04. Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward)

Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, SingI loved Salvage The Bones but I read it during this blog’s long fallow period so how could you know? This covers similar ground but hews closer to Jones’s The Known World in feel, thanks to the explicit inclusion of the dead in the narrative. Ward, like Jones, gives African American dead in America the voice they deserve: some of us should be cutting out our tongues in repentance and recognition. Grounded in the story of an intergenerational multi-racial family of you-swear-they’re-real people, West does alchemy here, turns dirt and blood into pure melody. Her insistence that our sins, our pain, don’t invalidate our love is like a psalm. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

Hashtag #AOTY 2017

Twitter has been less than ideal for expounding on the music I’m listening to. I’ve been doing year-end lists on Twitter for the last few years, one album a day near the end of December, counting down to my Album Of The Year (complete with hashtags, #aoty, natch). Here, though, is a great big blog, just begging for a long-form list. So I’m going to recast my Top Ten of 2017.

10 through 6, unranked:

Big Thief - CapacityBig Thief: Capacity. I was hooked by the stark vulnerability of this songwriting, but I was reeled in by the rock’n’roll perfection of two singles, the above linked ‘Shark Smile’ and the devastating ‘Black Diamonds.’ Adrianne Lenker’s approach is on target for me right now, somewhere vaguely in the female singer-songwriter neighborhood but I don’t know how to describe exactly where.


Blond Ambition - Slow All OverBlond Ambition: Slow All Over. Ex-Cops, Brian Harding’s previous band, is responsible for a personal fav, True Hallucinations, so I was geeked to see this new offering. Same ranging musical curiosity applies, leans more pop than rock.


Four Tet - New EnergyFour Tet: New Energy. New Energy‘s lead single grabbed me and stayed with me all year, and the rest of the tracks here (‘Lush’ is another standout) carry weight. Years in and Kieran Hebden still just… does it, for me. I’m waiting for the fall-off, where he starts making albums that don’t appeal to me. Hasn’t happened yet, thank you Jesus.


Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah AnyhowHiss Golden Messenger: Hallelujah Anyhow. M C Taylor is the man of the hour in the Neds-Fox household, so we looked with anticipation to this album. A little less hard-hitting than last year’s masterpiece Heart Like A Levee, but no less important, and worth the price for the studio version of ‘John The Gun’ alone. Few are doing conscious work against the darkness today like HGM.


Iron & Wine - Beast EpicIron & Wine: Beast Epic. Sam Beam hits me (weirdly) somewhere in the same spot that’s activated by The Weather Station and Big Thief and Natalie Prass and Innocence Mission. It’s not Americana or folk or singer-songwriter, it’s not gendered… it’s hard for me to put my finger on it. There’s something about the closeness, the vulnerability, the lyricism. Beast Epic is a return to form for Iron & Wine, and I for one welcome it.


5 – 1, ranked:

Emily Haines / Soft Skeleton: Choir of the Mind5. Emily Haines / Soft Skeleton: Choir of the Mind. I love South San Gabriel but I can’t really get into Centromatic. In the same way, I’m not keen on Metric but I played the crap out of the Soft Skeleton stuff that came out about 10 years ago. Long wait, does not disappoint. Poetic/comical in a way that doesn’t privilege either, and soooo listenable.


Elbow: Little Fictions4. Elbow: Little Fictions. As with Alvvays below, we just… kept playing this one. It’s dead-center stuff for Elbow: not a revelation or a sea-change, just solidly in their wheelhouse. But, come on– do one thing this well.


The Weather Station: S/T3. The Weather Station: The Weather Station. I loved Loyalty so much that this was big on the horizon for me. Comes on punkier, and that’s actually a revelation: Lindeman’s stark, emotionally honest, literary songwriting paired with a harder focus makes these songs punch.


Alvvays: Antisocialites2. Alvvays: Antisocialites. Clayton called their debut a perfect album, and on review it turned out he was right. This came along shortly thereafter and stayed right here, hovering around #1 on my list, by sheer force of its relistenability. We* could just put this on over and over.


Aimee Mann: Mental Illness1. Aimee Mann: Mental Illness. We’ve had a thing for Mann since Magnolia (as I suspect a number of folks my age/ilk did), but honestly I’ve felt sort of hit or miss about her albums as a whole. This, however, is front to back unimpeachable. Emotionally affecting, masterclass level songwriting, crazy catchy. When the kids started memorizing the lyrics I knew it was over. Career high, flawless.


