everybody’s favorite topic. especially in an election year. 

for the essential nj arts, i interviewed the lambertville, nj painter gwenn seemel, who has been responding to crude pro-trump graffiti in a public park with some unauthorized art of her own. in a conversation that might be called freewheeling, we talked about the line between vandalism and constructive public expression, the aesthetics of the trump movement, and the political significance of uglification:

in its combative wisdom, new jersey puts the gubernatorial election and the jc mayoral election a year after the natural general election. that way, we can enter our regional election season in the right spirit: exhausted, bloodied, and suspicious of our neighbors. as it happens, our mayor is running for governor. that means we’re going to have somebody new in the state house and somebody new in city hall. periodically, i’ll have something to say about this. my first missive is on the equanimous jersey city times:


this is not an endorsement. not in the slightest. it’s just an acknowledgment that one of the mayoral candidates has made an impression on me through his public statements. 

in the meantime, it’s time to think about art and music! previews of the year’s first jc art crawl and garden state art weekend will be up soon. keep letting me know what you’re doing, and i’ll keep looking, and listening, and writing.

only love,

tris mccall

a farewell (for now) to the mothership

this weekend, we’ll have a closing reception for return to the mothership, the 111 first street-themed show that i curated for proarts.  i’ll be at 150 bay street from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. on sunday, march 24.  then we’ll say goodbye.  please come see the show if you haven’t.  if you have — or if you came to the panel discussion on the tenth — thank you for your attention.  i don’t think you can understand the development of art in jersey city or hudson county without engaging with the history of 111 first street.

though the show is closing, the year is just getting started.  i’ll have lots and lots to say about garden state art weekend (april 19-21), and i’m beginning with this post on nj dot arts.

also on nj.arts: a reaction of caroline burton’s way finding exhibition at the state museum, a review of the excellent ed fausty and laura lou levy shows in watchung, and this celebration of linoleum printmaking in in maplewood. 

do you like interviews?  lately i have done a few for jersey city times.  interesting discussions with petia morozov of dense magazine and the art book fair, woolpunk of the gimme shelter project, and olga levina of jersey city theater company.

i think you’ll also like this meditation on lifelogging in local art, complete with references to shows at drawing rooms and smush gallery.  these strong shows by greg brickey and mindy gluck are still on view. 

there’s lots more to come.  



Critics Poll 34 — Singles

You’re wrong, the world is right.

Not content to let any single one of their writers hog all the embarrassment, Pitchfork convened a critics’ roundtable to declare that 2023 contained no Song of the Summer. At the time of their summit meeting, Morgan Wallen had held the top spot on the Billboard 100 for weeks, and he’d go on to hold it for many more. His hit was everywhere: in stadiums, in stores, bumping out of cars, at the beach, on the mountains, in the cities, you name it. I’d wager it was even playing in the heads of those critics who namechecked it, decided it was insignificant, and moved on to whatever mushrock act they’d determined they’d champion instead.

Months later, in an event that I wouldn’t say was entirely unrelated, Pitchfork was absorbed by GQ.  A corporate site’s corporate parent transferred it to a new corporate overseer.  Many writers were axed. I am supposed to feel bad about this, and on a personal level, I do — I never like to see journalists lose their jobs. I hate to witness publishing conglomerates pushing their titles around with no regard for the human beings who make the publications, even stupid ones with Satan as a figurehead, what they are. I understand why this is a chilling development for non-independents in the opinion-having industry.

But it is deeply telling that post-transfer Pitchfork is indistinguishable from Pitchfork before the purge. Those not obsessed with Condé Nast machinations wouldn’t know that anything had happened.  This is because Pitchfork has become so predictable, so safe, so formulaic, that it effectively writes itself; in fact, it’s been on autopilot for years. Its coverage has devolved into warmed-over term papers distinguished by the earnestness with which the writers strain to win top marks from an imaginary virtuous sociology professor.  If you gave an artificial intelligence program the task of writing Pitchfork, I reckon it would prompt the singularity and blink out of existence in sheer computerized boredom. Seriously. I’d feel bad for that computer.

Because Pitchfork is so predictable, and because its editors are, and were, such moralizing approval-seekers, it was always a lead pipe cinch that they’d go out of their way to snub the new Morgan Wallen album. So they did, hanging a 4.1 on it and chastising Wallen for his language, his sepia-toned worldview (their cliché, not mine), and his spitting and Skoal-chewing. Other reviewers followed suit, as modern reviewers so often do. Hey, I understand; I’m an educated coastal scumbag too. Drop me down in East Kentucky and I reckon an eyebrow would stay arched throughout my visit. If we can’t feel superior to an alcoholic shitkicker like Morgan Wallen, who, really, is left for us to feel superior to?

But how about the cream of Music City songwriting, including Bisquick-frying poet Michael Hardy, eloquent tractor-driver Josh Thompson, seventy-time (!) chart topper Ashley Gorley, true-blue lifer Rodney Clawson, and the peerless Miranda Lambert; do we feel superior to them, too? Do we think they’re just here to pick up a check and exploit a drink-addled superstar, or might they have something to say to us about the society we share and the lives we live?

