Wednesday, July 02, 2014
2014: Mid-Year Report
When it comes to eating, I believe in a balanced diet. Like the other day, when I was ordering a mango, strawberry and blueberry smoothie. The other person waiting at the cart said, "What, no banana?" I told her that I had already had a banana that morning and that the mango would give the smoothie plenty of body. I failed to mention that the banana had been atop a waffle, drenched in maple syrup and sprinkled with toasted pecans - all part of a balanced diet.
When it comes to music however, all bets are off. If I want to gorge myself on James Brown or Wagner, or if all I want to listen to is hip hop or instrumental music, there's no earthly reason to reconsider. I follow my muse and feed my soul without any external obligation. However, I do occasionally take stock and note what I'm not listening to just to make sure I'm not missing out on anything. Over the years, I have noticed that most of what is in heavy rotation is dominated by males. Besides my beloved Holly Miranda, brilliant Björk, delightful Hollie Cook and a few others, female artists I love have been few and far between. It's not for lack of trying as I'll listen to anything once. Neko Case, St. Vincent, Tuneyards, Sharon Van Etten, Tori Amos, and many other critical darlings just do not do it for me - I'll say no more.
No problem there, right? I'm just feeding my soul. Except - I'm also feeding my 15-year-old daughter's iPod and I want to make sure she's exposed to plenty of music in which she can see herself reflected. So, in early this year I asked her, "Would you like to have more female voices on your iPod?" She said yes, so I began to marshal the troops: Björk, Hole, The Raincoats, The Slits, Emmylou Harris, Solex, and other wonderful records from the past. Then something happened: before I had a chance to start loading anything onto her iPod, I noticed that I was listening to more women's voices than ever. Problem solved! The culture had come through - for my daughter and for me, something which you will see reflected in the list below.
The Best of 2014 (So Far)
1. Beck - Morning Phase A few months have not diminished the glory of Beck's achievement - in fact, it's only gotten better.
2. Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours I'll have much more to say about this extraordinary album soon.
3. Breton - War Room Stories - America may still be sleeping on this London-based band, but they keep moving forward, adding an orchestra to their patented blend of post-punk rhythms and contemporary electronics.
4. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness Her first album, Half Way Home from 2012, showed a beautiful voice married to a promising songwriting talent, but added up to a somewhat one-note affair. There was definitely something going on, but barely a hint of the commanding artist that we hear on her second album. Her decision to open up her sound to a full band and work with producer John Congleton means that her songs now find full flower with intensity and variety. Touching on the elemental power of bedrock artists like Hank Williams and Roy Orbison, her voice emerges fully formed on this instant classic. Each song gets the arrangement it deserves and the respect Congleton has for Olsen comes through loud and clear on White Fire, a stunning song that does not attempt to improve on Olsen's voice and haunting finger-picked acoustic, and Enemy, which sets her voice far in front of some whispery strumming. Hi Five, Angel, high five.
5. David Greilsammer - Scarlatti & Cage Sonatas This addicting collection is an inspired dialogue across the centuries, expertly conceived and brilliantly played by Greilsammer. Piano record of the year.
6. Hollie Cook - Twice You don't have to know that Cook is rock royalty (her father is Paul Cook, drummer for the Sex Pistols) to fall in love with her lighter-than-air voice and blissful take on reggae and lover's rock. Working again with British reggae savant Prince Fatty, they concoct a fantastic follow-up to the 2011's debut album. Adding strings, harps and loads of atmosphere, Cook and Fatty have again made a perfect summer album. Now there is a bit of imperious steel to her voice, too, which keeps the whole enterprise from dissolving like sugar under a waterfall. I can't get enough.
7. Hospitality - Trouble This Brooklyn-based trio ably dodges the sophomore slump by adding a dose of darkness to their sound and further exposing the protean talents of Amber Papini (singing and songwriting) and Nathan Michel (production, percussion, songwriting, etc.).
8. Courtney Barnett - The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas This Aussie singer-guitarist takes a little Nirvana, a dash of Lou Reed, a few shakes of Noise Addict-era Ben Lee, and adds her own wry twist with songs about asthma attacks, failed romance and being young. Everything is a little woozy and behind the beat so you feel dragged along, almost by the sheer force of her personality. Live, she takes things further, increasing the dynamics of the songs and rocking hard. She's clearly become a better musician than when she recorded the songs collected here, but no less fearless, which bodes well for her future.
9. The GOASTT - Midnight Sun The full on psychedelic freak out I always knew Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl had in them. Great songwriting, too, full of wit and imagination. Catch The GOASTT at a free concert in McCarren Park on July 30th.
10. Isaiah Rashad - Cilvia Demo Even with a good album from Mobb Deep and an almost great collaboration between genius producer Madlib and young gun Freddie Gibbs, this has not been a stellar year for hip hop. Rashad, however, is on to something. Signed to Top Dawg Entertainment, the same firm that helped break Kendrick Lamar big, he's put together an extremely strong debut. Equally thoughtful and filthy, Cilvia Demo is laden with gorgeous, lush beats, creating a very involving experience. Even with no less than nine producers, the album holds together very well and Rashad is clearly enjoying the radical dissonance between his nasty lyrics and the beautiful music he's selected. One to watch.
11. Kate Tempest - Everybody Down Another hip hop bright spot comes from a far more unlikely source. Tempest is the youngest poet to win the Ted Hughes Award but has also been honing her flow for the last dozen years. Both talents come to the fore on Everybody Down, a song cycle about the confused collisions of young people trying to make it - and connect with each other - in today's England. Producer Dan Carey crafts forward thinking grooves that move the body as much as Tempest's lyrics touch the emotions. The album somehow reminds me of Vikram Seth's novel-in-verse, Golden Gate, in that it uses a very structured format and some familiar tropes to tell a very individualized, particular story. We'll see how the accompanying novel, due in 2015, handles the material. Tempest's husky voice is surprisingly versatile, modulating and taking on the tones of her characters in a real tour de force show of skill and theatrical talent. And people who read the New York Times are still wondering if hip hop is music.
