2020: Halftime Report

Best New Albums and Best Reissues


Time moves in strange ways in 2020, as we all know. Having days, hours, weeks and months expand and contract at will is surely a byproduct of living through a pandemic, and because of this elasticity, it can be harder to assess what's happened over the last six months. Still, it's an interesting exercise, perhaps even a useful one: with the world spinning so fast, it's easy to miss things so hopefully, you'll find a new album or two to explore here.

I know I have missed many records in 2020 already. Listening time has been at a premium in a way it never has been during my adult life, so I've had to prioritize due to work, taste, and mood. (I haven't been able to get through or to Perfume Genius, Jehnny Beth, or Maria McKee due to the latter.) Additionally, this limited listening time has meant that I've spent more time with old favorites than perhaps I would've had otherwise but, then again, there is a lot to explore on the Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Malkmus albums.

On the other end of the spectrum, it does seem as if the reissue release schedule is slowing down, a situation not helped by the pandemic throwing the physical marketplace into turmoil. Still, there have been some terrific archival work happening, including excavated unreleased albums by Bobby Bare and Neil Young. Additionally, I would offer a blanket recommendation for any compilation from Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs: they do tremendous work in documenting lost yet vital eras and styles. 

Standard disclaimer: albums are arranged in loose order of preference, a ranking that's bound to change by the end of the year. All of the following are records I like enough to spin a second time this year, possibly even more than that. 

New Albums

  1. Fiona Apple—Fetch The Bolt Cutters

  2. Bob Dylan—Rough And Rowdy Ways

  3. Stephen Malkmus—Traditional Techniques

  4. Soccer Mommy—Color Theory

  5. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit—Reunions

  6. Phoebe Bridgers—Punisher

  7. The Strokes—The New Abnormal

  8. Brandy Clark—Your Life Is A Record

  9. Lilly Hiatt—Walking Proof

  10. Waxahatchee—Saint Cloud

  11. HAIM—Women In Music, Pt. III

  12. Mike & The Moonpies—Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart

  13. X—Alphabetland

  14. Kip Moore—Wild World

  15. Whitney Rose—We Still Go To Rodeos

  16. Caroline Rose—Superstar

  17. Ashley McBryde—Never Will

  18. Carly Rae Jepsen—Dedicated Side B

  19. Kelsea Ballerini—Kelsea

  20. Mandy Moore—Silver Landings

  21. Charli XCX—How I’m Feeling Now

  22. Puss N Boots—Sister

  23. Norah Jones—Pick Me Up Off The Floor

  24. John Anderson—Years

  25. Hot Country Knights—The “K” Is Silent

  26. Dua Lipa—Future Nostalgia

  27. Hayley Williams—Petals for Armor

  28. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers—Hold My Beer, Part 2

  29. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead—X: The Godless Void And Other Stories

  30. Lady Gaga—Chromatica

  31. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever—Sideways To New Italy

