Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Featuring selections by Jem Cohen, Keith Connolly, Britton Powell, Alan Courtis, Byron Westbrook, and more.
Part of the Looking Back series.
Jackie Shane’s Any Other Way, released in October by Numero Group, is the soundtrack to a moment when all of us are looking for other ways. A black woman born as a boy in Tennessee in 1940, Shane sings with tingling heroism. In this double album her voice pounds and warbles, mocks and lilts. The live tracks rival the Ike & Tina Turner Revue and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. “Tell her that I’m happy / Tell her that I’m gay,” Jackie sings on the title track, lingering just so on those last two words (they were, after all, William Bell’s lyrics). Coy and voracious, the album is an overproof mix of pageantry and authenticity. This wasn’t a drag act, of which there were many, this just was.
Shane made her mark in Toronto, but she was born in Nashville, and carries in her voice the legacy of the American south. Gospel sent her to Little Richard; Jim Crow sent her to Canada. In the ‘60s she cut a few 45s and played a whole lot of clubs. Yet more amazing than the knifepoint threats, the kidnapping at the hands of Quebecois gangsters, the chickens (underage gay trade), and the 45-pound mirrored jacket she wore onstage—more amazing was how, in 1971, she just vanished. Until now.
Nothing made it possible to really process 2017, but there were blessed reminders of realms beyond our demoralizing national sinkhole, and for me some of the bravest of these were musical.
I first heard Marc Ribot play his setting of John Cage’s “Some of the Harmony of Maine” in Knoxville at the wonderful Big Ears festival. He performed in a small church. He played it again in October, rawer but with equal power, at his last show in NYC’s spare and special venue, The Stone. Ringing, rising, falling away… that night on the lower east side Ribot and his battered guitar built another church from scratch. The evening before in the same tiny, packed room I’d seen Ribot’s always radical trio (with Chad Taylor and Henry Grimes). Grimes, born in 1935, at first appeared a bit frail, but his playing on the double bass was at once majestic, humble, mighty, supernatural. The show closed in bowed whispers and I felt deeply thankful to be in the presence of Grimes’ experience, wisdom, and strength.
I half dreaded going to Phil Elverum/Mount Eerie’s performance of the record he made about his young wife’s death from cancer soon after their daughter’s birth. The thing seemed impossible to pull off as a “show,” which Elverum was terribly aware of. Then he totally pulled it off, the set a tumbling flow of memories and sometimes brutal facts. It was mesmerizing, never maudlin, unlike anything I’ve experienced. It was the utterly simple but breathtaking sound of his guitar and voice that made it work.
Three odd Americans doing public and private service through their music; each generous note they played worth more than our hate-ridden, money-grubbing, planet-destroying, piece-of-shit president.
A year and a day after the worst night in collective memory, I opened the door to Ludlow 38 gallery and found an individual in a Spider-Man suit dangling awkwardly from the ceiling, singing and ranting in a rich baritone over antic keyboard music. This person was Benedict R. Wallers, a.k.a. the Rebel, a sui generis U.K. musician making a rare, aerial appearance in the United States. The Rebel had recorded a new album for the show Death Lolz, organized by the artist Dan Mitchell—so new, in fact, that, through his Spidey eyes, Wallers read some lyrics from sheets ripped out of notebooks. This demento stagecraft would have only gone so far if not for the fact that he was as usual displaying his weird array of artistic gifts: plainly gorgeous melodies, a palette ranging from classic country to Fall-esque punk to 16-bit electronica, and a facility with satire, character, and storytelling that could fairly be described as literary. Comparing songwriting to LITRA-TURE is a little square so far as compliments go, I know, but without orientation toward the tricks he’s pulling, Wallers’s work is apt to perplex (or worse). The Rebel’s output has lately reached an almost diaristic phase, with at least half a dozen micro-releases in the last five years. Just in time for the wrap-up of Twin Peaks, the Death Lolz record features a version of Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love” that, performed live—tersely and unadulterated—was the rawest, saddest piece of art I heard this year. There are so many terrible things going on, infinite things to lament, but after hearing Wallers’s version of the tune, brimming with loss shrouded as if behind a heavy curtain, I cried for a week.
