Robbie Fulks and more
Since music precedes language, and offers an ecstatic liberation from it, using words to pin down your musical pleasures is probably foolish: a wrong-way operation. However, here we go. Though I admittedly have an innate liking for country and a helpless boredom with most of what they call “classical”, I find that, beyond that accident of genetics, I can’t account for what appeals to me or doesn’t on the basis of genre. It no doubt has something to do with the music-saturated, click-and-consume era in which we find ourselves and being an old guy, but I often summarily reject music on the basis of an irked impression that it’s too in my face, too overtly likeable and available, selling itself to me too savvily. The surface might be an earnest person with disheveled hair singing about important personal matters, but surrounding him/her is a quantized, digitally buffed groove, behind which is the no-nonsense team of workmen that created it. And somewhere behind that is some silver-tongued, obscenely paid marketer, cooing, “Yeah, I know all about you and what your kind wants,” like an aphrodisiacally cocky prostitute. I like to go to Starbucks, but to hell with that.
Many casual music fans are content to graze on a monoculture like death metal or Dixieland without worrying about what lies beyond the fence. Then there are some stargazing eccentrics, many of them professional musicians burned out on the mainstream, who press for ever-farther-out voyages. I like a piece of music that partakes both of you are here and where are we? Something that offers a flavorful sense of place and time and school—as definite, say, as “in a club in Philadelphia in 1962 with black horn players in fancy dress,” or as general as “punk”—but also muddies the mental picture with the human factor, or something that’s just off. I like the feeling that there’s a personality behind the music that couldn’t contain its less sociable and smoothed over aspects, as though someone strove sincerely for flawlessness but fell a little short.
I see the name of this site is PopMatters. And I see that in the short list I’ve put together below is the implicit theme, “pop doesn’t matter”, which to me it really doesn’t. Pop’s short for popular, which is short for a lot of things, such as the Roy Rogers restaurant and True Religion jeans and Vince Vaughn and some person named Khloe, all of which are non-mattering in an almost aggressive way. I try to keep my ears open to current things, but there’s 120-odd years of recorded music out there and only so many hours, and I do love the freedom of swimming all around. I’m listing four records below from 2013 that I liked very much and played lots. But to put it in perspective—that’s four out of a total of about 14 that I heard.
Noam Pikelny: Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe: One reason the young gods of post-newgrass don’t sound like the old lions when they play bluegrass is that their hands have spent substantially more hours flexing on the fretboards of expensively well-luthiered and exquisitely set-up instruments, and far fewer tossing oil barrels around and banging on sheetrock. Musicians have it a little easier these days! To some extent you can sound like the denizens of different times by imitating their recorded performances, but zealous mimicry tends to cast a suspect light on your intentions and bona fides. Noam is one of those happy moderns who has played since a tyke, practices 10 hours a day, and has never, to my knowledge, labored outside of music. Dozens of non-bluegrass threads are in his skein; no one would mistake his playing for J.D. Crowe’s. Yet his bluegrass sounds spectacular and deeply felt. Some guys who play this fast and clean sound bored doing it, but when he’s executing a backwards chord rake, mixing up note values in phrases of wild grammatical complexity, or going ridiculously high up the neck, Noam’s plays with a momentum, a quiet but certain kind of lust that’s fundamental to all kinds of music, so that higher-brain math doesn’t rule the day. He seems to register an appropriate excitedness with his own daring. Besides timefeel, there’s purity of intent. The main way that comes through in this genre, as well as in jazz, is does the player communicate a love of melody and composition, along with—and preferably well over—a love of hearing himself goof around? The basis of these fiddle-tune renditions is Noam’s diligent transcriptions of Baker’s original heads, which are models of melodic clarity and subtle surprise. The result is that perennials like “Monroe’s Hornpipe” and “Wheel Hoss” sound, between the stripping away of later generations’ normalizations and the imposition of some banjoistic language, fascinatingly off-kilter and wholly fresh. The woody, small-room group sound and the conscientious, light-touch mix by Dave Sinko allow you to listen around the room where you like; you can burrow into the soloist or switch focus to any other player. The casting is irreproachable: Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Stuart Duncan fiddle, Bryan Sutton guitar, Mike Bub bass. “Big Sandy River” has been recorded many times but never better—and Sutton’s solo, by the way, is as brilliant a solo as has been played by any instrument, on any recording.
