Tuesday, June 25, 2024

“Away from Babylon: The Irresistible Revolution of Lizzie No’s ‘Halfsie’s'"

About halfway through Lizzie No’s opening track (the title cut), a wall of sound begins to echo a haunting three-note refrain. Soon the sound erupts into explosions blossoming out of previous explosions, and then it goes quiet again, then louder and quieter again. This movement between the vulnerable and the impenetrable calls to mind everything from the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness,” without any of that last example’s hopeful suggestions. That's as it should be. The dynamics of this opener forecast the concerns of an enormous record.

And with huge rockers like the snarling “Lagunita” to launch the middle third and the foot-to-the-floor “Getaway Car” before the final song’s quiet coda, that big sound outlines the scope of rock itself—probing past seemingly unendurable pain and dreaming past received and “reasonable” limits. Lizzie No wants it all, and over the course of this album, she suggests what she wants is within her grasp, or at least the grasp of the album’s persona/avatar, the she/her/they/them Miss Freedomland.

No has explained that she wanted to use the concept of a videogame and an avatar to get away from the way fans or media read the personal into women’s work. At least that's how I interpreted her explanation. As a writer who has often focused on women, that’s certainly what I’ve seen, the tendency magnified as a few women have become dominant forces in the industry. It is hard to imagine people making the assumptions about real-life relationships that are made with Taylor Swift and Beyonce if the subject were any of The Beatles or Bob Dylan, and I highly doubt Post Malone or Morgan Wallen get that treatment either. Even if they do, No's work-around works well, allowing her to write extraordinarily personal music, whatever it has to do with the artist’s real life.

The specifics in the lyrics and the music matter. I love the “hollow shell” of the moon in “Sleeping in the Next Room” as well as the shimmering vocal blend with Kate Victor and Sadie Dupuis. I love how “Lagunita” has all the fury of the best post punk (tip of the hat to guitarist Graham Richman and drummer Fred Eltringham throughout) as well as the way No hangs onto the taste of the “calf in the gelatin.”

 Lyric Video for "Lagunita"

No’s website quotes Toni Cade Bambara saying, “The role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible.” That’s just what No does repeatedly here, tearing away all hobbling ties on “The Heartbreak Store,” “Done,” “Annie Oakley,” “Shield and Sword,” and “Mourning Dove Waltz.” To underscore the irresistible qualities, that last sounds like a Carol King record about a mother accepting the necessary loss of her children to go and live their own lives. Mourning Dove Waltz video

Official Video for "The Heartbreak Store"

No first really hooked me with “Deadbeat,” a song about a woman recognizing her father’s worst qualities in herself. In at least one interview, No has talked about this as a flip on the typical country music script where the male singer’s hopeless qualities are romanticized. That said, what hooked me about the song wasn’t a sense of parody. It was the truth of it. I have known and loved people who could sing this straight, and I am this person more than I would like to admit. The fact that No goes there—with a knowing and even funny sense of irony—makes it work as well as any such song by a man, only deepened by that gender reversal. And there are a few archetypical country songs on this record, but this one doubles down on a strength of the genre—its hard focus on a clever and engaging lyric, shimmering guitar arpeggios and long-bowed strings simply underscoring the sad truth of it all.

The album ends with “Babylon,” a modest little folk song that defines the promised land based on all that’s being left behind—thieves and killers, fears of pain, the threats of shame, and the devil itself, in all its forms. The guitar roll that’s propelled this vision forward keeps going after the words end, pushing onward to what might be, what could be, and not only asking us but making us want to follow its lead. 

Lizzie No's Website

Monday, April 15, 2024

So You Can Live In A Better World: The New One from Sarah Langan


The title of Sarah Langan’s A Better World appropriately comes from one of the many difficult conversations that take place between protagonist Linda Farmer and her husband, son, and daughter. She’s a thoughtful parent with a difficult past, and she reaches at the absolute limits of her understanding to communicate with the others in her family. In her daughter Josie’s uncharacteristically clean bedroom, Linda struggles to find out what’s going on with her child, and Josie says, “You don’t see me.”

This conversation ends with some ugly “Fuck yous!”

But it leads to the truth. Linda later admits, “When you’re living a thing sometimes you’re too close to know.”

And mother and daughter—eventually as well as son/brother and husband/father— all get to the truth. The truth doesn’t set them free, but it brings them closer together, and in that position, they are able to work their way to hope.

Yes, A Better World is a first-rate dystopian thriller. The speculative world feels right. Rather than the jack-booted thuggery of 20th Century fascism, we have decadent capitalism surviving far past its viability. A world where democracy exists as a series of ragtag fiefdoms that, at their best, pale in comparison to the company towns created by individual corporate autocrats.

