Saturday, December 14, 2013


What's the word for the quality of being an asshole? Assholicity? Assholishness? Sin? The latter is an old-fashioned one, but perhaps still serviceable.

This may be the weirdest musical commentary you ever read, but basically I look for songs that exhibit assholicity. They are the Holy Grail of the musical world for me. I look for them not so much because they cut to the chase, but because they cut away from the chase. The chase, in this case, is everything and everyone that distracts you from an honest look in the mirror. The chase can be the pursuit of love, or just plain sex; money, power, greed, that ephemeral buzz that numbs reality or gives you a false sense of well-being. It can come from working too much, or shopping too much, or watching too much TV. Even listening to too much music. Ultimately, it's whatever pulls you away from the metaphorical mirror.

I think that's the reason I love Jason Isbell's album "Southeastern" so much. It's a case study in assholicity. It's a long, hard look at the wreckage of a life. I live for albums like that -- and books like that, films like that -- at least as long as they don't become ends in themselves. Because they remind me to look in the mirror.

In 12-step programs, the fourth step is deceptively simple: "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." That's it. It can take you a lifetime to get it right.

Here's Jason Isbell's musical take on Step 4: Drank way too much. Behaved like a jerk. Lost a wife. 

Favorites of 2013

Okay, ten, in no particular order other than alphabetical, because the idea of ranking the big band music of Darcy James Argue ahead of or behind the honky tonk stomp of Vince Gill and Paul Franklin is frankly ludicrous. And my favorite album of 2013 is not listed alphabetically because it’s the best. So there.

Every album here has a couple flaws. I heard no 5-star efforts this year, which is a little unusual. But, as is the case every year, there were many albums that thrilled me, moved me, made me sad, made me want to jump on the couch cushions and play air guitar (not recommended; just ask my wife), and made me very, very thankful. Here are the albums I loved the most.

Aoife  O’Donovan – Fossils

O’Donovan is the lead singer/songwriter for Crooked Still, an alt-country band that has impressed me up to this point only with their wild inconsistency. But on her first solo album, she blurs the lines between Americana and Celtic music, the accordions nestled up against the pedal steel, and delivers ten finely observed and beautifully sung ruminations on love and loss.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Brooklyn Babylon

Working with an 18-piece big band, Argue delivers another slab of steampunk jazz. Or something. Good luck finding a label. There’s an electric guitarist here who thinks he’s Jimi Hendrix. There are tight horn arrangements here that yield to avant-garde squonking and squealing. There are snatches of old Croatian folk songs, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Count Basie on Saturn. Whatever this is, it’s bracing, startling, and often lovely.

Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare

Take every early ‘70s album you’ve ever heard and put it in the musical blender. Wilson’s lyrical approach is primarily drawn from the introspective, stoned navel gazing of 1971 Laurel Canyon. Think Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. But sonically, this album features Pink Floyd spacerock, winding, jagged Neil Young/Crazy Horse guitar workouts, epic ELO pop orchestration, sophisticated Steely Dan jazz rock. It’s a sprawling mess; nearly 80 minutes of “Look ma, I can compress the ‘70s into one album.” The astonishing fact is that he does it.

Mikal Cronin – MCII

The garage rocker cleans up the scuzz, discovers production, melody, hooks, and choruses, and delivers the best power pop album of 2013. There’s still a delightful garage rock rawness about the proceedings, but Cronin makes the most of his three chords and ends up with that rarest of albums; 38 minutes of infectious rock ‘n roll without a second wasted.

North Mississippi Allstars – World Boogie is Coming

Delta blues and southern rock ‘n roll. That’s it. There will be the inevitable comparisons to the White Stripes and the Black Keys because of the minimalist lineup, and because Luther Dickinson is a genuine guitar hero, but in truth these tunes owe more to R.L. Burnside and Muddy Waters than the Rust Belt boys. This stuff just roars and stomps. If you’re looking for subtlety, go elsewhere. But, as Sam Phillips (the producer, not the female singer/songwriter) once said, this is where the soul of man never dies. It’s alive and well in North Mississippi.

Over the Rhine – Meet Me at the Edge of the World

Place gets short shrift in most contemporary music. The usual pop hit could emanate from anywhere. But imagine the music of The Beach Boys without southern California, or the music of Bruce Springsteen without the Jersey Shore. Place, for husband-and-wife team Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, is a farm in southwest Ohio, and these lovely songs have dirt under their fingernails. This is incarnational music in the best sense. It’s rooted in time and place. It’s about real people with bodies. The love songs, which are here in force, are earthbound. Nevertheless, they soar.

Son Lux – Lanterns

Ryan Lott, the restlessly creative spirit behind Son Lux, has always been a musical alchemist, mixing the most seemingly disparate materials together; hip-hop beats and samples from Maria Callas, industrial clanging and what sounds like Rachmaninoff piano sturm und drang. The creative alchemy is still very much in evidence, but “Lanterns,” Lott’s third album, is more rooted in traditional song structures, and “Lost it to Trying” actually sounds like it could be a massive club hit. It’s an impressive pop move for a mad scientist.

Superchunk – I Hate Music

North Carolina’s bratty punks have now been dragged kicking and screaming into middle age, and they’re facing middle-age problems, including the brutal reminder of the death of friends who are too young to die. They’re still bratty, and their strident but infectious rock ‘n roll is no less raucous, but they’re howling in grief and disbelief. And they’re alarmed that life, impossibly, goes on. The “don’t let go/let go” tug-of-war that dominates opener “Overflows” will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever experienced the sting of death, and the incalculable loss of memories that cannot be fully retained.

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Ten songs from Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, done straight up Bakersfield honky tonk style. No frills, just miles-deep soulfulness and superb pedal steel.

And yes, my favorite album of 2013:

Jason Isbell – Southeastern

The biographical details surrounding this album – alcoholism, rehab, the implosion of a marriage, cautious hope, new love – are well chronicled. Jason Isbell is too savvy of a writer to dwell in straight-up autobiography, and it’s worth noting that on this album the first-person narrative can’t always be assumed to be about the songwriter. That said, some of these details are too harrowing to come from anyplace other than the deepest, darkest personal experience. This is confessional songwriting at its best, sung by a soulful choirboy, and there isn’t a maudlin note, or a note of self-justification. This is a Portrait of the Asshole as a Young Man. And an artist. That, too.