Monday, December 30, 2013
Coulda Been A Contender Had I another week or two to spend with the sheer delight of Any Port In A Storm by Scott & Charlene's Wedding it might have edged its way onto my top 20. Driving, melodic songs from Craig Dermody, a transplanted Aussie who tells us he "hasn't done much changing in what I love since 1993," and who in Fakin' NYC has come up with the second great Big Apple anthem of the year. Pusha T's My Name Is My Name was nearly the great album I knew he had in him. His vision that commercial hip hop can be good hip hop was inspiring and the variety and passion of his flow was simply staggering. Maybe if skeevy Chris Brown hadn't crashed the party there would be no hesitation. Arctic Monkeys seemed to finally crack America with their fifth album AM. While I'm not sure that should have ever been their goal, there are a lot of terrific songs on AM, along with an even beefier presence for one of the best rhythm sections on the current scene.
Take It To The Stage Seeing and hearing Atoms For Peace kill on stage at Barclays Center made me realize what I was missing from the quite fantastic Amok: Dynamics. The jam-then-cut-and-paste process of making the record took some of the air and interplay out of the ensemble. It's a great record but Thom Yorke & co. took to a whole other level in the live setting. The same could sort of be said for Wayne Shorter's titanic Without A Net, which was a live album but made up of selected performances rather than a single concert. I understand the curatorial impulse - and every performance is incredible - but having heard an unofficial recording of a show in Marseilles taped earlier this year, I found it easier to lose myself in the ebbs and flows of his extraordinary band. Also, Shorter plays only a little tenor sax on Without A Net and I found myself looking for a break from the high register of the soprano.
Don't Stop The Dance A lot of people seem satisfied to take the floor to pale imitations of past glories like Get Lucky or Blurred Lines but I require an actual groove to get me moving. Luscious Jackson's Magic Hour, their first album in 14 years, was a master class in the fun and the funky. A little push to the songwriting would have found them back at the peak of Fever In Fever Out, but I know what I'll be playing at the New Year's party. I'll probably also be spinning Disclosure's When A Fire Starts To Burn - no matter that the rest of Settle was at a slightly lower temperature.
Getting Better All The Time Over a decade into their career, 65daysofstatic returned from a three year hiatus with their strongest album yet, Wild Light. Choppy electronics, soaring guitars, epic compositions - it was the full package of what instrumental rock can be in 2013 and took its place next to Pell Mell's Interstate and Trans Am's Surrender To The Night among my favorites in the genre. Yes, that was me who added 65daysofstatic to the list of instrumental bands on Wikipedia! I've never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Midlake, despite the reams of rock journo ink spilled on them, but it seems that all they needed to do was lose their lead singer. The reconfigured sextet returned with Antiphon, a lovely and involving album that may presage future greatness. Then what will all those music critics say?
They've Been Careering Iron & Wine's Ghost On Ghost, Amor De Dias's The House At Sea, and Juana Molina's Wed 21 were all fine albums that I returned to often but that somehow stayed in the realm of the expected, even in their little innovations on trademark sounds. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they were for fans only, but I would hope that new listeners are led back to earlier, more powerful works. Edwyn Collins also exists in this realm and his punchy Understated is another reason I'm glad he survived two(!) cerebral hemorrhages to make more of his witty and heartfelt music.
Cool And Composed The vaguely named (and defined) area of New Music spun off a few gems that I spotlit over the course of 2013. Nicholas Cords, released his debut album Recursions, a beautifully wide-ranging solo viola album, while his regular gig, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, put out another strong statement with the Gypsy-inflected A Walking Fire. Another Nicholas, Nicholas Vines served up Torrid Nature Scenes, a welcome sampling of his sometimes raucous and always complex and accomplished music. Committed performances make the case that Vines is one of the most exciting of contemporary composers. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed something of a public service by bringing the early 60's work of NYC avant gardist Joseph Byrd to light - fascinating and fun stuff. Density, by Claire Chase, contemporary flutist extraordinaire, was a sometimes challenging survey of cutting edge music for her instrument, including the forever fabulous Density 21.5 by Edgar Varese.
