Friday, July 24, 2009

Artist of the Decade?

For what it's worth, I think a strong case can be made for Joe Henry as artist of the decade, and I'll probably be making the case in more cogent form in the months ahead. His four albums this decade -- Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, and Blood from Stars -- ought to be festooned with 4.5, 5, 5, and 5 stars, respectively. And as much as it's difficult to improve on consecutive 5-star albums, I think he might have done so with Blood from Stars. It's a ridiculously great set of tunes. I'll hold off until August 18th, the official release date, to comment in detail, but I, for one, won't quibble with a couple of the early opinions that it just might be the best album of the decade.

I'm dreaming, of course, to think that most people, or most music publications, will follow suit. Joe isn't young enough, hip enough, or indie enough to merit that kind of consideration from most places. My guess is that the votes will be split among Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Animal Collective, and Sigur Ros fans, and certainly there is great merit in the body of work that each of those performers/bands has produced over the past ten years. It's just that, well, they're not the best. Joe Henry is the best.

Oh, and he's probably producer of the decade as well.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Backstory

Backstory -- The experiences of a character or the circumstances of an event that occur before the action or narrative of a literary, cinematic, or dramatic work.

Over in Pasteland, the editors are putting together the beginnings of the end-of-the-year issue, which will also be the end-of-the-decade issue. That means another list, this one The Best Albums of the '00s List. Paste will hardly be alone in this endeavor. Every music magazine, website, and blog will follow suit, because the end of the decade is the perfect time to sum up the highlights of the previous ten years.

Here are three albums that will inevitably end up on a lot of Best-of-the-Decade lists, and will perhaps grace the pages of Paste. I think they're decent albums; a couple of them I'd even consider very good albums. But I don't think they're anywhere near the best of the decade. But they have achieved a sort of mythic status, at least in part because of their backstories. Take away the backstories and you've got some decent music. But you don't have the Best Albums of the '00s.

Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Brave, headstrong band sticks to their principles, refuses to knuckle under to the pressure applied by their record label, gets dropped, gets re-signed, and eventually releases a landmark album, complete with accompanying documentary film footage.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a good album, and is certainly a sonic departure for Wilco. But it would merely be a solid, creative release without that captivating backstory. Who doesn't love the Committed Artist hoisting the middle finger to The Man, who simply doesn't understand? Who can't identify with the misunderstood underdogs who stay true to their Art in the face of the corporate shitstorm? Bravo, Jeff Tweedy. Now, any chance you could rediscover melody?

The Shins -- Oh, Inverted World

"The Shins will change your life," Natalie Portman rapturously sighs in "Garden State." And legions of hipsters, anxious to proclaim their freethinking independence, rushed out to buy the album.

I'm not entirely sure why a band that channels Donovan and Love would be considered life-changing. That didn't even work back in 1967. Anybody checked on how well the old hippie ideals have held up lately? It's pleasant music, to be sure, and James Mercer and friends concoct a dreamy psychedelic hootenanny. But how much do you want to bet that these guys would still be playing bars in Albuquerque if Zach Braff hadn't been a fan?

Coldplay -- A Rush of Blood to the Head

I admit that I don't get it. I recognize that millions of people, including people I love and admire, are deeply enamored with this band. But when I hear those saccharine power ballads, it's still hard for me to escape the thought that twenty years from now Coldplay will be viewed as the REO Speedwagon or Journey of their generation; an enormously popular group that couldn't make substantial music if their gently angst-ridden lives depended on it. But they certainly look good, and they're hooked up with all the right celebrities. And they came along during a lull in the Britpop hegemony, and they sauntered in to fill the void.

"Am I a part of the cure/Or am I part of the disease," Chris Martin croons on "Clocks." Do I get a vote?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moon Tracks

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's Lamest Quote Ever ("That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, and one colossal argument for the need for a decent speechwriter"), I've compiled a list of my favorite moon songs. The criteria:

-- The song must mention "Moon" in the title.
-- I have to like it (so much for "Moonlight Drive," by The Doors).
-- It cannot use the words "June" or "spoon."

