Monday, December 15, 2014

Best Of 14 (Part 2)

1. Hiss Golden Messenger: Lateness Of Dancers - The first time I listened to to M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch's fifth album as Hiss Golden Messenger, I dismissed it. "Somebody really likes Slow Train Coming!" I thought, before moving on. Granted, that was more of an impression I had gotten from their earlier stuff, finding it held back by an almost aplogetic politesse. But the fact is I really like Slow Train Coming, and there aren't many records that sound like It, so I kept going back. Gradually I tuned into the almost outrageous audacity of Taylor and Hirsch's strip-mining of the past, not only Dylan but a lot of other 60's and 70's folk rock. They just don't care what you think and their lack of concern is what cuts them free. I knew I was smitten when I began Tweeting lyrics regularly. "I think I'm obsessed," I told my wife, "I think this is the best album of the year."

Taylor and Hirsch produced the album themselves, calling on a brilliant cast of musicians to make the sound in their heads a reality. They came up with a nice blend of studio polish and casual intimacy ("The name of this song is called Day O Day," Taylor's kid says before that song begins) that fits the songs like a well-worn glove. This is what it sounds like when a band comes into their own. If you need convincing, seek out the earlier version of Lucia, the first song on the album, which they recorded years ago when they were in The Court & Spark. The production on that take is so overbearing you can't even connect to the chorus. Now, when Taylor sings "She was beautiful/It was circumstance/Watch the boat on the water learn to dance," I just nod my head as if I were there on the banks of the wise old river with him.

Among many wise decisions Hiss Golden Messenger made when crafting Lateness Of Dancers, one of the wisest was bringing in Mountain Man's Alexandra Sauser-Monnig to be the sweet Emmylou to Taylor's gritty and slurred Dylan/Parsons. On several songs, her voice limns his gorgeously, blending, echoing and circling around it like touches of color in a winter-gray sky. One reason their partnership works so well is that Taylor is now the complete master of his voice, knowing when to push it, when engage in almost exotic melisma, and when to deliver the words with utmost delicacy, as if they might break under the emotional weight.

Finally, a note about those words. These 10 songs contain some of the finest song lyrics of the decade, line after line of arresting imagery, heartfelt stories and choruses as solid as a hymn. "I lost myself in the jack-knife daylight/I sang "Rock Of Ages" til I was cross-eyed" (Black Dog Wind) or "The dead are here, they never go away/So I never ask them to" (Mahogany Dread) are just two examples of Taylor's plain spoken yet well-crafted writing. He's also not afraid to kick up some dirt on Saturday's Song, evince a beguiling malevolence on I'm A Raven (Shake Children) or not-so-simply rock out on Southern Grammar, making for a varied album.

The title of Lateness Of Dancers comes from the pen of another southern great, Eudora Welty, in her story Delta Wedding and the album is truly a flawless marriage of old and new. Lateness Of Dancers has become so entwined with my soul that I no longer just listen to it, rather I commune with it. Taylor and Hirsch have worked long and hard to get here and I feel truly lucky to have met up with them at this point in their journey.

2. Beck: Morning Phase - Much of the criticism of this remarkable return to form focused on its similarities to Sea Change as Beck assembled the same musicians in the studio for the first time since he made that album over a decade ago. But even if the players are the same, I find it quite a different listening experience, lacking the self-pity that marked some of Sea Change. Somewhat paradoxically, Morning Phase is more distant, even magisterial, while connecting on a deeper level to shared human experience. Follow the drum.

3. Breton: War Room Stories - Album number two from London's post-modernists finds them expanding their sound with orchestral arrangements and pop moves. While America sleeps, they are also becoming one of the best live bands on the planet. Now you can prepare yourself further with the deluxe edition, which adds 11 additional songs.

4. David Greilsammer: Scarlatti & Cage Sonatas - While Greilsammer's technique is formidable, what's more remarkable is his absolute commitment to such different composers. Simply one of the best, most engaging piano records I've ever heard.

5. Hollie Cook: Twice - Another bliss-inducing dose of pharmaceutical grade reggae-pop-dance songs. Prince Fatty controls the boards again, lavishing his usual expert roots sound with strings, harps and a touch of Chic. Keep this one away from the polar ice cap, as we're having enough trouble keeping that thing from melting as it is. Warm yourself when Cook returns to New York on January 8th.

6. Spoon: They Want My Soul - Britt Daniel, Jim Eno and co. add yet another brilliant collection to one of the deepest catalogs in the post-Nirvana landscape, and maybe their toughest album yet. Bonus meta-moment: listen for the reappearance of former nemesis Jonathan Fisk, who gets a drubbing along with "educated folk-singers" on the title track.

7. The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: Midnight Sun - After so many years championing Sean Lennon's talent, it is very satisfying to see him have his moment with this collection of beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant psyche-rock.

8. Hamilton Leithauser: Black Hours - "Don't know why I need you, I don't need anyone," Leithauser sings on this triumphant album, his first without his band The Walkmen. Perhaps he's singing to Paul Maroon, the guitarist in that band, who is nearly as essential to the success of Black Hours as Leithauser himself. Perhaps less needed was the help of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, whose two contributions are not at the level of the others, but the vinyl edition sounds fantastic and comes with four more wonderful songs that are.

9. Tweedy: Sukierae - In a year filled with excellent releases from Wilco world, Jeff Tweedy, with the able help of drummer son Spencer, released this songwriting masterclass. With songs that are alternately haunting, arty, funny, and pure pop, Tweedy proves that there's still life in the White Album paradigm.

10. Nicole Atkins: Slow Phaser - Smart, sleek, hook-filled pop is hard to come by, although there is plenty of over-praised music masquerading as such. Atkins is the real deal, a complex character with huge voice that can swing from smoky to sweet. Tore Johansson, who produced Slow Phaser free of charge to help Atkins out after Hurricane Sandy took out her house, proves that all Swedish producers aren't calculating chart-hounds. Every track is filled out with well-placed touches that serve the songs perfectly and enhance their inherent catchiness. I find myself singing We Wait Too Long and The Worst Hangover ("Operator, operator, give me number 911 - I'm dying") among others, at odd moments, like as soon as I wake up. If you procrastinated on buying this since I last wrote about, I forgive you as it is now available in a deluxe edition that features a storming live set taped earlier this year at Detroit's Masonic Temple. Now, you have no excuse.

Coming soon: The Best of the Rest of 14 and Out Of The Past (Reissues and Other Older Sounds). What's your Number One?

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