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Herb Sundays 77: Jonah Weiner (Blackbird Spyplane)
The Blackbird Spyplane writer with music that makes him feel like he's "sinking into it, or like it's engulfing me."
Jonah Weiner, a proper journalist and clotheshorse/aesthete, writes Blackbird Spyplane, a style & culture newsletter alongside his co-founder, Erin Wylie (who dropped an excellent “Concorde” edition behind the paywall today). In BBSP, Jonah offers their “unbeatable recon” of under-served items from around the globe, including clothing, ceramics, housewares, and more, all in the good-natured service of sharing beauty.
Any time a new platform emerges, whether it’s Substack (born 2017) or the Sega Genesis (US debut, 1989) you need to find someone (or something) that pushes the limits of said space, showing the potential of the platform to the rest of its would-be users and makers. So to keep this moving, Blackbird Spyplane is to Substack, as Sonic The Hedgehog is to the Sega Genesis: A big, bad platformer showing how powerful the Newsletter (or “sletter” in BBSP terminology) can be.
Where BBSP succeeds year after year is the implied covenant they have with the reader, which is"celebrating people who make and love cool under-the-radar shit." They are always in service of discovery and share an enthusiasm for deep finds, deadstock, and maybe just inverting the cool value of something previously deemed unimaginable. I am sure Herb Sundays, in its quest to repatriate uncool as cool through the lens of erudite curators, has been inspired by BBSP.
A lot is made of BBSP as a “voice” which is its trademark (alongside its deskilled Photoshop look) which reads as an unhinged outsider/insider and helps decriminalize the often suspect, lusty gaze of garments. We’ve (Ghostly) trafficked in the same waters with Ghostly After Dark over the years, a twisted ‘social media manager’ persona to devastating effect on our readership and fandom. Daily, I am haunted by tweets to “bring back” the Night Manager as if he’s living in Ecuador with no computer. The BBSP voice (and GAD, fwiw) isn’t insincere though, it’s a modality of thinking and a space to be enthusiastic in a landscape that is dominated by hot takes.
If the Blackbird newsletter were a person, it would be the tour guide your friend matched you with when traveling to a new, distant city. They are a little overeager, and you’re hoping the exotic bazaar he’s driving you to is indeed there, but then you finally get there in the dusty jeep and you leave with an incredible item, some great local food, plus a story to tell.
BBSP is the Pangaea of a few key current cultural landmasses: Garments/Vintage (see friend-of-the-sletter, Intramural), Recommendation Culture (leaders of the new school Perfectly Imperfect, and this here newsletter), and low stakes societal/cultural review (See Sean Monahan’s 8Ball (which gave us “vibe shift,” though popularized by Allison P. Davis (Herb 57) and the Avengers of Now, K-Hole (which was helped set up by Galcher Lustwerk, Herb 59) who gave us Normcore, an amino acid building block (and Seinfeld taxonomic device) of BBSP.
Late 2020’s BBSP transmission “Are You Wearing CURSED GORP??” can only be described next to Darwn’s On The Origins Of Species in terms of importance for their respective fields. At every turn of BBSP, Weiner, who is beautifully self-aware, is attempting to make sense of the myriad consumer decisions we make, how ridiculous they are, but how fun they can be. In fact, want more Jonahs in my life in all fields of study. If Substack ever kicks, he’ll be an easy TV salesman for a future Public Access network after Armageddon, selling some incredible German wrench set he found just for you.
I had been noticing Jonah posting more music recently, and it follows his love for deep and under-represented acts like web-blasted futurist James Ferraro, New Age sultan Laraaji, and the Herb-ed out domains of the Windham Hill catalog, where you need a trusty field guide to make sure you don’t fall into a sinkhole of schmaltz. Records are jawns too, you know. In his own words from a previous newsletter:
“Spyplane HQ blasting Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, William Basinski, Suzanne Ciani and maybe even a d*mn Mobb Deep instrumental or two!!”
Of course, the playlist is awesome, including foreshortened jazz expert Sam Gendel (Herb 65), meditative Numero Grouper Joanna Brouk, and low-key stealth wealth style god, Steve Reich. So I’ll pass the mic over to Jonah, a real-ass writer, who shares his director’s notes here. Enjoy….
“On Sunday mornings I like to read for a few hours with records playing and my phone in another room. I have a big sweet spot for drones, which is a term I use loosely enough to include all kinds of music built around loops, pulses, grooves, and other repeated figures that take their time to morph and vary, usually in imperceptible ways, if they morph or vary at all. Ambient drones, New Age drones, postminimalist classical drones, folk-rock drones, reggae drones, stoner-metal drones, West African guitar drones. It's music that won’t distract you if you’re trying to concentrate on something else, like a book or your own thoughts, but rewards undivided attention, too. The effect on me of music like this is I feel like I'm sinking into it, or like it's engulfing me.
Sometimes my receptivity to drones might verge on masochism: I once let Tony Conrad & Faust’s “Outside the Dream Syndicate” thump and clang at high volume for a couple hours, and I’ve let Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” trudge and groan on repeat 3x in one sitting. I didn’t include either of those tracks here because they make me feel narcotized and borderline crazy in a way I find pleasant, but they might just make other people feel claustrophobic and weird. And I wanted this to work as a good-vibes type playlist with a bunch of different "colors," none harsh.
I started off with three upbeat, sunny songs I love, to set the tone: a roots-reggae classic produced by Lee Scratch Perry; a sublime ‘70s Malian guitar groove that I heard one night listening to the excellent South Bay free-form radio station KFJC; a great 1990 single from Paul Simon and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini. When we get to the Laraaji kalimba track, which shares some African-diasporic DNA with what's preceded it, the drone theme becomes more pronounced, but still in a melodically and rhythmically expansive enough sense to accommodate electric pulsations and polyrhythms from Steve Reich, Pat Metheny, and Oren Ambarchi, and, "Isis," the classic 1976 Bob Dylan travelogue, which my dad likes so much he used to play it three or four times in a row. The lyrics tell a shaggy-dog story and the music matches it, encircling Dylan in a holding pattern.
At the end there are two beautiful, quiet piano compositions by Joanna Brouk and John Carroll Kirby. These are, like the 2022 Sam Gendel guitar & saxophone song I slid in between them, a bit more fluid and meandering than what’s come before. But the Kirby piece devotes its final 3 minutes to a single chord, struck over and over again, in slightly different ways, at slightly different intervals. It’s a drone at its simplest and gentlest, and it always reminds me of a very bright candle in a very dark room, flickering as it nears the bottom of its wick, burning out in slow motion.”
From the field.
A cool analog for BBSP in music may be the Bloomington, Indiana-based label/collective, Ulyssa whose cassettes and playlists are always worth a look. They invent genres, including the <1,000 series (less than 1000 plays on Spotify) and the important Toejazz oeuvre which embarks on finding proto-litefunk tunes that could sit next to songs from the video game ToeJam and Earl (1991) on the aforementioned Sega Genesis. The new <1,000: Beyond Baggy playlist pulls in cuts that sound like beautiful K-Mart versions of Everything But The Girl. Do explore:
“Herb Sundays: Hundreds of great songs, and a few duff ones”