With that in mind:

-- Pink Moon (Nick Drake) -- Who knew, before Nick Drake, that a pink moon was an ominous sign of the apocalypse, or at least death by suicide at a young age? Now we know.

-- White Moon, Blue Moon, Red Moon, If the Moon Turns Green, Smog Moon (The White Stripes, too many to mention, but I'll pick Coleman Hawkins, Umphrey's McGree, Billie Holiday and Matthew Sweet, respectively) -- Judging by the colors, it's really a Rainbow Moon. Except when it's obscured by pollution, as Matthew Sweet notes.

-- Moon, Turn the Tides Gently, Gently (Jimi Hendrix) -- A one-minute guitar freakout on Electric Ladyland. Gently, gently, indeed.

-- 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons (A Silver Mt. Zion) -- Because every moon deserves its blues.

-- Blue Moon of Kentucky, Carolina Moon, Southern Moon, Cajun Moon (Bill Monroe, Thelonious Monk, The Louvin Brothers, and Ricky Skaggs, respectively) -- Most people recognize that the moon is not a regional possession, and cannot be claimed by the local denizens. Not people from the south. And I love them for it.

-- Marquee Moon, Grapefruit Moon (Television and Tom Waits, respectively) -- Everybody wants to pin a catchy adjective on the moon. These are a couple that work for me. As opposed to, say, Surfer Moon or Harvest Moon.

-- Jesus of the Moon (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) -- You think He's simply Lord of Planet Earth?

-- East of the Sun (and West of the Moon) (Too many to mention, but I prefer Jon Rauhouse's steel guitar take, with Neko Case handling the vocals) -- I don't know where this is, or how to travel there. But when Neko sings it, I want to go.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Blood on the Tracks, The New York Sessions

A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It's hard for me to relate to that. I mean, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?
-- Bob Dylan, on Blood on the Tracks

It's hard to know how to approach the phenomenon of bootlegs -- the real ones, not the officially sanctioned releases that Columbia has been doling out from their vaults for the past eighteen years. Officially this album doesn't even exist. Except it does, you know, and if you're a Dylan fan, and particularly a fan of Blood on the Tracks, you might want to track it down. No, I didn't say that.

The story goes like this: In September, 1974, Bob Dylan hired a handful of NYC musicians, went into the studio, and recorded the batch of tunes that came to be known as Blood on the Tracks. Dissatisfied with the results, Dylan scrapped everything, and then traveled to Minneapolis, where he re-recorded the songs that were then released on the official album. But the New York sessions are widely available, and reveal a fascinating glimpse into the heart and mind of a mercurial singer and songwriter.

In general, the New York sessions are more relaxed and more monochromatic than the officially released songs. Dylan's dissatisfaction is understandable; he recorded ten tracks that didn't vary appreciably in terms of tempo or instrumentation, and the official release is far more interesting from a dynamic standpoint. But that's not to say that there aren't treasures galore on the New York sessions. Almost every song has been tweaked between the New York and Minneapolis recordings, and some of them --notably "Idiot Wind," "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," and "If You See Her, Say Hello" -- sound radically different. The snarling tirade on "Idiot Wind" -- one of its defining characteristics -- is noticeably absent on the New York sessions. More significantly, Dylan simply rewrote most of these tracks. It's mind-boggling. The verses that Dylan fans know by heart, these iconically memorable lines. seemingly emerged off the cuff. And the verses that were replaced, that can only be heard on the bootleg, are no less revelatory, the imagery leaping off the page, even without the musical accompaniment:

I threw the I Ching yesterday
Said there might be some thunder at the well
Peace and quiet's been avoiding me
For so long it seems like living hell

That one didn't make it on to the official release. Whatever. Most songwriters would give their first born to record songs as great as the ones Bob Dylan never bothered to release. In any event, if you'd like an alternate, but no less remarkable, take on a classic album, the New York sessions deliver in spades. And hearts, both broken and intact.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Trembling Bells -- Carbeth

Alright, no one but me is paying attention to this Glasgow music, but it just keeps coming, and it's remarkable.

