Monday, April 20, 2020

2019 Music

Last year, I kept a list of every 2019 record I heard. Originally, the idea for this was so I would have a better idea of what new music I liked, so that I could recommend things to people who came into the record store I worked at. I kept the list going after I quit the job. Now, having kept a fairly exhaustive record of my reactions to things -- I gave records a little numeric notation, a scale of 1 to 4, that I ended up marking with the occasional plus sign or point-five -- I feel the only way to put this note-taking exercise behind me is for me to boil it down into an actual list. I will begin with my favorite records, and work my way down, until I get to a place where I no longer am interested enough in the records or the talking about them to continue. Or at least this was my idea, back when I began drafting this post, at the end of 2019. Now I think I will mostly just run the list I made down, with as little notation as possible, for the sake of throwing out a scrap of paper I scribbled it down on. I include links to Bandcamp where available. I might come back and revise these blurbs if bursts of insight come to me. Writing about music sort of feels useless generally, or at least not as interesting to me as writing about comics or books. However, this is a list that varies significantly in genre, so I do want to give a general idea of what is happening on a record, but just attributing things to a reductive genre is offensive to me. I can't say I'll do my best, but I will at least do something.

1. Purple Mountains - Purple Mountains

When I first heard word of David Berman's suicide, I actually grinned. I had listened to this Purple Mountains record a good deal before that point, as I was in a pretty miserable place in my life. I was moving out of Baltimore under duress, feeling like a hostage in my own home, trapped in all of the circumstances of my life. I would listen to these songs first thing in the morning, last thing at night. I would sing these refrains to myself. These songs were a companion to me in dark days, and thought my darkest thoughts for me while I struggled to come up with alternatives. All I could come up with was to keep on living and wait for things to change.

Despite the large shadow Berman's suicide casts over this record, I very much do not wish for him to be consigned to the realm of art for those who romanticize despair. His book of poetry, Actual Air, and the earlier Silver Jews records, were hugely influential on my writing and worldview, because they're able to capture this sort of deadpan mystic perspective that is moving and beautiful while never seeming to chase after the obvious sources of those effects. That the Purple Mountains record boils things down to this classic country songwriting approach, that's then just saturated in despair, has this weird object lesson quality in the dangers of seeing things too clearly, so that they can be summed up straight-forwardly. After he died I went back to a bunch of his older songs, trying to chase the spirit of life in its prime. Now that he's no longer among the living, he dissolves into this body of work, that's funny and human and observant and makes a hell of a lot of people, myself included, look like bad writers by comparison. I am saying all these words that amount to nothing so that when I stop talking we're reminded of the dignity of a moment of silence.

2. Caroline Polachek - Pang

Months later, I listened to this record all the time. I had spent a lot of time with the Chairlift album "Something" back when it came out-- something about the headlong rush of its melodies felt so joyful and euphoric I really became addicted to it. I know people don't believe in "guilty pleasures"
 anymore, but the way I engaged with that record, at the expense of other music, felt unhealthy. This feels less like that and more graceful, crystalline. I still listened to it plenty. These song structures feel really weird, like there's less in the way of choruses, and the flow of one piece into each other is more like how a poem or short story will follow its own internal logic to get to a revelation. Maybe I think this just because of how "New Normal" ends with stating a variation on its title. Having these songs in my head and playing the record really feels like trying to catch a moth in my hands or something. Listening is like watching video to try to figure out how a magic trick is pulled off.

3. Billy Woods / Kenny Segal - Hiding Places

Dove into this rapper's back catalog after hearing this, and a few of those records are stellar as well. This makes sense as a breakthrough, though, as the production is just amazing. It's so stripped down, but the repetitions never feel like just loops? Instead feeling like the blues being played, but in very precise spaces and atmospheres. Which then is the perfect backdrop for the raps, which are so clearly enunciated, shouted with this perfect precision, articulating a politics of disgust. I would contextualize this stuff as like post-Def Jux "smart rap," which is totally different from the way that like Death Grips or whatever felt initially like a followup to the Def Jux version of "loud rap."

4. 101 Notes On Jazz

In a lot of ways it makes sense, if you're mentioning this one at all, to put it at the top of a list, as a sort of absurdist gesture is the only way to pay tribute to it. A collection of voice memos, recorded in the car, over jazz, where the performer does this sort of NPR/jazz radio voice. This would be my favorite comedy record of the year, and it aligns very nicely with like Joe Pera Talks With You. I love that it's not coming from a "comedy" perspective and feels fresh and unique.

