Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Best Of 11


What an amazing year for music - I'm like a pig in truffles. If you had told me in January that Wilco, Radiohead, TV On The Radio and Bon Iver would put out new records and NOT end up on my Top Ten, I would have told you to get lost. But that's exactly what happened. Here are the whys and wherefores, from one to (sort of) ten. If you want to listen in, head over to 8tracks.com and just push play.


1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues 
This has not lost its grip on the top spot since July. As I discussed on a recent episode of Sound Opinions, It's more musically and thematically complex and expansive than their debut, perfectly building on the promise of that stunning record. Robin Pecknold is obviously the leader but they are definitely a band and J.Tillman, drummer extraordinaire, is their secret weapon. Give a listen to this Daytrotter session if you want to know why.


2. Mastodon - The Hunter
After a series of knotty and thrilling concept albums, the boys from Atlanta hook up with the guy who co-produced In Da Club, among other things, and let it all hang out, writing songs about meth-heads searching for the perfect tree knot, forlorn cephalopods, etc. After the sprawling epics of their earlier records, concision may have been the only challenge left to them and they conquer it with extreme prejudice. No big story to tell, just a series of virtuoso hard rock tunes that solidify Mastodon's place in the pantheon of American bands.


3. Hollie Cook - Hollie Cook
Who'd a thunk that the daughter of a Sex Pistol would craft one of the most delightful records in recent memory? You can have your Beyonce and Rihanna - they sound positively anhedonic compared to Hollie. She has the perfect collaborators in Prince Fatty and Horseman, creating a rock-steady vibe that is pure fun. I may have listened to this addicting collection more than any other record this year. Take a taste and you too will be hooked.


4. Amor De Dias - Street of The Love of Days
Like Hollie Cook's album, the collaboration of Alasdair MacLean and Lupe Núñez-Fernández sounds deceptively easy. The breezy set of songs features gorgeous production and some of Alasdair's finest singing to date. There's a hint of darkness that adds depth, like the slight bitterness at the bottom of a demitasse.




5. Jonathan Wilson - Gentle Spirit
There's a lot of things about this album that seem unpromising - that title, for one, the amateurish cover art, for another, not to mention a song called Can We Really Party Today? - but it is a spectacular, enveloping listening experience. Wilson is a bit of a journeyman, playing with and producing everyone from Dawes, Elvis Costello, Mia Doi Todd, Erykah Badu and J. Tillman (him again). Several songs on Gentle Spirit feature Wilson on all the instruments, which is astonishing when you consider the interplay and improvisation that's going on. He makes Paul McCartney's similar attempts sound like the work of a gifted tinkerer. The songs are full of unexpected twists and turns, sometimes taking a leaf from Harry Nilsson, and sometimes Pink Floyd or David Crosby. A major talent that is absolutely one of the discoveries of the year.


6. Hilary Hahn (with Valentina Lisitsa, Piano) - Charles Ives: Four Sonatas
Except for her recordings of Violin Concertos by Schoenberg and Jennifer Higdon, Hahn is mainly known for incandescent performance of great repertory works, most notably the mighty and ethereal Sibelius. She takes a brave step here by recording the complete violin sonatas of that spiky American original, Charles Ives. She has steeped herself in the folk songs that Ives drew on and seems to sing through her violin. There is a refreshing lack of defensiveness, apology or obligation here - she knows what great music this is and seeks to communicate that with all the talent at her command. In no small part helped by Valentina Lisitsa's dynamic piano, this recording is a complete success and a joy to listen to. You may even find yourself singing along!




7. The Strokes - Angles
Expectations can really sink a band. If you wanted Is This It Part 2, maybe you should have made it yourself. This is smart, inventive, intricate music that is filled with what can only be called an energetic ennui. It gleams with a very special light and marks its own territory in the dire landscape of today's guitar rock.


8.1 Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) - Complex Presents The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP
This six song download is filled with a unity of sound and purpose that eludes most hip hop. He's not trying to be anything, like Drake or Tyler The Creator, he just IS. It took a minute to adjust to his slower flow on these songs but, as was revealed on my next selection, that was just a demonstration of his versatility. His producers (including Sid Roams and Havoc) come up with some scintillating soundscapes for P to work his magic on. One standout is Stronger, produced by King Benny and featuring a killer Nina Simone sample. QED: "Maybe once in a tangerine moon/I'll be in the mood to paint the town red with your corpuscles and plasma/Some violent art/These thoughts, in the corner of my mind are dark/But then the Times Square lights/They switch my whole attitude." Still on the fence? Did I mention this was a FREE download?