What about all the producers who journeyed to Nashville to pitch in, including rocker Cameron Montgomery, R&B fusion specialist Jacob Durrett, and the visionary Ryan “Charlie Handsome” Vojtesak, who has worked with, among others, Drake, Kanye West, and Chance The Rapper?  Do we reckon they’re just opportunists, or might they have identified in Morgan Wallen a rare vocalist with enough roughneck charisma, and maybe enough subtlety, to abet their acts of stylistic subversion?  

And how about the top guns on the Tennessee session circuit, including Pedal Steel Hall of Famer Paul Franklin of the Time Jumpers, who has been gracing tracks since the 1970s, impeccable bassist Jimmy Lee Sloas, collaborator with everybody from Kellie Pickler to Megadeth, or Jerry Roe, winner of the Drummer of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music, or Tom Bukovac, veteran of a thousand albums (not an exaggeration), and in the conversation for the title of the single best guitarist working in modern showbiz?  Do you reckon they lent their world-class musical talents to a hunk of junk, or do you think they might have recognized songs with the capacity to connect to millions?

And what about those millions, anyway?  Are they just stupid?; unable to fathom the intricacies of the Fever Ray album, hungry only for the musical equivalent of greasy BBQ-flavored pork rinds?  

It occurs to me that the problem might be us. Perhaps, as Lil Wayne once said in a not dissimilar context, we don’t get the basics. Those musicians I just mentioned did not phone it in, not one bit: they gave it their best, and One Thing At A Time contains exemplary performances of moving songs with sturdy compositional architecture, masterfully arranged by producers cleverly dodging genre expectations. Moreover, these strong songs are brought to life by Morgan Wallen himself, who sings with a mix of nuance, swagger, trailer-trash magnetism, late-night barroom vulnerability, and good humor that wasn’t always present on Dangerous.  In 2021, Wallen was really good; in 2023, he got better. Fans noticed.  Musicians noticed. Radio programmers and industry showrunners noticed; hell, Drake noticed.  The only ones who didn’t notice were corporate-website critics totally out of whack with popular music as it is currently experienced and appreciated by human beings. In an act of monstrous arrogance, they tried to tell us that a triple album of astonishing consistency that spun off seven hit singles and went platinum five times over was barely worthy of comment. If you read Pitchfork, you might believe that the story of the year was instead a shoegaze resurgence invisible outside of high-rent precincts of certain coastal cities. And if you didn’t live in those cities, well, obviously your priorities and tastes were beneath contempt; let them eat mushrock and all that.

Or maybe they did notice.  Maybe they just didn’t feel comfortable telling the truth.  As even non-music fans know, Morgan Wallen was banished to the outer limits of respectability three years ago. He got hammered out of his mind and used the n-word, which is absolutely, positively not something that those sitting in judgment of him could or would ever do; no sir. Today’s critics do not drink and party and act the fool or hold aberrant, offensive opinions about anything.  They are morally unimpeachable and were never idiots.  They were never even young: they popped right out of the uterus with a baccalaureate degree and a monocle.  Morgan Wallen has become a boogeyman for them. He’s the monster under their bed.  He cannot be forgiven for what he did because he represents everything they cannot do — or that they can’t get caught doing — lest they lose their position in the professional-managerial publishing industry.  He is an expression of the discursive id, and everything that writers have been forced to repress in order to fit in with the business objectives of corporate overseers who might downsize them at the drop of a hat.

I am a twinkle-toes Democrat from one of the bluest districts in America — a tree-hugging, vegetarian cosmopolitan who does not drive, own a gun, or believe in borders. As Hardy sang about where he’s from, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But as a critic, I cannot waste time worrying about whether the artists I listen to are ideological mirrors for me or for those around me. That’s not what I’m here for, and frankly, it wouldn’t be very interesting to me if they were.  How am I to learn from that?  I’m here to evaluate the music, and that’s it. And Morgan Wallen’s music is good, very good, meticulously crafted, wry, energetically performed, beautifully recorded, and, as America has shown you, endlessly replayable.

The irony of Wallen’s critical exile is that on record, at least, he’s a bridge-builder, and an omnivorous and open-minded one, too. When his producers give him a trap beat to work with, he attacks it with the sort of flow that a vocalist only acquires by rapping along to scores of hip-hop records. There’s nothing tentative about it — he acts like it’s his by birthright, and as he’s a poor Southerner, I’m inclined to believe him about that. His biggest singles are the seamless fusion of urban and rural music that thousands of artists have tried and failed to make. He’s got the winding acoustic guitar and the thunderous 808 kick, the finger-snaps, the aching blues melody, the slide guitar and the whistling synthesizer, all fused together and cauterized by the easy heat of his performances. He makes it seem like there’s nothing to it, no strain and no sweat, everything bubbling together in the crockpot of Dixie sound. None of this means that Morgan Wallen is an enlightened person or a paragon of good race politics or even personally tolerable; he’s an artist, so I assume he’s psychologically messed up ten ways from Tuesday. It does mean that his achievement demands respect, and not just for aesthetic reasons. It’s an example of the transcultural conversation that we’re always saying we want to have. For the better part of eight years, publishers have strained to understand the hinterlands. They’ve beat the bushes for strategies for reaching Billy Bob. Let it be known that when Morgan Wallen extended an olive branch, they wouldn’t take it.

