Nick Cave – Idiot Prayer. Nick Cave had a world tour planned for 2020 to promote his and The Bad Seeds excellent 2019 album Ghosteen. I bought tickets to a show scheduled for October in Seattle but, as with all the other shows on the tour, it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. No live shows? What could he do? He booked the Alexandra Palace and livestreamed a pay-per-view live show of just him at piano in a venue that can hold 7,500 people. Okay, so we all know Nick’s voice is a beautiful instrument, but what about that piano? Nick wrote this for The Red Hand Files:
The piano I played at Alexandra Palace was a Fazioli. There were limited pianos I could access during lockdown. There was, however, a Fazioli. I had never played one before but Dom Monks, the guy who recorded the Alexandra Palace performance, highly recommended this piano. The moment I sat down at the Fazioli, its warm, soft, nuanced sound spoke to me like no piano had spoken to me before. I was swept away by its extraordinary tonal range. It whispered to me. It roared at me. It was the most beautiful instrument I had ever played.
I watched the livestream show on July 23rd and was blown away by the intimacy of the performance. The songs take on a whole new character when performed without The Bad Seeds. You can’t help but focus on every word and Nick’s delivery of them.
Nick wrote in the liner notes for the album released in November:
On 19th June 2020, surrounded by COVID officers with tape measures and thermometers, masked-up gaffers and camera operators, nervous looking technicians and buckets of hand gel, we created something very strange and very beautiful that spoke into this uncertain time, but was in no way bowed by it.
The title track of the album was taken from the song of the same name on the 1997 release, The Boatman’s Call. There are six songs from that piano-based album, a few from Ghosteen, and other albums plus two Grinderman songs, including “Palaces of Montezuma”, which is one of my favorites on this album. As of now there are only two clips from the film available on YouTube. Here’s “Galleon Ship” from Ghosteen.
2. Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels. Lucinda unleashed the devil when she put this album together. It’s visceral, raw dirty blues with a punk edge. With the lyrics she attacks the evil subjects in her songs, like Donald Trump in “Man Without a Soul”. She never says his name, but you know who she’s talking about. I’ve been a huge fan of hers at least since way back in 1998 when she put our her masterpiece, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Here she is performing the opening track of Good Souls Better Angels – her new masterpiece.
3. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions. Another great collection of songs by Jason Isbell. I chose “Overseas” because of the infectious guitar part – especially at the 3:05 mark of the album version and at 3:39 when Jason throws in some Crazy Horse like harmonic distortion. The video here is a live at-home recording for The Late Show, and it’s a wee bit longer than the album version. Enjoy!
4. Porridge Radio – Every Bad. I think I learned about this band by reading this review in The Guardian. From there I watched and listened to several YouTube videos, both “Lilac” and “Sweet” really got my attention. Dana Margolin’s voice is a very powerful instrument she uses to belt out some angsty screams. She is a very talented songwriter and singer, and she’s only 26, so I expect more great things from this band in the future. Here’s the closest thing to a pop song on the album. Pop is good!
5. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death. Just over a year after their first album, Dogrel, was released to great acclaim, they dropped their second album. It’s different than the harder rocking first album. It’s a bit dark and brooding, and that’s probably why I like it. Check out this very weird video for the single, “A Hero’s Death”. Sort of Lynchian…
Here is part two of my list of top twenty albums of 2020.
6. Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas. This eponymously titled album is her third following Blood from 2015 and Is Your Love Big Enough from 2012. I had not heard of her until I saw her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2015 when she sat in with the Jon Batiste and Stay Human band and performed “Green and Gold” from Blood. It was an and incredible performance backed by a great band, so I bought the album and began to learn more about her. She was born in London to a Greek father and Jamaican mother. Her father taught her how to play piano and guitar, and she sang in her school choir. She got a big break in her career when she was featured on Prince’s album Art Official Age, and sang with him in an epic 2014 Saturday Night Live performance of the song “Clouds”. The first single from her new album is a cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes”, and it’s brilliant. Enjoy!
7. Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman. This album was released in January, and I think it was the first new album I bought this year. As I wrote then, “I was struck by the clarity of their sound and their perfect vocal harmonies.” I must still be because I continue to play this album a lot. The group is made up of Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Eric D. Johnson, who in the press materials wrote of the reworked traditional folk songs they recorded: “This record is about timeless humanity. These 500-year-old lyrics are so deeply applicable. ‘The Roving’ could be the plot of an ’80s teen movie: ‘I had a wild summer with this awesome girl then she broke my heart!’ How incredible is it that as humans we still just want to love and have sex and feel sad and fight? It’s ancient music that feels, emotionally, right now. It’s thoroughly modern.”
8. Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band – Just Like Moby Dick. Terry Allen has been putting out some strange form of Texan alt-country absurdist songs and music since the seventies. He is also an accomplished writer, playwriter, sculptor, and visual artist. Check out his label bio here. This album includes his stalwart band, some family members who play various instruments and add backing vocals, and Charlie Sexton as co-producer, plus Shannon McNally, a new collaborator, provides prominent vocals on some songs. It’s a great collection of odd people and strange stories that’s well worth listening to over and over again. Here’s one of the odder songs about a circus visiting a city of vampires.
9. Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? Well these days sometimes I think I have, and this album is the perfect for when I feel that way. I don’t think many people know of Fantastic Negrito (real name Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz), but I think many people should – like you! His music draws on blues, R&B, roots music, a little psychedelia, and some great guitar work. Check out this video for “Chocolate Samurai” which features home videos solicited by Fantastic Negrito that show what his fans were doing to entertain themselves during quarantine.
10. Jerry Joseph – The Beautiful Madness. This the most powerful political album I’ve heard in years. The album is produced by Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers, who’ve put out their own great political music, but this one is a gut punch. Jerry Joseph is new to me this year, which is surprising. I’d like to be able to say I first heard Jerry Joseph on KEXP, but I cannot recall ever hearing him on the station (must be too many f-bombs in his songs), so I only know of the album because it was mentioned in a weekly No Depression email, and I read the review and I immediately bought the album. Here’s a little snip from the review:
On Jerry Joseph’s new record, The Beautiful Madness, he walks the line between darkness and light, good and evil, and does so masterfully as he somehow speaks into the current realities of life with songs that were written well before a virus ravaged the globe and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd erupted protests and movements in the name of justice.
In other words, The Beautiful Madness is both prophetic and apocalyptic, quickly becoming a revelation for all who have ears to hear.
“Putting down the torch, surrender to the swell,” Joseph sings on opening track, “Days of Heaven.” “Ready for the dive, these are the days of heaven.” Co-written with Drive-By Truckers’ founding member Patterson Hood (who also produced the album), “Days of Heaven” sets the foundation for what’s to come on the rest of the record: living life on the brink of beautiful madness.
Here’s the bottom half of the top twenty albums of 2020.
11. David Ramirez – My Love is a Hurricane. If first heard David Ramirez in 2015 when he released his first album on the Thirty Tigers label titled Fables. I’ve been paying attention to his music ever since. His 2020 release is more fleshed out with rich arrangements of guitar, piano, synths, and even a little electronic stuff that work really well with this breakup-themed album. “Coast to Coast” is standout track about hitting the road together with your lover to somehow escape a failing relationship.
12. Chuck Prophet – The Land that Time Forgot. Chuck Prophet consistently puts out great rock ‘n roll records, and this new one has to be one of his best. The closing track, “Get Off the Stage” got some good airplay in the runup to the election because the calls to get off the stage are directed at Donald Trump. Hopefully he will be off the mainstage a few weeks from now. The best track on the album is this one.
13. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher. I’ve known of Phoebe Bridgers for a while, because she’s done some work with one of my favorite artists, Julien Baker, but I had not bought any of Phoebe’s albums until this year. Like Baker’s songs, Bridgers’ are very personal and draw you into her world – sometimes troubling, sometime not. Check out “ICU”.
14. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways. Bob Dylan, age 79, has released 39 albums during his long career. On this album, he reflects on history and people and events that have shaped his life and his music. The 17-minute single, “Murder Most Foul” about President Kennedy’s assassination, was released on his YouTube channel a couple of weeks after we all went into quarantine. Fiona Apple plays piano on that track. The album was highly ranked in the best-of-2020 list of many major publications. Both MOJO and Uncut magazines ranked it number one.
