Cerebral Decanting

Music Reviews every Wednesday .....

Art/Lit (& Politics) other days......

by Jason Gubbels

Afghan Whigs, Do To The Beast

Allowing for grumbling from small cohorts of naysayers, it seems safe to posit that the Afghan Whigs have overseen the most artistically successful alternative rock reengagement of recent years (outside of Kathleen Hanna’s triumphant 2013 Julie Ruin return, that is). Perhaps you’re among the naysayers. You might point to the low bar set by the recent run of remarkably dispiriting ’90s alt reunions: the Pixies cycling furiously through Kim Deal replacements, or Billy Corgan noodling away inside Madame ZuZu’s. You might roll your eyes at the lothario shtick Greg Dull’s been finessing since 1986. You might ask where in the Christ original guitarist Rick McCollum is [……..]

-- from my SPIN review of the new Afghan Whigs album, Do To The Beast. You can read the full piece over at the website:


Tea For The Swillerman: Cat Stevens Flexes His Prose


The announcement of my enrollment into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will certainly bring happiness to a lot of my loyal fans, and fulfillment to all those who have long campaigned for it – not to mention how kinda tickled it makes me feel too.

But the happiest of all will be those curious characters and dusty vinyl discs that have been hiding in the shadows and waiting around all these years. I can see Teaser now, just before the sun sinks below the curvy hills, jumping on top of a dustbin and over the cracked wooden fence, vigorously shaking the Tillerman who abruptly wakes up, blinking and bemused:


"Is it tea-time?"

"No! We’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Uncle!"

"Screemeeow!" The Firecat adds as it thumps into Teaser’s behind.

"Ouch! Come on! Let’s go tell the Buddha-boy," Teaser shouts, as he runs across the field with the Firecat racing behind him, trying to keep up.

"Watch out for the Bull!" cries the Tillerman, but too late. "Roaaaar!!" The Black Bull suddenly appears from behind a giant oak tree, but before it can charge, a little Buddha-boy jumps in front and catches its horns with his two hands; the Bull halts. Calming the Bull, the boy gently strokes its nose.

"There, there… Ommm." The Buddha-boy looks at Teaser. "What’s the rush?"

"I wanted to tell you, we’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Isn’t that something?"


The Buddha-boy smiles serenely as the Bull purrs under his gentle hand. “Oh,” he says, nonchalantly. “Yes, it’s something… but is that all there is to life?”

At that moment, the Foreigner walks by and sneezes.

"Bless you!" Teaser says.

The Foreigner looks at Teaser. “Praise to God!” rejoins the stranger, who is wrapped in a long shawl made of coconut-palm leaves. “From Jamaica… my boat, she come.” He pauses and shivers. “It big, big cold in your country. Me go back now.”

"Goodbye," Teaser bids the Foreigner farewell. "Tell your people back home that we just won a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

The Foreigner looks back, rather unimpressed, “They like Reggae… and Fats Domino. Bye, bye.”


Teaser looks around for the Firecat, who has hidden behind his trousers, obviously not liking like the look of that stranger. “Oh, there you are! Come on, we’ve got to tell the Polygons…” but before he can finish the sentence, a small flying saucer lands with a ‘plonk’ on the field. Out steps Trezlar the Third.

"What’s all the ruckus about?" The chubby little Polygon asks.

"We’re all included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Trezlar."

"Ooooh! Does that mean I have to share my Banapple Gas with you from now on?" Trezlar asks, clearly concerned with keeping as much of that precious planetary nourishment to himself as possible.

"No, no. Don’t worry. It just means we’re more famous now and might have a few more fans."

"Will they want to share my Banapple Gas?" Trezlar persists.

"No, don’t fret. But get ready for more play time."

"That sounds good," says Trezlar, as he boards the small saucer and waves goodbye, disappearing up into the night sky.

Teaser and the Firecat see the Moon rising as their moonshadows stretch across the ground.

"Time to go home, Firecat."



For those who are not familiar with my albums, those characters and that little story may be slightly baffling; but for those who had them, they may remember the small watercolor worlds which my album covers magically opened up in their minds, and the hours of contemplation spent looking at those quirky figures and imagining, while the soundtrack of their lives played on in the background.

