This is what the work used to be (part one)
Back when ND was a print magazine and it was my job to try to sort through the hundreds of CDs which came my way each month so as to find the next Whiskeytown, I used to have days when I’d listen to fragments of things I’d never heard of. I could clear a shelf of 100 CDs in a good afternoon, probably finding one thing really worth finding in all that, and spending a few minutes with another goodly handful of artists whose work I was casually familiar with. Those usually went into another stack to be attended to, or ignored, as luck had it.
I still have stacks, and the guilt which goes with them. And because I’m here in my office doing several things at once, one of the things I can do is listen to some of the stuff sitting on the office chair which my dad used to make squeak late into the night down in the basement when I was growing up. I’d like to sit on that chair.
I’d also like in some way to convey what it meant to be a music critic, what the work was. Because this listening, this kind of quick take and fast decision, this was the work. Not the fun.
In the late 1980s I read an interview in Billboard with an A&R guy who said he could tell in 30 seconds whether the artist he was listening to was of interest. At the time, I thought, What a shit. What an arrogant shit to decide an artist’s fate without even properly attending to the work. I came, in time, to think he was generous. Usually I can tell in the first few seconds if what I’m listening to is of interest to me.
I’ll not go that quickly today because I’m only half attending to the work, and I haven’t time to sit here and do just this one thing. But this is typed stream of consciousness, without notes, without choosing the discs in any order. This is the work, the way I once did it. For whatever that’s worth these days.
(1) MURDER BY DEATH, Good Morning, Magpie (Vagrant). They come from Bloomington, Indiana, and Trina Shoemaker produced. Both good signs. The first song is “Kentucky Bourbon.” I’m on the fifth song, they all sound pretty much of a piece. Had I to guess, I would guess they like the Pogues. I never saw the point of the Pogues, one of those bands who were more interesting to read about than to listen to, though perhaps in both cases they’re more interesting to see onstage. The disc is watermarked, so all I can do is toss it away. So it goes.
Wait. Why am I not responding? Because I don’t hear songs, and I don’t hear a singing voice that compels me. I hear the drone of forced emotion, and a fairly high level of competence. But I am touched by none of that, and so move on.
(2) NICK MOSS, Privileged (Blue Bella). I despair for the blues. The cover’s pretty cool, there’s that. But somehow most everything which came our way these last fifteen years or more that said it was blues…it was a Budweiser commercial. A guitar strut without soul, without swing, without a point. I don’t think of blues as being the stylistic cul de sac rockabilly quickly became, but it seems to have ended there, anyhow. Chop chop, bleat. Chop chop, bleat. I fast forward to a cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” only because I’m a sucker for covers. Only it’s trying to be funk, and missing the whole point. Alas.
(3) JENNY WHITELEY, Forgive Or Forget (Black Hen). Memory says Peter advocated for her, but that’s just memory doing the typing. She’s a Canadian, Steve Dawson produced and released this on his own label. First time I’d noticed it was his label, and I wonder if that means he produces everything he releases. Probably not. Maybe. Not the point, is it? But mostly this is the kind of music I deferred to Peter’s judgment on. It’s well-produced, warm, subtle, easily played, and she has a jaunty kind of half-spoken jazz voice skipping across the instruments. Probably not a good idea to send out press materials comparing it to Blood On The Tracks, though. Headphones music, I’ll not do it justice while moving boxes. Another time, maybe.
(4) EVIE LADIN, Float Downstream (self-released). Banjo player from Oakland, CA. I was born there, didn’t stay but six months, but…The label on the front says she’s also in the Stairwell Sisters, which is a decent sign, and guest artists include Mike Marshall (who co-produced), Lloyd Maines, and Suzy Thompson. Those are the familiar names, anyhow. Yeah, she’s got some spark. That second song, “Romeo,” following the opening clawhammer “I Love My Honey,” heads dangerously close toward adult contemporary, and yet she can write, and she can sing, and she pulls back from the saccharine brink with just enough wit. Good sign. I keep turning it up to hear it across the room, but I do wish she’d get up and go past the midtempo soon. OK. Maybe she won’t, but there’s still a sharp intelligence here that I like, so I’ll toss it in the truck and see how it wears.
(5) DARK DARK DARK, Bright Bright Bright EP (Supply & Demand). Three in the picture, six on the EP. Minneapolis. I dunno, Brecht, maybe, but only because that’s the only reference point I have for this. Art and atmosphere, sophisticated beyond my patience.