Words And Music Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday led to a flood of catalog releases and new recordings. Sublime tenor Ian Bostridge put out one of the best of the latter, a collection of songs including the infrequently performed Songs From The Chinese. If you're unfamiliar with Britten, start to get acquainted with one of the greats here. Simone Dinnerstein, who made quite a splash with her self-released Bach recordings a few years ago, made her first foray into the dreaded crossover space with Night, an aptly-named collaboration with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt. Beats the heck out of Norah Jones.
Single & EP's Supposedly we live in a shuffle-based world now, with albums having less and less prominence. Why, then, is it so much work to get great singles and EP's noticed? I'll keep trying! Breton gave a hint of the larger canvas of their second album, due early next year, with the four song Force Of Habit, featuring the bouncy (for them) Envy and the doomy Got Well Soon plus two non-LP songs. Holly Miranda also set the stage for her sophomore release with the magnificent Desert Call/Everlasting single. I really hope 2014 is her year - been a long time coming. FKA Twigs (yes, formerly known as Twigs) collaborated with producer Arca for EP2 and the results were highly intriguing. Arca himself, aside from working on Yeezus, dropped a 26 minute mix of dazzling sounds, called &&&&&. The title hints that there's more to come from him, which will be more than welcome. Divine Fits kept their pot of brittle pop boiling with Chained To Love and Ain't That The Way, although I've heard rumors that Britt Daniel may be reviving Spoon next year. Finally, Matthew E. White re-released last year's brilliant Big Inner with five new songs - genteel and sly, funky and folky, the way only he can do. If you don't already have it, it's way past time to invest in a major talent.
Bandcamp Follower There's a wealth of free listening and downloads on Bandcamp. Two of my discoveries from 2013 are Historian and Journalism (you can make the joke about unused graduate degrees). The first makes hazy bedroom electro-psych-pop and the second comes up with catchy guitar rock that doesn't sound cheesy. When you're tired of the usual suspects, head over to Bandcamp and find something to tell your friends about.
I'm saving the spectacular reissues of the year for next time so we can all catch our breath. See you in 2014!
Monday, December 23, 2013
1. David Bowie - The Next Day I still feel as I did earlier this year, except more so now that time has molded these tracks into the warp and weft of my being. Even the somewhat weaker songs I delineated in my review have a crushing inevitability that is the result of an artist at full engagement with his craft and emotional core. Dropping that first video when he did in January, and all the subsequent remixes, bonus tracks and videos has made 2013 unequivocally the year of Bowie.
2. Kanye West - Yeezus Still astonishing after all these months. Mood swings from painfully raw to hilarious and everything in between.
3. Jenny O. - Automechanic In a perfect world, Haim would be opening for this enchanting singer and songwriter. With the help of master-producer Jonathan Wilson, she has crafted a richly detailed set of songs, many with a touching vulnerability beneath their road-hardened swagger.
4. Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare On the follow-up to 2011's brilliant Gentle Spirit, Wilson goes big AND goes home to a rich tapestry of sounds inspired by what must be a mother of a record collection.
5. Volcano Choir - Repave The other great record with Justin Vernon on it this year (see Yeezus, above). More live dates, please.
6. Jon Hopkins - Immunity It's been a great year for this dealer in texture and tension. Besides this Mercury-nominated collection he also put out an intense soundtrack for the dystopian thriller How I Live Now. Unlike Eno's quite nice Lux, Hopkins's work would never place in the New Age category at The Grammys.
7. Jace Clayton - The Julius Eastman Memory Depot While I'm still mourning the end of Clayton's often mind-blowing radio show (as DJ/Rupture), this furiously well-done introduction to Eastman was much more than a consolation prize. At times it sounds like nothing more than an extended intro to Mobb Deep's Quiet Storm. Mash it up, people.
8. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold A disarming and shambolic façade reveals canny compositions and NYC classicism par excellance. Their new EP sketches out some new outposts.
