A soundtrack for social distancing
Gregg Shapiro | Contributing Writer
In more ways than anyone would care to count, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live. Near the top of the list are the ways in which we experience music. Live music venues — from concert halls and intimate clubs to festivals and cruises — were hit the hardest, and the future of these performance spaces remains uncertain.
Fortunately, we still have plenty of recorded music to enjoy while we face the possibility of both a vaccine and further lockdowns.
Some musicians have used the opportunity of isolation to create albums. Gay singer/songwriter Mike Maimone, in fact, recorded two solo albums; isolation: 001 consists of original songs, and Borrowed Tunes, Vol. 1 is cover versions (both available online at mikemaimone.com).
Gay smooth jazz artist Dave Koz has the wonders of modern technology to thank for his A New Day (Just Koz) album, written and recorded (with guest artists, no less) during the pandemic. And Bay Area-based lesbian singer/songwriter Rachel Garlin wasn’t sitting idle during the pandemic, releasing her new Julie Wolf-produced album, Mondegreens (rachelgarlin.com), as well as performing the weekly “Sidewalk Sessions” live shows from the garage of her Noe Valley home.
Scott Free wrote “This Is Not Our Government,” about the CARES Act, during the pandemic, making it a last-minute addition to his politically-oriented The Last Revolution (Leather/ Western) album.
Listening to lesbians
Lesbians excelled in 2020. The Greatest Part (Captured Tracks), the breathtaking second album by out singer/songwriter Becca Mancari, available in a limited edition clear pink vinyl LP version, is a sonic departure from her Americana-laced 2017 debut Good Woman. Working with musician/producer Zac Farro (of Paramore fame), Mancari created a forward-thinking audio landscape for her deeply personal lyrics, some of which deal with being raised in and surviving a strict religious background. Songs such as “Hunter,” “Stay With Me,” “First Time,” “Like This” and “Tear Us Apart” deal with heavy subject matter, but the unique musical settings have the ability to transport the listener to another place altogether.
North Carolina-based H.C. McEntire also released an exceptional second album, Eno Axis (Merge), which expands on the promise of her first record, delivering 10 awe-inspiring songs (including the instrumental “Sunday Morning” and a stunning re-interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “House of the Holy”).
The third sophomore album included here is the gorgeous Our Two Skins (Jagjaguwar), by queer singer/songwriter Gordi (aka Sophia Payten), which ranges from the soul-baring opener “Aeroplane Bathroom,” the early Rickie Lee Jones-esque “Radiator,” as well as “Look Like You” and “Volcanic,” to the livelier “Free Association,” “Unready,” “Sandwiches” and “Extraordinary Life.”
Newly-out singer/songwriter Jaime Wyatt, a distinctive artist whose hard scrabble life has led to sobriety and embracing her queer identity, addresses these subjects on her exceptional new album, Neon Cross (New West), earning her a rightful place among the current crop of reigning country divas.
Singer/songwriter Susan Werner is a national treasure, something she continues to prove with each consecutive album, including her latest, the Americana-style Flyover Country (susanwerner.com). Over the course of the 10 songs, Werner gives us something to think about (“Snake Oil,” “Only Later,” “Barn Radio”), swoon about (“How Much”) and even smile about (“Wine Bottles”).
Coming out was popular during the pandemic. Maria McKee, best known as lead vocalist for ’80s cowpunk band Lone Justice (“Ways to be Wicked” and “Shelter”), had a decent solo career (and hit single “Show Me Heaven”), with both major label and independent releases. She also wrote songs covered by Bette Midler (“To Deserve You” and “The Last Time”) and Feargal Sharkey of The Undertones (“A Good Heart”). La Vita Nuova (American Fire), McKee’s first album in more than a dozen years, fittingly translates as “new life,” as McKee came out as queer.
Singer/songwriter Cidny Bullens, who came out as trans in 2012, had a lengthy recording career as Cindy Bullens. The powerful personal statement Walkin’ Through This World (Blue Lobster) is Bullens’ debut album as Cidny.
The compelling songs on Indistinct Conversations (Saddle Creek) are said to be inspired by Canadian band Land of Talk’s lead vocalist Elizabeth Powell’s coming out as a non-binary femme.
Howard, the magnetic and supremely talented former lead singer of the Grammy Award-winning band Alabama Shakes, came out, got married and released her solo debut album Jaime (ATO), named for her older sister who died at the age of 13 (when Howard was 9), and the 11 songs are everything you’d expect from a Brittany Howard solo album and then some.