— taken from The Cat Looks Back: Yusuf Islam on His Rock Hall of Fame Honor, Rolling Stone.com, April 4 2014


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 125)


Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce, Complicated Day     (Enja / Yellowbird)  

From early days with the Lounge Lizards and Jazz Passengers to his solo conceptual constructs of mythical taverns, this idiosyncratic downtown poet/saxist/bandleader has always exuded a conversational NYC warmth even at his most arch and/or difficult. But rarely before has Nathanson given himself over so utterly to the pleasures of songform. While the assembled brass does rise in sometimes-cacophonous unison and the human beatbox stylings of Napoleon Maddox do burst forth, these seven originals and three interpretations [Isaac Hayes! Frank Loesser!] mostly exist to showcase the easy bonhomie of untrained yet pleasurable voices taking conversational turns at the mic between horn solos - cordially kooky vocal jazz of the Blossom Dearie and Bob Dorough variety. The comradely mood jibes with Nathanson’s familial concerns, from that love poem Roy promised his wife he’d never recite in public to the way the proud father steps aside to feature teenage son Gabriel on Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”. Right, who needs another version of “I Can See Clearly Now”? If you haven’t yet heard it performed as lilting son montuno, perhaps you. It’s one of several delights on an album with pleasure to spare, ending with the sextet benevolently offering shalom: “Let a warm wind carry you home”.

Miles Davis, Miles At The Fillmore - Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3     (Columbia / Legacy) 

Unlike previous offerings in this clumsily-entitled excavation series, these 1970 Fillmore East concert recordings don’t capture a hitherto “lost quintet” - they simply restore four nights of performances to unfettered full extent. Which means if “Directions” being chopped down from ten minutes to two plus change on the original two-LP Miles Davis At Fillmore always struck you as an outrage, this will be essential listening. If, on the other hand, you’re grateful producer Teo Macero exerted editorial control over a sprawling unit (“Wednesday Miles”; “Saturday Miles”), this may seem mostly of historical/archival importance. As both a Miles connoisseur and Teo admirer, I feel obliged to point out that this unit wasn’t really so sprawling (a quick glance reveals remarkable consistency in both set list and running length) and that the greatest indignity visited upon Miles during his Fillmore residency was opening for Laura Nyro. With four discs under review, there’s caveats for sure: the “bonus” Fillmore West stuff tacked onto Discs 1 and 3 are inessential murk, Steve Grossman’s clock-punching solos chew up time, and “Bitches Brew” proper remains the slow indulgence it was in the studio - bells and whistles and Airto Moreira hooting. But phooey. Jack DeJohnette smokes, Dave Holland rocks the pocket, and Chick Corea/Keith Jarrett plow into mostly unchartered dual-keyboard territory, with Jarrett in particular mining a nasty organ overdrive that takes care of John McLaughlin’s missing guitar. And Miles has yet to discover the wah-wah pedal, which means his trumpet displays a forthrightness he’d soon abandon for texture and technology. As the final night’s surprise appearance of then-new and overtly rockish “Willie Nelson” suggests, things would soon tighten, then loosen, then darken. Few ever sold out with such vengeance.


Roscoe Mitchell With Craig Taborn And Kikanju Baku, Conversations 1     (Wide Hive)

Avant as hell, which isn’t surprising coming from one of destination out’s longest-running emissaries - in case you haven’t revisited it lately, rest assured Mitchell’s 1966 Sound can still peel paint. Opener “Knock And Roll” and closer “Last Train To Clover 5” present the saxophonist at a high-energy peak, his horn flurries offering noise-hounds pure catharsis. Elsewhere, Mitchell tirelessly explores the kinds of tricks that have turned so many away from the likes of AACM: squeaks, hums, spit valve rumblings. Which means sometimes the most fascinating conversations taking place are between pianist/keyboardist Craig Taborn and unknown-to-me percussionist Kikanju Baku. Taborn’s occasional synth/organ squawk can be fun, even when (or especially when) his tricks devolve into space noize. But Baku simply goes nuts, sprawling over his well-equipped kit, chimes and gongs and blocks all surging into the Hamid Drake hi-hat freneticism of “Cracked Roses”. It’ll take care of your avant fix. Just don’t expect any tunes.


Cosmopolitan Moonshine: The SoGoth Populism of the Drive-By Truckers

Take it from this Katherine Anne Porter / Zora Neale Hurston fan – some of the finest contemporary short fiction to come out of the American South hails from the shaggy-haired and power-chord festooned likes of Athens, Georgia-based rock outfit Drive-By Truckers. Two decades into a songwriting career informed by both country music’s rural/urban divide and the cultural semi-bohemianism of indie rock’s club circuit, lit majors and Tin House subscribers remain largely absent from a rowdy Trucker fan base that can rival fellow classic-rock bards The Hold Steady in the beer-chugging department. Yet while both collectives embrace a bar band exterior that belies their more eggheaded tendencies and blue-collar leftism, Truckers songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remind me at times less of Hold Steady bellicose frontman Craig Finn and more of John Darnielle, the tirelessly productive creative center of long-running DIY project The Mountain Goats.