This widespread refusal to behave with basic courtesy and fairness is, I think, the inevitable consequence of having a corporate conglomerate press rather than outlets of independent opinion. Unlike the hairy Internet weirdos who they displaced and/or snowed under long ago, the publishers of corporate websites won’t ever budge an inch from their basic political assumptions and social proclivities. They’re not going to take that risk. They’re not interested in shaking you up or overturning your expectations; that’s bad for business. They market their product — themselves — to a niche audience that comes to have its specific worldview reinforced.

That’s why you can read scores of articles on Pitchfork by dozens of different writers, and find unnerving ideological uniformity. Never will you choke on an offensive position or a tasteless phrase. No one will ever surprise you with an opinion that does not conform to the dominant Eastern collegiate perspective. It’s no high-minded commitment to progressivism. It’s the market niche in which the corporate overseers have settled the publication — the slice of the ideological pie chart they’ve decided that suits their audience. As is true for any fast casual operation, success means giving the consumer the same slice no matter how many times she comes. What looks like tonal consistency on the site is actually a white flag: it’s a concession that what you’re encountering isn’t criticism, it’s a lifestyle brand.

In an environment like that, nobody is going to go out on a limb for Morgan Wallen, or for any other artist who makes songs or projects an image that clashes with the company’s transnational profile. Within a corporate structure, contrary behavior is career suicide.  Clout within media hierarchies comes instead from accruing social media followers, which means that it’s always going to be safer to rehearse a widely accepted position in emphatic language than it is to throw the dice on something that might get you ridiculed on Twitter.  Writers who used to call themselves critics are now competing to beat each other to the most popular position.  No one in corporate media is thinking, or listening, for himself — they’re thinking about what their peers think.  They’re worried that their associates in the industry won’t give them enough likes and hearts on their takes. They want to say the same thing everybody else is going to say, only faster, tighter, and punchier than the competition can.  That’s great if you’re an ad man, but it’s worthless if you’re a critic. It’s also insulting to the readership, who are expecting you to give them a fair valuation of the music you’re writing about even if it puts you at odds with your friends. Maybe your congresswoman, too.

I put in my time. I wrote for the same mammoth company that owns Condé Nast. It was a fun trip, and I’m glad to have had the experience, but since I stopped, there’s not a single day I’ve missed it.  There are many mistakes and omissions I made while I was there that I regret, many things I wrote that I wish I didn’t, and many things I didn’t that I wish I did.  But I’m happy to say I was never a good corporate citizen. I proceeded then as I did when I was an independent, and as I do now that I’ve taken the saner step of covering my community: I didn’t give a fuck about how my opinions and evaluations look. I don’t do this to build a personal brand or help an employer reach a target demographic, and I’m not going to shed many tears for writers and editors who do. I’m here to describe my personal experience with records and assess them, one at a time, on their artistic merits. I’m going to tell it like it is. This, my friends, is how it is:  

  1. Morgan Wallen — “Last Night”
  2. The Streets — “Each Day Gives”
  3. Olivia Rodrigo — “Vampire”
  4. Lana Del Rey — “A&W”
  5. Belle & Sebastian — “I Don’t Know What You See In Me”
  6. Wednesday — “Chosen To Deserve”
  7. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — “Easy Now”
  8. Drake & J. Cole — “First Person Shooter”
  9. Blur — “The Narcissist”
  10. Peso Pluma & Eladio Carrion — “77”
  11. Carly Rae Jepsen — “Shadow”
  12. Mon Laferte — “Metamorfosis”
  13. Jenny Lewis — “Psychos”
  14. Nation Of Language — “Sightseer”
  15. Hot Mulligan — “Gans Media Retro Games”
  16. Olivia Rodrigo — “Bad Idea, Right?”
  17. Morgan Wallen — “Thinkin’ Bout Me”
  18. Beabadoobee & Laufey — “A Night To Remember”
  19. Doja Cat — “Paint The Town Red”
  20. Sparks — “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte”

Critics Poll 34 — My Ballot

Belle & Sebastian is my favorite band.  But when I make these annual lists, Belle & Sebastian doesn’t do as well as you’d expect a favorite band to do. Late Developers, their most recent album, is their best in a long time. I still decided that at least twenty other sets were better.  I might have reason to revise that assessment later; I often do. Many Belle & Sebastian sets that have missed the annual list have remained in rotation for me over the years, while others that I esteemed higher have been forgotten. I’ve tried on many different explanations for my persistent misjudgment: ugly-American prejudice against the British Isles, overcompensation for my runaway affection for a group I’ve regularly raved about, distaste for argyle patterns, blind fury that they’ve never invited me to join the group and shake a tambourine.  I’ve come to realize the reason is simpler than any of that. “Fox in the Snow” notwithstanding, Belle & Sebastian makes the most springlike music imaginable. And on snowy days like today, spring feels far away.    