  32. Sam Hunt—Southside

  33. Brendan Benson—Dear Life

  34. Jessie Ware—What’s Your Pleasure?

  35. Pam Tillis—Looking for a Feeling

  36. Frances Quinlan—Likewise

  37. Torres—Silver Tongue

  38. Run the Jewels—RTJ4

  39. Pearl Jam—Gigaton

  40. Paul Weller—On Sunset

  41. Kenny Chesney—Here And Now

  42. Luke Haines & Peter Buck—Beat Poetry for Survivalists

  43. Drive-By Truckers—The Unraveling

  44. The Cadillac Three—Country Fuzz

  45. Huey Lewis & The News—Weather

  46. Tim Burgess—I Love the New Sky

  47. Tenille Townes—The Lemonade Stand

  48. Butch Walker—American Love Story

  49. Marcus King—El Dorado

  50. Little Big Town—Nightfall

  51. Willie Nelson—First Rose Of Spring

  52. Corb Lund—Agricultural Tragic

  53. Margo Price—Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman

  54. M Ward—Migration Stories

  55. Early James—Singing For My Supper

  56. Niall Horan—Heartbreak Weather

  57. Selena Gomez—Rare

  58. Gone West—Canyons

  59. Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real—Naked Garden

  60. Ben Watt—Storm Damage

  61. The Claudettes—High Times in the Dark

  62. Watkins Family Hour—Brother Sister

  63. Aoife Nessa Frances—Land of No Junction

  64. The Cadillac Three—Country Fuzz

  65. Carly Pearce—Carly Pearce

  66. Swamp Dogg—Sorry You Couldn’t Make It

  67. Algiers—There Is No Year

  68. Pet Shop Boys—Hotspot

  69. Kesha—High Road

  70. Ingrid Andress—Lady Like

  71. Maddie & Tae—The Way It Feels

  72. Hinds—The Prettiest Curse

  73. Built to Spill—Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston

  74. Lucinda Williams—Good Souls Better Angels

  75. The Howling Hex—Knuckleball Express

  76. Della Mae—Headlight

  77. Secret Sisters—Saturn Return

  78. Shelby Lynne—Shelby Lynne

  79. Black Lips—Sing in a World That's Falling Apart

  80. Ray LaMontagne—MonoVision

  81. Courtney Barnett—MTV Unplugged: Live In Melbourne

  82. Liam Gallagher—MTV Unplugged

  83. The 1975—Notes on a Conditional Form

Reissues

  1. Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs Present Occasional Rain [Ace]

  2. Tea & Symphony: The English Baroque Sound 1968-1974 [Ace]

  3. Supergrass—The Strange Ones 1994-2008

  4. Bobby Bare—Great American Saturday Night

  5. Neil Young—Homegrown

  6. Iron City Houserockers—Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive (40th Anniversary)

  7. Kursaal Flyers—Little Does She Know: The Complete Recordings [RPM]

  8. Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs Present The Tears Of Technology [Ace]

  9. Cream—Goodbye Tour Live 1968

  10. Mojo Nixon—The Mojo Manifesto: The Original Album Collection

  11. The Everly Brothers—Down In The Bottom: The Country Rock Sessions 1966-1968 [Cherry Red]

  12. Grateful Dead—June 1976

  13. Sam Cooke—The Complete Keen Years 1957-1960

  14. Andrew Gold—Something New: Unreleased Gold

  15. The Shoes—Elektrafied: The Elektra Albums 1979-1982 [Cherry Red]

  16. Johnny Cash—The Complete Mercury Recordings

  17. Stone Crush: Memphis Modern Soul 1977-1987 [Light in the Attic]

  18. The Honeycombs—Have I The Right: The Complete 60s Albums & Singles [RPM]

  19. Game Theory—Across The Barrier Of Sound: PostScript

  20. Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel  [Ace]

  21. Duke Ellington—Money Jungle [Blue Note Tone Poet]

  22. Elton John—Live from Moscow 1979

  23. Kraut! Teil 1 Der Norden [Bear Family]

  24. Def Leppard—The Early Years 79-81 

  25. John Lee Hooker—Documenting the Sensation Recordings 1948-1952 [Ace]

  26. The Coasters—Rocks [Bear Family]

  27. Destination Lust—The World Of Love, Sex And Violence: 32 Erotic Fantasies From The Vault [Bear Family]

  28. Destination Health: Doc Feelgood’s Rock Therapy, 30 Bop Pills for Your Recovery [Bear Family]

  29. Iggy Pop—The Bowie Years

  30. Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks—Orange Crate Art: 25th Anniversary Edition

  31. Herbie Hancock—The Prisoner [Blue Note Tone Poet]

  32. Laura Branigan—Self Control (Expanded) [Cherry Red]

  33. Grant Green—Nigeria [Blue Note Tone Poet]

  34. The Grateful Dead—Workingman’s Dead: The Angel’s Share

  35. The Stooges—The Stooges (John Cale Mix) [Vinyl Me Please]

  36. David Bowie—ChangesNowBowie

  37. David Bowie—Ouvrez Le Chien (Live in Dallas 95)

  38. The Staple Singers—Come Go With Me: The Stax Collection

  39. Big Joe Turner—The Complete Boss Of The Blues [Bear Family]

  40. Rush—Permanent Waves [40th Anniversary]

  41. Bobby Hatfield—Stay With Me: The Richard Perry Sessions

  42. Hank Williams—Pictures from Life’s Other Side

  43. Prince—Up All Nite With Prince: The One Nite Alone Collection

Bob Dylan's Rough And Rowdy Ways

It's the kind of record you make when you've outlived your life by far

"I already outlived my life by far," sings Bob Dylan on "Mother Of Muses," one of the slowest and sweetest songs on Rough And Rowdy Ways, his 39th studio album. Who can say where Dylan believes his extra innings began? Possibly it's 1997, the year he released Time Out Of Mind after recovering from a near-fatal heart infection, or possibly it's when he walked away from a nasty motorcycle accident in 1966, or maybe it's something less dramatic that's been tucked away from public view. The precise inspiration for this line doesn't matter as much as what it means: Dylan knows that he's been around a long, long time, continuing to write and sing songs for decades after his legacy was readily apparent. 

