So here we are, one year later, and the consensus (aka, “Conventional Wisdom”) among us casual observers is not only are we still in a mess of trouble, but we’re probably on the brink of something a whole lot worse. Since there aren’t many sources of comfort to be had in an environment such as this, the value of good music should not be undersold. And this has been a summer of very remarkable music.
First up is The Excitement Plan by Todd Snider (e), which quickly usurped my predicted “summer disc.” Snider’s charm lies in his wry and whimsical delivery. As he tallies up several lifetimes worth of regret, his tone is enough to suggest some way forward out of the mess he’s made for himself. It might not be much — in fact, that “tone” might be all he has — but it might also be just enough for today. Speaking as a listener who preferred the younger Lyle Lovett to what's currently available, I found a great deal to enjoy in Snider’s new disc.
Snider is also devoted to lyrical craftsmanship, which, it seems to me, is a discipline sorely missing in the current download deluge. I'm also finding that the older I get, the less patience I have for shite lyrics. Readers with a seasoned ear will notice my silence on some of the splashier acts of the day. This summer the act to tune in to was Dirty Projectors, a favorite of David Byrne. Wow, do I ever not get that band. Even Byrne can't put his finger on what he likes about them, but like them he does. His involvement was enough to commit me to Bitte Orca (A).
Bitte Orca might just be the most important disc you’ll hear this year — or not. As for me, I’ve yet to manage sitting through it a second time. The songs all sound like they’re on the verge of meaning something, but I couldn’t hazard a guess just what that something might be. Besides, I get the feeling if I tried, I’d be the butt of some scrawny hipster’s derisive laughter. No thanks.
I’ve got nothing but love, however, for the latest David Byrne & Brian Eno project, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (A). Given Byrne’s typically stream-of-subconscious lyric writin’, I’d say the songs are on the verge of dissolving into nonsense. The tonal delivery, of course, is there to sell the project. Since these two jokers reached me back when I was still young and impressionable, they had little trouble persuading me of their ability to strike the necessary balance between mischief and sincerity. Everything quickly became the sing-along disc of the summer.
Not that I was in much of a mood for singing. Most of what I listened to was jazz, which is usually a form that keeps me silent and gets me meditating. The most pleasantly arcane album was probably last year’s Moonshine by Dave Douglas & Keystone (e). It swings from straight-ahead Cool, to trippy Mushroom beats, to . . . well, I do believe that “Kitten” could actually qualify as Metal. I liked all of it, and as soon as I’ve got some spare change, I’ll be looking into Douglas’ more recent Spirit Moves (A).
Kind of Brown by Christian McBride & Inside Straight (e) continues to get play in the house. I’m not sure why McBride chose to invite comparison to Miles Davis’s monumental work, unless it was to play with expectations or gently tweak the easily offended pieties of the jazz collector. Brown isn’t bringing any sort of colossal change to the jazz landscape, but it is delivering unalloyed joy in the established forms. This is an easy disc to reach for and play again and again.
It’s also worth mentioning For All I Care by The Bad Plus (e) who continue exploring the sonic possibilities in music that’s slid from “astonishing breakthrough” to Staid Entry In The Rock Songbook. I’m as prone as the next schlub to thinking there’s no point in messing with “greats” like “Lithium” or “Comfortably Numb.” So I am increasingly grateful to The Bad Plus for doing exactly that. Their combined reverence and daring-do achieve remarkable results.
Finally, Blood From Stars, by Joe Henry (A). Wow. I’m not sure I’ll be able to step around this one, even though there are days when I would very much like to. The first time I played it I thought, “Sheesh, what a downer.” The second spin proved to be considerably easier — so much so, in fact, that my response was, “What heady stuff this is!” Henry continues his Weillean march on the tightrope, defying the abyss as he explores the ambiguities that tie our giddiest thrills to our deepest regrets. For some of us, Henry is providing the definitive soundtrack to the era. I daresay we’re all united in wishing it weren’t necessarily so.