Setting Up and Settling In

We closed out our Des Moines apartment and drove out of Iowa on October 22. On November 27, our moving truck arrived, and we and all of our stuff spent our first night together in our new home in the Village of Oak Creek, just south of Sedona, Arizona. So our limbo hiatus period (including finding, buying, and closing on a new house) was 36 days long, far shorter than we had expected it to be, which is deeply pleasing. We’ve got all of the boxes unpacked now, most of the furniture placed (except for some new things we have on order), and are at the art-hanging stage of the process. It’s conceptually possible that we’ll be past the setting up phase this week, so that we can get on with the settling in phase. Ahhhh!

While our focus has primarily been on getting into the house, we have continued to explore and have adventures and appreciate our new surroundings. Of particular note since my last photo report, our experiences have included:

  • Discovering that the javalinas (collared peccaries) that we were seeing in and around the yard at our temporary AirBnB in Sedona were actually living in the crawl space under our house!
  • Hiking the Transept Trail near our new house, from which we can easily look down onto our neighborhood from atop the rocks north of it.
  • Hiking up to the top of Bear Mountain, one of the more strenuous walks we’ve done in a long, long time, with some hairy hand-work, slippery screes, cactus-lined chutes, and other challenges, all worth the incredible views all along the trail, especially at the summit.

I’ve captured pictures of those and other activities in a photo album, as one does, if one is me. You can click on one of my suggested contributions to home decor (below) to see the full gallery. I suspect that when I post a final “house set up, family settled in” album, this particular display may be subject to change. Unless Marcia never turns around at the sink, anyway.

I think my Saturn V model looks great in the dining room!!

It’s Not the Turkey . . .

It is a strange and unsettling Thanksgiving season this year, made even more so here by us being in transition between homes, with our furniture being delivered to the new house on Friday. This morning, we left our AirBnB home of the past month (and its resident javalinas) and are in a hotel for two nights, so really a betwixt situation, on all fronts.

While many or most of us may not experience the traditional big dinner tomorrow, as an offer of  small comfort, I republish an old poem below to remind us all that the turkey is not the most important comestible of Thanksgiving anyway. Not by a longshot.

Here’s wishing everyone health and safety and happiness wherever and however you are able to mark the day. And a big serving of cheese, fat, salt and carbs, readily made in the microwave, easily devoured anywhere, fresh out of the tray . . .

Alma rose at dawn to make the biscuits,
kneading lard into the baker’s flour,
rolling sheets and cutting discs for baking;
it took her just a bit more than an hour.

At that point, Alma turned to make the stuffing:
sausage, cornbread, broth and butter, nuts.
She pulled the neck and gizzard from the turkey,
(which, with the heart, she thought the sweetest cuts).

She filled the bird and stitched it tight for roasting,
then with a jar of cloves, she dressed the ham,
and pressed the honey from the comb she’d purchased,
to sweeten up her famous candied yams.

While collards stewed in bacon fat and bullion,
Alma snapped the beans and okra too,
then shucked the corn, (the Silver Queen she favored),
which, paired with shrimp, went in her Frogmore Stew.

By sunset, Alma’s work had been completed,
the family blessed their meal on bended knees.
An awkward silence followed, ‘til her son said
“How come there ain’t no Stouffer’s Mac an’ Cheese?”

Best Albums of 2020

Given the pending holiday season, efforts associated with moving into a new house over the next few weeks, and the fact that I’m not able to readily download and spin new music right now due to technical transitions, I deem it timely for me to post my 2020 Albums of the Year Report. This edition marks the 29th consecutive year that I’ve publicly published such an annual report in either traditional print or digital formats, so it’s a venerable personal tradition at this juncture in my life.

I usually post the report in late November or early December, figuring that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a year. I then do an update or supplement in January if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slipped in after that. This is a little bit earlier than my usual annual article accordingly, but the list is not likely to change in the next two weeks, so it feels safe and apt to post it now.

