Playlist: WNCW_06/1716

I’m pleased with this playlist (my first time behind the sound-board in a while), even if did get a little with thematic sets – particularly to start. But as schools are out and we’re mired in a heat wave, some summer songs seemed appropriate.

There are also some pleasant discoveries within, specifically Other Lives and Surfer Blood, both of whom I didn’t know before these latest albums. Other Lives’ profile on Spotify relates them to, among artists, The Antlers and Wye Oak – that latter one I especially don’t hear. To me they seem grander, like My Morning Jacket or even Radiohead, though that comparison might be reserved just for Jesse Tabish’ voice, which has a Thom Yorke quality to it.

Speaking of Wye Oak, I said it during the radio show and I’ll say it again and again: their 2014 album Shriek was criminally overlooked. I really wish I could have played more than one Wye Oak track on the show. (I’ve written more about Shriek here.)

You’ll notice that in Spotify I was unable to isolate the hidden track at the end of Galactic’s Crazyhorse Mongoose. I think the 90s should be remembered as the hidden track decade, and I would love to do an entire radio show just playing hidden tracks – everything from “Sgt Pepper’s Inner Groove (to my knowledge the first hidden track), the untitled track at the end of R.E.M.’s Green (the first overt hidden track I can remember), to #34 at the end of Dave Matthews’ Under the Table and Dreaming (with those annoying silent 22-odd tracks in between).

Finally, there are some really impressive records out right now by artists who continue to push themselves; Patrick Watson’s concept album Love Songs for Robots is fascinating, while Jaga Jazzist’s latest proves they are leading the avant-garde jazz fusion charge.

Here’s the playlist in plain text (including a couple songs which aren’t found on Spotify and the actual albums titles – some of which, again, can’t be found on Spotify):

1) Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Summer Feeling (Jonathan Sings!)
2) Other Lives: English Summer (Rituals)
3) Talking Heads: Popsicle (Sand in the Vaseline Vol 2)
4) Hot Chip: Love is the Future (Why Make Sense?)
5) De La Soul: Held Down (AOI: Bionix)


6) Patrick Watson: Love Song for Robots (Love Song for Robots)
7) Flight of the Conchords: Robots (Flight of the Conchords)
8) Radiohead: Idioteque (Kid A)
9) Mac McCaughan:Your Hologram (Non-Believers)
10) Mark Lanegan Band: Gray Goes Black (Blues Funeral)
11) Yo La Tengo: Moby Octopad (I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One)
12) Jaga Jazzist: Prungen (Starfire)
13) Thee Oh Sees: Turned Out Light (Mutilator Defeated at Last)


14) Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Like Acid Rain (Multi-Love)
15) Stevie Wonder: Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing (Innervisions)
16) Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings: Stranger to My Happiness (Give the People What They Want)
17) Galactic: [Hidden Track] (Crazyhorse Mongoose)
18) Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles: Holy Rollers (Oh Man, Cover the Ground)
19) Sparklehorse: Shade and Honey (Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain)
20) Wye Oak: Shriek (Shriek)
21) Lambchop: What Else Could it Be? (Nixon)
22) Cody Chestnutt: Chips Down (No Landfill) (Landing on a Hundred)
23) Sharon van Etten: I Don’t Want to Let You Down (EP)
24) Daughn Gibson: Shatter You Through (Carnation)
25) Songs:Ohia: Two Blue Lights (Didn’t it Rain)
26) Surfer Blood: Feast-Famine (1000 Palms)
27) Dommengang: Hats off to Magic (Everybody’s Boogie)
28) Isotope 217: Audio Boxing (The Unstable Molecule)

 


George Sieburg is a part-time DJ at WNCW in Western N.C., a musician, and a writer. You can follow him on Twitter @georgesieburg or his new Instagram account @insta_gramophones where he concisely reviews an LP each day. You can also read his other blog here.