(6) STEVE SMITH, CHRIS SANDERS & HARD ROAD, Signs Along the Road (self-released). The cover has that faux LP wear ring on it (which I’ve never figured out how to do, and is now enough of a cliche that I’ll no longer worry about it), and so I was expecting a not very talented country-rock band that I could pass on quickly. But it’s bluegrass, so we’ll see. They’re a duo, with a studio band, maybe, but it’s Megan Lynch on fiddle, Bill Evans on banjo, Bill Amatneek on bass, and Aaron McCloskey flat-picking. None of which names mean anything to me. The opening track has a nice edge to it, and then…it subsides into the background, and so I give up.
(7) RICH MCCULLEY, Starting All Over Again (self-released). Dedicated to Duane Jarvis and Amy Farris, which speaks well. But I can tell a minute in, this isn’t for me. He has a nice pop voice, a little too high and mellow to these ears, and the music behind his songs is played just a little too carefully. Let go, somebody. I’ll skip to “Who’ll Hang the Moon (Song for DJ)” because I knew Duane Jarvis slightly, and liked him. But it’s mawkish, and I can’t make it.
(8) BIG SMITH, Roots, Shoots, & Wings (MayApple). From Springfield, Missouri. Some years back Big Smith made a two-disc children’s album, which Maggie adored. Until she played it so often she scratched the disc she couldn’t go to sleep without. So I ordered a copy from the band, paid money for it the second time, which is only fair. Maggie never listened to it again. She did the same thing with Finding Nemo. These guys…never quite made it into the magazine. Somebody pushed Peter on them, one of our writers, I think, but they never quite made the cut. Despite what the preceding artists may feel about my assessment of their work, I’m somewhat mellower now than I was then. Or maybe, by contrast, it’s nice just to hear a solid country voice, tight songwriting, and the comfort of a band who know and seem to like each other, based on only on how they sound together. Reminds me of the Gourds, with more discipline. (Another band Peter had to fight to keep in the magazine pages, mostly because I always thought they were one more record away from being really good. You can argue with me. It’s fine.) So I like the opener, “My Overalls (Don’t Fit Me Anymore)” except for the too-produced intro and outro. Nice cover package, by someone named Katie Canada. Mix of band-member-written and traditional numbers. Maybe they’ve gotten better, but we sure wrote about a fair number of bands I don’t think were nearly this good. Another one for the truck.
(9) JOY KILLS SORROW, Darkness Sure Becomes This City (Signature Sounds). In the last year or two this became one of my favorite labels. Jim Olson seems to have solid ears, and is well positioned outside Boston so as to hear a ton of solid folk. Don’t know this quintet, so we’ll see. Quiet, they are, though whenever the harmonies reach upward I’m reminded of the Roches. Mmm. A song by Kristin Andreassen (“Send Me A Letter”), that’s a good sign.
Apropos nothing, what would happen if the original cello player from Crooked Still started making music with Jessee Havey, the original lead singer of the Duhks? Just a passing thought I felt emboldened to share…
Anyway. Joy Kills Sorrow are a little too well-mannered, at this juncture. They’re clearly part of the stringband renaissance Peter and I got excited about in our penultimate issue. I can’t tell if they’re too much of the academy, or too new to the studio, but my hunch is that they’d be a joy to see at the Station Inn or some such place just outside their comfort zone. Wait. Let me skip forward to the last song, “You Make Me Feel Drunk.” Nice blues, that, written and sung by the lead singer, Emma Beaton. Yeah, loose, I like ’em better. Why is it the string bands get the blues, and the blues bands don’t?
(10) JENNIE ARNEAU, Chasing Giants (self-released). I’m supposed to know who she is. Another one produced by Trina Shoemaker, with Kevn Kinney and Norm Pikelny guesting, so I’m probably really supposed to know who she is. Nice package, with illustrations by Steve Morris, so there ought to be money behind this even though it’s a self-release. Hard to tell anymore. Fourth album since 2001, her website says. A minute and a half into the second track, I’m still buying time trying to hear something. You can waste a lot of time with a record like this, waiting for something to happen. Something is not going to happen. She’s an attractive woman with a decent voice, but I hear no magic, and no reason to continue.
Now…this may all seem crabby when somebody else reads it. So it goes. I’m not in a particularly crabby mood today, this is just what the working of being an editor/critic once was, and this is how I did it. I may or may not come back and do more of this in future days. The chair’s not clear yet, obviously, and I’ve got shelves full of music I’ve not ingested yet. My purpose, actually, is to find songs for the radio show I’m doing, but that takes more than casual listening at this point. And I would note that, probably because I’ve fallen off a lot of lists, this was a better set of ten randomly chosen discs than would be normal.
Over and out. Your turn.