In fact, the world of A Better World feels almost exactly like the world we live in now, its satire rooted in our own excesses. The ActHollow organizing committee that stands apart from the town and boldly runs town society as well as crucial infrastructure would make familiar television—The Real Housewives of Plymouth Valley. The absurdity of the town mascot is, in the best magic realist sense, believably ironic—a genetically engineered low-carbon-footprint, no-hormone-fattening bird called the Caladrius, after the mythical Roman beast that eats sickness and restores health to humanity.

Except think instead of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” the story of a diseased, disappointing creature that no one can believe is an angel. Langan’s Caladrius is a fat, dirty, and uncoordinated chicken, a little like a blind, arthritic, and infertile transgenic pig. Langan’s world has trillionaires while most live in poverty; our world anticipates the first trillionaire in a decade while 5 billion people have become poorer since Langan’s last book.

In that book, Good Neighbors, Langan distinguished herself by not only writing riveting speculative fiction, but by focusing on carefully nuanced families in the foreground, getting at class bias in a society that pretends it doesn’t exist. In Langan’s latest argument, the family dynamics make a globally urgent and necessary case. It’s no stretch to say A Better World suggests the fate of the planet depends on the hard work we do in our most intimate and crucial relationships. The level of truth we hope to find in those places holds the key to saving the world.

And if we’re honest, we know this is the key we’re looking for in even the most casual conversations in America 2024.

Linda Farmer admits it’s hard to see the truth of the big picture when you are living through it, but her story shows us why we must try. For that reason, and many more (including the pleasure I had tearing through this book despite a very rough chapter in my own personal history), A Better World makes a case for the value of speculative fiction by answering the pain of the real world we live in today with uncommon heart and soul. Sometime soon, we need to start talking about what’s happening around us with the same kind of unbridled honesty Josie Farmer demands from her mother. A Better World can help. At the least, it only helps.

Sarah Langan reads at Village Well books, courtesy Chris L. Terry

Reviews of Langan's previous books: 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Kansas City Fights for Home: From Rural Grit to RecordBar to City Hall and Back to the Brick

The Living Breathing Folk Song Last Monday

"If I had to start my business over, I wouldn't do it. There's a big difference between building a business and making a home”—Peregrine Honig, owner of Birdie’s, at the recordBar “Know Show”

Honig at RecordBar Know Show

In a March 4th social media post, Kansas City’s great guitarist/vocalist/support player and all-around instigator Cody Wyoming, wrote these words:

 "Here’s the big downer.

 “I am astonished at how little value is placed on what is essentially my life’s work. Being a local musician, I am not unaccustomed to being undervalued. I’m no stranger to dismissal and disrespect. But even in this day and age, when Live, local music, is already an endangered species; I find myself aghast at how lowly and dismissively that the majority of the population views my 'life’s work' not mine specifically. All of it. Everybody who does what I do. People have no regard for what we do. We are not 'essential.' We are not important. And we are not worthy of consideration."

Kadesh Flow at Know Show

In the entire post, but particularly in these words, Cody has captured where we are at this point--in our world, in our country, in our everyday life. What matters about life is not valued. It doesn't matter against the need to make the next big buck, particularly as the capitalist system falls apart.

 You know, there was a time (1776) when “Father of Capitalism” Adam Smith saw the potential of the system to liberate organized workers. Smith before Marx made it clear the workers had to collectivize because the owners (Masters, as he called them) would always push wages down. Of course, the first country based on this system immediately employed slavery for 80 years until the industrial economy won out. Then, it fought unions the whole way. Now that our technology has reached a point where the value of labor itself is trending toward zero, the owners are organizing in new ways, with speculations like that so well documented by John Sherman’s ‘Royal Request." 

The Filmmakers, Wednesday

I have included that video and seven others documenting the activity this week here: "John Sherman's 'Royal' Request"

This is why Rural Grit, the Record Bar, and a host of musicians--too numerous and from such diverse genres I cannot begin to try to sum it all up--are joining forces with KC Tenants, the Missouri Workers Center, Standup KC, and other groups fighting for basic rights and opposing the ridiculous lies currently being spewed by the billionaire class to turn downtown KC into nothing more than a series of interconnected amusement parks.


What's been happening at the The Brick the past few weeks has been even more amazing than what happens at the Brick all the time anyway. People are coming together to maintain that scrap of humanity that exists between the 1400 block of Grand and McGee and 20th Street, a place we have been proud of as the Crossroads Arts District, even the ground where Hemingway once pledged he learned most of what he needed to learn writing for the Kansas City Star. 