 

The Year in Music 2014: Favorite Songs

Picking a list of favorite songs from 2014 is of course completely arbitrary.  As someone who rarely buys a single song on a place like iTunes or Amazon and instead buys entire albums, I usually find my favorite songs within albums that have grabbed my attention; so I could put the entirety of Lost in the Dream on a favorite song list. However, a song list with no limitations would eventually become saturated; therefore, in compiling a list of my favorite songs of the year, I must embrace the arbitrary. So you’ll note in the list below that there are no duplicate artists, making, for example, my favorite song by St Paul & the Broken Bones a difficult choice – all of those tracks were my favorite. I also gave myself the rule that I could not pick the title track from an album. Why? No reason other than I had a hard time choosing my favorite Wye Oak and Bobby Bare, Jr songs, and that rule simply made my task easier.

There are no ranking, here, by the way – again, ultimately out of laziness. But also because a favorite song on a cool April night will probably give way to a completely different song on a crisp September morning. These 32 songs are in alphabetical order, with a blurb about each to follow.

 

Avant Gardner – Courtney Barnett

I usually don’t go in for lyricists who cram as many words as possible into a measure (a la Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams), but the story Courtney Barnett builds in this song, of being short of breath, is a juxtaposition of having too much to say and not the breath to say it. “I’m having trouble breathing in” has such wonderful metaphorical undertones.

Backstairs – The New Pornographers

A power-pop powerhouse (as is most of The New Pornographers’ album of this year), with a driving beat and scintillating melody and harmony. It feels like A.C. Newman and Neko Case pulled this song from somewhere in the mid-70s, ran it through the gauntlet of the last 40 years of rock and roll, and set it down firmly in 2014, an embodiment of this decade’s pop-rock sound.

Bad Law – Sondre Lerche

Sondre Lerche used to come up in my Wilco Pandora station, and it always seemed an odd fit. It still seems that way, as “Bad Law” demonstrates Lerche’s 80s pop sensibilities, and the musical risks he takes seem much more new wave and post-disco than anything Wilco would ever do. “Bad Law” is ultimately a dance club tune, and one that I could imagine being played (and sampled) in discothèques for years to come.

Blame Everybody (But Yourself) – Bobby Bare, Jr

I came across Bobby Bare Jr’s album way too late this year; the fun and confidence of the entire record is embodied in “Blame Everybody.” I love a musical risk, and Bare Jr’s work is rife with risk. But whereas his risks used to seem far afield – to the point that I tended to ignore his music – the risks in this song – the horns particularly – and throughout the album Undefeated, from which “Blame Everybody” is culled, are intuitive, measured, and triumphant.

California (Cast Iron Soul) – Jamestown Revival

There is plenty on “California” that could be construed as cheesy, and because of those elements – like the dramatic pauses and heavy-handed drumming – it’s entirely possible that even a year from now this song is relegated to a one-hit wonder, a little too dramatic, a little too narcissistic for its own good.  But for this year, it’s infectious and sing-able, and deserving of being on this list.

Call Me – St Paul & the Broken Bones

Choosing just one song from St Paul’s debut record was a major challenge of this list.  But “Call Me” is driving, passionate, full of the stellar horn work and surprisingly good guitar work that makes St Paul & the Broken Bones one of the feel-good musical stories of the year.  Paul Janeway’s voice is a revelation, and if the band keeps putting out songs like this, so indebted to classic R&B and Soul, we’ll be hearing that voice for years to come.

Chill Pill (Experiment 2) – Hawk House

Another late find from this year, Hawk House remind me of the hip-hop acts of the mid-90s that got drowned out by the West-Coast/Gangster rap of that decade: Digable Planets, De La Soul, Boogiemonsters. With Hawk House, the Love Movement has been resurrected, and I’ve pulled out my old A Tribe Called Quest records because of them.

Colorado – Chastity Brown

“Colorado” is the twin of Jamestown Revival’s “California” i.e. will I one day find that it takes itself too seriously?  Never mind – the future is a blur. Right now I’m relishing in Chastity Brown’s gritty, soulful voice.

