I’m writing this at 1:30 AM, on the morning of November 2nd, so if I can avoid both nihilistic flippancy and doom infatuated self-seriousness, it’ll be some sort of sweet miracle. Russian roulette metaphors, where the chamber is either empty or full, are writing themselves on the keyboard’s own accord and it’s only the Gemini twins of humility and aesthetics that are giving me the strength to delete them as fast as they appear on the page. The air is thick with fear and loathing and cliche, and I’m grateful that I’m sweating with the windows open. Nothing like inhaling one’s own funk to keep one grounded; the gonzos never copped to smelling like old cheese.
I don’t know how the presidential election is going to go. I’m hoping for Biden. Zohra will be voting for him down in Virginia and I’ll be doing the same in Brooklyn. I just spent a fair amount of time writing a few paragraphs explaining our reasoning, before I caught myself. You don’t need to hear all that. Let’s just say that neither of us are thrilled at the idea of Joe Biden being president but, if recent viral videos have taught us anything, sometimes dreams that just result in a truckload of cranberry juice are enough. We resisted the roulette metaphor, let’s revel in the possibility of four years of vaguely sour, reasonably high nutrition.
With all this big-ass history crushing us, a list of new albums begs for caveats appropriately up the wazoo. But, unlike your average Proud Boy march, both sides should be considered. On one hand, yes, who cares? Rather, is caring about anything other than the election and its stakes, a sure indication of a grotesque dilettantism? We have spent the last four years rationalizing attention paid to art, useless and charming art, by calling every third rate ode to horny malcontentedness a “balm” or “salve” or, lord love a duck, “important.” And we weren’t always lying. Music, as any form of communication or connection, is as essential to our health and sanity as eating hot meals and getting periodic kisses laid upon the general vicinity of our faces and/or junk. Yeah, it’s a bit precious to overrate the, considering all the supposed apocalypse coming down, strangely uninterrupted stream of guitar and/or Ableton toting pretty babies with feelings that have managed to book studio time and hire publicists in these darkest of times. Conversely, it’s just as precious to dismiss it all as trivial or mere distraction; to use ensuing historical trauma as self righteous cudgel. The political is personal but to make the latter subservient to the former, to the point where all art is counter-revolutionarily suspect, is to risk rendering collective pain as lifestyle. Maybe it’s because I’m listening to Nothing’s fab new album The Great Dismal as I write this, and the song collection is as fine a distillation of that band’s commitment to Sisyphean boulder shoving as anything Philly’s most dick swingingest oblivion junkies have thus far recorded, but I’m inclined to split the difference. Sure, big picture, none of these records matter. But so what. Few, if any, of us are ever going to get within spitting distance to anything resembling the “big picture.” So let us revel in our scale, like miniature heroes and villains on the tracks of a model train. Big enough for what’s coming at us. Why should all the gods and masters and landlords and other assorted brass-ball jerks get to hog all the importance!?!? Fuck that. Rather, puff out your chest, expand your inner life until it fills the ever expanding borders of your soul, and drink deep from what might sustain you, you epic pal-o-mine! The kingdom of heaven is yours for the taking, or not, depending. Not a thing and every thing matters, at least as far as this newsletter is concerned! As the singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright said, existentially enough for our purposes, “I know you’re married but I’ve got feelings too.”
So here’s some goddamn art that came out in October, or, if I felt like including it, earlier. If you want to use any of this as an escape, a distraction, a lifesaver, an election soundtrack, or just something Very Important Based on Its Own Inherent Value as Art, I won’t kick any of those notions out of bed for eating crackers. Be free. (and also please buy these albums if so inclined. Thank you.)
