Useful Noise #7
trampolines, C-sections, country music, and other summer fun
Some days I feel like I’ve wasted half my life trying to come up with clever intro paragraphs.
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.
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall: The Marfa Tapes (Vanner/RCA Nashville)
Lambert plus two male singer-songwriters doesn’t quite add up to the Pistol Andys—the Annies’ roadshow runs on polish and persona, while this unadorned campfire sing along flaunts its casualness: all live, one mic, no do-overs. Maybe a full studio treatment would’ve benefitted a few tracks (imagine a full band swinging through “Two-Step Down to Texas”) but more likely, these recordings would have languished in the vault as demos, or maybe surfaced on non-Lambert albums, and then only Ingram fans would have ever heard his remarkable “Anchor.” Not only do the flubs and giggles add character, but the comfortably intimate setting may be what makes this the most thoughtfully sung album of Lambert’s hardly careless career—she’s never voiced longing as vulnerably as she does on “In His Arms” or “Waxahachie,” and we’ve never heard her harmonize this sweetly. She still can’t quite make me love the creaky “Tin Man.” But she can make me hear how much she loves it, which is almost as good. GO
Croy and the Boys: Of Course They Do (Spaceflight Records)
Though Corey Baum can write both silly (the Baylor-bashing “Don’t Let Me Die in Waco”) and sharp (“Fuck I.C.E.”), the Ohio-born lefty and his gender-inclusive Texas boys really hit their stride on this EP of six (mostly punk and hardcore) covers. They add the Tejano accordion to “Ready to Fight” that Negative Approach never knew they needed and decelerate the Crass’s “Do They Owe Us a Living?” to a loafer’s tempo that accentuates its certainty. (See the album title for the obvious answer.) There’s also Fugazi on gentrification (“Development wants what development gets”), Billy Bragg on the relationship between war and labor (“They bought prosperity/Down at the armory”), and two homegrown songs about how the police suck from fellow Austinites Blaze Foley and the Dicks. Not only do punk truisms sound fresher drawled than barked, but the fuller melodies and more supple rhythms enhance the originals’ politics by projecting greater warmth. Always knew that a Democrat in the White House meant we’d get good protest music again. GO
Eric Church: Heart & Soul (EMI Nashville/BigEC)
Good ol’ boys sure do exaggerate their stamina: This triple album is really an hour-long collection split in two (Heart and Soul) with a 20-minute fan-club-only bonus EP (&). Church’s easy mastery of what we used to call heartland rock is a pleasure—he’s a Bruce Petty Mellencamp whose macho ZZ Top disco cuts the Black Keys’. Lyrics range from unembarrassing to sharp: “Russian Roulette” calls back to Church’s “Springsteen” (“I need a melody without a memory”), “Bad Mother Trucker” literally celebrates a mom with an eighteen-wheeler (“I was raised on jerky/From here to Albuquerque”), and even the song about drunk teens blasting G‘n’R in the ’90s doesn’t lean too hard into fatalist nostalgia. But Church does sometimes sing with more heart than soul, his intensity bulking up into posturing, and though he’s got ‘em there’s a reason he didn’t name an album Brains: He just doesn’t think through his abstractions. (Heart has three songs with that word in its title.) That makes “Stick That in Your Country Song,” which attacks Nashville for ignoring the painful lives of everyday people, a telling misfire. Church sounds more outraged at the industry’s cowardice than he is curious about the untold stories that the song doesn’t bother to sketch past two-line clichés about hard-suffering working folks and (come on, homeboy) scary inner cities. Coulda stuck those stories in your other 23 songs, bro. SLOW
Ashley Monroe: Rosegold (Mountainrose Sparrow/Thirty Tigers)
The horniest Pistol Annie is also the wispiest, so her least country and most pop album spirals out in delicate filaments of gossamer, gathers breeze-wafted dandelion fluff, refracts dawn through the prism of a spider’s web. In other words, it’s not very pop at all, really, sharing more with that strain of backward-gazing indie that strips the commercial rationale from ’70s AM gold to bask in its wan aesthetic. That doesn’t make these songs insubstantial: Monroe just cherishes the pleasures of softness, and moments like the little synth(?) squiggle that echoes the phrase “you are good as gold” are almost ticklishly sensual. It’s telling that the sexiest song here, “Drive,” is the most passive. But while the lightest touches can be the most stimulating in real life, that sensation takes some trickery to duplicate sonically, and it’s not the sort of task you typically accomplish working with six different producers on ten tracks. SLOW