Recorded in late 2016, but not released until 2020, Nobody Cries Today (mattlovellnusic.com), the brilliant debut by Southern gay singer/songwriter Matt Lovell, was well worth the wait. In possession of a powerful and expressive set of pipes, Lovell delivers an album of original, soulful and country-influenced tunes that are worthy of repeated listens, including the knockout tracks “90 Proof,” “Be Free,” “Alligator Lily,” “The Way That It Was” and a pair of duets with Leigh Nash — “The Gospel” and “Dime Adios.”
Father (izzyheltai.com), the debut album by trans singer/songwriter Izzy Heltai, whose powerful voice at times recalls Jeff Buckley, goes a long way in giving his songs the necessary passion to convey their messages to listeners, as you can hear on “Marching Song,” “To Talk About Yourself,” “Songbird” and “Anyone to Anybody.”
Pass Like Pollen is the debut album by non-binary trans-masc singer/songwriter Cartalk aka Chuck Moore. It plays like a hybrid of modern twang and vintage grunge with a general indie rock vibe, which works well on “Noonday Devil,” “Las Manos,” “Driveway” and “Sleep,” parking itself in a space reserved for irresistible pop on “Wrestling” and Elliot Smith-like folk on “Something or Nothing.”
Expectations (Rounder), the debut album by young lesbian singer/songwriter Katie Pruitt, is an admirable introduction to a talented artist, especially for fans of Brandi Carlile and the aforementioned Becca Mancari. Pruitt’s extraordinary and commanding vocal abilities as well as her way of drawing the listener in with her personal lyric style are exemplified on the amazing “Georgia” (“There is a place past the Georgia pines/With people who welcome you with an open mind”) as well as “Normal,” “Loving Her” and “It’s Always Been You.”
Young, queer, Scottish-Canadian singer/songwriter Evangeline Gentle made an indelible impression with their eponymous Sonic Unyon debut album, on which she struck the right balance between personal love songs (“Sundays,” “Long Time Love,” “Neither of Us”) and universal observations (“Ordinary People,” The Strongest People Have Tender Hearts”) and the lightly twang-tinged tune “Even If.”
Almost everything you need to know about gay singer/songwriter Kyle Motsinger, a self-described “theater queen who loves his pop,” can be found in the title track to his debut album Any Way I Want To (kylemotsinger.com), on which he sings, “My music sounds any way I want it to,” and then follows it with “My voice sounds different than the other boys/It’s not a sound that everyone enjoys.” But he thinks it suits him well.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might sound like if David Sylvain (of Japan) fronted Prefab Sprout, your answer can be found on the soaring Flight by Tenant From Zero (aka queer Brooklyn musician Paul Darrah); a 21st century reimagining of the best of ’80s Brit-pop.
Fiddler and banjo player Jake Blount, described as “one of the few queer, Black voices in Appalachian music,” called his album Spider Tales (Free Dirt), and proceeded to spin an elaborate and beautiful web on this reclamation project, adding a distinctly queer perspective to many of these tunes from early-to-mid 20th century. Blount’s take on Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” was particularly dazzling.
L.A.-based quartet Girl Friday’s brilliantly titled Androgynous Mary (Hardly Art), with a cover photo depicting what can be best described as an old school butch, merged Riot Grrrl sensibilities with those of groundbreaking acts such as The Raincoats and Kleenex/LiliPUT.
Gay modern rock legend Bob Mould is among the hardest working men in music, proving that point by following up 2019’s aptly titled Sunshine Rock with the somewhat bluer Blue Hearts (Merge). Blue in terms of sexual content (check out “Leather Dreams”) as well as in the liberal political messaging in songs such as “American Crisis,” “Next Generation” and “Heart on my Sleeve,” all delivered in his trademark crunchy and blazing guitar rock style.
Still going strong after more than 35 years, Indigo Girls returned with its first studio album in five years, Look Long (Rounder), which continues the musical tradition that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers established all those years ago: a blend of modern Americana pop on the title tune, “Country Radio,” “When We Were Writers” and “Sorrow and Joy,” and memorable rockers including “Change My Heart,” “Shit Kickin’” and “Favorite Flavor,” all with an eye towards social commentary.
Rufus Wainwright took even longer — 12 years! — between albums of original pop music, and thankfully Unfollow the Rules (BMG), didn’t disappoint, setting the political tone with opener “Trouble In Paradise,” which is echoed in “Only the People That Love.” Wainwright also didn’t skimp on the operatic excesses on the dramatic “Early Morning Madness” and “My Little You,” while adding a dash of hopefulness (and even humor) on the songs “You Ain’t Big,” “Peaceful Afternoon,” “Damsel in Distress” and “Alone Time.”