5. Weyes Blood - Titanic Rising

I was never particularly close friends with Natalie Mering, when we both lived in Baltimore. I did like to fantasize, last year when she was going on tour with Father John Misty, that she would get sick of that dude being an insufferable tool and kill him. Since that murder did not occur, I have to concede she is probably much closer in spirit to him than she is to me. Still, credit where it's due, this record rules. I don't know how much of a good idea it even is to chase this sort of seventies MOR vibe but what gets attained here WORKS in this way that feels both lush and gauzy in a way where both aspects contribute to an emotional effect.

6. Dustin Laurenzi - The Music Of Moondog

Jazz versions of Moondog melodies. A no-brainer, but obviously so much of jazz comes down to execution, the execution is strong.

7. Carla Dal Forno - Look Up Sharp

In retrospect, sort of surprised this one placed so high. I liked the song "I'm Conscious" a lot though, and also when I first heard it there seemed to be a sort of impossible amount of space and atmosphere, where I felt like the rhythms were in my own body, and the space created was perfectly attuned to it. In time I came to view it more like normal music but my initial experience was more miraculous, especially since I wasn't as into this person's earlier records nearly as much.

8. Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise

Saw Jaimie Branch rip a set with a totally different band than the Fly Or Die band and it was killer, I don't know why this is the only band on record? But they are a very good band and their first one was pretty widely liked for a jazz record.

9. Matmos - Plastic Anniversary

I think this is the best Matmos record in a while, maybe since The Rose Has Teeth In The Mouth Of The Beast? I haven't listened to it that much however as I never downloaded it because I intended to buy a CD of it but was frequently broke enough other things took priority.

10. Julia Reidy - In Real Life

Previous Reidy releases have been solo acoustic guitar things which I normally find boring but thought she could pull off, this adds synth and vocodered vocals, really makes for a weird thing but in a way that makes the older stuff make sense in terms of being good because this reaches elsewhere. Also Black Truffle records always look amazing, even when, as in this instance, I have no idea what I'm looking at.

11. Lily & Horn Horse/Banny Grove - 4 Partners Road

Lily's from Palberta, though she also has this duo with a dude and a new band that's like Liz Phair style? I liked this stuff a lot, she's very prolific and it's usually at a very high quality. I was listening to cassettes the other day and was saying what's cool about tapes is you can find out you have stuff you forgot about and not have other things you would think you would have. A good format for noise musicians and improvisers, but also very prolific songwriters.

12. Lazy Magnet - Tide

Longtime fan of this genre-hopping project, and I gotta admit that this shoegaze record is probably a bit closer to my ideal preferences than the industrial-ish synth-pop he made that I was also pretty into. "Kicking Over Tables" is my favorite song on here. He also put out a record called Mahogany which is more of a This Mortal Coil/that-era-of-4AD kind of thing that has a song on it called "The Air You Breathe Is" I like a lot.

13. Big Thief - Two Hands

"Not" is the song of the year, listened to it many many times. I do suspect the band's membership to consist of cornballs, and I have also heard their songs at a Whole Foods. But I am a cornball, and I go to Whole Foods to buy pastries and iced tea. I am always going to be suspicious of bands who put out records on Saddle Creek but we're all just people! I can't hold my suspicion that someone probably doesn't like "weird" music against the music they make if it just means they are focused and efficient when it comes to doing what they want to do, which is connecting emotionally with an audience of people who need it.

14. House And Land - Across The Field

Folk duo including the guitarist Sarah Louise, whose solo records I also like a lot. They, like Anna And Elizabeth, make folk music in the sense of performing traditional material, but update it and get mildly avant-garde with choices in arrangement, comfort with drone as a harmonic element.

15. Anadol -  Uzun Havalar

Uses some electronic grooves, nice atmosphere, I don't know, I am very tired and writing these out of order.

16. Park Jiha - Philos

Minimalist acoustic composition, indebted to traditional Korean music, one track includes a spoken-word poem performed in English.

17. Yves Jarvis - The Same But By Different Means

I mostly heard this at work and thought it was good but didn't really go back to it, can't say I know the songs, good D'Angelo inspired atmosphere. After I moved to Philly I mentioned this to a stranger who was explaining the music he made, and it turned out he thought this dude was THE DUDE, like a big inspiration, but just hadn't mentioned it because it's an obscure point of reference when you're just trying to say you make r&b and you can just say it's like Solange.

