Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We Are The 2 Live Crew: The Year In Live Music

Looking back on my year in live music, I realized that I was accompanied by my daughter, Hannah (11 in January 2010), to all five concerts I managed to get to. She will add her comments to mine.

The Nose - I have been a Shostakovich fanatic for decades so when I heard Valery Gergiev was leading a production of his rare opera (based on the Gogol novel) at the Met, with a production designed by William Kentridge, there was no way I was going to miss it. I took Hannah and one of her best friends and it lived up to every expectation I had - from the staggering stagecraft to Paul Bott's unforgettable lead performance, to the virtuosic orchestra, it was a blast from start to finish. Although Hannah has been to opera performances before, this was her first trip to the Met. Here's what she had to say: "This was a quality performance that had both great music and great humor."

Tanglewood x2 - Although getting to a chamber music concert at 10:00 am on a Sunday might seem painful, it was more than worth it. And the price was right - $11 for me and $0 for Hannah. They don't list the program on the website so we had no idea what we were going to hear. As we waited in our seats for the music to begin, I scanned through the program. I told Hannah she was in for a real treat - two pieces by Takemitsu, which meshed nicely with her interest in Japanese culture. Elliott Carter, Gabrieli, Hindemith and Strauss were also on the varied program. Day Signal opened the program, with the brass lined up on the balcony producing a creamy, otherworldly tone. It was absolutely captivating and the musicians, all students from around the world, were flawless. 

After Gabrieli's clever Canzone for 12 In Double Echo and Takemitsu's Night Signal, it was time for Carter's Tintinnabulation. This is a piece he wrote for untuned percussion - no xylophones sneaking a melody in - and it was deeply involving and theatrical to watch. The engagement with the materials - wood, metal, etc. - of each instrument was brilliant. Imagine our surprise when, during the ovation, the 102 year old Carter himself stood up to soak up the applause. Quite an experience. A few weeks later we went again and the standout was the fascinating Economy Of Wax by Nicholas Vines, which is part of a multi-composer series of works based on the work of Charles Darwin. If you're in the Berkshires on a summer weekend, set your alarm and treat yourself to one of these remarkable concerts. Hannah had this to say: "These concerts have such a variety of pieces and it was a good experience to meet some famous composers."

Burning Spear - It's been a tough year for reggae. With the deaths of both Sugar Minott and Gregory Isaacs, there are few legends out there, and even fewer still performing with the vigor of The Spear. Instead of coming from the hills of Jamaica, he came over the bridge from Queens for this a free concert in the River To River festival in Rockefeller Park. While there was admittedly some shtick to his act, his crack band's dubbed out jamming, his own conga playing and dancing and his still potent voice, conjured a mood of joy and contemplation as the sun set at our backs. I last saw him  about 25 years ago and he's scarcely lost a step. Here's what Hannah thought: "Great, both beautiful music and beautiful sound and the instruments were in good harmony with the vocals."

Waiting For Holly
Holly Miranda - Since the NY Times (!) directed me to her MySpace page, I have been nattering on about Holly Miranda to anyone who will listen and waiting for a chance to see her live. The chance finally came when she played the Prospect Park Bandshell (with Metric) so Hannah I trekked out to the old hood for the show. Although it was only a 45 minute set, she showcased her gorgeous voice, generous spirit (many invited friends joined her on stage) and dream-like song writing. Her band injected an angular energy into her music that countered the introverted sound of her recordings and made for a great live sound. Her cover of I'd Rather Go Blind, featuring a blistering solo by Kaki King, was a raw expression of her talent. Can't wait to see her as a headliner! This was Hannah's first rock concert - here's what she thought: "I love the way there were so many people on stage at once at times, it was great how good even small sounds sounded amazing with everything else."

The only live lowlight was the one show I didn't see - Belle and Sebastian at the Williamsburg Waterfront. Had my ticket for months but the threatening weather discouraged me from going. Having already survived a tornado on the Driscoll Bridge in NJ, I couldn't countenance tempting fate again. My sister and nephew went and said it was fantastic. Oh, well. B&S will remain on the short list of bands I need to see live, along with Radiohead, The Walkmen, TV On The Radio and a few others. 

Looking forward to hearing and seeing what 2011 brings for me and my intrepid concert companion - the 2 Live Crew!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Year In Disappointments

As the world begins to assemble top ten lists and look back over the year in music, I find myself thinking about those moments in the past 11 months where my excitement turned to disappointment upon hearing an anticipated record. 