15. Jim White – Misfit’s Jubilee. I’ve been a fan of Jim White ever since when in 1997 I mistakenly bought his first album, Wrong-Eyed Jesus, because I thought it included a song about a guy picking up a hitchhiker who ends up being Jesus, who pulls a gun on him and steals his car. The song I was looking for was “Gimme a Ride to Heaven” by Terry Allen on the 1983 album Bloodlines. Anyway, I was glad to have bought Jim’s first album, and I still listen to it often. Here’s what No Depression says about his new album:
A cross between a hysterical lunatic and a road-weary sage, Jim White really lets loose on the electrifying Misfit’s Jubilee, the latest installment in his ongoing quest to make sense of reality in all its dazzling weirdness.
Check out “The Divided States of America”.
16. Drive By Truckers – The Unraveling. This is another political album they wrote and recorded before the coronavirus quarantine started and it was released in early February. The album addresses many of America’s most troubling problems like opioid addiction, mass shootings, racial violence, extremism, and divisiveness. “Thoughts and Prayers” got a lot of airplay oh KEXP (#74 non their list), and it’s a very good song. I think “Rosemary With a Bible and Gun” is really great. (They released another new album last Friday titled The New OK. I bought it today and I’m listening to it right now for the first time, but it’s too late for consideration on this list or the accompanying cd I made a few weeks ago.)
17. Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. Bruce is getting old. He’s 71, but he keeps writing great songs and sometimes releases them as solo albums but most times with the E Street Band. Interesting thing about this release is the cover does not say “and the E Street Band” after his name, but when you listen to it, it’s definitely them backing him up. Curious as I am, I read the fine print at the end of the liner notes, and found “Performed by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band”. I don’t know why they aren’t named on the cover. They were named on SNL last week. The music business is weird. Anyway, this album includes a couple of songs that he wrote when he was just a New Jersey punk trying to make a name for himself, and he’s revisited them and freshened them up for the better. Check out “Janey Needs a Shooter” and “Rainmaker” to hear what I’m talking about . The title track is also very good.
18. Lydia Loveless – Daughter. It’s been four years since Lydia put out a new album. She’s been through a divorce since then, and more! Americana Highways says:
Since the release of Real, Lydia Loveless has been the subject of a documentary, got divorced, moved from her native Ohio to North Carolina, came forth with allegations of sexual harassment at her former record company and started her own label.
For fans and artist alike, it has seemed like an eternity. With the release of Daughter, (Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late Records), Lydia Loveless returns with songs of trials and tribulations and the detailed self-analysis of someone one who has been performing publicly for nearly half of her life.
The single “Wringer” is a great track. Check it out.
19. Angel Olsen – Whole New Mess. This album contains the stripped down versions of the songs on last year’s All Mirrors. These recordings are pretty much just Angel Olsen singing with her own accompaniment on guitar. There are some quiet organ tracks on some songs. It’s all pretty raw and spacious sounding. It reminds me of what Nick Cave did for Idiot Prayer, and maybe even what Bruce Springsteen did on Nebraska. This video for “Waving Smiling” captures its essence.
20. Pretenders – Hate for Sale. Chrissy Hynde finally found a suitable replacement for James Honeyman-Scott and put out a Pretenders album this year that sounds like it fits right in with the band’s first two albums from the early eighties. The new guitarist is James Walbourne. Listen to the title track and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
It’s been a month since I put up any new music, and I’ve discovered several albums that are worth adding to the list. Let’s start with Nick Cave’s cover of “Cosmic Dancer” by T. Rex from the upcoming all-star tribute album titled, AngelHeaded Hipster set to be released on September 4, 2020. It will be a double album with 26 tracks featuring U2, Elton John, Joan Jett, Perry Farrell, Sean Lennon, Lucinda Williams, and more!