Maybe it’s because earlier this year, Ariel Pink, for whatever reason, eulogized Bobby Jameson, or that there is again, in the flesh, a Royal Trux to talk about, to jam, to SEE, but here’s this, from among the best to ever have done it:
And then there’s those Millius/Sis Cunningham cuts on Broadside. And Five Dollar Shoes. Also that whole alternate ‘60s NYC thru-line, vis-a-vis the Spoonful, the Magicians, Jesse Colin Young, Buzzy Linhart… but nothing’s changing any of that any time soon, right? So hit those dollar bins, at your ample leisure.
On October 29, 2017 a storm hit the Northeast and developed into a bombogenesis—also called an explosive cyclogenesis or a weather bomb—a point where extreme shifts in pressure produce intense gusts of wind. New York received the gentle portion of the storm in comparison to some parts of New England, where gusts were clocked at 90 miles an hour, trees exploded, and over one million people lost their power. The month’s new moon was just beginning to wax gibbous in its first quarter, causing low tide and averted flooding. The atmosphere this storm produced was harnessed by Aki Onda and Akio Suzuki during the final performance of their “fu-rai” U.S. tour, after a brief collaborative performance with Annea Lockwood hosted by Blank Forms at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and it was sublime. Known for shaping sound with space through invoking the resonance of objects within specific settings, the two performed over the course of an hour and a half—dragging metal across the concrete floor, slowly pacing around while tuning a wind-up radio, occasionally prodding at various self-made instruments and cymbals on the floor, among other delicate gestures made with glorious timing. The wind, like a tempestuous specter, kept incessantly and violently swinging two glass doors near their performance area open and closed. At one point Aki Onda propped one of the doors open as an addition to the performance, immediately creating a different reception of sound as the air pressure in the space shifted. The sound of sheets of rain on gravel, the chirping of crickets, the wind blowing through trees seamlessly integrated into their masterful orchestration. Never have I heard sound coaxed into being so gloriously or wind so bodied. It was pure alchemy.
I’d like to point out “Lullaby for Pauline: A Concert Commemorating the Life and Work of Pauline Oliveros” performed on March 14th 2017 by Vocal Constructivists. Pauline Oliveros’ work needs no introduction; she was one of the most influential composers of the last decades. But after her passing last year any effort to show her music deserves to be recognized and supported. For me, Pauline was a teacher and a friend; I was lucky enough to collaborate with her in several concerts and records and I have to say each experience was truly inspiring. That’s why a whole program dedicated to her work is something that should happen more often: to keep her legacy alive is something essential for everybody, specially the coming generations.
Carver Audain’s countervail exhibition at Microscope Gallery really captured the tone of 2017 for me. Beyond the more obvious political content in its decaying flags, the layout of mirrors pitting self-awareness against narcissism seemed to speak to a crucial moment. I also enjoyed how Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s piece in the SFMOMA Soundtracks show posited sound as both a conduit and a focal point, directing a choreography of listeners as much as presenting something to be heard. While I’ve encountered this approach in other works, I felt a special intimacy in how the piece encourages working together without instruction to negotiate space with other listeners.
Regarding recorded music, there were many great new records that came out this year despite all of the emphasis on reissue culture. One particular standout was Ellen Arkbro’s For organ and brass (Subtext Recordings), which used gestures, traditional instrumentation and timing that would generally read as somber to render something more hopeful and optimistic, much needed at this moment.
This has not been a year for keeping calm. The specter of Trump and his supporters remains ubiquitous. During a visit to my parents in D.C. this past Thanksgiving, I spotted a bright red MAGA ball cap worn by a patron of the Hirshhorn Museum. To paraphrase Abramović, the supremacist is present, even within an otherwise liberal sanctuary—the contemporary art museum.