(* When I say we I mean the fam, fam).

02. Why Not Socialism? (G. A. Cohen)

G. A. Cohen - Why Not Socialism?I don’t know, why not? Can’t remember why I ordered this– someone pointed to it online somewhere for some reason, probably political. Very, very slim primer on current directions in socialist thought. Cohen all but throws up his hands and says, “I can’t see how it can work and it probably can’t, but I’m not ready to give up hope yet.” Cohen’s problem — and I gather the problem of most current socialist thinkers but by all means, school me — is that he can’t explain exactly how to leverage generosity to move economic interests, as a counterpoint to leveraging fear or greed in the current capitalist system. But he still believes that there’s something there. As a postscript, I’ll say that I just watched the Coen Brothers’ (no relation) (actually, I don’t know that for certain — maybe related?) Hail, Caesar! this weekend and the plot revolves in large part around a group of socialist writers arguing the economic imperative against capitalism and this book was… timely, strangely appropriate.

01. Manhattan Beach (Jennifer Egan)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer EganThe high-profile “next novel” from Egan following the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad. A love letter of sorts to Egan’s city. A character meditation in which daughter and father mirror and reinforce each other’s choices and traits. I intuit the genius required of the author, to wrestle with where the story wants to go in defense of what she wants to say, and to come out with a narrative that so completely erases the evidence of that struggle from the final text. Envy-making sentences and phrases, observations (a boat slides into the water “like a cat into a cushion”). Egan is also concerned with what we are guilty of vs. what we think we’re guilty of, and she plays variations on that chord in dazzling arrays all through the novel. Can’t escape yourself: wherever you go, there you are.

Lost Time

My eyes keep going down to that six-year gap. What pulled me offline, what’s put me back on?

There were kids, growing, and the complicated demands on free time that leave little for coding, or composing, or… thought, even, as damning as that looks in writing. There was a high-stakes failure in our endeavors that sent my wife and I back to the drawing board for a while. There was a poverty in my thinking when I could do it: nothing to say to anyone and no inclination to say it.

The gap itself is the surface of a lake. No idea what’s under there, when you look at it. The light just bounces off. No divers, surfacing occasionally to report. It’s been like that, undisturbed, for oh ages, and the accumulated silence and stillness gives the whole scene a sinister overtone. That’s not how an open, communicating life should be.

I don’t know that I have more, or better, things to say now. But I do recognize in myself the long, sinister inertia, and because of and beyond that, the danger of a permanent loss of capacity, and it needs correction. I think writing — even into the void, maybe, and about nothing — could be a tonic for that malady.

I’m also keenly aware now that somehow I tended to the infrastructure even in my absence, so that if and when there is something that needs saying, it can be said. It’s my hope that these etudes will make me ready to do that, when the time comes.

The Best Story Ever

The hardest thing to pull off? Is the story about an artist who writes the best story ever — or poem, or song, you get the picture — but you have to read part of that story in the narrative. And as you approach it you’re thinking, “Uh oh, there’s no way they’re going to pull this off.” How many times in your reading life do you hit the best story ever? 1 out of 50? 100? I can’t think of an example where it actually works (maybe you can?).

Anyway, most recent example: Family Feud. So much resource poured out on so slight a work. The backward storytelling thing was great. But the verses were… not the best story ever.

(Update: Thinking more about this, I’ve decided that Family Feud maybe doesn’t fit the “best story in a story” trope, exactly. Technically it does: the rap at the end of the video is the story referred to directly and indirectly throughout the rest of the short film, which serves as the story around the story. But in reality, no one makes an explicit claim for its greatness. It’s the embarrassment of riches spent on framing that story — A-List actors, special effects, high-concept narrative, Beyoncé in couture — that suggest the viewer infer the momentousness of the final, delayed Jay-Z verses. And their (inevitable?) inability to live up to the hype put this one in the same zip code, at least, as the rest of its “best story” neighbors.)

One Year

One Year, a January mix from jnonfiction
One Year, a themed mix for January. Skews light; let’s see if 2018 can take a hint.

  1. New Year – The Breeders
  2. Valentine’s Day – Hem
  3. March – Hex
  4. April The 14th (Ruination Day Part 1) – Gillian Welch
  5. Month of May – Arcade Fire
  6. June – Over The Rhine
  7. July – The Innocence Mission
  8. August & September – The The
  9. Late October – Harold Budd / Brian Eno
  10. Rose Hip November – Vashti Bunyan
  11. New Year’s Eve – The Walkmen