What unites such sonically disparate types as Hood/Cooley, Finn, and Darnielle is a commitment to forthright narrative often lacking or at least undervalued within an indie community that regularly prefers obscurantism or sound poetry over storytelling. Yet while Finn’s Hold Steady panoramas consider the fragmentation of hipster/hood rat claques amid a general search for spiritual truth, Hood/Cooley spend less time examining the periphery of mainstream culture and more time pondering the daily trudge and brief highs of the kinds of working class lives receiving little artistic attention outside of country radio. And if the ongoing Mountain Goats project draws strength from Darnielle’s own peripatetic tendencies, with locales and existentialist storylines constantly shifting from West Texas and northwest Illinois to San Luis Obispo and skid row Seattle, Hood/Cooley remain stubborn regionalists, few of their narratives drifting far outside a Deep South orbit, brief jaunts into neighboring states rarely offsetting the heavy familiarity of North Alabama / Southern Tennessee / Western Georgia.


— taken from the first of a two part essay on the Drive-By Truckers, written for new literary(ish) website Entropy.


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 124)


It’s all going down over at ODYSHAPE —



Company Freak, Le Disco Social      (Opus Label)

If Jason King’s career in academia (NYU/Tisch), broadcasting (NPR), and arts journalism (Village Voice, forthcoming Freddie Mercury bio) doesn’t immediately suggest he’s the right man to head a retro-disco “international dance music collective,” well, rest assured - he is the right man. Every track here is dancefloor-ready, thanks to vintage synths, Steve Rodriguez’s slap/pop bass, succinct horn charts, and David S. Ware alumnus Guillermo E. Brown swinging through the studio. But the secret lies not so much within King’s grooves as in how the maestro defers to his vocalists, which include Rihanna counter-melodist Shayna Steele and Broadway maven Vivian Reed, who peerlessly deadpans “give me sex all day and night” on floorbanger “Sexaholic”. Unlike Daft Punk, King’s worshipful respect is aimed neither towards the machines nor the Eurozone but at such standout gay black males as fashionista extraordinaire André Leon Talley (“fabulous and free”) and Queen of Disco Sylvester (a synth-encrusted pound through 1982 Hi-NRG hit “Do Ya Wanna Funk”). And the collective refreshingly sees nothing wrong with dropping a little agitprop into the club, as witness King’s expert limning of anti-democracy forces on “Crackdown”: “Crush the opposition / Squash the 99% / Good for them / But not for me”. Which is to say this is also smart stuff. Just think how dumb a track called “Istanbul Disco” could be. Now dig the way Turgut Özüfler opens the number on solokanun. Only then do King and co. wisely bring the stupid: “Get into the groove / I like the way you move”. 

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Here Be Monsters     (De Goot Recordings)

While the Waco Brothers and Pine Valley Cosmonauts assume fairly well-defined roles within the hierarchy of Jon Langford side projects (country and covers, respectfully), Skull Orchard as both standalone 1998 album and loose musical confederation was once cheekily summarized by the man himself as a repository for stuff deemed “too Welsh”. There’s little evidence of the Llanwern steelworks this time out - as suggested by the cartographic puzzle enshrined on the cover, Langford’s examining peripheral knowledge and the edges of culture both known and unknown. But he’s also returned to the political specificity that helped distinguish Skull Orchard proper from the more enigmatic polity of the Mekons, meaning the multinational-skewering “What Did You Do In The War” shifts the onus off individual soldiers even as “Drone Operator” drops the blame right back onto an average joe who uses his fire-at-will security clearance to bolster smarmy pick-up lines (“I’m like a god with a thunderbolt”), all to the strains of a guitar lick swiped from Coltrane/Cannonball’s “All Blues” vamp. Elsewhere, the usual Langford concerns appear: surveillance states (“Call this number if you hear rumors”), artistic struggles (“Aim too high / And live in obscurity”), uneasy camaraderie (“Go down to the pub and drink some rum / And learn how other people get things done”). And then our unreliable narrator takes time on a joyfully quasi-autobiographical “Lil’ Ray Of Light” to consider the relative fame of his lofty rock and roll deeds: “All the puff pieces and picks of the week / Never got it right”.


