The Drag City intern who wrote the Instagram caption for the latest Bill Callahan/Bonnie “Prince” Billy collab took an interesting approach. They called the original version of the beloved Steely Dan song a “dead-eyed bummer” with “showbizzy dream-fulfilment” production. Risky, especially at a time when trendy music heads worldwide have reached the consensus that Steely Dan is the greatest ever American band, that their high school math teachers may have been on to something, and that maybe the background music at the Ace Hotel pool isn’t so intolerable after all. I pointed out the “dead-eyed bummer” line to my former housemate, with whom I shared a bedroom wall the last two years I lived in New Orleans. He had a tendency to play Aja, the classic Dan album on which “Deacon Blues” appears, when he had company. And because of the track’s length (just over seven minutes), and its album placement (about 13 minutes in), it often coincided with the loudest moments of the night (to his credit, he sometimes made it to “Peg”). He responded with the evergreen “I just play whatever ur mom wants to hear.” Well, the joke’s on him, because my mom hates Steely Dan.
The Drag City caption writer was probably kidding or trying to stir the pot, because “Deacon Blues” is not a dead-eyed bummer. Rather, it might be the greatest masterpiece of the yacht rock era. It’s a valid song to fuck to, if you don’t think too deeply about its story of perennial loserdom and its many footbal references, or the fact that you may well have been conceived to it if your parents ever did coke in the ‘80s. What that intern got right, though, was that Bill Callahan, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Bill MacKay’s version is even better than the original. It’s way too intimate for a casual encounter—unless you’re into that sort of thing—but that’s OK. Their mostly acoustic, guitar-based version of the track serves a different purpose.
Despite the marquee placement of BPB on the single, and the beautiful cover art drawn by his late mother, it’s really the two Bills’ track, with Billy popping in only for the occasional chorus visit. MacKay takes on the daunting task of transcribing the original eleven-piece arrangement—which heavily features a sax—for one man equipped with a few guitars and two guys armed with nothing but their pretty voices. He makes it look easy, and unlocks a quiet beauty in the song not apparent on the Dan version. Of course, this serenity is exponentially augmented by Callahan’s croon, which could lull a rabid pitbull to sleep. And Billy’s trembling harmonies, offset a full octave above Callahan’s steady melodic lines, are the final flourishes the song needs to push it past its predecessor.
Bill C. and Bonnie P.B. have put out a steady stream of covers since the release of Callahan’s characteristically lovely Gold Record in September, often incorporating a third party to do their dirty work (forgive me). They seem to be gearing up for something big—a full album together, hopefully. But even if their remote partnership is just for fun, it’s produced some of the best music of the fall. —Raphael Helfand
A little over a year since local garage punk favorites Casual Burn dropped their full-length Mean Thing, guitarist David Sabludowsky has returned with a tape full of gnarly home recordings. Taken By Static documents Sabludowsky (under the moniker D. Sablu) venturing further out into new terrain. This tape features him sometimes augmenting his sound with drum machines and incorporating electronic elements into his guitar-based attack. This shift is particularly prevalent on tracks like “Sink or Swim,” which devolves into noisy, pulsating electronics towards the end. Recorded on a Yamaha MT4000 multitrack cassette recorder between 2019 and 2020, Sabludowsky had a slight head start on the home recording craze that has consumed many isolated musicians. Jack of all trades Eric Martinez plays drums on two tracks, but otherwise Taken By Static is all Sabludowsky: raw, unfiltered, and honest. He rocks out on tracks like opener “Bomber Stomp” but also isn’t afraid to get tender on tunes like “I’m Afraid.” Sabludowsky delivered a hearty amount of this tape’s small run to friends and other folks in the local DIY scene, so copies might be hard to come across now. However, this release lives on through the internet, much like most of our lives this deep into 2020. —William Archambeault
