“A Spring in My Step”

To welcome in the spring season, I made a little movie. It was shot (mostly) in Philadelphia and Atlanta, with a snippet from rural Maine. I hope you enjoy it.

Credits:

Direction, photography, editing: Walter Biggins
When: April 2021 (more or less)
Where: Atlanta, GA / Philadelphia, PA / somewhere south of Bangor, ME
How: Shot with an iPhone 7, edited with CyberLink PowerDirector (free version)

Music:
Earl Harvin Trio, “A Little Walk to Relax” (Dave Palmer)
Originally appeared on Strange Happy (Leaning House Records, 1997)
Used by permission of Dave Palmer.

Musicians:
Dave Palmer – piano
Earl Harvin – drums
Fred Hamilton – bass

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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A year in reading (2020 edition)

Once again, here’s my annual reading diary. I like doing this, and some of you like reading this. Here we go.

As always, here’s the fine print: 1) This list includes only books I completed, not stuff I started and abandoned (and I do more of that as I get older); 2) It leaves out all of the manuscript reading I do for my day job; 3) It also excludes all the articles, reviews, long Facebook posts, Twitter threads, and other essays I read online, in all manner of periodical online or in print; 4) For the most part, the letter grades and commentary were noted as soon as I finished the book but were refined and edited this month, so there’s occasionally some reflective disconnect in my notes; and 5) Expect typos; these are tossed-off notes that get sanded down after the fact but often not by much.

The color coding: 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.

Some have asked why I have so many “A’s” and “B’s” in my grading, relative to the amount I read, see point #1 above; the “C’s” and below are books I tend not to finish unless I’ve got a professional obligation to do so.

If you’re curious, see previous entries for 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Enjoy, and see you in 2021.

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50-worders: Phish figures it out, together and “alone”

Trey Anastasio is almost as prolific as Guided By Voices’s Robert Pollard, and just as experimental as the lo-fi stalwart. Since Fall 2019, it seems that Anastasio’s bandmates have caught the productivity bug as well. The band hasn’t played live since a February 2020 weekend at a Mexican resort but you wouldn’t know it from their output. But, with the exception of Sigma Oasis (see below), they haven’t done so together. You can hear the lack—each member of the quartet brings out the best and the weirdest in each other—in their solo efforts, sure, but you can also hear how singular their identities are on these non-Phish albums. They’re free to be themselves, without filtration or negotiation.

Well, sorta. Maybe. Of the five releases issued this time last year, three feature Jon Fishman’s work (Phish’s near-masterpiece Sigma Oasis, Mike’s truly odd and user-unfriendly Noon, Trey’s genius turn Lonely Trip), because fuck you for thinking drummers are inessential. Fishman has been the glue for the best of these albums, providing intricacy and forceful beats in equal measures, injecting wit into occasionally overly elaborate compositions. (Russ Lawton is the precise timekeeper for Trey’s solo band but the whole conflagration could’ve used Fish’s wild, wobbly energy a bit more.) And Vida Blue, Page’s side band, features a guitarist (Adam Zimmon) who wisely provides modal textures and subtle asides in ways remarkably similar to Anastasio in the midst of an ambient jam.

So: twelve months, five albums, with involvement from all four. I miss waiting on the lawn or in uncomfortable seats, next to too-drunk bros, for the lights to go down and for Phish to lope onstage. But this will have to do for now.

A reminder: These reviews are all fifty words long, no more, no less. They’re rated on a scale of 1 (unlistenable) to 10 (masterpiece). I tag the best and worst tracks accordingly. It’ll all make sense but, if you need a primer, go here.

For earlier entries: one, two, three, four, five, and six.

Alright, here we go.

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Top 10 finale (#13): Phish, 7/25/1997 (Dallas, TX; Starplex Amphitheater)

This is the final piece of this Top 10 experiment that has become, by design, a baker’s dozen. I set things up this way because my favorite band, and the one that has most affected my critical ear and capacity for aesthetic joy, is not best represented by the album cover. Phish has only intermittently bottled its lightning in a studio. The stage is the group’s natural home, where its inventiveness and light shine brightest. For me, point zero is my first show. Here, I attempt to capture both that experience and how I came to it. Thanks for reading all of this. Continue reading

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Top 10 #12: Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991)

But Beautiful effectively begins in a car, and often returns to it in interludes. Harry Carney is driving, headlights cutting through the deep night, while Duke Ellington sleeps fitfully in the passenger seat. Occasionally, Duke wakes up, and the duo chat, swap jokes, kvetch, make notes on a song arrangement. We never really exactly find out where they’re coming from or where they’re going, so the night and the road and the flickering houses being passed by all seem to exist in a dreamscape. Maybe it’s Duke’s dreamscape. Maybe the whole book is. The car is a warm cocoon against the chilly outside air. Harry, Geoff Dyer writes, “kept to a steady fifty but the landscape was so huge and unchanging that the car hardly seemed to move at all, a spacecraft inching its way to the moon.”