Blake Shelton: Body Language (Warner Bros. Nashville/Ten Point Productions)
A full-time TV celebrity now, this squinty heartthrob-I’m-told makes albums the way country stars sign autographs—with a sense of cheerful, uninvested duty—so reviewing this latest bit of audible merch is about as worthwhile as critiquing his penmanship. Still, since these songs are presumably being listened to (possibly even enjoyed?), well, giddyup, ya’ll. I want to hear Shelton guess the current “Minimum Wage” within 50 cents before he sings about how it’s good enough for him and his baby, “I used to think your sex was the best I ever had/Now I don’t” sounds like the work of Google Translate, and Blake’s so much more aroused on “Corn,” which is literally about corn (“Yeah, it ain't no wonder why you love it/You got your first kiss in a barn full of it”), than on any of the actual love songs that I’ll be kinda disturbed if the 4-H kids perform it at the fair this year. The rest isn’t any better, just less memorable. Don’t quit your night job, bud. NO
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.
Miranda Lambert, “They’ve Closed Down the Honky Tonks”
Yes, more Miranda. With this solo acoustic performance, included in The Marfa Tapes Film, the documentary about the making of the album I reviewed above, she convinces me that “sadder” and “Haggard” rhyme, or at least that they should. This lament may be slightly less timely than it was when she wrote it, but personally, I’m glad she waited till the honky tonks (along with other liquored up gathering holes) began trepidatiously reopening. Woulda been too dang mournful this time last year.
Rosie Tucker, “Habanero”
Like the rest of Tucker’s new album, Sucker Supreme, this standout track relies on that old indie trick of seeming to languidly lay out the chord changes as you go and, well look at that, stumbling across a finished song. The metaphor is simple: Love burns like a hot pepper. The desire is simple: “Wouldn't we be perfect together if we wanted exactly the same thing?” Simplicity is hard.
K.Flay feat. Tom Morello, “TGIF”
Flay’s one of those glossy horror-pop bad gals whose appeal is her inauthenticity. She’s firehosed 2021 with a stream of singles, but this command to raise “middle fingers up till the reaper shows up” bangs the best. Amid the crossfader twiddles and clanging beats, Morello acts the good sport, contributing the sound effects that make the gag work. Your work here is finished, Loverboy.
Shelley FKA DRAM, “Remedies”
Silly was a given when this good-natured rapper fka’d himself to turn singer, lovely was not, and that little twinge in my chest whenever the word “memories” floats up from the chorus? Certainly not. The remedy he has in mind is an Eternal Sunshine pill to erase the history of a relationship and start all over. And “if it don't work then pop two.”
John Mayer, “Last Train Home”
I know you don’t want him to be good, and I know I want him to be good because you don’t want him to be good. But c’mon, no one makes facile throwback studio-rock as compelling as this clean cut sleaze. Those synth slabs, that booming snare, that beer-commercial Clapton solo—this soundtracks an imaginary Kevin Costner flick with a precision that should make the War on Drugs wave a white flag, and we’re all just lucky this pernicious craftsman will never become an evil genius.
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.)
Huge Kid Caesarean Birth in Hospital
What child doesn’t dream of performing a C-section? This free download on Amazon allows your kids to see if they’ve got the scalpel skills to extract a ridiculously oversized baby from the glamorous Princess Barbara. (As the product description puts it: “Take a look at this baby! The baby is too big! He is a real giant! Barbara gave birth to a giant baby!”) This tweet thread alerted me to the existence of Huge Kid; some adults were less amused that their tots stumbled across it. All I know is, kids’ games sure have come a long way since Operation.