Emel The Tunis Diaries
Hunkering down in native Tunisia during Covid, Emel Mathlouthi eschews the more overt Dead Can Dance/Kate Bush/Bjork moves of her last (amazing) album, 2019’s Everywhere We Looked Was Burning, for a double album of stripped down originals and cover songs. Well, as stripped down as her tremendous, vibrant voice will allow. Meaning, despite being just vocals and guitar, the sound on The Tunis Diaries is fucking huge. There’s a huge, miles wide marsh outside of Bisbee, Arizona, where thousands of sandhill cranes descend upon every winter, their cries and white wings filling the entire landscape. This sounds like that. Plus a sick as hell Placebo cover for the real heads.
The difference between the math-y dynamic rock that came out of places like Kentucky in the 1990s and straight up doom metal is as much about how the respective practitioners wore their hairdos as it is any real sonic divergences. That’s not entirely true, the post-whatever ‘90s shifters and pullers usually had a muttering grad student as front-persons rather than the booze/blooze wailing warlocks preferred by Sabbath adherents. And I guess there’s some other differences too. But, granting me a bit of authorial license for the purposes of selling you this good shit, let’s pretend it’s a fine line, and one this Baltimore three piece (not counting strings) smooshes like nobody’s business. This is heavy shit; serpentine, sad, and smart. But not so sad that it ever stalls and not not so smart that it feels like school. Spooky, thudding (post)doom-(post)core designed for parties made up of wizards, thieves, fighters, clerics, aging punks, therapists, and a dungeon master who deals mushrooms by the ounce, but “only to people I know.”
Cargo Cults Nihilist Millennial
Cargo Cults, the collaboration between NYC’s Alaska and Philadelphia’s Zilla Rocca, could easily have written a better version of my introductory essay. The duo is fixated on the tension between trying to exist as an empathetic, art loving, human person, whilst carrying the burden of knowing that many, many, many of one’s fellow human persons are, to put it as empathetically as possible, dumb as pig shit. Over Rocca’s beats- that balance extremely satisfying, exuberant, accessibility/reward with enough sly turns to keep the listener from getting too Pavlovian- Alaska raps endearingly about what he loves; his working class background and his family, while being as wry and scathing about his own habits and media consumption as he is about all the mouth breathers encroaching on his time(line). The album succeeds completely at what I attempt to at least occasionally achieve with my own writing; to celebrate the righteous, interrogate the world foisted upon us, hopefully get a few laughs, make an Agnostic Front reference or two, keep shit real peppy, and, inshallah, make the phonies die inside a little.
Death Valley Girls Under the Spell of Joy
Growing up, my favorite superhero comic book was The Defenders. The Defenders was a Marvel team made up of a rotating hodgepodge of heroes (Silver Surfer, The Hulk, Beast, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, etc) who had maybe flirted with but didn’t quite fit with the big name teams like The Avengers or Fantastic Four. It was a team of misfits who, unlike those agonizing showboats in X-Men, didn’t feel the need to announce their outsider status at every opportunity. They were just weirdos like Dr. Strange and Hellcat. And unlike many of the bigger names, no one in The Defenders was an easily pigeonholed entity. They weren’t archetypes like Captain America, tortured prima donnas like Wolverine, or proxies for the writer/readers masturbatory fantasies like Kitty Pryde. Instead, they were personalities. (I mean, as far as that went. It was still a kids’ comic book…) Anyway, the point is: Death Valley Girls are, to me, superheroes, but the cool kind like The Defenders. With a core of a few members, the band contains or contained at one point; Hole’s drummer, an ex Flesh Eater, an ex member of The Witnesses, free jazz Pan flutist David Amram’s daughter, a Dollyrot, a dude from Delta 72, a drummer named Rikki Styx, and a bass player named Pickle. See. I don’t just make these analogies up. I fucking work on them. With painstaking logic. Anyway. Look, I’m not trying to diminish Death Valley Girls as oddballs with a tenuous parallel to my childhood geekdom. I’m a busy guy and I wouldn’t devote countless minutes drawing said tenuous parallels if DVG hadn’t put out one of my favorite rock albums in recent memory, 2018’s Darkness Reigns, and now followed it up with Under The Spell of Joy, a raucous phantasmagoria of ambitious garage-pop and psychedelic rock that, unlike much contemporary psych, isn’t a dodge for inability to write choruses. On this bright and gnarly sucker, Death Valley Girls are trying to transcend all the psychic hassles of this fallen material world. And dang if they don’t succeed as much as a rock and roll band should without transcending to a higher plane of mush. A striving for joy that, through guitar squall and a rhythm section made up of magical brutes, thankfully harshes its own mellow. Where the pyramid meets the eye meets the gutter. Spirit rock sans dippiness; a celebration of witch on witch crime. Real ‘70s superhero shit. So good that Under The Spell of Joy has replaced that awful Defenders Netflix show as canon. Excelsior etc.
