Category Archives: Slow Jams

Longer pieces – essays and stories.

Battle of the Beards

When I started writing about music in the Eighties, a prominent beard on a musician was often viewed as a sure sign that the performer was an out-of-touch hippie fossil, or barring that, a member of ZZ Top. That started to change during the goatee epidemic of the Nineties, which I was convinced would make facial hair disreputable for decades to come once the grunge bubble burst. But history has proven me wrong, because the late Zeroes have seen an outgrowth of musician facial hair worth of a post-Civil War presidential campaign, along with a revival of the hierarchy of beards. In what follows below, I’ll survey some of the notable beards of the moment, ranked from zero to ten on the Sanders-Hudson index. For the uninitiated, that index celebrates the beardly perfection of saxophone visionary Pharoah Sanders and Band keyboardist Garth Hudson, whose historic contributions have done for beards what Christopher Walken has done for the cowbell.

Facial outgrowth isn’t always a sign of greatness, or vice-versa. Patchy-faced Bob Dylan and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy have sometimes dabbled in facial hair, but these are not beardly men; you might as well put a spoiler on a Volvo station wagon. Nobody knows that better than Tweedy himself, the author of “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard” (“things got pretty weird, and I grew Bob Dylan’s beard”). And gave a major thumbs down to Stuck Between Stations favorite Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), ranking him three points below the composite band score assigned to current beard icons the Fleet Foxes. Explaining the Captain’s lowly 5.9 ranking, the site noted: “His lip ferret was merely average. And his poet’s beard was never much more than the obligatory mark of a mad musical genius.”

At the outset, I have disqualified Devendra Banhart, because that would be too easy, like naming Jesus on a list of famous sandal-wearers. This list is for beard-growers, and I have it on good authority that Devendra was born bearded to traveling circus performers from Caracas. Here are my rankings in this year’s Battle of the Beards:

• Kyp Malone, TV on the Radio (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 7.5)

The guitarist-singer from Brooklyn’s innovative art rockers-turned-mutant funkateers had this year’s beard competition all sewn up. But, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Kyp has now trimmed his beard.

TV on the Radio, “Dancing Choose”

• Jim James, My Morning Jacket (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 7.0)

James’ Kentucky combo may well rank as the most hirsute band of the past decade. But he’s docked two notches here, because his Prince falsetto on this year’s Evil Urges is less convincing than that of Spoon‘s Britt Daniel, and worse, he has reportedly switched to a mustache.

My Morning Jacket, “Wordless Chorus”

More beards after the click-through Continue reading Battle of the Beards

Muffin Mix

While I found the movie Juno charming, I instinctively thought that the musical tastes of its teenage heroine—the old soul anti-folk charmer who upstages the cynical guy whose head is stuck in 1993—had to be an adult artifice, created for people over 35 (for example, me) to validate their own moldy tastes as “classic.” But generational truth is more complicated than that. It turns out that Juno herself, actress Ellen Page, was the one who touted the Moldy Peaches’ Shaggs-meet-Jonathan hardcore shoegaze to the film’s director, turning “Anyone Else But You” into a late-blooming sensation. (It could have been worse; they could have made the Peaches’ equally catchy “Who’s Got the Crack” the latest teen anthem).

Blowing away any remaining generational snobbery, I randomly discovered a recipe for Monterey Jack muffins on an intermittently updated music blog called Half a Person, whose sixteen year-old author, Nina, says she “likes music and long walks on the beach.” Nina’s accompanying “Muffin Mix” seemed uncannily close to home:

Stay Positive- The Hold Steady
Two Halves- My Morning Jacket
You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb- Spoon
The Sons of Cain- Ted Leo
Eraser- No Age
Sequestered in Memphis- The Hold Steady
Alex Chilton- The Replacements
I’m Amazed- My Morning Jacket
Constructive Summer- The Hold Steady
Sheila Take a Bow- The Smiths
A Little Bit of Feel Good- Jamie Lidell

This is how close I live to the Muffin Mix: Swap Bon Iver and Tinariwen for No Age and Jamie Lidell, and you would come very close to my own heavy rotation for the same week. Nor is Nina a guitar-rock one trick pony; her latest post displays precocious taste in rap both new (Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Lil’ Wayne) and prehistoric (De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest). And I doubt I’ll read a better review of Mamma Mia than the following from Nina: “I now have every ABBA song simultaneously stuck in my head. It was charming at first, but now I’m just feeling suicidal.” Nina’s hall-of-fame post thus far, however, is intriguingly titled “Sorry I Accosted You”, where she summons her teenage fortitude to defend Radiohead’s honor (details after the click-through).

