It was a party. But someone’s teenage daughter was working. She was working on a school project, a documentary about why people listen to the music that they listen to. This house was fertile ground for the discussion, because it was full of folks who owned record stores, played in bands or blew their paychecks on five-disc boxed sets like Memphis Minnie: Queen of Country Blues 1929-1937.
These were not the kind of music consumers who listen to commercial radio, or shop at WalMart. The host was playing 78 rpm vinyl on a vintage record player. Creaky jazz by Spike Jones, and dark country murder ballads, and Kentucky mountain music like “Rambling Reckless Hobo.” At some point, the video camera was pointed at me. I began rambling. A rambling reckless hobo of illogic. “I communicate through music,” I finally said. “When people come over to my house, I say, ‘Listen to this.’ And I ask, ‘What are you listening to?’ ”
People nodded their heads. But it was late, and perhaps they were falling asleep.
I’m a music critic, but my opinion carries no weight: At work the next day, the e-mails had arrived. It was the Clay Aiken fans again, all upset that my 2005 end-of-the-year lists had named his concert the worst of the year.
I was just trying to be honest. Not one of those e-mails was from anyone who lived in western New York. Just people from New Jersey, daring to call me an idiot. Hey, stay out of our neighborhood. A village is allowed to pick its own idiot, OK?
Nicer e-mails arrived about my list of Top 10 albums of the year. Music fans who agreed that Ry Cooder’s Chavez Ravine was worthy of No. 1. And that Nancy Griffith is great. And how they couldn’t wait to go out and buy the latest rabble-rousing albums by Todd Snider and James McMurtry. That’s mission accomplished, when I can turn people on to music they might never have otherwise known.
Plenty of critics had Kanye West on their list, anyway. Rolling Stone magazine made it No. 1 for the year. And it is a fine album. You didn’t need me jumping on that dog pile as well, although I heartily approved of West’s comment on national TV that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” I just found it unnecessarily limiting for him to have used the word “black….”
Music ignites communication. I get a lot of e-mails — and rocks with messages tied to them flung through my windows — from people who insist “leave the politics out of the music.” That would be dishonest of me. Music is festering with politics.
I’m just trying to be honest with you. So pardon me if Bruce Springsteen’s opinion on whom I should vote for matters more to me than Bill O’Reilly’s.
Unfortunately, I realize that there is also a certain calculated dishonesty in my Top 10 album list each year. I did like Common’s album, Be. I consider Common to be the Beat Poet of hip-hop. But in 2005, I probably didn’t like it better than Delbert McClinton’s Cost of Living. Or Tom Russell’s Hotwalker, which returns to life worthy idols such as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.
I guess I left ’em off because I didn’t want anyone to say, “Aww, he just likes them ol’ Texas cowboy singers.” But it would have been more honest to put Russell on my list.
All of this is image management; a need to be the smartest, hippest guy in the room. One who drinks red wine while listening to a good Louvin Brothers country murder ballad. My own mother, a dedicated Top-40 radio listener in the ’70s, wouldn’t recognize any of the music that I listen to now.
“Whatever happened to Elton John?” she would complain. “You never hear his music on the radio anymore.”
“He got married.”
“Oh, wonderful! I hope she’s good to him.”
Metallic sound of brain gears grinding….
I applaud Elton John for not finding it necessary to be evasive about his personal relationships in the 21st century. But, for her own protection, I always lie to mom.
For the record, my Top 10 albums for 2008 were:
My Morning Jacket. Evil Urges. Jim James sings of sexy librarians as the rapidly evolving Kentucky rockers back him with some awfully pretty echo-chamber melodies. “Highly Suspicious” sounds like Prince having fun in the studio. But really, this is one dark record. The mid-tempo rocker “I’m Amazed” is a rightly cynical shrug at civilization’s lack of evolution. In fact, I hear a lot of that here. “Remnants” seems torn right from the notebook of Roger Waters as James sings “raise a bayonet in the dark, for all the human race.”
Fleet Foxes. Young musicians with olde souls lie herein (the Seattle outfit uses the word “herein” in the liner notes). These indie-rockers somehow understand music traditions decades older than they are, and successfully fuse the ideas. Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album echoes with gorgeous harmonies, Carter Family shape singing, driving guitars, pure piano notes and a tambourine-infused ’60s English-folk sensibility. The sum of the parts equals something that feels quite grand and baroque, with “White Winter Hymnal” as beautiful a piece of pop music as you’ll hear.