Lebenden Toten Synaptic Noise Dissociation
Look, you either love this or you absolutely hate it. I’m not going to try to talk you into enjoying what will be, to most sane people, a deeply unpleasant listening experience. Lebenden Toten takes a template set by Japanese bands such as Confuse and Gai (and maybe Gloom? I can’t remember. I think they were later. But click that link anyway…the blog is amazing), that template being “all the sounds guitarists try to avoid... plus yelling,” and then add even more static, repetitive barking, and, if there’s any unused treble still lying around in the wreckage, they throw that on the fire as well. Objectively speaking, noise-core is very irritating music. This is a live performance of said music. When I first put it on, the muscles in my shoulder immediately contract and my neck tightens as though it’s both in a vice and the vice itself. By song three, my toes are tapping like it’s Madball in my headphones, I can feel oppression shedding off me like water off a duck’s back, and I can see angels flying in the periphery of my vision. Basically, if you read about black metal and how crazzzzzy it was and then, when you finally heard it, were disappointed to find out that most of it is Archers of Loaf riffs recorded on wet cardboard, then maybe this will scratch that itch. I think Lebenden Toten is boffo. Cured my dandruff. But you do what you want.
Chloe Allison Escott Stars Under Contract
It’s now 7:15 AM and I’m still writing, less than 24 hours till Election Day, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit punchy. Escott is the singer for Native Cats; one of the three best Australian post-punk bands (after The Birthday Party and before Total Control). Stars Under Contract is her solo album, just her and a piano, recorded in one day. I’m even less equipped to judge piano singer/songwriter stuff than I am hip hop and techno, but I can appreciate sketches of heartache, visions of cultural end times, and self-analysis accompanied by a jaunty tune as much as anyone. And I can tell you that Escott just Cole Porters the holy heck out of this bad boy. Escott’s signature probing wit and pathos, brief scenes of her characters, and their occasionally garish hearts, walking in and out of shot. All plaintively communicated over keyboards recorded at more bash than tickle. It’s Original Cast Recording: Company, but with Escott as both cast and Pennebaker.
When I lived in Massachusetts, the subsection of a subsection of a subsection known as “Western Mass Hardcore” was a lifesaver. Since I left Massachusetts, literally every single person I knew from that scene- with the exception of my friend Magoo- has died, from either suicide or overdose. There’s a fair amount of concern in the music media about attention overpaid to bands in “major” cities, at the expense of equally good bands from places like, say, Holyoke, Massachusetts. It’s a justifiable concern and fairness is important. But, truth be told, I worry just as much about the survival, like, the literal breathing in and out, of bands like this, existing in the desperate urban hinterlands. Depression, opiates, the weather exacerbated by either; outside the cushy safety of Brooklyn and Silver Lake, if you’re not careful/lucky, America can really creep up on you. Anyway, Landowner don’t need my warning and/or pity. They got each other, their NoMeansNo LPs, and the warm security of weaponized repetition in their corner. Consultant is grade-A “we’re desperate/get used to it” punk. “Weak d-beat” they call it and, while it ain’t d-beat, it ain’t weak either. “Tasteful” is usually an insult but Landowner are discerning with space and how they use it. They really let their grievances breathe and stab in equal measure. It’s the sound of almost young, too smart punks lashing inwards and out. Hope the record gets some attention that it deserves, and that everyone in the band makes past 35.
