Before I dive into this week's record, a quick note to say thank you to everyone who's subscribed to On the Record. I felt ridiculous starting a newsletter (who on earth would want to read my ravings about life and music?), but over 300 of you have signed up now, and it's growing every week. I see you out there, friends old and new, and I appreciate you.
Now, without further ado, on to the show –
Generally speaking, I don't know what album I'm going to be writing about until Saturday morning. I wake up, take out the dogs, make myself coffee, and walk over to my records to decide who I want to be that day. The last phrase there isn't a cute turn of phrase; the record I spin on Saturday mornings imbues me with an energy for the rest of the day and resets me after a week of work, so choosing the record doesn't just affect what I write about here, but inhabits me. It sets me on a path.
Today is different: I've known since Tuesday when this record arrived in the mail what I'd be playing this morning. I am so excited to both listen to this on vinyl for the first time and share with you my favorite new musician of the past ten, maybe fifteen, years: Bartees Strange, come on down!
I can't talk about Bartees Strange without discussing the context in which I first ran across him. On January 22, 2020, I had a liver transplant. I was diagnosed with NASH in 2018 and had been waiting impatiently for a donor organ for a few excruciating years. Folks: an organ transplant turns out to be a pretty major surgery! Someday maybe I'll write more about the experience, but suffice it to say, I'd put my Mercedes logo scar seared against my chest and abdomen up against anyone in a Badass Scar Contest. I have a photo of me still heavily bruised with the staples holding the wound together that would make a great album cover.
Anyway, I was recovering from the transplant and learning to walk upright again (the wound, when it heals, wants to compress and the more slouched you sit, which is what's comfortable, the more permanent the hunch becomes, making it extremely painful to pull yourself upright to stand with shoulders back) when I first heard Bartees. This would have been mid-March 2020, before he released his first album, Live Forever. He was about to release an EP of covers of my favorite active band, The National.
Bartees released "Lemonworld" as the lead single. "Lemonworld" is a song on The National's High Violet, and was one of the rare National songs that I didn't get at first. The song seemed so subdued, even for The National. After seeing them play it live in Philadelphia on June 5, 2010 (my 29th birthday – I was such a baby!), it became one of my favorite songs of theirs, hidden with little lyrical gems lampooning unearned privilege easy to pass over at first: "I gave my heart to the Army/The only sentimental thing I could think of/With cousins and colors and somewhere overseas/But it'll take a better war to kill a college man like me."
By the time the second chorus of Bartees's version of "Lemonworld" hit, I was up and heading out for my daily walk. (Part of my recovery was walking 2-3 miles a day, which sounds like nothing now, but was an absolute torture at the time.) Live Forever hit in September 2020 and Bartees became the soundtrack of my recovery. Tidal might as well have set a permanent button when I opened the app: "Would you like to play Bartees Strange again?"
When I really get into a band, there are a few nervous moments. First, when I see them live: are they actually any good? (I don't care how good an album is: if you can't play live, it doesn't quite count for me.) And, if that first test is passed, second: is the follow-up album any good?
I nervously drove to the South Side to see Bartees at Club Cafe, a tiny venue that holds maybe 125 people, on September 7, 2021. I'm pretty severely immunocompromised (thanks to medicine I take daily to stop my body from trying to destroy my new liver) and this was the first time I ventured out into a public space quite like this since my transplant. Audra was angry with me for going, but I couldn't resist.
Friends, my god, the band can play. And his voice? It's somehow, impossibly better live than on record.
When the new album was announced earlier this year, I felt that unique twinge of excitement and trepidation you get when something you're looking forward to is imminent and you're terrified it's going to be no good. I rarely get this feeling: when Thomas Pynchon announces a new book, when I am about to launch a new business, etc.
The album dropped digitally on June 17. I'd heard the singles released prior to the album ("Heavy Heart" and "Cosigns"), but I have a really hard time understanding singles outside of the album context. They might be great songs, but that doesn't mean the album will be great, or that those songs will be great on the album.
