#MWE February 2023

My second year participating in #MWE (Music Writers Exercise) where for the month of February, I listen to an album for the first time every day and tweet about it. A productive way to go through all the albums I’ve added to my Spotify library but haven’t yet made the time to listen to, but if I do it next year, it won’t be on Twitter, which has devolved into a ghost town/shit show since its unfortunate Musk-ification. These days, tweeting almost anything feels like flinging thoughts into a void and I didn’t experience nearly as much engagement as I did last year. Perhaps in 2024 I’ll try Facebook or Instagram or just save everything for here.

Here’s what I posted for February 2023:

1. Primal Scream, Vanishing Point (1997): Not as highly regarded as Screamadelica but maybe it should be for its sample-heavy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach actually coheres. A close companion to Morcheeba’s debut from the year before, if not exactly trip-hop.

2. Peggy Lee, Sea Shells (1958): In stark contrast to the era’s maximalism, this is simply Lee trilling folk songs over harp and occasional harpsichord. Her readings of “Chinese Love Poems” anticipate the verses of “Is That All There Is?” minus the droll detachment.

3. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People (2002): Harder to get a handle on than that other Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers, call it scrappy “Indie-rock” (for lack of a better term) with unflashy hooks even if “Pacific Theme” could almost be 1970s Chicago.

4. The Wild Tchoupitoulas, S/T (1976): A glorious one-off: Mardi Gras Indians performing Allen Toussaint-produced funk-rock. With songs primary about how much fun it is to be them, it emanates so much pure bliss, deserving a place on the shelf next to Dr. John’s Gris-Gris.

5. Robert Forster, The Candle and The Flame (2023): A beacon of solace in a world we have can’t control. Intimate and direct but rarely ever obvious. Might take weeks or months for some of these hooks to resonate but they’re there and just one facet of the grand design. 

6. Charles Mingus, East Coasting (1957): Less formally radical than what he’d record in the following years but that doesn’t mean less effective or interesting. As always with Mingus, he constructs a nimble but solid foundation that encourages all the players on top to shine.

7. Gem Club, In Roses (2014): Could’ve been recorded in a bedroom or a cathedral. Near-ambient pop that probably needs more than one listen to sink in for all I can recall are the legato, echoing piano chords, occasional strings and Christopher Barnes’ ethereal sigh. 

8. Meshell Ndegeocello, The World Has Made Me The Man Of My Dreams (2007): A groove record that, after caffeinated near-drum-and-bass salvo “The Sloganeer” drifts unpredictably but languorously like an ultra-chill George Clinton. Most revealing song title: “Elliptical”.

9. Neu!, S/T (1972): Today, I learned that Negativland named themselves after a track off this; also learned that (last track aside) this is far more accessible than what I expected of krautrock, so either it seems less radical than it did fifty years ago or I’m just a weirdo. 

10. The Loud Family, The Tape Of Only Linda (1994): Okay, now I get why Aimee Mann liked Scott Miller enough to make an (unreleased) LP with him. This proves he did have a tight ten-track pop record in him; not that it would ever cross over like even Mann occasionally could.

11. Leonard Cohen, Recent Songs (1979): His only pre-2000 LP I hadn’t heard; coming off his Phil Spector disaster, it’s a model of restraint and consequently a tad boring until the Mariachi horns appear and one can safely resume questioning whether he’s being serious or not.

12. Yo La Tengo, This Stupid World (2023): Could be titled Death, Taxes and Yo La Tengo for all the consistency/dependability it emits. Not much stands out but everything coheres and gently sparkles like a vast starry night. Easy to take them for granted, so listen closely.

13. Van Dyke Parks, Discover America (1972): One of my more delightful first listens in months. Public domain tunes with a little whimsy, a lot of personality and as usual with Parks, ingenuous arrangements, anticipating those he’d compose with Nilsson for Altman’s Popeye.

