“Like a Tumblr blog in which each photo, scrap of text, or embedded video is posted without context, contributing a single point to the overall aesthetic, the swag life encourages you to take cultural artifacts that speak to you — be they punk rock or crunk rap, secondhand sweaters or designer shoes — and fit them like novel bricks into the multicolored wall of your own image.”
It irritated me when Jack White made this video to brag about how innovative he was being with record pressing, when things like odd-sized records, multicolored vinyl and unusual speeds have been around for decades.
I found this ad from Billboard magazine. The year is 1960, but the vinyl oddities it describes might as well be from 1995, or 2002, or 2011. I was really perplexed when I got to the bottom and saw that it wasn’t for Rainbo Records or Erika Records, either.
10:45am. “Amy Winehouse died,” someone’s posted on Facebook. What? Well, have to check it out anyway. Quick Google: Daily Mail is saying so. Really? Really? Within a matter of seconds, Guardian and Telegraph and BBC have it up too. Fuck. Fuck. Really? This can’t be true. Give it ten minutes. But the news keeps coming in. “London police have confirmed the death of a 27-year-old female…”
11:15am. A stomach knot and all I can think is that the media killed Amy Winehouse. With its salivating predatory need for photos, the more grotesque the better, and stories fabricated or not, who cares, post it up now and get those clicks! That concert in Belgrade—even I clicked on the link, and after about ten seconds of the video I couldn’t watch anymore. But I clicked on the link. Another click means another vote that tells the media AMY WINEHOUSE DISASTER = SITE TRAFFIC VICTORY, and I cast it, and you cast it, and we all cast it. The result is more posts about Amy Winehouse, the ugly, wandering, makeupless falling down trainwreck, to satiate the public hunger and boost the Alexa rating and the advertising rate card. See? The media killed Amy Winehouse. Or if it didn’t, it certainly obliterated any chances she may have had at getting better. This, I know: When the media places your life in a certain frame, over and over, you cannot grow out of that frame. Here is the narrative since 2008: “Amy Winehouse: Hopeless Addict.” Over and over. How could she be anything but? Jesus, we all killed Amy Winehouse.
12:30pm. Someone calls and tells me they saw the thing in the paper about my mom, and I tell them I’m actually kind of more beat up about Amy Winehouse. And: I never saw her perform. She only played San Francisco once, at Popscene right after the record came out. It was completely sold out, and I’d’ve tried to buy a scalped ticked, but she’d already canceled a bunch of shows already and I didn’t want to take chances. Later, she canceled two shows at the Warfield. Man.
1:10pm. Denial. Was Back to Black really even anything special? The soul revival had been on full blast since 1999, with Brainfreeze and Alice Russell and Tru Thoughts and Dap-Tone and Sharon Jones and Sister Funk and Keb Darge, and all Amy Winehouse did was come along and do the same thing but be skinny, and white, and pretty, and have a bloggable hairdo. Hers was a double steal: she wasn’t just hijacking the Shirelles, she was plundering a rich underground club scene. Remembering a pitch to an editor about the Dap-Kings, and how they deserved more credit for making Amy Winehouse who she was. A friend tweets: “Not to downplay the loss of another human life but can we admit that Ronson was the brains behind the operation?” Yeah, like what did Amy Winehouse even do anyway, but what people told her to do?
2:13pm. That’s crazy. I know I really liked Back to Black, played the hell out of it. Didn’t I write something about it when it came out? Oh, look, here it is:
…Winehouse has got a goddamn voice to shake the T-cells out of your bloodstream, replace them with a revamping toxin of shudder and sway and exit your system, laughing, while you walk in perfect rhythm for the next two weeks. By any estimation, it comes from a place deeper and larger than her lanky frame could possibly contain, and it evokes both Dusty Springfield and Gil Scott-Heron, with one part come-hither and two parts gettda-fuck-outta-here. On her sophomore album, Back to Black, she’s backed by a stellar band (aided themselves by the welcome trend of retro-soul recording techniques), sounding thoroughly fresher than the processed sugar fix of most U.K. buzz-girls. The songs are all from Winehouse’s own pen, and they read like a series of esoteric MySpace comments: “What kind of fuckery is this? / You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.”
