Woly Boly: Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

It’s a rainy, dreary, drab day in Chicago, so seems a good time to try to be a better blogger while my laundry spins. So how about some music talk, huh? Remember how I used to do that all the time here, back before Twittering and other distractions shortened our attention spans to gnat-like levels? Yeah, those were the days.

I tend to spend the early parts of each year listening to old favorites on the house stereo and commuting iPods, just because I work so hard at the end of each year to digest as much new music as I can to support my album of the year report. But four fab new discs have emerged and caught my attention over the past couple of months, pulling me out of nostalgia head space for now. Here’s the reviews and reports . . .

Wire’s Silver/Lead leads the pack thus far. Released on the 40th anniversary of their first show as a quartet, it’s got a smoother, cooler, swingier vibe about it than some of their more frantic and metronomic dugga dugga dugga fare. If I had to liken it to any other albums in their high quality, eclectic canon, I’d probably compare it to 1988’s A Bell Is A Cup . . . Until It Is Struck. Both albums are melodic, mid-tempo and accessible on first listen, but rich with weirdness when you dig into them a little deeper. Colin Newman has dominated the vocals on recent Wire albums, so it’s good to hear Graham Lewis more represented in the mix this time; the variety of their voices is appealing when you listen straight through. Lewis’ lyrics are odd and wonderful, as always, though the album has a bit more directness and perhaps even poignancy in some places, with the emotions showing through more than they usually do in Wire’s often detached and icy worldview. I would judge this to be the best offering of the Wire’s current era with Matthew Simms on guitar, and while the inner workings of the band are inscrutable to outsiders, as as longtime (nearly lifetime) listener,  I feel like I’m hearing Simms really emerging here as something other than a junior partner replacement to founding and retired guitarist Bruce Gilbert. An early leader in the album of the year sweepstakes. Sample Song: “Playing Harp for the Fishes.”

The Residents’ The Ghost of Hope marks, as many Residents albums before it have, a turning point into a new phase or project. We’ve had Mole Shows, and Cube-E’s, and Great American Composers, and all sorts of other conceptual frameworks for short or long runs of Residents’ releases. The last several years have found the (sometimes) eyeballs in highly prolific form with the “Randy, Chuck and Bob” line-up, a bunch of (supposedly) historic album releases, a series of records from (alleged) primary composer Charles Bobuck (who has now apparently retired for health reasons), a (sort of) Spanish language album by (purported) member ex-member Carlos, and their Talking Light, The Wonder of Weird and Shadowlands tour rubrics. The many first person web releases, videos, albums and narratives of this era often purport to dispel the Resident’s permanent anonymity, although, of course, they do not really. The Ghost of Hope is now announced as a “classic Residents” project, restoring the group’s (assumed) quartet lineup, with long-time collaborators Nolan Cook, Eric Drew Feldman and Carla Fabrizio along for the ride. While you can never quite be sure what to believe and what not to believe when it comes to The Residents, they have the following to say about this latest project, make of it what you will:

Following their long tradition of projects based on narrative themes, The Residents are pleased to announce the release of The Ghost of Hope, an historically accurate album based on train wrecks. Pursuing this theme in both a literal and metaphorical sense, the group discovered a series of vintage news articles highlighting the dangers of train travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by the era’s elegant language, the group then contrasted that eloquence against the sheer horror of these devastating events, resulting in an album that sounds both startlingly new and curiously nostalgic.

From a sonic standpoint, it rocks harder than anything they’ve done in the past decade, with Louisiana-inflected crooner Mr Red Eye/Mr Skull/Randy Rose (these days dressed as a cow, while his band mates don plague masks) in very fine voice, and the accompaniments and texts being direct, disturbing, and delicious in equal measure. I don’t know how long this phase is going to last, but it’s a good start to something for some period of time, until it’s not (possibly), so I’m happy to be along for the ride. Hopefully not ending with a train wreck, I should note. Sample Song: “Death Harvest.”