Relapse surprised the hell out of everyone when the label announced the first ever proper, official reissue of Japanese metallic punk group G.I.S.M.’s 1983 debut Destation. This album is the musical equivalent of bloodthirsty bandits navigating a terrifying wasteland hellscape. Raw hardcore punk collides with ripping metal guitar leads and solos on songs like “Endless Blockades for the Pussyfooter” and “Nuclear Armed Hogs.” To put it bluntly, Destation is abrasive in all the best ways. This album has captivated generations of raunchy punks and metal maniacs alike, despite only being available in the form of lackluster bootlegs for decades. G.I.S.M. are also no strangers to controversy. Legendary stories of chaotic and downright violent performances have circulated in the underground for decades and have become intrinsically tied to many people’s perception of the band. In this respect, their legacy is somewhat akin to local nihilistic icons Eyehategod, despite occupying different waters in the vast sea of heavy music. Relapse supplements the CD and digital versions of this reissue with three compilation tracks familiar to most G.I.S.M. devotees, but still very much welcome on this release. Now that Relapse is helping G.I.S.M. to reach a wider audience, I plea for someone to reissue the excellent but long out-of-print 1983 compilation Great Punk Hits, which features the group alongside other Japanese noisemakers like Laughin’ Nose, Aburadako, and The Execute. —William Archambeault
Out My Scope, the third full-length from New Orleans’ HiGH, continues their signature blend of catchy punk rock with the introspective lyrics and guitar heroics of ‘90s indie, all while throwing enough left turns into the mix to keep things from getting stale. The rhythm section of Isidore Grisoli (bass) and Joshua White (drums) provides driving yet malleable backbones for the fiery leads of guitarist Craig Oubre. The band deploys biting riffs, buoyant rhythms, and polished hooks to create life-affirming punk stompers that are juxtaposed with lyrics dealing with topics as wide-ranging as death, apathy, and the nightmares of living in a digital world (“Oldest Things“, “Get Home”). Even with a brisk 32:48 runtime, HiGH manages to stretch out a bit over 11 songs and keep the listener on their toes with effective forays into Smiths-ian post-punk (“Milkweed“) and fuzzed-out indie rock (“Overdrawn“). The best of the bunch may be “Ten at Zero,” which builds from a dirge-like crawl to a cathartic climax, featuring one of the many incendiary solos peppered throughout the album. Out My Scope presents a good distillation of what HiGH does well along with some solid evidence that they have the tools to credibly expand on their core sound. —Will Hibert
“Breathe in / Breathe out / Learn to / Let go / Everyone’s alright.” With this gentle (and important) reminder, so begins Shiver, the second full-length album from Icelandic artist and producer Jónsi. Shiver is a sweeping album, more synth-heavy and anthemic than Jónsi’s work with Sigur Rós, but not without orchestral elements. The vibe and lyrics are emotive, drawing the listener into an atmospheric soundscape steeped in desire and vulnerability. Unfortunately, these lyrics and themes are not tethered to anything substantive, and the production leans too heavily on the formula of “slow buildup to dramatic climax” for each song. While the album is pleasant and lovely, it is—as a whole—not Jónsi’s best work. Exceptions are the gorgeous “Cannibal,” which features Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, and the Euro-pop “Salt Licorice” (you can’t go wrong with guest vocals from Robyn and lyrics about hot Scandinavian men). Shiver is a great album to put on in the background as you work or sit with your thoughts, which certainly has its place. If this is your first introduction to Jónsi, though, listen to his other albums before making any final judgement on his artistic abilities. —Mary Beth Campbell
Squirrel Queen’s 2020 album Life & Death & In Between calls to mind a combination of Soccer Mommy, WAVVES, and something a bit more difficult to put your finger on. The six-track release definitely possesses an air of nostalgia-tinged melancholy that other artists in this specific indie rock pocket may not present to listeners quite as starkly. Lydia Kolda (a.k.a. Squirrel Queen) shines on powerful, layered vocal tracks that hit surprising high notes before rolling into deep choruses. Recorded at Marigny Studios, the album’s title track is definitely the strongest of the collection. The song is slow and mournful, its beautiful lyrics echoing, “I’m not afraid of anything / But life & death & in between.” Kolda’s choice of instrumentals seems clever and deliberate, complementing her voice rather seamlessly throughout. On top of the usual rock gear, Life & Death & In Between features an organ (Andre Bohren), as well as cello, viola, and violin (Rick Nelson). “I Miss You” is a powerful closer, amping up the energy of the album with crashing cymbals and intense brass counterpoints that leave you wishing this album wasn’t quite so brief. —Julia Engel
