Notes on Four Pandemic-Era Albums

Four album covers

Notes on Four Pandemic-Era Albums: Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger; Mekons; Michot’s Melody Makers & Leyla McCalla; Patrick Shiroishi  

“Be gone damn bug”
-Joe McPhee

I first brought my LBJ-era record player—a small, blue wooden suitcase of a rig—to school a few years ago so my fifth graders could play records during class. They were curious about physical media. Wait, it plays on both sides? Some just liked to watch albums spin. Others wanted to test drive the tangible aspects of placing wax to turntable or the satisfying click of an analog switch. Then a student accidentally broke the record player. I felt bad. He felt worse. I left the turntable at home once it was fixed.

Then came the hybrid year. Fall of 2020. Oy. After five months at home I was back in school every day. The class was split, half in person, half at home. I sat in the front of the classroom behind laptop and a plexiglass shield, masking, trying to engage with the kids in the room who sat behind their own plastic shields, shivering because the windows were always open, desks spaced out on the grid of tape marks I’d measured out on the floor. The rest of the class was at home, looking at me on a screen, kind of like TV but much, much lamer despite my best efforts. I also had a desktop computer about ten feet away to untangle the daily technical snags. I was a one-person host, director, camera operator, talent coordinator, IT department, and counselor. Teaching felt like a side hustle.  

The room was quieter that year. Facilitating class discussions was more challenging. Partner work and hands-on activities were limited. I needed to enhance our space. It was time for the record player to return. I brought a crate of classics, along with recent releases. Force Majeure quickly emerged as the class favorite. I liked it out of the gate, but it was my students who bumped it to heavy rotation.

At the height of avoiding people and social contact, Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger, bass and harp respectively, opened their digital door to Friday brunch time performances, hosting a weekly live-stream series from their home in Harlem. Douglas sets the tone with a brief opening monologue: “Quarantine. Lockdown. How’s everyone doing? If you haven’t lost your mind yet, God is good. If you have lost your mind, that’s cool, too.” Striped down and super soothing, Force Majeure coats the psyche from start to finish.

But this isn’t easy listening. The duo isn’t trying to ease your shopping experience in a seaside gift shop. Scented candles are nice and all, but there’s more here, considerable substance in their curated set list. Douglas and Younger fold tunes from across the jazz and pop spectrum into their casual bass and harp conversations. They open with a string of ‘60s spiritual jazz touchstones—Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders—perfectly suited for the duo’s sparse arrangements. Then a trio of ‘70s AM radio hits—-the Carpenters, the Stylistics, the Jackson 5—all sturdy enough to translate from sing-along gems to acoustic instrumentals. The Kate Bush song works and even the Sting cover fits the flow. 

Douglas and Younger demonstrate a remarkable ability to project solace in a time of dire straits, acknowledging the era without being mired in it. Force Majeure was a welcome counter to the disruptions of ‘20-’21, a temporary tripwire placed in the path of the big bad, an album that still comforts with depth and grace.


The shutdown of March 2020 seems like a lifetime ago. I remember leaving my classroom for the last time on a Friday afternoon. Our students left with packets of worksheets. We thought we’d be home for a week or two. We saw a ripple on the horizon and missed the looming tsunami as the remote school model fell into semi-functional focus. 

Working from home once seemed appealing. Not having to commute. Having more say in how to carve up my day. Then I started working from home. Beyond the complications of trying to connect with nine- and ten-year-olds through a screen, there was the inescapable sense I was letting students and their families down, never working hard enough. I felt invisible despite being on-screen most of the day and kept worrying that I wasn’t generating enough evidence to prove my worth. Along the way, any moment in the day that wasn’t saturated with stress could trigger a trickle, sometimes a flood, of guilt.  

