By The Pittsburgh Current Staff
From contributing writer Justin Vellucci
Drumroll. Drumroll, please.
I submit for your consideration, dear reader, my selections for Pittsburgh record of the year – two brilliant debut offerings on opposite ends of the volume spectrum. Both are available on Bandcamp, nudge, nudge.
LOUD: TRVSS – Absence. Visceral noise-rock that blisters the skin. The band’s 10-song debut lashed at the senses in all the right ways, with dirgy bass, pounding percussion and frontman Daniel Gene’s barbed-wire aluminum-guitar antics. There are other Pittsburgh bands that have mastered the complexities and angularities of noise-rock and post-hardcore – I’m looking at you, Microwaves – but nobody did it better in 2019 than TRVSS.
QUIET: Revival Choir – “Finn.” Singer/songwriter Sean Atkins quietly released this understated gem of Americana without so much as a release party or a press release, making discovery of the record (however it came to you) all the more special. Atkins has a whispy, even smoky kind of croon that accentuates the romantic longing on much of his band’s debut, and a gentle shuffle of acoustic guitar whose hooks and melody will knock off your feet. Indispensable.
From contributing writer Mike Shanley
When I sat down to try and write about the events of the past year, it became a challenge. It seemed like we had a number of losses this year, beginning with Juke Records, the final iteration of the record store at 4526 Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield and moving ahead with Roky Erickson, the founder of psych-rockers the 13th Floor Elevators, who lived in Pittsburgh for a few years. But it’s hard to compile a list of goodbyes, unless one assembles a massively comprehensive one. Even then, if you leave out one, someone’s going to raise Cain.
That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a limited scope of some of the more positive things that happened this year. Much attention has been given to the reopening of the Thunderbird Café and Music Hall in Lawrenceville and the opening of the Roxian Theatre in McKees Rocks. But some newer spaces for jazz have popped up this year as well. Kingfly Spirits in the Strip District hosts a Thursday night event, which recalls the Space Exchange series that the Thunderbird once hosted. Curated by saxophonist Ben Opie, the free event can run the gamut from straight-ahead to wildly experimental.
Con Alma has brought a regular jazz room back to Shadyside. Calling the Ellsworth Avenue space “intimate” might be an understatement, but you can’t beat the feeling of being in close quarters with the music.
With all the new development happening in the Strip District, the Pennsylvania Market’s jazz programming might have escaped some people’s radar. But the Wine Library on the second floor offers an ideal space for listening as well.
Additionally, here are five of the more impressive jazz events that happened this year, in no particular order.
ROVA SAXOPHONE QUARTET, OCTOBER 20 AT FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH. The Bay Area group, well into their fourth decade, produced an amazing set, full of thought-provoking compositions and group improvisation that displayed some astounding technique.
ANTONIO HART SEXTET, DECEMBER 7 AT NEW HAZLETT THEATER. The alto saxophonist was bound to deliver a great show but the mood in the room and the rapport between the players lifted took the music to a higher, tighter level.
THE PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL, JUNE 20-23, DOWNTOWN. Where to begin? From saxophone legend Charles Lloyd to upcoming saxophonist Nubya Garcia, drummer Makaya McCraven and salute to vocalist Betty Davis that climaxed with Nona Hendryx walking through the crowd, this weekend event presented a wide array of strong music.
SUN OF GOLDFINGER, MARCH 20 AT SPIRIT LODGE. The power trio of saxophonist Tim Berne, guitarist David Torn and drummer Ches Smith created a mind-numbing set of loose but energetic improvisations that got pretty cerebral as the night went on.
THE PITT JAZZ SEMINAR CONCERT, NOVEMBER 2 AT CARNEGIE MUSIC HALL. The first Pitt Jazz event since flutist Nicole Mitchell became head of Jazz Studies, this one divided listeners. Rather than the blowing sessions that were part and parcel of years gone by, the concert featured more abstract work and free improvisation. It wasn’t a consistent set. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell limited himself to minimal honking. The great pianist Jason Moran sat on his hands for some time. Experimental musician and poet Moor Mother should have given the group more breathing room between verses. But Nicole Mitchell deserves kudos for presenting a bold event. Audience members might have walked out mid-show, but that’s what they do in the big cities too. One night earlier, the seminar presented pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers in solo recital that was truly spiritual.
From contributing writer Emma Christley
Favorites of 2019: Albums
As my Spotify Artist of the Year and the Decade, it’s no surprise that I was very excited for this release. I couldn’t bring myself to pick out just a few tracks to highlight this album, but trust me, it’s worth giving the whole thing a listen. His lyrics alone are well worth your time, but the culmination of influences from jazz and blues classics makes it a fun listen too.