Dylan occasionally nods to his outsized reputation on Rough And Rowdy Ways—the heavy blues "False Prophet" is a sideways glance at Pope Benedict XVI, who considered the singer/songwriter a "so-called prophet"—but he never seems burdened by his history. He is, however, quite comfortable living in the past, settling into musical styles that were old-fashioned when he released his first album back in 1962 and ruminating about people and places that once were. As the years pile up, memories intermingle, or as Dylan sings on the album's opening cut "I Contain Multitudes," "everything is flowing all at the same time." 

Overlapping eras and events could reflect the rhythms of the mind at an advancing age but it also echoes these modern times, where everything is new again and nothing ever fades away. Dylan conveys this constant churn through a procession of allusions, a trick he unveiled on the lengthy, lugubrious "Murder Most Foul" where John F Kennedy's assassination becomes a portal to the twentieth century. Snatches of recited lyrics, borrowed movie dialogue, song titles, and celebrities intertwine with JFK iconography, each successive line spinning into the next so it seems as if the song could last as long as the 20th Century itself.

A few other songs on Rough And Rowdy Ways vibrate with similar dream logic, a technique Dylan calls "trance writing" in his recent New York Times interview with Douglas Brinkley, but even these numbers are filled with concrete images and names pulled from a shared cultural subconscious. There's no tricksterism here but there also is no shortage of humor, with Dylan spinning off bawdy jokes, puns, and cornball quips. When these jibes are threaded into "Murder Most Foul" the effect can be surreal and disorienting but they have a mitigating effect on whatever meditation on mortality Dylan might offer, shining a bit of light into shady corners. 

Death creeps along the edges of Rough And Rowdy Ways but it never haunts its bones the way it did on Time Out Of Mind. The finite nature of existence is merely acknowledged as a simple fact, something to be battled, baited, and eventually accepted. Part of that acceptance is Dylan embracing his age, finding a way to sing with a voice diminished by smoke and persistent use. Recitations are a key weapon in his arsenal but the years he spent singing standards popularized by Frank Sinatra taught Dylan how to play with his phrasing, so he can sound tender even when murmuring intentional absurdities. As he spins through his Rolodex of memories and pop culture touchstones, he doesn't so much as nod to anything that happened in the past quarter-century or maybe even past 1975. He has little interest in rock & roll or folk, preferring to pound out blues and croon against a piano plinking away during the twilight hours of a dingy saloon. It's a hybrid that's old-fashioned in its sound but not in its sensibility. 

Reviving or outright reworking vintage tunes and tropes has been Dylan's stock in trade since the start and, if anything, he's gotten more brazen as he's gotten older. Witness "False Prophet," which NPR's Tom Moon rightly notes is lifted from "If Lovin' Is Believing," a 1954 side from Sun Records blues artist Billy "The Kid" Emerson. Dylan's theft is brazen but only evident to others who have spent as much time listening to old records as he has. That time isn't only heard, it's felt within how he appropriates, twists and reinvents traditional forms, giving plenty of space for his band to follow his shifts in styles and mood. Rough And Rowdy Ways was largely recorded with the band who has followed him through the trenches of the Never Ending Tour, so they're accustomed to his fondness for gutbucket grooves and delicate ballads, knowing they'll have space within the grooves and between the verses to add heft. Some guests wandered into the studio, including Benmont Tench, Blake Mills and Fiona Apple, but they're there for color; indeed, it's hard to discern precisely where each musician cameos. 

The band plays with ease and earthiness, the casual tone countering the evident care Dylan crafting the album, a combination that keeps Rough And Rowdy Ways lively even at its slowest and softest moments. Much of this freshness can be credited to how spry Dylan sounds. He savors his own words, relishing the opportunity to deliver punchlines both sublime and ridiculous, sharpening his attack on the flinty "Black Rider" yet succumbing to the ebb and flow "Key West (Philosopher Pirate)" and allowing himself a moment of elegance on "I've Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You," the lone song that appears to be written in response to his Sinatra tributes. The romantic ballad is an outlier in its sweet intentions but it, like the rest of the album, it's designed to be played in the wee small hours of the evening, when moods range from ruminative to reflective. 

Rough And Rowdy Ways is ideally suited for the after hours, just after all the sensible folks have headed to bed, and perhaps that's appropriate for an album made at the twilight of Dylan's career. Time hasn't yet run out for Dylan but the darkness of the hour suggests the end is near, but instead of dwelling upon the impending final bow, he's just rolling on, cracking jokes and sighing to himself about times that used to be. It's not a farewell. It's the kind of record you make when you've already outlived your life by far.