Schoolboy Q, Oxymoron     (Top Dawg / Interscope)

Following a year in which black pop scored too few appearances within Billboard’s upper reaches, it’s satisfactory that this hardcore weirdo debuted at number one, although the hip-hop victory seems pyrrhic given Schoolboy’s refusal to grant any female character not his daughter an ounce of humanity. Really, even for us artistic apologists, this is dire stuff - “bitch, she gon’ work on that corner / I don’t care if that ho got pneumonia”; “don’t trust no ho / I might sock the bitch”; “fuck your bitch in front of your children”; and, for the romantically-inclined, “put my semen all down her throat”. As that last line suggests, Q’s quatrains could use a little tightening. Still, this has its moments, like a positively bouncing “Man Of The Year” or the oddball Gary Burton sample that drives “Blind Treats”. Meanwhile, the cold delineation of Crips-induced petty street crime on “Hoover Street” suggests he can craft compact tales when it matters. But we Black Hippy enthusiasts await Kendrick’s autumn offering.

An Enduring Legacy: Scott Walker’s Polluted Vision


Gov. Scott Walker signed Republicans’ polarizing mining bill into law Monday, completing a months-long, all-out campaign to jump-start a giant iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin.

The legislation will dramatically reshape Wisconsin’s mining regulations to ease the permitting process for the open-pit mine Gogebic Taconite wants to dig just south of Lake Superior. Environmentalists maintain the measure guts the state’s environmental protections, but Republicans say it will help create thousands of jobs.

"Wisconsin’s seal and the state flag both depict mining in our great state," Walker said in a statement after he signed the bill at Oldenburg Group Inc., a Rhinelander mining equipment manufacturer. "In light of our mining tradition, I’m thrilled to sign legislation into law protecting environmental safeguards, while providing certainty to the mine permitting process. … I am hopeful today’s actions will result in the creation of thousands of private sector jobs in the coming years."

Gogebic Taconite, a unit of the Florida-based Cline Group, has been eyeing an iron deposit in the Penokee Hills, which run through Ashland and Iron counties about 30 miles from Lake Superior. Wisconsin’s business lobby says the mine would create hundreds of jobs for the impoverished region and thousands more in the state’s heavy equipment manufacturing sector.

But company officials refused to move forward until lawmakers eased the regulatory path for them. Eager to deliver on job creation promises they made on the campaign trail, Republicans introduced a bill in late 2011 that would have overhauled the state’s regulations. Environmentalists and Democrats railed against the measure and it ultimately failed by one vote in the state Senate after moderate Republican Dale Schultz sided with minority Democrats against the plan.

Republicans gained a two-member majority in the Senate in last November’s elections, though, making Schultz’s stance irrelevant. The GOP introduced a nearly identical bill in January that lawmakers crafted with Gogebic Taconite’s input and put on the fast-track; the Senate passed it during the last week in February, and the Assembly followed suit last week, all without a single Democrat supporting the measure.

The legislation gives state environmental officials up to 480 days to make a permitting decision; right now the process is open-ended. It also bars public challenges during the process, allowing them only after the decision has been made.

The law creates a presumption that damage to wetlands is necessary and limits permit application fees to $2 million. It splits tax revenue on iron mining companies’ revenue between local governments and the state — right now all mining taxes go to the locals — and exempts companies from paying the state’s $7 per ton recycling fee on waste rock.

— Todd Richman, “Scott Walker signs mining bill into law; opponents prepare for legal battle,” Associated Press, March 12 2013


A company that wants to dig a massive iron mine near Lake Superior appears close to obtaining a stormwater permit that will allow it to widen and build new roads on the mine site to allow removal of 4,000 tons of rock for testing.

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources air quality official said Wednesday that the agency decided it didn’t have authority to regulate any possible asbestos-like material that may be exposed during the bulk sampling operation.

Earlier this week, the DNR granted Gogebic Taconite an exemption from any requirement for an air pollution permit, which would have required detailed plans for controlling and monitoring dust released into the air when crews use machinery to hammer rock, screen it, load it into trucks and take it away, said Kristin Hart, a section chief in the agency’s air management program.

The company plans to test the rock to find out the type of equipment needed to extract iron.

The air permit exemption was issued because projections indicated that sampling would generate less than 10 tons of dust in a year, Hart said. But the company must keep materials wet to minimize the escape of particulate matter, she said.

Asbestos-like material has been found on the mine site, but Hart said state law allows her department to regulate hazardous materials only if they come out of smokestacks. Federal agencies regulate asbestos mines, but its not clear which laws apply here, she said.

Gogebic Taconite has stated it doesn’t believe much of the cancer-causing material is present, and it has refused DNR requests for an accounting of what it finds during bulk sampling. 

—- Steven Verburg, “Gogebic Taconite may soon have permission to start bulk sampling at iron mine site,” Wisconsin State Journal, February 6 2014


Wisconsin has been an environmental leader since 1910, when the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment promoting forest and water conservation. Decades later, pioneering local environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day in 1970, helped forge the nation’s ecological conscience.