9. Daniel Wohl - Corps Exquis This is a jewel-textured and compulsively listenable series of compositions that apparently has another life as a multiple-media performance piece. I say, just put it on and close your eyes…
10. The Darcys - Warring That these Torontonians are just getting better and better is proven by this journey into a heart of darkness partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
11. Prodigy & Alchemist - Albert Einstein Blazingly inventive beats inspire Prodigy to his best work since Return Of The Mac, also produced by Alchemist. Let's just say that once you hear about "weed smoke pouring out the bullet hole glass," you never forget it.
12. Wire - Change Becomes Us Rock & roll may eat its young but post punk bands never die (see also: Killing Joke).
13. Son Lux - Lanterns Third time is the charm for the omnivorously talented Ryan Lott. His solo performance on WNYC's Soundcheck (using prepared piano) demonstrated the rock-solid structure behind these songs.
14. Mystical Weapons - S/T Speaking of omnivorous talents, the protean Sean Lennon teams up with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier on this series of improvisations filled with blistering twists and turns. Like electric Miles, it is always moving with purpose, even if the purpose becomes tangential.
15. Chance The Rapper - Acid Rap Chancellor Bennett's sheer excitement at being alive and coming to terms with his own prodigious talent is infectious, even when he's rapping about how "everyone dies in the summer." I would almost advise starting at the last song, Everything's Good (Good Ass Outro), which begins with a phone conversation in which Chance thanks his dad for the computer and the T-shirts - and especially for believing in him. When was the last time hip hop made you cry - in a good way?
16. The Strokes - Comedown Machine The former scuzz-rockers grow ever more intricate, without losing their explosive energy.
17. Jonwayne - Rap Album 1 A series of cassettes heralded the arrival of a fresh sounding producer and rapper. While the album lacked some of the sense of play that made the tapes so delightful, it felt like a true journey into the mind - for both creator and listener.
18. Isadora - EP One of New York's finest. Get in on the ground floor.
19. The Mavericks - In Time I had almost forgotten about these guys when they came roaring back with what may be their best album yet. With country radio a Swiftian wasteland (Taylor or Jonathan, take your pick) leaving them beholden to no one but themselves, they bring a few new sounds to their patented blend of Americana and Hispanica.
20. Mutual Benefit - Love's Crushing Diamond A gorgeously elaborate song cycle of muted joy and sorrow. While we wait for Robin Pecknold to go through his process, this touches on some of those Fleet Foxes sweet spots, while still sounding completely original and occasionally exotic. This is one that will last.
Listen to the Top 20 on Spotify.
Coming Next: The Best Of The Rest Of 2013, including reissues.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Sometimes it seems that ambition is a dirty word, a way to damn with faint praise and an acknowledgment that an artist's ideas have exceeded his or her talent. Four recent albums, all among the best of the year, put the lie to that construct.
Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare His last album, Gentle Spirit, was my dark horse (George Harrison reference purely intentional) of 2011, spotted by chance on a crowd-sourced Spotify playlist started by the late, lamented Word magazine and taking a firm place in my top ten. Gentle Spirit was located at a Laurel Canyon intersection of Pink Floyd and Gram Parsons and featured Wilson's virtuosic guitar accompanied by his warm tenor and a band consisting mainly of himself. I played Gentle Spirit for many people and nearly everyone who heard it had their eyes closed and their head nodding by the third track, if not before - he brings the bliss.
Those with mainstream tastes and a tolerance for ham-handed lyrics probably know Wilson as the producer of Dawes, but his studio skills have been better employed by Father John Misty on 2012's brilliant Fear Fun and Jenny O.'s wonderful Automechanic, released earlier in this year. Somewhere in the midst of working on those records as well as putting his hand in Roy Harper's Man & Myth and touring extensively, Wilson has found the time to put together Fanfare, a sprawling double-vinyl length affair that finds him working with some of the legends to whom his sound pays homage.
Even with the guests, there is no mistaking that this is Wilson's album. You gotta wonder what David Crosby and Graham Nash thought when he brought them to sing on Cecil Taylor (who's "on the White House lawn," apparently) after laying down tracks for guitars, bass, piano, Hammond organ, drums and percussion. I suppose they've seen it all by now and, after all, he did have to get someone else to play the flugelhorn! Just as on Gentle Spirit, however, all of this one-man-band stuff is no stunt, but is in service of Wilson's rich songs and the evocative sound he's after. If you didn't read the credits, you would assume each song was recorded by a group of simpatico virtuosos sitting in a circle and making beautiful music together.