1. Goldfrapp - Head First. After three wonderful records filled with high-impact analogue synths, whomping beats and gorgeous melodies, the duo took a breather with Seventh Tree in 2008. It brought acoustic sounds into the mix and, though controversial among some critics, it was a fine extension of their sound. It also made me curious to see where they would head on the next album. My anticipation was high enough that, if not for Lala (RIP - another disappointment!), I would have just bought it. So glad I didn't. One thing the world does not need is another tinny ABBA-influenced electro-pop record, even one featuring the gleaming soprano of Alison Goldfrapp. There was none of the roof-rattling power or hypnotic rhythms of their previous work. And now they've been nominated for two Grammy awards, which may only make it harder for them to find their artistic compass again.  

2. Efterklang - Magic Chairs. Their album Parades was a fascinating and precious discovery of 2007. It was modern chamber music married to a quirky pop aesthetic that seemed both completely Danish and completely otherworldly. Tripper, their debut, included some glitchy electro in the mix and was also beautiful if slightly unformed. Magic Chairs seems to be a bid for wider acceptance, with solo vocals pushed forward in place of the choral approach of their previous albums. The songs are more linear and spacious and, ultimately, more ordinary. Next!

3. The Album Leaf - A Chorus of Storytellers. While I might be somewhat lonely in my devotion to In A Safe Place, I am devoted. Like a stainless steel chair with warm wood accents, the music gleams with a high-tech surface surrounding an organic center, creating an experience that overlaps with both the best of Eno's ambient records and the enveloping folk of a Nick Drake. On the new album, Jimmy LaValle has put that chair in the closet and replaced it with one made entirely of plastic. Every beat of the bass drum intrudes like a Twinkie at Per Se and the songs are flat and lifeless.

4. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening. Swimming against the tide here. Sound Of Silver was simply fantastic - all of the best of James Murphy's many talents in one place - warmth, wit, barbed affection for, well, everything, and music that backed up all the attitude with melody and funk. This new one strikes me as simply a tired re-hash. I mean really - Drunk Girls? You Wanted A Hit? This is taking self-parody to a new low. And All I Want was a Bowie rip that showed how far Murphy needs to go in the studio to approach the mastery of a Tony Visconti or a Brian Eno. If this is indeed the last LCD album, it's a sorry way to go out.

Good to get that off my chest before discussing the best music of the year! 

Note: my best of the year lists will be coming between Christmas and New Year's. I realize that many lists are already out there but I would rather not make a final decision on what the best of the 2010 is while there are still weeks to go in the year. Cheers.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

One, Two, Three, Four, Cough.

Then came Revolver. I got it for my birthday the year after the three 45's that started my collection. This was obviously a different proposition entirely from the Tommy soundtrack. Here was an album that took you through moods and past musical milestones you didn't know existed, ending with the ever-astonishing Tomorrow Never Knows. TNK, as the Beatle geeks call it, is built on a rhythm Ringo must have heard in a dream, as there was no precedent for that beat in rock & roll. Jerry-rigged on top are all sorts of drones and backward instruments. Then comes Lennon's voice, sounding (as he requested) like the Dalai Lama preaching from a mountain top, singing about the end of the beginning. For me, it was the beginning of the end...a large part of my life became devoted to music.

A couple of other things I love about this record are that outrageous countdown and cough that lead into Taxman--talk about cojones. That song also features one of the most blistering guitar solos in the Beatles catalog. The solo is so brilliant they simply repeat it on the outro, as if to give you another chance to hear it. How amazing to learn that Paul was behind that stinging lead! And how generous of George to give him the spotlight the first and last time he was given the lead track on a Beatles album. It could have been Paul exercising his droit de seigneur but I like my idea better.

It would be many years before I would discover the British version of Revolver, which ups the factor of greatness by many times (Doctor Robert, I'm Only Sleeping - killer!), but nonetheless I was hooked on music and records forever. As soon as I was old enough, I began going to record stores as often as possible and amassing records at a torrid pace. Now I have hundreds of pieces of black plastic, shiny silver discs and mp3 files. Let's just say that my wife is VERY understanding!

What record sucked you in and made you a music fanatic? Does that music still fascinate you?

Next time: The year in disappointments.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Part Two: The Early Years of Record Buying

Thanks for coming back. Here's where the madness began.

I would lie in my bed, listening to to my knight's-helmet-shaped AM radio, waiting for my favorite songs. I became obsessed with Elton John's version of "Pinball Wizard" and somehow it dawned on me that if I owned the record I could listen to it whenever I wanted to. One day when my mom was going downtown I scraped together a few dollars and asked her to stop into Sam Goody and pick up the Tommy soundtrack album. I could barely concentrate all day, waiting for her to get back home. 