8.2 Mobb Deep - Black Cocaine EP
As I wrote recently, these guys, that name, it's guaranteed to be good. Hip Hop is always on the hunt for the new new thing, but when some old G's come up with the goods, there's no shame it recognizing it. The Bounty Killer sample on Dead Man Shoes is a coup and if it inspired the refrain "Eat food, I'm full, doggy bag 'em, feed 'em to the wolves, toe-tag'em, they walking in dead man shoes," it was worth every penny paid to the dancehall marauder. Prodigy is in full command throughout, stepping up the pace as the music demands, as is partner Havoc. Four other excellent songs have me eager for the full album to drop in 2012.


9. Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu
Let me just say that half the people piling on this record are descendants of the dudes who returned White Light/White Heat to EJ Korvette's for a refund in 1967 because they thought there was something wrong with it. And the other half are insecure followers just doing it out of aesthetic insecurity or those guys who considered ending it all when Metallica cut their hair. This is a great record - big riffs, nasty lyrics, moments of transcendent beauty. Perhaps Lou is dragging the Metallicatz into the world of German expressionism rather forcefully, but they pump their own blood into the songs. Like The Strokes album, I'm convinced Lulu's time will come.


10. Epic45 - Weathering
This achingly gorgeous ambient-folk song cycle is assembled with such care, it should be sold as a single download. However, there are enough standout songs that it's OK if it ends up on shuffle play. At a less fractious time (and one less obsessed with dance music), this album would be an event. In 2011, most people don't even know it exists. In this case, joining the 1% would be a badge of honor - and an entree into a beautiful soundworld.

Whew. It wasn't easy to demote the luminaries listed at the top of this post but they, and many others, will be featured in a Best Of The Rest Of 11 entry, coming soon. Also on the horizon is a look back at the year in concerts. In the meantime, share your comments, or your own Top Ten, below.

Friday, December 02, 2011

2011: The Year In Live, Part 1

With 2011 still ringing in my ears, and on the eve of my first concert of 2012 (Jonathan Wilson, Mercury Lounge, 1/19/12), here's the first rundown of live shows from last year.

Concert-going ran the full gamut this year, from a tribute to a legendary soprano to a world tour with a string quartet, and from psych-rock and folk-rock master classes to ear-splitting metal. Add some filthy hip hop and some twisted jazz and you would have a fair representation of my musical diet. Maybe in 2012 I'll hit all of those marks.

My daughter and I are The Two Live Crew - back for a repeat engagement in 2011.
At the Bon Iver concert, Prospect Park

The Return Of The Two Live Crew - River To River
We once again filled the summer with cornucopia of musical delights. I have already written extensively about the Brooklyn Rider concert we saw during the River To River Festival. That same organization gave us the opportunity to see Sean Lennon's Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger in full flower at South Street Seaport. While I have been his fan since Into The Sun in 1998, this recent project seemed to be getting by largely on the charm of Sean and Charlotte Kemp-Muhl, his partner in music and life, as evidenced in their, yes, charming appearance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. So I was not expecting the full-on psychedelic freak scene they brought to the little stage by the sea. While his solo albums have focused on his ravaged heart, the new songs are full of play and imagery. Sean is a stunning guitar player and his maniacal exertions were contrasted perfectly by Charlotte's effortless cool and precise bass playing. The three musicians who filled out the band were uniformly excellent. While the Acoustic Sessions album was pleasant enough, I can't wait for the full band album - although with their website two months out of date, I won't hold my breath... The opening act was the entertaining Blood Orange - when his first song ended I thought, "That's what I hoped Lightspeed Champion would sound like." Then I realized it was the same guy. His bedsit pop is punctuated by unexpectedly convincing guitar heroics, a great combination that doesn't quite come over on his album, Coastal Grooves. Worth a listen, but try to catch him live.

The Return Of The Two Live Crew, Pt. 2
Hannah and I also trekked out to Brooklyn for the Bon Iver experience in Prospect Park - and it is an experience to see Justin Vernon & Co. onstage. The large band gave the new songs an increased dynamic range that revealed their structural and emotional intricacies more effectively than the album versions. Vernon is a massive talent and although he seemed to give his all, sometimes heading for an emotional brink, I never worried about him, as he projected a grounded and healthy air. He's the real deal and I expect we'll have him around for awhile. He is also a generous musician, including his band and the audience fully in the proceedings. If you're a fan but found yourself somewhat confounded by the second album, catch the concert - it will all make more sense.