Today's installment: Carbeth, by Glasgow's Trembling Bells. There are elements here that will delight fans of early Fairport Convention's trad rock (count me as one of them) and Devendra Banhart's twisted psychedelic folk (not so much a fan, although I do hear moments of ethereal, weird beauty). More importantly, lead songwriter Alex Neilson has worked with Scots trad troubadour Alasdair Roberts and indie folk hero Bonnie Prince Billy, and he's learned his lessons well, one of them being to find a lovely thrush to give voice to his sentiments. Hey, it worked well for Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, and it works well here, too. Lavinia Blackwall fills the thrush role quite admirably, and when Neilson does sing, he brings a wobbly, reedy quality that recalls Terry Woods of the Pogues (no, not Shane MacGowan, Terry Woods), and that is the ideal foil to Blackwall's folky perfection.

This is a wondrous album, easily one of my favorites of the year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mahavish New, and Go Bucks!

"Fusion" is a cuss word in my house, calling up countless limpid jazz/pop disappointments. But it wasn't always this way. In 1970, John McLaughlin absconded from the Miles Davis band with his astounding chops, put together an ace conglomeration of some of the best players on the planet, and called the aggregate The Mahavishnu Orchestra. They proceeded to shred their way into the hearts of millions of members of the Woodstock generation, and produce something sui generis: a true jazz/rock fusion that borrowed the best from both worlds. They improvised with the best jazz musicians, and the interplay between them was almost telepathic . And they could make your eardrums bleed. Yes, that's a good, even a great, thing.

Check out this clip from 1972. And check out drummer Billy Cobham's shirt.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One Hit Wonders -- The Easybeats

Dig the groovy people. And the wondrous sounds of the British Invasion, upside down. The Easybeats were, in fact, from Sydney, Australia, but they sure captured the magic of Liverpool.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Great Scots

Forget Portland and forget Brooklyn. The best pop music in the world right now is coming out of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland. Here are two more pieces of evidence.

We Were Promised Jetpacks -- These Four Walls

It's the 21st century now, dammit. Just where are those jetpacks?

Aside from being bent out of shape about the unfulfilled promise of the technological age, Glasgow quartet We Were Promised Jetpacks are exorcised about just about everything else as well. This is the angst-ridden, anthemic side of Glasgow music (think Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, as opposed to the angst-ridden, non-anthemic music of Belle and Sebastian or Camera Obscura). As such, these young lads are basically imitating their elders. But that's fine, because the elders bear imitating, and because it's hard to improve on soaring guitars and Bono histrionics delivered in a thick Scottish brogue.

Broken Records -- Until the Earth Begins to Part

I hate to sound like a ... well, you know. But this is more of the same, with a fiddle, cello, and accordion tossed into the mix, and a lead singer who channels Mike Scott of The Waterboys rather than Bono. If Scott's overemoting on albums such as A Pagan Place and This is the Sea is your cup of single malt, then this album will delight you. That works just fine for me. Until the Earth Begins to Part is full of melodrama and big noise, and in unhinged frontman Jamie Sutherland the band has a truly charismatic, plaintive star in the making. This band will get better, and they're pretty good now.

Westerville, Ohio: Lawn Care Epicenter of the Universe

"The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever."
-- Isaiah 40:8

I don't know the exact unemployment figures for Westerville, Ohio. But judging by purely anecdotal evidence accumulated via numerous daytime walks through the 'hood, I think I can safely state that there are an abnormally high number of middle-aged men who have too much time on their hands. This is because I see them out puttering in their lawns on weekdays at 10:00 a.m., at 2:00 p.m., spreading mulch, whacking weeds, and mowing in various geometrical patterns; activities normally reserved for Saturday mornings. As a result, even though overall income and retirement savings are down, and people may not have enough to eat as they sit in their about-to-be-foreclosed homes, the various bluegrass, fescue, and rye permutations found throughout the greater Westerville area have never looked more impressive. This may be the high renaissance of suburban lawn care.