I'm not gonna lie: I couldn't get myself to press play for several hours. I didn't want to face the disappointment of a mediocre record.
About a month later, I found myself thinking, you know what, I haven't listened to Live Forever in ages...maybe I should put that on rather than Farm to Table.
I wouldn't have thought it possible, but Farm to Table almost made me forget about what was my favorite album released in the past five years. It's a spectacular record, first note to last. There's nothing as explosive as "Boomer" from Live Forever, but I think the album is stronger for that.
Certain musicians – the really special ones – have a way of projecting a sound that is both spare and full at the same time. This is one of those magical, alchemic gifts that great musicians have: the ability to take a simple three or four chord progression that we've heard a million times and make it sound unique. By taking the bass on a counterpuntal frolic and detour when least expected, by having everything drop out except the organ you didn't notice was there in the first place, by having an anthemic chorus erupt over the same arrangement only at the end of the song (see "Cosigns" on Farm to Table for this last trick – it's never enough!). If you've ever played in a band, you understand this dynamic implicitly. Sometimes one of the members will do something just a little bit differently, something simple – and it transforms the song.
It's hard to do!
The very best do it consistently, as though it were perfectly natural. Perhaps it is for them, but I suspect it's like anything else that seems effortless: it takes a ton of work, practice, and relentless behind-the-scenes work.
When you listen to Farm to Table (and please do!), take note of the fact that none of the songs really follow your traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus type structure. Second verses, when they exist, change the melody. Songs never wind up where you expect them to. Even the most pop songs on the album ("Mulholland Drive" with that killer chorus) veer off the expected track with some dissonant note, some giddy break of convention.
Bartees was back in Pittsburgh on Thursday, this time playing at the Thunderbird, a significantly larger venue. Let me share with you a few things I loved about this show.
First, he brought They Hate Change as the opener. Bartees is a black man crossing lots of genres in his music, but the main thread is an indie/hip hop sensibility. Most of his audience is white – his music comfortably "black." They Hate Change is a fantastic hard rap group out of Tampa. They aren't "comfortably" black. Their newest album Finally, New is a very Florida record: Gulf Coast rap with 90s British rave-style dance beats as the backing track. This crowd would likely never come across They Hate Change and, let me tell you, they fucking ruled and completely won over the crowd.
Second, it's astonishing to see Bartees and his band grow in stature the same way the venues he's playing size up. Have you ever had that feeling that you're seeing a band you'll likely never see in a venue that size again? Yeah. I feel very privileged to have seen both Bartees Strange and The National (way back in 2005) at Club Cafe, and it's exciting to see the growth. It's apparent that the band has been playing consistently for the past two years: they are now one of the tightest and most inventive live bands I've seen in a long time.
Third – coming back to last week's theme of joy. About halfway through the show, after they finished playing a totally retooled version of "Flagey God," Bartees wiped his brow with a towel and almost absentmindedly looked out into the crowd. He smiled and said something all of us were thinking:
"Guys, this shit is so much fun. I'm having the best time!"
The band finished their set with "Hennessy," a song about black stereotypes and just wanting to be accepted as a person. Toward the end of the song, Bartees walked backstage, surreptitiously apparated from a side door at the back of the venue, and stood almost next to me. He stood there, watching his band jam out the end of his song.
They sounded so good, and you could feel Bartees watching them with that same awe the crowd felt. Can you imagine what it must feel like, in your 30s (ancient in the world of music) to break through and have it happen? To stand there like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral hearing everybody saying nice things about you, watching it play out?
This shit is so much fun.
(PSA: Tidal pays more royalties to musicians than Spotify - basically every streaming service does. I encourage you to move away from Spotify if possible.)
Finally! A shoutout to Joel Roy's May It Please the Cork newsletter. If you aren't already subscribed, do yourself a favor and sign up for one of my favorite weekly reads. Hell, this week's edition inspired my wife to order the oysters last night!*