Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Anxiety of Influence

A website with the URL has been making the rounds, asking folks to take a survey of how many of the 100 listed albums they own. The taunting tag line is: "Very few people own 70 or more. How many have you got?" When this cropped up in my Facebook newsfeed, my first thought was: "Influential? Sez who?" So I did a Whois look up on the domain name but came up dry - the owner's name is privacy protected. Based on how quickly the quiz has spread, and my knowledge of how much social media integration can cost, I figure it has to be a company with some marketing dollars behind it.

Update: In comments that he later deleted, the creator of the list had this to say: "This is hilarious! "I figure it has to be a company with some marketing dollars behind it". The rest of it is quite accurate. I didn't really put a great deal of thought into it. I didn't foresee this thing getting as big as it has. I just wanted to have a go at a Facebook app. It is really a 'best albums' thing compiles from other lists and some of my record collection. I couldn't find a decent domain name so stuck with 'influential'. Nice article/blog, though." See below for more of his thoughts.

While I certainly think a discussion of influential albums is a good idea, if only to carve out some space for music that distinguishes itself by something other than sales, one has to ask what the agenda behind this list is. Upon even a cursory look, it definitely has a "rockist" bent, some might even say a white bent. Of the 100 albums listed, only four are what might be called black music: What's Going On, Innervisions, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Blue Lines. If I wanted to be generous and include bands led by African-Americans, the number would increase to six, with the inclusion of Axis: Bold As Love and Forever Changes. But that's a stretch.

Whoever put this list together should be ashamed on that count alone. Where is the Robert Johnson, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Ike & Tina, The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Marvelettes, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Albert King, Sly Stone, P-Funk, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Lee Perry, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, The Meters, Chic, Donna Summer, Prince, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Run DMC, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., OutKast, Mobb Deep, Missy Elliott, 50 Cent, R. Kelly, Dr. Dre, D'Angelo, Jay-Z, Kanye West - I have to stop now because I'm just getting angry. Do these people even listen to music?

Also completely ignored is the world of Jamaican music, which, between the production innovations of dub and the idea of "toasting" over music, has transformed the world of popular music over the course of the last 40 years. Jazz is pitifully represented by a single album, Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Good thing Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and, oh yeah, Miles Davis have good old Dave's cocktail hour classic to represent their 100 year tradition of innovation and syncopation. Classical music is not on the radar either, even though Terry Riley's In C, Steve Reich's Come Out, and Phillip Glass's Glassworks, not to mention the 1,000 years of music from Hildegard von Bingen to Gyorgy Ligeti, are in the DNA of much that followed.

Some of these sins of omission are due to the myopic time frame of the list. The oldest record on there is Bert Jansch's self-titled debut from 1964.That brings up a host of issues as it disinherits such minor characters as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis. The blues and early country music, widely recognized as the very foundations of rock music, are also absent.

One thing they get sort of right is the idea that an album doesn't have to sell a lot to be influential. To some who have commented on the list, I would say that just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean it's not influential. Perhaps the list will do some good by turning people onto some things they were unaware of. Remember, the classic line on influential music is that only 100 people bought The Velvet Underground's first album but each one of them started a band. Naturally, the "Influential Albums" people screw that one up by including the third VU album instead of the first. And that's not the only time they make an error like that, either. Including Donovan is debatable, but I think you could make a better case for Sunshine Superman over A Gift From A Flower To A Garden - and I could go on.

Seeing Gerry Rafferty's City To City on the list caused a passing thought that I was being punked.

Finally, as much as I applaud their effort to include more recent music (Radiohead, The Strokes, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver certainly deserve to be there), that it comes at the expense of hugely important artists like the ones listed above - not to mention The Yardbirds, The Who, The Doors, Black Sabbath, Elvis Costello, The Specials, Metallica - is NOT OK. But then little about this cheesy list is OK. Back to the drawing board, people!