Yes, it seems, I liked it. (Ha ha, MySpace.) I remember now that it made me feel like a teenager in love, in Detroit, in 1968. And all the songs were written by Amy herself? Okay. I have to listen to this record again. I know death makes music sound different; I’m going into this with my guard up.
2:45pm. My guard is down. Jesus, how does she do it? Those elongated vowels that turn into two, that husk, that phrasing. That phrasing, most of all! No one else on Earth would sing these songs the same way. You know those girls who get up and sing the National Anthem at baseball games, and warble all over the notes in an attempt to be pyrotechnic but just wind up shitting all over the song? You know those girls on American Idol? You know Christina Aguilera? This is nothing like that pyrotechnic warble. This is pure inspiration. And did she really write the songs? Insert sleeve credit check: yes. And those lyrics! “Nowadays you don’t mean dick to me.” Ha! Adele would never sing shit like that. God, I hate Adele.
3:15pm. Even the non-hits are good, like all of Side Two, after “Tears Dry On Their Own.” Listen to it again. How could this have happened? I guess I’ll watch her last performance ever, with her goddaughter or whoever this person is. Some kinda iTunes promotion. They’re singing “Mama Said” together but… wait, they don’t have a microphone for Amy Winehouse?! What? Amy makes the best of it and dances along while looking repeatedly in the wings for a microphone. This translates into “looking confused and out of it” by media reports. Goddamn it all to hell. The media killed Amy Winehouse.
3:36pm. Just sad, for hours and hours.
Well, color me honored! Today in New Orleans, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies held their annual AAN Awards and handed out a second-place national award to City Sound Inertia for Best Music Blog.
Considering the great altweekly music blogs out there—Ian S. Port and the SF Weekly’s All Shook Down; Ezra Careff and the Portland Mercury’s End Hits; Rob Harvilla and Zach Baron at the Village Voice’s Sound of the City, which to no one’s surprise took first place—well, being in such fine company, and winning two years in a row, and doing so all by myself in a relatively small town… it feels good.
Thanks to all of you readers for sticking with me here on City Sound Inertia; I continue to be humbled by the fact that people actually read these words of mine, still usually typed at 2am from home. And again, thanks especially to AAN, not just for the award but for nurturing and championing alternative news media. Now go on and listen to some records! Start with Mingus Ah Um, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, Midnight Marauders or w h o k i l l, and you’ll be in fine shape for the rest of the day. Here’s love to you all.
Behold, Pablo Dylan, folks. 15 years old and already working it.
Sample lyric: “I-I-I’m the grandson of a man nothin’ less than legendary / That’s a lot of pressure / So I Berry Gordy, I am very Motown, bitch / I’m’a get that crown / W-W-While I’m at it, I might reinvent sound”
I’ve got this aversion to foam that’s reached laughable proportions; I just can’t touch the stuff. So when I slipped the plastic off the new Shabazz Palaces LP, I nearly dropped it. What the hell is this foam-like foamness that the foam-a-licious Shabazz Palaces cover is made out of?
Anyway, the record’s good—it’s Butterfly from Digable Planets on some futuristic shit—but after five listens the beats are still the best part. Did anyone see him when he played Hopmonk last year?
In the meantime, keep that furry record away from me. I’m wearin’ latex gloves every time I listen to it.
“Howdy,” said Gillian Welch, on stage at the Warfield.
It was after the first song of the set, “Scarlet Town,” which is also the first song on Welch’s new album, The Harrow and the Harvest. Welch and her partner David Rawlings were already tuning. Welch was making small talk; “Howdy” is just the normal, traditional thing for a girl who plays in a dress and cowboy boots to say.
But Welch kept talking. “Someone gave me shit the other day for saying ‘Howdy,'” she added. “What the fuck?!”
She plastered on her best glazed-over Michele Bachmann look and waved an exaggerated, role-playing wave.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!,” she intoned, and kept up the sarcasm: “That’s more colorful.”
It was a moment that underlined Welch’s individuality perfectly. You’d never hear Alison Krauss start her show with the same banter, just like you’d never come across anyone else capable of crafting songs like “Time (The Revelator),” “I Dream a Highway” or “Everything is Free.”