Lady Antebellum Runs Away From The Confederacy

The trio of Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood released their first album in 2008, just a matter of months before the United States of America elected Barack Obama to be its forty-fourth president. Back then, Obama's ascension to the presidency was hailed as proof that the United States had become a "post-racial society," a notion that seems quaint in 2020, when the social rights movement Black Lives Matter reached a boiling part after simmering on the back burner during the first years of the Donald Trump administration. The civil protests of June 2020 prompted Scott, Kelley, and Haywood to change the name of their band, shortening Lady Antebellum to Lady A. 

Personal growth often contains some measure of discomfort and there was no shortage of uneasiness within Scott, Kelley, and Haywood's decision to rename their band. The trio's public letter of June 11, 2020 announced the removal of "antebellum" from the group's name, claiming the band was "regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word." Within 24 hours, the embarrassment compounded when Rolling Stone published a report about how the Seattle-based blues singer Anita White, who has been performing under the name Lady A for over two decades, was not contacted by the country trio about their desire to use her name as their own.

All of the trio's moniker troubles inevitably raises the question of why the group named themselves Lady Antebellum in the first place. Did they gain anything from naming themselves after the period of Southern history associated with slavery? Did "Antebellum" reflect any emotional or thematic undercurrent within the trio's music? Was it simply a dog whistle to an audience who usually responds to the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag? 

Lady Antebellum's official line always stated that the name carried no particular import. To hear Dave Haywood tell it to NPR's Scott Simon in 2011, the band "actually didn't mean anything" by naming themselves after the Antebellum south. "It just feels kind of country and nostalgic and we thought that it had a unique sound to it. It had a lady in the group, obviously, and threw Lady in the front of it for no reason." For a name that meant nothing, the group needed to explain what that nothing meant quite a bit. Last year, Billboard published Annie Reuter's oral history of the band's 2009 smash "Need You Now," wherein former Lady Antebellum publicist Mary Hilliard Harrington claimed "That entire first album cycle had been about explaining who Lady A was, because there wasn a little confusion. First of all, they have a really strange name...I mean, no one knew what a Lady Antebellum was." DJ Bobby Bones underscores this reasoning by claiming "I thought it was a weird name. I thought [Hillary's] name was Antebellum, and so I met them not knowing the song yet." 

Let's take all of these arguments at face value. Given contemporary textbook standards, It's possible that nobody involved with Lady Antebellum was taught the term the Antebellum South in school, although it's difficult to imagine that they never received instruction about the Civil War. As all three members of Lady A were born below the Mason Dixon line (as was Bobby Bones), it's a bit hard to believe that they hadn't heard about the Antebellum South even if they weren't taught about it in class, but let's suppose that's exactly what happened. Let's surmise that the group themselves didn't grasp the import of their name. That, in turn, means that nobody on Lady Antebellum's team and nobody at Capitol Nashville bothered to do a quick internet search on the meaning of the band's name prior to investing untold time and money in launching the band in the late 2000s, a situation that beggars belief.

A scenario that doesn't strain credulity is that everybody involved in the launch of Lady A's career decided that the name Lady Antebellum wasn't all that bad. It is more than likely that the name was even seen as a way to attract a certain portion of the country audience, one who considered Antebellum as the grand, stately flip side of the rebellious Confederacy. After all, there is a long tradition within country and rock & roll of artists flirting with the Lost Cause. Lynyrd Skynyrd's iconography was built upon the Stars and Bars, which featured prominently on their album covers, tours and T-shirts from 1974 until 2012, when the surviving members decided it was time to retire the image. Skynyrd's adoption of the Confederate Battle Flag as a banner of their own rebellion spread throughout pop culture in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the hit comedy-adventure television series The Dukes Of Hazzard where the titular heroes drove a Dodge Charger emblazoned with the Confederate flag (as if to underscore the Dukes's lineage, their car just so happened to be called the General Lee).

The Dukes of Hazzard debuted in 1979 and stayed on the air until 1985, the same year that Tom Petty plastered the Stars and Bars on his stage as he supported his Southern Accents album. Decades later, Petty apologized for flying the flag, saying "The Confederate flag was the wallpaper of the South when I was a kid growing up in Gainesville, Florida. I always knew it had to do with the Civil War, but the South had adopted it as its log. I was pretty ignorant of what it actually meant...I wish I had given it more thought. It was a downright stupid thing to do." Petty performed in front of the flag because it connotes rebellion, the kind of ornery spirit driving the characters on Southern Accents, particularly the narrator of "Rebels." Petty may have recanted his flirtation with the Confederacy but scores of other musicians embraced it in his stead. Georgian country-rockers Confederate Railroad formed in 1987 and kept on rolling without too much controversy until recently when their very name caused an uproar. Confederate Railroad leader Danny Shirley stuck to his guns, refusing to change their name but unlike Lady A, they're an oldies act in 2020; the gigs they lost were at county fairs. Then again, county fairs are also one of the last places where Kid Rock could be heard attempting to get the crowd riled up over Colin Kaepernick's protests, and there is no other musician in the 21st Century who has made it a point to drape himself in the Stars and Bars than Bob Ritchie. 