Now, did I take the quiz? Of course I did, I'm as much a sucker for these things as anyone else. I clocked in at 48 out of 100. Out of the 52 that I don't have, there are some where I have another record by the same artist, some that I need to get, and many more that I have no interest in owning. Frankly, I thought 48 was a solid number - if you have many more than half, I might start to wonder how discerning your taste is, or if you ever pay for music. But that's a rant for a different day.

 More thoughts from the creator of the list:
“If I'd called it 'my record collection and a few more that some other people might like' then I don't think it would've succeeded as much."

"Maybe it has got so big because of the controversy surrounding the 'influential' tagline. I think if I do something like this again, I'll think a bit more about what I should I call it."

"The reason the domain name is hidden is because it was bought from and they give you a free thing to hide your domain information. I wouldn't have bothered if it didn't come free with it. I could reveal my identity but I'm not sure that would be a good idea now. I think I've pissed off a lot of people with this thing."

Based on what he says, I'd hire him for social media consulting!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Out of the Past

Each year, while I spend most of my time trying to tame the tsunami of new music coming my way, I also can't ignore the flood of reissues and other older sounds. Here are a few that caught my ear.

High Temperature Soul

The Real Gone label has done something on the order of a public service with their Little Willie John collection, Complete Hit Singles: A's & B's. First of all, until now, no one except for John, the musicians, and the engineers have heard his songs sound so good. These are definitive remasters, crystal clear enough to hear the air in the horns, but still with the warmth of feeling that John infused into all his music. John ruled the charts and the Chitlin Circuit from 1955-1961 with such songs as All Around The World, the original recording of Fever, Talk To Me, Talk To Me and Sleep. His style was controlled and articulate, descending from Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown, but with an injection of rawness that was very new. His persona was equal parts swagger and vulnerability - in his songs he was often controlled by his desire for the female object of desire and begging for relief or release. While some of the arrangements are made slightly cheesy by the overuse of backing singers, most of these songs are fresh and completely engaging.

John was a complex character, devoted to his family but also enamored of proving his toughness and manhood. This latter behavior got him in deep trouble and he died in prison at the age of 30. In his short career he charted 14 times and provided crucial inspiration to James Brown, who commemorated him on a 1968 album. Thanks to Stevie Wonder, who has worked with John's son Keith for years, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. As much as I dislike Jack White, I give him a nod for covering I'm Shaking, hopefully leading some listeners back to the original. This is an essential collection that pays due respect to an American original. If you want to know more, Grab the excellent book Fever: Little Willie John; A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul by Susan Whitall with Kevin John.

I'm now eagerly awaiting Real Gone's reissue of Freddie King's complete King and Federal singles.

Still Celebrating

I went off on this when it was released, but I'm now even more convinced that Celebration Day by Led Zeppelin is firmly deserving of a place in their legendary canon, alongside other the other posthumous releases How The West Was Won and BBC Sessions. In the world of classical music, we're used to multiple interpretations of pieces, often many years removed from their composition. In a way Zeppelin bring that idea to classic rock, presenting the songs with all the passion and brilliance we expect but without nostalgia, demonstrating the continuing relevance of their work. In this way, I suspect it is unique in the history of rock music and will likely remain so for quite a while.

Their Mission, Your Trance

A recent feature in Mojo Magazine made it quite clear that even Jim Kerr and his fellow Simple Minds realize that their best material is contained on their first five albums. Or maybe they just wanted to sell a few more copies of X5, which puts all those records, with extensive bonus tracks, into to a nice (and nicely priced) little package. Combining a tough rhythm section with atmospheric keyboards and guitars and Kerr's warm but stentorian baritone, the music on these albums defines the sound of the post-punk and new wave eras and is free of the arena-ready posturing that mars much of their later work.

Uncanned and Uncanny

The amazing thing about The Lost Tapes, the staggering three CD set of previously unreleased music from Can's peak years (1968-74) is that the ratio of jaw-droppingly great tracks to frustrating and self-indulgent ones is exactly the same as it is on their classic albums. Do not hesitate.