Fanfare is definitely on a grander scale than Gentle Spirit, with episodic compositions that take the listener on dynamic journeys to inner space. He also adds a few new textures to his palette, as on Love To Love, which mingles sprightly Yoakam-esque country with Dylan and some dark, jazzy chords in a way that surprises even after the first hearing. Actually, there are several moments that astonish repeatedly: Benmont Tench's rhapsodic piano solo on Moses Pain, Wilson's hair-raising harmony vocals on Her Hair Is Growing Long, the expansive guitars of Dear Friend, the tough, funky breakdown in Lovestrong, among others. Speaking of tough, among the exploratory (OK, slightly hippy dippy) lyrics, Lovestrong features the wonderfully nasty line, "Coyote would chew off his own paw to get out of what you've tried to achieve, lady." I can hear that idiot wind blowing...
Mixing bitterness with optimism was also a specialty of the latter day edition of The Sopwith Camel, who were relics of sixties San Francisco (their hit was the regrettable Hello, Hello), when they reformed to record a second album in the early 70's. Wilson resurrects Fazon from that album here, perfecting their proto jazz-funk investigation into alternative housing ("Who's gonna live in all those cities underground?") with respect and depth. You don't have to move underground to enjoy Fanfare, just turn off the shuffle play and allow yourself to be transported. Wilson will be touring extensively in 2014 - get there.
The Darcys - Warring Speaking of ambition, how about attempting a full-album cover of the top-selling record by one of the most complex and technically assured bands of all time? That's exactly what Toronto band The Darcys did when they released their take on Steely Dan's Aja in early 2012. It was a complete success, mining the rich vein of darkness hidden in Becker and Fagen's slick studio funk. It was also a great introduction to The Darcys sound, which features Michael le Riche and Jason Couse's heavily treated guitars and keyboards, Dave Hurlow's stabbing, aggressive bass, and Wes Marskell's alternately busy and spacious drums. Couse is also the singer, often exploring his upper range to soar above the band's driving soundscapes.
Warring, their third record with the current line up, is the most complete expression of their art and ethos yet. No longer marred by the somewhat murky sound and slightly directionless songwriting that characterized the self-titled debut, The Darcys freely explore dub-infused space and unleash melodic and memorable choruses while delivering a set of songs filled with variety and dynamics. Couse's singing is more confident than ever and instead of Steely Dan's bleak LA tales, he draws on Cormac McCarthy's even bleaker Blood Meridian for lyrical inspiration.
The strongest cut may be the last, Lost Dogfights, which takes the tempo of a dead man walking, expressed mainly by Marskell's brick-hard drums. Hurlow's bass plays more space than notes, and a piano ostinato repeats like a recurrent nightmare that doesn't end when you wake up. There are also ghostly vocal harmonies and spidery guitar and synth, all adding up to a place of despairing beauty. Like McCarthy's gimlet-eyed vision of the west, it's a place you'll want to visit often.
Son Lux - Lanterns Ryan Lott, who releases music under the name Son Lux, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2008 when he released his debut, At War With Walls & Mazes. It was a fascinating song cycle that drew on his skills as a trained composer and on his love for contemporary production techniques as used in the realms of hip hop and electronic music. It was alternately thorny and contemplative and his passion for breaking barriers between genres - and people in general - came through loud and clear. It made a lot of top ten lists, including my own.
The follow up, recorded during a 28 day period as part of the RPM project, did not work for me at all. The elements were in place but the songs on We Are Rising seemed enervated, devoid of all forward motion. As much as I tried to like it, listening to it never ceased to be a chore. Now comes Lanterns, a rhapsodic collection that may be his best yet. The sonics are his most accomplished and innovative, with a joyful energy to many of the songs. Lost It To Trying and No Crimes are splashy and fun, the real "artpop" (sorry Gaga), while sparer tracks like Easy and Pyre seem to construct and deconstruct before your very ears.