Following my final live class each afternoon, I’d record a morning meeting for the next day. I previewed the day’s schedule. I shared slides of everything families emailed to me. Photo of a giant moth in the backyard? Yes, please. Sudden fascination with drawing penguins? Thank you! I rounded up joke books and recruited my kids to join the act. I tried to call back running jokes from our pre-pandemic classroom and listen for new ones. I may have come across like Richard Simmons, but I felt more like Leonard Cohen.



“The feeling I get from the Mekons is, ‘We know each other for a long time—maybe too long—let’s close our eyes and almost not recognize each other.’ They know what it means to refresh.”
-Vito Acconti, artist/architect

The Mekons’ Exquisite was recorded during the shutdown and released as a digital-only album in June of that dumpster fire year. I didn’t download the record thinking I’d lose track of it like the handful of other digital-only albums I’ve paid for. Subconsciously, though, I wasn’t ready for songs written during and/or about that time.  

I figured Exquisite would remain the Great Lost Mekons Album, the one I’d never hear, until I saw the LP in a record store late last year. I didn’t know it had been released on vinyl and reached for it without reservation. I soon realized my subconscious had been right and I’d been wise to wait on Exquisite because as a shutdown album, yikes. The Mekons evoke the dread of that time with eerie, piercing precision.

“Who is loving you tonight?”

That’s a line that would have sent me packing in 2020 (though where would I have gone?). 


“Nobody’s there to stroke your skin
The sky is black
Something prowls around the cabin”

All the haunting desperation and uncertainty of Rudy Wurlitzer’s novel Drop Edge of Yonder in a mere three lines. And there’s more. It’s the Mekons. Their feisty working class consciousness rips with equally brass tacks. I couldn’t have weathered some of these songs during the depths of the shutdown, especially those sung by Tom Greenhalgh. He is one of the band’s three main singers and takes more of the leads on Exquisite. His voice cuts straight to the heart with a brilliant, vulnerable conviction. He croons and croaks anthems that make me feel directly wired to the heart of humanity while his ballads drill to the core of loneliness and despair, direct and one hundred proof. Exquisite would have been too strong at the time. Reality was unsettling enough even when I avoided the news cycle. I didn’t need anyone, even the beloved Mekons, personifying the virus and planting images that would haunt me long after the lights were out.  

But the Mekons wouldn’t leave us hanging. They open the shades and let the sun in, too. “What Happened to Delilah?” and “Buried Treasure” are positively buoyant. Elsewhere Farfisa hoedowns nestle up alongside soupy synths, Mariachi horns, and bass and drum breaks. In the margins lie kaleidoscopic streams of ideas, MAD’s Sergio Argones collaborating with Lee “Scratch” Perry. In the Mekons universe, as thematically cohesive as it is musically eclectic, they recontextualize the storms and offer shelter. They have a way of seeing around the bend, beyond the common sight line, shedding an alternate, more humane light on the present and reminding us decent paths can lie ahead. It’s a different kind of solace. Enjoy tonight and be ready to make good trouble in the morning.


There was talk of budget cuts at school, and I worried about losing my job. I was new to the district and stuck in the precarious position of “last one in, first one out.” The prospect of being unemployed and looking for work in my early 50s in a post-pandemic world, whatever that might look like, turned my stomach daily. And I had to keep it to myself. Button it up and press on. We all did. My kids had enough to deal with. I didn’t want my worries to bog them down. Our energy went into coordinating our lunch breaks and getting outside every day to hike, bike, or play catch. We learned the card game Pitch and binged on a Sam Cooke box set. (Well, part of it at least. My oldest insisted on the first CD every day. “Sam Cooke, disc one!”) My daughter and son started planning and promoting dinner/movie nights, posting menus and flyers around the house to build anticipation. Homemade ruffian potato salad followed by a viewing of Tangled. Breakfast for dinner and Pee Wee’s Big Holiday. My kids kept me afloat.  


Singer and cellist Leyla McCalla met up with Louis Michot’s Melody Makers to record Tiny Islands at an outdoor performance in March 2021. The band photo depicts masking and distancing, taking the precautions of the day, but their performance shows no signs of the lurking apocalypse.  