Before I knew it, she was back and I was putting diamond to vinyl. Next, I experienced that sinking feeling that all record buyers have felt and try to avoid: the realization that you bought an album with just one good song. Damn - burned on the very first try! No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get into the songs featuring Tina Turner and Eric Clapton - not to mention Oliver Reed and Ann-Margaret, who appear on an astounding 12 tracks out of 31!!

And then, to add insult to injury, my little knight's helmet played me the ORIGINAL version of "Pinball Wizard" by The Who, which was obviously far superior. Clearly, this record buying stuff was more complicated than I had thought.

That was in 1975. For my birthday in 1976 I got my very own Realistic turntable and speakers (dad loved Radio Shack). My sister Jessica gave me three 45's: "Devil Woman" by Cliff Richard, "Magic Man" by Heart, and a reissue of "Got To Get You Into My Life" with "Helter Skelter" on the flip side, released to promote the Rock'n'Roll Music compilation. I loved having the little singles - I could put on my own AM radio show with just my favorite songs. I just needed more vinyl - lots more vinyl...

Next Time: 12" of pure genius.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Where I'm Coming From

On the eve of my birthday, I thought I would give a little background on why I started anearful. I created this blog to give readers an earful about music, pop culture and anything else on my mind. Though my publishing schedule has been somewhat erratic, I hope my passion for music, voracious hunger to hear everything, and the knowledge I've acquired in 30 years of music buying has proven valuable to my readers so far. Many of my friends insisted I share my thoughts in a blog - maybe so I'll stop giving them "an earful" at every possible occasion! Their loss - your gain.

So you know 
where I'm coming fromhere is the start of a brief musical bio.

Part I - Before Record Buying

My first musical memory is second-hand. I was born in 1964 and my mom told me that she used to wake me for nursery school with a 45 of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" so perhaps I can blame my obsession on that early experience. It also set the stage for much of the '60's for me as those years were all about the Beatles. My parents bought each album as it came out. Some they left in our country house in the Berkshires. To this day when I hear "Things We Said Today" or "Norwegian Wood" I can see and smell the pine-paneled living room up there where the records used to drop from the Realistic changer.

While the main investment my parents made in music during my childhood went to classical music - Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc. - they embraced the '60's and, in addition to The Beatles, loved Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and other avatars of the decade. When I went through a huge Yardbirds phase in high school, my father was quick to remind me that he was the first to bring a Yardbirds record into the house.

But like practically everyone else in my generation, I was introduced to so many facets of music by the Fab Four. From them I learned music could be fun, sad, silly, funky, scary, and as seemingly simple as walking and as complex as the neuro-muscular system that makes walking possible.

The Beatles also brought us all together. No one in our family of six objected if one of their albums were playing. To me they represent the power and possibility of music in all its glory.

Other sounds made an impression in those early years. We used to go see Pete Seeger at Tanglewood. Besides his classics, he sang a song called "Garbage" which was mainly written (I now know) by Bill Steele. The chorus went something like:

"Oh, Garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage
We're filling up the seas with garbage
What will we do when there's no place left
To put all the garbage?"

The proto-environmental theme went right over my head - all I could think was "He's singing about garbage! Cool!" Can you imagine a better song for a six year old?

I was also taken to see The Band around 1969 at a place near Lenox, MA called Music Inn. While this is mostly another second hand memory, I recall seeing one of our red plaid wool blankets on the green grass and over there somewhere some people were doing something on a stage. I can only imagine that some other, deeper impression was being made.

In around 1972 or 1973 my musical world widened beyond The Beatles when I was given an AM radio in the shape of a knight's helmet. Some of the songs that made a real impression on me were:

Radar Love by Golden Earring
Rikki Don't Lose that Number by Steely Dan
Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks
Superstition by Stevie Wonder
Summer Breeze by Seals & Croft

In fact, I even made my brother Greg, who's six years older than me, take me to Tanglewood to see Seals & Croft. I knew no other songs by the soft-rock duo and spent most of the concert waiting for the hit. To this day I hate the tactic of making the audience wait the whole concert for the hit. Put it in the three or four spot. If you're putting on a good show, no one's going to walk out because they already heard the hit!

I still listen regularly to two of the songs listed above - guess which ones in the comments box!

Coming next time: Part II - The Early Years of Record Buying

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are You Receiving?

Why do you like this? That was...interesting. That sounds weird! 

Having gotten those responses (and many others) to some of the music I've played for people, I thought it would be worth looking into the question of why I like what I like. When All Songs Considered asked a similar question on their blog, I posted a longwinded answer from which this adapted.