Unlike Lady A, Kid Rock had no roots in the south. He's a rich kid from the Detroit suburbs who embraced the Confederate flag as a sign of rebellion then wrapped it tighter when it became clear that his listeners were dyed-in-the-wool old rockers and right wingers, not Gen-Xers raised on hip-hop. It's an audience that has some superficial crossover with the contemporary country fans who form the core of Lady A's base but throughout their career they've purposely played it safe, opting for anodyne, soothing melodies that would sound at home on adult contemporary as country radio. "Need You Now" gave them that coveted crossover success in 2009 and once they racked up the sales and Grammys, they didn't change their formula, they only accentuated it with some fresh flair. Risk and rebellion never factored into either their art or business; they aimed for the middle of the road and once they got there, they flipped on the cruise control. 

Lady A's inherent musical caution makes the recklessness of the Lady Antebellum name all the stranger. Throughout modern pop, rock and country history, any association with the Antebellum South arrived mainly through codifying the Confederacy as rebellion. Indeed, until Lady Antebellum's debut in the late 2000s, the word "Antebellum" was vanishingly rare in popular music, almost never used in album or song titles and never surfacing in a band name. By dubbing themselves Lady Antebellum, the trio was staking a claim, not precisely for the Confederate States of America but an imagined version of the American South, one conjured through romanticized movies, old tunes, plantation tours, and traditions repeated so often their roots become hazy. It's a fantasy of the South, one that is common throughout American culture, one that doesn't take into the account such unpleasantness as slavery, rebellion and secession.

Over the first decade and a half of their career, Lady A acted as if "Antebellum" was just a picturesque word, one that evoked the grand traditions of the South and nothing else. To the group's credit, the scales finally fell from their eyes this past month; perhaps they handled it clumsily, but their public statement seemed sincere and they were working to reach an accord with the blues singer Lady A, hoping to create an agreement that allowed both to perform under that moniker. Nevertheless, it's hard to shake the notion that somebody in the band or within their orbit should've realized long ago the name Lady Antebellum was inappropriate. The very rarity of "Antebellum" within modern pop discourse should've sparked some soul-searching within their organization and label if not the group themselves but that discussion would've led their entire enterprise to some uncomfortable conclusions. And it's also not like the group's name escaped criticism at the time. Music journalist and critic Rob Tannenbaum remembered how he Tweeted jabs at the band's name during the 2011 Grammys, a move which brought him an email from Lady Antebellum's record label publicist claiming she was "sorely disappointed" in the Tweets—an action that confirms at least one person within the band's team was keenly aware that their name was objectionable.

When reckoning with Lady A's evolution, these incidents of massaging the message and their repeated rehearsed ignorance hang in the air. Each occurrence suggests that somewhere within the trio's organization there was somebody who understood that choosing to name the trio Lady Antebellum was wrong and that they should offer a tacit apology. This past week, they've made the right steps forward but it will take much longer to fully repent for playing footsie with the Confederacy.

Wind Of Change: Scorpions Overshadowed By the CIA

The eight-part podcast is heavy on cold war intrigue, light on music.

Did the CIA write "Wind of Change" for Scorpions? It's a question so simple, so tantalizing it's a wonder that it hasn't been explored prior to Wind Of Change, the eight-part podcast by Pineapple Street Studios and Crooked Media that debuted on Spotify this past month. 

It's such an enticing scenario, I wondered why I had never heard of this rumor prior to the podcast. "Wind of Change" climbed to number four on the Billboard charts in the summer of 1991, a year when I was paying attention to every trend in modern rock and pop. While I could never call myself a Scorpions fan, I had been aware of the group for years, ever since "Rock You Like A Hurricane" rammed its way into the Top 40 in 1984, a placement assisted by heavy play on MTV. Like all metal bands, Scorpions experienced a nosedive in popularity in the early 1990s, falling prey to the shifting winds of fashion, but they never went away, maintaining enough of a presence to still be featured in metal, classic rock and metal magazines for years. All of this combined with my voracious music press reading habits make me think that gossip of Scorpions doubling as secret agents would've wound its way to my ears at some point in the last thirty years, but it just didn't.