How different would this exercise be if we did it in June?  I don’t just mean my evaluations. I mean album list-making in general; prioritizing and ranking; the singling out of exemplary recordings and performances and the artistic values that those records represent. All music fans do it. Some of us are ledger-makers and archivists — rocking bookworms — and we like to get our evaluations down in ink.  For others, it’s a look back on where they’ve been, the experiences they’ve had with music during the prior trip around the sun, and an unspoken but resolute acknowledgement of what made the grade, what touched us, what surprised, and what kinda sucked. The clock strikes twelve and we take a breath.  For a few moments we think about where we are, where we were, and where we’re headed.  Then we get right back to it. 

Here in the American Northeast, the ball drops on frozen earth. These are ideal conditions for evaluating snowblowers and ice skating rinks, but maybe not the best conditions for grappling with popular music.  Some sock-hop purists would surely argue that pop in all its forms is a summertime thing, made for block parties and highway drives and flirtation under the stars.  Summer is extroverted, outdoor, hedonistic, convivial, full of opportunities for action; winter is introverted, indoor, ascetic, solitary, full of opportunities for thought. In the summertime, Mungo Jerry is going to have a drink and have a drive, and he’ll go out and see what he can find.  In the coldest winter, Kanye West, alone, contemplates his mistakes and broods about how he’ll never love again.  I prefer the Kanye song, but it’s also twenty-nine degrees and snowy today.  Ask me again in May, and I might sing a different tune.

Or I might not.  I’m neither a party person nor an action hero.  Popular music is, for me, an examination of what it means to be a human being — it’s about our pain, our longing for connection, our unquenchable sexual impulses, our dances on the brink of oblivion, moral and physical frailty, impermanence, partying like it’s 1999 because it’s way past 1999, etcetera. The end of a year always has eschatological overtones, and I don’t need much of a push, or a cool breeze, to get a nice coating of frost on my frame of mind.  This has been a particularly chilly spell in the history of the human race.  The simulated winter of the lockdown gave way to years of unexplained excess mortality and a dreadful feeling that those in power won’t level with us no matter how we frame our questions. Under the best of conditions, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” does not speak to me. In 2023, sunny music felt like emotional malpractice.

Thus, as I see it, the best music of the year was the year’s most unflinching.  I valued music that took bravery to make.  That it is mostly winter music — music made at the end of things — shouldn’t be surprising.  The boat has been caught in an icy drift for a while now.  From close observation of human behavior comes Karly Hartzmann’s description of the bird that smashes into the same screen door every day, unable to rely on instinct or learn from pain.  From a compulsion to be honest comes Brandon McDonald’s conviction that we’re presently living through the apocalypse, and from a vast reserve of earned fatalism comes an accompanying belief that we’re all back at our desks on 9/12, making believe the ash heaps aren’t right there. From the deepest quarantine comes the D’Addario brothers’ declaration that every day is the worst day of their lives, one after the other, visible through an unopenable window as they stretch toward a flat horizon. Trauma, I believe it’s called: a black fog too big to be comprehended all at once, so it billows through the hinges of the bolted door and streams through the flue. It seeps through the cracks in everything. That’s how the dark gets in.

There are no humorless artists on this roster.  Fun they aren’t, but most of these records are grimly funny.  A certain kind of veteran sad bastard, practiced in the art of whistling past the graveyard, had a leg up. It gives me very little pleasure to make room on my list for Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher; I was told, emphatically, the there was no distance left to run, but they’re like video game avatars chugging away against a solid wall, and probably always will be.  If those names aren’t throwback enough for you, I’ve found room for Mike Skinner here, too.  Believe me, I would have preferred to honor near-misses that led with their guarded optimism by old favorites like Jamila Woods, Margaret Glaspy, Susanne Sundfør, and The Front Bottoms. But I’m not here to tell fibs today. 

Those new albums by Blur and Oas-, er, the High Flying Birds hold, defiantly, to gentility in the face of sweeping malaise and decay — Damon folds a punishingly sad breakup narrative into his usual concerns about the sorry state of the remnants of the empire, while Noel continues to be the world’s most reliable source of buck-up anthems aimed at the tough times.  It’s fair to call them both as Brexit-inspired, if we understand Brexit to be a disastrous turn away from the cosmopolitan and toward depressive, dead-end self-absorption masquerading as populism.  Mostly, I think these guys are linked at a psychic level.  If one of them raises his game or just returns to a core competency, the other is bound to follow.  (About the inclusion of the Stones, I make no apologies at all: those guys are and always will be great, as fundamental as hydrogen and helium, and those who’ve chosen to resist their album on principal are jeopardizing their rock credentials.  Yes, they do sound eighty, but they are eighty.  They’ve never lied to you about anything, and they’re not going to start now.)

I’ve embraced lions in the winter before.  Six years ago, I listed Roger Waters, Ray Davies, Randy Newman, and the man behind this year’s finest album, predicting as I did that it was an aberration, and I’d soon return to championing mallpunk, trap music, and start-up indiepop.  But in 2017, angry demagogues were ascendant all over the globe, and the primary theorists of the classic rock era were wondering where it had all gone wrong.  They’d told us to tear down the wall and save the village green, and they’d had to look at what we’d done instead.  They’ve all got big mouths and bigger talents; they weren’t going to let this happen without registering a protest.     