Maintaining a quotidian fury at these trespasses can be exhausting. Meditations help, particularly musical ones. Two albums that have cocooned me from the state of the union are Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass (Palto Flats) and Robert Haigh’s Creatures of the Deep (Unseen Worlds). The former a reissue of Reichian percussion by a Japanese master, the latter Satie-like piano compositions by a drum and bass wizard. Where Takada offers a soft battle cry, Haigh patches up the wounds. Together they create mantra for our times: Fight, heal, fight.
While politicians from the U.S. seem hell-bent on ruining the country and trying to bring the world down with it, Alessia Cara, a pop princess from north of the border, used 2017 to make the world a better place, guest-vocaling for world peace.
Born in Brampton, ON, the young Cara got her start like fellow Canadian wunderkind Justin Bieber: a record executive watched her YouTube channel. Fast forward and Cara’s 2015 platinum-selling release Know It All is a bevy of unflinchingly sober-eyed, totally danceable Top 40 anthems. Songs such as “Scars to Your Beautiful” with lyrics like, “You don’t have to change a thing the world can change its heart” became earworms for those of us who need reminding that our tender hearts are not the problem.
But it was in 2017, amid Trump’s tweets, McCain’s votes, Moore’s vile hubris, etc., that Cara did what is so desperately needed. She worked with others to make things better. She brought her gravely gravitas to Zedd sleeper hit “Stay,” grounded Logic’s suicide prevention track, “1-800-273-8255”, and, poignantly, added life to Troye Sivan’s previously released track, “Wild.”
Sivan’s original was dreamy, reminiscent of that last summer before adulthood hits. With Cara, a reckoning is introduced without sacrificing the lightness of the track. Cara sings, “Can we make the most out of no time?” It is an almost impossibly poetic question that, when heard at the end of 2017, highlights the fact that no matter what fortunes befall the United States and the globe, our time is finite, and all we have is each other.
Once denigrated as “CNN operas” (for having the temerity to engage with up-to-the-minute events of global significance), John Adams’ work has more and more come to feel like an indelible part of the American story as it reconciles with the legacy of the 20th century and defines itself in the 21st. His latest opera, Girls of the Golden West, about Gold Rush-era California, feels like a very necessary arrival for the Age of Trump, but also one that will come to look increasingly powerful as America leaves behind this buffoonish, misconceived presidency and advances toward its future.
Peter Sellars’ libretto is hewn from personal writings, newspapers, speeches, and miners’ songs of the time. As one watches the newly-arrived European Americans confront the Native Americans who have long called this territory home—along with Chinese, Africans, and Mexicans and other Latinos who have helped define this upstart civilization—one begins to appreciate how throughout modernity the riches inherent in this patch of land (the most fecund of anywhere on Earth, as one miners’ song boasts) has drawn together people who frequently cannot live together. What this riddle means for California, and what it means for America overall, in a time of migrations, resurgent racism and sexism, austerity economics, and a reconstituted aristocracy, is something we all must reckon with. Girls’ often beautiful found texts offer many motifs and heuristics to help think through these ongoing questions, and of course the music adds another dimension to this quandary that I, as well as many others, have been pondering very much this year.
Gary M. Kramer
This year I discovered the gay South African actor, singer, and author Nakhane Touré (though he has since dropped Touré). I was mesmerized by his screen debut in The Wound, John Trengove’s devastating film about gay desire and toxic masculinity among Xhosa caregivers and initiates. Nakhane intrigued me with his air of mystery; he gave a phenomenal and largely internalized performance. I couldn’t shake it or the film. When I learned Nakhane was an accomplished singer, I found and fell in love with his music—songs like “Christopher,” and the video, “The Fog.” I then arranged to interview him, and he recounted his fascinating life story. As we discussed his strong work ethic, his passions, and conflicts, I became even more enthused. In September, Nakhane released a single, “Clairvoyant,” from his forthcoming album. I cannot get the song out of my head. I repeatedly heard Nakhane’s voice in 2017. It was strong, infectious, and inspiring.