The striped pattern is particularly noteworthy this summer. Using a closely guarded technique, some homeowners have mastered the art of mowing alternate rows at different lengths. This produces the striped pattern shown above. It's a hell of a lot of work -- you have to change the height of the lawnmower wheels after every row -- but the breathtaking visual impact is undeniable.

Others have perfected the art of mowing in concentric circles, as shown to the left. This, of course, requires a relatively square, open, treeless lawn where one can spiral out to one's heart's content, but given the proper lawn configuration the results can be quite dramatic. It's a little tough to see the circles up close, but when viewed from, say, a glider or hot air balloon, the effect is scintillating. The oval pattern offers a slight variation on this theme, and can be used for a more rectangular lawn to produce a series of parallel egg shapes, a particularly appropriate pattern given the number of chicken farms just outside the city limits.

Most dramatic of all is the checkerboard pattern shown to the left. It's the ultimate in commitment to lawn care. Not only does the proud homeowner have to mow regularly, but he/she then has to mow again almost immediately, at a 90-degree angle to the first mowing. But look at the results of the prodigious effort; here is a lawn that is suitable for both chess and checkers, for foursquare, even for financial spreadsheets if one is willing to add hand-lettered headers to the columns up near the front of the house. The versatility of such a lawn is virtually unmatched.

It's a glorious time in the neighborhood. Come by and see these and other astounding feats of lawn care before the banks take over and it all turns to weeds.

The Emitt Rhodes Recordings 1969 - 1973

AMG Notes in a 5-star review today that Hip-O Select has compiled all the music Emitt Rhodes recorded between 1969 and 1973 and released it as a 2-CD set. Rhodes is the fifth (sixth?) Beatle, although he never met the Fab Four and he grew up in L.A., not Liverpool. But he did a better Paul McCartney imitation than Paul McCartney did after 1969, and anyone who appreciates, say, Revolver and Rubber Soul, which is pretty much everybody, will find much to love in his music. With any luck, Rhodes will be the Nick Drake of the late '00s, that unknown great artist whose rediscovery will make the hipsters drive environmentally friendly cars. One can hope, both for Emitt's sake and the good of mankind.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Aaron Strumpel -- Elephants

My review of Aaron Strumpel's amazing album Elephants is now up at Christianity Today. It's also been noted in today's issue of USA Today.

I hope it provides some well-deserved publicity for Aaron, who is carving out a whole new musical vocabulary for the Psalms.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Great Music I Missed the First Time Around

The Romantics -- The Romantics (1980)

Well, sort of. Everybody, including me, has heard the big hit "What I Like About You." It's a classic takeoff on all those great garage rockers of the mid- and late-'60s. And every time I hear that one I want to go up down, jump around, think about true romance. But the whole album, which I've finally heard for the first time, has that primal garage rock quality that will never grow old. People really did make rock 'n roll in garages back in the day. I remember hearing Ricky Boles, at age 14 or thereabouts, bashing out chords with his bandmates in his garage four doors down the street from me. Ricky went on to make a couple blues-based rock albums and probably sold a couple hundred of them to friends and family. The Romantics sold considerably more than a couple hundred copies of their debut eponymous album, and with good reason. Sometimes you can't improve on three chords and a backbeat, handclaps, and band members who shout "Hey." Hey.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Rod Stewart = Hate

Did you know that there is a rock band named "Rod Stewart = Hate"? There is. Listening to Rod's third album, Every Picture Tells a Story, I begin to understand why. Not that it's a hateful album. It's a perfect album, in fact, an album driven by acoustic instruments -- piano, dobro and mandolin, mostly -- and that, impossibly, rocks like crazy. And that's because Rod Stewart is a force of nature, a big, blustering, strutting, soulful singer who can still sound pleadingly poignant. It's a neat trick, and on that album he might be the greatest singer in rock music. The title track, in spite of its misogynistic lyrics, contains some of the best singing ever committed to recorded media.

And he threw it all away for ... Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? Rod Stewart = Hate. It's an equation that's all too easy to understand.