The Third Annual No Depression Critics’ Poll
Form follows function
For me, this has been the year in which the conventional integrated audio release, the trusty ol’ “Record Album,” has often been notably too much, other times too little, and only occasionally seemed just right, as the means of getting to what music makers make — and do.
OK; this was the year of Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine, Marty Stuart’s Souls’ Chapel and Badlands, and such sonically integrated long players as Bobby Bare’s The Moon Was Blue, made so knowingly loungey by Bobby Jr., and Robbie Fulks’ extraordinary Georgia Hard, with its varied updating turns on ’70s country. But too many CDs I’m hearing amount to stretching — and with the room on a CD, often it’s more like super-sizing — of three or four fully realized songs and tracks to Obligatory Length because inertia and marketing since the ’60s have said it needed to be so. When all an artist really has is an EP or a single, how about letting them be that, and accepting that result as enough to take seriously?
For those times when a CD doesn’t seem enough, there’s the very promising new DualDisc format, which, in reissues particularly — from Nina Simone and Bill Withers, for instance — has provided striking context-placing video right on the back of the classic record, for a truly new take. The same goes for the live video addition to the Springsteen Born To Run reissue — and if somebody asks me how to get to know not just Billie Holiday’s music, but to know her as a performer, I’ll send them to that nifty new Ultimate Collection with its full, revealing video collection DVD bundled with her “best of” tracks. New artists will no doubt see this two-angled approach as a starting point — a good one for Americana and roots rock, where so much that matters happens live.
As important as the Library of Congress/Alan Lomax Jelly Roll Morton CD and book extravaganza has been, we’d know that much more about the artist if we’d now been able to see him deliver that fascinating monologue as Alan did — a point Lomax knew well enough that he was already looking to add film and video to his “World Jukebox” documenting concept in the 1980s, something he happened to discuss with me at the time.
For recapturing both the artist and his New Orleans context, the Rounder Jelly Roll Morton box is the audio reissue of the year — but no less revealing of another piano player was O-Genio: Ray Charles Live In Brazil, the DVD that brings us back a full “as it was” performance of Brother Ray and his crew at their 1963 height. And for getting a musical time and place in a way that makes the music matter more again, the DVD of Murray Lerner’s Festival film does more than any of the many Live At The Newport Folk Festival CDs ever have. That’s a top “reissue” — but not a CD.
I appear not to be alone in wanting, now, to encounter music on its own best varied terms — a single download; four related tracks that stop there because someone knew where to get off; live music without “product” (what a concept!); multi-mediated, video-anthologized, or even long-playing CDs and box sets. The 2006 musical world doesn’t live on the 48-minute Big Statement alone. It’s on “shuffle.”
Saving our soul
Soul music of one type or another has been wending its way back into the national conversation for at least a decade now. First came the hip-hop-fluent soul singers of the “neo” variety — Angie Stone, D’Angelo, Jill Scott and so on — who emerged at the close of the last century. Since then, we’ve seen Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, a documentary about Motown house band the Funk Brothers, as well as the death and subsequent franchising of Brother Ray Charles. And there are widely acclaimed “comeback” recordings of Al Green, Mavis Staples and Solomon Burke. And the growing interest in so-called Deep Soul (a.k.a. soul music that never much sold when it was new), and the accompanying soul music reissuing boom that has either fanned or been fueled by that interest. And Peter Guralnick’s Sam Cooke bio, Dream Boogie. And the commercial success of new soul acts, everyone from MTVers Jesse Stone and Leela James to throwbacks such as Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, a funk-soul outfit that has the alternative kids — or some of them, anyway — looking somewhere other than into their own navels. And dancing!
But so what? Besides our desire to check out some fantastic new or reintroduced music, what does it matter if soul is on the rise? I think it could matter a great deal because some of the defining virtues of the soul music tradition are a mirror of vital human virtues that, at least in the public arena, have been in too short supply lately. Soul music values a church-bred emotional intensity that’s both earnest and playful; it encourages a willingness not only to face trouble but to distinguish between troubles that are built-in to this world and those that are man-made and therefore remediable; and, a consequence of these others, it persistently aspires outward toward a community where we all might thrive. Touch a hand, make a friend, move on up, can I get a witness, lean on me, call on me, I’ll be there, I want to take you higher.