18. Not Waving/Jim O'Rourke

If I have ever talked to you about music at all I feel like you would know I love Jim O'Rourke, kinda feel like it's impossible to love music and not be into Jim O'Rourke at least as a producer/arranger. I know nothing about Not Waving's music, actually, and should probably investigate.

19. Simulation - Death's Head Speaks

A collaboration between two artists my friend Sara Drake has done work for: Matchess' Whitney Johnson, who Sara provided the art for a 3-cassette boxset for, and Gel Set, who Sara did a music video for. These are songs, I think, but also works of deep texture and transforming shapes. The label Hausu Mountain also put out great work by Moth Cock and Khaki Blazer, but I am basically always fans of those dudes and so it doesn't seem notable.

20. Charli XCX- Charli

Looking at this sheet of paper I wrote this list out on, I originally had this record at the bottom, but that can't be right, and is very dishonest. This slot was occupied by Oren Ambarchi's Simian Angel, but now I feel like I can just easily have this be a list of 25 records and not have that one on there at all! It's easy to underrate or overrate this sort of high-energy pop music intended for dancing based on how much you define your personality by that being the sort of thing you're into.

21. Tomeka Reid Quartet - Old New

Jazz quartet led by a cellist. Feels influenced by Abdul Wadud but like... Wadud doesn't consistently rip in a rhythmic way on records. Like, yes, the first two Julius Hemphill records and the work with Arthur Blythe, but his solo stuff and the work with Anthony Davis & James Newton is in a more chamber-music sense of space and delicacy which isn't what's present in Reid's quartet (though it is more present in other improv contexts). The quartet is a ripper. Mary Halvorson plays guitar in it.

22. Writhing Squares - Out Of The Ether

Missed my chance to see this band live due to their show starting while I was still at work. In that garage-rock/psych vein but the only variation I can fuck with, where the b-side is a single extended jam. There's drum machine, and saxophone, so maybe more a la Suicide or the Stooges' Fun House than a more reductive idea of what's punk.

23. Maurice Louca - Elephantine

This one's great, really feels like an inheritor of that Mingus Black Saint And The Sinner Lady tradition. Feel like that's every rocker's favorite jazz record. Louca's Egyptian, and also plays in the group Dwarves Of East Agouza with Sam Shalabi and Alan Bishop. This is like a big band thing that pulses and gets huge.

24. Caterina Barbieri - Ecstatic Computation
Barbieri makes sort of minimal electronic music, each record I think consists of the sound palette from a single synthesizer, but good! I  don't know. I was hoping to see her play a set in March, then Coronavirus shut everything down. I like to imagine the crowd would've been a wild mix of nerds and people out of their minds on research chemicals.

25. Big Brave - A Gaze Amongst Them

The best metal thing I heard ends up lamentably low on the list but still definitely notable. I don't know, this list sort of skews "accessible" as far as I'm concerned, or my thinking was informed largely by my being in a retail space, and while I can suggest this record to metal listeners, I probably would've been reproached if I were to just put it on in the store. I apologize to music for prizing a sort of background utility over overpowering force in the ordering of this list. Another way of putting it is I'm just not much of a metal guy - I'm more of a huge pussy - but this was my favorite metal record of the year. Female vocals, which I guess is uncommon in metal but does show up with bands I like, like King Woman and Couch Slut.

I could probably keep going and listing records that I liked pretty well but I feel like best-ofs lose their utility at a certain point, and that is probably around five or ten and this list is already useless. I think many of the deeper cuts, the weirder overlooked stuff it's good to mention for the sake of support, you would see if you browsed my collection on Bandcamp. I haven't even listed my favorite reissues/archival releases, which I will do now:

1. Blue Gene Tyranny/ Peter Gordon - Trust In Rock

How much do I love Blue Gene Tyranny's Out Of The Blue? So much. That's an outlier in his catalog, which makes this record, a document of the concert where some of that material was debuted, very exciting. Saw a conversation between reissuing label Unseen Worlds and a guy on Twitter where the guy said the energy was similar to the Langley Schools Music Project, and the label was like "But with chops" and that kinda does sum it up. There really is a lot of feeling here. It's difficult to imagine what it would've been like attending this concert and seeing these pieces performed.

