The songs in the Great American Standards songbook all have lives of their own by now – and why not, most of them are older than your grandmother. Even fairly obscure songs that your grandmother probably doesn’t remember listening to as a child have entire biographies. Grandma may not remember the 1937 Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance, or the sequence therein where Fred cuts a rug in a gleaming futuristic ‘factory’ with a bunch of black factory workers. But the song has gone on, in the hands of Ella Fitzgerald 20-some years later, and then in the next millennium as a remix.
I saw Zola Jesus perform at a music festival. Her music is not well served playing to a semi-indifferent crowd in the middle of a muddy field at two in the afternoon. At least it was drizzling slightly. But if I was semi-indifferent myself at the start of her set, I was all in by the end of it. Despite unconducive circumstances, it’s hard not to be blown away by that voice. The ice-goth aesthetic doesn’t hurt either, but it’s all about the voice. It’s music for long nights in dark places. I can’t help thinking it’s no coincidence she comes from places where the winter and the nights are long, the land of the ice and snow, if you will. A Wisconsinite of Russian descent, she knows about the long cold dark hours of the soul. Nothing comforts the wintry spirit like some otherworldly wailing, that’s for sure.
Songs about polygamy are few and far between, so it’s not much competition to say that this is the very best one. This is definitely the best song about polygamy. Polygamy is frowned upon for very good reasons in real life, but it sure makes for a fresh and original spin on the old love triangle songwriting trope. Alex Winston has an interest in unusual topics; her record is jam-packed with songs about unexpected things. If you’re going to write about something as mundane as sexual jealousy, it’s very hard to make that new again. Winston is a rare songwriter in that regard. She makes the same old shit of life new again. Now if only she could get out of record label purgatory and start making new music again…
This is the jam you put on at parties and/or work as a test to find out who your real friends are. (It’s a trick. You have no real friends.) The Velvet Underground, leaning heavily on their underground-ness, used long violently loud jam sessions like this one to alienate as much of their audience as they could before getting booted out of whatever venue they were playing. It was certainly the first time in the realm of rock music that topics like mainlining drugs and sucking on a ding-dong were topics of conversation, at least in as blunt a manner. No euphemisms or clever entendres for Lou Reed, he calls it sucking dick for heroin in plain English. The Velvets did end up with the distinction that all of the fans they did acquire, all went on to become degenerate drug fiends and sex perverts in their own right. And so the moral corruption of social fibers, or whatever.
Remixing is all well and good, modernizing old things for young ears, but some works need no help. Some works are already so modern in their drive and immediacy that it’s like there’s no such thing as changing times. Nina Simone, of course, almost singlehandedly kept jazz music relevant in the 1960’s, when the rock’n’roll youthquake was sweeping away everything minted before 1963. The reputation jazz had acquired for being pompous and louche and the domain of squares who still wore suits and strings of pearls – Nina Simone swept that aside, showing how fierce and subversive jazz could be, how deeply political and historically significant. She tied her music to her political activism, and to her personal struggles as a mentally ill black woman artist trying to make it in unforgiving America. Sinnerman is one of her best known works, a masterpiece in sustained emotional force. It is also, importantly, a traditional Negro spiritual rooted all the way back to times of slavery, grown into a gospel standard during Simone’s childhood, and rearranged as a jazz number in the 50’s. It is in no way ironic that a 1965 recording of a song with a history that may stretch back centuries sounds so unbound by time; things that are deeply important don’t get withered by small things like changing trends.
One of my favorite contemporary trends is remixes of old-timey music. Yes, bring all that old jazz into the modern age. It sounds so good. There’s new jazz being made by living people, in this day and age, of course, but it’s not the art form swaying popular consciousness anymore. As for swing of the kind Anita O’Day used to make, that’s not what the kids are dancing to. Remixes help me pretend that it still is. On the other hand, though, hearing how dynamic the original is, one wonders why exactly we stopped dancing to swing music in the first place.
Timbuk 3 was so much a part of the soundtrack of my life growing up that it was a shocking letdown to find that they’re not actually well known or wildly popular. I thought everyone listened to this band! I grew up with their cassette tapes clacking around in the glove compartment, but I guess that was just my extended family and literally no one else. Well, obviously, I absorbed their music and appreciated their worldview. I love music with both weight and humor, and I love the balance the Timbuk 3 strikes with their social commentary – still relevant! – and general mistrust of major institutions like national holidays and organized religion, paired with a sweet romanticism and faith in humanity. The tattered heart may redeem itself in the arms of another tattered heart, and the rest of the world can continue its journey down to hell.