Dead Room – Nick Waterhouse

In all honesty, I wanted to love Nick Waterhouse’s record of this year, Holly.  And in a certain context, with the cocktail shaker pouring out strong libations, the lights dimmed and shrouded, it’s perfect.  But I had a hard time embracing the album.  “Dead Room” stuck with me, though, with its surprising sax solo helping to distinguish it from the rest of the rather pedestrian lounge sound.

Emajer – Tinariwen

Oh my, what a sound the Malian rebels and refugees Tinariwen produce.  This record easily could have made my list of favorites (except that I’m shamefully Eurocentric and prefer to be able to understand the lyrics). The word “Tinariwen” means empty places, and the album, recorded in Joshua Tree National Park, has that feel of the hot desert air, the wide expanses of sand and rock, the hot winds and cool nights.

Evil – Shovels & Rope

“Evil” stood out on Shovels & Rope’s 2014 Swimming Time with its molasses feel, its dirge-like tone.  The band’s previous album sounded too much to me like Loretta Lynn, but “Evil” was proof that Shovels & Rope has its own sound and, given lines like “but every now and then I get evil/I’m ashamed in the shadow of a steeple/I’m a lunatic looking through a keyhold/I hit my kids but I don’t mean to/I’m a dead dog lying on the sidewalk/another victim of the mortgage-bubble pop/waiting on the other shoe to drop,” its own ethos.

Eyes to the Wind – The War on Drugs

Another stellar album from which it was a challenge to pull just one song, but The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream has as its mid-point this song, which simultaneously grounds the album and lets it soar off into other realms.  “Eyes to the Wind” is an embodiment of the paradox that runs the course of the entire record: musically soaring and empowering while also deeply melancholy – thanks a lot, saxophone coming in there in the final 30 seconds, to remind us of that dark, brooding place we’ve all been.

Fuck Fame – Bart Davenport

In a year when the sound of the 80s has come back with a vengeance (The War on Drugs, Wye Oak, Broken Bells all channeling that decade’s synth-heavy sound), Bart Davenport’s guitar work stood out as the most evocative of 80s pop. “Fuck Fame” would have fit perfectly wedged between a-ha and Mister Mister songs on the radio – except for the expletive.

Fuckmylife666 – Against Me!

On a record rife with simultaneous angst-filled thrash and grace-filled melody, “fuckmylife666” is the centerpiece.  Propelled by a timeless guitar riff and grounded by a bittersweet chorus, the song stands as an anthem for the ages.  “I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger” could be a line in a Franz Wright poem.  The message of Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues is concisely told in this song: “There’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me.”

Heart is a Drum – Beck

Beck’s latest effort, Morning Phase, fell flat for me, because it seemed a rehash of Sea Change from a decade ago, and because the melodic strength of the record petered out in the second half.  The first few tracks, though, are gems, with “Heart is a Drum” the best of the bunch.

High & Wild – Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen created a lo-fi masterpiece with this year’s Burn your Fire for No Witness.  A song like “High & Wild,” even with its oppressive production and gritty feel, is a welcome melodic wonder among the dirge-like songs on the rest of the album.

Home (Leave the Lights On) – Field Report

Even if “Home” had no gently moving melody and totally singable chorus, it would be a standout simply because of this line: “And the body remembers what the mind forgets, archives every heartbreak and cigarette.”  (Also, years from now, will this song be the new “I’ll be Home for Christmas”?)

Horizon – Real Estate

Another album I really tried to love and had a hard time latching onto.  Maybe it’s because Real Estate are a little ahead of the trend-curve, skipping the synth-pop of the 80s that everyone seems to be referencing these days and going straight at the indie 90s and bands like the Red House Painters.