I throw flowers, herbs, and adjectives at Un Blonde’s album from this fall, Good Will Come to You. Montreal’s Jean-Sebastien Audet is as bashless as the ballerinas I’ve seen clubbing after their work is over. His music has that after-hours, or out-of-hours, vibe. I saw him perform the first time this year in a small, old church in Guelph, Ontario. He held a strange service, starting at the piano with his back to us, improvising a hymn that was hushed and joyfully uncertain. Then he picked up his guitar and somehow looked us all in the eyes. My best friend cried out, “How is he looking us all in the eyes!” His songs have the patient funk of D’Angelo’s Voodoo and the Tupelo sweetness of Bonnie Prince Billy. Think to bring flowers if you go see him live. You might want to put something down, to give something to him, because he’s giving a lot.
Piano Nights (Ipecac Recordings), the album by German “doom-jazz” ensemble Bohren & Der Club of Gore opens with a song “Im Rauch” (which I constantly misread as “I’m Raunch”) that immediately puts the breaks on distracting clickbait and puts me behind the wheel on a soundstage in front of a green screen. Headlights and storefronts passing me by–thinking what is to be to killed, what is to be loved, and how to fix all the wrongs.
I also need to mention the re-issue of Toronto trio Syrinx’s album Tumblers from the Vault (RVNG Intl). Seventies Canadian electronica, kind and weird. Yes, please, half-in-the-bag collaging.
Speaking of Toronto: judging from the single “Mad as Hell” and their recent mind-blowing live show in October, I’m confident Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls album In a Poem Unlimited will help bring lo-fi garage disco justice to midterm 2018.
Finally, in a taxman’s waiting room for 2.5 hours, Dan Hoy’s collection of lyrical scree The Deathbed Editions (Octopus Books) brought Zen and set me free. Galaxy. Money. Blood. Celebrity. Viva Dan Hoy.
From Gregorian Chant in Time Square to Gamelan Music written by a Viking in Poland to Senegalese Mbalax in Prospect Park, one thing that this year did not lack was the now-ness that only live music can bring. In 2017 we find ourselves at an intersection of cross-cultural in-between-ness that I think live music might reflect best. In honor of all the artists who light that junction and who took me there this year, I’ve put together a list of my favorite performances of 2017.
The songs on Egyptian singer and composer Nadah El Shazly’s debut album Ahwar (“marshlands” in Arabic) were written over two years, as she made subtle changes after continually trying versions of them out at various shows in Cairo. Recording the album involved collaborating with musicians in Montreal, who mix the sounds of ouds, tablas, and kalimbas with textures often found in Western improvised music—like bowed bass, harp, saxophone, clarinet, electronics, organ, slide guitar, and a choir. Sometimes El Shazly will allow her voice to cohere with the stew of noise around her and the song will explode with energy. Other times, she’ll play against the instruments to strike a tone of tense irresolution and longing. But as the songs change course, break down, and turn into something else entirely, they never lose a sense of ease in their movement from one idea to the next, which I think must come from the slow, natural way they were written in the first place. “Talk to me, annihilate words and images,” she sings in Arabic on “Barzakh (Limen), “Erupt with the force of the ecstatic / Unsatisfy me and let me extend indefinitely…”
And my other favorite: Neil Young’s entire archives—including albums, videos, photos, unreleased songs, and more—which are available for free at neilyoungarchives.com. Kicking off the experience is a YouTube screenshare-style tutorial video of Neil himself guiding you through his own discography, which has been arranged as both a timeline and a kind of rusty-brown digital file cabinet. Watching Neil’s pointer click through the scanned files of the sleeve art of Decade and hearing him remark that “it shows you what we did when we had enough room to have art” is astonishing on too many levels for me to even to begin to comprehend. And then you can make your own through it, listening to “Barstool Blues” and “Mr. Soul” at sound quality approaching the original analog masters themselves. Wow.
