2012 in Music
‘Tis the season for year-end lists, and so, I thought I would offer some thoughts for your consideration on five albums that came out this year and have been in heavy rotation on my turntable.
Bad as Me , Tom Waits Technically, Waits’ newest, Grammy-nominated effort (best alternative music album) was released in October of 2011, but as with all of Waits’ music, this set took some time to digest, and he took his time promoting it well into the summer. It also served as the perfect soundtrack for this election year. Waits has been soundscaping the coming millennial apocalypse long before people started speculating about the accuracy of Mayan predictions concerning the end of the world, and this record captured perfectly the unique blend of pious sentimentalism and demented panic that feeds the American political machine. Out of a traffic jam of frenetic horn blasts, Waits growls, “the seeds are planted here, but they won’t grow,” and then, he looks to the Midwest suggesting, “maybe things will be better in Chicago.” There’s a lot to overcome, though, on the way to the Windy City, and even once we get there, it’s likely that those mild-mannered, middle Americans will prove to be “the same kind of bad as me.” Not least because they have been traumatized by the same explosions of war and financial meltdown as the rest of us. As Waits barks over a military march in “Hell Broke Luce”:
What did you do before the war?
I was a chef, I was a chef
What was your name?
It was Geoff, Geoff
I lost my buddy and I wept, wept
I come down from the meth
So I slept, slept
I had a good home but I left, left
Pantsed at the wind for a joke
I pranced right in with the dope
Glanced at her shin she said nope
Left, right, left
Like all of us, however, Waits looks for distractions from this psychedelic cynicism in memories of loves past and present and songs expressing gratitude for life, even if it must be lived on the fallen side of Paradise. On tracks like “Pay Me,” “Kiss Me,” and “Last Leaf,” which he sings with Keith Richards, Waits seems encouraged both to have given “it all up for the stage” and to still be here to “greet all the new ones that are coming in green.” What more can any of us ask?
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Justin Townes Earle I had the pleasure of catching folk singer Justin Townes Earle live when I was in London last summer with just an upright bass player and a second guitarist to accompany his world-weary vocals and country-blues picking. On his fourth full-length album, Earle trades in this spare sound for a Memphis horn section and a more swinging backbeat without sacrificing the songs. The opening track has Earle thinking about his own origins as he hears his famous father Steve’s voice coming out of the radio “singing ‘Take Me Home Again,’” and we are reminded that great songwriting is not the only thing Justin shares with Dad, as he references his own struggles with drug addiction and voices the defeated hope of every new generation: “I thought I’d be a better man.” Earle does what any of us must, however, and keeps “movin’ on” from the Carolinas, through Memphis, down to Houston, back to wander around the Lower East Side, and home to Nashville where he meets an old friend who asks him for a lift to Michigan to seek forgiveness from the family that she has neglected. In every place, Earle is “looking for a change” in the promise of love and work as well as the escape from loneliness and failure that is always one more exit ahead on the highway. So, if you’re roadtrippin’ home this holiday, bring this one along to fill the time and space between where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Locked Down, Dr. John One of my favorite television shows this year has been Treme on HBO, which was created by the mind behind The Wire, David Simon, and takes its name from one of the New Orleans parishes that was hit hardest by hurricane Katrina (remember that?). The show dramatizes the struggles faced by those “culture-bearers” (musicians, chefs, writers, Mardi Gras Indians, etc.), who are trying to return to and rebuild the city that has been the muse and incubator for American masters from Walt Whitman to Louis Armstrong. Of course, no contemporary musician is more synonymous with the Crescent City than Dr. John, who has been the high priest of jazz-infused, mystical, swap-rock, Catholic-voodoo hymnody for decades. On this Grammy-nominated record (best blues album), produced by Black Keys’ guitarist and singer Dan Aurbach, whose band had its own Grammy-nominated album out this year (El Camino, album of the year) and who is also on the short-list for “producer of the year,” the good Doctor holds to the axiomatic distinction between “sin and vice,” in which the sweaty, spiritualized fleshfest of New Orleans trades.
This distinction is made in Treme by a homicide detective, who is stopping to appreciate the Mardi Gras revelry in the midst of investigating the corruption that has been taking place in his own department. The implication is that sinful structures do much more damage than vice-ridden bodies, and as one who has been guilty of quite a bit of the latter, Dr. John is here to remind us that the former is, indeed, far worse. Over a never-ending parade of infectious grooves punctuated by Aurbach’s guitar and Dr. John’s keyboard, the latter wheezes and waxes about a future “stretched out like a rubber check” and the “blind eyes of justice” and “deaf ears of power” that can no longer be counted on to even see or hear the most unfortunate among us. On “Revolution,” he asks whether the desperation of rebellion is the only “final solution” before the beat drops out from under the intonation: “Let’s all just pray on it right now,” which sets up an organ solo that bounces along the line separating Sunday morning sacred from horror house scary.