Many people are not familiar with Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band. I think I first heard him on KEXP’s Swingin’ Doors show around twenty years ago when Don Slack played “Gimme a Ride to Heaven” from the the 1983 album Bloodlines. I bought that album and have been following him ever since. No Depression describes his new album, Just Like Moby Dick, like this;
Instead of a voyage on the Pequod, Allen takes his listeners on a journey that covers a lot of ground, from Houdini facing death after life in “Houdini Didn’t Like the Spiritualists” to a town lamenting the loss of its last local dancer in “Death of the Last Stripper.” Allen brings clown-killing vampires into the light on “City of the Vampires” and delivers the storytelling masterpiece “Pirate Jenny,” which serves as a nod to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s original of the same name.
Here is “Sailin’ on Through”. Enjoy!
Drive By Truckers have been putting out great southern rock music for decades now. They are not shy about expressing their political views, so it’s no surprise that during this year of a presidential election they have released their most political album ever, The Unraveling. Here’s their response to the nutjob, Christian, second-amendment crowd who won’t do anything about the epidemic of mass killings committed with ridiculously powerful automatic weapons except offer up their “Thoughts and Prayers”.
Stephen Malkmus has put out several solo albums, and they all sound a little different – some sound similar to his seminal band Pavement, some a little like Sonic Youth, some are bit electronic, and this new one titled Traditional Techniques is less rock, less electric, more acoustic, and maybe sounds a little bit like Wilco.
This next one is the title track from Tré Burt’s new album, Caught it From the Rye. You will probably find that the instrumentation and vocals sound very much like someone you know. Sean Jewell over at American Standard Time, in a somewhat amusing fashion, goes to great lengths not to name that singer/songwriter, because well… Sean has his own set of principles to which he must adhere.
I, on the other hand, will name that person. He happens to be an artist I have been listing to quite a bit lately. Bob Dylan has released two new songs on YouTube in the past three weeks. I won’t post the actual videos, because they are already ubiquitous on the internet. “Murder Most Foul“, about the assassination of President Kennedy and what it means to the American psyche, was released a few weeks ago. Today he released “I Contain Multitudes” which seems to be about all the things that have influenced his work.
After nine days in intensive care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, John Prine passed away at the age of 73 due to complications from COVID-19. Last weekend, he was intubated — a process that involves inserting a tube down a patient’s throat to assist with moving air in and out of the lungs — as family members and the Oh Boy Records team continued to update fans on his condition via social media. Prine was a high-risk patient, due to his squamous cell cancer diagnosis in 1998, lung cancer in 2013, heart surgery last summer, and recent hip injury that canceled his February tour dates.
Beloved, of course, in the roots music community, Prine was also greatly respected around the world for his vivid, often humorous storytelling. Beginning with his 1971 self-titled album — a record that Rolling Stone dubbed one of the 500 greatest of all time, replete with classics like “Paradise” and “Angel from Montgomery” — and through to his 2018 LP Tree of Forgiveness, Prine captured the simplicities and the complexities of the human existence in stark and stunning glory.
Yesterday evening, friends texted me regarding his death, and I asked them what songs they would like to see posted. Here’s Zippy’s selection from John Prine’s first album.
And Jen chose “In Spite of Ourselves” the title track from his 1999 album.
Gorby chose what is probably his most-famous song covered by Bonnie Raitt.
And Kyri chose “When I Get to Heaven” live from Austin City Limits.
Rolling Stone has reported that Marianne Faithfull was admitted to a London hospital with cold-like symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus. Her manager, François Ravard, says she is stable and responding to treatments.
The album of hers that first caught my attention is her 1979 masterpiece, Broken English.
Here is the title track set to an “Anti-war film made with a montage of various images including Picasso, Goya, Heartfield, Daumier, Kollwitz, and others”.
And here is a video of Marianne working with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in the studio recording “The Gypsy Faerie Queen” and getting interviewed by Nick.
John Prine is Hospitalized and Recovering from COVID-19 Symptoms
The country musician John Prine has been hospitalised and is in now in a stable condition after experiencing symptoms of coronavirus. A post to his official Twitter account said that Prine, 73, had been taken to the hospital on Thursday and intubated on Saturday.
Via Mike Mills’ twitter feed, watch this video today.
There’s nothing better than listening to music while you are sheltering in place, so I have put together a few video tracks of my favorite albums that have been released this year.