Lil Nas X
An inevitability no one could have predicted, the public incarnation of everything liberating and confounding about online life, Lil Nas puts the “x” in “flux,” linking gender fluidity with the unreliable narration of a benign troll to suggest the possibility of perpetual, playful self-recreation. The video for “Montero” grinds its unperturbed booty against evangelical threats of damnation; his accidental (hmm) pants split on SNL is the Madonna VMA upskirt moment every generation deserves. Musically, he’s everything at once too, at home in a post-genre pop that couldn’t exist without R&B and hip-hop but can’t be easily ID’d as either. Still, this here stodgy white cis hetro buzzkill (and yet rabid “Old Town Road” fan) does wish his songs were... well, catchier. I know, he doesn’t need them to be to continue being all the whos he are. But their pleasures feel hedged where no other aspect of his performance does.
Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution
Denning’s The Cultural Front is an essential, enjoyable brick of a masterwork, exhaustively documenting and judiciously reconsidering a historically slighted collective political art project. Though much shorter, Noise Uprising makes even bolder claims. Like many ambitious theses, this one can be put simply: The birth of the international recording industry provided the cultural language that helped make postcolonialism possible. No matter how persuasive you find Denning’s conclusions, his description of how port cities developed along similar lines and record-makers fashioned of a new form of music (neither traditional nor approved by the bourgeois locals) will boost your understanding of how art can challenge capital even while enriching it. That good ol’ dialectic at work.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Charles Grodin’s Lenny is a sociopath who wants what he wants and whose achievement brings no one (including himself) any satisfaction—the plucky American go-getter stripped of his ideological cover. With this deadpan skewering of the romantic comedy, Elaine May called the entire genre’s conceptual bluff and should have smothered the Me Decade in its crib. (The streaming rights are in limbo, so you’ll be lucky to catch it on YouTube while you can.) But we have a tradition here in Minnesota of nitpicking whenever The Coasts deign to depict us, so let’s take a look at the Corcoran family. First off, surname’s way more St. Paul than Minneapolis. Also, our shiksas are Scandis not all-American Cybill Shepherds. And though a bona fide local boy (Central High ’26, U of M business major), Eddie Albert plays a mighty direct negotiator for these parts. (If only the Coens instead of the Farrellys had remade it—could be fun to watch Lenny plow straight into the impenetrable wall of jello that is upper-midwestern passive-aggressiveness.) Still, as my buddy Andy Sturdevant pointed out, what could be a more Minnesotan mating ritual than “let’s take off all our clothes and stand as close as we can without touching”?
Olivia Roderigo and the olds
I’ll review the full album soon, but first: Why are you all being so weird about this? Teens have been making pop music forever, adults have been empathizing with their heartbreak and elation almost as long. So why has this (I thought) historically settled question suddenly become so fraught for Echo Boomers? A hypothesis: The first generation to be micro-marketed to from the cradle finds it, what’s that word, problematic, when they or their contemporaries enjoy something not explicitly targeted toward them. Grow up, all of you.
My Brilliant Friend
Though I’m as desensitized as any middle-aged American ghoul, the first season of the Saverio Costanzo adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels was almost too much for me. It’s not just the sudden bursts of upstairs-neighbors-hear-you-gasp violence, the pervasive air of brutish machismo, or the casual verbal abuse. It’s the contrast with the moments of happiness and possibility that highlights the potential thwarted and decisions misshapen, all registered in the emotionally transparent performances of the young actors playing Lenu (Elisa del Genio, later Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Ludovica Nasti, later Gaia Girace).
The kids on the trampoline across the alley
I see the four of them through my kitchen window, poinging like pistons, all together and in smaller groups, or just one enjoying a solo bounce. The boy carries a stick he waves like a sword or a wand when he’s alone in a way that drops me right back into my 10-year-old imagination. The oldest girl is the daredevil, flipping fearlessly. The youngest girl sometimes carries a stuffed animal, and imitates the others. Watching them fly is as good for my mood as Lexapro. Well, as good as Wellbutrin, at least.