Manchester Movement

Not many people know that Factory Records, known for such exemplars of post punk and dance music as Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, was also briefly the home to a reggae band. X-O-Dus only released one 12" but it's a doozy, containing two long tracks, masterfully produced by dub specialist Dennis Bovell. The long-awaited English Black Boys collection beautifully presents those two songs as well as tracks from an unreleased follow-up album, most of which are excellent. They were developing into a band that could come hard with politically-minded cuts like the two on the 12" and also bring a deliciously light lover's rock touch to songs like If You Need My Lovin. It seems like the band atomized around the same time Factory lost interest in releasing any more reggae! but we can enjoy it now - except for the last three songs, which are real scraps and should have remained on the factory floor.

Versions of Versions

Another year and another great Lee Perry compilation from Pressure Sounds. The Sound Doctor holds 24 killer cuts, direct from dub plates and 12" singles. The sound is dense, hissy and addictive. Perhaps some of the vocalists are not the best Perry worked with, but this is in no way the bottom of any barrel. Also, thanks to Other Music, who also tipped me to the X-O-Dus reissue, I recently learned of two other Perry-related releases that demand investigation: Disco Devil and Presents Candy McKenzie, both on Trojan. The first collects 12" mixes from 1977 and the second is an unreleased album, also from 1977. Perhaps Trojan rejected it at the time because their attention was taken up by deathless masterpieces like Heart of the Congos and Police and Thieves, which Perry also recorded in that annus mirabilis.

2012 also saw fascinating collections focusing on groundbreaking work by Laurie Spiegel, whose severe electronic music was memorably featured in The Hunger Games, and Leslie Winer, one of those uncategorizable denizens of the NYC scene. However, I'll merely point you in their direction as I haven't had a chance to digest them. Besides, with the end of January on the horizon it's time to throw myself fully into the 2013 and the wonderful year of music ahead.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Legacy Acts

These are all acts with histories, boldly forging ahead in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Steely Gaze
Sunken Condos, the latest from Donald Fagen, has him once again turning his acerbic eye on contemporary society. Although it's his first album made without using the big production values that we've come to expect from the Steely Dan camp, it sounds absolutely fantastic, with a rich bass and gleaming keys. His voice is also a delight, demonstrating a mastery of phrasing that can only come from singing for decades. The songs are far more energetic than his last solo effort, the disappointing Morph The Cat, and overall Sunken Condos is a great listen. While a few of the tracks are just too familiar to allow it in the pantheon, his mind-blowing cover of the Isaac Hayes obscurity Out Of The Ghetto shows that Fagen still has a few surprises up his sleeve.

The Family That Destroys Angels Together
How To Destroy Angels, Trent Reznor's latest project, featuring his his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, along with frequent collaborators Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridan, has been quietly establishing themselves over the last couple of years. On their second EP, An Omen, Maandig's feather-light voice seems to have inspired some new approaches. This is especially evident on the gorgeous song Ice Age, which features an interlocking arrangement of acoustic sounds that could be a cross between a Swiss watch and a Harry Partch composition. All five songs are strong and demonstrate Reznor's masterful production skills. The album is slated for March 5th, 2013.

Empire Of The Sean
Sean Lennon has pursued his career at what looks like a relaxed pace, but in 2012 I noticed an increased level of activity at Chimera Music, his label. It's all rather intertwined - his side projects have side projects - but I have been keeping a closer eye on the goings on. The Chimera MusicSampler goes off in a number of directions with the general flavor of arty ear candy for fans of Cornelius and Cibo Matto. I was also glad to see a full-length electric album by The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, his band with girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl. For some odd reason it was only available on their 2010 tour until now. Grab it.