Well, there is the part of music that is a simulacrum of the in uturo experience, which is something every human from Hitler to Gandhi has in common. The rhythm of the heartbeat, the music of voices from without - these are the building blocks that compelled people to start making music 10,000+ years ago. It is said (by Francis Bebey in his fantastic book African Music: A People's Art, for one) that all of the first instruments were created in an attempt to imitate the human voice and other sounds made by the body. This leads to another basic part of music: communication. The griot tradition is very old and represents music's origins as a way to tell stories, spread news and recount history.

This is all just a grandiose way of saying that music is something that helps us feel connected to other people and that we are not alone.

Now, as to why a particular individual gravitates toward particular music...that must be due to the sum total of their experiences, starting with that time in uturo. I do think that people who are exposed to a broad range of art and culture of all kinds will probably be attracted to a broader range of music. My children (9 and 11) have heard everything from Mozart to Metallica, Stravinsky to Sleigh Bells, Beatles to Bolan, Boulez to Belafonte, Bon Iver, Black Uhuru, etc., etc, ad infinitum. Not to mention great art of all media. Is it just coincidence that they show no affinity for homogenized stuff like the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus, which is aggressively marketed to them? I don't think so.

For me, I am attracted to a huge variety of music and usually left cold by mainstream artists like U2 or Springsteen or Beyonce. I want to find myself in the music, not be told what to feel or be confronted with icy perfection (unless it is mated to sardonic lyrics as in the sui generis sounds of Steely Dan). Music gives me energy and comfort, uplift and sorrow, intellectual stimulation, etc. and I seek out the music that does these things the best - to my ears.

None of the above explains why I strongly dislike Conor Oberst and M. Ward and find Andrew Bird tiresome after a few songs. These are all things critics I respect bring to my attention but that just don't work for me. Why do I like Shearwater but run screaming from Okkerville River? It can all be a bit of a mystery.

I remember reading the first reviews of Metal Box by Public Image Ltd., describing it as weird and nearly unlistenable. When I put it on, it just sounded right. Somehow my experiences from 1964 - 1979 just made that music fit with who I was. I still love that record.

Another example is Grace Jones. I am devoted to her music - the quirky voice, the fantastic Sly and Robbie rhythms, the outre subject matter. But friend of mine just says "She sounds weird," and shudders when I put it on. And when she talks about Johnny Mathis, it's my turn to shudder!

I also think it is quite typical for someone in their 40's as I am to slow down in their quest for new sounds and musical experiences. But I am continually on the hunt and even find myself going back to music that I've previously dismissed to see if my opinion has changed. I just don't want to miss out. Why do I feel to urge to evangelically spread the word about new discoveries when others are simply waiting for the next raft of Grammy winners to help them decide what to buy?

What about you? Are you satisfied with what the mainstream (such as it is in these fragmented times) delivers to you? How big is your musical universe and what do you think made it that way?

Next time: How I got crazy about music, Part 1.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mysteries Of The Agora

The arithmetic of four walls and a stage usually adds up to just another venue. But sometimes, through a dark alchemy, the result is a place where rock legends are made time and time again. CBGB's, The Fillmore East, The Cavern Club, Winterland - these are all in the common vernacular. I would like to nominate The Agora in Cleveland to join that pantheon of hallowed halls. And for one reason only: every live show I have heard recorded there is an example of balls-to-the-wall, stand up out of your desk chair, exercise the hairs on the back of your neck pure rock and roll.

Exhibit A in this rogues gallery of swashbuckling live rock: T.Rex. Included with as a bonus disc with Live 1977 is a short concert from 1974 recorded at the Agora. Things are pretty chaotic from the start as Bolan coolly deals with technical issues, overcoming obstacles with sheer desire. The show really takes off during a grinding version of the slow jam Token Of My Love, which finds Bolan's guitar spraying an exotic elixir of sweat, cocaine and Cognac. The final cut is a deranged nine-minute take on Zip Gun Boogie, Bolan wielding the pile-driver riff like a whip, shouting "Again!" before each repetition. This take on Get It On is from that show - and not featured on the CD.

