Useful Noise #5
On Communists, cemeteries, motherless children, and other non-fungible tokens of the past
Well whaddya know—snuck another one of these in before the end of March. I have a few longer essays still percolating, but I wanted to get these collected thoughts off before they feel even more dated.
GO SLOW NO
Go Slow No is a survey of new, new-to-me, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty simple: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and NO means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.
I’m no expert on Shepp or Moran: The former’s discography is too vast for me to get my ears around, the latter’s often too abstract for me to get my head around. But this is as emotionally and melodically direct as anyone could ask—I might even point somebody who says they “just don’t get jazz” in this direction. The 83-year-old Shepp is so eager to reach a wider Black audience he feels he hasn’t always addressed that he even released a single edit of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” And the full version that leads off this 94-minute collection (culled from a pair of European festival dates) is just as accessible: Shepp pares the tune down to its core ache, his tone both recalling Coltrane and mourning him, Moran risks obvious drama, his piano stately without being stiff, and Shepp caps it off with a vocal coda in his capable baritone. My only reservation about this collection of familiar spirituals and standards (including a “Lush Life” and “Round Midnight” you could make out to) is that it’s a bit on the reserved side. Which is why you should seek out the bonus cuts, which include a couple of Fats Waller jams that Moran deconstructed on his 2014 tribute, now left joyfully intact.
If Thrashing Thru the Passion was a (fine but) garden variety “return to form,” this is something less common: one of those moments in a mature band’s career where nothing much changes but everything just clicks. Franz Nicolay is again back in the fold but more importantly in the groove, his sprawling keys not just providing romantic ornament but freeing up Tad Kubler’s guitar. And while Craig Finn barks way more vivid phrases here than “The doctor says he only wants to help me make more healthy decisions” and “When someone hits the switch in the kitchen all the insects just scatter,” I’m drawn as much to the way the precise scansion of his more prosaic sentences makes the mundane memorable as I am to his seedier details. Though choruses eventually swell, the band doesn’t beeline toward the easy anthem these days, which is fitting since Finn’s folks aren’t hoping for salvation here, just second acts. As characters retreat to unglamorous but not necessarily unfulfilling lives in Missouri and Pennsylvania hometowns, their stories avoid both tragedy and happy endings because they’re still ongoing.
You gotta admire an MC whose given initials spell out “rap” but who restrained himself from choosing the obvious handle till nearly a decade into his career. Under his production alias Scallops Hotel, F.K.A. Milo swirls vibraphones and harps and trebly piano trills over trippy sympatico syncopation that doesn’t quite frame his rhymes as well as the assorted producers on last year’s more sharply shaped Purple Moonlight Pages did. But his lyrics still brilliantly shatter rap conventions and reassemble them as abstract mosaics. (Try “I'm the type I'm slave you buy if, uh, you, uh, need a new master/I could wrap the blues backwards and around myself/Tied in the front like a karate belt/And high kick the moon out its socket” from “Diogenes on the Auction Block.”) And if I once mentally tagged his conversational but deliberate ba-da-BA meter as “chill slam poet,” his roots lay deeper, and here he comes clean as something of a reconstituted Beat. In selecting his preferred forebears—his titular dad is Bob Kaufman, whose poems lend titles to the opening and closing tracks here, and both Amiri Baraka and Ted Joans appear as guest speakers—Ferreira counters the whitewashed cartoon of the movement that has become pop history’s conventional wisdom. Sorry if I’m making this playful album sound more didactic than it is. But you know what rap’s greatest didact says: You must learn.
Not the classic that this St. Paul rapper might have released in—what, one year? two? five?—just a seven-song teaser of what she could already do before she popped the wrong pill on New Year’s Eve 2019 and died, just 21. Even at EP length, Lexii’s dogged delivery could use some variation (you can tell the struggle without always showing it), but her lyrics reward the extra concentration: “Anthony” displays her storytelling chops as she dissects the intricacies of mixed romantic signals that often get glossed over as “drama.” When she sings choruses on “Hoodie SZN” and “All These” or rhymes over a Hall & Oates sample on “Down For Me,” you can hear her trying on different hook styles, figuring out what flatters her most. Now we can only guess. Fuck fentanyl.
Not fabulously talented nasty fraternal troupe’s noticeably familiar tunes and never flagging testosterone now foisted toward naive fans tricked out as novel financial trinkets? Nice fucking try.
This running playlist of the year’s best songs, along with a few sentences that try to get at what makes ’em work, is called The Uselist, because it has to be called something, and if you can’t go high, go as low as you can.
“Spot the influence” is a tedious game. Any dope can develop good taste, after all—the songwriting is the hard part. Still, humor an old man. The Scottish twee that will never not be cool to love still fills the hearts of this Indonesian (Indie-nesian?) trio, but do I also hear the first notable band to draw from R.E.M. in years? It’s there in the jangly verses, the pop of the drum fills, and (spoiler alert) that triumphant key change when the chorus comes around. Granted the emergent guitar hook and freaky outro are more Peter Visser. Peter Visser, I said. You remember, from Bettie Serveert? What do they teach you kids in school these days?
Momentarily freed of the constraints of Mirandadom, Lambert just gets to sing, displaying both a gift and a skill that her stardom can sometimes overshadow, while conveying the intimacy that stripped down sessions promise more often than they deliver.