Fielded Demisexual Lovelace
Fielded’s new album is, in part, the first attempt of Backwoodz Studioz (billy woods’ label) to branch out from grumpy men spitting jeremiadic denunciations of fake rappers and the editorial board at The Economist. But Demisexual Lovelace is a record that deserves its own context. Fielded has been bopping around the scene(s) for a minute, with a formidable solo catalog and guest slots on various Backwoodz tracks (and her old band, Ga’an, played a show with Zohra years ago and was hella sick), but Demisexual Lovelace is where she takes all her various facets, from prog to hip hop to sophisti-space funk, and makes them cohere. With burbling flute sounds coinciding with subtle, occasionally clattering, percussion, there’s a gently forward thinking avant-folk feel to the proceedings. Or “folk” might apply if Fielded was more willing to play the part of waif. Instead, even at her quietest moments, Fielded voice carries a directness that these examinations of love and sex require. And when the tempo kicks up, like on the duet with Elucid, the change in dynamics shows how well the album works as a whole. It’s a lovely piece of work, as shifting and strange and strangely romantic as adult love and that love’s navigation.
Songhoy Blues Optimisme
Songhoy Blues is currently from Timbuktu, Mali and originally formed in Bamako, where they met Nick Zinner, who produced their stunning first album, 2015’s Music In Exile. The band’s story is intertwined with the last half decade of Mali’s, and the trouble that Mali has undergone, the conflicts that have been inflicted on the country both externally and internally, is the shade and the stream the band exists in. Born out of those conflicts, Songhoy Blues has managed to carve out a career as one of Mali’s better known rock (with a heavy dose of desert blues) and roll bands. Music In Exile was practically a garage album, it’s rough propulsion only tempered by the more joyous West African sounds, while their second album, 2017’s Resistance, was a more horn heavy dance music affair. With Optimisme, produced by Matt Sweeney, the band has found a happy medium between the two earlier works. As the title implies, Songhoy Blues aren’t, regardless of the situation at home, interested in dirges. They’d rather make a raucous, often aspirational, party rock. Fusing psych guitar lines (and plenty of the picked traditional and Knopfler riffs one associates with so much Malian guitar rock and pop) to galloping rhythms, Optimisme is, even in the face of bastards on every end of the geo-political spectrum, hard driving life affirmation. It’s heart-full high harmonies soaring atop delicately fuzzed grooves. This is, to paraphrase America’s premier desert blues band, the music with which they rise above.
Straw Man Army Age of Exile
All the punks are going simply coo-coo bananapants over this record. At first, I didn’t get it. I thought it sounded like someone took all the ten minute speeches that anarcho punks and vegan hardcore singers make in between two minute songs and set it to agit-funk backing tracks. Like having the singer of Brain Killer front Heaven 17 and then move the whole band into my inner ear to talk to me about Standing Rock. But now that’s what I like about it! JK. This rules. 100% The Party Is Over For The Rich jams. If you’re going to buy the Crass reissues then at least make a compromise between nostalgia and a living, breathing music of resistance and buy this as well. No matter who wins the election, the protests will continue. And this is for that. And if, somewhere along the line, Age of Exile gets called “important,” then that’s OK too.
BTW I know the wonderful new Drew McDowall album just came out. I’m going to interview him soon so I decided to save the album for then. Anyway. Thanks for reading! Fingers crossed for tomorrow.
PS. Well heck… why not one more. I haven’t listened to this yet, but it’s Algiers. So it’s gonna be good as good can be. And endlessly appropriate, regardless how this all shakes out. (I am actually listening as I edit… it is VERY VERY GOOD.)