Exhibit B? Merely the finest unreleased live recording of the punk/new wave era: Elvis Costello's Angry Young Sod, which I knew as one half of the double album bootleg 50,000,000 Fans Can't Be Wrong and listened to obsessively throughout high school. This adrenalized show finds EC and the Attractions blasting through much of My Aim Is True and This Year's Model, along with attendant singles, with malevolent glee. Pete Thomas commits random acts of violence on drums and Bruce Thomas constantly leads the group to the brink by climbing high on the fretboard of his bass and then scrambling back down just as things nearly fall apart. Elvis is in great voice and contributes his most convincing guitar solo (maybe ever) on Blame It On Cain. The show gathers a frightening head of steam and explodes in the evil apotheosis of Lipstick Vogue, followed by the brutal stomp of Watching The Detectives, which first comes as a relief then holds a razor to your throat. Mystery Dance closes the show as a pure celebration of frustrated carnality. I imagine sweat dripping from the walls, even though Cleveland was stacked in snow that December night in 1977. Take a look around - you can find this show and you will wonder how you lived without it.

Exhibit C you can hear for free from one of America's national treasures, Wolfgang's Vault. Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson rolled their show into Cleveland in 1979 and proceeded to blow the roof off. This was four years after Ian had left Mott The Hoople and he was on the road behind You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, his fourth solo album. Ronson starts the show with blazing lasers on F.B.I. before the band rolls into the classic Once Bitten Twice Shy. This is where the show brings that Agora magic: about halfway through,  the nine-piece band just explodes into another gear and drives the audience into a frenzy that barely lets up for the rest of the hour. Check it out - now.

I have no idea what it was (or is) about the Agora that drove these shows to such pinnacles of rock and roll perfection. However, if I hear of a concert by a band I like that was recorded there, I will not rest until I hear it. Got any clues? Let me know.

In two (OK, maybe three) weeks: The origins of my musical madness.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Whose Reality Is It Anyway?

Here's a brief roundup of snap judgments and potential overstatements.

Radio On The TV: Say what you will about The Who's performance during Superbowl XLIV - I say it was a damn sight more musical and vital than anything on the 52nd annual Grammy Awards. I leaned on the fast-forward button so hard through that travesty that I practically broke the remote. I felt so disconnected from what was going on during the show that it felt like I was viewing an alternate reality. Jeff Beck's homage to Les Paul was a treat, but where did he fit in? When a giant of music like Leonard Cohen is dismissed with a quick sentence, you can be sure it is not a reality I want to be a part of. 

The person who seemed to enjoy it the most was Beyonce, cheering and grinning from her front seat. Considering that what is really being rewarded at the Grammy's is salesmanship rather than musicianship, this is not surprising. That there were 35% more viewers this year than last was a bit surprising, however. Maybe they were tuning in for the Michael Jackson tribute, which featured a song some have called egregious but that I actually think is great.

As for The Who, or the Two, or whatever you want to call them, I have definitely heard them sound worse. While I hated the medley-like aspects of the set list and would like to see another bass player take the place of polite Pino Palladino, I enjoyed the rough and ready passion displayed by Roger and Pete. Considering that there might not be very many U.S. stadium shows left for the quadropheniacs, it seemed a fitting swan song.

Snap Judgments: I listen to lots of podcasts, read magazines, follow tweets, etc., in an effort to keep up. Of course it's overwhelming but what tends to happen is that through repeated exposure, certain names rise to the top and I am driven to seek out the actual sounds under discussion. Sometimes the result is simply: "Why?" For example, lots of talk about Midlake and their new album, The Courage Of Others (**). Four stars and lead review in Mojo, etc. I went to trusty Lala and listened to a previous album - wait, didn't we already have Fleetwood Mac? Then the new one. As one dreary song followed another, I renamed the band Middling. Like Fleet Foxes without the unearthly harmonies or iron-clad songwriting. Next!

And what of indie landfill like Beach House (**)? Why the excitement? If you think your little brother or sister will have their lives changed by finding this on your computer in 5 years, please let me know.

Then there is Charlotte Gainsbourg's IRM (**)- stories everywhere, all about her scandalous parents, her accident, her outre performance in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, her collaboration with Beck, the rhythm track created from an MRI recording. I was psyched! The title track (****), with it's MRI groove, was fascinating. Unfortunately, after a few more songs, I realized she can't really sing. It's just a breathy near-monotone on every song. She gets a lot of credit for her past and personality - if she and Beck had released just IRM as a single, it would have gone down as a classic one-off. Too bad they felt obligated to make a whole album. 

Same goes for Sade . When you go away for 10 years, expectations grow high. I have liked some of her stuff in the past, so I gave Soldier Of Love (**) a shot. Again - what a title track (*****). Best thing she's ever done, all jabbing strings and guitars set to a quasi-military beat, voice in fine form. Bring on the remix EP! As for the rest of the album, if I could remember any of it, I would let you know what it sounded like.

