07.07.2019
Black Midi
Schlagenheim

Black Midi (or, if you're following their their own style guide, black midi) appeared in England this year, as English bands occasionally do, surrounded by some of the most hyperbolic praise you've ever heard, fully mysterious, mercurial, seemingly ready to redefine the very nature of guitar-based Western music as we know it. But this was only coming from people who'd seem them at one of their many infamous live shows at random London clubs over the course of the year; they had recorded nothing so there was no other way to judge.

Then they released a couple songs, and it was like, "Oh shit. This might be for real."

Then they released a few more, played some American shows (in Minneapolis of all places!), and did a full performance filmed for KEXP, and the mystery wasn't quite as mysterious anymore. But they were clearly still very talented and just bathed in potential.

Then they released their debut LP Schlagenheim, and all the hype and potential and insanity has turned into something far more simple: Black Midi is a very good mathy post-hardcore band. They don't sound like nothing we've ever heard before; they sound like Battles, they sound like Shellac, they sound like At the Drive In, they sound like Hella. But! They sound like Black Midi too. And they sound very very good. The other thing about this group is that they're all babies—teenagers when they started, they're all 20 or 21 now—but they sound like they've been playing with each other for a decade. Absolutely tight, absolutely slotted.

There is some "jazz" in their music, in that they're listening to one another and I'm sure there's improvisation at work, even though I'd not want to push that angle too far. They're just 4 fucking talented instrumentalists totally locked in and not afraid to make weird, heavy music in 2019. No, they're not changing the game or redefining the meaning of music in the 21st century, but they're running laps around a lot of the other bands who tried to do what they're doing 10 years ago, when it was a cooler thing to do. So shit, I'll allow them some hype for that.

This time next year they'll be broken up. I'm sure of it.

06.22.2019
Bruce Springsteen
Western Stars

I haven't listened to enough latter-day Springsteen albums in my life to properly place Western Stars into context. To be totally honest, I haven't even listened to enough old Springsteen albums to do so either. Still, I am shocked—shocked—at how good about half this album is. This is some of the most beautiful music I've heard all year. "Hello Sunshine" floored me when it first circulated online earlier this Spring; I listened to it about 10 times that day and it hasn't lost a bit of its power today. "The Wayfarer" could've been an all-timer tune with the E Street Band in the 70s, but works just as well in the rhinestone cowboy context of this record sung by a very different kind of 70's Bruce. "Drive Fast," "Stones," and "Somewhere North of Nashville," "Chasin' Wild Horses" and the title track "Western Stars" all cover similar acoustic ballad territory but are equally powerful. "Sundown" is corny but hearing Bruce belt the chorus like the finale of a Grand Ol Opry Vegas revue is riveting.

The rest of the songs are awful.

Truly. The gap between the good stuff and the bad stuff on this album is unlike anything in recent memory. Clearly some of these tunes were recorded at different sessions with different producers and different musicians, and it shows and it's a bummer. It's crazy to say a 2019 album by a nearly 70-year-old Bruce Springsteen inspired by Glen Campbell and George Jones and 1960s California country western pop ballads could've been one of the best albums of the decade (and his career?). It could've been the anti-Cash: aging icon makes an album about the pain of being an aging icon, except instead death and despair it's sunshine and hope. Like I said, the good songs here are fantastic. But if he just could've hooked up with the right producers and collaborators to fill this thing out—Van Dyke Parks? T Bone Burnett? Brandi Carlile? Owen Pallett? Matthew White? Dare I fucking say Jon Brion?—this could've been a head-spinning album. At the very least someone should've told him not to put "Sleepy Joe's Cafe" on there.


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06.18.2019
Cate Le Bon
Reward

I went into this liking Cate Le Bon a lot. Her music is weird and unique, but has a calming sincerity to it, and is always 100% her. The couple lead singles I heard to this new one Reward had me on the edge of my seat, ready to call it the album of the year, and not need to listen to anything else between now and January. To quote something I wrote in an unnamed comment section somewhere, "I loved the songs on the last Cate Le Bon record, but I feel like these new ones actually love me back." And they do. The rest of the album though, is closer to more-of-the-same. Which is still great. But like I still want to listen to other things too.