Yes, all of those songs are from the same album, which was released ten years ago: Time (The Revelator), a completely flawless record that, even had it not been released in the great O Brother bluegrass frenzy of 2001, would still be widely recognized as a masterwork. Much of the album’s strength lies in its variety. It contains the Roy Orbison-like compactness of “Dear Someone”; the Steve Miller quote in “My First Lover”; the dueling death ballads “April the 14th, Part I” and “Ruiniation Day, Part II”; and “Elvis Presley Blues,” which is not a blues song.
At the Warfield, Welch played four songs from Time (The Revelator), but mostly the set culled from her newest record. Unfortunately, The Harrow and the Harvest falls back on recycling folk idioms rather than creating new forms, as Welch has proved herself more than capable of doing. Only briefly is it touched with the same presence from her two previous records—on the second and third songs, “Dark Turn of Mind” and “The Way it Will Be.” The rest sounds like Welch had writer’s block for eight years and got tired of everyone asking her where her new album was and decided, the hell with it, I’ll just let those ten years of playing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival work their influence and bang out some traditional songs that sound like everyone else, using my expansive knowledge of Southern lyrical themes to twist slightly, ’cause that’s what folk music has always done anyway, right? I’ll even throw in a hambone for Doc Watson’s sake.
This sounds harsh, and maybe it is. Except it’s also exactly what Welch herself is admitting to people in interviews. She’s just not being critical of herself for it, and why should she? That’s not her job, and taken out of context from the rest of her work, The Harrow and the Harvest is a perfectly respectable record. Gillian’s singing has always been amazing with Rawlings’, and Rawlings’ guitar playing is the stuff Sunday worship is made of. But the record is missing that songwriting je ne sais quoi, where the Gods hand down a song and say, “It’s yours now,” and it’s like the song wasn’t written with effort so much as delivered with the artist as a conduit for something greater.
Luckily, on stage, even if they were forced to play the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack, Welch and Rawlings possess a cosmic togetherness. So it was easy to forget the debt owed to early Appalachian folk songs, even as Welch sang about hard times and drinking whiskey when she’s dry and standing in the backdoor crying and being down along the Dixie line. Of all the descriptors of their stage presence, “alchemy” is the most fitting. You could throw in “ESP,” “galaxian-like prowess” and “unfuckwithable” if you wanted, too.
For some of the songs being played live for the first time ever—the Warfield show kicked off her tour—they already sounded completely polished. Welch played two songs from Soul Journey, “Look at Miss Ohio” and “No One Knows My Name,” and her cover choice reflected a traditional bent, too: “I’ll Fly Away,” popularized from the O Brother soundtrack. (This is probably her best cover ever.) She joked that she’d been to the Warfield a bunch but had never been on stage, and when an audience member asked who she saw, she listed off Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia’s acoustic shows, and the Pixies.
And even though almost none of those influences played out on stage, a Gillian Welch show is always a special thing. When the two-hour night closed after two encores with “That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends”—the last song, too, from The Harrow and the Harvest—it was pretty evident that no one in the theater wanted the show to stop.
I finally got on board with the Replacements in 1995 with a cassette of Let It Be, which I played over and over in dual rotation with the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow. (Westerberg and Morrissey had different filters, but the weary ennui was still there.) I’d remembered seeing their name on the Luther Burbank Center marquee, because any unusual band name sticks out on the Luther Burbank Center marquee when you’re 12. I was too young to go to shows, but I vividly remember that the Psychedelic Furs, the Violent Femmes, X and the Replacements all played there. Who was their booker back then and where are they now?
Anyway, back to 1995—after I’d bought every Replacements record, memorized all the songs and even booked a show for my band in Duluth simply because Duluth is mentioned as an aside in the ‘Hootenanny’ closer “Treatment Bound,” I never could say exactly how, or when, the Replacements broke up. I only knew they were gone; that’s all that mattered. But this here review by Greg Kot, for the Chicago Tribune, happens to be a review of the band’s final show. It’s outside, in Grant Park, and full of about as much enthusiasm as a morning-after bottle is with beer: “Here’s another one you don’t wanna hear,” Westerberg says at one point, “and, frankly, neither do I.”
The show was exactly 20 years ago this week. Time flies.