Sunday, April 05, 2015

Catching Up With 2015

After the frenzy of year-end lists, AnEarful went a bit quiet as my family launched into an extensive apartment renovation. While (maybe) not as stressful as moving, this project required our full attention. I'm very lucky to have a wife who understands my passion for music and so a centerpiece of our living room is now an enormous wall unit that absorbed all of my CD's and will soon house all my LP's as well. 

This is not a collection to be dusted off from time to time. It is a library that I engage with on a daily basis, helping me make different connections and discoveries the same way shopping in a record store does as opposed to buying or streaming online.

Fortunately, thanks to Spotify, Freegal Music and other sources, I have kept up pretty well with what's been going on this year - I just haven't had time to write about it. As usual, I have an "Of Note" playlist on Spotify where I dump anything that catches my ear. You can subscribe to the playlist to follow along as I add (and sometimes subtract) songs. If you do, let me know what I might be missing out on!

To bring things up to date, here's an attempt at a breezy overview of 2015, quarter one.

Live And Direct

Matthew E. White at BRIC last month. 

In addition to the Kate Tempest show I covered recently, I feel privileged to have made it to two other concerts during this busy time. Father John Misty slayed at Rough Trade back in February. No surprise there, as I've seen him twice before and he's one of the great performers of our time. I still can't get over how he and his excellent band launched into the title track of I Love You Honeybear as if they were slamming home a four-hour epic concert. And his version of Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man fit him as well as his stylish jacket. Just three weeks later, I slogged out to BRIC for a Matthew E. White extravaganza, with all the horns, strings, and backup singers you could want. This was the third time I've seen him as well and it was everything I've ever hoped for since the first time I heard Big Love from his debut. Listen for yourself, thanks to WFUV. More to come: Talea Ensemble at the Italian Academy on April 8th and Natalie Prass at Bowery Ballroom on May 4th.

Listen Keenly

The phantasmagorical interior of I Love You, Honeybear 
There are 43 tracks in the Spotify playlist so far. Obviously, three of them feature Kanye West, who is working his way towards a new album. Not so obviously, two of them have Paul McCartney, who seems to be having a ball, and even Rihanna sounds appealing on FourFiveSeconds. Keep Kanye away from awards shows - in the studio he can do very little wrong. He might have gone back to his Pro-Tools, however, after hearing To Pimp A Butterfly, the astonishing album from Kendrick Lamar. While at times it sounds like the greatest album OutKast never made, it triumphs through density, complexity, layers of emotion, and a gorgeously funky, wide-ranging production. Lamar has single-handedly made 2015 a good year for hip hop - with an assist from Ghostface Killah, who teamed up with Canadian noir-jazzers BadBadNotGood on Sour Soul. He sounds newly enlivened by the surroundings and is on point throughout, especially on the Donald Goines homage, Tone's Rap. It's hard to imagine that I won't still be listening to both of these come December.

I've already mentioned Father John Misty and Matthew E. White, who have both blown through any sophomore issues with great follow up albums. Each is worth getting on vinyl, FJM's I Love You, Honeybear for the mind-blowing packaging (warped vinyl and all), and White's Fresh Blood for the bonus disc of stripped down versions. While White's arrangements are spectacular, they wouldn't mean anything if the songs weren't so damned good. Both of them mine 60's and 70's sounds to great effect, which can also be said of Ryley Walker, a virtuoso guitarist making a move to wider exposure with his second album, Primrose Green. He's been covering Van Morrison's elegiac Fair Play in concert, which is a great point of reference, as is Tim Buckley, Nick Drake and Fotheringay. It's an old sound that never gets old. The production is lush and Walker pushes his voice and his band hard, breaking prior restraints and landing in a deeply emotional place. You gotta hear it.