To provide some perspective on the choices I’ve made over the years, here is the complete reckoning of my published Albums of the Year from 1992 to 2019. (I had yearly favorites before then, obviously, I just didn’t hang them out for others to look at). I don’t quite know what I was thinking in some years, retrospectively, but I made my choices in public and I stick with them as a point of principle:

  • 1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
  • 1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
  • 1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
  • 1995: Björk, Post
  • 1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
  • 1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
  • 1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
  • 1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
  • 2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
  • 2001: Björk, Vespertine
  • 2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
  • 2003: Wire, Send
  • 2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
  • 2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
  • 2006: Gnarls Barkley, Elsewhere
  • 2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
  • 2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
  • 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • 2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
  • 2011: Planningtorock, W
  • 2012: Goat, World Music
  • 2013: David Bowie, The Next Day
  • 2014: First Aid Kit, Stay Gold
  • 2015: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
  • 2016: David Bowie, Blackstar
  • 2017: Dälek, Endangered Philosophies
  • 2018: First Aid Kit, Ruins
  • 2019: Lingua Ignota, Caligula

As I normally do when I post “best of” lists like this one, I make two notes up front before getting to the good stuff. First, this is all subjective, and it’s all my opinion. But of course it is. If music criticism were objective, we’d all end up with one mutually-agreed upon list at year’s end, and what would be the fun in that? Second, I can only rank and review what I actually hear in a given year, so that’s limited by (a) what I like to listen to, and (b) what I actually acquire to spin. So I’m sorry if I missed your favorite traditional Cape Verdean skronk-jazz-style tabanka album recorded entirely on 19th Century double-reed woodwinds, though I’ll happily read about it on your own list, and would likely enjoy hearing it. Please feel free to share that list with me after you post it, and you really don’t need to add a “Dude, you suck” preamble to it because I neglected your niche. It wasn’t personal. Honest.

With that behind us, let’s get to the final countdown, from my #32 Album to my #1 Album of the Year for 2020. (Why 32 albums? That was just in case I decided to do this thing head-to-head, knock-out tournament style, but the ranking and writing came quickly and naturally this year, and that paired approach ended up not being necessary, though I kept the list I’d developed for it). You might want to buckle up for the wild ride ahead. There’s going to be a lot of abrupt and juddering swings back and forth between various genres, styles, and techniques, some calm, some extreme, some inspirational, some soul-crushing, some wobbling at the very cusp of explainability. But that’s what makes for a memorable journey, right? I certainly think so.

#32. Dark Sky Burial, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est: Napalm Death bassist Shane Embury is one of the busiest men in rock, and it’s a rare year that he doesn’t appear on multiple hard metal albums. This record, though, is a bit of a departure for him: working with longtime Napalm producer Russ Russell, Dark Sky Burial finds Embury mining evocative ambient and electronic lodes, turning up plentiful cool gems in the process.

#31. Sightless Pit, Grave of a Dog: Kristin Hayter won my 2019 Album of the Year title under her Lingua Ignota nom de rock for her soul-crushing Caligula. Lee Buford placed high on my 2016 and 2018 lists for his work with The Body. Hayter, Buford and Dylan Walker (Full of Hell) teamed up for Sightless Pit’s debut disc this year, and their work is potent and powerful, an electro-organic scream from the depths of musical darkness.

#30: X, Alphabetland: The first concert Marcia and I saw after moving to Chicago was by X, with founders Exene Cervenka, John Doe and D.J. Bonebreak playing with a guest guitarist, as Billy Zoom was in treatment for cancer. It was a fun show, though it felt a bit like a nostalgia review. That makes the great Alphabetland, with Zoom back, a truly special treat, 35 years since the SoCal punk pioneers last released new tunes together.

#29: Wire, 10:20: Wire have appeared on lots of my year-end lists. I thought their streak was over after January’s Mind Hive, the first Wire record since 1990’s Manscape to leave me cold. But then came 10:20 in June, and it did the job for me. Like some prior great Wire records (e.g. IBTABA, The Drill), this one takes old studio songs, then reinvents them around live arrangements. A nice blend of the strange and the familiar.

#28. Duma, Duma: The first of several African releases on this year’s list, Duma are a duo from Nairobi, Kenya; their name means “Darkness” in Kikuyu. Their self-titled debut is a brutal slab of electronic noise, trans-metal riffery, and monstrous, guttural, and/or choked vocals. It’s ugly music, beautifully rendered. Duma also win the prize for best album cover photo of the year, a true gut-punch classic. Click the link to see it.

#27. Metal Preyers, Metal Preyers: As with Duma above, Metal Preyers was issued by Nyege Nyege Tapes, “a Kampala-based label exploring, producing and releasing outsider music from around the region” (per their website). This multi-national collaboration brings noise mavens from London, Chicago and Uganda together to crush skulls and take names later, using both electronic and organic sonic tools.