I Prefer Your Love – St Vincent

This is probably my single favorite song of the year. For all of St Vincent’s modern musical bravura and technical mastery, this song proves that she is first and foremost a gifted songwriter. That it feels just as comfortable coming from the car speakers on a clouded-over February afternoon as it does blaring from the home speakers on a bright summer Sunday is proof enough of the song’s transcendence. It is spare and nuanced and, ultimately, beautiful. There are moments when an artist finds that perfect sense of grace, and this, an ode to her mother, is St Vincent’s moment.

Jerk Ribs – Kelis

I’m a sucker for a good horn section coupled with a sultry voice, and Kelis delivers both on her compelling album, Food.  Apparently Kelis is an accomplished cook in addition to writing infectious soul-pop like this song, as well as her biggest hit (by far) to date, “Milkshake,” which, given her love of food, might deserve a different interpretation.

Lazy Wonderland – Broken Bells

At the start of the year, Broken Bells’ new album After the Disco was the record I was most looking forward to.  James Mercer and Brian Burton’s (Danger Mouse’s) debut collaboration of 2010 was my favorite album of that year; anticipating a sophomore effort is always dangerous, and After the Disco fell flat for me.  There are some high points, and “Lazy Wonderland” is one of them.

Logic of Color – Wye Oak

I love the new direction Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have taken on their latest album Shriek.  Replacing the waves of guitar sound are percussive loops and keyboard.  The music at once feels pulled straight from 80s synth pop while also feeling wonderfully unique. “Logic of Color” closes out Shriek with such pared-down perfection – perhaps the best closing track of year.

Saturday’s Song – Hiss Golden Messenger

“Saturday’s Song” is a song that can’t be contained.  It could be a Dylan song circa 1975.  It could be a mid-80s Tom Petty song.  There are elements of The Band and John Prine and any number of other songwriters in there, but it’s MC Taylor’s instrumental restraint that makes it a favorite song of mine. There’s no fluff, just straightforward piano and acoustic guitar and that wonderfully subdued mandolin riff, and, ultimately, a catchy guitar riff that could just go on forever.

September Fields – Frazey Ford

So apparently Frazey Ford was in the Be Good Tanyas.  Did everyone other than me know this? Because as melodic and gentle as the Be Good Tanyas were, there was nothing in their sound that made me think any of them would put out a record as soulful as Frazey Ford’s Indian Ocean.  I came across the record way too late in the year to give the entire album enough listens, but “September Fields” stuck out. Ford, like in her time with the Be Good Tanyas, isn’t taking any serious musical risks here, but the result is still infectious and compelling.

Silver Timothy – Damien Jurado

There are some real gems on Jurado’s latest effort, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son. I love the tropicalia-sounding strumming of “Silver Timothy,” combined with Jurado’s ethereal voice and back-up chorus, the heavy bass line and the swirling guitars. It all makes for a song that’s at once grounded and at the same floating out in the ether. A truly unique sound this year.

Slow Motion – PHOX

The band PHOX seems to be trying to carve out a particular space between alt-country and 90s pop.  I mean, doesn’t much of their song “Slow Motion” seem pulled straight from a Dave Matthews tune? Plus, the descending notes of the opening guitar line are a rip-off of Ryan Adams’ “Answering Bell.” But despite the unsubtle references, there’s something really appealing and, quite frankly, innocent about PHOX’s sound. It brings me back to a time in college when the only thing that mattered was listening to music late into the night with whatever substances were available – that is to say, moving in slow motion.

Stranger to my Happiness – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings

Probably the best news of 2014 was Sharon Jones’ being back in the soul saddle.  The album Give the People What they Want had been shelved in 2013 as Jones underwent treatment for bile duct cancer, so its release in early 2014 felt much like a comeback, even though the album had been completed before her diagnosis.  But as Jones has continued to demonstrate her inexhaustible energy on stage, “Stranger to my Happiness” has demonstrated it on vinyl (because, really, that’s the only format with which to listen to her and her band).