2. June Chikuma - Les Archives

Chikuma's most known for doing video game soundtracks, notably to the Bomberman franchise, which is interesting and I wish there was a way I could listen to those in order as the palette available to her developed: The Bomberman Hero soundtrack, which is influenced by drum and bass, is on Youtube. This is a reissue of her "real" (i.e. non-commissioned) music, dating from the eighties and it's wild, mixing electronic programming with written string parts in transforming movements. I really value how crazy something sounded to me on first listen, and this seemed deeply psychedelic or I wished I could've been high so it could've been more confusing, though I still found it very disorienting.

3. Sachiko Kanenobu - Misora

This, on the other hand, is very soothing. Produced by Haruomi Hosono at the tail end of his Happy End days, a woman singer I guess considered a Japanese Joni Mitchell who moved to the U.S. and was friends with Philip K. Dick. This record's great.

4. Prince - Originals/1999 5-disc Expanded Edition

I love Prince, 1999's one of his better records, the expanded version has a bunch of weird stuff on it. Originals is demo versions of songs that were hits for other people. Neither feel like cash-ins although Originals definitely is.

5. Marvin Gaye - You're The Man

Mix of political material and Christmas songs, I kinda feel like I don't even know how I feel about Marvin Gaye's more popular material? Besides overhearing a conversations at the store where someone was dismissive and I thought they were an idiot. This stuff's really good. Roland Kirk performs songs from What's Going On on his record Blacknuss so that speaks to something.

6. Michael O'Shea

Solo acoustic jams on an invented instrument. Apparently this guy played with Alice Coltrane at some point? Either way spiritual jazz is probably a good touchstone. But also: This record was originally issued by Dome Records, aka Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert from Wire. Which tells you nothing about what it sounds like but does point to the fact that those dudes (and Colin Newman) have had really interesting careers characterized by a sense of exploration.

7. Ryuichi Sakamoto - A Thousand Knives

This might be the only Sakamoto record I like. I definitely consider Haruomi Hosono's solo work "better" than Yellow Magic Orchestra and while Sakamoto's career is also far-reaching enough I do consider it of interest when I see his name credited, it's not necessarily a guarantee I'll find it appealing.

8. Antoinette Konan

Not sure I have the skillset to explain this record in an appealing way. Mixture of eighties electronic pop sounds with traditional African percussion instrument (that I don't really know what it sounds like) and a vocal style. This might make it sound like "world music" in a corny or pejorative sense but that's not really what comes across.

Friday, April 03, 2020

American Failure In The Light Of Covid-19

So I still have no intention of voting for Joe Biden, in case you were wondering. In 2016 I begrudgingly voted for Hillary Clinton, thinking “I should vote, on behalf of the people who can’t,” imagining a population of people in prison or who otherwise would get their vote suppressed, people of color who were worried about the prospect of a Trump presidency. In 2020, it feels impossible to make that argument about Joe Biden: His constituency consists of the most powerful people on Earth, and they have consolidated their power to mobilize with the specific intention of demoralizing everyone else, anyone who’s actively vulnerable. I’m talking about health insurance executives and career politicians, and let me be perfectly clear: Any politician who looked at Joe Biden, who at this point is basically a walking corpse, and went on the record to say “That man should be president” I will probably never vote for, as they’ve shown themselves completely untrustworthy.

As COVID-19 ravages the globe, the horrible response of American political parties gives me far more anxiety than seeing line graphs depicting the death toll’s exponential growth. That’s what makes me realize that things will not get better: When a vaccine is developed, two years from now, and people are allowed to return to work, the economic inequality will be even greater, with corporations larger and harder to avoid. This disaster is not nearly as big of a problem as climate change, but we see similarly a Republican denialism which makes everything worse, and a Democratic response that vacillates between ignoring the scale of the problem because it demands more of them than they’re capable of, and actions which are tantamount to denialism, e.g. Joe Biden’s urging people to go out and vote at in-person primaries, rather than push for voting by mail.

The disease is a real thing, resulting in the loss of life, but is being processed primarily as something that will disrupt and ruin the workings of the economy. I basically understand the economy, except for the notion that it’s important it continues to grow, and that this growth is sustainable indefinitely into the long-term. The reason I don’t understand that second part is because it’s obviously a lie.

