IT'S THE TWENTY-TWENTIES
The May Quarterly Music Round-Up
Let’s see, since my last music column back in February:
I read Popkiss, Michael White’s barbed, loving examination of the “life and afterlife of Sarah Records”, that tiny UK label that released all those jangly, wistful indie-pop records I loved in the late 80s. I’d forgotten how many people hated those records then.
I got to go meet my son in Portugal, after three straight years of canceling trips. Partly, I’m sure, my reveling in the experience was about just being elsewhere with people I love. But it was also about being anywhere that feels so much more like a civil and functioning country than the one where I live. Significant challenges and all.
Then I came home to Bucha, Mariupol, the chaotic end of the mask mandate, the Roe decision leak, the polls showing one in three Americans believing in replacement theory, inflation insanity.
Which made me feel naive all over again. Like a twee little Sarah records lover.
Which made me anxious.
And also angry.
And still hopeful? Because what other choice is there?
Hey, it’s the twenty-twenties...
Way back in the early ‘80s—before Sarah, even— when the Cherry Red label was releasing justifiably legendary compilations like Perspectives & Distortion and Pillows and Prayers, these two materialized with what I always thought of as a post-punk Winnie-the-Pooh hum called “It’s a Fine Day”, in which Jane sings, “It’s going to be a fine night tonight/It’s going to be a fine day tomorrow” in a voice too naked and wry for this world, haunted by echo, streaked with loneliness, the most a capella thing I think I’d ever heard.
Then they vanished for forty years.
They sound just as sui generis now. Sometimes on their new record, as on this track, there’s brooding (if rudimentary) electronic backdrop. Sometimes, Jane wanders off humming again.
But...what even is this??
Pathetic last gasp of willful Pollyannaism? Tragicomic fantasy no one, least of all these sly, smart anachronists, actually believes? Bitterly ironic kiss-off to life on Earth?
Far in the future—because apparently we still have one—our singing late middle-aged DJ takes us “way back” to “play a track/from the decade we all love to remember.” Meaning—yeah—this one, “when we learned to see that just enough is plenty-plenty”, “when it looked like the planet would fall to pieces/...and everyone got stuck right in/...and saved the big round lovely thing...”
I still have no idea how to read the smile in Jane’s voice. But it’s there.
Fado really was everywhere during our time in Portugal. In dedicated late-night clubs in every city, but also pouring out of windows, erupting from nearby street corners as buskers or passing college kids burst out in song. It’s music of swooning longing, walks by water by moonlight, lovers lost at sea, and it really is listed on the UNESCO World Intangible Heritage List.
At the performance we attended, the male half of the singing duo stepped into the spotlight in an exquisite Italian suit, his layers of hair recalling roiling sea at least as much as the lyrics or melody or alternately lilting and surging guitars. When he’d finished, he slid to the side of the stage and slouched down at the gestural cafe table there while his partner, in flowing red evening gown, took her solos. He watched her for maybe ten seconds. Then he watched the audience for maybe ten seconds. Then he glanced down into his palms and commenced picking his nails.
Which was the moment I fell all the way in love with fado.
I can’t explain. Or maybe I can. Bryan Ferry pulled this trick in 1973, camping up “These Foolish Things” and rendering a lost-love-of-a-lifetime song positively jaunty. Which somehow restored its power. Made it ache irresistibly all over again.
Deolinda sing “neofado”, which I’m taking to mean fado we hear rather than revere. There is deep sadness in this song. And a Jane (of & Barton) grin. And a skip in its step. This lover isn’t mourning someone lost to the waves; she’s kissing off a relationship. The lyrics translate as, “When I get up and don’t know who I am/Who I’ve become/I start going crazy/Your good is my bad.” By the end, the ship of song has come about, and she’s not just explaining; she’s girding for revenge.
Which she makes sound almost as fun and romantic as being in love in the first place.
Her bad is our good.
My friend Scott and I used to joke about creating a playlist exclusively devoted to bands whose names we’d mistaken for bands we were looking for while record shopping. I can’t even remember most of mine. One of his was Regurgitator, whose bins he kept leaping to, momentarily believing he’d found the section for his beloved Refrigerator.
On my carefully researched hunt list for our Portugal trip, I had the band Sensible Sorcerers as a must-find. Not only did I accidentally grab—and buy— this disc in error, but I later passed on an actual Sorcerers disc because I wrongly figured I already had one. Didn’t realize my mistake until I got home.
Which is how I found this stellar northern Portuguese instrumental/post-rock/what-is-it bunch. And why I still love going to record stores.
Sure, I’m romanticizing some, but Portugal feels so alive, teeming and vibrant, weighted by history and encroaching poverty but lifted by laughter, communal as the laundry drying on clotheslines strung from virtually every building, which really is a national symbol, point of pride.
Sensible Soccers’ music feels like that, with absolutely anything they’ve ever heard and loved flowing through it. The guitars at the beginning aren’t fado-tinted, but they have that lilt to them, especially when those mournful horns float over the top. Bits of very contemporary post-minimalist piano ripple through (think John Adams, Lubomyr Melnyk). Near the end, a gentle beat doesn’t so much kick as swirl up, as insistent as a Kraftwerk throb but with the texture (though not the rattle) of flamenco castanets.
