Hear Us Out: April Brought Us Devastating Loss and the Best Album of the Year
Artists and fans alike tried not to lose their minds during a surprisingly eventful month in music
This is Hear Us Out, a column charting the storylines and releases that mattered — to us, and hopefully you — in the world of music over the past month.
When we first launched this column last month in the middle of a pandemic, there was no telling whether we’d even have enough new music to write about in April after the industry was devastated by tour cancellations, venue closures and album postponements. As the weeks went on and the scope of the virus became clear, we did, sadly, realize the potential for the majority of the month’s music news to be tragic: “Will this space be a list of COVID-19-related obituaries next month?” I wondered.
There are, unfortunately, some of those here. But music continues to be a balm during these scary, frustrating times, and in addition to all the devastating loss that April brought the industry — of work, of income, but most importantly, of some irreplaceable talents — the month also delivered a whole lot of good in the form of high-profile benefit performances and some incredible new albums. With that in mind, we’ve highlighted some of the major storylines and releases below.
YOUR LOCAL RECORD STORE NEEDS YOUR HELP
Under normal circumstances, April would be the month in which we’d urge you to go to your local independent record store and throw down some cash on exclusive releases (or whatever strikes your fancy as you’re crate-digging) on Record Store Day. Obviously we can’t do that right now, as record stores across the country — just like plenty of other small businesses in need of your help — are currently shuttered due to the quarantine. The annual event was initially postponed to June 20 back in March, but as summer inches closer, it’s painfully clear that that date was a little too optimistic. This week, it was announced that Record Store Day has been pushed back for a second time, and it will be broken up into three smaller events — on Aug. 29, Sept. 26 and Oct. 24 — in an attempt to help stores enforce social distancing.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that record stores, many of which have been forced to cope with declining sales long before any of us even heard the word “coronavirus,” need our help right now. Taylor Swift kicked off the month with a large donation to help keep Nashville’s beloved Grimey’s afloat, but other stores haven’t been so lucky. Earlier this week, Amoeba Music announced it has no choice but to permanently close its original Hollywood location ahead of schedule, and the store’s cofounders launched a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help their remaining locations survive. (As of this writing, they’ve raised $231,916 of their $400,000 goal.) And while you can’t physically set foot in a record store yet to rifle through their wares, many shops are still conducting sales online. (Rough Trade in NYC, for example, just announced it’s back open for online sales earlier this week.) What better time to show your support by picking up some new wax?
ZOOM BENEFIT CONCERTS BECAME A THING…
By the time April rolled around, most of us had already been quarantined for two or three weeks, meaning artists had been stuck inside long enough to experiment with performing over Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. By then, it had become clear that the situation was dire, both for the frontline healthcare workers doing their best to treat COVID-19 patients and the millions of Americans financially impacted by the virus in some way. It’s natural, then, that musicians who are in a position to help put two and two together and the remote benefit concert was born. The “One World: Together At Home” concert, organized by Global Citizen and Lady Gaga, raised a whopping $128 million for healthcare workers and the World Health Organization. The Rolling Stones may have created a buzz with their performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Charlie Watts’s missing drum kit, but the best performance of the night came from Stevie Wonder, who paid tribute to his late friend Bill Withers with “Leon On Me” before segueing into “Love’s In Need of Love Today.”
Later on, the “Jersey 4 Jersey” benefit raised $5.9 million for the New Jersey Pandemic Relief fund thanks in part to the performance below from the Garden State’s favorite son and his wife, Patti Scialfa. One of the night’s most moving moments came when Fountains of Wayne (who also hail from New Jersey) paid tribute to their late bandmate Adam Schlesinger — who died of COVID-19 complications on April 1 — with a Sharon Van Etten-assisted performance of “Hackensack.”
…AND SO DID QUARANTINE TUNES
The quarantine also inspired plenty of artists to release tracks they’ve been sitting on with lyrics that are especially relevant to our current situation or pen new ones that make more explicit references to self-isolation. Hamilton Leithauser covered Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest” and changed some of the lyrics towards the end to reflect our current hellscape (“I guess this virus is gonna get us all/All my show’s have been postponed/All my friends live on my phone/My data plan is running low/Papa Pence says “You’ll be alright,” but the ATM is just a little less bright”). Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy released “All In It Together” to remind us that we are, in fact, all in this together. New Kids on the Block teamed up with Boyz II Men, Jordin Sparks, Big Freedia and Naughty By Nature for “House Party,” which reminds us all to do our part by staying in. Walter Martin got an assist from The National’s Matt Berninger on the hilarious charity single “Quarantine Boogie” (“My savings got erased/I can’t touch my face/And the only place I feel safe is in a webinar/Yeah I’ve gone a bit loco/Spent the morning Cloroxing my last can of Budweiser,” he sings, before ultimately concluding “Just watched some guy from Death Cab for Cutie do a concert in his pajamas/But the birds still sing/And the bees still sting/And I still refuse to watch Tiger King.”)
Even The Rolling Stones felt compelled to put out a quarantine track, surprise-releasing “Living In A Ghost Town,” their first new original song since 2012.