14. Various Artists, One Kiss Can Lead To Another (2005): I thought this 52-minute digital distillation of an out-of-print, vintage girl group box set would be sufficient but now I wish I had access to the whole thing. An underrated genre from a not-so-innocent era, really.

15. FKA Twigs, MAGDALENE (2019): Obvious comparisons aside, I can’t get a handle on who she is which I suppose is the point. Acting unknowable can run the risk of obscurity but the production’s so striking it serves partially as a way in rather than just fancy window dressing.

16. Caroline Polachek, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You (2023): Likening her to Dido didn’t occur to me until she popped up on “Fly To You”; actually, this is near-worthy of early, edgier Sarah McLachlan, buffed and shined to a cool gleam other guest Grimes should aspire to.

17. Tennis, Pollen (2023): This couple/duo has raised “staying in one’s lane” to an art form but such interchangeability works when there’s consistency and ample hooks. Might sound better over retail loudspeakers than headphones but that comes down to one’s own preference.

18. Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly (1972): The joy in doing this exercise is to find a classic record you can’t believe you’ve never heard before. I don’t need to tell the world how sublime and definitive this soundtrack is, only to give it another chance if you’re unconvinced.

19. The Teardrop Explodes, Kilimanjaro (1980): On the basis of some of Cope’s solo work, not as wild and surely poppier than contemporaries such as Echo and The Bunnymen or The Soft Boys. Sirius XM’s “First Wave” could stand to play them (and so many other artists) more often.

20. The Upsetters, Blackboard Jungle Dub (1973): Knowing very little about dub reggae, this was exactly what I expected until it quoted both “Pop Goes The Weasel” and “Tijuana Taxi” in the same track. Such mischief broke up the repetition but was it more than just a goof?

21. Tame Impala, “Lonerism” (2012): The real test of a supposed stoner-friendly album is how well it holds up when listened to while sober. Even when favoring texture over melody, this makes the grade, though as a one-man band he might be better off revering Eno than Rundgren.

22. Life Without Buildings, Any Other City (2001): I spent years looking for this in used CD stores based on hype and hearsay; while it lives up to its postpunk-with-quirky-spoken-vocals description, not even that prepared me for Sue Tompkins’ cadences and fizzy demeanor.

23. Scott Walker, The Drift (2006): Sure, I prefer Walker’s more accessible earlier work, but there’s enough of it and this is purposely something else, pushing beyond accepted parameters of song structure toward a sound that’s compelling and confounding in equal measure.

24. Al Stewart, Past, Present and Future (1973): Of course he’s so much more than his two big hits even if those wistful, mealy vocals all but define him. Unlike fellow 70s art-poppers Supertramp, his wispy Anglo-quirk endures because he leans closer to folk-rock than prog.

25. Phish, The Story of The Ghost (1998): Got off the bus just prior to this one and I might’ve liked it more back then. Same issues as usual with them: heartfelt but patchy (and dorky), dexterous but diminished by studio confinement, insular despite all the genre-blending.

26. U.S. Girls, Bless This Mess (2023): “Fonky” as opposed to funky. Emulates Steely Dan, quotes from Jimi Hendrix and sounds like Daft Punk. Best songs are about monkey suits and the color spectrum. Increasingly slick and exceedingly weird (and enough to hold my attention.)

27. Destroyer, Trouble In Dreams (2008): Barely hints at the big pivot Bejar would make three years later on Kaputt but I’ll give him this: over time, I’ve pivoted from him as that guy w/the annoying voice in The New Pornographers to someone incapable of making a bad record.

28. Robert Wyatt, Shleep (1997): Tuneful and dissonant (often simultaneously), he seems as versed in and enticed by classic rock tropes as with free-floating, sing-song poetic improvisation. Challenging but rarely boring, not one second of it feels wasted or redundant.

#MWE February 2022

This past month on Twitter I participated in the #MWE: Music Writers Exercise. The goal is to tweet about an album you’ve listened to for the first time every day during February. I first heard of this two years ago; I was a little distracted/scattered to attempt it last year but thought I’d try it now. I had no trouble compiling a list of albums to listen to and review; it was also genuinely fun to hear a new album every day and determine how to sum it up in 280 characters or less.

