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Music

Coming Soon: Tori Amos, A Collection of Collections

Megan Milks
Tori Amos [Photo: Cindy Palmano]

Tori Amos is a fascinating person and she will always be, among other things, the classically trained pianist who rebelled against her preacher father; sought inspiration from witch doctors and their drugs; made zany, unmediated statements in interviews; and proved that pianos are as liberating as guitars.

I.

In the past three and a half years, Tori Amos has released the following material:

A greatest-hits collection marketed as a "sonic autobiography" (Tales of a Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection, with a bonus DVD, 2003).

A concert-length DVD of live songs (Welcome to Sunny Florida, with a bonus CD of new B-sides, 2004).

A new album (The Beekeeper, 2005).

An autobiography (Piece by Piece, written with Ann Powers, 2005).

A 45-track anthology available on iTunes (iTunes Essentials, 2005).

Six two-disc sets of official bootlegs eventually packaged as a 12-disc set (The Original Bootlegs, 2005).

A two-DVD collection of videos (Fade to Red: The Video Collection, 2006).

Now she has released A Piano: The Collection, a five-CD, 86-track box set that is packaged as a facsimile piano keyboard and includes a 60-page booklet of press photos and liner notes. Note: This is only the second in a string of reissues and compilations Amos is contracted to release with Rhino, an imprint of Warner Bros.

And so the Tori Amos branding and marketing machine marches on. What's next? Tori Amos: The Interviews. Tori Amos: The Photos. Tori Amos: The New Mythology, Bible, and Kama Sutra as Written by Tori Amos. Tori Amos: A Key to the Gardens: The Ultimate Video, Bootleg, Photo, Interview, and Song Catalog of Everything Tori Amos Has Ever Said, Sang, or Done, Ever; or more like Tori Amos: The Original I-Don't-Have-Anything-Left-to-Say-So-I'll-Just-Reissue-My-Past Official Collection.

For an artist so disdainful of the music industry -- the attendant commentary here is fixated on reminding us how radically she defied the industry and its dismissal of the girl-with-piano shtick throughout her career -- Amos clearly sees no contradiction in indicting the industry's tunnel vision while promoting and collecting herself ad nauseum beyond industry norms for any artist of any caliber, excepting maybe the Beatles. This sudden, near-pathological interest in documenting and re-releasing her work seems less a celebration of Amos' substantial contributions to contemporary pop music, and they are substantial, than a combination of the halt to which Amos' career has come and her label's fear of losing control of her prodigious output in the face of increasingly uncontrollable digital distribution.

A Piano acts as an anthology of Amos' career, which spans 15 years, now, and exhibits astonishing range. The five-disc set collects a handful of tracks, some subtly remixed, from nearly all of her releases, and includes a healthy number of B-sides and several previously unreleased songs. I would like to treat A Piano's 86-track anthology as a well-timed and significant retrospective of her musical achievements over the past decade and a half, as those achievements are formidable. But as a former Toriphile who once called herself an Ears With Feet and who spent boundless time and energy chatting with other EWFs online to set up bootleg trades and pre-Meet-and-Greet meet-and-greets, I can't help feeling a teensy bit had. My artist, my hero, has gone transparently self-indulgent (five collections of material in three years, and more to come?) while commodifying my desire into a facsmile piano with fake plastic keys.

I hate to be a cynic; maybe her aim is true and she simply wants to provide her listeners with a nice solid collection of her work. And yet, the anxiety I felt at the news that Tori was releasing a perhaps premature, perhaps gratuitous box set, echoed the intense repulsion felt when I saw Amos in concert a year and a half ago. She could have played chopsticks and yawned, and the theater would have filled with maniacal shrieks and fervent applause. As it was, comments like "hi guys" and "I'm tired" won loyal approval from fans. Awww! They love her anyway! Isn't she adorable? She can do no wrong! Well, she didn't play any of my favorite songs.

While her cult is not necessarily her fault, such an ingratiating fan base is dangerous. Inevitably, the object of the fanlove will feel she can do anything, anything, anything; no one will question her output. The label doesn't need to and the critics don't matter -- she's already proven that people love her no matter what. Soon the object of the fanlove stops putting pressure on herself; she tries less and less. Her ambition fully realized, she feels just fine releasing previously unreleased trifles like "Ode to My Clothes" and "Intro Jam" as so-cute! extras on her first definitive anthology, the strength of which rests on her earlier work for a reason.

II.

Amos clearly agrees that she has lost much of her oomph in the past few years. She's leaned emphatically towards her first two albums on A Piano, providing Little Earthquakes in its entirety as she originially envisioned it, including the B-sides ("Upside Down", "Flying Dutchman"), as well as almost all of Under the Pink, while keeping the later albums to a stock four or five tracks (The Beekeeper gets just three). Her 1996 magnum opus Boys for Pele is disappointingly underrepresented while To Venus and Back gets more space than it demands; meanwhile, Strange Little Girls, her ambitious if uneven covers album of feminist appropriations of male-penned songs, is strangely absent. A few unreleased songs, a handful of her better B-sides, and a demo medley make up the extras.