But now, after the recent passage of a bill that would allow for the construction of what could be the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine, Wisconsin’s admirable history of environmental stewardship is under attack.

The mine, to be built by Gogebic Taconite (GTac), owned by the coal magnate Chris Cline, would be in the Penokee Hills, in the state’s far north — part of a vast, water-rich ecosystem that President John F. Kennedy described in 1963, in a speech he delivered in the area, as “a central and significant portion of the freshwater assets of this country.”

The $1.5 billion mine would initially be close to four miles long, up to a half-mile wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep, but it could be extended as long as 21 miles. In its footprint lie the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world and by far the cleanest of the Great Lakes. Six miles downstream from the site is the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose livelihood is threatened by the mine.

To facilitate the construction of the mine and the company’s promise of 700 long-term jobs, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude. The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine’s impact on the area’s roads and schools would receive only token compensation.

The legislation has generated fierce opposition since it was first introduced in 2011. The following year, the bill was actually defeated in the State Senate, 17 to 16, owing to the defection of one Republican, Dale Schultz. After the vote, the Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, told me that “the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states,” with the implication being that the company had perhaps gone too far for Wisconsin.

Since then, however, Democrats have lost three Senate seats and an even more industry-friendly version of the bill was revived and passed. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign-finance watchdog, GTac executives and other mine supporters have donated a total of $15 million to Governor Walker and Republican legislators, outspending the mine’s opponents by more than 600 to 1.

Most distressing to many native Wisconsinites, including me, was the way the bill violated a bipartisan, reform-minded civic tradition called the Wisconsin Idea. For more than a century, the Wisconsin Idea had encouraged the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy, but the mining bill dangerously ignores geological reality.

Before the passage of the bill, Marcia Bjornerud, a geology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., testified before the legislature that samples she had taken from the mine site revealed the presence of sulfides both in the target iron formation and in the overlying rock that would have to be removed to get to the iron-bearing rocks. (When exposed to air and water, sulfides oxidize and turn water acidic, which can be devastating to rivers and streams, along with their fish populations.) Sulfide minerals, Professor Bjornerud said, would be an unavoidable byproduct of the iron mining. But the bill does not mandate a process for preventing the harm from the sulfide minerals that mining would unleash.

Equally troubling was the more recent discovery by Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at one of GTac’s sampling sites. The fibers of the mineral, which would be dispersed in blasting, are like tiny, breathable needles.

The Bad River fear the contamination of the fish they depend on for food and the destruction of sensitive wild rice beds that they harvest on the coast of Lake Superior. Mr. Wiggins has voiced his opposition to the mining legislation in private meetings with Mr. Walker, led Wisconsin’s tribes in demonstrations at the State Capitol in Madison and allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars of the Bad River tribe’s scant resources to legal fees to fight the mine.

The Bad River and several other tribes assert that the state has no right to permit the enormous mine without their agreement since the site lies in “ceded territory,” an area covering a large portion of Northern Wisconsin where tribal members maintain special hunting, fishing and harvesting rights enshrined in federal treaties. Last June, one of the tribes established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. GTac responded to a minor altercation with protesters unconnected to the camp by hiring an Arizona-based private-security firm, which sent guards armed with semiautomatic weapons to patrol the mine site. 

In the Chippewa tradition, a decision is made based on how it will affect people seven generations forward. By contrast, the company’s optimistic estimate for the life span of the first phase of the mine is 35 years.

—- Dan Kaufman, “The Fight For Wisconsin’s Soul,” The New York Times, March 29 2014




Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 123) Winter 2014 Bombs


Let’s usher in spring by sweeping out some of the most over-hyped/over-praised/over-baked releases of winter 2014.

Also, another reminder that “Listening Notes” is shifting over to its new home at Odyshape —    http://www.odyshape.com

Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes     (Columbia)

Nobody has more of a right to revisit their back pages than this perennially forward-looking workaholic. And perhaps no song in Springsteen’s mighty back catalog is more deserving of revisitation than the Live In New York City-consigned “American Skin (41 Shots),” recent events having magnified the song’s relevancy beyond municipal outrage to encompass the lonesome deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. But even that song seems undone by the fussy studio sheen ladled over it, a fate befalling every other tune here, none of which are standouts. From the synth-choked wiseguys number and the cluttered Celtic jig to the Saints cover muddied with “Penny Lane” horn charts and a title track bloated by Audioslave pyrotechnics, this grab bag’s mushy center cannot hold. Yet there’s a unifying factor in place - showboating guitarist Tom Morello, or as Bruce likes to call him, “my muse”. Morello certainly goes for finger-flurrying broke on yet another version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Still, somebody should remind Bruce’s ax-wielding afflatus that Steinbeck’s metaphors are generally ham-fisted enough to render window-dressing superfluous.