There’s on their way to the next gig, having just finished one hours before, because these two jazz musicians spent most of their lives on the road. Carney, the Ellington Orchestra’s baritone saxophonist, indeed drove his boss and friend around for all those decades in real life—the rest of the band went by bus—and Dyer’s prose captures the relaxed bonhomie of a long, deep, affectionate friendship between two black men, both geniuses of a sort, both comfortable in long silences as the night slid by.

All of this is true but none of it is. These particular interludes, full of quotes and details, are Dyer’s inventions, though his fiction nails perfectly the nuances of Ellington’s music, collaborative approach, and what we know of his relationships from various biographies and memoirs. When Duke nods off yet again, with Harry thinking that “no road existed until the headlights scythed a path through the wheat writhing stiffly in the shock of light,” he dreams of his jazz compatriots.

These comprise the book’s core chapters, imagining and inhabiting the lives of jazz legends, turning their lives over, inside, and out. He dreams of Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Art Pepper, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Ben Webster, Chet Baker, almost all of whom either worked with Duke or competed with him, sometimes both. While Dyer writes in a voluptuous, meandering style reminiscent of Ellington’s most elegant songs, he also manages to recreate how these very different players sound. In the profile on Thelonious Monk, the only jazz composer to rival Ellington in terms of influence, Dyer writes the best description of the experience of listening to Monk that I’ve ever heard:

He played each note as though astonished by the previous one, as though every touch of his fingers on the keyboard was correcting an error and this touch in turn became an error to be corrected and so the tune never quite ended up the way it was meant to. Sometimes the song seemed to have turned inside out or to have been constructed entirely from mistakes. His hands were like two racquetball players trying to wrong-foot each other; he was always wrong-fingering himself. But a logic was operating, a logic unique to Monk: if you always played the least expected note a form would emerge, a negative imprint of what was initially anticipated. You always felt that at the heart of the tune was a beautiful melody that had to come out back to front, the wrong way around. Listening to him was like watching someone fidget, you felt uncomfortable until you started doing it, too.

Sometimes his hands paused and changed direction in midair. Like he was playing chess, picking up a piece, moving it over the board, hesitating and then executing a different move from the one intended—an audacious move, one that seemed to leave his whole defense in ruins while contributing nothing to his attacking strategy. Until you realize that he’d redefined the game: the idea was to force the other person to win—if you won you lost, if you lost you won. This wasn’t whimsical—if you could play like this then the ordinary game became simpler. He’d got bored with playing straight-ahead bebop chess.

Or you can look at it another way. If Monk had built a bridge he’d have taken away the bits that are considered essential until all that was left were the decorative parts—but somehow he would have made the ornamentation absorb the strength of the supporting spars so it was like everything was built around what wasn’t there. It shouldn’t have held together but it did and the excitement came from the way that it looked like it might collapse at any moment just as Monk’s music always sounded like it might get wrapped up in itself.”

And here is Dyer on the paradoxically raw precision of Charles Mingus’s music, as heard through the voice of an unknown (and perhaps wholly fictional) sideman:

“He didn’t want anything written down because that would keep everything too stable. Instead he’d play the various parts on the piano to us, hum melodies to us, explain the framework of the piece and the scales they could use, go through it a couple of times—singing, humming, thumping whatever came to hand—and then leave it to us to do what we wanted.

Except what we wanted had to be exactly what he wanted.”

This is fiction as jazz criticism, interweaving historical context, re-imagined episodes from real life and memoir, and studies of sound. We get the musician in fragments and whispers, daydreams of the jazzmen (which means these chapters are often dreams within dreams), sotto voce vignettes, stray conversations. No matter how much each piece jumps around and swoops, the profile is built around an iconic photograph of that musician. Indeed, jazz was the first popular music created since the advent of photography, so that our mind’s-eye view of jazz is shaped as much by the visual work of Herman Leonard, Francis Wolff, and William Gottlieb as it is by the music itself. So, among so much else, But Beautiful is also a work of art criticism, a book as obsessed with visuality as with sonics.