2023 was something different.  This was not a particularly political year.  I heard no faith whatsoever that a well-turned phrase or a crisply minted melody might save the world, or even rescue a single soul.  Our favorites sung through heartbreak that they did not expect to heal.  Billy Woods ended his latest missive from the spider hole wondering how long he had left.  He wasn’t alone.  So much of what we got — great and not so great — sounded like the sizzle and swish of the end bit of sand in the hourglass, the dull echo of a rock dropped to the bottom of a well, the muffled hush of snow on the field. As long as the earth doesn’t shudder free from its orbit, spring will come. We’ll see what thaws and what doesn’t.

Album of the Year:

  1. Paul Simon — Seven Psalms
  2. Lana Del Rey — Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd
  3. Olivia Rodrigo — Guts
  4. Danny Brown — Quaranta
  5. Morgan Wallen — One Thing At A Time
  6. Black Country, New Road — Live At Bush Hall
  7. Indigo De Souza — All Of This Will End
  8. Home Is Where — The Whaler
  9. Wednesday — Rat Saw God
  10. The Streets — The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light
  11. Haken — Fauna
  12. Jenny Lewis — Joy’All
  13. The Lemon Twigs — Everything Harmony
  14. Owl City — Coco Moon
  15. The Rolling Stones — Hackney Diamonds
  16. Blur — The Ballad Of Darren
  17. Mon Laferte — Autopoiética
  18. Origami Angel — The Brightest Days
  19. Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Maps
  20. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — Council Skies

Best Album Title and Best Album Cover

In keeping with the tone of the year, The New Pornographers’s Continue As A Guest contained the gloomiest, most heartbroken, most alienated music they’ve ever recorded. This was the set on which Carl Newman visualized the sun floating away to join the stars, eager as the rest of us to give humanity the slip.  Apparently the teetering Yertle the Turtle-stack of houses on the cover was drawn by Neko Case years before the beginning of the pandemic, which should tell us all we need to know about how long we’ve been feeling separated from our neighbors, isolated at home on stilts and hidden behind picket fences, tethered to the next domicile by cable wires and little else.  Then there’s the great handle: a description of the modern condition that simultaneously covers our dependence on the whims of the algorithm and our estrangement from our communities. It’s a really good album, too, especially “Bottle Episodes” and the title track. Newman, Case, and Calder have turned into another pack of lions in the winter — hungry, surly, solitary, not creatures to cross. The sprightly pop kids will come back next year, I hope.

Most Welcome Surprise

As a passionate appreciator of Voodoo Lounge, not to mention “Undercover Of The Night,” I am definitely the target audience for a supergeriatric Stones album, and I dutifully ponied up for my copy the moment Hackney Diamonds dropped. What I didn’t expect was that the band would still have enough, er, watts to turn the lights up as bright as this after the loss of their world-famous drummer. As it turned out, Charlie gave us two more performances as a parting gift, and they’re hip-swivelers in the classic Stones-y style: the pouty “Live By The Sword” and “Mess It Up,” which is the exact dance-rock song that all the imitators have been trying to write ever since Some Girls. Leave it to the masters, no? Elton John and Stevie Wonder drop by to bang on the piano, Paul McCartney gets his bass signal as filthy as he can, and Lady Gaga does her best Merry Clayton imitation on “Sweet Sounds Of Heaven.” It turns out to be a pretty great one. She’s all in; they’re all in; as for me, you know I’m all in. Danny & The Juniors said it in ’57: If you don’t like rock and roll, just think what you’ve been missing/but if you like to bop and stroll, come on down and listen.

Biggest Disappointment

I’ve been a fan of (and an occasional apologist for) the members of Boygenius in the past, and I’ve had good things to say about Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and even the increasingly platitudinous Lucy Dacus. But they did not bring their top-drawer material to The Record, an album that coasted on a few good songs, the deserved reputation of the stars, and one of the most relentless hype campaigns this side of Jamie Harrison. Many of the tracks felt underwritten by the artist’s previous standards, and if you don’t believe that, play it back to back to Stranger In The Alps or Sprained Ankle and tell me I’m wrong. Also, I admit some disappointment in ideological turns taken by Róisín Murphy and Homeboy Sandman, even as I think they both put out good albums in 2023. Maybe not their best, though.

Album That Opened Most Strongly

At the very outset of Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd, the Grant family is, literally, harmonious. They’re practicing the chorus to a song on which their most famous member advances a theory about death that’s hippie enough to appeal to this Californian sympathizer with friends on the far side of the veil. Lana’s pastor hypothesizes that the only thing a dying person brings through the departure gate are her memories of experiences on earth. This strikes me as an odd sort of New Age spirituality, and physically implausible to boot, but she’s so passionate about it that, as usual with LDR, I’m willing to roll with it. She’s determined to hold on to images of her family during her passage into nonbeing. Then comes the gorgeous title track and its desperate entreaty to a lover to extend the same courtesy to her. “Don’t forget me,” she begs, backed by a chorus that might well contain some of those same family members. Somewhere, along the way, we learn that the narrator is estranged from her momma. Next, on song number three, the protagonist begins to disconnect: sweet in bare feet but remote, gone where nobody goes in the North Country. Things started ghostly, and they’re getting spookier as they go along, but you’re still not going to be prepared for what comes next: the ballad of a woman who has given up on the possibility of human connection, or making any sort of mark on the memories of those around her. Her innocence is trashed and she hasn’t seen her mother in a long, long time; holed up at a seedy Ramada and trading in sex, doubting that anybody would believe her, or even listen, if she cried rape. From there, the album descends into shadow and refraction, moments that are genuinely terrifying, prayers for dead relatives, and a long, shuddering traverse of her emotional history. Some of it is drawn out and difficult. Some of it might have been freestyled from deep within a fugue. But if you’ve listened carefully from the beginning, she’ll have you right in the middle of the whirlpool and she won’t let go. And listening carefully is all she’s asking you to do. After all she’s done for us, how could we think of saying no?