Calexico. Carried to Dust. So much stuff seems to be going on with this cinematically majestic album musically — stuff that I don’t know what style it is, stuff that I don’t know what instrument is making the sounds — that I hesitate to generalize. I’ve read in interviews that this Phoenix duo of John Convertino and Joey Burns, always working with a consortium of smart musicians, is influenced by the ’40s L.A. writer John Fante, particularly his novel Ask the Dust (hence the title). And there is indeed a sense of that dusty Southwestern geography. But there’s also Fante’s romantic, lonesome, intimate and literate spirit, with an air of eternal struggle. “Victor Jara’s Hands,” sung partly in Spanish, is a beautiful remembrance of the poet who was tortured and machine-gunned to death, along with thousands of others, in 1973 by the Chilean military regime. It’s also a tribute to the power of words by artists such as Jara, their fruit overwhelming “fences that fail and fall to the ground.”
Hayes Carll. Trouble in Mind. Texas troubadour Hayes Carll reminds me of so many of the greats, my head spins like it’s full of whiskey. I hear John Prine, Todd Snider, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits (he covers a Waits song, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”). Carll writes from an eloquently poetic, buzz-hazy, lazy, downtrodden point of view, dropping lines of universal clarity, whether he writes ’em or borrows ’em, as though they were empty liquor bottles. “Doesn’t anybody speak about truth anymore? Maybe that’s what songs are for.”
Shelby Lynne. Just a Little Lovin’. She once dreamed of being a country star, but now Lynne’s a flat-out rebel with a gorgeous voice. Here, Lynne covers a handful of elegant songs once done by Dusty Springfield (including the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure”). It’s not Dusty in Memphis, but close enough.
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet. The overture is underrated as a musical tool, and in a brief 2½-minute opening, Washburn offers one as a user’s manual to open this extraordinary album: Chinese bluegrass with yodeling. She and the Sparrow Quartet — all accomplished musicians, most notably the banjo maestro Bela Fleck — fuse contemporary old-timey sounds with traditional American folk curios and Chinese culture. Sometimes sung in Chinese, the tone is often cello-mournful and seriously highbrow despite characters in “Sugar & Pie” who escape life in a cocaine-and-booze haze, noting, “nothin’ wrong with feelin’ fine.”
Martha Wainwright. I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. Right from the aptly titled opening track, Wainwright is “Bleeding All Over You.” Like her dad, Loudon, and her brother, Rufus, Wainwright is a clever, adventurous vocalist, although not nearly as much a drama queen as her brother. But lyrically, I haven’t seen this much blood since No Country for Old Men. “I spend my time trying to forget you with booze and smoke from cigarettes and dope,” she sings. “I only seem to forget myself, it’s only you that is left.” For fans of naked, open-vein introspection.
Alejandro Escovedo. Real Animal. I always suspected Alejandro Escovedo would some day make his Mott the Hoople record, and this is it. One of the great songwriters of this day, Escovedo has not dropped his trademark chamber-rock sound. He’s merely added a glam sheen that fits with a collection that explores his musical career going back to the mid-’70s, when he played in a punk band called the Nuns, who opened for the Sex Pistols at their last show. It’s Escovedo’s rockingest record since his Buick McKane side project, not unexpected since he’s always expressed admiration for Mott’s Ian Hunter (Escovedo often covers “All the Young Dudes” at live shows). Yet the usual Escovedo beauty is here in songs like “Sister Lost Soul.”
Justin Townes Earle. The Good Life. From the opening moments of “Hard Livin’,” with its expert, old timey, warm back-porch swing — and plenty of dropped g’s in the lyrics — it’s clear we have a new star of old-school country here. Earle is warning you to stay away from the sometimes harrowing, self-destructive, flawed and dangerous characters in these songs. But they’re a train wreck you can’t turn away from, as you sense that much of this has been drawn from Earle’s own tumultuous 27 years.
Randy Newman. Harps and Angels. Waitaminute, I know we’re done with the Bush Error, but he didn’t leave without a well-placed boot from Mr. Newman. Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is pure genius, as he points out how fear is now patriotic and, “in fact, color coded.” He bemoans the Supreme Court, and if you take comfort in the fact that at least one of those nine is African-American, “Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore, either.” He concludes, “The end of an empire is messy at best, and this empire is ending, like all the rest.” But hey, Newman says, at least it’s not the Spanish Inquisition.