This year seemed bound by a stark deficit of perspective; a perpetual chaos of now so loud it drowned out even our most prescient political and artistic voices. I was lucky, though, to encounter an artful effort of perspective that (occasionally) centered me during this utter assault of a year. Omega Virus/ΩV, the sophomore album from Air Credits, a speculative hip-hop project from The Hood Internet crew and nostalgia lyricist ShowYouSuck that imagines a very late capitalistic Earth in which Trump-led government forces have commodified the air we breathe. Drenched in eighties-era synth loops and campy, Night of the Comet-esque lyrical fatalism, Omega Virus/ΩV tells melancholy (yet still fun?) stories of living slowly on a post-Internet planet, or falling in love with someone while trapped with them in a fallout shelter. Every track proved a helpful reminder throughout 2017 that yes, the world is definitely melting, but there will still be moments of humor, boredom, and surprising grace, even after it cools.
“Europe Is Lost,” from Kate Tempest’s album Let Them Eat Chaos (Lex Records), is an urgent seam ripper to our increasingly bleak social fabric. The song has been around since 2015 but the fan-produced video—black-and-white, composed of hundreds of clips that match Tempest’s anxiety-whipped tempo—debuted eleven days after the Trump inauguration. The near stream-of-consciousness verses eviscerate late capitalism and anyone not paying attention to the institutional rot around us.
When Tempest says that “we have learned nothing from history” and that “the wrongs of our past have resurfaced,” she could be talking about my town. In July I stood amongst hundreds of neighbors and shouted down hooded Klansmen who came to Charlottesville, Virginia to worship the statue of Robert E. Lee, a man who fought to preserve white supremacy. In August Neo-Nazis and racists invaded, wielding torches, carrying banners emblazoned with swastikas and Confederate flags, and chanting about destroying Jews. Armed militiamen marched to protect them while the police, out-gunned and apparently neutered by orders from the top, only watched. After a man drove his car into a crowd and killed a counter-protestor, our president didn’t so much dog-whistle sympathy to the fascists as he bullhorned acceptance.
Tempest says that rather than face down any of our current or past sins, we collectively dose ourselves on pharmaceuticals and alcohol, pacify ourselves with rote consumerism, embrace nationalism, and blame our problems on immigrants. And what about the imminent disaster of climate change? Tempest shushes the thought: “Shh, no one likes a party-pooping spoilsport.” How do I explain what it felt like to live in one of the epicenters of an evaporating America in 2017? “Europe Is Lost” is the closest artistic approximation of that dread and horror and fear and exhaustion and outrage. And everything Tempest sings about is why I believe 2018 will deliver something even worse. Like the narrator of the song, “I can’t see an ending at all/Only the end.”
None of these items in my list are from this last year, however, these are some of the things that I have either discovered or helped me along during 2017, which has been uncertain, painful, and at times downright weird.
First we have Catherine Christer Hennix’s Blues Alif Lam Mim In The Modes Of Rag Infinity/ Rag Cosmosis (Important Records). A nearly 90-minute piece, recorded live at Issue Project Room, it is dense and transcendental. I believe the instrumentation is male and female vocals, tambura, and cornet along with some unidentifiable sounds. It never gets stale or repetitive and continues to expand and contract until you are gently let off on the other side.
Next I have Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintage). This is as complete a history that exists of Pre-Colombian civilization in the Americas. Did you know there were no lawn grasses, that pigs from Spain are likely to have caused the first wave of disease, or that Pocahontas’ real name was Mataoka? It is truly a shocking compilation of information.
Lastly, I had the opportunity this last year and a half to live within walking distance of the Pocahontas Island Black History Museum in Petersburg, VA, run by Richard Stewart, an 11th-generation resident of the island. Pocahontas Island is considered one of the earliest free African-American communities in the United States (1752), and Mr. Stewart has dedicated his life to the education and understanding of the enslaved experience in this area and beyond. The collection includes priceless artifacts, books, and artworks, including Mr. Stewart’s own poetry, which is scattered throughout the house. I would like to encourage anyone passing through the Richmond area to stop and visit this deeply spiritual place and take a tour into this part of our shared American experience. All my love to you and yours and see ya in ‘18!
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.