Kemp Muhl first began making music with her childhood friend, Eden Rice, when they were in elementary school. After the disruption of Kemp's international modeling career, they got back together as Kemp & Eden. From what I understand, some of the songs on their debut Black Hole Lace are from their teenage years - and it shows. The lyrics are often cringingly sophomoric. However, their harmonic chemistry, gorgeous voices and versatile instrumental skills carry the day and promise great things. Sparrow features a haunting melody that does not dissipate until long after the song has ended. With The GOSTT seemingly on hiatus as Lennon pursues his Mystical Weapons project with Greg Saunier, perhaps Kemp & Eden will turn out some new songs where everything comes together.

Eno Deluxe
I had a wonderful experience at a listening event for Brian Eno's Lux, his first new ambient work in some years. It was further proof that he is master of that particular domain and has become more assured as a composer since his groundbreaking ambient albums of the 1970's. It's acceptable to put it on in the background, but taking the time to slow down and just listen will be richly rewarding. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Dub Inflected

Here's a few that draw on the world of dub, proving that reggae's influence continues unabated.

Frk Out
Other Music, my favorite record store in Manhattan, sends out terrific monthly updates with both passionate and knowledgeable reviews of new releases. I admit to sometimes skimming them due to time constraints. However, I wish I had seen their original mention of Icon Give Thank, which ended up on their best of 2012 list and might have been on mine had I heard it earlier. This beautifully bizarre record, volume nine in the FRKWYS series, is a collaboration between two west coast experimentalists, Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, with reggae legends The Congos. It goes down like a dub dream with the still-heavenly voices of The Congos weaving in and out through the colorful soundscapes created by the two younger musicians. It's the best record of this kind since Ethiopian great Mulatu Astatke met The Heliocentrics back in 2008.
Black Ark Wisconsin
Wisconsin's own dub architects, Peaking Lights, released Lucifer in 2012 and it's their strongest record yet. Continuing their project to meld Black Ark era dub with atmospheric melodies reminiscent of Krautrock, Cocteau Twins and Perfume Tree musician-producer Aaron Coyes and singer Indra Dunis weave a hypnotic spell. The spell can be extended with, yes, Lucifer In Dub, which is enjoyably redundant. If you're on Spotify, take a trip through Coyes's brain by seeking out his playlist.

Make-Believe Master
Santigold is a frustrating artist. She's undeniably talented but from this side of the headphones at least, often seems to be trying too hard. However, if she keeps coming up with heady, perfect songs like Disparate Youth, there's a hell of a greatest hits collection in her future - and ours.

Dancehall Daze
Rub-A-Dub Style: The Roots of Modern Dancehall is an essential and fascinating book by Beth Lesser, who is practically an honorary Jamaican at this point. She's spent a lot of time down there and has spoken to nearly everyone alive who can talk about the rise of reggae and dancehall culture. For a reggae fan, it's pure joy. She takes fantastic pictures, too!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Composed & Contemporary

The world of composed, orchestral, instrumental and avant garde music is a wonderful rabbit hole to explore - and explore I did in 2012.

Go Jonny Go
Even with Radiohead on a massive and brilliant world tour, guitarist and composer Jonny Greenwood somehow managed to put out two records in 2012. The first, a collaboration with his lifelong hero, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, features a kind of call and response between the two musicians. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is a signature work of the 60's and inspired Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which was also used in his score for There Will Be Blood. 48 Responses to Polymorphia takes off from Penderecki's Polymorphia, which was based on the brainwaves of people listening to the Threnody.
While it is certainly gratifying to see Greenwood realizing his ambition to work with his inspiration, as someone who is deeply engaged with musical modernism and the avant garde, I don't think Penderecki necessarily represents the best of the 20th Century. While Kubrick's use of his music in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Shining was highly effective, that may actually be a result of something lacking in the music when listened to on its own. That said, everything on the Penderecki/Greenwood album is expertly and passionately presented and is certainly worth a listen.
I have no such reservations regarding Greenwood's score for The Master, the latest Oscar bait from Paul Thomas Anderson. Greenwood shows his greatest command of instrumentation and texture yet on pieces that have spontaneously inspired my own emotional narrative to accompany them. He also slots in period songs seamlessly, such as the impossibly lush Ella Fitzgerald recording of Get Thee Behind Me Satan. It's Greenwood's most satisfying and accomplished soundtrack and he seems poised to join the greats of cinematic music. It's disappointing that he will once again go unrecognized at the Oscars. Like Mahler, his time will come.
New Music Cavalcade
Old favorites Brooklyn Rider, crowdsourced the production of their latest album, Seven Steps, and I was happy to pledge my support. It featured two great new compositions, the group-composed title track, and Christopher Tignor's wonderful Together Into This Unknowable Night, contrasted with Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131. I'm no purist, but despite my early enthusiasm, in the end I remained unconvinced by their rendition of the latter. It seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts, although there were some fascinating parts. However, the new pieces make Seven Steps a worthy addition to their catalogue.