Matthew E. White has also gifted us with the debut of Natalie Prass, surrounding her songs of heartbreak with a variety of settings, from his patented take on symphonic soul on several songs, to a string quartet and harp on Christy and pure classic Disney orchestration on It Is You. Dusty In Memphis comes to mind, and although Prass is more of a quirky chirper than the legendary Ms. Springfield, they both have a similar steel to their delicate spines. Possible best-new-artist stuff. Speaking of which, Courtney Barnett was one of the surprising delights of last year and now we have her first official full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Many reviewers reference Nirvana when talking about Barnett but I prefer to leapfrog right back to deadpan pop-punk of The Vaselines. In any case, Barnett's trademark storytelling, off-hand delivery and overall pluck are honed to fine point here, along with her guitar playing, with both more abandon and more polish to the sound. Promise delivered, further delight guaranteed. Chastity Belt never seemed that promising to begin with, but Time To Go Home is a nice surprise, tuneful and reflective.

Psychedelic sounds have gradually returned as a regular part of the landscape. This isn't always a good thing as the result often sounds like an ill-fitting costume, but three albums out this year make a strong argument in favor of keeping modern psych around. The Amazing spin out an elegant, filigreed sound on Picture You that slowly creates a distortion in the atmosphere. While the vocals could be stronger, most of the time the intertwining guitars are shouldering the load anyway. Pond, whose Hobo Rocket was an overlooked gem back in 2013, are back with Man It Feels Like Space Again. The production gleams with confidence and the songs are both muscular and wonderfully weird. Finally, we have Wand, who make seismic noises for connoisseurs of amplifier hum like me. Golem is their earth-scorching second album and the charred trees that surround it in an ever-widening circle look...beautiful.

Funny to think of a time when synthesizers seemed to threaten the natural order of things. Now they're used for retro-leaning music as often as an upright bass and a hollow-body guitar. It can be a wonderful thing when it works, such as on the electro pop of Father John Misty's True Affection, but pretty dreary elsewhere. James Greenwood, who performs as Ghost Culture, takes us back to The Factory on his self-titled debut, building up rich layers of keyboards and ticking rhythms and singing over them in an airy, disaffected tenor. His album succeeds because he seems not to care a whit what anyone thinks, as if he's saying "I'm 24 and this is all new to me. Come on and dance!" Why say no?

A lot of the music above is from people in the earlier stages of their careers. That could certainly not be said of Björk, now the subject of a retrospective at MOMA after all. Vulnicura is her seventh album since Debut and her third in a row that I find myself mostly admiring rather than loving. I'm a fan of art song as much as the next guy, but these pieces often come across as slightly formless, leaning a bit too much on the sheer beauty of the sound and the diary-like intrigue of the lyrics. Arca, who produced some of it, fell in the same static trap on his album last year. Björk's voice is in top form, at least, but I certainly don't need Antony intruding on my reverie. I don't know what she - or anyone else - sees in that guy.

Lastly, it all comes down to Bob Dylan. The day is growing ever nearer when we will look back and marvel that we ever shared the planet with such a titanic artist. But until then, he's right in the thick of it, planting his flag in the culture of today just as firmly as in decades past. He's always been indebted to and recharged by the songs of the past, so why not an album of Tin Pan Alley songs associated with Frank Sinatra? Dylan's affection and admiration for Sinatra has been clear ever since his moving performance of Restless Farewell at Frank's nationally televised 80th birthday celebration in 1995. Also, his voracious appetite to discover the structure of songwriting must have led him to look pretty closely at the Great American Songbook from time to time. As far as comparing his voice with The Voice, Dylan had this to say in his intense interview in AARP Magazine: "Comparing me with Frank Sinatra? You must be joking."

But Shadows In The Night is no joke. Brilliantly produced by Dylan (as Jack Frost), each song is set in a charcoal sketch of swaying bass, strummed guitar, and pedal steel (the great Donny Herron), with glints of other sounds and textures. Dylan embraces the songs, in all their theatricality and old-fashioned romanticism, while also holding them slightly distant, as if almost amused. His voice sounds clear and even supple without hiding any of its well-worn qualities as he navigates the sometimes dramatic melodies. In the end, Shadows In The Night is a mood piece. Give it a chance and it will mesmerize you.

What have you been listening to in 2015?

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