The most rewarding discoveries included the 1976 debut from sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle (respectively, Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s mother and aunt), the second LP from 90s jangle-popsters The Trashcan Sinatras, Low’s adventurous new record from last year and John Cale’s Fear, which is indeed rougher and rawer than Paris 1919 but not as much as I was led to expect. I got to roughly half of the titles on my initial list, so I hope to do the #MWE again next February.

Here are my 28 #MWE 2022 tweets:

1. Slowdive, Souvlaki (1993): Having only heard their pretty great 2017 S/T reunion LP, this feted second album is less flashy than MBV’s Loveless but also riper for discovery three decades on., esp. when it resembles proto-Radiohead on the ballads (“Here She Comes”).

2. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Just Dropped In… (2020): Sure, Jones could sing the phone book; this covers comp shows she could also sing disco (“In The Bush”) & Woody Guthrie, and her ad-libs on “What Have You Done For Me Lately” suggest she could’ve done even more (RIP).

3. The Auteurs, New Wave (1993): Imagine a world where this debut was even half as big as Definitely Maybe. Although my favorite Luke Haines songs are those sung by Sarah Nixey, at least here he has the cojones to write a song called “Starstruck” that isn’t a Kinks cover.

4. They Might Be Giants, Book (2021): Their gazillionth album, god bless ‘em; music + book gimmick aside, it’s no different from every non-kid record they’ve made since becoming an actual band with John Henry. Happily, they can still bring the hooks (if not all the quirks.)

5. OMD, Dazzle Ships (1983): I prefer “Souvenir” to “If You Leave” but their infamous fourth album sounds like neither (although “Silent Running” is not too off from the former.) Andy McCluskey’s weird voice meshes really well with the weird, jarring-but-still-catchy music.

6. Rickie Lee Jones, S/T (1979): A recent convert to her second LP, Pirates, her debut’s a respectable one. At this point, she has more command of the jazzy bop stuff than the ballads (“Coolsville” excepted) and the hit remains one of the more delightfully odd ones of its era.

7. Trashcan Sinatras, I’ve Seen Everything (1993): Nearly every track sounds like a slightly different band, at least musically. It’s a shame I didn’t hear this at the time for it might’ve made as seismic an impact on my 18-year-old self as The Smiths’ Best… 1 had.

8. Mdou Moctar, Afrique Victime (2021): Aware of multiple African musical genres, I only know Afrobeat/Fela Kuti. As for this much-hyped-in-the west Tuareg guitarist, his pyrotechnics serve the melodies more often than not; still, I found the acoustic grooves more compelling.

9. Susanne Sundfør, Music For People In Trouble (2017): Jim Steinman-worthy “Undercover” and climactic “Mountaineers” aside, this eschews Ten Love Songs’ synth-pop anthems for soundscapes far more stripped-down and contained. More musicians should attempt such a bold pivot.

10. Alex Lahey, I Love You Like A Brother (2017): I love Lahey’s second album but her first is the work of someone who set out to make a near-perfect ten track pop punk record and fully understood the assignment. She has the potential to become a 21st-Century Kirsty MacColl.

11. Low, HEY WHAT (2021): Reviews led me to expect something harsher; while abrasive enough, this is more like noisy dream pop, constantly swerving and surprising but also unexpectedly melodic, applying blissful harmonies to unconventional structures. A good headphones album.

12. Frank Sinatra, Watertown (1970): Ambitious adult-pop song cycle that sounds like he’s emulating Scott Walker, of all people. It likely flopped because his voice is often too overbearing for the material; a vocalist such as Dionne Warwick might’ve lent more finesse to it.

13. The Housemartins, The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death (1987): More crisp, clean-cut pop with a subversive streak (title track’s about the Royals) but not much of an advance on their debut. You can hear them turning into The Beautiful South on (great) closer “Build”.

14. Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul (1969): Alternate title: “Opulence – You Own Everything.” Two years before Shaft, Hayes’ breakthrough is a paean to excess with little precedent; in other words, when you slow James Brown down from 45 to 33 RPM, funk turns into prog (and soul.)

15. Virna Lindt, Shiver (1983): Swedish would-be avant-chanteuse (check out her 2021 single “Once”) has no qualms about placing spoken-word tone poems next to a mostly instrumental piano-pounder called “I Beat the System” and a wonky cover of “Windmills of Your Mind”.

16. Amy Rigby, A One Way Ticket To My Life (2019): Comp culled together to promote her fab memoir “Girl To City”, it has very few duds among its 19 four-track demos; a few (“Housecleaning”, “You’re Getting Old”) are almost worthy of 1996’s classic Diary of a Mod Housewife.

17. Prefab Sprout, I Trawl The Megahertz (2003): Originally released as a McAloon solo LP. Experimental but not inaccessible, it sports his loveliest arrangements and most inscrutable content. Worth hearing, even if you don’t hear his heavenly vocals until the penultimate track.

18. Velvet Crush, Teenage Symphonies To God (1994): Assigned to review their last LP, Stereo Blues in 2004, I’m just hearing this one now and yep, they’re the American Teenage Fanclub—power pop more diverse than Bandwagonesque, even, with the quieter stuff an unexpected treat.

19. Roberta Flack, First Take (1969): She’s like a smoothed-out Nina Simone but the latter’s genius was in those jagged edges. Since he put the MacColl song in Play Misty For Me, Eastwood could’ve also added the Cohen cover for Jessica Walter’s supremely unhinged character.

20. Beach House, Once Twice Melody (2022): Lost track of them after Bloom; this is an expansive return. Everything sounds the same but it rarely stagnates & occasionally startles (that instrumental coda at the end.) Between this & Big Thief, is 2022 the year of the double LP? 

21. Kate & Anna McGarrigle, S/T (1976): The word *idiosyncratic* comes to mind, even if it’s not any further out there than Joni or Judee (or Rufus or Martha, no less)—more like Richard and Linda Thompson but with the sibling dynamic rendering it something uniquely their own.

22. Joni Mitchell, Shine (2007): Put off by the Starbucks connection and the covers (both LP and new “Big Yellow Taxi”), I avoided this until now. Not great Joni, but as good as nearly any of her post-Hejira work—that it’s likely her final LP now lends it a sentimental tint.

23. Chris Bell, I Am The Cosmos (1978): It’s tempting to liken this to Big Star’s Third; Bell is less falling apart than struggling to stay afloat. He’s not straining to write decent tunes, fortunately, for at least three or four stand with his best contributions to #1 Record.

24. Funkadelic, Maggot Brain (1971): Justly celebrated 10-minute-long title cut feels half that length, nine-minute closer feels twice as long as that (but I don’t mind much) and “Can You Get To That” gives off the impression of deceptive politeness but it absolutely SLAMS.

25. Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party (1971): Groovy horn-and-sitar-laden kitsch that not only lives up to its title but gets progressively more insane. Wanted to say it likely inspired more than a few Tarantino soundtracks and whaddya know, there’s a cut in Jackie Brown.

26. Stan Ridgway, Neon Mirage (2010): Haven’t heard much of his post-1995 output and it’s almost startling how mature and sincere the guy who once sang “Mexican Radio” sounds here. Exotica and reggae pastiches aside, it’s also a bit boring, lacking the picaresque tales of yore.

27. Tears For Fears, The Tipping Point (2022): The middle sags but this begins and ends so strongly I’m gobsmacked to name another legacy act making such vital music now. Of course, the 18-year break probably helps, not to mention how remarkably young Curt Smith still sounds.

28. John Cale, Fear (1974): Thought this wasn’t all that different from its predecessor Paris 1919 until I got to “Gun” which could be a VU cut. I now wanna check out his other mid-70s stuff, for this sleazier rock vibe (“The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy”(!)) most suits Cale.