#26. The Residents, Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog: This is the first Residents project since the death of Hardy Fox, who was officially just part of their management company, but was in reality also their primary composer. Props to the remaining crew and new recruits for holding up the side with this collection of dark songs allegedly first recorded by lost albino bluesman Alvin “Dyin’ Dog” Snow. Uh huh.

#25. Hazel English, Wake UP!: Smart art-pop with gorgeous arrangements from a native Australian now working in California. My Best Albums lists for the past two years have prominently featured a variety of up-and-coming female solo artists offering nominally similar fare (e.g. Alice Merton, Sasami, Caroline Rose, etc.), but I didn’t find as much to love in that vein in 2020, alas. It’s probably me, not you.

#24. Hailu Mergia, Yene Mircha: Hailu Mergia was the keyboardist and composer for the Walias, arguably the greatest instrumental jazz-funk band in Ethiopia in the ’70s. Mergia fled his home country’s repressive Derg regime in 1981, working as a cab-driver in Washington, DC for decades. In 2018, he re-emerged with the stellar Lala Belu, and two years later, Yene Mircha continues his late-career hot streak. Lucky us!

#23: Petbrick and Deafkids, Deafbrick: This disc is a fascinating and pummeling collaboration between Brazil’s Deafkids (featuring founding Septultura drummer Iggor Cavalera) and England’s Petbrick. Deafbrick runs a sonic gamut from pummeling tribal to pummeling electronica, with some surprisingly melodic earworms embedded atop the beats as shiny icing on the noisy, dirty cake. Play loud. It helps with the pummeling.

#22. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles In Allem: This is the German industrial pioneers’ first major studio project since 2014’s World War I Centennial inspired Lament. While their signature metal-work percussion and shrieking vocals from front-man Blixa Bargeld feature regularly in the mix, they’re deployed in some of the most beautiful, melodic music in the group’s long, inspirational career. A truly welcome return.

#21. Midnight Oil, The Makarrata Project: Sadly, I only learned of this album after reading that Midnight Oil bassist Bones Hillman (also ex-The Swingers) had died of cancer. His final work was brilliant, as the Oils re-emerged from long semi-retirement with a fine album dedicated to celebrating indigenous Australian culture, alongside a great cast of collaborators. Inspirational fare from a band of truly good, decent people.

#20. AC/DC, Power Up: Australia again! After the wheels seemed to have finally fallen off the Acca Dacca machine a few years back, the post-1980 classic line-up of Angus Young, Brian Johnson, Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, with Stevie Young depping for his late uncle Malcolm, unexpectedly re-united to release their best work since 1990’s The Razor’s Edge. They do what they do, and they do it well. Rock on! And on and on!

#19. Bongeziwe Mabandla, iimini: This is one of the most beautiful records I heard this year, by a South African singer-songwriter blessed with a perfectly pure near-counter-tenor voice, and great skill with lean, natural arrangements that deploy ambient background sounds as a key mix element. The lyrics are mostly in Xhosa, but the soulful sentiments expressed transcend language, so very moving are the emotions expressed.

#18. Hyperlacrimae, Yoga Darśana: I’m realizing as I write this that there are a lot of noisy duos in this year’s roster of greatness, with Hyperlacrimae representing that idiom from their home country of Italy. This one is very beat-heavy, with some killer tribal vibes, vaguely Mediterranean to Middle Eastern filigree, and world-weary English vocals buried deep in the mix, deftly drawing you into their dark fugue fatigue.

#17. Mowgan, Soya LP: Mowgan is a French producer who has specialized in recent years by infusing his house music affinities with authentic African artistry and instrumentation. His primary collaborator on this disc is Solo Sanou, a percussionist from Burkina Faso who lives and works in Toulouse. The fruits of their collaboration are joyful and juicy, uplifting the spirit while making the hips swivel of their own accord.

#16. Rymden, Space Sailors: Magnus Öström (drums) and Dan Berglund (bass) were the rhythm section for the highly-acclaimed Esbjörn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.) until the tragic scuba-diving death of keyboardist Svensson in 2008. Rymden has the duo working with Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft on a wild, genre-bending disc, anchored in the e.s.t. legacy, but then stretching its chains to their breaking points and beyond.