I discovered the fascinating Line Imprint on a trip to DC and picked up one of of their limited edition releases, Seth Cluett's Objects Of Memory. Like a lot of their releases, Cluett's work exists at the intersection of ambient music, minimalism, and sound art. This means that you sometimes can barely hear anything - but you want to. Further investigation required.

Over the summer, my daughter and I were lucky to attend Missy Mazzoli's River To River concert, which featured two pieces from her opera, Song From The Uproar. While the recording can't quite match the primal power of seeing Abigail Fischer sing the lead role in concert accompanied by Stephen Taylor's haunting projections, it's still an absorbing, dramatic listen, and shows further evolution in the work of this exciting young composer.

Mazzoli's work also featured prominently in Maya Beiser's "CelloOpera" Elsewhere, which premiered at BAM last fall. While not a complete success, it was a further demonstration of Beiser's outsized talents as a performer. Her playing is also flawless on her latest album, Time Loops, anchored by Michael Harrison's Just Ancient Loops, an absorbing and emotional new composition. The takes on the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria and Arvo Pärt's Spiegel Im Spiegel do not do much for me, but the album ends strongly with Harrison's Raga Prelude and Francisco Nunez's substantial and varied Hijaz, featuring the Young People's Chorus of New York City. Here's hoping Beiser's next recording is Salt, the Mazzoli section of Elsewhere, with Helga Davis, the astonishing vocalist who sang the premiere.

2012 saw the death of Elliott Carter, who was still composing as he neared his 104th birthday. Alisa Weilerstein released her take on his concise and explosive cello concerto just days before Carter died and, with the able assistance of Daniel Barenboim on the podium, this is likely a definitive recording. In pairing it with the Elgar concerto and Bruch's Kol Nidre, both of which have been recorded dozens of times, Decca seemed to be more concerned with business matters than musical ones, however. Here's a tip:  because the movements are short, you can download just the Carter from Amazon for under $7.

For All Seasons

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is a warhorse if there ever was one - but it's given new life in Max Richter's "recomposition," featuring the stylish violin playing of Daniel Hope. It received a rapturous reception when performed late in 2012 at Le Poisson Rouge, and rightfully so. Encompassing minimalism, ambience, and paying homage to the dance rhythms of the original, Richter's piece more than stands on it's own.

Transcending FatCat
The estimable FatCat label (Breton, etc.) initiated a new subsidiary last year, 130701, to focus on "post-classical" music and as a first shot across the bow released the excellent Transcendentalism EP. Featuring gorgeous and adventurous new music from Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka, and Johann Johannsson, it's an exciting introduction to their aim to bridge the gap between post-rock and contemporary classical.

Sax Stories
Matthew Silberman seems to see "jazz" not just as an opportunity for blowing his horn but as a method to creating a mood and telling stories through sound. His debut album, Questionable Creatures, features an unusual two-guitar line-up and fulfills that mission to a tee. Special mention to Tommy Crane, bringing the heat on drums.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Hip Hop

I couldn't climb on the Kendrick Lamar bandwagon - just didn't do it for me. But I found some other intriguing sounds from the world of hip hop.