Speaking of icons on hiatus, I couldn't resist pre-ordering Heligoland (****1/2), Massive Attack's latest after a seven year absence. Even though 100th Window was a little ascetic, they're a very important group for me so I made the investment. This is beyond a return to form - it is a complete and intense work of art. My mental soundtrack is completely overtaken with fragments of these stunning songs. They have moved into a realm some distance from their earlier work, to a place that makes them neighbors with Scary Monsters and Remain In Light. This is art rock, even art songs, for the 21st Century. As brilliant as the original songs are, they have outdone themselves by curating a mind blowing set of remixes, included with the deluxe edition for a couple bucks extra. Not the time to be stingy, people. I would go on, but sample for yourself. Start with the the paranoid landscape they create out of the old reggae classic, Girl I Love You. For good measure, compare it to the source material and check out the remix  for the full experience. Horace Andy sings thrillingly on all versions and the haunting melody will stick with you, yes, forever. While it may lack some of the umami of Blue LInes (****), Protection (*****) and Mezzanine (*****), Heligoland is still a major statement from the newly reinvigorated group.

Some critics, bloggers, podcasters, etc., may rate these records in a way entirely opposite from the way I have. They're welcome to create their own reality. I just don't live there.

In two weeks: Mysteries of The Agora

Friday, February 05, 2010

Record Review: Spoon | Transference

Spoon | Transference (Merge, 2010): I'm not hip enough to have followed Britt Daniel's band from the beginning. Like many others, I discovered the band through I Turn My Camera On, which was featured in a commercial in 2005. Intrigued by the clever insouciance of the song, I had to know who it was, found out, bought Gimme Fiction (****1/2) and fell in love. I fell in love with their fresh take on song craft, Britt's versatile voice and that certain swagger. 

Then I was told that it was their fourth album and that die-hard fans were not certain it ranked with their best. So I worked my way backwards, discovering the wonders of Kill The Moonlight (*****), Girls Can Tell (*****) and A Series of Sneaks (****). There were even a few gems  on the Telephono/Soft Effects (***) reissue. By the time Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (***1/2) came out, I could be found singing along to Utilitarian at the top of my lungs when the band headlined Roseland.

So now we get to Transference, their first self-produced album in several years. In many ways, it is a return to the more abstract sounds of Kill The Moonlight and Girls Can Tell - and to the more heartfelt lyrics Britt was singing in those days. It's telling that several songs start with Jim Eno's drums, hearkening back to the emotional breakthrough of songs like Change My Life and Chips and Dip from the Love Ways (****) EP, where the drums speak nearly as eloquently as Ringo's work on John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. 

But in no way is this a step backward. The band has absorbed much from it's time in the studio with Mike McCarthy and Jon Brion and has synthesized those lessons into record-making that is both simple and sophisticated. The use of echo on Is Love For Ever?, the way the guitars jump out in a 3D overlay on I Saw The Light, or the amphetamine rush of pianos on Nobody Gets Me But You - these and other canny touches create a sound world that is stripped down but richly compelling. The minimalist approach never grows arid, as it did on their disappointing contribution to Dark Was The Night (they should have covered this similarly titled song).

Not surprisingly for a band named after a Can song, more than a couple of the songs ride on a hypnotic beat that is a more relaxed version of the familiar Krautrock motorik rhythm (used so effectively by Wilco on last year's Bull Black Nova and on the earlier Spiders (Kidsmoke)). This even shades into an echo of Joy Division on the wonderfully melancholy outro of Out Go The Lights. The blast of slashing guitars on Written In Reverse and the garage-pop of Trouble Comes Running keep things dynamic.

Britt is in great voice throughout, using his whole range over the course of the album. His scream on Written In Reverse replicates the buzzsaw guitar that opens Revolution and must be heard to be believed. He even finds the confidence to deliver a straightforward lullaby on Goodnight Laura, which will no doubt be the cause of much swooning if they play it on tour. Other songs are more oblique lyrically but still resonate. For example, Trouble Comes Running opens with classic Daniel: "I was in a functional way/And I have my brown sound jacket/Queen of call collect on my arm/She was my calm-me-down/She was my good-luck charm." The overall impression is that Britt's been on a rocky romantic road and has come to bring the pain.