Anything goes, yet everything fits. Which—again, in the current moment—really does feel like radical humanism. Gloriously naive. Hopeful.
Especially mid-pandemic, “teeming” probably had—has— unnerving connotations for a lot of people. But in a country with a 92% vaccination rate, where almost everyone masks up indoors without being asked and keeps their distance anyway, they can sometimes teem like it’s 1999.
This song has the feel of the streets we walked in every city we visited. Lisbon, Lagos, Coimbra, Porto, all of them. People out, people laughing, the rhythms of a hundred different traditions and cultures overlapping and swirling together. Over this particular irresistible throb soars the voice of Sara Tavares, a Portuguese national treasure of Cape Verdean descent. The title track of her 2005 Balance album remains a centerpiece on the constantly updating and shifting soundtrack to my life I hope never to complete.
Here, she unfurls that voice like a kite that Terry Lynn and the Buraka team can whirl and swing and bat about. It’s the sound of the city I so want to believe we all still dream, where we can safely see and smile at and surprise and bewitch each other...
...And it was that thought, that listening experience, that got me finally and properly de-ironized and re-naived and in love with people enough again for the straight-up, real fado stuff.
This tilting accordion...these muted trumpet murmurs...that port-soaked voice trembling just so... The lyrics (in translation): “Ask the gentle river if you see my tears run.../Never forget that I love you.”
This Brooklyn electronica duo started out remixing and updating 1930s Shanghai hits, but nowadays, their effortlessly inventive and enveloping tracks glide through a forever-unfolding metropolis entirely of their own invention. Or maybe our collective one.
Like a more beat-driven, pop-friendly version of one-time Brian Eno collaborator Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Possible Musics recordings, SRP doesn’t so much deploy or graft in different ethnic and genre influences as absorb them into a constantly morphing, glowing elsewhere, incorporating all kinds of traditions but beholden to none.
This track feels particularly and ideally engineered for your evening bus ride between fado (or whatever) houses, with the streets out your windows lit up just enough so you can see the movement everywhere. All those people out there doing what people (used to?) do: chatter, sway, make music, respond to music, in the midst of lives that feel safe enough to share.
That said, given the way the world actually feels right now, maybe it’s better—just for a little longer— to stay on the bus. Drift and watch. Hope and listen. Pay attention.
Hey, it’s the twenty-twenties.
We do need to be clear, after all: embracing what I’m calling naiveté, hope for the planet, faith in our fellow beings, is at least as dangerous as cynical acceptance of the horrific inevitable. This gorgeous Finnish dream pop track from 2012—apparently it was a hit on at least some of the continent, but I just stumbled onto it now—riffs on the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, who left people behind to go off and live with the bears. They eventually killed him.
What I really love here—as usual— is the sound: that layering of gorgeous, wide-sky melody and atmosphere atop a lyrical longing that verges on desperation. Jessika Rapo’s voice is a brook, a bell, rich in resonance and yet distant, something you stop beside rather than converse with. The gauzy guitars and keyboards enfold and take shape but then dissipate fast. It’s a song you remember more than hear even while you’re hearing it.
The Timothy Treadwell they sketch is a dreamer, and he pays for it. Doesn’t mean the world he imagined isn’t more beautiful for him than the one we inhabit. He’s headed “into the wilderness/away from the loneliness”. Maybe he found what he was looking for, even if he imagined it, among creatures who “mixed friend with prey.”
Creatures other than us who do that, I mean.
As for me, I have no interest in going to live with the grizzlies. I’d rather find more people who have “listened to Another Sunny Day/for a whole all day...”
See, this is one of those little internet-as-collective-unconscious miracles that gives me...well, not faith in the species. But hope for another sunny day? That I get to share, or gets shared with me?
There’s the way I found these tracks, first of all: I had come across a terrific cut on Bandcamp from the Australian duo Emma Russack & Lochlan Denton that had elements I wanted to incorporate into a song I’ve been working on for Momzer, my longtime sometime band. So I sent it to Jonas Yip (photographer, bandmate, guitarist, producer, renaissance dude). Instead of responding to the track, he wrote back and asked if I’d seen the link at the bottom of the page.
Which was to an indie Chinese label’s new compilation, Our Secret World, marking the 20-year anniversary of the end of Sarah Records.
The comp is inconsistent. So was Sarah. But what it gets completely right is that commitment not to amateurishness (which is part of what the haters always had wrong) but a sweeter Lester Bangsianism. Writing about The Clash, Bangs once said, “They did what they could and what they wanted to do and out of the chaos emerged something magnificent.”
To me, the Sarah ethos—at least, the one I’ve always attached to it-- involves using the means at your disposal and whatever ability and inspiration and heart you’ve got to capture those fleeting, desperate, glorious, aching feelings that define the dream of being young. And/or being in love. And/or realizing the limits of loving, and living. And then going on loving and living, for real, best you can.