Smiths, “Half a Person”

Half A Person – The Smiths

Replacements, “Alex Chilton”

Alex Chilton – The Replacements

Continue reading Muffin Mix

Tooth Imprints on a Corndog

I) Ferrous Oxide’s Day Off

Cassette Hand-1 Remember the bad old days of yore, making mix tapes for yourself and friends, mistakenly believing you could re-use the same cassette over and over again ad nauseum ’til the ferrous oxide particles started to dissolve or flake off? Somewhere between the time you first slid off the shrink-wrap and the time the tape inevitably got stuck between the capstan and pinch roller, leaving 17 seconds of that unreplaceable Minutemen live bootleg tangled up like a knot of dried tagliatelle pasta, there was the “print through/partial overdub” period, when traces of audio from previous recordings or adjacent layers of tape would appear as ghostly traces on the current recording.

The effect was mostly annoying, but also sometimes mystical. Rhythms might accidentally match up, or serve as counterweights to one another. Sometimes you’d think you’d proven finally and conclusively that T. Rex and Marmalade really were involved in a mutual back-masking cabal. But mostly it just sounded weird. In a good way.

After the jump: Backyardigans and Evan Lurie, The Wizard of Floyd, Dali’s paranoia-critical method, and the sonic layering of Solveig Slettahjell.
Continue reading Tooth Imprints on a Corndog

Carrie Nation

Forced to choose my favorite American rock guitarist of the last dozen years, I’d need two seconds to answer: Carrie Brownstein. If you want a showoff guitarist who plays arpeggios with her teeth while wearing a bucket on her head, she’s not going to be your axeperson of choice. And sure, I have moods that demand the range of Nels Cline, the subtlety of Ry Cooder, or the visceral rush of Bob Mould. But riff for riff, I’ll take Carrie for her grasp of what the guitar can say within a song, and for almost singlehandedly restoring the legacy of the late, great Ricky Wilson of the B52s. Almost two years after the breakup of Brownstein’s signature band, Sleater-Kinney, I still miss their combination of raw power, depth of purpose, human compassion, and sheer rock and roll fun. Sleater-Kinney also saved my love life, but that’s the subject for another post.

Carrie hasn’t been resting on her laurels. ThunderAnt, her new duo with SNL’s Fred Armisen, has released what is, scientifically speaking, the perfect pop song (clip below). Slate featured her test-drive of the Rock Band video game. She coaches and promotes a rock camp for girls. Best of all, her Monitor Mix column for NPR’s website has, in just over half a year, become one of my favorite sources of music writing; her written work is passionate, personal, and refreshingly free of hipster posturing. In recent posts, Carrie delivers a great road trip playlist (Wipers, Go Betweens, Music Go Music, Richard and Linda Thompson, Cal Tjader), captures the gift of the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg (“his songs have an adult acuity sung in an adolescent idiom”), admits her weakness for reality television (“I suppose that I’d rather get that artifice-parading-as-truth from The Bachelor instead of my government”), and explains why she enjoys, but can’t bring herself to love Vampire Weekend (“if you take preppy yacht rock too far, you end up back at Jimmy Buffett”).

The posts in Monitor Mix are thoughtful and reflective, even when Carrie is giving simple shout-outs to recent favorites, such as Bon Iver and Blitzen Trapper. One great recent piece uses the strange worlds of underground Christian/ alt-rock pioneer Larry Norman and Colorado hardcore obscurities Bum Kon to segue into the fertile subject of bands that fall under the radar screen. And instead of just sneering at the reviewer recently caught rating a Black Crowes album he’d never heard, Brownstein uses it as a springboard for some hilarious fictional music reviews. Here’s Brownstein on the Shins’ nonexistent opus Honey Poke Shimmy Lantern: “James Mercer and crew can do no wrong. They’ve added the Decemberists, the Thermals, and Spoon to their lineup. Recorded inside a deer carcass, the sounds on Honey Poke are haunting and cervid. These songs will change your life back to the way it was before The Shins changed it the first time.”

ThunderAnt, “Perfect Song”

After the click-through: Carrie on Saddam Hussein and Liz Phair.