The Return Of The Two Live Crew Pts. 3-5
After summer 2010, Hannah and I were dyed in the wool fans of Tanglewood's Sunday morning chamber concerts. We managed to make it to three this year and were introduced to some amazing music. One concert included Fred Ho's Fanfare to Stop the Creeping Meatball, a witty romp that was an entree into the world of an idiosyncratic and brave musician. We also had the privilege of attending an all-vocal concert that was a 90th birthday celebration for Phyllis Curtin. Appropriately enough, the concert opened with Britten's complex A Birthday Hansel, but soon moved into a wild array of exclusively American song, including a fantastic performance of Marc Blitzstein's poignantly brash The New Suit "Zipperfly" by bass David Salsbery Fry. YoonGeong Lee's take on Joseph Schwantner's Black Anemones was also unforgettable. And I doubt there was a dry eye to be found when the entire company sang The Promise of Living chorus from Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. I know I was tearing up watching Curtin's beaming face as the young singers performed. If you're in the Berkshires at all next summer, stop by Tanglewood at 10:00am on Sunday - you never know exactly what will happen but you know it will be wonderful!

The Return of The Two Live Crew: Encore!
Combining one of our favorite places (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) with one of our favorite activities (live music) seemed like a guaranteed good time and the New York Philharmonic's Contact! concert in December did not disappoint. Hosted by the ever-amazing John Schaefer, the show featured a world-premiere by young Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui, a new classic by Magnus Lindberg and, the big piece of the night, H.K. Gruber's outrageous Frankenstein!! The Lunsqui piece was knotty but propulsive, with some cheeky references to his native Brazilian rhythms. Lindberg's choice of symphonic sections of woodwind and brass - as if "the other bus of musicians didn't arrive" - was an exploration of instrumental textures, but not in an academic way. Frankenstein!!, with its toy instruments, theatrical vocals and (admittedly somewhat dated) pop-culture obsessed poetry, is a unique work that deserves to be experienced at least once, especially with Gruber himself in the role of Chansonnier - although ring-leader might have been as apt a description.

Still to come: The Year In Live, Pt. 2

Did you take your kids to any concerts last year? Tell us about it!


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Few Brief Words About Some Recent Hip Hop




1. Black Cocaine The other day I got an email from Havoc, otherwise known as Kejuan Muchita, otherwise known as one half of the legendary hip hop duo Mobb Deep. The email let me know of the release of a new EP called Black Cocaine. This was good news, as I am a fan. Upon my arrival home, I downloaded the EP. Did I listen to a 30 second sample? No. Did I go on Amazon or iTunes and see how many stars people were giving it? No. Did I check out the hip hop bloggerati to see what the pundits were saying? No. Did I engage in a spirited discussion with some fool who thinks Prodigy (Havoc's partner) lost it 10 years ago? No. I simply downloaded it. After all, it's by Mobb Deep and it's called Black Cocaine. There are few guarantees in this life but that's one of them. If it's by Mobb Deep and it's called Black Cocaine, it will be good. And it is good - very, very good. So go buy it. If you must sample a song, watch this gruesome video. You'll wish you had just bought the EP.


2. Pusha T Otherwise known as Terrance Thornton, Pusha is one half of the not quite legendary but still astounding hip hop duo Clipse, known for some of the finest hip hop albums of the new millennium. After recording some staggering verses with Kanye West as part of the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy project, the next logical step for Pusha was a solo album which, in the style of the day, was heralded by a free mix tape over the summer called Fear Of God. Unfortunately, except for the hypnotic Raid, which featured 50 Cent's best work since Blood Money with Mobb Deep, the collection was a stiff. Rote beats, unimaginative hooks, and just a few of Pusha's patented "young black Socrates" zingers. So when RCRD LBL let me know of a new track called Body Work from Fear Of God 2, my hopes were not high. And it turned out to be lame. But somehow in the aftermath of my earlier disappointment, I had missed the September release of a track by him pithily entitled Don't Fuck With Me, which I now discovered. 


Just seeing the title reminded me of the time when a contemporary novelist expressed her frustration with the fact that Anthony Trollope had written a novel called The Way We Live Now - in 1875. "Shouldn't every novel be called that?" she asked. Well, shouldn't (nearly) every rap song be called Don't Fuck With Me? But it took Pusha to do it and it's pure genius. Download it for free from RCRD LBL - and sign up for their excellent emails while you're at it. Sometimes one great song can make up for a lot of duds. 


Time to get cracking on that Best of 11 list...cheers.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Loving The Magpie (or, How To Write Fame)

I just finished Paul Trynka's terrific David Bowie: Starman, which, unless Bowie writes his own book or does something amazing artistically [little did we know!] in the future, will likely prove definitive. One fascinating feature of the well-written book is the insights into Bowie's process of making music. As Trynka outlines, the Dame didn't just change his style at various points in his career, but he changed his whole approach.