#15. Gordon Koang, Unity: This is Gordon Koang’s 11th full-length album, but the first since fleeing his South Sudan home in 2013, seeking asylum in Australia. Koang’s official bio opens by noting that the artist, blind since birth, is “a fountain of warmth and joy,” and that’s quite obvious in his music and lyrics. Koang is also a master of the thom, a traditional stringed instrument of the Nuer people. Very unique. Very cool.

#14. Rose City Band, Summerlong: As I write this blurb, I realize that I know absolutely nothing about this band. I saw a review of the album, sampled and loved it, play it all the time, but never went back to see who, exactly, created this beautiful blend of Flying Burrito Brothers and late-Velvet Underground flavored music. So, who is it? Huh! Turns out to be Ripley Johnson of psych-freaks Wooden Shjips! Didn’t expect that!

#13. Pottery, Welcome To Bobby’s Motel: Pottery are a Canadian quintet, but they’ve somehow made one of the most oddly USA-feeling albums I’ve heard in ages, magically blending Tejano tall tales, Talking Heads-type surrealist funk, and Devo-deconstructed angularity, with dashes of Memphis and Philly Soul atop the pile, like salsa and sour cream. This video was my intro to their wild and wonderful world. See what I mean?

#12. Public Enemy, What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down?: As with AC/DC above, it seemed like Public Enemy had lurched into oblivion a couple of years ago, making both acts’ returns delightfully surprising. Also similar: this is a killer album, I’d say PE’s finest since Apocalypse ’91: The Empire Strikes Black. 2020 has been such a shit year, so it’s truly great to have Chuck, Flav and crew back when we need them most.

#11. Childish Gambino, 3.15.20: Donald Glover is a stone-cold creative genius, and I will eagerly investigate anything he makes, in any of the idioms within which he works. We saw what was billed as a farewell tour for his Childish Gambino persona in 2019, so I was as surprised as anyone when a new album under that name emerged in 2020. Even better: I’d say this is his most completely rewarding record yet, every track a gem.

#10. Shriekback, Some Kinds of Light: Shriekback’s 15th album may technically be a very, very late 2019 release, but it didn’t reach the States until January 2020, so I’m counting it. Core members Barry Andrews, Carl Marsh and Martyn Barker have made their most organic album in ages, filled with strong playing, brilliantly weird lyrics, and ear-worm hooks to die for. Best since their legendary Oil and Gold (1985), I’d say.

#9. Sparks, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip: It sort of boggles the mind to consider just how long and prolifically Ron and Russell Mael have been pursuing their weird pop visions: they debuted in 1971, and this is their 25th studio release. Luckily for us, they’ve experienced a grand creative surge of late, and this album is one of their finest, offering the usual wry songs and stories, plus some great pokes into trenchant, topical themes.

#8. Moses Sumney, Grӕ: Moses Sumney immigrated to California from Ghana, and quickly earned a name (circa 2013) around Los Angeles, where various execs wanted to pigeon-hole him as a stereotypical “hottie” R&B singer. He was having none of that, and relocated to North Carolina to write this brilliant double-album of “experimental soul.” Sumney’s the real deal, and this disc proves the acumen of his creative career choices.

#7. Sepultura, Quadra: This is the best record of Sepultura’s Derrick Green era, and arguably the best thing they have done since the unbeatable Roots (1996). Quadra is framed in four sections, exploring various facets of the group’s sound, but it feels seamless and perfect. While some may pine for a “classic lineup” reunion, having Sepultura, Soulfly and Deafkids making great music in parallel seems like a win to me.

#6. Myrkur, Folkesange: Denmark’s Amalie Bruun is an accomplished singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who has released music under her own name, with the band Ex-Cops, and as Myrkur. The self-professed “black metal girl” eschews her heavier stylings on Folkesange, which is dedicated to traditional Scandinavian music and acoustic originals. It is haunting and beautiful, however you label it. Especially “Vinter.”

A Brief Note Before the Top of the Pile: Over the course of the year, the remaining five albums were ones that I seriously considered as Album of the Year candidates at various times and for various reasons. In some years, the top of the pile is an obvious choice. Take 2016, for example, when David Bowie issued an amazing album in January, then passed away. For all intents and purposes, that year’s contest was over by February. In other years, though, it’s a tough choice between many contenders. Last year was like that, and when faced with such decisions, I tend to consider how an Album of the Year fits within the spirit of the age in which it was released. So with 2019 having been the year of the #MeToo movement, Lingua Ignota’s Caligula, anchored as it was in Kristin Hayter’s experiences with sexual discrimination and abuse, took the top spot ahead of a large list of other possible contenders. It just fit the times best, and that felt right and good. Viewing my 2020 finalists through such a lens, I emerged with two particularly strong contenders, then selected the one that felt like it spoke the greatest current truth through the most accomplished creative acts. Again, it feels right and good. Here’s how it falls out . . .

