Priest Picks #5: Our Weekly Top 10
I like to think of our weekly Top 10 as a diversion from the real world, but it's getting more and more difficult to accomplish that goal. Today, we have a little of everything, but there's more heavy stuff than usual. As it should be this week. To add some levity, we've kept in mind every week should have its share of mindless time wasting, too.
1. RUN THE JEWELS / RTJ4
Watching Killer Mike reluctantly give his thoughts on the George Floyd murder and aftermath (as well as other similar incidents) during a press conference in Atlanta this week was one of the most powerful moments of 2020. Sporting a “Kill Your Masters” t-shirt while also describing the members of his family who have devoted their life to law enforcement, you could tell he had a complex set of strong emotions running through his head. But above all, the passionate message was we’ve got a lot of bullshit in this country that we’ve got to fix now. That’s not new, but he repeatedly focused on a solution over and over again, albeit a general one. It was an inspiring message and it’s worth watching if you haven’t already.
It wasn’t choreographed this way obviously, but the release of Run the Jewels’ fourth album this week couldn’t have come at a better time. I am always amazed how the music community responds in times of grief, tragedy, injustice, or crisis, but in this case the record was finished and slated for release well in advance of the George Floyd murder. It has a rawness and anger to it that makes it feel like a direct response to a fresh wound. Which only reinforces the point that this is far from a new issue, but one we’ve denounced fervently and let fade countless times before. I’m no expert on the complex dynamics of the situation, but one listen to “Walking in the Snow” pretty much sums up the problem:
And everyday on the evening news
They feed your fear for free
And you’re so numb you watch the cops
Choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek
To whisper ‘I can’t breathe.”
And you sit there in house on couch
And watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant
And called it a tragedy
But truly the travesty
You’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy
So here we are at another turning point. Will it last or are we going to let it slip back onto the backburner over time? This time, there does appear to have the boiling point necessary to result in real action. One small thing many can do easily is listen to RTJ4, an album made by a duo—one black (Mike), one white (El-P)—that’s not afraid to get in your face and tell it like it is. On “calamafuck” they sum it up best, “If you hate Run the Jewels/You don’t love the truth.” I encourage you to spend time listening to this record. It would’ve gone down as one of the year’s best records with or without George Floyd because it has something powerful to tell you.
2. MICHAEL KIWANUKA / “Black Man in a White World”
DURAND JONES & THE INDICATIONS / “Morning in America”
There are many songs you could add to the soundtrack of the current state of race relations in America. These two recent ones immediately popped into my head as I was contemplating recent developments in Minneapolis and in pretty much every major city in the country (and many minor ones).
First is Michael Kiwanuka’s 2016 song “Black Man in a White World” (from Love & Hate). Here, Kiwanuka expresses the reality that his presence in the world will be secondary to others solely based on his skin color. He knows that whether happy or sad, successful or unsuccessful, or anywhere in between, he’ll always be a black man in a white world. I don’t know what it’s like to live with that reality and I never will, but it’s devastating to hear out loud. He then goes on to sing, “I don’t mind who I am/I don’t mind who you are,” which in a just society is exactly how we need to think going forward.
Second is a song from “integrated” (all white with the exception of Jones) Indiana group Durand Jones & the Indications, “Morning in America,” (from American Love Call) which, although released in 2019, could have been released in 1969 just as easily from both sound and message standpoints. It tells of a literal morning in America, as people go about their lives, with the notable exception of a black man, who “can’t see the dawn.” It’s apparent that this dawn is metaphorical in nature. The opportunities aren’t the same, the treatment isn’t the same, and nothing can be taken for granted. There’s a general sense of tiredness and resignation coursing through the song, but it doesn’t overtly come out and say what’s causing it until the last verse, “And in towns across the country/It’s color that divides/When in working men and ladies/We could find our common side.” But you’ll notice even with that smack of reality, there’s a glimmer of hope in the last lines. There is a way to come together, little by little, if we realize we all want the same things on a core level.
3. BOB MOULD / “American Crisis”
The new raging single from Bob Mould, “American Crisis,” like the Run the Jewels record, is perfectly timed, but was written prior to both the George Floyd murder and the Coronavirus pandemic. With so much on our collective plates right now, it’s almost hard to remember that things were pretty fucked in this world prior to mid-March. Mould, a cathartic performer on his worst days, seems to up the emotional ante on “American Crisis.” You don’t get the “Black Sheets of Rain” treatment from Bob unless something has really driven itself deep into his central nervous system. “It’s another American crisis/You can see how the lie divides us/World turning darker every day/In a fucked up USA.” You can view this song as a downer, perhaps, but I hear it as yet another boiling point. The point we have to reach before we really make a lasting impact.