In the end, though, Dr. John closes the set with gospel resurrection, as the choir shouts “God’s Sure Good,” and John affirms, “God been good to me / Better than me to myself.” Such is the gratitude of one who is familiar with the fragility of existence that is thrown into relief by appreciating the fleeting pleasures of vice over the faux-invincibility reinforced by the seemingly unassailable virtual eternity of a life ruled by bank balances and Facebook pages. For an electorate that is chummed with threatening images of the lustful and slothful every four years, it might do us some good to remember that the most vicious of us might just be those who look the most virtuous—at least, that’s the Doctor’s diagnosis.
Sing the Delta, Iris DeMent It’s been 16 years since singer-songwriter Iris DeMent’s last set of original material, and this album has just the right, slow-roasted feel that fans of DeMent’s high-pitched, wobbling, drawl will find worth the wait. These songs call up the tradition of classic country music with waltzing melodies and tales of faith and family. As in the greatest songs that soundtrack the South, though, the purported blessings of heaven and hearth are not celebrated without question. On tunes like “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” which tells the story of one who lost her faith after an accident took her brother’s life, doubt about the benevolent will of the Almighty seems to defeat the kind of complacent devotion that some folks tend to associate with the Bible Belt. Even if they “don’t even know if they believe in God,” however, DeMent’s characters still frequent churches and wonder, as they look upon children playing, for example, “Could it be the Kingdom has already come?”
In a recent NPR interview, DeMent talked about her own “gospel-fundamentalist” upbringing as giving her a faith that she has since left behind, but nevertheless remains profoundly grateful to have been gifted by her parents. DeMent, whose mother recently passed away, is obviously paying childhood debts on this album. On songs like “If That Ain’t Love,” about a quietly devoted and hard-working father, or “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” about a forthright woman who had “no back-burner” when it came to her emotions, DeMent paints a picture of familial love that, for better or worse, has little regard for boundaries. For all of the “damaging things” that DeMent says she got from her religiously severe upbringing, though, her mother taught her that “singing is praying and praying is singing,” and listening to this album, we can all be thankful not only for this and other parental lessons, but also that DeMent has been generous enough to invite us to pray them with her.
Live from Alabama, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Before graduating from the band in 2007, Isbell was the most lyrically sensitive and melodically soulful contributor to the Drive-By Truckers’ songwriting triple-threat of Isbell, Mike Cooley, and Patterson Hood. He has built on those skills over three excellent solo releases, the most recent of which, Here We Rest, was released last year, and this set was recorded in Isbell’s home state during his tour in support of that album. “Here We Rest” was the original state motto of Alabama until it was changed to the more bellicose “We Dare Defend Our Rights,” and it is clear from Isbell’s songs that he greatly prefers the peaceful idyll of small-town love to the embattled posture that has been forced upon many of his neighbors, beset as they are by a tightening local economy that drives up military recruitment. Preferences aside, Isbell doesn’t try to argue with the facts in giving us nuanced portraits of working-class people just trying to survive while under fire at home and abroad. He opens this show with “Tour of Duty”—a homecoming song about a soldier returning from war and looking for creature comforts, while promising not to “bore you with my stories” or “scare you with my tears.” Here, then, the relief and joy of stepping off the train in one piece is punctuated by the sadness of knowing that nobody really wants to hear much about the war other than that it is ending. This comes out in what is perhaps Isbell’s most affecting tune, “Dress Blues,” which he wrote for his childhood friend, Matt Conley, who was killed overseas:
The high school gymnasium’s ready
Full of flowers and old Legionnaires
Nobody showed up to protest
Just sniffle and stare
There’s red, white and blue in the rafters
And there’s silent old men from the Corps
What did they say when they shipped you away
To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?
Nobody here could forget you
You showed us what we had to lose
You never planned on the bombs in the sand
Or sleepin’ in your dress blues
While Isbell doesn’t shy away from singing a sad song or two, this album is still a rock show, and it captures the unscripted energy of live music perfectly. Isbell and the band jam just enough to let us know that there’s no producer in the booth, but not so much that it feels like one of those “you had to be there” documents. We get fresh takes on his Truckers’ favorites, like “Outfit,” which records the advice given by a father to his son (“Don’t call what you’re wearin’ an outfit / don’t ever say your car is broke / don’t worry about losin’ your accent / a southern man tells better jokes”), rarities, like “TVA,” which “thanks God” for the New Deal program that brought “power [and renewed dignity] to most of the South,” and new tracks, like “Alabama Pines,” which celebrates the homesick life of an artist on the road and was awarded “song of the year” by the Americana Music Association. He also covers the rollicking 70’s soul classic “Pearls on a String,” which was recorded down the road in Muscle Shoals, AL, and closes the show with a blistering version of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Amidst all the tragedy of loves and lives lost, then, Isbell turns in a performance infused by a mood of unfailing hopefulness that only music can consistently lend to the ordinary.
So, there you have it, my 2012 in music. I’d love to hear about the albums and artists that kept you going this year. Here’s to more great music in 2013!