Simply put, it’s the finest book about jazz criticism that I have ever read. It’s firmly in my overall critical pantheon, nestled in with Hilton Al’s White Girls, Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans, Pauline Kael’s For Keeps, Whitney Balliett’s Collected Works, Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar, John Corbett’s A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory, and Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Like the best criticism, Dyer’s work is literature in its own right, as vivid and imaginative and boundary-pushing as the music Dyer writes about. Every time I read But Beautiful, it teaches me so much—about jazz, about listening, about light and shadow, about black life, and above all about the possibilities of criticism and what the form can do.

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Top 10 #11: Stop Making Sense (1984), starring Talking Heads, directed by Jonathan Demme

This is the first of three extra pieces for this Top 10 experiment, bringing it all up to a Baker’s Dozen.  These last three concentrate on items outside of the strict parameters of “album.” Here we go.

Sure, I love Remain in Light and More Songs about Buildings and Food, two pinnacles of American alternative music. I won’t even call Talking Heads rock, pop, or dance, because they create their own genre that happens to fuse all those elements and more. That’s why they sound timeless, even 30 years after they dissolved. But, when I hear them, I always visualize them, too, because I think the band’s best record is Stop Making Sense, and by record I mean film. Jonathan Demme captures them at their peak, taking care to showcase David Byrne’s minimalist stage design and lighting while also paying sensitive attention to each performer’s small gestures and clunky dancing. Demme was one of America’s most gifted, humanist filmmakers, and here he carefully gives us a rich onstage world full of musician-to-musician interactions, rhyming shots, fluid cuts between performers. The band members are photographed as art objects, like a gallery installation, and the audience is decidedly incidental. (Though we hear cheers, I think there are maybe three shots of the crowd in 90 minutes.) With Stop Making Sense, Demme revealed his point-of-view alongside the band’s. He exudes warmth and playfulness, while the choreography itself is slightly cold, intentionally distancing, even though Byrne sweats through multiple suits and runs laps around the riser to work off energy. That dichotomy showed me a director could visualize music effectively by showing both what the band wants us to see (i.e., what the audience sees) and what Talking Heads might prefer to stay hidden. It’s intimate and chilly all at once, two sensibilities at odds but figuring out how to meld onscreen. It’s the standard I hold to for music documentaries, because it helped develop my critical eye for music along with my ear.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Who knows how long this’ll last online but here is the full film:


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Top 10 #10: Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986)

My dear friend Daniel Couch and I share deep, complicated love for two albums that bind us to each other. One, Bob Mould’s Workbook (1989), is so interwoven in us that we ended up writing a book precisely about the complications of that love. But, honestly, we didn’t come to it when it was originally released but only 20+ years after the fact. It’s a record about middle age, written and performed by a guy who wasn’t even 30 yet (so he was largely imagining middle age), released when we were about thirteen years old, at a time when I (for one) wasn’t even into rock. It spoke to us more when we were approaching life’s intermission ourselves. We grew into it. That makes sense.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me. Why did we pass by one middle-aged album at the time until we were at the right time for it, while another middle-aged album hit us in the gut when we were even younger? Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) features the fractures and self-ruminations of a songwriter who was indeed in his mid-forties (as we are now), reeling from a second divorce, re-configuring his relationships filial, familial, and romantic in a way that would be foreign to a 10-year-old. Its sonic base, South African pop, was completely unfamiliar to me in fourth grade, which is when Graceland came out. But I swear that I’ve loved that album since I first heard the tape, that very year. I think the same’s true of Dan. I knew every vocal phrasing, every harmony, every pause, every clean guitar lick, every birdlike bass run, every horn riff. I can hum the full pennywhistle solo in “You Can Call Me Al” completely. I learned to sing along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s choruses in “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” even though I didn’t (and still don’t) know the language being sung. I’ve known these things for 34 years.

