases pointing to new directions for its sound. But the larger, more personal takeaway was facing the idea that it’s OK to innovate and change direction and forge new paths even in middle age, and even to do so when everyone’s looking at you. And I needed to understand that message at that particular moment. In January, I moved to Atlanta, my first time living in a truly big city since I was 18. This has been invigorating but deeply stressful, as I’ve had to make new friends and social bonds, two things that I’m historically not great at and which get harder to do as we get older. And here I was, thrust for a week in New York, processing all that, doing a lot of firsts: AirBnB for the first time (a success—a tiny, clean apartment in Harlem a block from a subway line); checking out a plethora of museums new to me, instead of revisiting old haunts (though I did take in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is one of my Happy Places in this world); organizing raucous meetups at Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis with friends also in town for Phish; figuring out subway routes and itineraries on my own; negotiating my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods and learning to be OK with relying on my smartphone; making new friends on the fly at Madison Square Garden, as most nights I wasn’t seated with my friends. I walked or took the train everywhere. This was August, so I was constantly pouring sweat—I don’t know how many handkerchiefs I went through. The point is: I spent a vacation semi-intentionally making myself uncomfortable, keeping myself exposed and open to new experiences. So, the vacation ended up not being an escape from my regular life in Atlanta but instead an encapsulation of what I’d spent the last seven months doing. It was good, and helped immensely by being surrounded by swirling avant-pop and 20,000 people who understood it and were there for the same thing, who I didn’t have to explain it to.

2) Storm King Art Center. As much fun as New York City was, the major revelation, to me, didn’t take place in the city at all. A close friend lives in Albany, NY, and I met her halfway by taking a train from Grand Central Terminal to Beacon, NY. We traipsed through Beacon, quaint and lovely, talked about changes she was going through—new jobs, new anxieties—at a terrific Mediterranean restaurant. Then, we went to the reason I took the train up there: Storm King Art Center. I can’t believe that I’d never even heard of before she mentioned it in a phone call. Basically, it’s a park nestled in the Catskill Mountains devoted to modern and contemporary sculpture. “Park” makes it sound small, when it’s actually 500 acres, large enough that you can rent bikes to traverse and there are multiple houses on the property. But most of the art isn’t in the houses but instead outdoors, hence all the trails. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces. It’s a who’s-who of modern sculpture and site-specific art: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Goldsworthy, David Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Kenneth Snelson, Nam June Paik, Louise Nevelson, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Maya Lin, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi. And you just stumble on to new pieces as you’re walking. It is a triumphant art space, all this modernism and experimentation totally at ease in the rolling hills, looming mountains, foliage dripping all around you. I had trouble not crying, I’ll be honest. It was wonderful, and I wish we could’ve stayed longer than a couple of hours. I would gladly go back to spend a whole day there, maybe two or three.

3) My first book reading & signing. I can’t rightly put “published my first book” as an item here because the truth is that it comes on in stages. Daniel and I were working on the book so continuously, and in different ways (writing, editing, proofreading, looking over marketing stuff, filling out forms), that it doesn’t seem like a singular event. Sure, that moment when I opened the package from Bloomsbury with my author’s copies was lovely but somehow anticlimactic. No, the fact that Bob Mould’s Workbook is actually a thing out in the real world didn’t hit home until I did a reading at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, on September 22nd. About 30 people showed up, so it was standing-room only in that small space, a wonderful roll-out for a little book of epistolary music criticism/conceptual memoir. I read from an earlier chapter, improvised a preamble about how Dan and I wrote the book as a series of letter exchanges and interviews, and then took questions. The questions were good, which isn’t always a given at readings. People were genuinely curious about our writing process, and the younger members of the audience had smart questions about punk, post-punk, and the legacy of underground rock culture. In the spirit of punk, I made a giveaway zine for the event—really, edited versions of the two blog posts I’ve written about Bob Mould, with new drawings that I made, all printed out, folded, and stapled on Xerox copy paper. I’d forgotten how much I like making zines, how much I like creating homemade things, no matter how slight they are, and how much I liked seeing them in people’s hands. Friends took me out for a celebratory beer afterward.

4) Film Love Atlanta. This year, I’ve tapped into Film Love Atlanta. Film Love is an initiative by Andy Ditzler, a guy who loves the more experimental end of cinema—the odd shorts, the avant-garde documentaries, the crazy anti-narrative works, the stuff that hasn’t been released in the States and thus only otherwise gets seen in museum exhibits or in festivals. It’s truly a curated film program, with program notes written (wonderfully) by Andy. Sometimes, he brings in the filmmakers whose work is being screened. Because Film Love doesn’t have its own theater, Andy coordinates screenings at galleries and art spaces around town, a few times even in the back storeroom of a boutique salt supplier, so going to a Film Love screening means, by necessity, that I’ll be exploring a new part of the city. I need that. There’s always discussion afterward, led by Andy, who looks like a shy deferring guy but who also does a terrific job of moving the conversation along Socratically. There’s never much more than 25-30 people but we’re all dedicated, it’s refreshing and mind-expanding, and I look forward to these monthly events so much that I feel like an evangelist for Ditzler’s mad idea. (This interview with Andy gives a good sense of what Film Love is up to.)

5) A John Waters Christmas. I saw “A John Waters Christmas at the Variety Playhouse with my pal Nina and her pal Marie. Basically, it was 90 minutes of standup done by the legendary, infamous filmmaker and provocateur, talking hilariously and profanely about what he wanted for Christmas, about American politics and culture, about gay culture, and his hopes for the future. This was the filthiest hour and a half I had ever spent in anyone’s presence that didn’t involve sex with them, but it was also the funniest event I went to all year. The guffaws were cathartic, a tremendous and thoroughly foul release that was needed after this year of Trump farting at us constantly, in real time. Waters farted back, and he’s better at it.

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A year in reading (2017)

Happy New Year!

From September 2000 to mid-2015, I kept a reading log. I stopped it partly because it felt a little anal-retentive but mostly because it seemed dishonest. I mean, sure, I kept track of all the books I completed. But I left out books I abandoned, all the reading I do online, in magazines, or for my job as a book editor.

Turns out, though, that I missed the log. Scrolling through it, I can see patterns in my reading behavior, and can flash on memories of what I was thinking or doing or feeling at that time. So, around February 2017, I returned to the logging. So, here it is, a sort of reading diary for the year, with new notes, letter grades, and occasional links. Dates on which the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. You’ll figure it out.

Enjoy, and see you in 2018.

(If you’re curious, I’ve done this before.)
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