This has been a blast.
I can’t wait to hear more from Kacey Musgraves. It looks like 2013 is shaping up as an excellent year for country, and from young bloods no less. I’m also looking at Ashley Monroe (one-third of Pistol Annies), a seasoned vet at 26 after a false-start debut when she was just 20. What I’ve heard of her forthcoming solo Like a Rose is exciting: handsome hard-luck tales for days of diminished expectations, with a definite outlaw streak; one track is titled “Weed Instead of Roses.” When mainstream country acts are cutting songs with pro-chronic hooks, you know we’re in a new era.
OK, we’ve talked sex and drugs, so I figured I’d complete the trifecta and talk about … jazz. Because the Music Club’s poptimism contains multitudes.
So did jazz in 2012. I reconnected with the music in a big way while writing Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (now out in paperback, pardon the shill), and the anything-goes spirit of the ‘70s loft and fusion scenes is clearly alive and well. A number of loft-scene vets released important records: Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, and the late Sam Rivers. Robert Glasper’s Black Radio—a rangy soul jazz/hip-hop session with Erykah Badu and Lupe Fiasco, among others—was the most (justifiably) celebrated of a clutch of records that engaged with pop vocal music in fascinating ways. Another was The Cherry Thing, which marked the return of comet-flash pop-rap hitmaker Neneh Cherry to the post-punk free-jazz groove music she explored in the early ‘80s with Rip Rig and Panic. Collaborating with a Swedish group formed, in part, to play the groundbreaking music of her jazz-legend pops Don Cherry, she reanimated music by him and his colleague Ornette Coleman, along with tracks by Suicide, the Stooges, and MF Doom.
Two of this year’s great vocal fusions came from tireless multitaskers. Dave Douglas released an expansive, beautiful set of folk hymns with bluegrass singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan. And Theo Bleckmann, a jazz and new music singer mentored by some visionary, fusion-minded women (Meredith Monk, Sheila Jordan) made a remarkable album consisting entirely of Kate Bush covers. What might have been camp—that aesthetic evergreen we’ve been discussing—aimed for something purer and no less splendorous (like another great gender-flipping, if not-so-jazzy cover, Antony’s take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”).
There was plenty of stylistic fluidity in instrumental jazz, too. Mary Halvorson and her Quintet made my favorite jazz record this year, Bending Bridges, full of surprising melodies, discursive horn swaggers, and her wildly inventive electric guitar work, which wasn’t afraid to skronk and roar. I also love the metaphor of the title, which suggests a transformative brand of genre-straddling. Matt Shipp, always a bold free-roamer, made a sharp, summary set with his Trio. (His prepared piano swing on “Stage 10” is a killer.) I loved Vijay Iyer’s Accelerando, with its Michael Jackson and Flying Lotus covers. But he impressed me most last year at a live gig with a song dedicated to Detroit techno pioneer Robert Hood, which reminded why, rhythmically and otherwise, he and his Trio are one of the most thrilling units in jazz. (For more thoughts on the music, I refer readers to the annual Music Club-style exchange at critic Nate Chinen’s blog.)
I sense all this polyglotism, in jazz and elsewhere, is partly a generational shift but also an economic imperative. Following certain musicians sometimes reminds me of those old In Living Color skits where the West Indian guy asks “How many jobs you got, mon?” I always keep an eye out for work by Nico Muhly, Rob Moose, and Gabriel Kahane, young “classical” musicians and composers who have parallel lives in the pop and indie-rock worlds. The temples of high culture continue to tap the interests of their increasingly post-boomer audiences—see programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (which has invited John Cale to curate a tribute to that other musical Nico next month), The Walker Art Center (which booked drone-metal mystics Sunno))) a while back), Mass-MOCA (where I saw the premiere of David Byrne’s immersively fabulous musical Here Lies Love last June), etc. So I expect we’ll see more of this hybridity as musicians make their nut with a combination of institutional grants, nightclub gigs, and whatever other opportunities arise.
This may include playing more small, unconventional venues. I saw Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who released a moving set of Olympian drone-rock after an eight-year absence, deliver an inspiring set in a gutted glue factory in Hudson, N.Y., owned by former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur and her partner, Tony Stone. It felt a bit like one of the map-point raves I’d attend in the Midwest and elsewhere in the ‘90s, not quite off-the-grid musical happenings convened flash-mob style outside of major urban centers. But this was less illegal, more community-centric artisanal distillery than moonshine speakeasy. As gas prices make cross-country tours prohibitively expensive for smaller outfits, interstitial venues like this can make regional tours a more viable option and help spur local scenes, too.
A few more scattershot points. I feel you, Ann, on the rich year for Americana and the Alabama Shakes, who you in fact first alerted me to. Along with your call-outs, I wanted to give props to Kin by Rodney Crowell and moonlighting poet-memoirist Mary Karr, a set both dark and remarkably fun, with (as you might guess) top-shelf lyrics delivered by an all-star cast: Lee Ann Womack, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and others. Iowa Writers Workshop grad/Nashville dropout Kevin Gordon also turned out a great record, highlighted by a 10-minute masterpiece of storytelling whose race-themed narrative resonated deeply in the wake of Obama’s re-election.
Maybe it was because extended compositions were so common in 2012—from the aforementioned epics by Swans and Godspeed, to Neil Young’s near-30-minute “Driftin’ Back,” to seamless art-metal LPs by Krallice and Pallbearer—that for me, the four-plus uninterrupted hours of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ Einstein On The Beach, revived this year on stages in New York and Berkeley, seemed to fly by. It was a rare opportunity to unitask, to shut off the cellphone data flow for a long stretch (for those up to the challenge) and meditate on art. That was one great irony of music in 2012: As much as it was a symptom of the data deluge, with the flood of availability, it could also be an essential refuge from it.
Refuge was hard to come by in the wake of Newtown earlier this month, and it made me think anew about pop’s gun lust. Like, say, that Katy Perry video. Get your heart broken? Pick up an M-16 and find your inner strength. Sure, it’s a reductive reading, I need a sense of humor, I do support our troops, pop-music fantasies are cultural release valves, blah fucking blah. But I’m a pop critic co-raising an 11-year-old daughter to be strong and safe, and I’m a bit on edge.
To be clear: I’m not for restrictions on musical expression, just weapons. There’s no denying the emotional potency of Charli XCX announcing “I wanna shoot you in the fuckin’ face” on the “Kill Bill” section of her remarkable mixtape—thanks for the heads up, Lindsay. But it’s relevant that she’s slinging her metaphor in a country with strict gun-control laws. (A recent essay on women and guns in these virtual pages by my sometimes pro-gun friend Porochista Khakpour is food for thought on all this.)
I’m not always a poptimist, but I remain an optimist. Music, in one form or another, never fails me. Like many critics, professional and otherwise, I savor the dialogs with my fellow obsessives on Facebook, Twitter, and various other outlets during the course of the year. So it’s wonderful to have a forum like this to recap and reflect with y’all. Have a beautiful and safe 2013.