I learned of Porridge Radio a few weeks ago, and I have been listening to them via YouTube because before the pandemic when I was able to go to Easy Street Records in West Seattle or Sonic Boom Records in Ballard, neither store had any of their music in stock. I guess I will have to order it and have it delivered.
Lilac, meanwhile, turns that emotional journey on its head. This time around, Margolin repeats: “I don’t want to get bitter, I want us to get better, I want us to be kinder to ourselves and to each other.” What looks like a self-help platitude on paper slowly builds up a power at odds with its sentiment, becoming increasingly frenzied and raw-throated, in a way that completely undercuts any optimism. By the end of the song, it sounds confoundingly like a threat.
This tension of opposites is a recurring theme, not just in Margolin’s ability to destabilise a lyric with her voice, but in the words themselves. They’re big on inconsistency – “I don’t know what I want, but I know what I want” – and frequently sound like frantic internal dialogues that capture a very twentysomething brand of angst, where the realisation that you’re now an adult crashes against uncertainty about whether you’re doing adulthood correctly.
In the extraordinary “Kinda Dark,” he delivers his apocalyptic verses in a distracted whisper over subdued electronic scenery. When the drums hit and the electric guitar attacks out of nowhere, it feels genuinely startling: the appearance of the looming threat he’s been slowly backing away from the whole time.
This sense of unease spans the record, making uptempo songs like the glittery “It Just Doesn’t Happen” and the soaring “Crimson Tide” sound like dispatches from a doomed adventure. Other songs exist in the cloud of smoke that’s left behind.
I first heard this new “supergroup” Bonny Light Horseman while wandering around Sonic Boom Records a couple months ago. The band members are Eric D. Johnson, Anaïs Mitchell, and Josh Kaufman – all of whom I am not that familiar with, but I guess many people are because they are SUPER. I was struck by the clarity of their sound and their perfect vocal harmonies, so I bought their eponymously titled debut album. The video is from a live performance and it sounds very muck like it does on the album. No Depression wrote this about it:
That winter [of 2018], they made the trek to Dreamland Recording in Woodstock, New York, for another quick session to finish what they hoped would be enough for a record. “When we went to Woodstock, we knew we were trying to finish a record, and I think the question became, how to record in a way that felt of-a-piece with the Berlin stuff in an environment that was so different,” Mitchell says. They had a blast over the course of two days, again standing close to one another, playing live without headphones, and joined by Michael Lewis (bass, saxophone) and JT Bates (drums, percussion), as well as engineer Bella Blasco and mixer D. James Goodwin. That live sound results in an intimate, but atmospheric vibe that permeates every song on the album. These sessions took on that same sense of immediacy the band felt in Berlin, particularly with songs like “Deep in Love” and “The Roving,” two of the album’s standouts.
This last one is by another singer I learned about this year while reading No Depression reviews. Her name is Kyshona Armstrong. Here’s a snippet from the review.
Kyshona Armstrong honed her craft in the state mental hospital. Not as an inmate, but as a teacher. She broadened her musical healing abilities in prisons and also in schools, working with children diagnosed with emotional behavior disorders.
The singer, who records under her first name, has said that she never wanted to be in the spotlight. Armstrong had aspirations to be a psychologist, but a music scholarship opened up new possibilities for her in the field of musical therapy. She eventually realized that her message could do good from the stage as well.
On the title cut, Kyshona urges people within the sound of her voice to start their activism by the simple act of listening: “I know you wanna help / but you’re deaf to the mission / Even when you see the hand I’m dealt / You pretend it’s my decision.”
And last but not least, Pearl Jam is releasing a new album titled Gigaton tomorrow. Alexis Petridis wrote this about “Quick Escape” for The Guardian:
Quick Escape does a lot of Pearl Jammy stuff – big soaring chorus, more guitar histrionics – but sets them against an atmosphere that’s authentically spacey and strange, as again befits lyrics that have taken on an entirely unwitting kind of currency. If you’re going to release a song about the human race facing such catastrophe that escaping to another planet feels appealing, now is probably the moment to do it.
That’s all for this week. I’ll try and do this more often – maybe every couple of weeks or so.