Thursday, January 14, 2021

Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Looking into My Head

Once my dad retired and was home all the time, it always puzzled me that he didn't have music playing during his every waking hour. After all, he was a music fan. The house was full of plenty of albums that he hadn't played in years, in addition to a plethora of CDs that we kids bought him for birthdays and holidays. With all the time in the world, why not have music going while doing crosswords puzzles, reading the paper or writing out the bills? 

Somewhere along the way, my mom set me straight: Pop didn't dig having music run in the background. It should be upfront, observed pretty closely, though not analytically. Sure, when we would come over for dinner, it was okay to have something on in the background. But a constant stream of music? No way. 

Over the past few years, I've come to feel the same way. Part of relates to my being a music writer. (My dad wasn't, though he was a bass player.) Maybe there are some reviewers who can put on an ECM album while loading the dishwasher or running to the basement to clean the litter box, and still zero in on what Manfred Eicher's production skills brought out in a session. Or maybe they picked up on the way Sonny Rollins locked in with Han Bennink on Rollins in Holland while making Sunday breakfast. 

Not me. I have to listen to an album a few times - closely - before I feel like I can write about it. And I usually scribble down some notes to make sure that I recall the finer points of an album  In fact, one of the things I concluded in 2020 is that I rarely like an album on the first listen. It takes time to get used to it. Sometimes there's a too much expectation built into it and I can't enjoy the music right off the bat. (I remember buying the the Beatles' Anthology albums when they came out. During the first listen, my mind would wander onto the next song when I hadn't even gotten more than a verse and a half into the previous one.) 

It isn't just new albums that make me feel this way. It can just as easily happen with a new-to-me album from some bygone era that I never heard before. There are plenty of jazz albums that I still would like to discover. I don't always feel like I can just put them on and get into it without giving them full attention. Listening with half an ear can make something sound quaint and not very exciting. Some people might be appalled to hear that Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else sounded pretty dull to me when I first heard it. 

When I'm writing about an album or an artist, I feel like I need to take a lot of time to make sure I'm getting details right. The beauty of a blog is that it's easy to go back and change any mistakes. So if I somehow carelessly mistake a trombone for a baritone horn or a rhumba for a clave, it's an easy fix. Sometimes I wonder if that's part of the reason why I feel so comfortable writing about free improvisation - the performance isn't usually weighed down with traditional stylistic descriptions. It's easier to write about the emotional and visceral qualities of the music. 

Another factor that came up, thanks to the mess of 2020: there were a lot of times where I didn't feel like trying to take in something new. Even though I might have time to myself in the morning while making coffee, the events of the day left me wanting things to be predictable. 

Besides, it can be hard to put the new music receptors on when there's something like a favorite album from my 20s or an easy listening album still still on the turntable after last night's dinner. I don't have a man cave (and I still don't really like that word) where I go to hear music. The main turntable is just off of the kitchen, with an extra set of speakers in the kitchen. So if I'm listening to some wild free improv stuff and I don't feel like I can blast it, that album will be put on hold. Or get lost in a sea of other albums and CDs, whichever comes first.

Then I feel like I'm not doing my due diligence as a writer. I can't keep up with new things, I don't know all the right vintage things and the end result is I spend more time worrying about what I'm not writing about than actually writing it. It's amazing that I don't just abandon music altogether. 

Then I remember that getting started is the hardest part. With "maintaining an attention span to see it through to completion" being the second hardest part. 

As time goes on, I feel like I'm moving further and further away from the typical indie rock/pop that I like, with all my time and mental space getting taken up by jazz of all sorts. Last year, I feel like I only bought three indie rock albums, one of them being sort of relative. 

Destroyer's Have We Met was the first one. Dan Bejar (who is Destroyer for all intents and purposes, though many of the same people play on the albums) is a pretty prolific songwriter, churning out a new album about every two years or so. I feel compelled to get them when they come out. (As a writer, I probably could get a promo download of them, but since I'm not always going to write about them, I don't always feel right doing that.)

When I get these Destroyer albums, sometimes my first reaction is buyer's remorse. Do I need every album? Are they all the same after awhile? (Sometimes it seems like the same three or four chords.) But then "Crimson Tide," the first song on Have We Met, opens this way: 
"I was like the laziest river
A vulture predisposed to eating off floors
No wait, I take that back
I was more like an ocean
Stuck inside hospital corridors"

That set of lyrics, with its verbal editing and revision, made me realize, yes, I do need this album. Nobody weaves a twisted narrative like Bejar. And the album's arrangements recall the best elements of '80s new wave and synth pop, with some heavier underlying grooves courtesy of bassist John Collins.

Bob Mould's Blue Hearts was the second rock album on my list. I really loved Sunshine Rock and was crushed that I didn't get to catch him on that tour. His playing on that album had more bite to it than I, as a casual fan, had heard in a while. But geez oh pete, Blue Hearts adds a heavy dose of bile to that bite. It sounds as if someone told Bob to write an album that reacts to all the shit that's gone down over the past few years, react to it and.... make a statement or two while you're at it. 

He did that and he did it really well. "You can see how the lies divide us/ world turning darker every day in a fucked up USA/ can you look in the mirror and tell me everything's alright?" He hasn't sounded this pissed off - and on the money - since Everything Falls Apart.

I bought Blue Hearts in mid October, weeks before the election, after a horrible summer of unrest, leaving me in a state of high anxiety. The album doesn't really offer solutions. Spoiler alert - the narrator seems to kill himself in the final song by walking off into the waves. But it was nice to know that someone else felt the same way I did, and was raging about it. 

The final offering in my list is Wendy Eisenberg's Auto. The guitarist is someone I've written about here on a couple of occasions, usually as an improvisor, a potentially noisy one at that. Auto on the other hand finds her going into more of a free-folk direction. Apparently, it was somewhat inspired by Joni Mitchell (someone who I can never get into) but to these ears, Eisenberg almost sounds like the wilder, more imaginative younger sister of Mary Timony. The songs occasionally move in a linear fashion but more often they're marked by twists and turns. Like the other two albums, Auto comes with a lyric sheet (which much like Mould's lyric sheet, is a challenge to follow due to its layout). But it's worth the effort in the end. 

Speaking of year-end reflections, it's usually time to the NPR Jazz Critic Poll to pop up around this time, but I've yet to see it. That's ironic too since I got my tally in on time. 

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