I'm not the only one who didn't hear this CIA rumor. I asked my Facebook feed whether they'd heard it and the vast majority had not. Among this group included several music journalists and critics who shared my belief that the would've heard about the deep state writing the Scorpions' biggest hit. Several other posters had heard the story before. Among these ranks were residents of Washington DC and metalheads, which pretty much represents the Venn Diagram for this particular story.

Discovering that some friends and acquaintances were familiar with the "Wind of Change" rumor helped dispel my first reaction to the Wind Of Change podcast: that investigative Patrick Radden Keefe invented the story. Keefe is too respected a reporter to put his reputation at risk by simply making things up but the ingenious thing about Wind Of Change is, it's a story that can't be proven or refuted, only explored. That ambiguity makes it an ideal vehicle for a leisurely podcast, where each episode rambles down a detour designed to bolster the circumstantial evidence supporting Keefe's thesis. There's an episode dedicated to CIA's cultural operations during the cold war, an episode about "The KGB Rock Club," a stretch detailing the procedure for getting FOIA requests from the CIA, a segment spotlighting rock manager Doc McGhee and, finally, an interview with Klaus Meine, the Scorpions lead singer who wrote "Wind of Change." Combined, these highways and byways give the impression that Keefe launched the podcast as an opportunity to explore ideas tangentially related to his central theme and fair play to him. The cold war generated more intrigue and espionage than could've been properly documented at the time and "Wind of Change" provides an ideal hook to pull upon a few interesting threads.

Podcasts specialize in digressions and Wind Of Change contains nearly all the deviations endemic to the format: casual conversations, re-enacted exchanges, whispered confidences, archival footage, events staged for the microphone, wild theories best recounted in the hours after midnight. It's a structure pioneered on This American Life and Wind Of Change adheres to this formula so strongly it almost plays like a metacommentary on the format while also feeling reassuring. The twists and wry commentary are expected, the unhurried pace allowing a listener to get accustomed to its lulling rhythms while also suggesting this is a story of import, even if Keefe never comes to a definitive conclusion to his thesis.

As a podcast Wind Of Change is enjoyable, teasing out its narrative carefully and getting considerable mileage out of its diversions. It's a pleasant way to pass time but its agreeableness never quite disguises how casually considers music, which should've been at the core of the podcast. Keefe is an investigative reporter—he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland in 2019, so it stands to reason he's a good one—but he lacks a nuanced musical vocabulary and possesses a superficial understanding of Scorpions' place in the rock firmament. The group and their 1991 hit are called "hooky" and "cheesy," a dreaded descriptor that suggests that the author and audience alike are both superior to their subject. It's not the only place where Keefe is dismissive of his subject. Niteflyte, the Miami soul outfit headed by Howard Johnson, a singer who shares a history with Doc McGhee, is introduced with "Remember Niteflyte? Yeah, me neither."

Perhaps this is a funny aside—it's certainly delivered with an audible grin—but these fleeting slights do add up, suggesting Keefe possesses a tentative grasp on his subject. The very fact that Scorpions decided to shift course and record a power ballad in 1990 is painted as suspicious when there could've been no safer commercial choice for a hard rock band at the dawn of the 1990s than cutting a power ballad. Similarly, the band's decision to part from their longtime producer Dieter Dierks to work with Keith Olsen—an industry titan who worked on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Foreigner's Double Vision and was fresh off Whitesnake's eponymous 1987 blockbuster—in Los Angeles isn't a cover for a covert operation, it's merely good business sense. A lot of hay is made over the fact that singer Klaus Meine wrote "Wind of Change" on his own and while it was his first solo composition, he had writing credits on Scorpions songs since their earliest days and he'd go onto fly solo quite often during the 1990s, facts that undercut the uncertainty allegedly surrounding "Wind of Change." Another area of conjecture is the fact that Scorpions recorded a variation on "Wind of Change" where the lyrics were translated into Russian. The existence of this version is painted as another vehicle for propaganda but releasing variations for different markets was a common practice in the record business, dating back to at least the Beatles, who released German-language singles of "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Scorpions also happened to re-record "Wind of Change" in Spanish, which makes the Russian variation seem less sinister. 