So I’m not talking about only a sound here (though a return to soul music certainly brings it all back home to a blues and gospel well that’s yet to show any signs of drying up.) No, I’m talking about a way of being that rejects division and isolation, and that is anodyne to the human spirit. I’m not saying this is bound to happen, least of all not because of a few unconnected events that are only barely worthy at this point of the title “trend.” But if Mavis Staples and Sharon Jones, say, can teach a new generation what it means to live with soul power, just as Ray Charles and Motown, the Isleys and Stax, once taught a thing or two to the Beatles, Stones and Springsteen, among so many others…well, as Sam Cooke sang it, “a change is gonna come.”
I didn’t hear as much new music in 2005 as I do most years. I was preoccupied elsewhere, with a manuscript that had me revisiting records made during the previous three or four decades. The project concerned articulations of spiritual restlessness in pop music — and specifically, the hunger for some sort of transcendence — so most of the new stuff that got my attention tended to reflect that focus. No big summing up here then. Just a snapshot of where my head’s been at since this time last year.
Most notions of transcendence run toward the likes of God and the supernatural. But transcendence can take place in more quotidian ways as well. It can be experienced through flashes of wonder, insight, or empathy. It can occur when people stand in solidarity with others or resist unjust powers — or through moments of historical liberation, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa. Transcendence takes place any time something deeper and more abiding than the everyday breaks into the present and, if only fleetingly, transforms it.
And transcendence, or at least the hunger for it, lies at the heart of more pop music than many people suspect. There isn’t space, other than to namecheck epochal records like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “A Change Is Gonna Come”, to unpack this claim here. It took me three hundred pages, after all, to do so in my book. Yet from Marty Stuart’s peerless Souls’ Chapel to the Waco Brothers’ bracing Freedom And Weep, a good many records released over the last twelve months prove that 2005 was no exception.
Wonder flickers from the twilit plainsong of Vashti Bunyan’s Lookaftering, the reclusive Brit’s first new album in 35 years. And wonder, mingled with the weight of the world, pervades indie stalwart Annie Hayden’s pitch-perfect The Enemy Of Love, a quietly devastating clutch of miniatures worthy of Barbara Manning circa her 1989 album Lately I Keep Scissors.
Exultation, on the other hand, surges from the double-dutch beats and sexy, puckish rhymes of Fannypack’s See You Next Tuesday — and, in more of a down-home mode, from much of Sara Evans’ Real Fine Place, a sleek, voluptuous record (Patty Loveless meets New Order?) that’s almost stunning enough to make you forget the singer’s disturbing right-wing politics.
In an entirely different key, resistance in the service of self-differentiation suffuses albums as sublime, if outwardly dissimilar, as Bettye LaVette’s imperious I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise and Emiliana Torrini’s fiercely subdued Fisherman’s Wife. Amy Rigby’s empathetic Little Fugitive and Lori McKenna’s resilient Bittertown, too. An abundance of self-possession likewise is evident in the peaks of Mary Gauthier’s luminous Mercy Now (cf. the title track and “I Drink”); Susan Cowsill’s tensive, tuneful Just Believe It (“Nanny’s Song”, “Talkin'”); and Martha Wainwright’s flinty stealth-cabaret act (“Ball And Chain”, “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole”).
Less overtly confessional in tone, epic-sounding albums such as Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods and the Mendoza Line’s Full Of Light And Full Of Fire — as well as snatches of Kanye West’s latest soul-retrieval project — express a mix of resistance and vision born of recent global developments.
Some of these records — and this is to say nothing of undeniable titles by Deerhoof (gloriously Beefheartian), the Clientele (forever changing), and the New Pornographers (neo-pop in excelsis) — fell outside the editorial parameters of this magazine. This included two of the best to come out all year: M.I.A.’s Arular and Gogol Bordello’s Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. The former wears its funky, border-hopping heart on its grimy sleeve; the latter serves as a Balkan update of Rum, Sodomy & The Lash by way of London Calling. Both albums crackle with an immigrant’s sense of arrival, and both speak prophetically to globalization and its discontents. Indeed, both articulate a grammar of resistance and uplift worthy of this or any magazine about “American music,” whatever that means.