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Top 10 #9: Bedhead’s WhatFunLifeWas (1993)

The Argo was small, ratty-carpeted, packed with about 300 teens. I was one, along with three friends who came with me. Christmas lights hung limply above the stage. If I remember correctly, because it was an all-ages show, there was no alcohol to be sold, though kids popped in and out of the Argo to smoke whatever and drink whatever. No one smoked inside, somehow out of respect for the place, which I thought was weird then but charming now. But the Argo, basically someone’s house with a good sound setup, was a jewel of Denton, TX, and treated reverently. It was a church of indie rock and, if I wasn’t exactly a worshiper, I was a lay observer. Despite its small size, its presence in a podunk north Texas college town, and the fact that the site was so nondescript that I’m not sure how we even found the place that night, the Argo attracted big names in the Dallas indie rock scene: Centro-matic, Baboon, Comet, Slobberbone, Chomsky, Mazinga Phaser, Transona Five. You’ve likely heard of none of these, except maybe Centro-matic, but these were centerpieces of the New Texas Sound circa 1995. It was a spacey sound, laden with delay loops and slow tempos, built more around atmospherics than, um, song structure. Tortoise, a like-minded national “post”-rock act, traveled from Chicago to play at the Argo, because they recognized something special and weird happening there. It was an exciting time, if you were a weird kid.

We were weird kids. In this memory, it’s June 1996, so we’re nineteen or so. And we’re at the Argo for Bedhead. Five bucks gets us in. The place smells like pizza and Teen Spirit. Kids smoke clove cigarettes then, even if not inside, so it smells like that, too, radiating off their skin. I want a beer, something to relax the claustrophobia I feel, because it really was a tiny place, and it doesn’t look like it is up to fire code. Hell, that carpet we sit on is probably covering asbestos as best as it can.

But Bedhead is worth it. The band doesn’t sell as well as their Dallas compatriots the Old 97’s, with whom they had split a 7-inch single, but they are already legendary on the scene. People talk about them in whispers, make homemade t-shirts devoted to them, write Bedhead in Sharpie marker on their sneakers. We spend hours decoding lyrics, or even trying to make them out, because Bedhead’s Matt Kadane is pretty much a whisperer, hiding his voice underneath layers of swirling but slow guitars.

Hide in plain sight is basically a mantra for Bedhead, and we love them for it. Their album covers are minimalist to the extreme, text-design with no photographs and with any semblance of illustration blurred and obscured. The band photos, when the group is shown at all on their album covers, are printed small, out of focus, as if presented reluctantly and only after considerable debate. Lyric sheets are emphatically not provided. The band is a mystery, and likes it that way. They know that, because their songs were strong enough and idiosyncratic enough, listeners will lean in to find them.

OK, so time for a quick history lesson, so back to past tense: Major labels tried to horn in. They came a-courtin’, gobbling up so much of the scene, occasionally scoring hits. MC 900 Ft. Jesus had a video directed by video wünderkind Spike Jonze; Toadies—from Fort Worth but we claimed them—got big for a bit with “Possum Kingdom”; Tripping Daisy never quite leapt from being Big in Dallas to being genuinely big but they got close with “I Got a Girl” (I thought “Raindrop,” from that same album, is way better). Old 97’s landed a few albums on Elektra, and became avatars of alt-country just when they were getting tired of that label. Even Cottonmouth, TX, a spoken-word act merging funny hard-luck stories with jazzy beats—got a deal with Virgin Records, and toured with Lollapalooza.

Point is: From 1991 to 1997 or so, the Dallas scene was jumping, and the industry money was flowing. Like every other slightly weird band from Big D, Bedhead had major labels chasing them, during a time, pre-streaming, in which that meant something. Unlike almost everyone else, though, Bedhead said no. Or, rather, as quietly insistent as the band is on record, they said no thank you, please, we’re fine. They would rather stay on Trance Syndicate, a label run by a guy in Butthole Surfers, and maintain all artistic independence than try to go big without any guarantee that they’d be allowed to remain themselves.

Until Bedhead, I don’t think I realize that saying no was an option. I think that was true of lots of Dallas-area teens. Given that this was a band that opened for Fugazi, for fuck’s sake, at one of its most notorious and talked-about shows, maybe we shouldn’t have been that surprised. Still, the idea that you could choose to stay underground if the mainstream came looking was new to me. Bedhead wasn’t as fast or as loud as the punk I was getting into then. Their songs developed as a slower pace; the lyrics were never, ever shouted or yelped; the instruments got so tangled together that it was hard to distinguish who was playing what. But, in making that decision to turn down fast cash, they became the most punk band to my eyes.