I really do not understand the thing that happened last week, where 1.5 trillion was authorized by the Fed to go into the stock market, as it was in free fall, and it only slowed the collapse for like 15 minutes. That’s a colossal amount of money, and it just disappeared. It’s almost like it never existed. But: I don’t understand where it came from? Is that debt now? Can money just be printed, set on fire, and then retroactively ruled counterfeit? The amount of the money itself is on a scale I can’t imagine. Is it safe to say it was imaginary? I need this explained to me by way of a comedian’s metaphor. I am OK with the idea of money being fake. If anything, I think more people need to get on board with that idea. I think mortgages should be frozen, rent suspended, where we essentially just declare the economy on time out for the foreseeable future. This would seem to be way more attainable and understandable than what happened with the stock market.

I live in Philadelphia now. There was a huge controversy about a developer/private equity dude who bought a public hospital last year, closed it, and insisted that, if the city want it, they pay him a million a month in rent. When I was calling up my local elected official, to say the people of Philadelphia need a rent suspension, I pointed out that they could, in fact, agree to the scumbag’s terms and then immediately pass a law saying no one needed to pay rent. The woman I was speaking to, who worked in the office of some city council member, was quick to tell me this was illegal. THEY MAKE THE LAWS, and surely it would be up to the courts, which are closed, to decide how illegal such an act would be. It was basically laughed out of the room, never to be referred to our city council, who I’m assured are very liberal and progressive these days. My logic seems airtight to me, it just runs counter to the ideas of a country that value property rights above all else.

We need a rent suspension. We won’t get it without a mortgage freeze. Surely, the rent suspension thing could happen at a city level. But things keep on getting deferred to a higher authority. The reason a mortgage freeze won’t happen is because the banks need the money. I don’t understand why, as our economy is collapsing, the banks are the highest priority. It’s not like people are requesting loans.

Even the idea that everyone would get a check for $2000 a month, (which I do think would effectively keep the economy afloat far better than giving massive sums of money to large corporations organized into self-dealing industries) would be difficult from a logistic level, far more than just putting a freeze on debt and giving that money to cities to give to grocery stores and farmers to distribute food to everyone. Maybe that seems too much like communism to people, but: There is at least a historical precent to communism, and there isn’t really to “giving the stock market a trillion dollars it immediately destroys.” It’s at least a coherent system.

For my part, I’m poor as hell. I was unemployed when this started, but was weeks away from starting a new job. I don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. I qualified for food stamps. Except for the fact that there’s a Trump era rule that says you can’t be on food stamps for more than 3 months if you’re unemployed. That rule has not changed. So what am I to do? Besides steal food. Which I feel literally no guilt over, in terms of who is getting subsidies, and in terms of who, at the grocery store, is already horribly underpaid because every person they interact with puts them and their families more at risk. My goal is to survive, and to help everyone else survive I can. Shoplifting helps achieve that goal better than anything else, honestly. Our politicians are useless, the notion of a society built around the exchange of money for goods and services is outmoded. Anarchism is basically the only recourse left available to normal people.

Beyond any depression I might have faced in the past, that you would think I would need to confront anew now, there is a sense of morbid curiosity that has stalled it in its tracks. Every time I’ve felt suicidal despair in the past, it’s at how difficult it is just to be alive, to function and make money to keep yourself alive. Now it really feels like the only goal of being alive is to continue being alive, and this makes a lot of sense to me as the way things should be. However, the forces are in every way laid out against you, and even that is fine, basically: There is no reason to commit suicide if you might contract a lethal disease, which will kill you in a way that your loved ones will not feel guilty about. My only goal is to maintain my mental and physical health, and do what I can to reassure and care for those close to me. The government’s goal is to keep the economy going, even at the expense of human life. These two goals are diametrically opposed, but it honestly seems, at least at the moment, like the odds are more in my favor than they are the government’s.

(This feels like a good note to end on. There is another post I will write another day, about how much art seems outdated, not just because of "social distancing" and the plague but due to long-running inabilites to address the rise of fascism and the collapse of neoliberalism, and what literature might still be relevant in this moment, and perhaps another post about acceptance of death on an individual level in the collapse of the collective ritual that allows a community to mourn, but for now I should go to bed. This is a me essentially writing down a chunk of the conversations I've been having with friends, you can reach out to me if you want what will effectively be a preview of these posts, combined with advice to a hopefully ameliorative end. I hope you're doing well; I also hope if you're reading this in the future that I am still alive.)