4. SHARON VAN ETTEN & JOSH HOMME / “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
When I first heard the law firm of Van Etten & Homme’s cover of this Nick Lowe classic (made famous by Elvis Costello) I thought it was pretty good, but didn’t give it much thought beyond that. Plus, I wasn’t really in the mood for the old cover song ploy of slowing down a fast song (or speeding up a slow one). But fast-forward a week or so later and suddenly the song seems to take on a new meaning. “So where are the strong/And who are the trusted?/And where is the harmony/Sweet harmony?” In this case, the pace allows for more contemplation and each line hits hard as they somberly accumulate.
5. TONY ALLEN & HUGH MASEKELA / Rejoice
Here is another record we can all use right now, but for a different reason. Rejoice (lack of exclamation point puzzling) is a joyous celebration of making music by two masters of their craft, both now sadly lost to this word. One is legendary trumpet player Hugh Masekela and the other is drumming god Tony Allen. 2020 has been a tough year in many ways, but it’s been particularly cruel to drummers and those who love them. In January, we lost Neil Peart, inarguably one of the world’s most acclaimed drummers. It was rightfully a major story. After all, his band Rush was one of the most beloved in rock history and he was consistently ranked among the greatest drummers ever (Rolling Stone magazine ranked him #4 all-time in a feature story). In April, we lost another amazing drummer. On that same Rolling Stone list, Tony Allen was ranked #33, which is incredible mainly because African music hasn’t been actively covered in the pages of the magazine that I can remember. (Oddly, they didn’t give Rush the time of day either, but that’s because publisher Jan Wenner had a stick up his ass when it came to prog rock.) Tony Allen’s main claim to fame will always be his time as drummer and bandleader for Fela Kuti during the late 60s and throughout the band’s highly-prolific and influential run in the 1970s. He’s also widely considered the co-creator of Afrobeat (and later Afrofunk), which continues to influence popular music around the world (as we will see on this list shortly). Paradoxically, Allen’s profile was raised in his later years because of his creative collaborations with numerous contemporary musicians, working in a variety of styles along the way (most notably Damon Albarn and Gorillaz). The way I look at it, there are drummers who are easy to appreciate because their skills are impossible to miss and there are those considered geniuses by other drummers (perhaps due to technique, innovation, subtlety, restraint, style, etc.) that don’t smack common listeners over the head with flash, extended drum solos, or showmanship. Tony Allen was a rare drummer who covered both fronts. His final record (unless he has something in the can I don’t know about) will be this wonderful collaboration with fellow genius Hugh Masekela, recorded ten years ago and finally released this year and it shows Allen in prime form. Thirty seconds in, it starts. You experience a full body motion machine working his kit—it’s spellbinding at times. It gives me a thrill each and every listen. Masekela is similarly talented on trumpet. He passed away in 2018, so this album is double bittersweet. We get to hear one last Tony Allen masterclass on drums and we get one last remarkable performance from Masekela. Why it took so long to release is beyond me, but we have it now. That’s all that matters.
6. RIC WILSON & TERRACE MARTIN / They Call Me Disco EP
“Movin’ through the crowd with an afro pick/Motherfucker, I’m the disco Kaepernick.” And we’re off with Chicago’s own Ric Wilson and his collaborator on They Call Me Disco, super-producer Terrace Martin (Kendrick, Snoop, et al). Here’s a laid back, disco-infused, old-school hip-hop record that will work equally well for a hot summer street corner chill-out or for a late-night dance floor cool down. Even better, it’s possibly the exact opposite mood for these times and that makes it refreshing. Even when things get tense, everyone needs a break to kick back and let a good, slinky groove take over, or as Ric raps, “Hangin’ loose like a Tracy McGrady suit.” Which is exactly what he does for the duration of this slick 18-minute EP.