K-Pop still daunts me, an admission I’m reluctant to make because it usually leads to an even more daunting inundation of recommendations from well-meaning fans. And the pop charts have offered an unreliable introduction to its riches. (Thou art lukewarm Hot Chelle Rae, “Dynamite,” and I shall spew thee out of my mouth.) Maybe someday I’ll listen deeply enough to develop my own taste in this stuff. Till then, I’ll have to settle for those moments when I’m wallopped by a slab of sheer sensation. Like this.
“The meaning’s gone/The days go on and on/And every morning is the same one”—heh, just what you need to hear right now, huh? But you do need to experience once more Ian Parton’s unflagging knack for turning tune and beat upside down, refining every instrument into a form percussion while milking a melody from every rhythmic element. Or, anyway, I do.
Let’s call it: Marisa Dabice has the best voice in rock today. (I know I’m forgetting someone. I know you’ll tell me who.) Plenty of great screamers can dial down the volume for effect, but Dabice has more subtlety than that. She sharpens, flattens, blurs, distorts, never stooping to theater kid enunciation, swerving off into a new timbre just when you hear a hint of some influential forebear. That’s not to slight the music: The harmonizing guitars that mimic the melody instead of soloing deserve their own capsule review. See you when the EP comes out in May.
Named for a song from back when Miley Cyrus was good, 7 Things is a grab bag where I dump uncategorizable thoughts too long for a tweet and too short for an essay. (Though unlike Miley I don’t hate ’em. Well, not all of them.)
Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism
For all its gaps (didn’t the Black Communists return her calls?) and biases (her horrified description of a Nebraska college town is some of the New Yorkiest prose you’ll ever read), Gornick’s 1974 survey of how Communism was lived in the early 20th United States, republished at a political moment that could stand to ground itself in such ancient history, remains astounding. Though each former party member here speaks in an individual voice, a compelling composite portrait emerges from their overlapping experiences. So many Americans filled a deep need for meaning by playing their role within the party; so many Americans suffered a disillusionment that stands out in its severity even in a nation where political growth is essentially defined by disillusion. If you’re not at least a little jealous at their sense of shared purpose, you’re either shockingly less alienated than most of us or hopelessly resigned to individualism.
Night of the Kings
In an Ivory Coast prison that has developed its own complex set of myths and rituals, an ailing inmate-ruler, losing his grip on power, drafts a newly incarcerated young street criminal as his court storyteller, in order to keep his rivals at bay and his cellmate-subjects spellbound on the night of the red moon. City of God as told by Scheherazade, Philippe Lacôte’s sui generis film creates a world so self-contained and claustrophobic that its imagined moments beyond the prison walls feel all the more fantastical.
Van may be the latest aging curmudgeon to slide over the line from principled crank to reactionary jerkoff, but the pure bad faith of this here’s-your-fuckin’-single cracked me up anyway. Contemptuous of his fans, himself, his legacy, the music industry, the recording process, and whatever else ya got, he turns in an entire page of “All work and no play makes Van a dull boy” without once letting the false cheer of his demeanor slip. Chuckle at the preset bass line. Chortle at the wan backing sha-la-las. Sigh with relief that he finished his album before the Seuss news inspired him to record a 12-bar version of If I Ran the Zoo.
Becoming a robe guy
Please don’t re-open the world yet, I’m just now figuring out how to dress for home. With my crappy Target slippers finally reduced to floppy scraps of foam and rubber, I shelled out for some Halfingers, which are so comfortable I stroll around the house just to feel the cushioning. Now I’ve forgone the old flannel I’ve been tossing over my sleep t-shirt for most of the past year in favor of a plaid robe I’ve probably owned for more than 30 years and haven’t worn for 20. It’s like getting dressed, but without having to change your clothes. Recommended. What’s next? Pajamas? Oh no, it’s pajamas, isn’t it?
Painting With John
Slightly more about painting than Fishing with John was about fishing, these 20-minute clips offer 69-year-old John Lurie an excuse to spin offhanded monologues while he completes his watercolors, all without ever leaving the undisclosed Caribbean island he calls home. If you’ve never seen Down by Law or heard the Lounge Lizards—admittedly two very likely “if”s, though you should do something about that—you might wonder who this dramatically browed man is that’s telling you about the time he was snubbed by Gore Vidal at a baggage carousel or did battle with a less-than-dead eel in a bathtub. But I bet you’ll still think he deserves the airtime.
I’m almost pathologically non-goth, so cemeteries aren’t my typical haunt. But as my pal Andy and I continue to seek outdoor spots for our regular Saturday lunches, we’ve made a grave decision. A few weekends ago, we visited Fort Snelling, which, as military cemeteries will be, is impressive in its geometric regularity and rigorous uniformity. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the variety of memorials at this gorgeous North End St. Paul site, the second stop on our tour. The historical markers are eye-grabbers—ostentatious obelisks for city fathers and sturdy mausoleums with stained glass in various states of disrepair. But far more moving are the black stone Hmong graves, personalized with either embossed portraits or engraved images of the deceased.
Justin Bieber, Justice
Over at Rolling Stone, I dismissed Bieber’s Hailey-loving, MLK-jacking attempt to belatedly develop a personality without being as mean as I could (should?) have been.