Keefe also seems skeptical of Doc McGhee's assertion that Scorpions had a reputation of being tough, which is absolutely true. Part of their international appeal—and they were indeed a worldwide attraction ever since 1979's Lovedrive, a status they maintain until this day—was that they were German roughnecks, their native country adding a suggestion of steeliness to their metal. Throughout Wind Of Change, their homeland is treated as something provincial, nearly cutesy, when the fact is if Scorpions didn't deliver the goods, they never would've been known outside of continental Europe. For comparison's sake, look at Boris Grebenshikov, a Russian rocker who Columbia attempted to break in the US in 1989. Despite the label's push, American rockers didn't bite at Grebenshikov, nor did they warm to Gorky Park, a Russian hard rock band who released an eponymous album in 1989. (Grebenshikov is mentioned in passing in the context of the "KGB Rock Club" on Wind Of Change, Gorky Park is not mentioned at all.)

Scorpions not only broke out of Germany, they were a staple on the Billboard charts throughout the 1980s. Blackout, Love At First Sting and Savage Amusement all reached the Top 10 between 1982 and 1988, and they had a genuine Top 40 hit in 1984 with "Rock You Like A Hurricane." This success laid the groundwork for "Wind of Change" reaching number four in 1990, a remarkable position that nevertheless may underplay just how big the single was during 1991 when it was a mainstay on MTV. Keefe frames this success in an odd way, suggesting that the song has been nearly forgotten in America whereas it's been no more forgotten than the average chart-topper from 1991. Its lack of recurring play says more about the strictness of classic rock and oldies radio than the song's popularity itself. Besides, the fact that Scorpions are still an active concern, recording and touring to this day, is a testament that the group hasn't been consigned to the dustbin; they may be a relic from another era but they have plenty of competition on that front.

All these years of activity are evident in Keefe's climactic interview with Klaus Meine. The singer gamely recounts the Moscow Music Peace Festival, the 1989 extravaganza that inspired him to write "Wind of Change," and when he's asked about the CIA's potential involvement he's audibly surprised and genuinely delighted to explore this theory. Meine is engaging, warm, and funny, hardly the rube that the previous episodes of the podcast suggested he might be. He seems like somebody thoughtful enough to have written "Wind of Change" while also being responsible for the line "The wind of change/blows straight into the face of time," a line that any ghostwriter would've ironed out of the song. 

With his mild manner and reasonable nature, Meine doesn't so much blow up the reasoning or Wind Of Change but highlights how the whole enterprise is built upon a MacGuffiin. The notion that the CIA authored the hit allows Keefe to wander through the cultural detritus of the Cold War. Much of this is fascinating, particularly when the series veers toward government subterfuge, but the lack of grounding in rock & roll means "Wind of Change" ultimately feels like a footnote to the podcast that bears its name.

RIP Little Richard

Little Richard died this past weekend but his legacy hardened years and years ago. Alone among the surviving original rock & rollers, Little Richard maintained something kind of cultural relevance in the 21st Century, his outrageous persona being known and celebrated even if echoes of his music could no longer be heard on the pop charts. Richard pushed music toward the backburner decades ago but nobody noticed because his stardom eclipsed his origins: he was a loud, vivid presence, the walking definition of rock & roll.

All of his firepower was evident way back in 1957, the year he finally cracked the Billboard Top Ten after hovering on its fringe, his chart placement not reflecting his titanic influence on the nation's music and psyche. “Tutti Frutti,” his 1955 debut for Specialty, didn’t get any further than 17 on Billboard’s Top 40 but it is a seismic event in popular culture, a touchstone for how rock & roll wound up sounding the way it does. The list of classic rockers inspired by Little Richard seems so endless it's dull and reciting the names of his acolytes is weirdly counterproductive. Reducing Little Richard to an "early influence" dilutes his impact and importance. 

"Tutti Frutti" wasn't the first rock & roll single ever recorded nor was it the first to climb up the charts—Chuck Berry got there first—but it was the first to feel as if it was sung by what we now know to be a rock & roll star: wild, furious and lascivious. Nobody else sounded like this back in 1955, not even Little Richard. He'd been grinding away for a while, working at the intersection of jump blues and New Orleans R&B, but his singles for RCA and Peacock were polite, even reserved. The same could be said about his earliest sessions for Specialty, a situation that frustrated the label's chief Bumps Blackwell. A September 1955 session at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studios in New Orleans seemed destined to be another producing nothing of note, so Blackwell called for a break and took Richard to a bar where the pianist blew off steam by pounding out "Tutti Frutti," a bawdy celebration of anal sex he played during downtime at seedy joints. Blackwell realized he had to capture that version of Richard Penniman on record. He hired songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up the lyric but even if Little Richard was no longer explicitly singing about "good booty," his vocal was feral and carnal, so the single sounded dirty and dangerous. It sounded like rock & roll.