I have to note up front that I was prepared to hate everything about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Flying Microtonal Banana, and I mean everything. Stupid band name, ridiculous announced intention to issue five albums this year exploring microtonal music (as if their inexperienced offerings would somehow clarify what we haven’t learned from decades of jazz and non-Western tunings, puh-leeze), schmucky visuals, popularity with annoying hipsters, you name it, I knew I wouldn’t like it. In fact: I actually sampled the album for no other reason than to make snarky comments about it. (On Twitter, of course. Because Twitter). But, dammit, a funny thing happened on the way to my 140-character dismantling . . . because I was really, extremely and highly annoyed to discover that this was, in fact, a very good album, and I confess that I like it a lot, having grabbed the whole thing and spun it for a couple of months now. I hate when that happens!!! The microtonality thing is evident, but not overwhelming or annoying, in the guitar and vocal lines, and the whole thing chugs along smartly on rumbly double drum and bass beds, with surprisingly memorable, singalong melodies given the odd intonation of some of the songs. Grumble grumble grumble, dammit. Stop looking at me. Sample song: “Rattlesnake.”

Xiu Xiu’s last album of primarily original material, 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was described by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart as an exploration of the “mean, tight-hearted blackness of Neubauten vs Suicide vs Nico” and, amazingly enough, it actually lived up (or down, depending on your worldview) to that evocative description of really dark, really powerful music. Of course, that makes it one of my favorite albums by the assaultive experimental ensemble. Surrounding it, though, were gentler records exploring the music of Nina Simone, the soundtracks to Twin Peaks, and Caribbean folk songs and American hymns, so Stewart and Company clearly hadn’t completely succumbed to the allures of the null and the void. This year’s Xiu Xiu offering, FORGET, is something of a happy medium merger of the aforementioned forays, with (relatively) accessible song structures, melodies and arrangements, spiced with Stewart’s typically frank declamations on all manner of deeply felt things, sacred and profane, wordly and other, sexy and ugly, almost all in equal measure. Core members Stewart, Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman are joined this time out by nearly a dozen guests — including genderqueer icon Vaginal Davis, Kristof Hahn (Swans, Pere Ubu), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) — and the record has a richer, less skeletal feel than some of their blunter early work. It’s not easy listening, not by a long shot, and it’s not likely to pierce the pop charts, but it’s a little step closer in that direction from anything that’s come before it, and if that exposes Xiu Xiu’s brilliance to even a few more fans, then that’s a good thing.  Sample Song: “Wondering.”

Other discs I’m enjoying, but not quite long or often enough to review with any depth at this point, are Black Angel’s Death Song, Meat Wave’s The Incessant and Awa Poulo’s Poulo Warali. More on them, perhaps, at the mid-year report, or the next time a lazy, rainy weekend day intrudes on our Chicago schedule . . .

“So You Must Be Eric . . .”

On March 8, 1987, I graduated from Naval Supply Corps School in Athens, Georgia, and was given a one-month leave period to make my move to Arlington, Virginia. I was one of four from my year group in Athens (me, Mike, Bruce and Greg) who had been selected to work as procurement, logistics and budget officers at Naval Reactors Headquarters, which was considered a very prestigious posting.

After two days en route from Georgia to Virginia, followed by 29 days of being a dissolute wastrel, I checked in at my new office (Room 3N11 in National Center Two, on Clark Street, in Crystal City) on April 8, 1987, and spent a busy day learning the ropes, as Naval Reactors was very much a “throw you in the water to see if you can swim” sort of place.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, I managed a quick bathroom break and was hurrying back to my desk, when out of a door on the other side of the resource management department’s office area stepped a confidently attractive blond woman, her charms made especially striking when encountered in a building dominated by badly-dressed male engineers. (There’s a reason for the pocket-pen protector stereotype, believe me).

As it turned out, the very striking woman had already met Mike, Bruce and Greg, and so she properly deduced that I must be the fourth member of that year’s Naval Reactors Supply Corps cohort.

“So, you must be Eric . . .” she said, being a friendly type.

And I said in reply, because I am not half as clever as I like to pretend: “Must I be?”

Then I scurried back to my cubicle.

That was 30 years ago tomorrow, and that was the first conversation that Marcia and I ever had. Who could have possibly imagined where it would lead us?

It turned out we were neighbors, too, and we moved in similar social circles, so we saw each other a lot, at work and at play. I was quickly smitten, though it took a while before the feeling was mutual, and we didn’t start dating until about nine months after we met. After that, though, things moved quickly: within 18 months, we’d gotten engaged, bought a house together, and were married. The girl child (who is now 26) was born less than two years after that.

Then came Idaho. Then came New York. Then came Iowa. Then came Chicago. Wow.

