Reviews

Joe Bonomo's 'Field Recordings' Makes Plain the Poetry Inside of Him

In his lifelong attachments to music, Bonomo holds on loosely and succeeds in never letting go.


Field Recordings from the Inside

Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Length: 240 pages
Author: Joe Bonomo
Price: $16.92
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-02
Amazon

One of the things I quickly discovered while getting an MFA in Poetics is that the work of a poet incurs a certain kind of freedom from accountability. In particular, poets are not obligated to adhere to reality in their presentation of concrete details or to provide warrants for their opinionated claims. I felt I was being let off the hook far too often. In poetry, you can really just say anything and not only will no one challenge your premises, but in fact, people will often ascribe a hefty amount of deliberative intentionality to a poet where really there has only been some drunken scribbling. As a person who delights in historical research, synthesis of ideas, and a strong argumentative turn, eventually my instincts drove me toward prose, then non-fiction and eventually journalism.

For those of us that left the muddy waters of poetry for the delights of smooth sailing afforded by journalism, there will always be a bit of swampy detritus in our veins that we sometimes still have to pour out onto paper. Even after we have lost our line breaks, long past the cheap thrills of supersaturated alliteration or the staccato experimentation of slant rhymes and white space, our peculiar sense of diction and syntax often remains. When one begins to truly grasp how everything is copy, as Nora Ephron famously said, journalism reveals itself as a jealous, insatiable beast that sucks up all available influence, including the lingering sentiments of a writer’s early poetics. Graduate schools responded by inventing the label of hybridity. This is really just an admission that prose need not be factual and may, in fact, contain poetry.

Joe Bonomo’s Field Recordings from the Inside purports to be an essay collection. The author is a music journalist and the book is being marketed as a thing that moves between prose genres of criticism and memoir. Poets will know him best for Installation, a collection of prose poems selected for the National Poetry Series by Naomi Shihab Nye in 2007. He’s been awarded fellowships by the Illinois Arts Council for both prose and poetry, although Northern Illinois University bills him as a creative nonfiction professor and Wikipedia bills him as a rock 'n' roll writer. I like rock 'n' roll writer because it’s blessedly free of the shackles of genre. Much of Field Recordings will feel innovative to readers who impose their presumptions of writing genre or musical genre onto the moniker of rock 'n' roll writer.

For me, a person whose knowledge base is born of more consistent engagement with these types of gray areas in prose that the average reader is likely to possess, I did not feel that Bonomo’s book was innovative. But I did absolutely find it to be well done at both the levels of the informative and the evocative. In structuring these scraps into a book about his lifelong attachments to music, Bonomo holds on loosely and succeeds in never letting go. This is a book you can flip through, which is an obvious marker of his poetic turn of mind. In any given chapter, there are actually a multitude of entries. Some of them are a single sentence or short paragraph. Some of them are quotations. Some of them are several pages long.

Bonomo makes no effort to directly state transitional ideas between these fragments. The bits and pieces sometimes hang together quite smoothly on the subject of a single musician like Frank Sinatra, or a lyrical thread such as songs about Sunday mornings, or a period of time in his life like college. Often the pieces don't fit together with precision, and the overall effect is more of a dreamy ebb and flow with only Bonomo’s sureness of voice to keep the connection glued. As far as rock 'n' roll writers go, I would characterize Bonomo as an impressionist painter. Field Recordings is loaded with flashes of feeling, stippled portraits of singular moments that will provoke an easy empathy not necessarily for their concrete details but for the resonance of their emotional landscape.

The author is at his best when he's talking about music delivery systems -- records, cassettes, juke boxes, radios, Shazam. He delves into the careful technicalities of repairing a favorite mix tape, the agony of the broken 45 and the scratch of a needle, the magic of requested songs, the terror of sudden volume and creeping static, the melancholy of instant gratification in a digital world. These are great leaps into the sensual, tangible, liminal properties of our experience with music. They are instantly relatable and will springboard readers into a renewed sensitivity toward their own parallel history of sound.

There’s a solid essay of Elvis Costello and Patsy Cline. I confess to not listening to much of either of their bodies of work over the years, yet I found myself turning the pages ever so slowly. Bonomo’s poetic craft remains strongly redolent even when one is not terribly interested in his specific factual content. On the other hand, there’s a quick paragraph on Nirvana that I reread several times after exclaiming aloud, “that exact same thing happened to me!”

He knows big bands and obscure bands, ancient ones and happening ones, so every reader is bound to find a bullseye on the journalism front somewhere in this book. The research and quotations are often compelling on their own, but the real gem of Field Recordings is its poetics. Bonomo slides between the skills and conventions of genre with an aptitude and ease that is mightily impressive, never fighting to tie it all together. This is a book that floats, landing on each reader uniquely but with similarly orchestrated intensity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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