Taking Chances – Sharon van Etten

Sharon van Etten’s follow-up to her critically-acclaimed Tramp was a bit of a surprise for me, with its glossy production and mainstream pop-influenced beats – both of which are featured prominently on “Taking Chances.” But van Etten’s skill has always been in the visceral insistence of her voice, which, despite her newly-produced sound, has not been lost in this song.

The Body Electric – Hurray for the Riff Raff

The production on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s stellar Small Town Heroes, by contrast, is crisp and understated, allowing Alynda Lee Segarra’s un-forced voice to ground every song.  Here, on “The Body Electric,” her vocals resonate alongside the staccato strings; the effect is soulful and mesmerizing.

Waiting for the Sun – Jolie Holland

In all honesty, I don’t know why the closing track of Jolie Holland’s Wine Dark Sea appeals to me.  Maybe it’s Holland’s interestingly sultry voice, maybe it’s the molasses-like baritone sax or the background trumpets.  Probably it’s that all the above combines to make for a methodical song that doesn’t care how long it takes to reach its conclusion.

Water Fountain – tUnE-yArDs

tUnE-yArDs’ follow-up to their wildly successful W H O K I L L picked up where that record left off.  For a band with such a unique sound as theirs, this meant nikki nack was doomed to stepchild status.  Indeed, “Water Fountain” really belongs on W H O K I L L, while the rest of record should be relegated to a b-sides and rarities release.  I know that sounds harsh, but for those just discovering the band, “Water Fountain” is the epitome of their sound – polyrhythmic, African, and looped incessantly – and other songs won’t reveal much that’s new.

Wine Lips – Lydia Loveless

Probably my favorite riff of the year is the one on “Wine Lips.”  Lydia Loveless’ voice (hinting vaguely at Dolly Parton), the twangy rhythm guitar, and the heavy drumbeat make for a perfectly messy sound, gritty and unashamedly country, originally country. If Top 40 country wasn’t so insipid, Lydia Loveless would be embraced as its new darling.  Fortunately, she’s too down and dirty, too damned herself, for that anyway.

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You can read the first posts for 2014 Year in Music here (a personal overview of the year).

Playlist: Aug 24 – Aug 30: Back to School

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This week’s playlist:

For a good portion of the country, this week and last week has seen children of all ages heading back to school.  For many of us parents, it’s a bittersweet moment (“Finally, reasonable bedtimes!”  “Aw, no more nights at the ballgame.”) and a transitional one.  I hope for kids from Kindergarten to college it’s an exciting time.  In my home on the first day, James was out of bed at 6:20am – dressed in under two minutes – and asking if it was time to go to school yet.

So what happened between the excitement of first grade and when these school kids grew up and started writing songs?  Except for Jack White’s quaint evocation of elementary-school friendship (and CSNY’s more general “Teach your Children”), the songs in this week’s playlist get progressively darker and more complicated.  Was high school really as bad as Patty Griffin portrays it?  For “Tony,” obviously – and sadly – it was, devastatingly so.  Of course, we all have to grow and change and face life as we move from elementary into middle school, and we cannot pretend that angst isn’t a daily presence in high school and even for some into college.  And it’s not our jobs as parents to always shelter our kids from that angst and those growing pains; but it always makes me sad when I hear someone say they hated school.  (Okay, yes, everyone hated middle school; it’s the one universal life anomaly.)  So even though Steely Dan intone at the playlist’s end that they’re never going back to “My Old School”, we parents might need to go back in our minds to when school was an autumn idyll and hope it can be for our children for as many years as possible.

Apologies for that soap-box for this week’s playlist, but the beginning of the school year for me as a parent always holds a little anxiety and the hope that the spark that makes a six year old jump out of bed for the first day of school will not burn out.