Bedhead rarely played in its hometown. Hell, they rarely played at all, which was part of why they never got bigger. And here they were, in this out-of-the-way college town in a place next to or connected to a chain pizza parlor, on a stage riser barely two feet above the audience, with so little separation between band and audience that I could’ve fiddled with the soundboard myself if I had been inclined. It was an event but an intimate one. The house lights abruptly shut off; the Christmas lights flickered on, barely illuminating the stage. We all stood up, stretched our legs, but did it all without much fuss or noise. While there were a few scattered claps as the quintet ambled up on to the riser, the audience was reverential. It was odd but right. The musicians scratched themselves a bit, furtively glanced at each other. I gave a thumb’s-up to co-leader Bubba Kadane—bearded, brooded, bespectacled, very gentle and funny—because he was a regular customer at the Whole Foods Market I worked at. He grinned, turned to the rest of the band, and they delicately started “The Dark Ages.” An audible gasp from the crowd. Here was a new song, the first track from an EP I had bought just last week.

It’s a perfect song. In a long-ago journal entry, I wrote about a different song but I could’ve meant “The Dark Ages”:

On “Liferaft,” a quiet bassline (or is it a low-tuned guitar?) gradually develops into a melody, and the other instruments slowly work themselves into the mix, so imperceptibly that you don’t notice them or, rather, you notice them suddenly and wonder how long they’ve been there. The vocals—sung/spoken by Matt Kadane—must have begun at some point, but they feel as though they’ve been there eternally. When they leave, it feels so natural that you can’t quite remember that they were ever there…

The band’s songs build to loud, chaotic crescendos—in fact, “Haywire” is basically one long, excruciatingly powerful, bleeding peak of guitar squall—but the development of these crescendos occurs so gradually that you don’t notice them happening. Bedhead surprises you with sudden flashes of noise and catchy musical refrains, not because the bursts jump out of quiet structures—a la the quiet-verse, loud-chorus dynamic of much of 1990s rock—but because you can’t tell when or where the quiet, spare structures became so damn loud and so lush with layers…

The line between anxious chaos and pointillist beauty, always blurred with Bedhead, got smudged beyond recognition in a live setting. The Argo was aggressively ugly in appearances but its acoustics—airy, crisp, enveloping—were perfect. For 75 minutes, everything was perfect. Nothing could faze me. I closed my eyes, as if in prayer. Maybe I was:

You would think, with a sound like this, that the songs [would] fade in and fade out of consciousness. In a way, that’s true. WhatFunLifeWas feels like a sunset. You watch the clouds grow red and orange, watch the sunlight bleed across the sky, changing the sky from pink and indigo to finally a deep, dark blue. The refraction of light on the clouds gradually turns to glittering stars in a clear sky. It’s night, but you couldn’t pinpoint where the dusk ended and the night began to save your life…

But, in a way, the fade-in/fade-out is deceptively false. All of the album’s songs stop at a clear point, on a finalizing chord. This is not a sound that floats ethereally, stretching itself thin, but a full-bodied sound that somehow also has the qualities of smoke. Like a sunset, they can be no question that a Bedhead song happens, but you’re never sure when or how or even where, and in the end it doesn’t matter.

At least, it didn’t that night at the Argo. The band never segued between songs but the show felt like a continually pouring raincloud, with occasional spikes of lightning and the surprisingly intricate dynamics of rainfall and petrichor. I surely heard a slew of my favorites from WhatFunLifeWas that night but also a slew of new pieces from the just-released Beheaded, maybe a stray cover as well. Every song was distinct but every song was part of a singular flow. Mike Watt talks about imagining a concert as not being 30 played songs but instead as one song with 30 parts, the experience featuring sections of a single organism. The Bedhead show was a model of this.  Hearing it remains a pivotal moment for me, a cracking-open of rock’s possibilities to me. More than that, they opened up the possibilities of home for me. Dallas didn’t have to just be a place to run from and make fun of from a distance. If Bedhead was from there, maybe anything—including a true underground, true weirdness, and an outsider world—could be from there. Maybe I could claim it as my own, even if I ultimately left it.

I remember leaving the Argo dazed and woozy. My ears still ring with what I heard that night but it’s WhatFunLifeWas that got me in the room in the first place. I think I slapped Trini Martinez (Bedhead’s drummer) a high-five but that could be self-regarding nostalgia. I know I bought a t-shirt because I still have it, 24 years later. It all lingers, like clove smoke on skin, like this band on my heart.