So here we are in the twenty-twenties, and from across time and the ravaged planet come two perfect examples of precisely that sort of Sarahness, created by Chinese bands made up of members who probably weren’t alive when the label was a label. How did they even find it? The Butterbeer track is explicitly about the comforts of dreaming away hours listening to a great Sarah song. Chestnut Bakery sing about “happiness...hanging on the clouds/I hope it would rain/And make it dance with me.”
The guitars jangle. The melodies ghost through, but they stick. The words are their English, their Sarah. But that feeling they’re expressing, and capturing, and remembering, is mine, too.
I love Butterbeer, and Chestnut Bakery. I refuse to give up on a world where Butterbeer and Chestnut Bakery exist. But that doesn’t mean I don’t live in this one. (Because, yes, that would be naive.)
So, along with my Butterbeer and Chestnut baked goods, could I also have a heaping order of Diablo Swing Orchestra?
Pop(kiss) quiz: which of these words is not like the others:
A. Swedish. B. Metal. C. Fun(ny)
Not sure? How about: D. Swingin’
Even if the music sucked, which it doesn’t, Diablo has the best band origin story I’ve heard since Faxed Head (do yourself a favor and look up both). As for the music:
Don’t get me wrong: there’s doom here, and molten guitar sludge. But also bonkers crosscutting, with rockabilly riffs collapsing toward jump blues that erupt through a tech metal tunnel into a campfire sing along. And that’s before the tubas kick in.
“What have we done/now we’re at war with the sun”, croons Kristin Everard. But then there’s also “I know what’s at stake/we won’t stop believing.”
Could Greta Thunberg maybe book this crew for the next major protest?
Back in February, I wrote about Carsie Blanton’s stellar song about having a party while the world ends.
Maybe we could also have one while we save it.
Okay, there’s nothing fun about this. It’s not just anxiety-accompaniment music; it’s anxiety-as-music. The musical embodiment of. The fact that it comes from New Zealand—that almost Eden, last peaceful place, at least in our fantasies from across the globe—just makes its stomp that much more ferocious.
Although. Now that I write that...there is of course a time for stomping. And some fun in it, of a sort. It’s a really hard sweet spot to hit. But from that first tell-tale heart-throb to the closet-door drum slams to that murmured, relentless, “It’s 5:30 a.m./I’ve got to go to bed again”, this does more than capture the gritty insomnia-desperation plaguing as much of the world, it sometimes seems, as Covid-19; it comes damn close to providing catharsis.
Not a cure. It’s not going to have you cuddling up to anything or anyone.
But as release, this satisfies almost like Wire’s epochal “Sand in My Joints”. There have been days lately where the Nancies come damn close to doing for nerve-grinding angst what blues supposedly did for the blues.
And once that works, I get to return, revived if not quite refreshed, to imagining and arguing for and writing about and making another possible world, in baby (miracle) steps. “Woodstock” comes from a gorgeous 2017 compilation of artists building on Jon Hassell’s naive (you bet) vision of a borderless musical landscape where traditions and innovations and exquisite melodic invention get swirled together into new forms of beauty. “Asco” is by two longtime German avant-gardists and self-described “digital nomads” who have long made perhaps their most lasting art through unexpected collaboration. Larry Chernicoff is an American jazz/rock/classical artist I had not encountered before.
To identify and carve out different elements would defeat the purpose. And also be pointless. This is music for dreaming new and, yep, better, and fuck yep, possible new worlds. It’s 5:30 a.m., and we know what’s at stake.
One of their a capella, grown-up Pooh-hums, with appropriate hey-it’s-the-twenty-twenties attitude adjustment. There Jane lies among the bedclothes, dreaming of buttercups and other men, grousing at her partner. “Stop saying words, they make my ears hurt/I really don’t care how your day went...Make me toast/I’ll let you live.”
Pooh, it’s the twenty-twenties.
Although, have you read Pooh lately? Maybe this decade’s more same-as-it-ever-was than we realize.
Maybe there’s comfort in that. Let’s let each other live.
I’m only now, after decades of listening, realizing why Karen Peris’s shamelessly pretty songs stick so often. No demands for toast or intimations of the end of the world here, just flowers and ice and campfires and memories, wrapped up in American Songbook-beautiful melodies and delivered in a voice as mannered as any 1920’s Broadway star’s(though without the Show Boating).
1. These songs are beautiful. Like ice, like flowers. If where we’re headed is a world without room for “The Lakes of Canada” or “To the Library”, let’s just go ahead and end it.
2. As with Gordon Lightfoot, there’s a remove, somehow, about Karen Peris, a distance that could be loneliness but is more likely just solitude. When she sings, “I went to the library to see my friends”, she might or might not mean people. But she’s clearly okay either way.
3. And that’s the key. Naive her work may be. But sentimental it isn’t. Too solitary. The world as it is doesn’t surface in these songs. But it permeates them. So does that “sudden joy that’s like/a fish, a moving light/I thought I saw it.”
I think I hear it. I think I’ll keep looking for it.