Lightning struck once for Little Richard and then it continued to strike over and over again for the better part of two years. That's how long he was at Specialty Records, cutting song after song that started in a frenzy and escalated from there. Variety wasn't Little Richard's strong suit. Of the sixteen charting hits he had in the 1950s only one was a ballad: "Send Me Some Lovin'," the flip side of "Lucille," one of his craziest numbers. Variety is overrated, though. Little Richard found a formula that worked, a sound and image that excited audiences, drawing upon his raising in the church and time on the chiltlin circuit—a period that included him dabbling in performing in drag—to create a persona that seemed otherworldly. He was a Technicolor hurricane in an era painted in drab black & white.

As much as anything, Little Richard's Specialty singles were vehicles for his own whirlwind of personality. With his relentless piano pounding, he seemed to be pushing the tempo, not the drummer—the mighty Earl Palmer adapted his style to keep things on track—and he shouted the words as if the meanings of the words were incidental. Which was true, in a way. Ever since LaBostrie sweetened "Tutti Frutti," Little Richard specialized in nonsense, spitting out gibberish or singing so fast all the words blended together. Maybe the words didn't scan but Little Richard's intent was clear: he found transcendence in earthly pleasures, a deliverance that could be heard and felt through his joyous shriek. 

Each of his big Specialty hits deliver this rapturous jolt. "Long Tall Sally" teems with the delight of getting away with a sordid secret, "Ready Teddy" and "Rip It Up" are both gleeful with the anticipation of good times, "Jenny Jenny" and "Lucille" chase themselves in circles, "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and "The Girl Can't Help It" leer approvingly at women who own their own sexuality and "Keep A Knockin'" is two minutes of pure madness. Decades of repetition, covers, and appropriations haven't diluted the raw power of these sides, because they're all about Little Richard. Plenty of musicians sang his songs well and figured out how to elaborate on the bits they stole, but Little Richard's original performances are so exciting, they're almost exhausting.

Little Richard was built for speed and, appropriately enough, he burned himself out quickly. Plagued by the notion that he was singing the devil's music, he gave up rock & roll just two years after he cut "Tutti Frutti," turning to God and establishing his own ministry. He also attempted to straighten out his queerness, marrying Ernestine Harvin, adopting a son and putting on the airs of a normal life. All this fell apart around 1962, when he was lured by promoter Don Arden to play a headlining tour of Britain, a jaunt where he was treated like a conquering hero. Richard managed to turn this return into a modest comeback, signing with Vee Jay and landing an R&B hit in 1965 with the slow-burning "I Don't Know What You've Got But It's Got Me." At four minutes, it was twice as long as most of his Specialty hits but that was his only concession to changing times; it was a blues he could've sung at his old home. 

Over the next two decades, Little Richard proved himself resistant to change. He'd dabble in a new sound, such as the high-charging post-Motown soul he played on 1967's The Explosive Little Richard, but he'd always return to the rock & roll that made his name. His last big shot at relevance happened in the early 1970s when he signed to Reprise during the heyday of the '50s rock & roll revival. Richard was game to try some funkier, fuzzier sounds and stretch out the title track of 1970's The Rill Thing out to ten minutes, but the fit didn't feel as natural as Chuck Berry playing naughty nursery rhymes for college crowds. After that spell at Reprise, Richard fell into years of abuse and neglect punctuated by religious revivals, finally staging a big comeback in the 1980s with the 1984 publication of Charles White's The Life And Times Of Little Richard: The Authorized Biography. A couple years later, he sang "Great Gosh A'Mighty! (It's A Matter Of Time" for the soundtrack to Paul Mazursky's Down And Out In Beverly Hills, a comedy that also featured him in a starring role. From that point forward, Little Richard figured out how to turn his outrageous persona into something so cozy and comforting, the only logical next move for him was recording a children's album for Disney in 1992.

He may have been omnipresent on talk shows, sitcoms, commercials, and even MTV, where he cameoed in clips by both Living Colour and Cinderella, but sometimes the old fire was still discernable. It could happen in concert but it happened most memorably at the 1988 Grammys, when he hijacked the presentation of Best New Artist to complain that "Y'all ain't never gave me no Grammy and I been singing for years. I am the architect of rock & roll and they never gave me nothing. And I am the originator!" He couldn't call himself the King Of Rock & Roll since Elvis Presley had been dubbed that years ago but Elvis himself covered a ton of Little Richard songs during 1956, the year both artists were at their creative peak. In a way, that says it all. Maybe he didn't outright invent rock & roll, but every rocker who followed him attempted to emulate in some fashion and listening to those immortal Speciality sessions, it's not hard to hear why. No other rock & roll sounded so raw or alive back in the 1950s and now that Little Richard no longer prowls the earth, his spirit can still be felt in that explosive rock & roll.

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