Our favorite things this week include posthumous Mac Miller, a new magazine from Third Man, and proto-techno from San Francisco's gay discos.
This week, Mac Miller fans received something akin to a divine message from the grave. Miller’s estate released the late artist’s first posthumous single, “Good News,” from his unfinished sixth-studio album, Circles, which is set for release today. Both tender and gloomy, “Good News”’ creeps along steadily, strung together with sleepy guitar-picking over polished textures. It’s no banger, but a low-key track that glitters in its own way.
It’s hard not to read into the introspective lyrics as a hauntingly prognostic. “Well it ain’t that bad, it could always be worse,” Miller sings, as if forcing himself to speak aloud the words which will keep him afloat. “Good News” takes us into the artist’s head at a moment when he seemed to be striking a deal with his demons, however uncertain the path forward may be. Miller sounds exhausted, but not desperate. Only time made this song a tragic one. Like most posthumous releases, it feels like discovering an unearthed gem. It’s a piece of the artist that’s still breathing, and thankfully, there’s more to come. (Devorah Levy-Pearlman)
As I’ve written before, my defenses are up against Third Man Records, but the premiere issue of its magazine, Maggot Brain, is right up my alley. The perfect-bound publication is on-brand for Third Man as it embraces a retro technology—magazines—and a things-were-better-back-when ethos, but the subjects for stories include Alice Coltrane, J. Dilla, Mia Zapata, and Daniel Johnston, and it includes photos essays on malls in the ’80s, a homegrown Central Florida BMX festival, and painted signs in Detroit.
The strength of Maggot Brain is the clear desire to sidestep conventional music journalism in favor of something more essay-like. In the most interesting pieces, Nate Patrin hears Dilla addressing the illness that would take his life in 2006 in his last album, Donuts, and Michaelangelo Matos talks about electronic duo The KLF’s disregard for copyright niceties and the musical pranks they pulled with that attitude in mind.
If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that the pieces rarely reach as far as they could and probably should. The introduction to the Tuareg trio Les Filles de Illighadad (who will play Jazz Fest this year) needs some stakes. It introduces the term “tende” as the name of both an instrument and the music made with it, but writer Ana Gavrilovska doesn’t explore with enough focus what changes when an all-women trio makes it. Readers get a little about the gender politics of the rare, all-women Tuareg band, but Gavrilovska touches on many interesting elements without exploring one. Similarly, Michael Turner’s first-person “review” of the BMX guerrilla festival Swampfest focuses on the outrageous, improbable event and its homemade structures without dealing with the people who clearly thrive on this 2019 iteration of the impulses that led to Burning Man, backyard wrestling, and extreme sports. Turner goes a great job of getting my attention and letting us know that the event is wild and crazy, but he doesn’t get to why people risk falling on their pumpkins trying to shoot a loop made up of plywood sheets duct-taped into a circle.
That said, there are enough smart, talented people involved to give Maggot Brain a chance to work out the kinks. The desire for a different kind of music journalism led to this site and others like it, and in print it led to the late, great Motorbooty, Grand Royal, and the Oxford American music issues. Because it’s a Third Man project, there’s no website associated with it. Will that be enough to drive enough readers to pay for Maggot Brain and make it profitable? Or, sufficiently funded that Third Man doesn’t lose too much on it? Whatever, enjoy it while you can. (Alex Rawls)
Patrick Cowley was an early AIDS casualty, dying in 1982 at the age of 32 when people were just starting to realize that there was a disease. His part of the apartment he shared in San Francisco’s Castro District was dangerously strung with a network of wires, cables, and patch cords for the analog synthesizers and the electronic devices he experimented with. At the time, he had little presence in the music world under his own name and was was best known for collaborating on Sylvester’s biggest hit, “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.” His work with Sylvester and on his own on the 1981 dance club hit “Menergy” made him a pioneer in hi-NRG, an uptempo electronic disco subgenre that had more influence in Europe and the UK than in the States. His body of work has only been unearthed in the last decade by the Dark Entries label, and those releases mark Cowley as a subject as worthy of reconsideration as Giorgio Moroder and other electronic dance music creators from the ‘70s and early ’80s. They used the dance floor—particularly the dance floors of gay discos—to work out ideas about music’s technological future.
Late last year, Dark Entries released Mechanical Fantasy Box, a curious collection of unreleased music by Cowley. It touches on a number of his musical interests, not just hi-NRG but ambient synth explorations, and it makes clear how central his sexuality was to his creativity with song titles like “Lumberjacks in Heat” and “Right Here, Right Now. The tracks themselves now seem a little quaint next to the textures that dubstep producers get, but they’re unquestionably the work of a singular vision. Cowley’s work lacks Kraftwerk’s austerity and Moroder’s luxe quality, but those with an ear for the retrofuturism can hear Cowley trying to imagine a musical world that vibrated in sync with the gay discos that meant to much to him. At the same time, you can easily draw the line between the dance music he made and the music made today. (Rawls)