06.18.2019
Wuhling
Extra 6

Here's the chain of events:

• I logged on to Facebook and saw a post I made one year ago about Steve Albini winning money in the World Series of Poker tournament.
• Curious about how he fared or if he entered this year's tournament, I googled "Steve Albini World Series of Poker." On Google, obviously.
• The search results were all from last year's story, but I went ahead and clicked on one of the links to refresh my memory on the story.
• In the intro to this story, it was mentioned that he'd talked in the past about being a poker player. This linked to a different article, and I clicked.
• This new story was from nearly 10 years ago, and talked about how a regular commenter on a popular poker message board, who was long rumored to be Albini, finally came clean and introduced himself. He then offered to answer any questions anyone on the board might have about his career in music.
• Some of the questions and answers were posted in the article, and one of them was about which albums he felt regret about—instances where he felt he could've done a better job, or didn't have the time to do his best work, etc. The answer he gave was the album Extra 6, a 1996 record by the mostly-forgotten post-rock band Wuhling. He said their first album sounded great, and he did their second, but for some reason it never sounded right to him, even though their songs and performances were solid, but he was never able to perfect it.
• Curious, having never heard of Wuhling, I Googled them (on Google, again). I certainly didn't recognize them or this album, but I listened to a bit of it on a random YouTube link, and enjoyed when I heard. They sound very much like a 1996 post rock group—shades of Slint, a little Tortoise, a little Mogwai, even more Slint, with the refreshing bonus of a minimalist female vocalist on most tracks. I decided I def want the album for my collection.
• Couldn't find it. It's not on iTunes/Bandcamp/Amazon or any other legit mp3 retailer. It's not on Spotify. Not surprising I guess, considering they were a German band who released just 2 albums in the 90s. Maybe I could find their CD at Academy Records or some weirdo NYC music place, but that could take a while.
• I couldn't even find it on random shady mp3 sharing blogs. Nowhere! So:
• I went the shadiest route of all: I used a tool to download the one YouTube version of the album as a single mp3 track, opened it up in my audio editor to separate the tracks, and bingo. All because Facebook reminded me about Steve Albini's 2018 poker victory.

More importantly, this album is actually pretty sweet. I've listened to the thing about 6 times since yesterday. It's nothing too crazy or particularly unique (did I mention Slint yet?), but it's totally solid and extremely listenable. I get Albini's complaint about it though; it sounds good, but it's flatter and duller than his usual samurai-sharp recordings. Some of that is probably because I'm listening to an mp3 rip of an mp3 rip of a YouTube upload of an mp3 rip of a 20 year old CD, but that's here nor there. This album is rad, Wuhling seems like they were cool, and the internet is weird.

05.31.2019
Sing Sinck Sing
Are Sing Sinck Sing

Sing Sinck Sing is a new project (are you keeping track?) of one of the ringleaders of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Efrim Manuel Menuck. It's a beauty, an intense collection of droning analog oscillators and maybe some guitars and some voices, still as harmonic as you might expect from the Godspeed guy. But what strikes me most about the Godspeed guy, as I've come to realize in the last couple years, is he really might be one of the best writers in music, which of course is ironic considering how most of his music is instrumental. I believe I went into detail about this theory back when I wrote up the latest Godspeed album, but just the song titles on this Sing Sinck Sing record are captivating to read. "Do The Police Embrace?" / "A Humming Void In An Emptied Place" / "Joy Is On Her Mount And Death Is At Her Side" / "Fight The Good Fight" / "We Will" (these last two on their own might sound too college-freshman on their own, but in the context of his decades of work there's a certain pugnacity in their basicness). Even the name "Sing Sinck Sing" is an enigmatic wordfuck.

05.30.2019
George McCrae
Rock Your Baby

I was shocked to learn, just last year, that Yo La Tengo's modern classic "You Can Have It All" is in fact a cover of an old 70s soul/disco song. I suppose it makes some sense; doing tasteful covers of record-bin classics is a longstanding part of Yo La Tengo's modus operandi, and the song always had a sprightly bounce that stood out on that album. Anyway, I found the original on YouTube, enjoyed it, and moved on with my life.

So then at the beginning of this week, I checked on in Stereogum's "Number Ones" article, part of a daily series running down every Billboard #1 single since the 1950s (it's truly a great series, giving new context to songs you've heard thousands of times, and offering some surprises as well. Recommended!), and that day's #1 was "Rock Your Baby", an early proto-disco hit by George McCrae. You've heard the song before, I'm sure, but as I was listening to it, something struck me: it sounded like Yo La Tengo. I mean, it didn't sound like Yo La Tengo—nobody was ever going to think "Rock Your Baby" was a deep cut from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, but it had this droning organ and crude synthetic drum that felt like something Yo La Tengo would do, as if "Rock Your Baby" was a part of their musical DNA, maybe from their youth. Then reading down the article a little, it's mentioned that McCrae is the one that originally recorded "You Can Have It All"! I had no idea that was his song when I made the connection from a different song! But really, something that George McCrae was doing seeped its way into those mad genius Hoboken Gen Xers 15 years later.

Part 3 of this tale is that while I was trying to unravel this "Rock Your Baby"/"You Can Have It All" situation, I found myself really, truly enjoying this record. Disco was just becoming a thing, and this (as you can read in that Stereogum article) was technically the first ever #1 song to be recorded specifically for disco clubs. But it doesn't have that gold-foiled, coked-out jumpsuit vibe that later disco would piledrive into the floor, it has some gentle soul to it. The whole album is a completely enjoyable listen, and I've been putting it on a lot this week. I'm not going to try to push some nonsense "George McCrae was a secret genius" line, because that's not the case—although "You Can Have It All" and "I Get Lifted" (later sampled on "Gin And Juice" and 100 other 90s hip hop tracks) are damn fine pieces of record-making. But this album is just a total pleasant surprise for me, and I'm going to keep coming back to it for a while.