While Son Lux occupies some of the same space as Dirty Projectors and Tuneyards, Lott deploys his talents with none of their arch condescension, a quality which makes listening to those critical darlings impossible for me. Nonetheless, fans of those bands and anyone who gets excited by the collision of compositional intelligence, production chops and savvy songwriting should let their musical universe be brightened by Lanterns.
Isadora - EP Since we're discussing artful and ambitious releases, allow me to introduce you to Isadora, whose debut came out near the beginning of the year. I discovered them when they were on the bill with Napoleon (who I discovered at the Mystical Weapons show earlier in 2013). Of course, I investigated Isadora before the show to see if I should plan to stay for their set. I knew within a minute or two of the first song, that I wouldn't want to miss them. While their debts (to Radiohead and The Beatles, among others) are clear, they have more than enough of their own personality to make their EP one of the most promising debuts of the year.
Over the course of the EP, they demonstrate a sure hand at crafting complex songs full of organic tempo changes and dynamic shifts in volume and tone. There's an experiential quality to their music, where by the end of each song you feel like you've been through something. This is even more apparent in concert, where they push the dynamics to the limit, but the crystal clear recording doesn't sacrifice the sense of spontaneity and interaction that helps their music achieve liftoff.
The five members of Isadora are all excellent musicians, with Nick Burleigh an important double threat on both guitar and violin, Joshua Rouah mainly playing atmospheric keyboards but also guitar on occasion, Ian Mellencamp melodic but not groove-averse on bass, and Jesse Bilotta knowing just when to ratchet up on the drums and when to lay back. Aaron Mendelsohn's vocals show a lot of range and flexibility, going from a reflective croon to a biting intensity as the song demands. Together, the music they make is incredibly satisfying. Get the EP now and keep an ear out for more from Isadora in the future.
Coming Next: But of course - The Best of 2013 and The Best of The Rest of 2013.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Full disclosure: as I've mentioned before, I was in a band in high school, the Young Aborigines, that morphed into the Beastie Boys. Kate Schellenbach, who became the drummer in Luscious Jackson, was our percussionist, added to our guitar/bass/drums trio to give the music a richer, more "tribal" feel. Jill Cunniff, who sings and plays bass in Luscious, was someone we had met in the downtown clubs who often hung around during our rehearsals and the dance parties, fueled by Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Gang Of Four and early hip hop, that followed. The Young Abs dissolved in 1982 and no one could have more pleased than me when, a decade later, Mike D sent me Daughters Of The Kaos and In Search Of Manny, the first EP's by Luscious Jackson. Jill had joined forces with Gabby Glaser (guitar and vocals) and Vivian Trimble (keyboards) to form the band, adding Kate in on drums to supplement the sampled beats. Seeing my friends and former band mates using their rock star status to lift up other friends on their new Grand Royal label was a beautiful thing.
Even better was how fun the music was, with sultry vocals, funky beats, and catchy melodies. Songs like Life Of Leisure and Keep On Rockin' It became anthems around my house, while She Be Wantin' It More hinted at a more introspective side. The mixture of hip hop, reggae, pop and sometimes angular rock seemed the natural result of all the music we Hoovered up in high school, where quality trumped genre and making mixtapes with surprising juxtapositions was a skill we all aimed to acquire. Natural Ingredients, their first full-length, followed quickly in 1994 and, while the songs weren't all well-developed, the album was carried along by the grooves and found Luscious Jackson more confident in the studio and primed to make their masterpiece.
Fever In Fever Out (1996) found the women working with producer Daniel Lanois, who, after working with Brian Eno on several of the ambient master's albums, had become a producer of globe-dominating records for U2 (with Eno) and Peter Gabriel, while his work with Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris found them making some of the best music of their careers. I'm not sure how the two parties came together (strangely enough, Lanois doesn't mention Luscious at all in his memoir, Soul Mining: A Musical Life), but when I praised the combination to Mike D. at the time, he kind of laughed and said, "I told Danny, none of that haunted house shit." Whatever was said, it worked. I suspect that Lanois, while restraining some of his more spectral tendencies, pushed the band most on songwriting.