I was drawn to Tiny Islands by Robert H. Cataliotti’s review in Living Blues, in particular the way he conveyed the setting—the band, outdoors at night, playing by firelight for a small camera and recording crew, with countless frogs and insects chiming in. And while I knew the album was recorded on a small island in southern Louisiana, the notion of the record, complete with its chorus of nocturnal wildlife, evoked my brother’s backyard fires in central New York.  

McCalla had me from the set up to “Latibonit,” which is set in a valley in Haiti: “The song says, ‘I went to see the sun, I found the sun was sleeping. When I came back, I found the sun had died, and it hurts my heart to bury the sun.’ When I learned that devastating news, I had to learn this song.” That’s a compelling instinct. McCalla dances with the melody, heightening the heartache with a dizzying, cosmic delivery, one that offers refuge and renewal.

As she’s singing, McCalla is also churning on the cello, intensely strumming the strings, infusing the song with an infectious bounce. At the song’s conclusion, she starts laughing. I think it’s a response to the fauna who decided to sit in on the session. I like to think everyone in the band noticed the critters all along, refrained from reacting, and then made eye contact as the song drew to a close which prompted McCalla’s laughter.

Michot matches the mood whether supporting or singing lead. Theirs is an intoxicating collaboration that draws on Haitian and Cajun traditions—traditional dance music revolving around lyrics of heartache and yearning. I also dig when McCalla and Michot trade verses like the plaintive “Les Plats Sont Tous Mis Sur La Table.”

The Melody Makers are there every step of the way. Bassist Bryan Webre waltzes and two-steps with drummer Kirkland Middleton who plays with a t-shirt draped over his snare to take the edge off, as my buddy Bake would say. And then there’s guitarist Mark Bingham. He seems to hang in the breeze just beyond ear’s reach, sliding in and out of the periphery, the faintest of sonic apparitions that sometimes leaves me wondering if my mind is playing tricks on me. And Bingham is credited with mixing the record. He could have easily pushed his guitar front and center, but I love his artful, playful restraint.    

Either element—the duo of McCalla and Michot or supporting the trio of Webre, Middleton, and Bingham—could hold court on their own, but they’re better off together. (If that sounds like a summary of Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, so be it.) The composite is captivating—intoxicating rhythms adorned by a delicacy unique to (mostly) acoustic instruments that simultaneously take flight and dig deep into terra firma. It makes for an atmosphere in which I can see the shadows against the flickering flames and feel the Louisiana warmth. I just wish Tiny Island was longer. The five songs and twenty-three minutes pass too quickly. I could float through this world for hours.     


In the ensuing years, despite all the strife, I’ve thought of that time as my best teaching and parenting. I was proud of how we helped each other through. I mentioned this once to my kids. Their response was whiplash quick and adamant: “Hell no!” The shutdown was the worst of times and I was never to speak of it again. They didn’t want to play Pitch. Ever. They were done with Sam Cooke disc one. No more dinner/movie nights,  and I didn’t dare mention online learning. They hated those months with such intensity as to knock my “rose-colored glasses” to the ground and melt them with über intense death glares.

A similar pattern has emerged at school, though it’s more of a slow burn. Someone will mention March of 2020, a reference to our naiveté like, “It’s so funny we thought we’d be out of school for a week!” A slight escalation, “Remember how confusing everything was?” Then some examples—the technical challenges, the isolation, the paralyzing fear that we weren’t doing enough—followed by a shared shiver, a mild, momentary form of PTSD. At those times I’m tempted to continue because who else could relate but a fellow teacher? But there’s an unspoken recognition that while the emerging dread is shared, it’s best to change the subject.