#5. Napalm Death, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism: Napalm Death have had a tough run since 2015’s epic Apex Predator — Easy Meat. Long-time guitarist-singer Mitch Harris left active service, Shane Embury (mentioned above) missed a tour, and singer Mark “Barney” Greenway noted difficulties in writing and recording his vocals. That made the gap between albums the longest of their career, but as it turns out, it was all worth the wait and worry. Harris appears on Throes of Joy, but Embury went into multi-man mode anyway, offering bass, percussion, guitar and vocals, all brilliantly. Stalwart producer Russ Russell works his usual magic here, making everything sound powerful throughout, and Danny Herrera is thunderous as ever on the drums. “Amoral” is one of their best songs, and surprisingly accessible. Try it! At the opposite end of the spectrum, “A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen” is horrific and heart-breaking, a perfect example of how Napalm make the political personal, to everybody’s benefit.

#4. Etuk Ubong, Africa Today: Etuk Ubong is a Nigerian trumpeter, composer, singer and band-leader, offering an eclectic blend of Afrobeat, jazz, highlife and ritual drumming he calls “Earth Music.” Africa Today features six of his compositions recorded live in the studio with an 11-person band of players from Nigeria, the UK, and the Netherlands. The music is fiery, rhythmic and melodic, each song built around killer grooves that never wear out their welcomes. The lyrics are also incredible, offering a “you are there” peek at the troubles and travails of common folk in Nigeria and beyond, as their leaders engage in grift, racism, oppression, mismanagement and corporate cronyism. Hmm. Wonder why that resonates here? Comparisons to the legendary Fela Kuti are inevitable, given the styles offered and topics addressed, but Etuk Ubong more than holds his own, sounding fresh, not derivative, offering his own takes on the sadly intractable problems that seem to plague his nation. And equally sadly, ours.

#3. Theophilus London, Bebey: Theophilus London is a native Trinidadian who now lives and works in New York. Bebey is his third full-length album, released six years after his sophomore disc, Vibes. Around our household, this album played more than any other in 2020, getting placed on our various music-playing devices in January, and never leaving, as we never grew tired of any of it. Unlike my other four finalists this year, the politics of Bebey are mostly interpersonal, not international, with fresh jam after fresh jam raising the spirits and singalong voices, as toes tap, and hips wiggle. London self-released his latest album, and he’s filled it with just glorious, warm, engaging songs that evoke the sunniness of his native island, both thematically and musically. Guest appearances from Raekwon, Tame Impala, Ariel Pink, Lil Yachty and others add value in every case, rather than just feeling like promo verses tacked on by marketeers. In a dark year, this bright, fun record made us feel good. That’s enough.

#2. Snog, Lullabies for the Lithium Age: Snog’s David Thrussell is a conceptualist. As with The Residents (see entry above), most of his albums are released with narrative framing explanations, which often get picked up and reported by less skeptical media outlets as fact, even though they rarely are. Some notable earlier Thrussell releases have found him claiming to have written an album while living on a diet of human flesh, or having gone through gender transition, or while working on commission for the NXIVM cult. This one finds Thrussell (allegedly) working with a famed psychotherapist after six years of semi-retirement, including one year in a near-catatonic state. Take all that for what it’s worth, then listen to the music, which sounds pretty much exactly like what you would expect from an artist after such an experience, “real” or not. The senses of anomie, ennui, acedia, nihilism and despair that these times beat into us deserve a soundtrack, and David Thrussell has delivered it, with finesse and flair.

