Cultural Consumption: 2/15/24

Dueling banjos

Cultural Consumption: 2/15/24
Rock 'em sock 'em banjos

In general, these daily posts serve a couple of purposes for me. First and most importantly, they force me to keep writing on a regular basis — I'm someone who believes that if you're going to create anything truly worthwhile, there usually has to be a certain amount of pump-priming that happens first, and where the muse is concerned, momentum can count for a lot. Second, it allows me to keep a record of the stuff I'm listening to, watching, and reading, because otherwise I'd forget. That being said, I try to restrict the records I write about here to stuff I actively care about on some level — there's so much stuff to listen to that there hardly seems to be any point in wasting words on anything that doesn't stand out in some way.

This is the goal, but as we all know, goals were made to fall short of, and there are days when finding an album to evangelize in this space is extra daunting for one reason or another. Today, I had a run of meetings that prevented me from hopping around in search of something more compelling than the stuff that soundtracked my morning, so... the morning soundtrack it is. Extra apologies in advance for the anti-eclectic nature of these picks — as hinted at by the dueling banjos in the image up top, both of the records I'm going to cover today are of a distinctly folky bent, owing to the fact that I fished them both out of No Depression's weekly newsletter.

The first (and most recent) of these releases is Sideways by the Steel Wheels, which is not the work of a Rolling Stones tribute band but instead the latest effort from a passel of roots-folkin' Virginians who've been peddling their sonic wares for close to 20 years. These cats are evidently prolific as hell — Sideways is their 13th album — which I respect without having heard a note of anything that came before this particular LP.

I tend to have sort of a love/hate relationship with Americana or modern folk or whatever we're calling it these days. Much as the crystalline sound of a beautifully engineered acoustic guitar might make me smile, especially with the added spice of a banjo or fiddle along for the ride, I find that a lot of artists working in this vein struggle with the same challenge that faces most retro soul artists — specifically, the extreme difficulty of working within the constraints of a very crowded and time-tested genre while also finding a way to stand out. I would tend to argue that most folk or folk-adjacent records are very pretty... and they can also be quite dull.

Sideways isn't dull, but neither is it a shot across the bow of beige sameness that fuels folky stereotypes. The performances are well above average and there are some very enjoyable songs on the album, but on the whole, this record doesn't leave much of an impact — for me, anyway. If you're in the mood for a rootsy folk record, then Sideways might very well hit you where you live; all I can tell you is that I listened to it three or four times through, each time hoping to latch onto it on some deeper level and always coming away faintly disappointed.

From there, I moved on to Polaroid Lovers, the latest from Sarah Jarosz. If you aren't already familiar with her work, let me say up front that Jarosz is a ferociously talented musician, I've found some of her material to be just breathtakingly lovely, and I can personally vouch for her status as one of many artists whose live presence is at least twice as engaging as her recorded output. (This is a compliment, not a knock.) As a songwriter, however, I've often found her a little frustrating; whether it's me or it's the material, I feel like too many of her songs settle for "fine" when all the pieces around them set you up to expect transcendence.

I can't claim to have spent a ton of time with her catalog, but at the moment I'm writing these words, I'm comfortable saying Polaroid Lovers feels like Jarosz's most full-bodied, fully realized work — a set of songs that balances fragile warmth and sonic expansiveness as adeptly as early Shawn Colvin. And yet there's a resolute mid-tempo prettiness to the whole thing that has a backgrounding effect; after a couple of songs of this stuff, it can be hard to maintain an active connection. It isn't wallpaper, but it swaddles rather than truly engages. It would be churlish to argue that this is a bad thing, mind you. I suppose it's just that, as I said before, the pieces are all there for truly transcendent work; given the right material, I think Sarah Jarosz could break my heart instead of providing pleasant background music. As with Sideways — and with any record, really — context is everything, and if you're in the right place for these songs, perhaps they'll hit the bullseye with you instead of floating on the breeze.

Watching: I didn't get to write about it last week, but Abbott Elementary is back, and I'm very happy about that. It's awfully disorienting to me to live in a world where the simple existence of a traditional half-hour sitcom that produces 20-odd episodes a season is something special, but here we are — this is arguably the hottest show on network TV, and that's for awfully good reason. I mean, not only is it not yet another goddamn grim procedural or reality series, but it's an awfully well-written show, one that hops nimbly from goofy laughs to heartstring-tugging sweetness on a disarmingly regular basis. We're currently three episodes into Season 3, and the ratings are better than ever — if you like a good laugh and you aren't already tuning in, then put down your Young Sheldon or whatever and repent. (Note: My wife is a teacher, so I might be predisposed to be biased about a smart, funny show about a public elementary school.)

Reading: Almost done with Nick DeRiso's Journey: Worlds Apart. I think I'm about 80 percent finished — well into the Arnel Pineda years, but not quite at the "Holy shit, Neal Schön and Jonathan Cain are both cuckoo nutbags" part of the program.

Around the Bend: Tomorrow brings us back to New Music Friday, which means a post that'll be accessible only to paid subscribers. Sign up if you haven't already! I promise to do my level best to make it worth your (quite affordable, IMO) while.