7. BRIDGET KEARNEY & BENJAMIN LAZAR DAVIS / Still Flying
I’m all for taking a flyer on a record every once in a while to see what happens, but nothing about this particular pairing stood out to me initially. Bridget’s main gig is with Lake Street Dive, a band that’s never made a big impression on me really (and, being a Chicagoan, I always call Lake Shore Drive). Harmless is a word that comes to mind, which is not a compliment. Benjamin has played with Okkervil River and Joan as Police Woman, two respectable outfits, but I’ve never really isolated on his playing so his specific contributions were lost on me. What put this over the top was the backstory. They both love West African music, as do I, and they recorded an EP in Ghana with some local musicians several years ago which went so well they decided to go back and record a full-length record this time. The results are pleasing to the ear. What we have here are some excellent pop songs that share ground with some really accomplished musicians (primarily Stevo Atambire and Aaron Bebe Sukura). We’re not quite talking Paul Simon’s Graceland, though. While we get African rhythms, local instruments like the kologo and gyil (lute and xylophone, if you must), and African singing, the songs tend to seamlessly shift from one camp to the other and there’s really no way to tell when that’s going to happen. Certain underlying sounds unite each song into a cohesive whole, but this approach makes the record a very fun and unpredictable listen—and the joy of playing these songs is evident on most every track. Not every track works perfectly, but such is the nature of experimentation. Overall, a nice little surprise for a flyer (and why I’m still flying after all these years).
8. WHT.RBBT.OBJ / “Jolene’s Reply”
Every once in a while, a song comes along that makes you say “Why hasn’t this been thought of before?” “Jolene’s Reply” is song by a Chicago band named White Rabbit Object (or abbreviated as wht.rbbt.obj) and it aspires to be the long-awaited sequel to Dolly Parton’s 1974 classic “Jolene.” You may know Dolly’s original or perhaps you were introduced to the song via the White Stripes, who often played a blistering version in their live sets. It’s not just one of the best country songs of all-time, it’s one of the best songs period. A quick plot summary: desperate woman pleads with Jolene to not take her man even though she knows she can (she’s a stunning beauty with auburn hair and emerald green eyes). As the song plays out, the desperate plea escalates higher and higher, the tension palpable. You fear what will happen and brace yourself for disappointment, still hoping Jolene will somehow comply with her request. The twist is we never find out what happens. Granted, this isn’t a Dolly-sanctioned sequel, but it does give us one possible angle on the story’s resolution.* Logic would expect “Jolene’s Reply” to be a country song in order to match the original’s milieu, but it’s not—it turns out Jolene speaks in a nasty blues/soul hybrid instead. I must say, I like the idea that Jolene isn’t that predictable. If she can have any man she wants, she’s likely not a conventional woman—she would likely operate on her own terms. I hesitate to offer any spoilers, so seek the song out and see what happens. The one thing I will say is that the song, predictably, is no “Jolene,” but that’s a lot to expect. If Dolly’s “Jolene” is To Kill a Mockingbird, then “Jolene’s Reply” is Go Set a Watchman. But the song is still good enough to further the debate on what happens next. I actually hope it starts a trend of artists developing their own takes on outcome to the original “Jolene.” Then we could all pick our favorite ending.
*It should be noted that country singer Cam beat them to the Jolene punch with her song “Diane” in 2018, which tells the story from the previously unnamed perspective of Diane (the name works, however, as you would expect Jolene to vanquish all competition, but particularly someone with such a vanilla first name—sorry to any readers named Diane).
9. JARROD DICKENSON / “Your Heart Belongs to Me”
It’s been a heavy week, so I’m going to end on a simple yet beautiful song from Jarrod Dickenson, originally from Waco, TX, taken from his new record Ready the Horses. The song is a duet between Jarrod and wife Claire and is perfect for a first dance at a wedding reception (or any occasion where love is in the air). The concept is so simple—two people seek out the same thing and find it. Jarrod is relatively unknown in the states, where Americana is a genre with a niche following (some obvious exceptions, of course), but he’s made a big mark in the UK, who have always been fonder of American roots music than Americans are for some reason. Go figure. What they hear is obvious. Jarrod has a soulful, sandy voice, an easygoing presence, and writes really good songs. He’s fated to spend his life traveling and bringing those songs to the people, making converts one person at a time. He’s found one more here.
10. WHAT’S ON THE SHELF?
“What’s on the Shelf?” is a new semi-regular feature on Pickled Priest. Inspired by Amy Sedaris’s pandemic video series “What’s in the Drawer?” where she opens a random drawer in her house to see what’s in it. I thought I would photograph one section of a shelf in my music room/office and see what falls in frame. I have a lot of stuff and a lot of shelves, so here’s the first shot below and a detailed accounting therein. This should be very rewarding for you.