#1, THE ALBUM OF THE YEAR FOR 2020: Run the Jewels, RTJ4: George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, the video recording of his cruel and needless death sparking massive national outrage and protests. Run the Jewels issued their fourth album just over a week later, and its lyrical content and music could not have been better planned or more attuned to soundtrack the cultural convulsions of the Summer of 2020. That’s actually a sad testament to the pervasive nature of the concerns raised in Minneapolis and elsewhere, since obviously Killer Mike and El-P didn’t write this album specifically about the George Floyd killing, but the details and stories and backdrops and backgrounds that they did evoke and invoke nailed it to a T. The recurring themes of social injustice and political inequity are presented with genius-level insight and creativity, delivered via crazy rhymes, flows, toasts and stories, atop some of the finest beats and rhythms to ever grace a hip-hop inflected album. Toss in ace cameos from the likes of Mavis Staples, Zack de la Rocha, Pharrell Williams, Josh Homme and others, and you just kick things another few branches up the brilliance tree. RTJ4 is an objectively fine album that could have been a contender for Album of the Year whenever it had been released, but for 2020, it moves beyond contender and into champion stature, so perfect is it for its time, place, and audience. When great music speaks great truth, people listen. Maybe not enough people to change things, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and with a soundtrack like this one, people are going to want to march along, hopefully toward a better place. Well done, them. A worthy new entry in my long list of Albums of the Year.

Ten More Days in Sedona

Ten days ago, I wrote the following sentence regarding our new life in and around Sedona, Arizona: “As the region takes on more of a home feel, and less of a vacation vibe, I know that my photographer’s reflex will eventually relax a bit, but for now, I just can’t stop snapping the crazy beautiful scenes around me.”

Well, it was optimistic of me to think that I’d soon reach such a blasé attitude about my surroundings, and I continue to snap away as new vistas and sites present themselves to me, many times each day. We have continued to hike every day (even in what passes for bad weather locally, but which would have been considered glorious autumn days in Iowa at this time of the year), revisiting trails that have already become favorites, and exploring new reaches and branches in the crazy huge network of walking paths hereabouts. Katelin has been here the past three days, visiting from Las Vegas, so it’s been lovely to have her join us on our treks as well, as well as for a day trip over to Cottonwood and historic Jerome, far up Mingus Mountain.

We’ve also been relishing the local wildlife, different from anyplace we’ve ever lived before. We hear coyotes wailing most nights, and saw one on a trail one afternoon. We’ve also had a couple of encounters with a herd of javalinas (a.k.a. collared peccaries) that live in our neighborhood, watched a mule deer scale a ridiculously steep rock wall as we hiked, and gloried in birds beyond measure everywhere we look. I’ve already ID’ed 17 species in my Birds of Arizona guide, several of them while just sitting on the living room couch looking out the window at the yard. That’s good birding!

Things are moving quickly with our home purchase as well. We are scheduled to close on Friday the 20th, and our household goods should be delivered a week later. House set-up might curtail some of our time outdoors for a little while, but we won’t likely be able to stay off the trails for long, given their strong magic and overwhelming allure. If you’d like a peek at our second ten days hereabouts, I’ve compiled my best photos in an album on Flickr, as I usually do. You can click the pic of Marcia and Katelin atop Hole in the Sky Rock below to see the rest of the scenes. I’m sure there will be more to come at some point. Probably sooner rather than later, knowing me!


The Bumble Has Flown Away

(Very) long-time readers here may recall that in May 2009, I reported that we had added a new member to our family, a polydactyl tabby cat. The shelter where we adopted her had named her “Izzabella,” but that just didn’t seem right to us. We initially dubbed her “Ladyjane,” as in Lady Jane Grey, given her color, and the fact that my sister had a cat named Earl Grey. But in that very first blog post about our new family member, I noted that:

She’s quite busy, and her feet are truly awe-inspiring in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not sort of way: she’s got five full toes on each back foot, five full toes on her left front foot, and five full toes plus a little dewclaw between the thumb and the fist on her right front foot, for a total of 20 full toes and a dewclaw, compared to the normal cat complement of 16 full toes plus two dewclaws. She also has a very odd voice, and talks to herself pretty much continually when she’s awake, sounding like a bumblebee as she chirps and buzzes around the house. So she could be Ladyjane the Busy Big-footed Bumblebee Cat, though that seems a smidge unwieldy.

It was indeed too unwieldy, and in a fairly short time, we shifted to calling her “The Bumble,” which fit her personality far better than either of the more-feminine names she’d already briefly possessed. She had a lot of personality, even by cat standards. There were adventures in the years ahead. And lots of strongly-expressed opinions.

Of the four cats that we had over the years as a family, three of them firmly imprinted on me as the leader of their clowder, but The Bumble always fixated on Katelin, preferring her company (and lap) to any other’s. When Marcia and I moved to Chicago, The Bumble stayed in Des Moines with Katelin, and she moved to Nevada this past summer with Katelin, John and Frank the Cat. For an Albany stray, she saw a lot of the country over the years.

