To Be Determined

Three Great New Records…and Waters Can Still Play Pink Floyd

Issue 122

Roger WatersUs + Them

Us + Them documents Roger Waters’ recently released concert film of the same name; it offers highlights from the 2017 – 2018 Us + Them tour. There was a planned theatrical release, but it was scrapped due to the pandemic, along with another large-scale world tour that was to be titled This Is Not A Drill; Waters insists that the tour will eventually go on, though perhaps not at the same scale as previously imagined. The Us + Them release offers a number of choices, from a double-CD package, three 180-gram LPs, your choice of BluRay or DVD, and the audio tracks are also available on all the major streaming services. Each incarnation includes a few additional songs that didn’t appear in the original theatrical film, as well as behind-the-scenes and bonus footage included in the video releases. Most of the footage contained in the original film and videos — and most of the music in the soundtrack — is sourced from an Amsterdam date that was near the end of the tour.

In my way of seeing things, most current Pink Floyd fans fall into two camps: those who believe that Roger Waters was the principal reason for the existence of the band, and those who believe that the sum of the group was much greater than the individual parts. I definitely fall into the latter camp. With all the public squabbling between Waters and David Gilmour, it didn’t make for a particularly nice transition for fans in the aftermath of Waters’ split from the band, some of whom are probably really torn between supporting the “purity” of Roger Waters’ musical vision sans-Floyd, and those who believe that Pink Floyd minus Roger Waters is still a viable musical commodity. Both Waters and the Gilmour-led Pink Floyd (now essentially retired?) have sold a decent number of records in the decades since the breakup, and both have maintained a reasonably respectable creative and artistic vision with regard to their own (or the band’s) musical vision.

And who can blame Roger Waters, who, despite seemingly doing everything possible to distance himself from the Pink Floyd brand, has still occasionally felt the need to trot out and showcase his remarkable legacy of contributions to the band – and to generally rabid audience reception. All that said, I’m not a particularly huge fan of this album. It mostly consists of Waters’ rehashing of Floyd classics stretching all the way back to Meddle (“One Of These Days”), with a generous helping from The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and of course, The Wall. And a smattering of songs from his own latest release, 2017’s Is This The Life We Really Want? All played to an ocean of screaming, adoring fans.

Waters isn’t in particularly great voice here – he is, after all, 77 years old – and not all the renditions of Floyd classics are note-perfect or spot-on, and there aren’t many interesting embellishments to the songs that sometimes make the live concert version preferable to the studio recording. If someone gave me a ticket to the show, I’d probably go, but otherwise I’d probably be completely oblivious to the fact that Waters was even touring at all. YMMV – if you’re a Pink Floyd or Roger Waters completist, this is probably a required acquisition, and I’ve heard that the concert movie is quite the visual spectacle. Personally, I prefer the David Gilmour version of Pink Floyd music post-Waters; the concert films like Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse are truly outstanding, and remarkable documents of Pink Floyd’s legacy. And there’s a whole lot more interesting new music out there I’d rather be digging into.

Columbia/Legacy, 2 CD/3 LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)

Drive-By TruckersThe New OK

Drive-By Truckers have worked really hard to develop a reputation as skillful purveyors of new Southern rock, but they’re pretty much still mostly known for being the band that Jason Isbell got kicked out of. That said, principal songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood have cobbled out a respectable string of good albums, even sans Isbell. And The New OK, which is the band’s 13th studio album, is the band’s second release in 2020, following on the heels of DBT’s excellent record The Unraveling, which dropped in mid-January. Patterson Hood recently remarked that in light of the continuing pandemic, making a new record was “all that we can do.” He’s taken advantage of the time off and written a prolific number of new songs, many of which made their way onto The New OK. Both Hood and Cooley have expressed their distaste for “desktop concerts,” where you’re basically playing live into a computer screen; each of them have done enough of that this summer to last a lifetime.

The Unraveling documented what Hood and Cooley both saw as a strange new reality, with a seriously troubling decline in civility in our country, and a sobering refocusing of our overall worldview. Patterson Hood has also stated that he’s been battling depression during this very long year, and he’s had a difficult time hiding that fact from his family and kids. Writing new music was a way of combating his unhappiness, and hopefully the new songs will make that abundantly clear to the fans of Drive-By Truckers. Hood lives in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and much of the material from this bounty of new songs stems from his participation in and observation of the Black Lives Matter protests and riots that took place over the course of the summer. While The Unraveling was a record of despair and dystopian portrayals of what Hood sees as Trumpian reality, The New OK is more of an angst-fueled statement of a new found defiance, and serves as a companion to the previous album’s message of dissonance and depression.

In the title track, “The New OK,” Hood chronicles his experiences in the Portland riots. “Smashing medics and the once-free press…Goons with guns coming out to play / It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA.” Probably the most lighthearted moment on the entire album is Mike Cooley’s sole contribution, “Sarah’s Flame,” a tongue-in-cheek depiction of Sarah Palin’s influence on the leanings of the current administration. Some of the songs here were part of a planned follow-up to The Unraveling, and were ready to go; the remaining tracks were assembled remotely. Where the taped contributions of the various group members were shuttled back and forth across the country, with each member of the band laying down their parts prior to the final mixing of the album. It’s actually almost more like an EP, clocking in at only 36 minutes; 18 songs were completed, but the songs chosen for release were selected to maintain the continuity of the overall mood of The New OK. And the album finishes up with a rousing cover of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” – another obvious reference to the troubling protests and riots from an already difficult year.