Album That Ends Most Strongly

For the better part of a decade, Danny Brown has been trying to convince us that his screwed-up youth in borderline poverty conditions in urban Detroit drove him to dive into a pile of Adderall headfirst. Well, maybe. Anybody who describes his environment with such magnificent detail is bound to be a product of it. But on the last five songs of Quaranta, he tells a more complicated story. Over beats that approach the quality of the sublime, and prove, once again, that hip-hop is the most beautiful music on earth, he admits to messing up his relationships and prioritizing his professional ambitions in a way that any middle manager might identify with. And when Danny returns to an emotional depiction of his early life, he intertwines the sound and feel of old R&B records with his family history so tightly that he leaves no doubt that anything but music could be his life pursuit.

Album That Wore Out Most Quickly

Jessie Ware’s That! Feels Good! I guess I fibbed in the 2023 Abstract that the thinness of the lyrics didn’t bug me.

Album That Felt Most Like An Obligation To Get Through

New Blue Sun. Let it be known: I listened to it all the way through three times. I doubt I would have done that for anybody but Andre Benjamin.

Album That Sounded Like It Was The Most Fun To Make

Cory Hanson of Wand gave himself license to make an old-fashioned 1970s cock rock album with extended solos galore and copious quotes, tonal and otherwise, from Mick Box and Steve Howe. He even called it Western Cum in a quasi-sheepish attempt to let you know he’s in on the joke. Cory’s a wry guy. When he’s playing that mean guitar, though, he’s strictly business.

Album That Sounded Like It Was A Chore To Make

Peter Gabriel’s i/o, but I reckon it was well worth the effort.

Crummy Album You Listened To A Lot Anyway

Avalon Emerson’s & The Charm.

Album That Turned Out To Be A Whole Hell Of A Lot Better Than You Thought It Was At First

I’ve Got Me by Joanna Sternberg. It took a bit, but after awhile, the strength of the songcraft overcame the guilelessness of the performances, and maybe even some of the sanctimony.

Okay, singles very soon!

Black History Month Links

if it’s february in the garden state, that means excellent shows related to black history month.  did i go see them?  you betcha.

for nj arts, i wrote about the masterful tenjin ikeda linocut exhibition at the 1978 arts center in maplewood.  curated by nette forne thomas, who had her own hallucinatory, symbol-rich show at akwaaba gallery.

also on njarts.net: the tireless atim annette oton brings afrofuturism to the paper mill playhouse. (atim annette oton has also curated a very interesting group show on african spirituality in art at the seton hall gallery.)  

for the jersey city times, i paired my review of the timely, forthright lawrence ciarallo exhibition — a longer table — at art150 with a look at the succinct and powerful warriors group show at art house productions.  shrewdly curated, as all art house art shows are, by andrea mckenna.


it’s also my pleasure to spread the word about the universe of ben jones, an outstanding retrospective of one of the region’s most influential artists, co-curated by midori yoshimoto.  that’ll be up at the njcu galleries for awhile, so there’s no excuse for missing it. 


look for my review of myriad at mana contemporary.  next monday or tuesday, depending on when the jersey city times wants to run it.  i haven’t seen it yet.  but the artists in the show are all mana regulars, and it’s curated by the charismatic showman bryant small, so i’m expecting some visual excitement. 

artists: i will review your show soon, i promise!  i have pocketsful of words to distribute.  i am a johnny appleseed of discourse, scattering words around the countryside. 

thank you for reading,


Like A Fledgling Slime Demon, The 2023 Pop Music Abstract Has Hatched

Some people wait a lunchtime for a moment like this. Friends, the 2023 Pop Music Abstract has arrived:


Forty-one thousand words on one hundred and eighty-seven records. A record for excess; Tales From Topographic Me. After a year of writing constructive, wholesome things, I committed a few nights to a thoroughly corrosive and irresponsible activity. Call it a compensatory gesture. You didn’t think I became a solid citizen in my old age, did you? Gosh, no chance.

For this who are curious, the Pop Music Abstract is an exercise in automatic writing in which I line up all the albums of the year with which I have some familiarity and get down the first thing that pops into my head about them. I do this as fast as I can. The rule is that I can’t backspace. I can fix spelling errors and glaring grammar mistakes, but I cannot edit my thoughts. Once they’re thunk, they can’t be unthunk. They just have to sit there, accusingly, on the screen. If I reach the end of the Abstract and I’m not ashamed of myself, I’ve done it wrong. For those who are incurious, well, I hope you are proud of yourselves there in your ivory tower. You think you’re so much better than the rest of us. I bet you don’t even know the price of a carton of eggs. I mean, I don’t, either; I’m a vegetarian.