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Top 10 #8: D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah (2014)

NOTE: Parts of this piece cannibalize and remix an essay I wrote for Glide Magazine upon this album’s original release.

* * * * * *

A soul man is only as good as his collaborators, since a soul man relies so much on his voice to get over in the first place. D’Angelo has a slinky, purring voice and conversational cadences. And Brown Sugar, his debut, is pretty damn good, because he’s playing most of the instruments and handling the production, and he is pretty damn good at both. But, like the neo-soul genre it sorta spawned, it occasionally feels too closed-in, too deferential to the classics, a little hermetic. The best songs involve colleagues with musicial personalities as strong as him—Ali Shaheed Muhammed co-producing the title track, Raphael Saadiq co-writing its second-best song (“Lady”), the album’s one cover being of a Smokey Robinson masterpiece (“Cruisin’”). Tellingly, that latter song features a large group of musicians on it. Most of the songs feature D’Angelo doing it himself, with co-producer Bob Power filling in the guitar on most songs, maybe a musician or two scattered on another track. This is an album of duets and trios but all doing D’s bidding. It’s effectively a true solo album.

He must’ve known that he had gone as far with that mode as he could. Voodoo, his second effort (and first masterpiece), sounds like the freeform sprawl that it was in the studio. D’s friends drifted in and out of Electric Lady Studios, adding and subtracting harmonies, beats, guest verses, loopy squiggles that in isolation sound nuts but flow perfectly into the mix. Much of it emerged from late-night jams at Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s house in Philadelphia, who has been D’Angelo’s co-pilot ever since. Questlove’s a legend, a core influence in modern U.S. music, period. He’s not the only one of those working on Voodoo. Saadiq came back, to co-write “Untitled (How Does It Feel?), the album’s biggest hit. Erykah Badu and Angie Stone sang on Voodoo and helped write several of its songs. DJ Premier, a hip-hop producer on par with Questlove, added beats, melodies, and samples from a who’s-who of rap  Speaking of which, Method Man and Redman dropped crucial verses on “Left and Right.” The late, lameted trumpeter Roy Hargrove, from my hometown, added textures to “Send It On” and “Spanish Joint.” Keyboardist and producer James Poyser made several appearances. Pino Palladino, one of the greatest living bassists, creates the fulcrum around which Voodoo swings. Here’s how deep Voodoo went in terms of collaborators: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” was supposed to feature Lauryn Fucking Hill alongside D’Angelo but was dropped, and the album’s rich enough not to suffer for the loss. As I wrote in 2014, “D’Angelo’s gift, and Voodoo‘s promise, was to create a party in which we were all invited. That album is a summit of black pop, bringing together people and styles that might not have otherwise hung out with each other, and may even have gotten into fistfights with each other without D’Angelo’s guiding energy.”

For me, Voodoo was one of those albums. I spent my twenties needing guided energy, feeling like I was drifting through my life rather than taking an active role in it. It was the internal soundtrack for every relationship I had, for long drives in the middle of the night, for running at the park, for relaxing after tense interactions at work, for doing all that while processing being black in America. Part of why it could serve as a perfect background to my black southern life was that it felt like a perpetual groove, a flow of sound and sense more than a collection of discrete songs. I listened to it all the way through when I listened to it at all. It wasn’t for cuing up individual tracks because, as great as Voodoo is, there’s an occasional sameness to its sonics.

Black Messiah, arriving fourteen years after Voodoo, is a course correction. Maybe D’Angelo didn’t exactly need to have his trajectory rerouted but by God he did it anyway. Its sound is rougher than his previous work, with guitars and horns almost too trebly and high-pitched, with the vocals buried in the dense mix. The bass punches. The drums abrade. Some of the samples, as in “1000 Deaths” and “Prayer,” feel rough-cut and glue-pasted into the sound rather than sewn in smoothly. Black Messiah aggressively calls attention to its organic, messy nature. You can almost feel the tape crackling and warping.