Beat Seeking Missile
Though he was only born in 1975, drummer and producer Karriem Riggins has worked with jazz legends on the order of the Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson, as well as hip hop legends like J Dilla and Madlib. Alone Together is his first solo statement and sequences 34 sketches and loops into a head-nodding assemblage of beats sans rhymes. While he doesn't demonstrate the accretive power of DJ Shadow, Flying Lotus, or Dilla himself, it's an intriguing look into the musical mind of a master.
We Almost Found Detroit
J Dilla's tragic death in 2006 at the age of 32 left behind despondent fans and a seemingly endless trove of unreleased music. Rebirth Of Detroit takes some of those unfinished pieces and puts them together with a crop of Detroit's current MC's. Many of the beats are classic Dilla constructions but, except for Guilty Simpson and one or two others, the verses don't live up, with too many shout outs to Ma Dukes (Dilla's mother) and too much empty tough talk. Perhaps if the Dilla estate had worked with Geoff Barrow in his Quakers guise, a full on classic would have come out of the project. As it is, it's a decent collection but I hope future releases are either beats only or maybe with a single rapper who can come up to Dilla's level.
Productive Prodigy
Since his release from prison, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, has been working at a rapid clip, sometimes with partner Havoc (as on 2011's extraordinary Black Cocaine EP), but mostly on his own. Perhaps the clip has been too rapid, as the quality of his output in 2012 has been scattershot. For the fan, however, HNIC 3, H.N.I.C. 3, and The Bumpy Johnson Album all contained a measure of good tracks. The first was a mixtape that built hype for the second, which was the third official release in the series that began with his legendary first solo album, H.N.I.C. 

Perhaps the perfect version would combine tracks from both collections, as Prodigy's commercial ambitions got the best of him on the official album. However, even on crap tracks like Pretty Thug, he shows great skills, playing with the beat and lapsing into Jamaican patois. The Bumpy Johnson Album was a sonic upgrade for the tracks that he released for free via Complex Magazine in 2011, with a few new tracks added. The combination of all these releases has given me hope that his 2013 collaboration with The Alchemist, Albert Einstein, will be a return to full quality. Also one looks forward to when he and Havoc can put their bizarre and pointless (and possibly fake) feud behind them and put out another Mobb Deep album.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Best of the Rest of 12: Indie & Electro

In addition to the 20 albums counted down at the end of the year, there were a number of other pleasure-providing musical products from 2012 that deserve note. All this week, I'll be celebrating the Best of the Rest of 12, starting with Indie & Electro, featuring artists coming from the world of small labels and Bandcamp pages.

Package Deal
The Prism from Nicolas Jaar's Clown & Sunset label is a sleek little silver box filled with a sampling of terrific music, much of which features the man himself. It lends a sense of occasion to the listening experience, even when I'm using it at work, and that's certainly something we can use more of these days.

Gotcha Covered
The all-covers album is a stumbling block much of the time. Classic tracks are either bashed out or over-thought, carbon-copied or needlessly deconstructed. Two albums, both released in extremely small numbers, avoided many of the common issues.

Holly Miranda collected many of her various covers, called it Party Trick, and gave it away to some of the fans (like me) who joined her PledgeMusic campaign. Anyone who's heard her smoking rendition of the Etta James standard, I'd Rather Go Blind, knows that she has a way with interpretation. She also has eclectic taste, tackling material by everyone from David Byrne and The XX to Prince and Bon Iver. Highlights of the collection include a searing take on God Damn The Sun by Swans and a version of Forever Young by Alphaville that manages to impose a grandeur and sincerity on the trite song almost despite itself. My appetite is successfully whetted for her self-produced second album, due out soon.