Even though we knew that the virus meant we’d be in for a rough month, we weren’t emotionally prepared for just how many legendary artists we lost in April. As mentioned earlier, it started on April 1 when former Fountains of Wayne member (and massively talented songwriter) Adam Schlesinger succumbed to the virus at the age of 52. The next day, the virus took the life of jazz great Ellis Marsalis. On April 3, the family of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers announced he had died at the age of 81 (of cardiac arrest, not coronavirus). On April 6, producer and longtime Saturday Night Live music supervisor Hal Willner died of COVID-19, and the following day, so did the legendary John Prine.
After a touching tribute to the beloved singer-songwriter from Maywood, Illinois from Stephen Colbert on the Late Show, Brandi Carlile covered Prine’s classic “Hello In There,” saying, “I think that this is a song that John would have liked me to sing because this song refers to the people that we’re all staying home to protect, and it reminds us that older people aren’t expendable, that they made us who we are and they’ve given us every single thing that we have. So even though John never got to get old, and we all would have liked for him to, at the age of 24 when he wrote this song, he understood this.”
Prine’s longtime friend and collaborator Bonnie Raitt also paid her respects, recording a performance of Karla Bonoff’s “Home” (which she released on her 1977 album Sweet Forgiveness) and dedicating the performance to him, saying “To that angel from Montgomery, this one’s for John.”
Conan O’Brien paid tribute to Schlesinger on his show, recalling a memorable post-9/11 Fountains of Wayne performance of The Kinks’ “Better Things.” “I was trying to get my show up and running again, and it was very difficult to get a comedy show up under those circumstances,” he said. “Adam just loved and worshipped Ray Davies and the Kinks, and they performed ‘Better Things’ that first week we came back after 9/11. At the time, I couldn’t imagine a better song for people to be listening to than ‘Better Things,’ and now here we are and Adam has just passed, and once again I can’t think of a better song for these times.”
Saturday Night Live took time out of its first-ever “SNL At Home” episode to honor Willner with a tribute clip that featured former and current cast members paying their respects over Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” “We are gonna miss you so damn much, you were just a great man,” Adam Sandler told the camera. “I don’t know why someone who was already friends with Miles Davis had a big enough heart to include me in their life, but he did,” John Mulaney said.
There were, of course, plenty of tributes to Withers as well (including Questlove’s four-hour “Bill Still” DJ set). His song “Lean On Me” hits extra hard in these unprecedented times we find ourselves in, and I’ve gotta say, watching John Legend perform it over footage of healthcare workers, people cheering from their windows, Zoom marriages and other heartwarming testaments to the human spirit sure has made it dusty in here.
“John Prine: The Last Days and Beautiful Life of an American Original” by Rolling Stone‘s Patrick Doyle, Billboard‘s list of the “50 Greatest Minivan Rock Songs”, and two tributes to Adam Schlesinger written by singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks (who penned “Fountains of Wayne Hotline“): a shorter one for Variety, and a lengthy, must-read one for the Talkhouse).
KEY ALBUM RELEASES
Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Fiona Apple’s stunning new album — her first since 2012’s The Idler Wheel… — was an absolute gift to music fans starved for entertainment this month. It’s a raw, challenging record, and it’s arguably her best work to date, an early contender for album of the year fully deserving of the perfect 10 score it received from Pitchfork, the first the site has doled out in a decade. (Read more about why Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an essential listen here.)
Hamilton Leithauser, The Loves of Your Life
One of the things I miss most while quarantined is the ability to people-watch, and Hamilton Leithauser’s music has provided the perfect soundtrack for that activity for two decades now. (If you’ve never sat on a bench and stared out at a crowd while listening to The Walkmen’s “Another One Goes By,” I highly recommend it.) But Leithauser’s latest, the excellent The Loves of Your Life, is sort of like a sonic people-watching session, as each track is inspired by a real person in his life. (Read more about why Leithauser’s album is the perfect hopeful record for the times we find ourselves in here.)
Thundercat, It Is What It Is
Thundercat’s latest offering is, like all of his work, a delightful blend of jazz, funk, pop and hip-hop, and it features some impressive contributions from Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, Childish Gambino, Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and Ty Dolla $ign. On “Existential Dread,” he gives us words to live by in these bizarre times: “Sometimes, existential dread comes ringin’ through loud and clear/I’ll adjust and simply let go.”
SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR
Big Thief dropped the lovely “Love in Mine,” an outtake from 2019’s Two Hands; Nick Cave covered the T. Rex classic “Cosmic Dancer” for the forthcoming tribute compilation Angelheaded Hipster (which was produced by the late Hal Willner); Beyoncé blew away the internet with her bars on the remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”; Perfume Genius, PUP, Hinds, The Killers, Low Cut Connie and Khruangbin all gave us tastes of new albums we can look forward to in the coming months; Rufus Wainwright dropped the aptly titled “Alone Time’; and Bob Dylan resurfaced with no warning yet again for “I Contain Multitudes.” You can listen to all that and more in the playlist below.
Suggested for you