Nora Bell with her own, great "Vote No" song

The world is trying to move on to a place where billionaires can make their last cash grab before the system entirely collapses and the average person has no say in the future. From Artificial Intelligence to the richest of the rich planning their escape to Mars, we do realize this is the juncture in front of us, don't we? We've seen this coming a long time.

 Are we ready to fight for our quality of life?

 People may think this is simply a stadium question, but I would argue it's much more than that.

 It's about whether we believe people matter. As Cody says, "our life's work" is at stake.


That’s all of us who don’t have the money to push others around. That’s most of us in a world where a January Oxfam report stated, since 2020, “The world’s five richest men have more than doubled their fortunes…while the wealth of the poorest 60 per cent - almost five billion people - has fallen.”

 It’s not hard to see where our real interests lie—with each other, with our artists, our fellow tenants, and our fellow workers who can be outspent but who have numbers on our side.

 And we have our art. The Rural Grit Happy Hour moved its party to Kansas City’s premier music venue recordBar on Wednesday night and packed the house with four hours of short sets of everything from Indian instrumental music to hip hop to folk to rock to hardcore punk.  

Steddy P Rocks the "Hell No" Show

Everyone got off on each other’s music and perspective. I’ve never seen this city come together the way it did that night.

 And something even bigger is happening tomorrow, April 1st.

 In the words of the organizers:





 Rural Grit announces a community rally for all Jackson County residents and friends of East Crossroads to tell voters to VOTE NO! ON APRIL 2!!

 Assemble by 4:00 PM on Apr. 1st at Ilus Davis Park in front of City Hall. Musicians will be singing and playing and encouraging our entire community to sing with us.

 At 4:55 P.M. our Rural Grit All-Stars will lead us in singing and chanting our fight song: "Keep Singing In The Crossroads"

Royals go home!!

Keep singing in the Crossroads!

Royals go home!!

 Following the rally we will march to The Brick, 1727 McGee, for the final Rural Grit Happy Hour VOTE NO! SHOW.


This is no small thing. In some ways, it's everything. That's what I know when I see the best of us fighting together. I hope to see you tomorrow. DA




Monday, February 26, 2024

What Really Matters: Folk Alliance 2024, Day 4


Crys Matthews Sings Lead Belly

I first attended Folk Alliance International in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1998. Back then, I worked with the monthly newsletter, Rock & Rap Confidential, and we published stories dealing with some aspect of each Folk Alliance (at least two of these made it into the recent Dave Marsh anthology, Kick Out the Jams, Simon & Shuster 2023). Since 2014, I’ve decided to blog about each Folk Alliance in my current home, Kansas City.

This was that first post: https://takeemastheycome.blogspot.com/2014_02_23_archive.html

This is a link to the Marsh book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Kick-Out-the-Jams/Dave-Marsh/9781982197162

As this year’s conference moved toward its wondrous Saturday night finish, I found myself thinking about why Folk Alliance International motivates my music writing. Though I sometimes write about the artists through other media, the desire and freedom to do this reporting the way I want to do it has kept my blog alive much longer than it would have lasted otherwise.

To risk the pretense of a poetic term, it’s such a wonderful exercise in synecdoche, what I try to do with this conference. I’m not at all trying to “cover” it. I’m parsing the often blinding light of an iceberg’s tip to suggest the much greater complexities under the surface. For me, that’s one piece of what writing about music is all about. It's not so much "dancing about architecture" as exploring how to respond to one of the most powerful ways human beings express themselves while building new communities. 

And that mission is both deeply personal and political. I don’t necessarily mean that "political" the way people in America are likely to hear it. Central to the power of Folk Alliance itself is the notion that the spiritual energy of the people—the soul power if that makes sense—is an inherently political force. It erupts out of oppression (and its close kin, repression) and finds ways to give voice to the multitudes of experiences that complicate our understanding of reality. For all of its no doubt hard fought history, one of the signs of the Folk Alliance’s success is the way it has nurtured what a group of friends of mine once tried to define as the “pop impulse,” ways to open the doors wider on a culture and, in the process, create possibilities for changing the world.

You can take any piece of a day like this past Saturday and illustrate the point. 

Alvin Singh and Anna Canoni Invite Discussion

Saturday afternoon, the movie made by director Curt Hahn and co-producer Alvin Singh, Lead Belly: The Man Who Invented Rock & Roll, showed the complexities of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s story and career. While celebrating Ledbetter’s music, the documentary also detailed the artist’s exploitation by folk preservationist promoters and even the fans who developed the English skiffle music that would lead to The Beatles and a broader audience for Lead Belly’s songs and sensibility. The film showing brought together the peers and descendants of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie with young artists and activists pondering how to reckon with this history as we move forward. Everything that happened over the 16 years it took to make that film, and everything that comes out of that packed banquet room Saturday is key to the meaning of Folk Alliance.