Field Music Play..... gathers covers by the Brewis brothers from the last few years, including a magnificent Suzanne and a charmingly complex approach to Ringo's Don't Pass Me By. The care they lavish on Syd Barrett's Terrapin leads to a result more fully realized than his own recording. It's a short album, almost an EP, and two Pet Shop Boys songs are two too many, but it shows the range of Field Music's talents. They also released the fine album Plumb in 2012, which was nominated for a Mercury Prize. However, to these ears it was a holding action after 2010's incredible double album, Measure.

Back To The Bedsit
Ghost Carriage Phantoms is the joint project of songwriter Michael James Hall and producer Mark Estall (also the proprietor of the cleverly named Marketstall Records), and their debut record, The Boy Lives, is an absorbing trip through a witty and introverted lo-fi universe. Both Woody Allen and The Psychedelic Furs are name-checked - doesn't that just say it all?

Not Grimes
While I don't want to be snarky, the amount of attention paid to Grimes seems disproportionate to the quality of her music, which often runs out of ideas halfway through. Two more promising artists in a similar vein are Twigs and Py. The electronic instrumentals backing Twigs's soprano on her EP feel almost three-dimensional and lend necessary depth to her airy singing. Her melodies are consistently intriguing as she dissects her interpersonal relationships with a clipped precision. I'm eagerly awaiting more from her and Py, who is memorably in the mix of Two Years, a moody track from Breton's Other People's Problems. Get in on the ground floor with her Tripping on Wisdom mixtape.

Marsupial Madness
Fans of Black Moth Super Rainbow and Tame Impala might want to do a little digging and give a listen to Opossom. With better songs than the former and a less slavish sound than the latter, they bring some serious fun to the psych-pop realm on their album, Electric Hawaii. They literally move to the beat of a different drummer - Kody Nielson, who also writes, sings and produces - slices up time in some pretty interesting ways on the drum tracks. He also holds the drum chair in his brother's Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whose second album is out February 5th.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Kenyon Hopkins At 101: Putting Sound To Sight

Why does some music just FIT? When I first heard the music of Kenyon Hopkins on Spinning On Air (WNYC), it was so perfect that I thought host David Garland was making it up. In his day, Hopkins was a go-to soundtrack composer, fitting sound to sight with a keen eye to the visual and psychological elements in the movies he worked on. In his heyday, he was nearly as acclaimed and well-known as legends like Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone and his dark, jazzy and carefully composed sounds were used in hit films like Baby Doll and The Hustler, as well as many that are forgotten today such as The Yellow Canary and Mr. Buddwing. He did fantastic work on the one remarkable season of East Side West Side, which starred George C. Scott as a crusading social worker and also featured Cicely Tyson in her first major role.

He also released a string of "sound tours," instrumental albums and collections of storytelling sound effects (Panic, Shock and Nightmare), often in partnership with Creed Taylor. He ended his career as music director for CBS Television - you can catch his name in the end-credits of The Odd Couple - but was nearly forgotten after his death. Most of his records are still out of print. His music lives on in my life, however, and has been an integral part of me since I heard those first notes almost 25 years ago.

Take a few moments on his 101st birthday to immerse yourself in the sound world of a lost American master.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

David Bowie

Happy 66th birthday, David Bowie. How polite, how very British of you, to have given US a gift on your birthday - the wonderful new song, Where Are We Now?

So where are we now? And how did we get here? While I always enjoyed Bowie's hits as a kid, it wasn't until I was about 16 and Scary Monsters came out that I started to grasp the sheer brilliance of his recorded output. I hungrily worked my way straight back to The Man Who Sold The World, finding discovery upon discovery along the way. He engages me emotionally and intellectually like few other artists.

I've also learned from his creative process about how to engage with work that inspires you and have it inform your own efforts. I feel lucky to have seen him live twice. He ruled the stage like few performers from any corner of music and it's tantalizing to think that he might do so again.

But for now, I'll just say thank you for the gift of a new album (coming March 12),  to add to what has been, for me and for many, a life-changing body of work.