Hospitality, Trouble    (Merge)

Having loved the baroque-pop flourishes of single “Friends of Friends” without ever quite connecting with the sweet melancholy informing the entire song cycle, I’ll admit underrating this Brooklyn outfit’s 2012 debut, although not by much. Or maybe the art-prog archness of their scattershot follow-up simply helped throw the debut’s harmless twee into sharp relief. Hospitality have indeed discovered guitars, as see the rather catchy “I Miss Your Bones,” complete with spiky solos that at least one wishful thinker has compared to Marquee Moon. They’ve also discovered vintage synthesizers, which helps explain the daft twaddle of the nearly seven-minute “Last Words”. Frolicking amidst cascading mellotron and crescendoing moog, savoring every thudding silence or downshifting tempo, Amber Papini and co. will clearly give anything a shot. What is it that bands have too much of these days? Right - ambition.

Rick Ross, Mastermind     (Maybach / Slip-n-Slide / Def Jam)

Of course this is ponderous cheese - it’s Rick Ross, self-inflated pomposity is what he’s pushing. Amid grandiose production and soaring strings he doth bellow and hector, so committed to pursuing his South Florida crime narrative that listeners get treated to both gunshots and a Scarface shout-out within the opening seconds. No regrets, no second thoughts, no insights, really. Not even many jokes, unless you snicker when the mastermind compares scarfing sushi at Nobu to Afghan soldiers wired with explosives. Just the self-pitying soliloquies of a fictional drug lord, complete with audio verite clips proudly documenting that one time he got shot at. Fucks the game raw, he wants you to know: “Pussy boy, we all could die tonight”. 

Sun Kil Moon, Benji     (Caldo Verde)

Back in his Red House Painters prime, Mark Kozelek applied thick dollops of distortion to flesh out his skeletal compositions, and the results were generally engaging in a rainy afternoon kind of way. Lately, he’s mostly just skeletal, pursuing formless musings in sluggish all-acoustic formats. As befits an artist nearing 50, Kozelek’s thinking a little bit about death, which means sweet if hardly distinguished tributes to his parents. But his conception of mortality seems commingled with morbidity, as it so often does in the minds of men younger and more callow than Kozelek.  Which means James Oliver Huberty, Adam Lanza, and Richard Ramirez The Night Stalker all make grisly appearances, while the album opens with a low-energy narrator drawling out a family tragedy’s gory details: “Carissa burned to death last night / in a [pause] freak accident fire / in her yard and Brewster her daughter came home from a party and found her / same way as my uncle / who was her grandfather”. Sure got a way with words, don’t he? And we haven’t yet considered the ten-minute “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”.

Linda Perhacs, The Soul Of All Natural Things     (Asthmatic Kitty)

I know the guy from Opeth has raved over Parallelograms, this dental hygienist’s 1970 freak-folk obscurity. That doesn’t mean the private press crowd is onto something. Yet those adherents marvel over the way Linda Perhacs’s cosmic wonderings haven’t aged a day after forty-odd years out of the studio, as if New Age blather has never ripened into a stinky cheese before. I sorta prefer 2014’s string-choked merely corny Linda (“True as the light of a new day / I want to be freely with you”) to 1970’s folkie-guitar animal magnetism Linda (“Dolphin / take me with you”). Gotta say, though, she’s definitely lost her knack for snappy song titles. If Parallelograms boasted “Chimacum Rain,” “Hey Who Really Cares,” and “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding,” things are sounding a lot more teleological these days. “River Of God”. “When Things Are True Again”. And, uh oh, “Song Of The Planets”.

Cole Swindell, Cole Swindell     (Warner Bros)

Anybody wearied by Eric Church’s chest-thumping mythos or turned off by Eric Paslay’s business degree should attend to this objet d’art as a graphic reminder of what it’s like to really sink your teeth into a Nashville shit cake. A living breathing bro-country cut-out evincing zero personality, there’s no Florida Georgia Line table scrap Swindell won’t slurp up. Does he cruise some back roads? Does he kick it with a couple of down home boys? Does his girlie dance in his truck bed under the Tennessee moonlight? Does he pop the cork and tap the keg? Does he rhyme “tonight” with “damn right”?