As you’ll suss out if you poke around, this annual exercise was done around the Thanksgiving break. I’m sure I’ve already changed my mind about most of it. I didn’t post it immediately, choosing instead to burnish my rep via tony, sophisticated prose about the arts in fine Jer-Z publications. I also traveled to Italy so I could eat arancini while thinking derogatory thoughts about various Renaissance masterpieces. That was fun. Back here in my sunny bunny corner of Jersey City, I am afraid that Mr. Alphabet has determined to make me look even worse than I am. I didn’t have many positive things to say about A and B albums. The albums at the very end weren’t much better. Thus Abstract ’23 begins with an acrid odor and leaves a bitter, aspartame-like aftertaste.

But the middle part heats up nicely! The longest entry is devoted to the transgender-critical controversy surrounding Róisín Murphy, which was a sorry episode, and you might also like to check out this one about the year’s two worst songs. My paranoid but not unreasoned rantings about the state of humanity relative to its microbial enemy are here and here. Also, there’s this — the only thing I will ever have to say on the benighted subject of artificial intelligence. In between, you’ll find the usual reflections on popular albums by such Abstract-favorite artists such as Lana Del Rey (yes), Morgan Wallen (yes), Carly Rae Jepsen (ooh yes), Travis Scott (sorta yes), Drake (eeeh), and Boygenius (nah). Who am I to hold such off-the-cuff opinions? Who am I to hold such cipollini onions? A big-nosed fella from the Garden State, that’s who. We are intimately acquainted with onions here.

You might also start from the top and read it from beginning to end. Scientists have discovered that this is something that was done by prior cultures, and thus it may come back into vogue, as egg tempera and decimation have. It is all about what you have time for. Are you too busy for the likes of me? Surely you are. But are you in the mood to goof off in the company of my prose? Could be. As I like to do, I have reactivated prior Abstracts from 2020, 2021, and 2022, which means you can read the Helena Deland entry from a few years ago that’ll help you understand why I am always banging on about mushrock. I’ll stop when they stop. Not a second before.

Irascible, but mostly harmless, like a groggy red panda,

Tris McCall

2023 Listening Schedule


El Michels Affair & Black Thought — Glorious Games

The Reds, Pinks & Purples — The Town That Cursed Your Name


Belle & Sebastian — Late Developers

Olivia Rodrigo — Guts


Avalon Emerson — & The Charm

Juan Wauters — Wandering Rebel


Travis Scott — Utopia

Paramore — This Is Why


Mon Laferte — Autopoiética

The Streets — The Darker The Shadow The Brighter The Light


Butch Walker — Butch Walker As… Glenn

Billy Woods & Kenny Segal — Maps


Indigo De Souza — All Of This Will End

Sparks — The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte


Jamila Woods — Water Made Us

Homeboy Sandman — Rich


Troye Sivan — Something To Give Each Other

White China — Hang Up The Lights


Drake — For All The Dogs

Greg Mendez — Greg Mendez


Lana Del Rey — Did You Know That There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd

Origami Angel — The Brightest Days


Steven Wilson — The Harmony Codex

Yasser Tejeda — La Madrugá


Wednesday — Rat Saw God

Cory Hanson — Western Cum


Jenny Owen Youngs — Avalanche

Black Milk — Everybody Good?


Black Country, New Road — Live At Bush Hall

Jessie Ware — That! Feels Good!


Seven Impale — Summit

Saturdays At Your Place — Always Cloudy


Owl City — Coco Moon

Osees — Intercepted Message


Susanne Sundfør — Blómi

Cut Worms — Cut Worms


The Rolling Stones — Hackney Diamonds

Peso Pluma — Genesis


Quasi — Breaking The Balls Of History

Kali Uchis — Red Moon In Venus


Morgan Wallen — One Thing At A Time

Home Is Where — The Whaler


Van Morrison — Moving On Skiffle

Joanna Sternberg — I’ve Got Me


Paul Simon — Seven Psalms

Kerry Charles — I Think Of You


Bad Bunny — Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va A Pasar Mañana

Janelle Monae — The Age Of Pleasure


Nation Of Language — Strange Disciple

The Lemon Twigs — Everything Harmony


Tiny Ruins — Ceremony

Jenny Lewis — Joy’all


Carly Rae Jepsen — The Loveliest Time

Bethany Cosentino — Natural Disaster


Charlotte Cornfield — Could Have Done Anything

Blur — The Ballad Of Darren


The New Pornographers — Continue As A Guest

Zopp — Dominion


Boygenius — The Record

The Clientele — I Am Not There Anymore


The Hold Steady — The Price Of Progress

Andy Shauf — Norm


Hardy — The Mockingbird And The Crow

Noname — Sundial


Gabrielle Aplin — Phosphorescent

White Reaper — Asking For A Ride


Poppy — Zig

Margaret Glaspy — Echo The Diamond


Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness — Tilt At The Wind No More

