For reasons that don’t really go beyond pure serendipity, I’ve been spending a lot of time back inside Two Steps From The Blues, the essential debut album of legendary bluesman Bobby Bland. Like a lot of records from that period, it’s basically a collection of singles, and every track is an absolute belter, showcasing Bland’s voice and trumpeter-producer Joe Scott’s influential arrangements, which melded elements of gospel and soul with traditional electric blues. While it hasn’t gone down with the legacy of bigger hits like “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “I Pity The Fool,” and “Don’t Cry No More,” I’ve always gravitated to “Little Boy Blue,” one of Bland’s earlier singles that was repurposed for Two Steps. Here, a regretful Bland falls into complete anguish as he recalls the ways he mistreated a former lover who, rightfully, dumped his ungrateful ass. The song goes from humdrum to hair-raising when Bland remembers the way she used to call him “Bobby” and begins to belt with a deep, electrifying sense of sorrow and self-pity. The whole thing is introduced with a guitar as brash and emotive as Bland himself, but it quickly shrinks into the background, taking its place alongside the simmering horns and drums that wouldn’t dare step to the bluesman’s primal howls.
I’ve had a really great music summer, and one of the best shows I’ve seen so far was the Violent Femmes at Northerly Island, which has a temporary stage in Chicago’s museum campus and usually has crap sound. But the Femmes surpassed their outdoor surroundings, sounding better than they did the first time I saw them back in their heyday. So I guess it’s not too surprising that lately I’ve been addicted to the band’s new live album 2 Mics & The Truth: Unplugged & Unhinged In America, which does an impressive job of recreating the live experience by stringing together a number of Femmes appearances on various radio stations, so you can hear the guitar strings squeak and the delighted exclamations from the small in-studio audiences. Like the live show I saw, the Femmes perform not only their now-standards like “Blister In The Sun” and “American Music,” but show off their considerable range, from the terrifying “Country Death Song” to the blues of “You Move Me” to the somber “Breaking Up” and the defiantly apolitical “I’m Nothing.” My favorite track is probably “Gone Daddy Gone,” as the xylophone and a multitude of handheld percussion and strings duke it out for dominance. It’s almost like being there.
One of the drawbacks of having a record collection composed primarily of burned, Magic Marker-labeled CD-Rs—as my own was, from the years 1997 to about 2005—is how easily you can just completely forget about an album or band you like once it slides forever into the tomb of a neglected Case Logic. I was reminded of that recently after discovering a used vinyl copy of The Monorchid’s Who Put Out The Fire?, a 1998 album I once played the shit out of but haven’t heard in years, due to its being buried in a back closet where a cold wind currently blows. No matter; I’m glad to be reunited with it now. The swan song of the short-lived D.C. band formed out of the ashes of Circus Lupus, released a full nine months after it broke up, it’s a record that still bursts with the sort of acerbic, scratchy, springy, ’70s-post-punk intensity that would become all the rage just a few years later. Hearing opener “X Marks The Spot (Something Dull Happened Here)” again after all this time, Chris Thomson’s wry, Mark E. Smith sneer still plenty biting over those knotty, syncopated guitar tangles, it’s a wonder that the group couldn’t hang on just a little longer until every band was trying to sound like this, when it would have absolutely demolished them. And it makes me wonder about the other sleepers I’ve lost. I should probably dig those cases out.
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s last album, Harmlessness, was one of my favorites of 2015, so it should have come as no surprise that the lead single from the band’s latest EP, Always Foreign, would also fall into favor with me. But alas, “Dillon And Her Son” finds the band eschewing the slow build emo of that last outing with something approximating the urgency of New Jersey pop-punk stalwarts Latterman smashed together with the synth wizardry of James Dewees of The Get Up Kids and Reggie And The Full Effect. Why the shift? “When we started writing we were fresh off Trump being elected, so there’s an anger to the album that’s different from what we’ve done in the past,” said vocalist David Bello. That sentiment makes sense, especially when Bello asks, “Is this our real life? / Is this a movie?” sounding like so many of us did post-November, an entire generation of David After Dentists wondering whether the hell we’ve wrought is forever.
Completely unrelated, but this is beautifully done.
The time has come for my annual foray into old Steve Albini records, during which I emerge with some revelatory new favorite or deep cut to obsess over briefly, until I stop listening to only Steve Albini. This time I did not get far: My trip through the premillennial Shellac records yielded the 12-minute opener to Shellac’s Terraform, “Didn’t We Deserve A Look At The Way You Really Are,” a simple two-note bass line played obstinately for a third of the album’s runtime. Almost the only variation to the track is the insistence of the drums, with period intonations from Albini, until, finally, comes a few lilting, baleful guitar lines, a drum fill, and 20 seconds of car-crash shriek guitars. You may expect change, catharsis, denouement from a track like this, but what you get instead is immaculately recorded drums, and you like it.