On Chips and Dip, Britt sang "sometimes I can't make myself shuck and jive." There was a little shucking and jiving on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga but on on Transference we get Spoon without compromise. Though they never really left, it feels like they're back. Give it a listen and let me know what you think - the band is streaming the whole thing here. *****

A Note About Record Reviews: There is no substitute for hearing music. You can read all you want but the proof of the pudding is always in the tasting. So I encourage anyone reading my reviews - even the negative ones - to check out a track or two at Lala, or at least a 30 second sample at iTunes, Amazon or eMusic, and make up your own mind. I want everyone to find their own joy through music and I would hate to throw any obstacles in your way. That said, I will use my reviews to give my opinion about the record in question, and to provide context for why I feel that way.

A Note About Ratings: I am ambivalent about ratings. With any rating system, you have to ask, "Compared to what?" For example, let's say we take it as a given that Live At The Apollo, Abbey Road, Electric Ladyland, Hot Buttered Soul, Dark Side of The Moon, Physical Grafitti, Aja, Exodus, Off The Wall, Entertainment!, London Calling, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Nevermind are all five-star albums. Does that mean that if I give Transference five stars that it is as good as those records? Or does it simply mean that it ranks with Spoon's best work and that of their peers on the contemporary scene?  The conundrum makes me want to scrap the whole idea of ratings. However, I see the usefulness of using ratings to compare different reviews and as a sorting principle. There is also the fact that only the passage of time can make something an enduring classic. So I am going to use a five-star system (half stars allowed) and apply it mainly in the context of the work of the artist and their contemporaries. I would like to think I can tell when something is a life-changing musical experience, like those on the list above, and will give the review extra oomph in those cases.

In two weeks:  Some snap judgments of other new releases.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2009 Wrap Up: Highs, Lows, Reissues & Buried Treasures

Highlights: Leonard Cohen at Radio City (at last!); Grace Jones at Hammerstein (give Hurricane, her latest, a try - it's magnificent); dancing to Michael Jackson at every party (why did we ever stop? Did we get enough?); watching Stephen Stills rip it at the Hall Of Fame concerts on HBO (go to 2:09 in the clip); Lou Reed/Metallica was cool, too; discovering DJ/Rupture's Mudd Up podcast; taking my daughter and nephew to Girl Crazy at City Center (can't have too much Gershwin); DJ'ing New Year's Eve again; and my 120 gig iPod.

Lowlights: Death of Michael Jackson (more on him another time) and so many other valuable musicians; playing requests at my New Year's Eve DJ gig (if you ain't going to dance to it, don't ask for it!); getting a targeted marketing email from Amazon trying to sell me the new album from self-justifying woman-hitter Chris Brown (this was related to my buying history how?); and yet another year with no new music from Portuguese genius Gecko Turner.

Reissues: This year was dominated by that four-headed elephant in the room: The Beatles remasters. And rightly so - whether you swing stereo or mono, this was a necessary upgrade, if even only for the packaging. The biggest surprise for me was Magical Mystery Tour. Finally, all the takes George Martin mashed-up to create the final masters blend beautifully on Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane and the rest sounds terrific, too. Chuck out those clunky jewel-cases with those indifferent CD's and get this behemoth now.

However, there were other reissues of note: The Who Sell Out and Tito Puente's Dance Mania got well-deserved deluxe editions. The Who's fake radio station shows the contrast between British rock and the culture it was blowing up. It's outrageous, polished, profound, hilarious, and it rocks. Tito was simply el rey of mambo and this album (and it's successor, included here) sealed his rep. The production gleams and displays all the interlocking parts of his amazing band like an exposed V12 engine. A pinnacle of Latin music and music in general.

Buried Treasures: While the resurgence of Rodriguez continued to amaze (check out his Daytrotter session), it was undiscovered wonders from Death and Tim Buckley that forced 2009 listeners to reassess some piece of the past. 

For The Whole World To See, Death's lone recording, is a six song blast of proto-punk, with an almost proggy expansiveness to songs like "Politicians In Their Eyes." Aside from a misguided drum interlude (I hesitate to call it a solo), this record is fresher than many sounds recorded today. But in 1974, these three African-American brothers from Detroit had their fingers on a pulse only they could feel. Keep an eye out for the film of their startling story. 

Live at the Folklore Center, March 6th, 1967 finds Tim Buckley pouring his heart out to a crowd of 35 enthusiastic fans. Sometimes compared to Nick Drake, Buckley typically burns at a much higher intensity and this stunning performance is no exception. His high tenor is lush and impassioned and his guitar playing is deft - in short, he's at the top of his game. Did I mention there are six (six!) Buckley songs that appeared nowhere else? Whether you're an old fan or a curious newcomer, this is essential listening. Thanks to Izzy Young and the Buckley estate for giving this collection a long overdue airing. 