Sadly, right before the move to Nevada, The Bumble became ill, and was eventually diagnosed with an aggressive tumor in her skull. Katelin and John just called to let us know know that she succumbed to her illness today, after some struggles, but also after some really good days of being loved and loving, appreciating their new home where she could be outdoors in a protected yard, or sit atop their massive and comfy Love Sac. They gave her a wonderful life. She was a lucky kitty.

Marcia and I got to see her one final time when we visited in September, so I am glad for that opportunity. A few weeks later, Katelin sent the photo below, of The Bumble chillin’. It’s a lovely shot of a lovely family member, who will be dearly missed.

If I Had The Time: Ken Hensley (1945-2020)

For the second time in as many months, I’m sad to report the passing and honor the work of a critical member of the English hard-rock group Uriah Heep, as yesterday Ken Hensley followed Lee Kerslake into the great hereafter. Hensley was the Heep’s keyboardist, guitarist, occasional lead vocalist and primary songwriter from 1970 to 1980, arguably the era when they achieved their most balanced mix of commercial, critical and creative successes. No cause of death has been reported, though his brother noted in announcing Ken’s death that his passing was sudden, and that Hensley’s wife, Monica, was by his side as he flew away.

I’ve written several times here over the years about my love for a genre I call “Heavy Organ Music,” and when I look at the gems of that pantheon, Ken Hensley’s imprimatur is widespread and deeply influential. While he achieved his greatest fame and acclaim with the Heep, he had developed that particular sound and attack earlier in his career, most especially with The Gods and Toe Fat, bands whose members in the late 1960s included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson, ELP), John Glascock (Carmen, Jethro Tull), Brian Glascock (The Motels), Paul Newton and Lee Kerslake (both Uriah Heep), Cliff Bennett (Rebel Rousers), Alan Kendall (The Bee Gees) and others. His connections with Newton led to Hensley’s invitation to join the group Spice just as it was morphing into Uriah Heep in time for their debut album …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble (1970). By the time of their sophomore album, Salisbury (1971), Hensley had emerged as the group’s primary songwriter, a role he would hold for a decade.

Lee Kerslake followed Hensley into the Heep for their 1972 album Demons and Wizards, often cited as their finest and most representative work, the first of four by the group’s “classic line-up.” The substance abuse-related illnesses of bassist Gary Thain (who left the band in 1974 and died in 1975) and singer David Byron (left 1976, died 1985) led to a period of constant membership churn and declining critical and commercial success, and Hensley finally threw in the towel and left the band himself in 1980. Many listeners and pundits wrote the Heep off with Hensley’s departure, but sole remaining founder Mick Box (guitar) retooled the group for 1982’s Abominog, which was a surprise hit, laying the groundwork for an ongoing Heep story that’s still producing stellar live shows and great studio albums; their most recent, Living The Dream (2018), is to these ears one of their most significant career highlights.

Hensley’s post-Heep career was productive and rewarding, if a bit more low-key than his earlier band days. He lived and worked in the United States for most of the ’80s and ’90s, appearing on albums by Blackfoot, W.A.S.P. and Cinderella, running a studio and working for an instrument manufacturer in St. Louis, and occasionally fronting his own solo bands. He relocated to Spain in the early 2000s, and remained active until his death, with a dozen live or studio solo albums to his credit across those years.

Hensley was an openly devout Christian for the final quarter-century of his life, citing his faith as a key tenet to re-establishing his life’s balance after he kicked a tenacious cocaine habit in the late ’80s. He has also long been effusive about the importance to his work and well-being of his partnership with his wife, Monica,  who he first met around 2000, and married in 2004. I always appreciate artists who are honest and open about such matters.

If you’re not familiar with Ken Hensley’s sound and work, I offer ten samples below, personal favorites all, from his Gods, Toe Fat, and Heep days. I even offer a cut from the infamous and pseudonymous 1970 album Orgasm, credited to Head Machine, but really just The Gods in transition to Toe Fat. Hensley’s songwriting, singing, guitar work and keyboard textures shine in various ways throughout these cuts. He left a great body of work for a lot of saddened fans to appreciate in the days ahead. May he rest in peace, and may his loved ones have comfort at the time of his passing.