Once a month, VMP turns over the blog to Andrew Winistorfer, its resident man about town and music writer. In Storf Sounds Off, he writes about a few things he thinks you should pay attention to this month. That’s the theory at least.
1. Due to the fall weather, I had to put my comforter back on my bed this month, which is actually totally ok with me, because fall is objectively the best season (my fall #looks are strong, shouts to flannel shirts). But it also means that it’s time to bust out my favorite fall album: the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack. I contend that Inside Llewyn Davis is the best movie of this decade; it’s a movie about suffering for art despite great odds and hardships and giving literally everything you have to music at expense of everything else in your life—including your illegitimate child and buying the clothing necessary to survive winter-- and ultimately realizing you’re still not good enough to be a star (in Llewyn’s case, he’s never going to be better than Bob Dylan). The soundtrack is heavy on early ‘60s folk and acoustic guitars, and I’ve listened to it something like 300 times every fall for the last two years.
I am wholeheartedly endorsing this thing as something you need to do now, even though it’s a #latepass. You can trust me on this, because I am doing so even though 1. An actor sings 85% of the songs here (shouts to Oscar Isaac) and 2. It features a Mumford Son and both of those things pain me deeply.
2. If I’m keeping it 100 with y’all, I don’t actually have an opinion on the new Joanna Newsom album, Divers. I don’t know that I actually have an opinion on any of her music; I’ve listened to Ys probably 25 times since 2006, and I still can’t help but feel like her music is an onslaught of words, music and imagery that I’ll never be able to take the appropriate time to unpack. Her new album feels like that too.
One of the things that has bothered me re: Newsom is that I have long felt like all of the writing about her music hasn’t gotten close to matching what it feels like to actually listen to her. What I didn’t realize is that someone has been not only attempting to do that, but also cataloguing all the problems with how people write about her. Shouts to the New York Times Popcast to hipping me to Blessing All the Birds, a site that approaches Newsom as a feminist writer first, a musician second. On the Popcast episode, one of the blog’s writers talks about how Newsom is lowkey sexualized all the time (calling her a woodland nymph is as bad, sexist writing as straight up writing about her body, for instance) and how her music is minimized by the shitty writing about her.
3. My local record store hosted a pop-up shop last month that consisted solely of a giant country collection owned by a guy who recently passed away. He’d been collecting and taking good care of country records since the ‘50s, so there were crazy expensive gems—like, the first ever George Jones LP in perfect condition—mixed in with like, every Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis record released on vinyl. There was a budget bin that I ransacked, and along with paying a buck for a Ray Charles country album, I copped an album called Castles in the Sand by David Allan Coe. It was literally a quarter.
I had heard of Coe, but had never actually heard him, and being that the dude has released more than 40 LPs, getting into him is no short order. I spun Castles in the Sand without looking into him at all, and I found it to be a funny, fun album. I realized that maybe everyone was underselling Coe as an influence on Sturgill Simpson; “The Ride” sounds like the proto-Sturgill track. I resolved to learn and listen more.
Coe has a bunch of humorous songs—he wrote “Take This Job and Shove It”—and even did some stuff with Shel Silverstein back in the early ‘70s. And he has songs that are about alcoholism and life—aka what some of the best country songs are about—like “(If I Could Climb) The Walls of the Bottle.”
But then I got deeper into Coe, and that’s when I found out Coe is actually wildly problematic. He wrote a couple albums meant for his biker gang fans (really, seriously) that were heavy on racist, misogynistic songs that he considers “jokes” now—which of course he does, now—and he’s unabashed about being pro-confederate flag. He controversially toured with Kid Rock (lowkey, Kid Rock is underrated, but that’s for a different column).
I guess I’m saying that music without context is almost always better. There’s a lot of talk about trying to separate the artist from his art, but then a dude like Coe comes through, makes a lot of great songs and albums that are devoid of anything controversial, and then he makes racist songs and then it’s hard to tell how you’re actually supposed to feel about him. Castles in the Sand is still dope though.
4. Another month, another music book recommendation: The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by New Yorker writer John Seabrook, which traces the steps from Abba to Dr. Luke, and how Swedes write something like 900% of every pop song on the radio (estimate). There are chapters on Max Martin and the Backstreet Boys—did you know BSB never had a #1 hit? That blew my mind—Rihanna as the queen of the singles artists, and how Ace of Base were ferried from recording in a basement to selling millions of records. Seabrook frames the book around his song liking a Flo Rida song—which is a #dad way to frame a book—and he kind of glosses over Ke$ha’s accuasations against Dr. Luke—which in fairness are still being resolved—but it’s a wildly interesting book about how pop radio became the pop radio it is today. Read it this month. Or put it on your Christmas list.
5. Speaking of how a cabal of a few people write basically every pop song, country has pretty much been run by a coterie of songwriters since the late ‘00s, and Shane McAnally is the top dog, currently. He’s written and produced basically everybody of note in country music in the last 6-7 years, from Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt to the Band Perry and Jake Owen. McAnally started his career as an underperforming solo artist before turning to writing hits for others, so its fitting McAnally’s most recent production job is helping turn a couple guys younger than him away from just being behind the scenes.
Old Dominion is made up of five Nashville vets who have written all over town before experiencing unlikely success with their band project. Lead singer Matthew Ramsey has written hits for Hunt, while other members have written songs for Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney, Tyler Farr and songs for the television show Nashville. They released their debut EP last year, and their debut LP, Meat and Candy, is out this month. The single from the album, “Break Up With Him,” seems poised to hit number one on the country charts soon.
The album has a dumb title and a dumber cover, but it’s one of 2015’s most fun, low stakes country albums, with a song comparing having fun in a truck bed to the motions of an empty beer can in a truck bed (“Beer Can in a Truck Bed”), a super sarcastic summer-ready jam (“Said Nobody”), and a song extolling the virtues of a woman in a baseball cap (“Snapback”).
But the highlight of the album is “Break Up With Him,” one of the most subdued, chill songs I’ve ever heard about convincing a woman to leave her boyfriend. Ramsey sings the “break up with hims” like he’s trying to convince himself he wants the woman to be with him, and I have been practicing saying the “hey girl” like he does here for like two weeks. I’m seeing them in Madison later this month and it’s something I’m looking forward to more than Thanksgiving.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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