Social Distancing Spins, Day 9

By Joel Francis

A 30-day lockdown in my hometown of Kansas City, Mo. was announced today. It looks like this trek through my record collection will continue a while longer.

Bruce Springtsteen – Western Skies (2019) The Boss made his legion of fans wait five long years between releases before dropping Western Skies in the middle of 2019. The first few times I listened, I didn’t like it at all. The songwriting was good, but the strings were too syrupy and heavy-handed. Even though I couldn’t get into the album, when I saw it on sale online the completist in me pushed the buy button. I don’t know what changed, but something happened when I played it this morning. I heard everything with new ears and finally heard what Springsteen was trying to accomplish with the orchestra. I can’t wait to dig into this one again.

Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989) The highs and lows of this album come in rapid succession at the end of side one. Aaron Neville voice soars cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come.” The civil rights hymn is accented by producer Daniel Lanois’ tremelo guitar and guest Brian Eno’s ethereal keyboards. The civil rights theme takes an uncomfortable turn with the next song, “Sister Rosa,” a well-intentioned by horribly awkward rap tribute. Fortunately the ship is righted with Aaron Neville back in the spotlight with a tender cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” Elsewhere, the album explores cajun and the brothers’ native New Orleans on songs like “Fire and Brimstone” and “Wild Injuns.”

Kelis – Food (2014) Her milkshake brought the boys to the yard, but Food is a full meal of biscuits and gravy, jerk ribs and cobbler. Working with producer Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, Kelis’ most recent album to date rejects contemporary production and attempts at Top 40 success. The organic arrangements with live instrumentation make this a Kelis album with the singer in firm control, rather than a vehicle with her voice slotted into other producers’ ideas. The relaxed comfort of the sessions comes through in the songs. “Cobbler” opens with gales of laughter as a slow Afrobeat groove slowly builds. Those same horns also pop up in “Jerk Ribs” and “Friday Fish Fry,” propelling everyone straight to the dance floor. “Bless the Telephone” might be my favorite moment on the album. It’s also one of the most basic –Kelis and Sal Masakela sound so honest and vulnerable singing over a gorgeous acoustic guitar line. Then the party roars back to life.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013) The Terror isn’t my favorite Flaming Lips album by a long shot, but it felt the most appropriate right now. Half the band was in a bad way when this album was being made and it shows. Singer Wayne Coyne’s longtime romantic relationship had ended and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd relapsed into substance abuse. There aren’t any hints of the magic and wonder fans got from the band’s breakthrough albums. Instead there are songs like the seven-plus minute “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die,” which sounds like the dawn of a nightmare in some post-apocalyptic desert. But hey, when you haven’t left the house in more than a week and have just been alerted your entire city is on lockdown for the next 30 days, sometimes even cold comfort is comforting. Happy spring, everybody!

Son Volt – Straightaways (1997)

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993) The first time I saw Son Volt was in support of Straightaways, when they opened for ZZ Top at Sandstone Amphitheater. The venue was your typical outdoor shed and my friend and I were miles away from the stage, out on the lawn. Frontman Jay Farrar was never known for his onstage energy and the songs sizzled out well before they reached us.

Oh to have seen Farrar just a few years earlier. If I could build a time machine, one of the first places I’d go would be to an Uncle Tupelo concert. Hearing Farrar’s voice pair with Jeff Tweedy’s on the chorus of “Slate,” the first song, always sends me to a happy place. While the sessions for what would be the pair’s final album were acrimonious – at least from Farrar’s viewpoint; Tweedy has said he had no clue of his partner’s hostility and disillusionment – the result is a timeless slab of alt-country goodness.

Bleached – Welcome to the Worms (2016) Centered around sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, Bleached operates somewhere between Blondie and the Donnas. I first saw the band at the now-shuttered Tank Room on Halloween night with Beach Slang. The sisters, along with bass player Micayla Grace, all performed in costume. These songs were a little more garage-y in concert, but it is still great girl-group rock however you slice it.

Ahmad Jamal – Inspiration (compilation) This 1972 collection finds jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal primarily working in a trio format with bass and drums. The assemblage hops around from the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s in both studio and club settings. Several of the songs are augmented with a string section, which can be a little jarring, since Jamal isn’t know for orchestral work. Despite the seemingly hodgepodge nature, the four sides make for a generally cohesive play. Jamal made a ton of records and none of them are very expensive. Any good music shop will have at least five or six inches of his platters to choose from in the stacks. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Emmylou Harris – At the Ryman (1992) Emmylou Harris was coming off the worst-performing album of her career to date when she stepped onstage at the storied Ryman Auditorium for three nights in the spring of 1991. Backed by her new bluegrass ensemble the Nash Ramblers (lead by Sam Bush), Harris tackles several hit songs associated with other artists. While her versions of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” or John Fogerty’s “Lodi” won’t make you forget the original performers, Harris puts her own distinctive stamp on them. One of my favorite singers of all time, Harris’ voice is particularly affecting on the a capella “Calling My Children Home” and a medley of Nanci Griffith’s “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”

Top 10 Albums of 2009 (in haiku)

By Joel Francis

Metric – Fantasies
Indie synth band shines
on fourth album. Smart dance-pop
bests Metric, Phoenix.

Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Fun from start to end,
Brit blends hip hop, jazz and soul,
wins Mercury Prize.

Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3
Mismatch on paper
Banjo goes to Africa?
A joyous result.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Red-head continues
streak of amazing albums.
Doubtless to persist.

Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi
NOLA pianist
and songwriter honors roots
with great jazz album.

Me’Shell Ndegeocello – Devil’s Halo
Poetry, jazz, soul –
Don’t try to classify this.
Bass phenom triumphs.

Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar – One Fast Move or I’m Gone
Voices of Death Cab
and Son Volt pay homage to
poet Kerouac.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!
Southern soul throwbacks
bridge JB, Otis.
For fans of Daptone.

Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
Indie sensation
examines life via Bible.
(Isn’t Christian rock.)

Mos Def – The Ecstatic
Fourth LP finds MC
back on game. Fans rejoice. More
rhymes, less acting, please.

Honorable mention:
Maxwell – BLACKsummer’snight
Eight years, a long time.
Welcome back, neo-soul man.
Slow jams worth the wait.

Keep Reading:

Top 10 Albums of 2008 (haiku remix)

Top 10 concerts of 2008

Review: Son Volt (2005)

Review: Neko Case, Son Volt and more at Wakarusa 2005

Green Ribbon Haikus (2008)

Feature: Hail Death Cab

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Review: Mos Def, Kweli, others at Rock the Bells (2007)

Top 10 albums of 2005

Top 10 Albums of 2004

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

(Above: Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy perform the unreleased Wilco song “Cars Can’t Escape.”)

By Joel Francis

When I first heard Jay Bennett had been fired from Wilco back in 2001, I was worried the band had just lost their secret weapon. Jeff Tweedy may have been the wordsmith and idea man, but Bennett was the artist who polished those ideas to perfection.

Bennett died in his sleep May 24. He was 45 years old.

Bennett’s presence was felt from the moment he joined Wilco in 1995. Tweedy was still trying to crawl out from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and establish his identity independent of his Tupelo cohort (and rival) Jay Farrar. Bennett’s presence on the band’s second album, “Being There,” added a new dimension to the arrangements and production.

“Summerteeth” is arguable Wilco’s finest hour and definitely the perfect product of the Tweedy/Bennett vision. For each of Tweedy’s dark moments, like “She’s A Jar” or “Via Chicago,” there are the sun-drenched pop anthems of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” and “I’m Always in Love.” Wilco’s music has never been happier and more optimistic than it is on “Summerteeth.” For proof, check out the opening riff in the title song. “Summerteeth” the song is the musical equivalent of a gentle breeze caressing the backyard hammock, or those Corona beach commercials.

Bookending the recording of “Summerteeth” are two albums using unused Woody Guthrie lyrics recorded with British folker Billy Bragg. Bennett’s touch is felt across both volumes of the “Mermaid Avenue” material; “Secrets of the Sea” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” continue that “Summerteeth” vibe.

Wilco’s next album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” famously found the band in transition and butting heads. But if “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” point to the band’s future without Bennett, “Jesus, etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” still held plenty of Bennett’s sunny, radio-friendly magic.

Although Tweedy continued building critical acclaim and growing his fan base after “Foxtrot,” Bennett was not as successful on his own. That Bennett was working as a VCR repairman prior to joining Wilco says a lot about his craft. Bennett was a tinkerer, one who was best improving and polishing other’s creations. Left to both build and execute, he struggled.

Despite this, Bennett’s four solo albums still have merit. His first post-Wilco release, a collaboration with Edward Burch called “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” has a remake of the “Summerteeth” track “My Darling” that may top the original. This album and the two that follow it have more unused Guthrie material which makes for a nice “Mermaid Avenue” post script. (The post script continued this year with Wilco’s release of Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker.” Hopefully a “Volume Three” will appear sometime.) Bennett’s limited singing ability can grows wearisome across these releases, his production never does.

Bennett’s most complete solo statement was his second-to-last album, 2006’s “The Magnificent Defeat.” The second word in the title should be given more emphasis than the third. Bennett’s lyrics and delivery have a bit of Elvis Costello anger to them, but the fun he had putting the album together jumps out the speakers and makes for an infectious listen.

Today, Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt are all that remain of the Wilco lineup that brought us “Summerteeth” and “Being There.” But every time the band launches into “She’s A Jar” or “ELT” – as they frequently do – a little bit of Jay Bennett will be smiling on the audience. And they’ll be smiling back.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows At Crossroads KC

Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Holiday Marketing Can Reveal Bands’ Inner Grinch