Continue reading Carrie Nation

Jon Langford: South By East By Midwest

A short trip to Austin earlier this month felt like a homecoming, even though I’ve never been there before. I’ve rarely been bombarded with so much music, with so little planning or effort, for so long into the night, since I left Chicago for California more than two decades ago. Austin is the sort of place where you venture out for coffee after your night of music and find out that the coffeehouse (in this case, Jo’s Hot Coffee on South Congress) has its own house band playing a bang-up set of western swing. A record store mural across the street from the UT/ Austin campus registers the city’s sense of music history: among others, Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash share wall space with Dylan, Iggy, and the Clash.

If one figure spans all those influences, it is the provocateur, painter, raconteur and raver Jon Langford. The Welsh-born Leeds-to-Chicago transplant and Bloodshot Records mainstay has—in the 23-year stretch dating from the Mekons’ often-mentioned, seldom heard Fear and Whiskey—done more than just about anyone else to resuscitate the withered heart of post-punk and reclaim the tarnished soul of American country. In Austin, I was thrilled to discover that the Yard Dog Gallery has a fantastic collection of Langford’s visual art, mostly densely layered, distressed images of iconic American roots musicians in graveyard settings. Blindfolded, sullied and marked for extinction, the characters remind me of Chicago artist Ivan Albright’s studies of decay and corruption; constantly “dancing with death,” they are unsettlingly alive and a reminder of the slow death that comes out of greed, fear and homogenization.

As a curmudgeonly first-generation art school punk who writes lines like “John Glenn drinks cocktails with God at a café in downtown Saigon,” Langford is smart enough to realize he doesn’t play or paint “authentic” honky tonk any more than Vampire Weekend is a gang of African tribesmen. And unlike some of his retro-worshipping peers, he acknowledges that the “golden age” of county music had its own problems with pills and pretenders and poor directions. Yet he uses his outsider’s distance as an advantage. While bemoaning the death of country music at the hands of what he calls “suburban rock music with a cowboy hat on,” Langford’s work cuts deeper than that, excavating the signs of life in a cultural landscape pockmarked with interchangeable strip malls and Kenny Chesney records. There’s also a redemptive element in the search; like his protagonist in his Waco Brothers anthem “Hell’s Roof,” he’s reclaiming a lost history, “walking on hell’s roof, looking at the flowers” (and not “walking in a clown suit, looking at the flowers,” as I misheard Langford’s impassioned growl for more than a year).

Jon Langford, “Hell’s Roof”

Continue reading Jon Langford: South By East By Midwest

Cachao’s Legacy: Two Nations Under a Groove


Although Cuban bass virtuoso Israel “Cachao” Lopez took his final breaths this week, it’s hard to imagine this humble giant, who played in more than 250 groups from the 1920s on, as not having a pulse. Cachao would have been legendary even if he had retired around 1940. As a member of Arcaño y Sus Maravillas in the late 1930s, Cachao and his multi-instrumentalist brother Orestes “Macho” Lopez reworked the rarefied French-influenced parlor music of the danzón into the mambo. But by the 1950s, when Perez Prado and many others (from Rosemary Clooney to Bill Haley) rode the mambo to international fame, Cachao had moved on to perfect the descarga, the “jam session” format that provided breathing room for serious instrumental improvisation. More than a rhythm master, Cachao united melody and harmony into an irresistible connecting thread—what George Clinton would later call a “groove.”

Because Cachao was a Cuban expatriate who spent his postwar years in places ranging from Madrid to Miami, it would be easy to give his career the Buena Vista Social Club treatment, viewing him as a nostalgic relic of Cuba’s romantic past. But that would understate his legacy. One of Cachao’s few peers, pianist Bebo Valdes, has noted that before Cachao, Cuban music had counter-tempo, but still lacked real syncopation. Cachao, who spent decades in the Havana Symphony performing with conductors ranging from Ernesto Lecuona to Igor Stravinsky, elevated the seriousness of the bass even as he made it dance, swing and shimmer.

Some of Cachao’s obituaries quote from a hero of mine—musicologist and “cowboy rumba” innovator Ned Sublette–whose astonishingly good book Cuba and its Music describes Cachao as “arguably the most important bassist in twentieth century popular music.” While this may beg the question of whether Charles Mingus was “popular,” Sublette has a point. As he notes, “with Cachao, the modern bass feel of Cuban music begins. And with that begins the bass feel of the second half of the twentieth century in U.S. music as well—those funky ostinatos that we know from later decades of R&B, which have become such a part of the environment that we don’t even think about where they came from.”

Continue reading Cachao’s Legacy: Two Nations Under a Groove