Chicago-born rapper and comedian Open Mike Eagle’s latest album Anime, Trauma and Divorce hits like the official soundtrack to 2020. His timely twelve-song experience explores what so many of us have been grappling with this past year: what to do when everything goes to hell. It plays more like a series of raw journal entries than a well-polished studio album. The grief-laden track “Everything Ends Last Year” is an introspective journey through the debris of broken friendships, crumbled business opportunities, and feeling all the feels. The lo-fi sound is complemented by wavy vocals and contemplative lyrics. Each verse on this heavy track ends with an acknowledgement of what we’ve all been feeling: “It’s October and I’m tired.” The album isn’t all heavy, though. On “Headass (Idiot Shinji)” he roasts himself, admitting to a slew of social flaws and moments of general headassery. There’s a freestyle feel to the lyrics while the beat features grand orchestral sounds looped under crisp hi-hat rolls. He pokes fun at himself on this lyrically playful track, all while remaining acutely self-aware and painfully relatable. This album is a much-needed reminder that sitting with your sadness is healthy, necessary, and sometimes humorous. —Shirani Jayasuriya
Sylvan Esso’s new album, Free Love, gives you room to breathe, to think, to feel. You’re alone in a safe space with Nick Sanborn’s glitchy electronic harmonized blips and Amelia Meath’s intimate vocals. The album opens with a slew of shower questions, “What if end was begin? / Then would men be like mothers? / And the falling of others would be like the first leaves of flowers.” There’s a playful philosophy and a looseness of the limbs that underwrites the lyrics and the instrumentation on every track. The hilly golf course of the midi soundscape is made for rolling down and getting grass in your hair. We go from “floating back upwards” on “Ring” to “sweaty in the street / tilt-a-whirling” on “Ferris Wheel” to “wind in my hair / nothing in my brain” on “Train” to “shaking out the numb” on “Numb” to “climb[ing] the oak tree in my backyard” on “Frequency” to “running with my hands up” on “Runaway” to “slo-mo throwing my body in the air” on “Rooftop Dancing.” The New York Times once wrote that this dynamic duo keeps electropop human. That’s exactly what they do and, on this album, it makes for a joyful and refreshing journey. —Sabrina Stone
For this split, Eyehategod and NYC’s Sheer Terror teamed up to pay tribute to some unexpected influences. EHG pay their respects at the shrine of Devo—as we all should—with a relatively straightforward version of “Gates of Steel.” (It took New Orleans long enough, but someone has finally returned the favor for Devo covering Lee Dosey’s (Allen Toussaint-penned) hit, “Working In a Coal Mine.”) On this recording, Mike IX Williams‘ vocals sound slightly closer to conventional singing than usual, but still bear the signature grit that has endeared the band to so many fans. Eyehategod’s version of “Gates of Steel” is solid, but doesn’t top The Body and Full of Hell’s obscenely heavy take on it from 2017. Still, it does pique my curiosity about the band’s upcoming full-length, A History Of Nomadic Behavior, which will be their first since their 2014 self-titled album. On the other side of this 7″, Sheer Terror tackles Depeche Mode’s “New Life” with full force. They grab hold of the emotive synth pop tune and twist it into a thick-skulled hardcore crusher that works far better than expected. Neither of these covers are essential discography additions, but they do serve as a potent reminder that bands often draw from influences that don’t mirror their style. —William Archambeault
Local journalist Emily Hingle teamed up with local photographers (including ANTIGRAVITY alumni Nathan Tucker and Gary LoVerde) to take a look into the spaces behind the music. Band Room: New Orleans documents the seldom-seen practice spaces and other rooms where musicians hone their craft before taking their music out to the world. Hingle visited everyone from songbird Robin Barnes to punk rock renaissance man Bill Heintz. Her writing provides charming insight into musicians’ lives, their creative processes, and practice spaces, both past and present. Hingle leans heavily on interview quotes, wisely acknowledging that these stories are for the musicians to tell. This coffee table book is brimming full of local music trivia that is sure to provide something new for even the most hardcore devotees of the city’s sounds. For instance, the book shows the decrepit “Ernie K-Doe Bathroom & Museum” at Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s house and explains how members of Blato Zato came to fall in love with Bulgarian music. Most importantly, Band Room makes readers feel just as at home in Crowbar‘s surprisingly tidy space as the actual house of Tarriona “Tank” Ball‘s aunt. —William Archambeault