The result was a compulsively listenable album that brought all Luscious Jackson's strengths to the fore - grooves, melodies - while developing that melancholy streak that gives their music richness and depth. Lead-off cut Naked Eye became a top 40 hit and the band was catapulted to a new level of success. Unfortunately, as so often happens in these cases, bigger sales led the record company (no longer Grand Royal but Capitol) to want even bigger sales. On the next album, Electric Honey, Lanois was out (as was Trimble), replaced mainly by Tony Visconti, known for his brilliant work with T.Rex and David Bowie. Visconti brought both power and polish and, whether it was his fault or the touch of journeyman guitarist Dominic Troiano, the album often succumbed to an anonymous "college rock" gloss. The band soon disbanded and, while there has been some rewarding music from their camp over the years, they mainly pursued other careers and/or raising their families.
When I got wind of their PledgeMusic campaign I signed on quickly, convinced by the snippet of vintage, streetwise LJ they shared, and the fact that there would be no record company shenanigans. Whatever the internal process that led to the reformation of the band (still minus Trimble), the time certainly seems perfect, with all things nineties receiving reassessment and reissue.
Sidebar: Many reviews and other articles about the nineties resurgence refer to Grand Royal as the Beastie Boys's "failed record label." I would not be so quick to dismiss an enterprise that released albums by Sean Lennon, At The Drive In, Noise Addict, Josephine Wiggs, and Buffalo Daughter, not to mention charming Luscious Jackson spin-offs like Kostars and Ladies Who Lunch. It's always been my belief that the Beasties curatorial skills were in full effect with Grand Royal and what they were lacking was more of the left-brain stuff like artist development and marketing. As someone who has eclectic taste I can tell you that while I didn't love everything Grand Royal put out, I was always excited when another package arrived with that distinctive logo. Whatever was within, I knew boredom was out of the question. For a quick listen to the Grand Royal legacy, check out my 8Tracks playlist. Some of it is out of print, although Buffalo Daughter released a comprehensive career overview earlier this year. End of sidebar.
Needless to say, the PledgeMusic campaign was a runaway success, reaching nearly 300% of the required funding and now we have the resulting album, Magic Hour. The 10 song collection is bright, bouncy and chock full of grooves made for dancing. For sheer body moving power, the beats here trump much of the overworked, machine-tooled sounds that pass for dance music these days. It's most impressive that the organically funky sound was achieved with minimal assistance; most of the production is by Cunniff and Glaser, with help from Adam Horovitz on one song and ADW Young on another.
Love Is Alive may be the most unstoppable song on Magic Hour, with a killer update on the disco power of songs like I Will Survive, More, More, More and Don't Leave Me This Way. As great as the sound of Love Is Alive is, it also points up the deficits that keep Magic Hour from rivaling Fever In Fever Out. While lyrical sloganeering has been a part of dance music since before Chic put out Good Times, the phrase "When love is alive, you can rest assured," lacks the strength to be much of a rallying cry. The lyrics of most of the songs are built around stronger phrases like Show Us What You Got and Are You Ready? but fail to find any deeper resonances in them. We Go Back probably has the best lines, including the clever and emotionally connected chorus of "We go back, but we can't go back, but we can go on/We go back, and we'll always have what we had." Come to think of it, that's probably what was going through the minds of Cunniff, Glaser and Schellenbach as they decided to embark on a second act.
On the whole, however, the lyrics are fairly negligible without getting in the way of the monster grooves - except on #1 Bum, which is amusing the first time but inane the second. Not only is "You're my male J. Lo" awkward and forced, it's the one moment on the album where LJ sound out of date. One other note about temporality: while the sound of Magic Hour is fresh and crisp, representing a distinct upgrade to the murk of their earliest recordings, their range of influences has remained pretty much the the same since then. I don't get the idea that the members of Luscious Jackson are taking in new music the way we used to at those parties in the 100th Street loft. So consider Magic Hour a delightful reiteration of the Luscious Jackson sound, rather than a continuation of the "anything goes" operating principle they followed to originally achieve it. Maybe that was the wise thing to do after 13 years off the scene and they will explore more adventurous sonics on the follow-up. Either way, I'm glad to have them back. Catch them at Webster Hall on Saturday, December 7th and remember to bring your dancing shoes.