In two weeks: Enough of 2009. A review of Spoon's latest serving, Transference.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Rest Of 2009

The Other Ten: Rather than an ordered list, this is more of an overview of 10 other records that I really enjoyed from 2009.

Justin Vernon Deals With Success
After listening to the masterful debut for the better part of a year, Bon Iver's Blood Bank EP felt somewhat like an epilogue but the songs it contained were certainly more than b-side material. Woods,the final song, is a lush exploration of what a true artist can pursue with Autotune. 

Vernon also collaborated with some old friends on Unmap, released under the name Volcano Choir. A sort of campfire minimalism propels some of the pieces and the wide dynamic range recalls Peter Broderick's brilliant Home. If not for a few self-indulgent tangents, this might have been in the Top Ten - it's a richly rewarding listen. 

For anyone not convinced of Vernon's sheer greatness as a singer, find his spine-tingling performance in NPR's podcast of the Dark Was The Night concert here.

Competing With Themselves
It was wonderful to have new albums from both The Clientele and Tinariwen, however neither one surpassed their amazing previous releases with their 2009 entries. Bonfires On The Heath finds The Clientele in an autumnal mood, with the more delicate songs flickering like cupped flames. Tinariwen's Imidiwan:Companions creates a dust storm of their distinctive guitar-driven hypnotism. Desert Wind, the meditative finale, could have gone on forever without complaint from me.

Brand New You're Retro
Both Mayer Hawthorne and Major Lazer are masters of styles created by others in the recent and not so recent past. Part of the fun of both of these is the conceptual framework - the Warhol touch, if you will - that seems to underpin them. Now, that could all be in my head but that is exactly where I listen to music so it works for me. To a point. 

A Strange Arrangement, the all-singing, almost-all-playing debut from dynamite DJ Hawthorne, takes us through a variety of soul styles the way only a true crate-digger can. Folks like Raphael Saadiq and Eli Reed may have more sheer talent but they bring no perspective to bear on their perusals of the past. However, Hawthorne's voice can sometimes seem as slight as the running-length of the album. 

Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do is a project of genius producers Diplo and Switch and listening to the whole album is a little like spending time with the nutty friend-of-a-friend who just doesn't know when to stop. In small doses, however, their twisted simulacra of reggae and dancehall tropes is delightful. There was no way the blissful Cash Flow was not going to be heard during my New Year's Eve DJ set. And it rocked the house.

Lazy Dylan Is Better Than No Dylan 
After the run of three masterpieces followed by the jaw-dropping Tell Tale Signs, naturally I had very high hopes for Together Through Life. They weren't entirely dashed - the record got a lot of play. Yet while the tossed off music (along with Dylan's sepulchral cackles) was often a blast, the lazy lyrics often dragged me back to earth. I choose to blame it on Robert Hunter, his co-writer on many of the songs. If you're a fan, don't hesitate to pick it up - and get the deluxe version with an entertaining episode of his Theme Time Radio hour.

Underdogs, It's Gonna Be Alright 
The great Virginia hip hop duo Clipse and Congolese collective Staff Benda Bilili would seem to have little in common but they are both underdogs in their way. Staff was formed by polio survivors who developed a joyful sound that can be deeply funky. The signature sound of the band on Tres Tres Fort is the homemade satonge, a one-string guitar played by Roger Landu. On occasion he seems to be trying so hard to play wildly unexpected runs that his solos (and there are a lot of them) gradually become predictable. He's only 17 so I expect much more from him and the group. 

With two all-time classics under their belt (not to mention the amazing We Got It For Cheap mixtapes), Clipse might still feel like underdogs what with the record industry kicking them around and, to my mind, less appreciation than they deserve. However in a decade where if you're name wasn't Jay-Z, Little Wayne or Kanye you were practically persona non rappa Pusha T and Malice definitely made their mark. A full celebration was planned for the release of Til The Casket Drops, but the cork got a little stuck in the Champagne bottle. The first seven tracks are nearly up to snuff, all booming bass and braggadocio, with odd beats and gleaming touches. Then things fall off to grab bag level. For the first time, I started skipping tracks on a Clipse album. There Was A Murder is one great track - best hip hop of the year.

Missed It By That Much
I tried to listen to every list candidate before publishing the last entry. However, it wasn't until 12/31 that I got to hear Efterklang's Performing Parades. This is a live recording with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra of their 2007 masterpiece. The live setting and additional musicians adds depth to their modernist music and, surprisingly, more rock heft. They are true artists - I can't wait to watch the DVD.

And you? What floated your boat in 2009?

In two weeks: Highlights, lowlights, reissues and buried treasures.