As with its predecessor, Black Messiah is too is a melding of African American pop genres. Its influences are clear, and various: James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, The Gamble & Huff strings-laden soul sound, A Tribe Called Quest’s jazz-rap stylings, J Dilla’s stutter-step beats, Sun Ra, the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis R&B sound, P-Funk. But that sound isn’t just musical. Conversations, recorded live or sampled, float into and out of the mix like weak radio transmissions. You have to work to understand them but they’re critical. “1000 Deaths” is buttressed by excerpts of speeches by firebrands Khalil Abdul Muhammed and Fred Hampton, both openly critical of white supremacy in, respectively, spiritual and political terms. In “Really Love,” Gina Figueroa speaks directly to the narrator about his perhaps over-possessiveness—but in Spanish. (It’s not clear that the narrator gets what she’s saying.) The ending of “Betray My Heart” includes a snippet of studio chatter. In “The Charade,” D’Angelo and Kendra Foster sing-speak in the chorus, “All we wanted was a chance to talk / Instead we only got outlined in chalk.” It’s a resigned indictment of how hard of a time black voices have in being heard by the police.

In Black Messiah, voices fight to be heard, fight even for the right to be spoken. As such, unlike Voodoo, this album’s songs feel discrete, jutting themselves out instead of sinking into the production. Each piece is noisy in its way—often with distortion, digital delays, slurred notes, vinyl crackle, abrupt entrances and departures. The record’s sound is just as unified and of a piece as D’Angelo’s first two albums but the stylistic variance of its songs is considerable, and heightened.

All twelve songs are bangers but so different that the album’s broad scope—and D’Angelo’s breadth of vision—is visible. He wants to embrace it all, all of black pop and political motivation and Afrofuturism and barbershop chatter and musical tradition from jazz to vaudeville. It doesn’t have to all fit into a singular groove to make sense, and indeed the radical assertions and inability of some songs to fit in quietly are some of Black Messiah’s core strengths. Black folks, D’Angelo seems to say, we’re just as much as a mess as anyone else, just as complicated in terms of our influences and ancestors, just as contradictory in our longings. Instead of making all of that appear uniform, the album embraces the multiplicity.

To create that unified sound with such disparate parts, he needed to form a band. D’Angelo hadn’t really done that before. The studio was either his autocratic fiefdom or the loose-limbed opposite of that—great folks coming into the studio whenever the hell they felt like it. Black Messiah, though, comes across as the product of an actual working group, with the most charismatic bandleader/songwriter since Prince (which isn’t accidental on D’s part), sure, but a true band of people figuring out how to work together as a unit. Some of the usual collaborators are here: Pino Palladino on bass, Questlove kicking drums, Q-Tip co-writing and producing. Some bandmates are new—Kendra Foster co-writing almost half the tracks and singing on more than that, jazz cats Chris Dave and Spanky Alford, guitarist Jesse Johnson (from Morris Day and the Time!!!). All feel essential, participants instead of hired help.

Look, I love Voodoo. I love Brown Sugar. But that love is tinged just slightly with nostalgia, with the whisper of what life once was for me—or maybe what I imagined it was. My love for Black Messiah is purer, fiercer. It understands the black past but pushes and pulses, often jarringly, to the future. It’s been helping me do that, too.

* * * * * *

NOTE #2: I wrote about seeing this band in 2015, in Atlanta. It was a religious experience.

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Top 10 #7: Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

It’s not that I hate country but I like it askew. I like Old 97’s and Drive-By Truckers more than Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. I like country fusion, whether it’s Los Lobos merging it with Mexican folk and feedback abstraction or Ray Charles welding it to gospel or Bob Wills making it have a big-band sound. In its purest form, be it bluegrass or acoustic delta blues, it bores me, because I’m not a purist. Maybe it’s just that, when I turned to country during college, my first real listen set the standard. Look, Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a high fucking bar for country. I’m hardly the first to say that. But it slew me where I stood. It helped me cross a bridge to a mode that I hadn’t thought worth considering. It met my tastes halfway. Its production is frayed and lo-fi by country’s standards—not with the tape hiss of Pavement, Guided by Voices, and early Beck but close enough to seem deliciously offM. Williams has a twang, sure, but it’s a sexy half-drunk slur that seems (but isn’t) off rhythm and off-key. Her lyrics are sly, impressionistic and voluptuous, direct in its eroticism, indirect about everything else, making the listener have to lean it to fill in the details, complete the picture, and thus making us complicit in her stories. And the songs do feel like full narratives, with the gaps somehow making them richer than they would be with everything spelled out. It’s perfect for its imperfections. I love a lot of music for its slippages and messes. Until Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I didn’t think country could do that or was even interested in trying.

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