Crys Matthews, pictured above from the tribute, can be found here: https://www.crysmatthews.com/

And you’ll want to see this movie, available here: http://houseofleadbelly.com

Saturday evening, “Kansas City’s own,” Kelly Hunt played her public showcase at the Washington Park Place room near the Westin Crown Center entrance. This was one of half a dozen showcases Hunt played. Thursday night, she was introduced in the Women of Note room by Aoife Scott, who told her a friend from Lawrence called Hunt “our own.” That’s part of what Hunt has accomplished over the last several years, first playing open mics in Kansas City and building a circuit that takes her across the country (she is currently on her “Snowbird Tour”) and back to her new home in New Orleans. She played half a dozen songs (only one yet recorded) in the Women of Note Room, introducing herself to the organizers of Dublin’s TradFest and others from all over the world who come to share songs and stories in that space.

Day, Heaney, Hunt, and Morris

Hunt’s Saturday night showcase featured four hit-single-size cuts from her new album Ozark Symphony as well as yet more unrecorded material, including a Cajun reel I will call “Brown-Eyed Betty” and a duet with her musical co-conspirator Stas` Heaney on the Celtic-flavored stunner I’ll call “Homecoming.” Hunt and Heaney were joined by Kansas City’s Andrew Morris on mandolin and Brandon Day on bass. It was a terrific ensemble, allowing Hunt to go quiet with a lonesome “out here on my own” one moment then erupt with assured grandeur on songs like “Ozark Symphony” and a rocking tribute to her true hometown, “Take Me Back to Memphis.”

All the artists on that stage who helped Hunt hone her craft, all those songs she writes, and that great swath of America Hunt's calling home--from this prairie setting to her Delta roots to the Gulf, all that we can learn from such work, lies at the surface and extends to the depths of what Folk Alliance is about.

I wrote more about this new album here: https://bridge909.org/news/kelly-hunt-ozark-symphony

Hunt’s website: https://www.kellyhuntmusic.com/

Spicer, Don Teschner, Tom Felicetta, Mike Younger

Though I only caught two songs of an Amilia K Spicer set, the eerie power of one song’s night driving rock followed by another raucous enough to answer its own question— “What’s the skinny in this shimmy”—told me I need to check out her new album Wow and Flutter. https://www.amiliakspicer.com/music

The camaraderie in that room kept us around for Arielle Silver’s stately set, culminating in some questions and some conclusions about “What Really Matters.” This song and this moment inspired my whole approach to thinking about this last night of the conference. Silver’s music is here: https://www.ariellesilver.com/

Arielle Silver

What really matters about Folk Alliance takes place in some room every minute of every moment the conference takes place, The dialogue between Aoife Scott, Lady Nade, Laytha, and Alana Wilkinson in the Women of Note Room constantly suggested different aspects of what really matters—the search for justice in Scott’s “The Growing Years,” the importance of belonging in Nade’s “Willingly,” the common ground between generations in Laytha’s “Daughter,” and the importance of “Being Me” in Australian Alana Wilkinson’s song of that title.





Scott, Nade, Laytha, Wilkinson

Next up, songs about the vagaries of relationships, heartbreaks, celebrations, and causes for protest mattered deeply in Barbra Lica’s hilarious and heartfelt set. Just as important was the cinematic scope of Lica’s small band—Lica's sharp vocals and keys, Will Fisher's understated but effective drums, and Tom Fleming's funk licks and blues guitar solos all coming from his unassuming little, brown acoustic.

More from Lica here: https://barbralicamusic.com/

Barbra Lica

And what mattered as we moved into the wee hours of the morning was celebration of the kaleidoscope of interlocking talent that had joined forces over the course of the past four days. The power of Canadian Innu artist Shauit and his hard rocking band that leapt naturally from reggae to hip hop had room 534 jumping at 2:00 in the morning. An eight-piece crew called Moneka Arabic Jazz followed, and a party that didn’t seem like it could be further cranked sprung to yet another plane of giddy joy. Such magic and celebration, too, is what really matters at Folk Alliance.  




Moneka Afro Jazz









The Pitch’s Nick Spacek hit many different shows and told many different stories, all important to get a sense of the whole. These can be found here: https://www.thepitchkc.com/author/nick-spacek/