The Hold Steady, “Teeth Dreams”

Craig Finn’s the kind of rock and roller who references W.B. Yeats and John Berryman because he’s dog-eared their paperbacks, not just because he likes the way the syllables roll off his tongue. So when Finn named an entire Hold Steady album after Jack Kerouac’s On the Road soliloquy about boys and girls in America having such sad times together, you could tell he held the line in high esteem, enough to pit it against the foreboding presence of Berryman the Confessional Poet, who takes the plunge off Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge midway through “Stuck Between Stations.” Finn’s a smart reader: he knows Kerouac’s literary reputation wilts before that of Berryman’s. Yet Kerouac got the pull-quote while Berryman merely symbolized artistic exhaustion in the face of “colossal expectations.” Finn’s always preferred tales of pensive youth to snapshots of depressive adulthood.


From my SPIN review of the new Hold Steady album Teeth Dreams. You can read the rest of the review at SPIN’s site, here:


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 122) + News


Very excited to announce that my weekly tumblr / music column [“Listening Notes”] has a new home on the website ODYSHAPE (yep, that’s a Raincoats reference), where it will share space with other weekly columns from several other talented writers. The site is a lovely thing, all my past columns are easily searchable, and you can leave comments. Please take a look, not just at my latest notes (uh, dance music of the Chicago/Baltimore/Detroit circuit) but at the other good stuff going on over at ODYSHAPE.



Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997 (Strut)

Anybody bewildered by electronica’s micro-genre tendencies should take a simple maxim to heart: follow the disco beat. Because when we’re talking stateside dance music of the African-American variety, that’s what lurks behind all those 909s and 303s, the 4/4 kicks and the 2/4 claps and the 8/4 hi-hats. And we all love disco, don’t we? The good folks at Soul Jazz have expertly (not cheaply) traced the first line of Chicago’s acid house scene as it emerged from discotheque ghettos, and now Strut adds to the discussion via this two-disc overview of Ray Barrey’s scrappy house label Dance Mania. If you want to ease in, the most obviously disco-indebted cuts are Victor Romeo’s full-on diva club mix “Love Will Find A Way” or the too-fast-for-soft-porn soft-porn haze of Vincent Floyd’s “I Dream You”. Then take your pick from Chicago house’s many strains: the funky (a killer organ hook cementing “Ride The Ride Rhythm”), the noisy (DJ Funk’s brutal street mix of “The Original Video Clash”), the weird (Strong Soul’s disjointed “Twinkles,” glitchy as Autechre), and the it’s-1986-and-we’re-gonna-sample-James-Brown (Duane And Co channeling Eric B on “J.B. Traxx”). Perhaps the notes overstate Dance Mania’s raunchiness - most tracks here are in fact instrumental. Yet there’s plenty of evidence supporting Barrey’s contention that singles were progressively sleazed up to get the men onto the dance floor alongside their ladies, which helps contextualize “Feel My M.F. Bass,” “Hit It From The Back,” and most especially Jammin’ Gerald’s “Black Women,” a comedy record of epic proportions. I prefer Parrish Mitchell and Wax Master’s 1995 disco/hip-hop crowd-worker “Ghetto Shout Out!!,” which shuffles along a clipped “Billie Jean” bassline while the DJ jacks thusly: “Cabrini-Green in this muthafucka / [Hell yeah!] / Jane Addams in this muthafucka / [Hell yeah!]”.

Blaqstarr, The Blaq-Files 2002-06 (Jeffree’s / Mad Decent)

This isn’t the Blaqstarr who brought the global squelch to M.I.A.’s Kala, nor is it the Blaqstarr who tripped psychedelic on his own underrated Divine EP. This is four cuts from a local guy still employing the DJ prefix, back when he was just another Baltimore drill-blast king dropping one-note club bangers into a fiercely competitive and insular dance scene. Who knows why these decade-old tracks are being newly remastered and released - the man himself mentions a kick-off for the new stuff he’s been promising for years, while electronica adepts note these joints have been circulating as crummy mp3s for nearly as long. Whatever the story, this is winningly obnoxious noise: single-minded, harsh, insistent, sometimes even hooky. And admirably committed to making sure his targets follow proper dance steps, which lends the entire enterprise an old school charm. “Slide To The Left” morphs three years later into “Lemme hump U/ from the right,” and then it’s “Hands Up Thumbs Down”. Don’t worry, the instructions will be repeated. And repeated.