My listening was done via Qobuz’s excellent digital stream, although CDs and LPs are also being made available for purchase. While The New OK isn’t an entirely uplifting listen, it’s still nonetheless very highly recommended.

ATO Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension 

My first experience with the music of Sufjan Stevens came a number of years ago at Christmas while visiting my then twenty-something daughter; when my wife suggested that perhaps we should put on some holiday music, my daughter exclaimed that she had the perfect record. She then put on Stevens’ 2006 release, Songs for Christmas, which elicited something of a WTF!?! expression of understated surprise from the pair of us; we were baffled by what we were hearing, but we didn’t want to upset my daughter with our disapproval of her, shall we say, unusual choice of holiday entertainment. Both of us are more into the Johnny Mathis-influenced, more traditional vein of classic holiday music — that Christmas was definitely an eye-opening learning experience, to say the least.

Fast-forward to the present; in the years that have passed since that experience, I’ve been building a music server that mostly consists of rips of my CD library, and I’m constantly on the hunt for new and offbeat music choices. And with CDs available often for as little as $.25 to a dollar at thrift stores, I’ll sometimes take chances on the more adventurous, unusual titles that I’ve come across. Which happens to include two of Sufjan Stevens’ more notable releases, Michigan and Illinois(e), which have surprisingly grown on me over the last couple of years. I picked up an absolutely pristine copy of Michigan for only $.25 in a ramshackle roadside thrift store. So, shockingly, it didn’t come as too much of a stretch to consider reviewing Stevens’ new record, The Ascension.

My previous experiences with Stevens’ music have been mostly lo-fi, minimally accompanied outings. Not so with The Ascension, which offers layers of synths on top of layers of synths; that definitely took some getting used to. I mean, here’s the guy who was singing about serial killer John Wayne Gacy on Illinois(e), and now he’s playing semi-danceable synth-pop? Fortunately, there’s a lot to like here, and much of it is makes for surprisingly cerebral listening — along with being reasonably danceable. The record’s undeniable creative peak is on the introspective title track, “The Ascension,” where Stevens sings, “When I am dead, and the light leaves my breast…nothing to be told, nothing to confess…let the record show what I couldn’t quite confess…for by living for myself, I was living for unrest.” How true those words probably ring for so many of us, who maybe chose the road less traveled; this is perhaps Sufjan Stevens’ best song ever.

As usual, the 24-bit Qobuz files sounded absolutely superb; this is a long album, clocking in at just over 80 minutes; maybe not perfect for a single sitting, but there’s much to explore here. Highly recommended.

Asthmatic Kitty Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Thurston Moore – By The Fire

Sonic Youth played their last show over nine years ago; bassist Kim Gordon made it clear with her solo release from 2019, No Home Record – and its ensuing tour – that fans shouldn’t expect any kind of Sonic Youth reunion anytime soon. Fans craving more Sonic Youth magic shouldn’t lose too much heart, however; the band’s other principal writer and guitarist (and Kim Gordon’s ex), Thurston Moore, has continued to churn out a string of outstanding albums that explore his offbeat poetry and penchant for experimentalism with his guitar. His new release, By The Fire, offers a generously proportioned (83 minutes!) mix of the strangely affecting avant-garde melodic rock and industrial/noise drones that hearken back to the classic Sonic Youth sound.

Moore continues with the same core group of musicians who’ve teamed with him on his last few releases; guitarist James Sedwards and bassist Debbie Googe (My Bloody Valentine), along with Negativland’s Jon Leidecker handling the electronics and Jem Doulton behind the drum kit. It’s an amazingly effective ensemble; this group can really rock with concise precision, but they also allow Thurston Moore space to create a delectable melange of noise and feedback with extended experimental excursions. “Locomotives” is a perfect example of Moore’s mastery of assembling a lengthy drone with his guitar and effects that at nearly 17 minutes seems almost interminable, but still not nearly long enough – this is absolutely essential late-night listening. As the guitar and effects push the tune along with an intensity not unlike that of a locomotive, at about the nine-minute mark, the stranglehold of the dissonant drone is broken, and Moore begins to melodically sing “We are here, we come in peace.” There’s another seven minutes of noise interrupted with spurts of brilliant rock and roll, but the bottom line is that it’s still all about peace and love — it’s just that more noisy New York love, not the mellow California (where ex Kim Gordon has relocated to) love of the sixties.

Contrast that to the following tune, “Dreamers Work,” which offers a two minute intro of some of the most laid back, melodic guitar of Moore’s career, or the twelve-plus minutes of “Siren,” which lays a very fluid groundwork with guitars, bass, and drums – before spinning off into a crush of pounding drums awash with tons of feedback and electronic haze, then right back to the melody from whence it sprang to sum things up. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but this album will be seriously welcome comfort food to the souls of Sonic Youth fans everywhere. Very highly recommended.

Daydream Library, CD/2 LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

 

Header image of Sufjan Stevens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joe Lencioni.

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