“We’re Going to be Friends” & “Teach Your Children”

Of course these two songs are going to be the rosiest of the bunch.  It surprises me that “We’re Going to be Friends” is so unique: there are very few songs painting such a picture of childhood from the eyes of the child – but written by an adult for an adult audience, because I don’t think anyone would ever mistake Jack White or the White Stripes as children’s music. That type of narrative stance – that is, the adult author using the first-person point of a view of a child – is more common in literature.  The rarity in songwriting makes it such a compelling song.  Of “Teach your Children” though, I have little to say.  At its core, it’s a pretty unremarkable song, except that it turns the imperative around asking children to teach their parents: child is the father to the man, I suppose.  Still, the song has entered our cannon, ultimately for the better, I think.

“The Second Grade Applauds “

Shamefully, no Scott Miller (leader of the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family) song will enter the cannon, at least probably not in my lifetime – and his premature death in April of last year means not in his lifetime either.  This remembrance in The Guardian and this one in Spin show the respect that the musical world had for Miller’s music and his writing.  As the Spin obituary alludes to, Miller was a highly intellectual songwriter and expected the same of his listeners.  He dumbed down nothing  (ref. “Cortex the Killer” : “I’m out in front of awful weather /Trying to hold together air that barely clings /My empire and any autumn day / are getting thought of as different things / Stained clothes cleaned with agitation / Lush earth scorched with expectation”).  Which makes “The Second Grade Applauds” a challenging song to decipher.  Yes, I know that it’s not about being a second-grader.  But what is it about?  Any ideas?

Little Joe says, “Tired of ropin’ steers”
Branding and fencing off the years
Spirit warriors dance out from the pines
Dance on the graves of our designs

Give me ground rules
You know I’ll obey
Go quietly down my resume
But all I want now is to throw it away
To see the second grade applaud all day
Hooray!
To see the second grade applaud all day

Causal virtue, actions neatly chained
Rule-driven heartbreak unexplained
Slips in mid-step, glass across the floor
Fine china lives to be no more

And we can’t run the film the wrong way
A thousand pieces to a glass on a tray
But it would be worth any price I could pay
To see the second grade applaud all day
Hooray!
To see the second grade applaud all day

“The Saturday Boy” & “Thirteen”

Oh, the challenges of being an adolescent boy.  Billy Bragg’s “The Saturday Boy” is spot-on: call it a gross generalization, but in middle school the girls all seemed much older and more mature, and we boys were helpless in trying to understand their “magic mystery,” in our desire to experience some sort of closeness we only had a visceral knowledge of.  And so much of boyhood adolescence – or at least my experience – is unrequited, even when we try desperately to make that connection.  At least in “Thirteen” there’s the sense that something is going right.  But more important than the romantic situation of the narrator in Alex Chilton’s song is the natural feel of the song – of many of these songs, actually.  When it comes to recalling school days – be it Jack White’s sentimental view of childhood, or Bragg’s bitterness at unrequited love, or Chilton’s incessant requests – these songwriters create songs that feel natural, unforced, and never watered down.  As if these experiences of fidelity and love are so important to life’s education that there can be no going through the motions when crafting songs about those experiences.

“Don’t Stand so Close to Me” & “Tony”

I had to choose at least one obvious school song, and rather than go down the Pink Floyd/The Wall road and its trite refrains, I chose a more sinister one.  I don’t know what it says about us that “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” was so well-received as a song, because contextually, it’s about as untouchable as any subject in the public domain.  Lolita, to which the song refers, never saw the success that “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” did.  Of course, the character of Lola in Nabokov’s novel isn’t exactly complicit in the nefariousness, unlike the the schoolgirl in The Police’s song.  And perhaps beyond the teacher/student indiscretion is the larger theme of a type of longing and lust that is taboo in society; the story is as old as Romeo & Juliet, probably older still.  Teen suicide – or the reporting of it – on the other hand, seems to be a new prevalence.  The link between social media and teen suicide is strong, and public awareness of it has increased in recent years.  Not that Patty Griffin was ahead of her time in 1998, but the candidness with which she told Tony’s story seemed novel, particularly in the Americana genre that she was lumped in.  It’s a brutally honest song, with lyrics like “they wrote it the local rag / death comes to the local fag” that don’t allow for any gray area; there’s no hiding behind some screen of veiled lyrics.  Songs like this cut to the quick; while listening to “Tony” this time – the first time since my children have grown out of diapers and have started to show their unique personalities – I couldn’t help crying, out of fear of the sadness they might one day face.  No one should ever have to feel so desperate and isolated.