Karol G — Mañana Sera Bonito


Danny Brown — Quaranta

Zach Bryan — Zach Bryan


Caroline Polachek — Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

Haken — Fauna


Peter Gabriel — i/o

Crooks & Nannies — Real Life


Jake Borgemenke & Joey Joesph — Subliminal Clave

Sydney Sprague — Somebody In Hell Loves You


Avery Dakin — Bloom

Lloyd Cole — On Pain


Bestia Bebé — Vamos A Destruir

Hot Mulligan — Why Would I Watch


Bruiser And Bicycle — Holy Red Wagon

The Front Bottoms — You Are Who You Hang Out With


Open Mike Eagle — Another Triumph Of Ghetto Engineering

Rodney Crowell — The Chicago Sessions


Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds — Council Skies

Gum — Saturnia


Awakebutstillinbed — Chaos Takes The Wheel And I Am A Passenger

Valley Queen — Chord Of Sympathy


Bailey Zimmerman — Religiously. The Album

Metric — Formentera II


Graham Parker & The Goldtops — Last Chance To Learn The Twist

Mitski — The Land Is Inhospitable And So Are We


Caroline Rose — The Art Of Forgetting

Pierce The Veil — The Jaws Of Life


Nas — Magic 2

Róisín Murphy — Hit Parade


Yes — Mirror To The Sky

The Waeve — The Waeve

Pre-Art Week Links

another links page! i’m mainly doing this because instagram doesn’t play well with outgoing links. also, instagram irritates me. i know: social media is a professional responsibility. still, i’d much rather have you come here. i am my own social network.

anyway.  the calendar is about to turn to october, and the studio tour is about to mash up with art fair 14c and send us all into a tizzy.  especially me!   i will fight through my tizzy and cover as much of it as i can.  but before we get to the big blowout in jersey city, we have some unfinished business to attend to:

for the wonderful nj arts (which you should be reading every day), i covered the ann trauben and mona brody shows at the watchung arts center.  

i also had this to say about the current show at the zimmerli, which, like many zimmerli shows is a piece of new jersey arts history:

for the indispensable jersey city times, i rounded up some of the openings and closings happening this busy weekend.   my column includes katelyn halpern’s disaster place at smush, andrea mckenna’s spectral disintegration show at art house, caridad kennedy’s surreal acrylics and watercolors at saint peter’s, the latest at imur gallery, kirkland bray at the artwall, and a few other events worthy of your attention:


if you missed my review of the slow selfie show at novado gallery, here it is: 


okay — before the fair kicks off, expect reactions to the new gallery shows in montclair, valerie huhn’s opening in princeton, maybe a few other things?  maybe your exhibition?  keep bugging me.

thank you for making our return to the sugar factory such a happy occasion.  more rock soon. but now: a truckload of art. and reporting.



Directions and a Poster


I trust you are coming to the Return to the Sugar Factory on Friday night at 8 p.m. But — perhaps you are wondering how to get to the new theater. In order to rock, is a trek into the mysterious, uncharted interior of Jersey City required?

Fear not.  This is a very easy show to get to! Art House Productions is only a block from the Grove Street PATH. No matter which PATH line you take from NYC, Grove will be the second stop in New Jersey. It’s the main station dedicated to Downtown Jersey City.  When you reach the station, exit at the eastern end of the platform. You will emerge reborn from a cylindrical glass chrysalis on to Marin Boulevard. Walk north toward Morgan Street.  345 Marin Blvd. will be on the left — between Morgan and Bay.   

If you are coming by car, there are quite a few underground lots near the train station.  For instance, there is an SP+ Parking at the corner of Marin and Columbus. You could also try your luck with street parking and wander about, getting ice cream and pizza and other regional delicacies.    

If you are coming from Jersey City or nearby, you are already familiar with our arcane ways.  These instructions will be old hat to you. Do not become impatient or enraged.  Here is a poster by BARC the Dog and Camp Tokar at Wonderbunker Studios to get you absurdly excited. I know I am. 

This is a free show for Jersey City Fridays, so there’ll be lots of worthy things to do all over town.  We are not telling you to ignore these other things. We are just hoping to electrify your itinerary.

Much love from JC,


Some relevant links

Since outgoing links are difficult to include in an Instagram post, I’m just going to drop these here. For starters, you want to get a seat at our twentieth anniversary celebration of Shootout at the Sugar Factory, don’t you? I bet you do. It’s the first rock show at the new Art House Productions theater, it’ll feature slides by photographer Dorie Dahlberg and projections by Frank Ippolito, and a track-by-track full band reanimation of the second and fritziest Tris McCall album. This is a Jersey City Friday show — 8 p.m. on September 8 — and that means it’s free. But you’ll still want to reserve a seat before they’re all taken:

Here’s the reservation link:

When in Jersey City, you might get hungry. That’s been known to happen. If you’re a non-carnivore like me, you’ll want to consult by Vegetarian Option series of trip reports/reviews of acclaimed restaurants for Jersey City Times. Here’s what I’ve covered so far:

Also, if you’re a connoisseur of positivity, you might want to read these two favorable reviews on NJ Arts: one for the Victor Ekpuk show at the Bainbridge House in Princeton, and another for “The Stories We Tell,” a group show at Akwaaba Gallery in Newark.

Okay, friends, that’s all for today. More later this week as the big show approaches.