A great example of this is the breathless tale of how Fame was constructed. Basically, it was assembled from used parts, with Bowie, along with co-writers Carlos Alomar and John Lennon, operating more like the Bomb Squad than Lennon & McCartney.

Essentially, the way it happened was this: As is well known, Bowie began embracing soul and funk during the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. As can be heard on David Live, adding the Stax classic Knock On Wood to the set was one manifestation of his new fascination. Another song he included was Foot Stompin' Pt.1, the 1961 dance floor smash by The Flares. His band of R&B virtuosi soon put their own twist on it, with guitarist Carlos Alomar adding a lick from The Jungle Walk, a funky Buzz Feiten workout from the last album by 60's stalwarts, The Rascals. This weird hybrid was even showcased on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974. You can hear an embryo of Fame at a moment when no one - not even Bowie himself -  knew what was to come.


The next building block came from John Lennon, who David had invited to the session to record Bowie's cover of Across The Universe. While it's a bit hard to imagine the ex-Beatle jamming on a version of Shirley & Company's peppy early disco hit, Shame, Shame, Shame, that's exactly what Lennon was doing when Bowie walked by. He thought Lennon was singing "Fame, fame, fame," a subject they had been discussing earlier. Something clicked and he went off by himself, returning 20 minutes later with the lyrics to Fame.

Lennon and Alomar definitely earned their songwriting credits for their crucial contributions but Trynka gives no doubt that the brilliant lyrics are all David's work. And although Trynka doesn't mention it, I would assume the same for song's most devastating coup de grace, the pitch-shifted repetition from falsetto to bass of the word "fame." This was the culmination of a technique from Bowie had employed on his early curio The Laughing Gnome (and later on Scream Like A Baby).



So that's how you make a hit. It's all here in this handy Spotify playlist, including the ultimate compliment, James Brown's Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved), which took "sampling" to a whole other level.

As for the story of how Bowie turned Nile Rogers into a musical Manchurian Candidate, you'll just have to read the book!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Brooklyn Rider's Journey

For their entry in the River To River series, this fantastic string quartet traveled from Vienna to Brazil, and from Kentucky to Japan, ending up among their fellow nomads, the Roma.


Mozart's Quartet No. 8 in F Major opened the show and proved to be music that is of its time in all the right ways. You can instantly hear how engaged the 17 year old Wolfgang was with the people and society around him. Brooklyn Rider's lively playing conjured up scenes of tinkling glassware and witty conversation - a party - in the first movement, moving naturally to the nocturnal Andante - the hushed after-party - and then on to the streaks of sunlight and galloping carriage ride of the final movements. Brilliant.


Phillip Glass's String Quartet No. 2 "Company" followed and, while I have become less convinced by his work over the years, there was certainly nothing unconvincing about the performance.


Much more fascinating was violinist Colin Jacobson's arrangement of Joao Gilberto's Undiu, which began with moody distortions and then got the whole group humming while making wonderful use of guest players Jeff Beeches on bass and Mathias Kunzli on percussion. This debut performance was a joy and the piece should be on their next record.


Colin's own Sheriff's Liede, Sheriff's Freude (a tribute to the long-suffering "sheriff" of the group, violist Nicholas Cords) closed the first half. With its bluegrass interjections it made good use of the virtuoso talent and wit of his fellow players.


Kojiro Umezaki, a master of the shakuhachi, took the stage alone to open the second part of the concert. He explained that his piece, ...as if none of this had ever happened..., was based on a work commemorating the victims of the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo (100,000 people died) and related it to the recent disasters in Japan. The gorgeously anguished breath of the flute competing with (and almost overwhelmed by) the glitchy electronics coming off his iPad made for a haunting meditation. The quartet returned for a beautiful rendition of Lullaby From Itsuki, a traditional Japanese melody that translated perfectly to this most untraditional combination of instruments. Another Umezaki piece, (Cycles) what falls must rise (which appears on Dominant Curve), brought the iPad back into the fold for another glitchy, powerful excursion.


Umezaki, who has worked extensively with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, is a triple threat - a great player, an intriguing and emotional composer and a natural communicator.


The last part of the trip was a suite of music of the Roma, which touched on a variety of aspects of that tradition, from melancholia to gypsy jazz that would have had Stephane Grappelli tapping his feet and itching to join in. 


Each piece was met with louder cheers by the audience, who, whatever their travel plans were walking in, would happily hitch a globe-trotting expedition with Brooklyn Rider any time.






Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Best Of 11 (So Far)

This has been such a great year for music so far that if it ended now I would have a perfectly respectable Top Ten list. Since it seems that we who opine about music can no longer wait for the end of the year to make some sort of list, I'll join in with my provisional pronouncement. Don't feel like reading? Check the playlist here.


1. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: An astonishing follow-up from Robin Pecknold and co. Greater sophistication and a new directness in the lyrics make this an undeniable record.


2. The Strokes - Angles: I think time will prove me right that this is their best album so far. Full of precision, vertiginous stops and starts, wit and melody, this is thrilling rock'n'roll. Celebrate your independence from groupthink and give this one a few more chances.


3. Prodigy - Complex Presents The Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson EP: This is turning into a banner year for the man born Albert Johnson. He got out of jail, released his searing (and entertaining) memoir, My Infamous Life (get the audio book - more music!), and eased his way back into the biz with this free mixtape. Sid Roams produced the bulk of the cuts and proves a strong foil for P's syrupy slow intensity. Black Devil is a highlight along with Stronger, featuring a Nina Simone sample that ties nicely back to Prodigy's jazz heritage.


4. Amor de Dias - Street Of The Love Of Days: This was a nice surprise. Alisdair MacLean of The Clientele joins forces with Lupe Núñez-Fernández of Pipas to concoct a lighter than air confection of folk and Bossa Nova inflected tunes, including a remake of Harvest Time that outdoes the original from Bonfires On The Heath. Even with its hints of darkness, this Is the chill out record of the year.


5. Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX - We're New Here: Speaking of darkness, this is a nightmare you can dance to. Jamie XX has rescued GSH's last project to create an avant collection of soundscapes with haunted interjections of spoken word and singing. Though I've already pissed one guy off with a five star review on Amazon, I still say it's a work of art.


6. Gavin Friday - Catholic: 16 years I've waited for this and his patented blend of sepulchral/angelic vocals, slinky music and emotional complexity has not dimmed in power.


7. Choir Of St. Mary's Cathedral - Bruckner Motets: It's a common metaphor to say that Anton Bruckner's massive, magnificent symphonies were cathedrals sculpted in sound so I've long been curious about his actual church music. While I can't connect to his extreme religiosity, his passionate engagement is palpable in these wonderfully concise pieces, sung exquisitely by this choir. The instrumental interludes are just as superbly played and make for a well-rounded experience.


8. Bon Iver - Bon Iver: Like Fleet Foxes, this sophomore effort from a member of the class of 2008 was eagerly awaited. By now, everyone knows about Justin Vernon's wild ride from a cabin in Wisconsin to smoking blunts with Rick Ross in Kanye's Hawaiian studio. However, success has not led him to simplify - in fact, the opposite. Bon Iver has more in common with his side projects Volcano Choir and Gayngs than with anything on Hot 97. Oblique lyrics, dense washes of sound and a greater dynamic range make this an album to get lost in.


9. TV On The Radio - Nine Types Of Light: After pursuing outside interests with varying success (Loved most of Rain Machine, cooled quickly on most of Maximum Balloon), the reigning band of Brooklyn brothers returns with sensational sounding, widescreen art pop/funk/rock/etc. Every song brims with humor and intelligence, and on Killer Crane TVOTR demonstrate a new found delicacy that wouldn't sound out of place on a Zombies record.

10. Radiohead - The King Of Limbs: After the direct hit of In Rainbows, this collection of introspective avant-chamber pieces may seem off-putting. But each listen reveals new compositional rigor and melodic inevitability. While it wouldn't be unreasonable for the outside observer to think that Thom Yorke could be at a place of contentment in his life, the emotions conveyed here hint that he's been through some bruising experiences since In Rainbows. Every moment of quiescence feels hard-earned. 



Bubbling Under: While I'm fairly certain that the above will remain in my good graces, their order and inclusion in the final Best Of 11 is subject to change. Here's a few other things I've been enjoying: Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: Sam Beam writes songs that sound so right and I like the funky touches and edgier lyrics. This may nose its way back on to the Top Ten. Lucinda Williams - Blessed: Based purely on feel, this is my favorite Lucinda record since Car Wheels. Powerful lyrics and Elvis Costello's(!) wrenching guitar leads make for a deeply engrossing collection. Dennis Coffey - Dennis Coffey: The Scorpio man is back with his slashing six string and young guns to spur him on. Thievery Corporation - Culture Of Fear: Don't be afraid - the grooves are atmospheric and the bass is in your face. Maybe not as strong as Radio Retaliation but it keeps growing on me. Son Lux - We Are Rising: His debut was a favorite back in 2008. This one is a bit more obscure but I need to give it more time. And then there's what will be released in the next six months (Wilco, Breton, Bjork - I'm talking to you), which could throw everything into delightful chaos.