“Excellence happens in isolation”
-RZA, Wu Tang: An American Saga

Patrick Shiroishi’s I was too young to hear silence is a different kind of pandemic record. In contrast to groups of musicians collaborating to overcome shared obstacles, I was too young to hear silence is a solo adventure, one person among the elements, or in Shiroishi’s case, a saxophonist dueting with his environment. Shiroishi recorded the album late one night in October of 2020. He brought his alto and recording gear to a parking garage in Monterey Park, CA and transformed the space into a concert hall.

The album opens with Shiroishi deploying depth charges, brief jarring, bursts of sound, mapping the scene. A blast. An echo. A slow fade to sustained silence. Then again. Attack, decay, slow fade. He plays with the echoes and silences, ducks into the shadows, reemerges, invites us to do the same. Meanwhile water trickles in the background as Shiroishi rumbles on, surges and surfs. I wouldn’t have welcomed those pauses during peak pandemic. I already had too much time to think, too much space to fill.

Just as Shiroishi manipulates time and place, he plays with timbre. Sometimes his sax resembles Little Walter’s amplified harmonica, the steely, vibrant sounds of mid-century Chicago. Other times a violin, which led me to drifting, envisioning Shiroishi Voltroning with the likes of Sarah Bernstein, Jason Kao Hwang, and Tomeka Reid to form a supergroup string quartet. But more than anything a saxophone—sweet, provocative, and soulful—delving deep.

In The Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib writes about how dancer Bill Bailey designed his act to maximize the impact of his closing move, the backslide, later known as the moon walk. Bailey moved with his entire body throughout his performance, but he wanted audiences focused on his feet for his exit and he used the preceding time to lead their eyes and attention. He left nothing to chance.

Shiroishi employs a similar approach. After he establishes the framework—directs our focus to the interplay between sound and what surrounds it, guides us to consider both in full effect—he breaks out. His earlier explorations lead to more explosive playing, especially on side two, as he stretches and glides, roars like a freight train. On “rain, after running away” he foregrounds a single note, lets it linger, before responding with short phrases that break across the backdrop. The torrential sounds of “hunting the eye of his own storm” are more about the squall than the calm waiting at the center. The word choice in the title is intriguing, hunting rather than searching or seeking. It’s a different kind of pursuit, a different set of obstacles. 

Shiroishi’s titles suggest a wealth of narrative currents flowing beneath the surface. “tule lake blues” references the Arizona prison camp in which his grandfather, Hidemi, was held without due cause during World War II. “how will we get back to life again?” could apply to the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s or surviving the pandemic of the 2020s. While “is it possible to send promises backwards?” projects a plea across generations. Brandon Shimoda’s lyrical liner notes carefully open the aperture further. He writes about the Japanese kaidan of Okiku who haunts the man who pushed her down a well along with those who did nothing to stop him; the spike in hate crimes directed at Asian-Americans; and Shiroishi’s evolution as a musician and who plays with space/silence. 

The set up is so simple—one person playing saxophone outdoors—and yet so much converges on i was too young to hear silence. It’s a stirring, probing performance that opens countless portals, as beguiling as challenging.


During the summer of 2020 I ran into friends at a Black Lives Matter rally. We hadn’t seen each other in weeks and they spoke about the pandemic era scrapbook they were making. I didn’t press for details. I couldn’t imagine ever revisiting that time and hoped my brain would do me the favor of letting as many details as possible drain away.

But these albums are scrapbooks of a kind and we can’t afford to forget the lessons learned, especially those of us who have the privilege of forgetting, who could easily slip back into the before, flawed though it was. These records roll down the windows and let the cool air in. They also wipe the windshield, provide a clearer view. Dezron Douglas, Brandee Younger, the Mekons, Leyla McCalla, Michot’s Melody Makers, and Patrick Shiroishi were able to create remarkable work in a time of chaos. They had the capacity to take ideas beyond the claustrophobic era of their creation. So many things flow across our tables in the mayhem of a day, and music like this helps me get past shallow breathing and fill my lungs and mind months, years later. Listen, learn, adjust. Woke as starting point, not attempted slander.


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