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The Replacements - Dead Man’s Pop Music Album Reviews

The new box set includes demos, a live show, and a fascinating, stripped-down remix of the band’s 1989 album Don’t Tell a Soul that reveals an alternate history of one of their most divisive records.
The Replacements story is filled with what-ifs and near misses. Their legend, essentially, is that if the chips had fallen differently, they might have become a popular band and had success into the 1990s, like their friends and rivals R.E.M. What if they had played ball with their label? What if they hadn’t made so many enemies? What if they hadn’t been so fucked up?

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Blacks’ Myths - Blacks’ Myths II Music Album Reviews

On a thrilling slab of punk-jazz noise, the D.C. duo argues for the centrality of black American culture in the fight for the nation’s soul.

Armed with a pulpit, an amp, and impeccable timing, Blacks’ Myths II rolls up to the intersection of two contemporary cultural storylines—one thematic and one musical. There, where history and sound meet, the Washington, D.C.-based duo, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren Crudup III, cobbles together an unlikely, thorny recording: a slab of punk jazz that is outside of genre and era but can also be heard as an auspicious fight for the soul and sound of a nation—noisy minimalist improvisation as a present-day language communicating timeless truths.

The broader narrative that Blacks’ Myths’ sophomore album embraces is America’s current reappraisal of blackness as central to the country’s meaning—which in the eyes and ears of Stewart (of Irreversible Entanglements and Heroes Are Gang Leaders) and Crudup (stickman for James Branford Lewis, among others) is taking place too late for the entire planet’s health. The album’s core narration comes in the form of four monologues courtesy of Dr. Thomas Stanley, whose polymath resume (poet, black studies professor, astral jazz and (P-)funk scholar, DIY concert producer) makes him a uniquely qualified collaborator. His noetic visions not only feed into the resonance of the band’s name; they are also a counterpart to recent journalistic works like Hannah Nikole-Jones’ “The 1619 Project.” Instead of wanting to fix America’s manifest history, Stanley and Blacks’ Myths are looking to wipe its slate clean for whatever comes next.

This plot is underpinned by music only slightly less grand—and engages a pair of debates being waged inside the jazz and noise/punk communities these two musicians call home. The central questions here are “What is it?” and “Who is it for?” One springs from a new generation of players reassessing jazz’s structure, language, and storied place within the African American tradition. The other is forcing punk to figure out how to embrace its black roots and ascertain its musical purpose in a Trump-era cauldron. On the evidence of the album’s messy lo-fi textures, pervasive rock dynamics, and two-player intricacy (Stewart’s electric bass and electronics and Crudup’s kit account for all the sounds), bolstered by Dr. Stanley’s inquests, Blacks’ Myths are eager to partake in all these and any other discourses America may want to throw at them.

II’s conversations actually continue the ones Stewart and Crudup kicked off on Blacks’ Myths self-titled 2018 debut, even as they also lurch into the unknown. The first album’s atmosphere had traces of ferocity but was more occupied by hypnotic revolution—minimalist dub notes and figures, or slow-developing tides of sound, wrapping around rhythm and reflecting back upon themselves, only occasionally coming to a boil. It was wordless and musically potent, sketching a great migratory movement and a past that came alive in symbiotic bass-drums interactions. Filled with worried notes of Stewart’s distorted upright, first-take-best-take slurred lines, and low-frequency electronics, its sound remains unlike any album in recent memory, a perfect addition to the gathering storm of improvisational oddities charging the atmosphere in all corners of so-called “jazz.”

The follow-up is cut from a familiar heady cloth but powered by a distinct energy. If Stewart and Crudup’s communication was previously built on groove telepathy, here the objectives are more specific, feral, primordial. It’s a prehistoric creation of post-history power sources: cascading feedback, barbed electronics, and oversized drums. Stanley’s own words seize upon the environmental theme, describing the “goo” covering much of the planet as “the source of history… carry[ing] forward the stark relationship of matter to itself.” The world-building scope is boundless, on the scale of Stanley Kubrick or Octavia Butler, as living sound, fed through one of Crazy Horse’s Marshall stacks from Rust Never Sleeps but emanating music from Arc.

Over half the tracks are short, rising bursts with distinct roles to play. Some are vehicles for the album’s themes, with Stanley’s words—on the heroism of “non-violent warriors empowered by myth science” fighting “the triumph of white supremacy gentrified as American exceptionalism”—gliding over Stewart’s unnerving electrical currents, or amplified by Crudup’s volcanic thrashing. Others are here to keep punk’s loud-fast rules at the center of a conversation that can admittedly turn bookish and didactic. Only a moment with the strumming thrash of “Rapture” or the martial power of “Northern Confederate” is needed to once more quicken the pulse.

Yet it is the longer pieces that push Blacks’ Myths II beyond mere post-hardcore prophecy toward something approaching transcendence. Carrying titles weighted with meaning for black America (“Stand Your Ground,” “The Bluff,” “Mammy’s Revenge”), they bring together composition and improvisation as pursued through a playful, masterly push-and-pull between technology, electricity, and rhythm; by design, it is only tenuously controlled. Take “Free Land,” the album’s centerpiece and vessel of its most distinct melodic figures: Stewart’s stately motif, played on a deeply distorted electric bass, sounds capable of being swallowed up at any given moment, even as its echoes begin to reverberate in a kind of elegy. Or take “Redbone,” on which Crudup digs out an elastic pocket while Stewart whimsically messes about with a set of fuzzed-out, organ-like textures, moving from a heavy-metal Jackie Mittoo vibe to approximating the sound of steel-drum dub. The acoustic mis-recognition and contextual confusion provide a rare kind of delight.

These exercises in structured freedom and interrogation of form, amid a historic pool of boundless blackness, bring to mind a compliment that the artist/filmmaker Arthur Jafa paid black America a few years ago: “We create culture in freefall.” Imagine the hope in that statement. Stewart and Crudup soundtrack a version of that engagement with American gravity, one existing at an intersection that, though specific to our recent times, also has lineage and precedents. As their band’s name makes clear, these sounds did not arrive here by chance.

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