2018 has been a shite year, no question. I’m not going to list the reasons why it’s been tough for me personally or launch into a list of apocalyptic indicators. I mention this merely to say that music has helped me get through difficult times for many years now and this year is no exception. The makers and performers of these five albums get me. I feel like the creators of this music understand what it means to be an awkward, out-of-place, vulnerable and caring, but helpless human in an era when hate seems in danger of winning. Hate won’t win though and that is in part because of art. Art resists hate.
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Superorganism, Superorganism (Domino, Hostess, March)
Unorthodox instruments such as buckets and straws, the low-key voice of the main vocalist Orono Noguchi, the self-care lyrics of songs like “It’s all good” and feel good rhythms, the Anthony Robins voice over are some of the reasons why I listened to this album over and over again this year.. The Prawn Song is my mantra. I hum it when I see the latest absurd decision by the Ogre in the House of White: “Have you ever seen a prawn start a world war, have you ever kissed a prawn and got a cold sore…you do you, I’ll do me…I’m happy just being a prawn.”
There’s an earnestness to this music that feels necessary. An admission that “I’m never feeling quite alright” in “Nobody Cares” resonates. Yeah, I feel the same. These songs acknowledge that the world is fucked up, they acknowledge the awkwardness we all feel, but they also offer a way to cope by pairing this acknowledgement with unorthodox music-making, which includes apple crunching, yawns and car sounds. Play and experimentation can be a helpful coping mechanism. These ten songs are perceptive, intelligent, appealing and compassionate 21st century hymns. We should all worship the prawn.
Subhraj Singh, Coughing Into My Elbow (Independent, November)
This is a low-key five song album, home recorded by the musician with unadorned and skilled guitar playing, a mellow voice and intelligent lyrics.
Like Superorganism, Singh addresses the issues of trying to cope. The songs are introspective with lyrics about self-consciousness, the need to escape, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, loneliness and trying to fit in.
Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Jeremy Dutcher/Fontana North,April)
Dutcher is a classically turned tenor and composer who is applying his talents to bringing back the songs of his heritage in order to help preserve the Wolastoq language, which is in danger of extinction. His mother, for example, was forbidden from speaking the Wolastoq language as a child by the church-run schools and in the last year three Wolastoq speakers from his family have died. For the album Dutcher combined contemporary music with the recordings of his ancestors found on wax cylinders in the archives of Canada’s Museum of History.
His voice soars above the understated piano and strings in the background. There are moments in the songs where Dutcher sings along with an ancestor and other moments where we hear the voice from the past alone or hear his voice alone.The album won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize.
““For me to do this work unashamedly and not have to translate it, do it from our perspective and be steadfast in that, I hope that’s shining a light on a way forward on how to create our art from our perspective,” said Dutcher. “Just create it for the audience it’s meant for and if people want to witness that’s great and they’re welcome. They’re always welcome. But fundamentally it’s for my people.” Jeremy Dutcher “Jeremy Dutcher’s Win In Focus For Polaris Podcast EP19”
Ex : Re, Ex : Re (Glassnote Records, November)
“Still, I raged through, wine-wasted, shit-faced, solo, so what?” from the song “New York” epitomizes the tone of this album, a post-break-up record by Elena Tonra, of the band Daughter. With background cello and violin, mesmerizing rhythms, backup ghostly harmonies and visceral lyrics, this album will resonate for anyone who’s recently gone through a break up. Some of the lines are so damn poetic, it makes you want to cry. “I was hurt with blue innocence” in “Romance,” for example. There’s a depth to these songs that comes from the poetry of the lyrics, the plaintive melodies and the music, all coming together in a contemporary symphony of sadness and mantras of pain.
“You could open with your failings… I will leave this empty handed…
Feeling selfish, common as shit” “Where the Time Went”
“I grew up to quick and I still forgive too slow – Romance is dead and dying and it hits between the eyes” — “Romance”
“I see our fingerprints on household things/I’m too sad to touch/I feel your skin on/human beings/I’m too sad to fuck” – “Too Sad.”
Perhaps Tonra is a born-again Baudelaire flaneuse seeking escape from pain.
I Only Listen To the Mountain Goats – All Hail West Texas, various artists
(Merge Records, April)
Ok…I’m just finding out this is also a podcast. Wow! I’m a big fan of TMG, so this is satisfying to me. The covers are performed by Andrew Bird, Dessa, Carrie Elkin, Craig Finn, Laura Jane Grace, Holy Sons, Ibibio Sound Machine, Julian Koster, Loamlands, Erin McKeown, Mothers, Nana Grizol, Amanda Palmer, Eliza Rickman & Jherek Bischoff. Amanda Palmer’s rendition of The Mess Inside is so damn great, full of the heartbreak of ending a relationship in an over the top rendition. And here’s a few stories about the making of the song.
All Hail West Texas is not my favourite TMG album but it’s close. The songs are portraits of people in the struggle of mundane daily life, everyday America, I guess you could say.
Cover albums are always an opportunity to hear different interpretations and to discover musicians one hasn’t heard of. I was impressed by Loamlands’ cover of “Fall of the Star High School Running Back.” Kym Register’s voice reminds me of Stevie Nicks.
Erin McKeon’s cover of “Jenny” is a bit like a show tune. On the podcast episode about the song, McKeon talks about the rhythms of Darnielle’s lines, including the way he “rags the line,” which in poetry we refer to as enjambment. The point is that McKeon analyzed the song in depth before creating her cover version.
For a song to be covered well, the original must be crafted well enough to allow for differences in interpretation. I believe that John Darnielle is a master song writer, joining the ranks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits, whose songs are covered constantly.
Dessa’s soulful version of “Balance” is also noteworthy, particularly the sensuousness of her voice. The cover is so different from the original with Darnielle’s nasal voice on top of a strong strum.
I also really love Andrew Bird’s cover of “Distant Stations,” which maintains the rhythm but slows it down and adds harmonies and steel guitar, turning it a country ballad.
Amanda Earl is a romantic non-monogamous slut who lives with her husband, Charles. She’s the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the fallen angel of AngelHousePress. Earl writes poetry, fiction, visual poetry, nonfiction and makes limited edition artist’s books for her pals. Her creative and life goals are love, whimsy, exploration and connection with fellow misfits. She also encourages you to befriend her on Twitter @KikiFolle and follow her on Spotify: amandaearl14.
Medha Singh is Music Editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse. Send her your reviews at: music [at] queenmobs [dot] com Image: "Something for Your M.I.N.D" video, Superorganism, Domino Records