12. Kojiro Umezaki - (Cycles) Shakuhachi virtuoso Umezaki uses his evocative instrument and polyglot tastes to connect the dots between head and heart, future and past on this absorbing collection.
13. Glenn Kotche - Adventureland Wilco drummer Kotche makes huge leaps as a composer on the seven movements of Anomaly, performed with the Kronos Quartet, and indulges in his taste for the quirky on several "haunted" shorter pieces. The best of a clutch of releases from Wilco members, although, Macroscope by The Nels Cline Singers isn't far behind.
14. EMA - The Future's Void Erika M. Anderson took a couple of years off after the searing (even tortured) revelations of Past Life Martyred Saints but has returned strongly with the carefully crafted, gnomic pronouncements of The Future's Void. She brings the same emotional commitment (and a caustic wit on So Blonde) to songs that are often about our current engagement - OK, obsession - with technology, that she brought to more personal material. It's hard to tell if she's judging the moment harshly or simply pointing it out, especially when the songs have such a lustrous techno sheen. Maybe this was the music Bowie's girlfriend heard on the radio after she crawled into the holographic television in TVC 15. Whatever her point of view ultimately is, this isn't the first time someone's made a great record by having it both ways.
15. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal Last year's Light Up Gold so quickly took its place in the firmament of NYC rock, that it's almost easy to take the follow-up for granted - another Parquet Courts record, they're always good, aren't they? In reality, they're still a young band and they continue to both refine their sound and draw more into it. This time around there's also no question that they know exactly what they're doing - and that they are very, very good at it.
16. Siinai - Supermarket Now I've never been to Finland, but if the kosmisch music - both creepy and ecstatic - on Siinai's concept album is any indication of what it's like to shop there, I think Fresh Direct may have a new market to explore. I don't take the concept too seriously, however - this may just be the best Krautrock album of the 21st century. Layering synths with a tangible excitement that's contagious, Siinai have created a compulsively listenable series of soundscapes. Go ahead, put it on next time you're in the Stop & Shop - just don't blame me if you forget a few things on your list.
17. Eno-Hyde - Someday World I'll admit to being a complete dilettante when it comes to Underworld, having struggled to find anything in their catalog as satisfying as Born Slippy. When I heard Eno was working with Underworld main man Karl Hyde I wasn't sure it would add up. Turns out this might be my favorite Eno project since his last collaboration with David Byrne, the marvelous Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Both Eno and Hyde can come off as pretty chilly and cerebral, but they go for a warmly emotional sweet spot on most of the 12 songs here. Standout track Daddy's Car blends nostalgia with Afro-futurism, and The Satellites is suffused with space age optimism. A Man Wakes Up is almost a happier companion to Once In A Lifetime, and if it's chilliness you seek, When I Built This World has it in spades. Slightly proggy sections alternate with robo-Eno singing about how he filled the world he created with regret, guilt, pain and sin. It makes a nice pair with Bowie's If You Can See Me - but some who call Eno a god might want to reconsider. Hyde is in fine voice, avoiding some of the indulgences of his Underworld days, but best of all is hearing Eno's even, intelligent tenor again. They must be getting along as a second album, High Life, is just out along with an app, and perhaps we have Hyde to thank for getting Eno back on stage, at least on TV.
18. Nicole Atkins - Slow Phaser I came across Nicole Atkin's honeyed mezzo thanks to an off-hand reference to her on Holly Miranda's Instagram. While I sometimes wish Holly would lay off the social media and finish her album already (she started her Record A Record PledgeMusic project in 2011!), I am grateful for the pointer to Slow Phaser. This a great well-produced collection of pop songs, with heart, soul and wit to burn. Each song features a distinctive arrangement, with the disco groove of Girl You Look Amazing and the synthesizer throb of Cool People being especially catchy, and Atkins applies her gorgeous voice to her rich melodies and amusing lyrics with welcome restraint. For the life of me, I can't imagine why she doesn't get more attention.
19. Golden Retriever - Seer A duo of modular synthesizer and bass clarinet does not sound too promising, yet Matt Carlson and Jonathan Sielaff have managed to create a varied series of pieces that harkens back to the early days of exploratory electronic music, while still sounding completely up to date. There's simple beauty here, like the bird-songs of Archipelago, as well as the doomy outer-space landscapes of Petrichor, which is somewhat reminiscent of Harold Budd's classic Gypsy Violin. Flight Song is filled with yearning and soars along dreamily like a slightly edgier Vangelis track. While improvisation is definitely a part of their process, there's a sure compositional hand here keeping Seer tethered - and fascinating.
20. Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love I've already written about the live experience of Meredith Graves and co., but the album is a slightly different proposition. While some of the free jazz wall of sound is still here, along with sonic references to hardcore punk, there is also a well-deployed touch of pop sheen, especially on Big Stars and Interference Fits. Putting ambient sound art interludes into the mix, courtesy the electronics of Shaun Sutkus and controlled feedback from Ray McAndrew's guitars, adds welcome respite to the onslaught while also providing distance from the churning emotions of Graves's singing and lyrics. While they're not very prolific - there are only eight new songs on the album, which they pad out with four live tracks - it's dense enough that it deepens with repeated listens. With a name like Perfect Pussy, they were always going to attract rubberneckers, but they're in this for more than just sensationalism - I know I get a lot more than that out of this exciting record.
What will the rest of the year bring (besides Morrissey and the long-awaited return of Spoon)?