This is the story of Nicholas Baker’s unsuccessful attempts to determine through public records requests whether the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War. Baker is an at-times mesmerizing writer perhaps best known for the trick of having multiple works of erotica—including the 1992 novel Vox, which is entirely set within a 900 number phone sex session—accepted as literary fiction. Baseless is told largely in the form of a journal, chronicling Baker’s records requests, interviews, and daily life with his family, interspersed with tales about disturbing mid-20th century military and CIA practices and those who carried them out. His language can be beautiful—”by four o’clock in the afternoon I was fact blasted and numb,” he writes of one archival research session—but the book’s chronological structure, and a lack of enough information about Baker’s family to interest readers in their daily affairs, make his historical conjectures and musings on the banality of evil hard to follow. In Substitute, another nonfiction book in journal format, Baker wrote of his work as a fill-in teacher. Here, his avuncular, didactic tone and mid-century liberalism are a mixture of endearing and grating, like a civics teacher furrowing his brow about the 1950s. —Steven Melendez
Lafayette is world-renowned for its music, food, and culture, but its seedy underbelly, like that of most cities, is seldomly put in the spotlight. Perhaps it is because crack houses, decrepit trailers, and shady motels don’t exactly make for great tourism ads that scream “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!” Lafayette native Dege Legg saw damn near everything the city had to offer during his five years as a night shift cabdriver, and he painstakingly documented it all. His cab driver diary was one of the great hidden gems from the wild west era of blogs (remember those?). Cablog distills those years of writings into a concise 233 pages that offer a fascinating study in humanity. This book shows mankind at its best, worst, and the full spectrum in between. On any given day, Legg could encounter the type of wonderful people who restore one’s faith in the world or, in one instance, have a gun pressed against his head in a robbery that put his life on the line over a measly $61. Legg has a knack for telling these stories in short, on-the-head entries certain to captivate both obsessive literary hounds and non-readers alike. He transports readers to a world full of late night characters that are often too eccentric to make up. He introduces individuals ranging from Johnny, the lonely accordion-playing Christmas drunk, to the one-armed man, a cocky prick with cigarette cherries burning up his manicured hairdo. Legg’s interactions are typically brief but provide a glimpse into the wild, wild world we all live in but seldomly look around and notice exists around us. —William Archambeault
Before she became a renowned author and columnist, Lindy West wrote about pop culture and politics for the Seattle Stranger and Jezebel. Her reviews of movies, both new and not so new, are the perfect blend of hilarious frivolity and sharp social commentary and garnered her acclaim and a devoted fanbase. Shit, Actually is a collection of her movie essays (as the title suggests, her beloved 2013 takedown of Love Actually is included), some revamped for the book and others published for the first time. With her sharp wit, West reexamines films that have been held up as pop culture cornerstones, forcing us to ask if they remain relevant in our current reality (spoiler alert: most do not). West’s essays make us face how these movies reflect our culture and, by extension, ourselves. Her Top Gun essay, for example, is a striking and hilarious analysis of the harms of exceptionalism and how it has permeated our values and politics. In the end, West is asking that we view our media with humor and a critical eye, to acknowledge what we loved may also no longer be what we need. —Mary Beth Campbell
Morgan G. Ames, of the University of California at Berkeley, has produced a phenomenal, copiously footnoted account of what went wrong with the MIT-linked “One Laptop Per Child” project that aimed to give cheap laptops to kids across the Global South, with larger lessons for the tech sector’s overall failings. She takes readers on a remarkably painless tour of how researchers look at science and technology projects, gradually weaving in her fieldwork observing the project in Paraguay, all while diving into the serious issues with the program. While organizers believed the laptops would instinctively be used as creative workbenches and coding platforms, bridging socioeconomic gaps, in practice they were too underpowered to be useful and difficult to maintain. Nor did they solve problems of students who didn’t have places to plug them in, lacked the language skills necessary to easily use English-centric programming tools, or faced challenges based on their female gender or geography of birth. Ames persuasively argues that tech projects’ “charisma” often isn’t based on true revolutionary power, but rather on appealing to existing, often retrograde stereotypes, such as the “technically precocious boy” empowered by clever use of technology that the project’s backers imagined themselves and their target audience to be. —Steven Melendez