05.29.2019
The Shins
Oh Inverted World

Imagine a world where the Shins released Oh Inverted World and then broke up or disappeared or perished in a plane crash or imploded into a black hole or whatever else would lead them to not release any music anymore. Also maybe Zach Braff also found that same fate in that same black hole. Oh Inverted World would be legendary today. Sure, it's always been admired and lauded to an extent, but I think that the subsequent years of consistently okay-to-good Shins releases have obscured it.

Listen to this album with fresh ears. It's phenomenal. Everything about it is perfect, from the unique melodies (I love when a songwriter is able to find paths through chords that are fully their own, like musical fingerprints, which James Mercer does—or did—better than nearly anyone else in indie rock at the time), to beautifully expressionistic lyrics, 90% of which I have no idea what they even are to this day, simple instrumentation just barely twisted into a lo-fi psychedelic audio palette, flawless sequencing, upbeat jams, melancholy ballads, and a very pretty (albeit very early 00s) cover. It's all so simple, yet composed and performed so beautifully that it becomes its own (inverted?) world.

I wrote something like this in my post on the last Shins album, but to sum up: the Shins never went Full Weezer. They haven't embarrassed themselves, they haven't released any duds or genre experiments or collaborations with Billy Ray Cyrus. But there's been a slow dulling of the edges, that started all the way back with their follow up to this one. Things got shinier, the simplicity disappeared into studio perfection, and when that became too boring and they tried to move back into scarier territory, they'd seemingly gotten too good to accidentally create a work of transcendence like Oh Inverted World.

This has never been my favorite album, or even on my all time top 10 (if I was to make such a list). I have no particular emotional bonds with it, despite listening to it a lot in college, but it's not a specific nostalgia trip for me. But when I listen to it now, it's like a hot knife into my ribs. It's so pure and good. I've never broken down crying listening to it, but I wouldn't be surprised if that happens at least once by the time I'm 70.

05.20.2019
Vampire Weekend
Father of the Bride

Father of the Bride is Vampire Weekend's Blonde. But not their Blonde on Blonde. Or is it Blond? That's what the cover says. No, I think it's Blonde.

04.29.2019
Sunn O)))
Life Metal

The guys from Sunn O))) dress like wizards, but Steve Albini actually is one.

04.29.2019
Possible Humans
Everybody Split

Possible Humans are extremely Melbourne in that weirdly specific way that bands from Melbourne are. Dry and jangly and direct and melodic with just a hint of bitterness. The first few songs are great, but then I zone out a little, so I don't know.

04.29.2019
Billy Woods
Hiding Places

Billy Woods isn't the most charismatic, energetic, transformative, convivial, melodic, magnetic, revolutionary, or even entertaining rapper, but he writes like a damn Pulitzer winner. Three brief excerpts:

But the sun crept,
diggin' at that empty house as the shadow stretched
The dog ran off, didn't come back yet

Overseas connection choppy, she's gettin' worse
Your sister talked to the nurse, everybody in church
Everybody wants to know if you comin'
But they won't say the words

I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

These are just three kinda random pulls, but every song on this album plays out with the tension and release of a very good short story. And not in like a "um actually rappers are really storytellers have you ever listened to Ghostface?" kind of way. Even though Ghostface is great. But Billy Woods is on his own level as far as wordsmithing goes. And the beats he works with are dark, minimal, and weird, making this whole album a gripping listen, if not a very fun one.

07.07.2019 - by Steve
Boog's BarbecueBaltimore
Barbecue pit beef

Camden Yards is a very important ballpark, in that it changed the way that every ballpark since has been designed and built (for better or worse, but I'll go ahead and say better). It's still a great place to watch a baseball game, and a charming piece of architecture, even if it's been copied and and bettered in many ways in ensuing years. I like Camden Yards.

Boog's Barbecue, found out in right field in the alley by the iconic warehouse, is in its own way a very important food stand. It's become tediously normal now, a stadium showcasing unique local foods and restaurants rather than simply offering hot dogs and nachos, but in the early 90s Boog's was one of the first. Every time a TV announcer talked about how beautiful Camden was, they'd always mention Boog's. Or laugh with each other about how "Boy I can't wait to get some B-B-Q before this game is done!" It became a thing.

Beyond that, I don't have a whole lot to say about Boog's, but it was actually pretty good. I was prepared to be fully underwhelmed, because that's usually how things work, but no, it was very satisfying. So go to Camden Yards, it's still great. And get some Boog's.