Maggie Rogers-Heard It In a Past Life
I first fell in love with Maggie Rogers when she played on SNL earlier this year. Since then, I’ve come to find her clean sound and lyrics refreshing, heartfelt, and sincere. I particularly find her interesting in regards to her history, the fact that she was a student at NYU before being discovered by Pharrell in a masterclass. The video of him hearing her song for the first time is online and it’s so exciting to watch knowing the success she would go on to have.
Favorite Tracks: “Light On,” “Say It,” “Fallingwater”
Jonas Brothers-Happiness Begins
The anticipation of the Jonas Brothers’ return was almost palpable on the eve of the single release in late February of this year. Since then, the band has embarked on a 92 show tour and released an album that reintroduces the sibling band as adults. I really enjoyed the new sound of this album and I’m genuinely looking forward to what the boys get up to next.
Favorite Tracks: “Only Human,” “Rollercoaster”
“Someone You Loved” -Lewis Capaldi
What drew me to this track was the feeling that I had heard it before. That may be a negative to some listeners, but for me it was soothing and reminiscent of other songs I’d loved from the likes of Passenger, George Ezra, James Bay, and others. The video starring Peter Capaldi is also breathtakingly beautiful and is a perfect companion to the song, which I can’t hear without thinking of the stunning visual that accompanies it.
Harry Styles — “Watermelon Sugar”
As a former One Direction stan, I have not done a very good job at keeping up with the members’ solo work, so this year I made it a point to get familiar. I thought the video for “Lights Up” was cool but it didn’t stick with me. It wasn’t until Harry debuted this song during a performance on SNL earlier this fall that I finally thought “Oh, I get it” and this song has been on repeat ever since.
Louis Tomlinson- “We Made It”
Another former One Directioner, Tomlinson has had a rough go at getting a solo career off the ground. After a few singles in 2017 that didn’t seem to do as much as anyone anticipated, 2019 saw Tomlinson’s return with a handful of singles that represent a complete vision. Even interviews with the artist show him to be much happier and confident in this new sound, which I’m all for.
Post Malone- “Circles”
I would not call myself a massive Post Malone fan, but I do have respect for the work that he puts out. This track off his most recent album in particular offers a sound that is different from the one usually associated with him. I also appreciate his lyrics, I don’t find him recycling the same tired themes that is typical of the radio-friendly pop-rap genre.
Fans of the film Sing Street may recognize the name Mark McKenna as one of the main actors and may be surprised to learn that he has a band of his own called Milk. This latest venture for McKenna had released three singles this year, beginning with “Drama Queen” and most recently “A Little More,” but my favorite has to be “Temperature.” Fans of the 1975’s early music will find a similar sound in Milk. and I’m excited for them to release a full album, hopefully in the new year.
Taylor Swift- “Paper Rings”
When I saw the very big and colorful video for “ME!” earlier this year, I was very nervous. I really liked the direction Swift was going in with Reputation, but this looked and felt like a retreat in the complete opposite direction. It’s still not my favorite Taylor Swift album, but I did enjoy it more than I thought I would. Particularly this song, which has the very sweet sentiment “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings.” It’s such a refreshing, genuine love song that says “I love you so much that it doesn’t matter to me the material things as long as I get to be with you” which is not a story told in pop music very often.
Failed to Live Up To Hype
Logic- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Some call it cheesy, but I really enjoyed the social awareness that Logic had on “1-800” from 2017’s Everybody and even the lyricism on “Nikki” from his 2014 mixtape Under Pressure. I even liked the title track from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which was released as a single ahead of the album. But both the album and the one before it that accompanied the rapper’s debut novel Supermarket failed to inspire the same spark for me that previous work of his did.
Ed Sheeran-No6 Collabs
I’m generally not a fan of collaboration albums and this effort from Ed Sheeran proved no exception. I’m usually a big fan of Sheeran’s but he lost me when the only song to get any radio play from this album was his duet with Bieber. Looking at the rest of the tracklist left me feeling uninspired to take a chance on any other songs. The Sheeran of 2011’s + seems so far away.
I’ll be sorry i admitted this, but I was a Liam Payne fan once upon a time, back when he was still in One Direction. In fact he was my favorite. Oh how I regret that now. I have many issues with this solo effort. First, the music on “Stack It Up” is straight up stolen from Selena Gomez’s 2016 track “Same Old Love.” It is too uncanny to be coincidental. Second, on “Strip That Down,” Payne name-drops his former group, but in a dismissive way, which doesn’t seem to be a good look, especially when the majority of his fanbase is following him from his boyband days. Third, the themes of his songs, particularly on “Bedroom Floor,” just seem tired and overdone. This album didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, but something fresh or original would have been appreciated.