I don’t know what I did that made me deserving of such an extraordinary life partner, but I’m thankful for whatever it was, and awed on a daily basis by my good fortune. So I must be Eric, indeed, and apparently, that’s just fine. Thank you, Marcia, for noticing. I love you with all of my being, and look forward to whatever adventures the next 30 years bring us!

Look what I caught! Can I keep it?!?

Madness (Space and Otherwise)

My most recent trip was to Washington, DC, and Marcia accompanied me on this one. After my work was done, we stuck around for a couple of extra days, had some nice meals with old friends, and explored the city where we first met 30 years ago. While the iconic buildings and skyline remain mostly unchanged, the evolution of the city below that level was profound. When we lived there, for example, “14th Street and U” would have been the answer to the question: “Where do I get a hooker, a gun, some crack, or all of the above?” Now it’s a gentrifying neighborhood and the next “hot destination,” bridging quirky Adams Morgan and the ever-expanded heart of the downtown Mall area. Another example: I love me some Washington Capitals and Bullets, but I had no idea that their new (to me) arena was in the same general area where I used to go to amazing concerts through the 1980s at the very sketchy and smelly original 930 Club, at 930 F Street NW. We paid a pilgrimage to that site, where I once saw Butthole Surfers, Chuck Brown, Camper Van Beethoven, Fishbone, Black Flag, Root Boy Slim, Bad Brains, The Busboys, Minor Threat, Guadalcanal Diary, E.U., and so many others I can’t even remember anymore, and you know what we found?  That we could now buy sweaters. Sigh . . .

I can’t believe they got the smell out of the building.

On our last day in Washington, we decided to make a quick stop in to the new (to us) National Museum of African American History and Culture. There didn’t seem to be any lines, so we strolled up to the entrance as one does at most Smithsonian museums to just amble in, but the gentleman at the door explained that demand was so high that advance tickets were required, and there weren’t likely to be any available for the rest of that day, nor the day following. He offered some helpful tips on how to perhaps score a stray ticket or two, but it didn’t look like it was going to work, so I said “Thank you, sir, I appreciate your help.” As I was walking away, he said “Wait . . . are you a Veteran? You sound like a Veteran.” And I am, of course, as is Marcia, and so we were admitted under the museums Vets’ policy. Good manners and politeness pay off in unexpected ways. We only had an hour to explore, so we actually only got through one of five floors, but it was so amazing and so well curated and so exciting that we will definitely be going back again. The highlight of highlights for me? Turning a corner and seeing this unexpectedly . . .

ZOMFG!!!!! THE MOTHERSHIP!!!!!

If you have to ask, you’ll never know, blah blah blah, but if you want to understand the significance of this iconic object, then sit down right now, click the next link, and watch the late Glenn Goins Calling Down The Mothership.

We also went to the National Air and Space Museum and normally I’d be falling all over myself to tell you about the rockets and planes I saw there, but even John Glenn’s Friendship 7 pales next to the experience of seeing The Mothership. Other snaps from our trip (including the obligatory cherry blossoms and a visit to the exceptional FDR Monument) are at my Flickr site, which you can reach by clicking the picture of the space nerd below:

SPACE MADNESSSSS!!!!

We were bopping around Washington on Friday as the healthcare vote debacle was unfolding, so it was interesting to see various helicopters and limousines racing back and forth between various key points in the city’s political infrastructure while the GOP did its best to punch itself in the face during its hot pursuit of political malfeasance. We both slept well that night, and let’s leave it at that, since I’m not intending to use my blog as political website, tempting as that may be. Besides, everything that really needs to be said about how things feel today in America is available in an extraordinary new video from Jed Davis and the mighty Hanslick Rebellion, linked below (language warning, NSFW):

I’ve been following Jed’s work since the ’90s, and have written about him many times here over the years. In short: I consider him to be one of America’s greatest songwriters, ever, and he’s got the instrumental chops, design skills, studio acumen, arrangement ear, and live charisma to make it all work in the studio, on the stage, in a box, with a fox, on a train, and even in the rain, in Spain. Get on over to his The Congregation of Vapors page now to discover what you’ve been missing all these years. It’s all genius, all the time, and the cast of characters who appear there with Jed (e.g. Chuck Rainey, Reeves Gabrels, Tony Levin, Anton Fig, Jerry Marotta, Avi Buffalo, Ralph Carney, Tommy Ramone, and many many many more more more) is mind-blowing in the extreme.