While a box set like this is certainly reaching for her fans, I'm guessing that most of her fans are so obsessed that they (like me) already have all this material in one form or another. And the fact that Amos has gone anti-bootleg and anti-piracy seems wrongheaded, considering her fan base became so large and intensely devoted due primarily to the capabilities of the early internet age, through linked web sites, online discussion boards, and trades of pirated material. I guard my copy of Y Kant Tori Read with…a coat of dust, but the point is that Amos' cult of personality would not have existed without the internet and the exchanges it cultivated. In a sense, she doesn't need to subject her catalog to such documentation -- we've already done it for her.

And so it is that A Piano's album reorganizations, with their necessary excisions of certain tracks ("Icicle" and "Talula", for instance) and sometimes uneasy track combinations (the move from the soothing tones of "Hey Jupiter (Dakota Version)" into the screeching alarm calls of the "Professional Widow" dance mix comes to mind) seem a violation to those of us who know these albums intimately. Admittedly, that’s an unfair complaint to level, since any box set has to rearrange and delete. But she left out all her escapades into experimental ragtime boogie, and, well, I miss "In the Springtime of His Voodoo", okay?

From a less indignant perspective, the track progression is illuminating. I wouldn't have put Under the Pink's sprawling, orchestral "Yes, Anastasia" next to Boys for Pele's frighteningly raw "Blood Roses", but the adjacency calls attention to the violent imagery of both songs. Similarly, the move from 2002's easy-listening "Amber Waves" to 1998's swirling primal moan, "Iieee", underlines the theme of beauty as sacrifice that runs through both. While Amos' methodology is not always clear, she has arranged all five discs in ways that ask listeners to attend to the dialogue between songs from one album and songs from another.

It's also wonderful to see forgotten B-sides like "Upside Down" and "Cooling" get their due. Other nice surprises are the resurrections of "Mary", "Here. In My Head", and "Frog on My Toe", all fan favorites from the mid-'90s. The final disc of B-sides includes a three-song demo medley, the best thing A Piano has to offer. The "Playboy Mommy" demo is absolutely stunning, if painful to hear, as it is so clearly an attempt by Amos to work through the loss of her baby. The demo version sounds bruised, wounded, its form not yet clearly defined -- even more emotionally powerful than the final version.

The previously unreleased songs vary in quality, but are for the most part noteworthy only for their inability to stack up against Amos' finished work. Throwaways like "Ode to My Clothes" and "Intro Jam" sound especially insipid pushed close to sweeping beauties like "Gold Dust" and "Marys of the Sea." "Zero Point," as Amos says in her liner notes, was the underdog to Venus's "Datura", and "Datura" won fair and square -- "Zero Point" meanders without a point and needs three minutes lopped off. Of the handful, the soaring, energetic "Dolphin Song" and catchy new-wave "Not David Bowie" have the most promise.

III.

Amos has made herself open and accessible throughout her career. She's discussed some intensely personal experiences in interviews and is known for letting it all hang out in concerts -- pelvic grind, microphone fellatio, and more. While a box set such as this may add legitimacy and a certain canonicity to Amos' career, it adds little new to the mythology that is already so active around her. The information presented in Amos's commentary offers little that hasn't been said in the stacks of articles and websites already written about her, though some of the details given about her experiences, inspirations, and songwriting processes are quite moving. The track commentary is selective and covers just 16 songs, with variable depth.

A box set does, of course, provide music journalists with an opportunity to re-evaluate and recontextualize Amos' oeuvre and influence, whether or not she is due for one.

I'd argue that she is due for (another) one. Her early work especially is worth revisiting. We haven't seen another artist with such singular talent and depth of experience as Amos in quite some time, who has managed to be both mainstream and fringe while saying the things that are hard to hear. Amos has a cult around her for a reason. She is a fascinating person, and her music is an extension of that. She will always be the classically trained pianist who rebelled against her preacher father; who got sex tips from the twinks who frequented her piano bars; who transformed rape into a brutally honest, darkly graceful testimony to survival; who sought inspiration from witch doctors and their drugs; named albums after Hawaiian goddesses; made zany, unmediated statements in interviews; demonstrated (with snakes!) that female spirituality and sexuality are not mutually exclusive; and who proved that pianos are as liberating as guitars.

Have we seen another artist so fearless, so unapologetic, so totally fucking UnCool in the past 15 years? No one compares. In the age of hyperconsumerism, we don't have time to form relationships with our artists. We form relationships with our iPods and playlists, instead. The climate that made the cult around Tori Amos possible may now be obsolete. What we have instead is an endless stream of flashes in the pan and hordes of music aficionados whose tastes are as fickle as they are limitless. It makes sense, then, for Amos to put out a box set now even though so much recent Tori propaganda has preceded it. Her career seems to be quieting down; she's not one to make it in this new realm of music consumption. Might as well do the best-ofs, the collections now before packaging is no more.

The covers are noticeably absent. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is missed, as is her haunting revision of Eminem's "97 Bonnie and Clyde". Maybe copyright issues were too much to deal with. Or maybe we're in for, next year, Tori Amos: Under the Covers: The Official 3-CD Covers Collection.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

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