Justin Roberts, Recess: This is a great thick slice of power pop, as in polished short songs with in-a-hurry-to-get-there vocal melodies and equally catchy signature riffs, creative layouts of simple major-minor chord palettes, zippy group syncopations, boyish tenor singing, and good humor. The dense, smartly compressed sound expertly rocks/romances your ear—it’s hard to believe Liam Davis did a lot of the mixing at his house, rather than Mutt Lange at his gated compound. Oh, and it’s “kids’ music”; and, as is often said but seldom truthfully, it appeals to all ages. Justin’s great strength is never to write or perform as if to a lesser subgroup of our species, and I find his songs about riding on elevators and spaceships, being bored in classrooms, and dogs (sung from one’s point of view), at least as galvanizing as songs about ladies in tight skirts and towns where you left your heart. They Might Be Giants’ record No! seems to have broken the ground for music like this—hard-pulsing childhood-themed pop that replaces sappy moralizing with smart irony and sensitive observation. With every record he makes, my friend Justin—okay, Noam’s my friend too; how do you think I came by all these 2013 records?—somehow refines and advances on the writing and aural image of his last.
Cécile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild: This approach to jazz, with immaculate (and immaculately recorded) prodigy playing, showing a deep love for “tradition” (from ancient Africa to at least 1950 America)—the kind of jazz you can easily imagine programmed at lavishly funded cultural institutions patronized by people who don’t dance—is generally a little slick for my tastes. But when music is done this full-heartedly and heroically, words like “for my tastes” shrivel away like the response-inhibitors they are. Overlooking Miss Salvant for a moment, take James Chirillo’s solo guitar back-up on “St. Louis Gal”: simple, clear, emotionally transparent, avoiding dense and show-offy substitutions—for the ages! And, somewhat contrariwise, Aaron Diehl’s unbelievable piano solo on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”...I don’t want to shove my ignorance of jazz pianism in the reader’s face, but let’s just say that at a hot and challenging tempo, Mr. Diehl executes daredevil chord climbs, left-hand right-hand role reversals, and teasing syncopations that you don’t need to know diddly about jazz to be floored by. On that eight-minute-plus tune, Cécile takes it home with a nearly comic final flourish that will bust your eyeglasses. On most of the rest of this excellent record, she works the less extreme remainder of her range, growling and purring and little-girling. In a world full of talent but short on fruitful ideas on how to focus and direct it, this is a refreshingly restrained, comprehensively conceived, and many-sided piece of work—and it works as an album. Put it on and let it go. It has a seductive soft beginning, that abovementioned eight-minute fury followed by epilogue, and a fully satisfying middle arc, with a few worthy original songs scattered along the path, showing one more thing she can do.
Bruce Molsky, If It Ain’t Here When I Get Back: Don’t let this new one by an established master get by you simply because it’s a digital self-release. As usual, Bruce pulls little-performed songs from the dark nether-reaches of the folk grotto and lays them out in a variety package, accompanying himself on fiddle, banjo, and guitar. He’s almost the only person I’ve heard of who fiddles while singing, alone. When he does that trick, the intonation of voice and fiddle comes off as a natural package, mutually reinforcing, like we’re in a magic land where no policing is required. It makes the rest of us, who needs frets to play our axes decently and also need the reference point of the fretted instrument to sing plausibly well, look pretty small. Bruce’s playing skills are widely lauded, but I think his singing is less so, so let me laud that. His timbre is rich, in the low-to-middle male range, and his characteristic delivery is easeful, in fact just a crucial bit short of Might Wind folk-boom mind-curdling pleasantness. This is a singing style that rests on the ear like honey on the tongue, and, because it doesn’t at all overplay the drama and pathos of some of the lyrics—concerning lonely cowboys, doomed ship passengers in 19th century Australia, and sex-fueled violence—you are afforded a clear window into the soul of these tunes, and can provide an emotion of your own, ungoaded.
Here are the other records I loved and listened to over and over in 2013, none of them released in 2013: Still Runnin’ Round in the Wilderness by Matt Munisteri; At the 5 Spot by Eric Dolphy; Norman Blake and Red Rector by same; Ram by Paul McCartney, Judee Sill by the one and only; Hillbilly Boogie Best by the Delmore Brothers; Almost to Tulsa by the Texas Troubadours; Chiaroscuro by Anat Cohen; Big Sur by Bill Frisell; We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.
In August 2013, Robbie Fulks released the album Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot), which placed #4 on PopMatters’ list of the best country albums of 2013.
● Jai Paul, leaked demos
● FKA Twigs, “Papi Pacify” video
● Sevyn Streeter, “It Won’t Stop”
● Wet, Wet EP
● Mø, “Maiden”
● Sohn, “Bloodflows”
● James Blake, Overgrown
● Wale (feat. Tiara Thomas), “Bad”
● Empress Of, “Don’t Tell Me”
● Basecamp, “Emmanuel”
● Ciara, “Body Party”
D.C.-based indie synthpop duo GEMS recently released an EP, Medusa, via Never Age.