Moodymann, Moodymann (Mahogani)

Meandering far too much for those uncommitted to parsing second-wave black Detroit dance culture, Kenny Dixon’s sprawling self-indulgence nevertheless betrays a method. Every obscure soul snippet or Richard Pryor punchline wedged between Moodymann’s grooves helps suggest the free-form jumble of Motor City pirate radio, hence a chopped-and-screwed Lana Del Rey vocal tag (“Born 2 Die”) alongside Ray Charles (dancefloor pulser “No”) and Muddy Waters (a percolating “Sunday Hotel”). If such contact points don’t suggest the level of anti-purism on display here, consider the red solo cup / rollerskate antics of the blaxploitation cover art and Dixon’s predilection for offhand vocals, most of them his own. Rasping along like Gil-Scott Heron, he’s salacious if rarely insightful on matters not pertaining to his beloved home town, which you’d best believe he cares about. Whether hovering atop delicious synth-bass on “Freeki Muthafucka” or running a dirt-funk throwaway hook into the ground on “I Got Werk,” this is junk of the gloryhallastoopid variety. And while the 11-minute dissection of “Cosmic Slop” is neither sloppy nor cosmic enough, that metalloid Clintonian riff retains its primacy.

La Fheile Padraig: John Millington Synge Rides To The Sea


The Aran Islands form a small group of three, Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer, set far out in the Atlantic between the coasts of Galway and Clare. The land is poor and stony; small fields intersected by stone walls which retain this shallow soil, itself formed in part from rotten seaweed. 

There is not timber or turf for fuel, or grass for the horses in the winter months. Prolonged storms meant that the islands were inaccessible for long periods of time, and, for lack of the fishing, might bring families near to starvation. 

The islands shelve upwards from east to west, rising to high cliffs on the open Atlantic; there are many monuments, among them the massive Bronze Age forts of Dún Aonghasa, ruins of castles and oratories, relics of early Christian settlements. 


In 1897, when Yeats advised John Millington Synge to go there, the communities of the islands were probably among the most primitive in western Europe. Synge’s temperament, his ‘negative capability,’ and his study of Gaelic made him the friend of the people. It is not too much to suggest that he found himself and his genius among them.

It is thus that Yeats speaks of him in the elegy ‘In Memory Of Major Robert Gregory’:

… And never could have rested in the tomb

But that, long travelling, he had come

Towards nightfall upon certain set apart

In a most desolate stony place,

Towards nightfall among a race

Passionate and simple like his heart.

- which we may set against this passage:

"They live in a world of grey, where there are wild rains and mists every week in the year, and their warm chimney corners, filled with children and young girls, grow into the consciousness of each family in a way it is not easy to understand in more civilized places."


"As they talked to me and gave me a little poteen and a little bread when they thought I was hungry, I could not help feeling that I was talking with men who were under a judgment of death. I knew that every one of them would be drowned in the sea in a few years and battered naked on the rocks, or would die in his own cottage and be buried with another fearful scene in the graveyard I had come from."

Since the sea takes them, the islanders do not learn to swim, for that would only prolong suffering. And there are strange stories connected with the ritual of drowning; of a man’s hands being smashed with a stretcher as he clings to the gunwale, for you must not take back what the sea has claimed; how, if your cap blows off, you must not look at it, but ask another whether it is floating crown or brim uppermost, and if the brown is on top, you must leave it, for the sea may think that you are beneath it, and take it as a simulacrum of you.

All are aware of an immanence of the supernatural, of omens, far older than Christianity:

"Before he went out on the sea that day his dog came up and sat beside him on the rocks, and began crying. When the horses were coming down to the slip an old woman saw her son, that was drowned a while ago, riding on one of them. She didn’t say what she was after seeing, and this man caught the horse, he caught his own horse first, and then he caught this one, and after that he went out and was drowned."


Riders To The Sea is unique in dramatic history, for it is the only one-act play that can be described as a tragedy in the fullest sense. At first sight the plot would seem to be too simple, the characterization too faintly sketched, to enable the playwright to build up and communicate the typical momentum, the high seriousness, proper to the form. 

Some critics have found, indeed, that it is too fatalistic to be tragic, that it affords no scope for conflict. From the outset the protagonists seem to be enclosed in an inflexible circle of destiny, in which the prayers and consolations of Christianity are powerless; the resolution of the play rests upon a resignation that is more stoic than Christian, a sense of relief that further loss is possible, when humanity confronts the ultimates of death:

"No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied".


What, then, can make the play great tragedy?

It has something of the simplicity in depth of much Greek drama, and of the Scottish ballads, where the conditions of the essential conflict are known and accepted as an aspect of the human situation; so that we can dispense with detailed exposition of plot or character. The conflict is between the sea and humanity, singly and collectively. 

And we may quote from Yeats’ essay “The Emotion of Multitude”:

"Indeed all the great Masters have understood, that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear moonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon."

—T.R. Henn, from “John Millington Synge: The Complete Plays,” Methuen Drama World Classics, 1963. Synge’s one-act play “Riders To The Sea” was first performed February 25, 1904 in Dublin by the Irish National Theater Society.