From left to right:
Alien Abduction Lamp – One of my all-time favorite purchases, it shows a cow being beamed up into a spaceship. The cow attaches to the AstroTurf base so it appears to be in “mid beam” with front legs off the ground (nice touch). You can’t see it in the picture, but there are little green aliens in the spaceship looking out of the portholes. The ship also turns from green to yellow at times to make it look even cooler. They didn’t have to do that, but they did. When the light is on, it replicates a focused “abduction beam” via a clear conical cylinder and when it’s off it kind of looks like the ship is floating over the cow deciding if an abduction is merited or not. I love it so much, I put it right in my direct line of vision when I sit at my computer. The little sticker in the foreground is from Vinyl Me, Please and features a spaceship abducting a bunch of vinyl albums. A glass of milk and some vinyl—a good day’s work.
Framed original artwork for an issue of my defunct zine, Madcap - This widely unread issue is my favorite and featured a man lighting a cigarette with his middle finger on the cover. A portion of this issue was dedicated to garage rock bands as mentioned in Top 10 List #1.
Owl paperweight – I bought this for myself for Christmas a couple years ago and have never regretted it (I don’t keep things on the shelf that I regret, in general). The currently unnamed (Hootie proposed and rejected; Owlin' Wolf under consider-ation) owl’s main job these days is to hold a loose chord on my second monitor (to prevent it from getting a strange green hue) while I’m working and he/she (I don’t know how to tell) is OK with that.
Basket of misc. stuff – I keep this basket around to hold things I want to keep around for one reason or another, but are too small to live on their own. The buttons: Springsteen Tunnel of Love tour; Farrah Fawcett (I was her fan club President in elementary school which meant I got to keep the ‘folder of photos’ in my locker); “Kick It” drum head bought from Arthur’s Plaid Pants, an artist whose work I enjoy; the obligatory Stones tongue; a beaver from Duluth trading; and a small Otis Redding promo item. In the basket: Replacements matchbook (replica) from Maxwell’s; Roberta Flack patch that I want to sew onto a jean jacket someday when they come back in style; a bunch of Vinyl Me, Please “album notes” books; and my first generation iPod (with the spinning wheel). Why would you throw out any of this stuff?
Rolling Stones tour program from 1975 Tour of America – I wasn’t there.
Rush Coloring Book - You can't see the spine because I stored it backwards, but I bought this because I love Rush and had to have it. And contrary to popular belief, I didn't buy it because I wanted to color in the panties of the woman on the Permanent Waves album cover.*
The Small Stakes Music Poster book – I’ve always loved Jason Munn’s posters done at his design studio The Small Stakes in Oakland, CA. Visually appealing, extremely clever layouts, and very simple at the same time.
The Music Obsessive’s Guide to Life V1 – This massive 942-page book, written entirely by Joel Freimark (self-named “The Music Guru”), is the definition of a “labor of love.” For some reason only 347 copies were produced (time-to-copies-produced ratio staggeringly disproportionate) and mine is numbered #224. The concept is similar to those “word of the day” calendars—one beloved album is covered for each day of the year—and it’s recommended that you read it one day at a time and, as my autographed copy says, “enjoy the journey.” I wonder how many of the owners of this book have followed that protocol (I’m guessing one). I haven’t—I’m not that disciplined and the writing is a little dry for my taste. However, what I really admire about Joel’s brick is the passion needed to execute such a monstrous project. To create this book, with little to no back-end benefit, other than writing about the music you love, is what I am most drawn to. It’s an epic achievement. And I can relate to it.
Beastie Boys Book – This portion of the shelf is my “on deck circle” for books I want to read in the near future.
Replacements stand-ups – This isn’t on the shelf—it’s underneath it—but since it’s in the photo…I love these simple little cutouts of the original Replacements. They came with the “Live at Maxwell’s” LP from a few years ago and they are not easy to find at a reasonable price anymore. I really wanted to stand these up on the shelf, but they are so light my ceiling fan would blow them down constantly and we can’t have that. So I framed them instead and bought a bonus set on eBay should I want to stand them up somewhere else. Extra bonus: Tommy is wearing a Ghostbusters t-shirt. (Apologies to Bob for being cut out of the cut-out shot, but in a way that seems consistent with the band’s history).
*UPDATE: I went with Aquamarine.
See you at the Monday service next week. Stay safe and aware.