“Graduation Day”

So let’s graduate from high school and drive some Pacific Coast highway with Chris Isaak.  Isaak to me is the quintessential Californian songwriter, as the reverb-heavy guitar evokes a rocky coast and Santa Ana breezes.  I wonder if Isaak would have been taken more seriously without that syrupy crooner voice of his.

“Campus” & “My Old School”

Finally we get to college and beyond, from two bands who are to me the torchholders of all things college.  How many Steely Dan songs mention universities and the college days?  Every one, right?  Give or take a few?  Even those that don’t mention university life directly evoke the feeling of university days or the thrill of post-graduate youth.  Ditto Vampire Weekend, who thirty years after Steely Dan manage to evoke that same twentysomething feeling to later generations.  In putting this playlist together I thought I could choose any Vampire Weekend song from their debut, because in my mind every song was about college life.  Not true, apparently, but their adherence to a New England of prep schools and designer clothing reeks of ivy-covered brick and maple-lined quads, even when they are singing of the Khyber Pass over West African rhythms.  The band’s most recent album, their third, has gracefully moved beyond the college years – naturally, as the band members were recent graduates upon the release of their debut; five years later, they’re removed from that, and their music has grown into new thematic lands.  Steely Dan, conversely, seem never to have grown beyond their university days, so that even when Donald Fagen sings that he’s never going back to his old school, you take that with a grain of salt; Steely Dan will be back in their next song evoking their college days, students gearing up for another school year, in perpetuity.

Playlist: Aug 10 – Aug 16

 

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This week’s playlist:

“She” & “Witch Doctor”

When I saw Harry Connick Jr live in St Louis in 1994, I knew what to expect from the music; many in the crowd did not, even though Connick himself warned everyone what was coming.  “I want to let you all know that I’m not going to be playing standards.  This isn’t the kind of concert I used to do.  This is a funk show.  Prepare to get down.” – or words to that effect.  He did not disappoint.  Or rather, he disappointed a lot of people expecting him to croon “I Could Write a Book” or “We Are in Love.”  I, however, was blown away by him and his band.  Connick has fine piano chops, and he used them to soulful form, at times playing one hand on the piano and the other on a Fender Rhodes, bringing the New Orleans funk and dispelling whatever assumptions I had made about him as a musical lightweight.  Whatever he has done since then I don’t even care about (returning to that lightweight role) – She is a greatly under-appreciated album, and I’ll just pretend that a different Harry Connick Jr than this one made it.  Connick hails from New Orleans, as does the band Galactic.  Crazyhorse Mongoose, their first album, was a barnburning funk album not unlike She.  Subsequent albums have explored a variety of New Orleans music.  I keep coming back to this first one.

“Nicotine & Gravy” & “The Mall & the Misery” & “At Home He’s a Tourist”

I’ve been thinking over the past few months about Beck’s 1999 album Midnight Vultures, a disco- and funk-heavy sex album.  Sandwiched between Mutations and Sea Change, it wasn’t as universally loved as those two albums and has largely been relegated to the scrap-bin of the Beck discography.  But I think it’s a perfect demonstration of Beck’s musical genius (“Nicotine & Gravy”), his sense of humor and his gift of pastiche (“Debra,” a pinpoint Prince parody), and his prescience:  Beck was tapping into disco grooves a decade ahead of Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and basically all pop music of the last couple years.  I think JT’s career is nothing without Midnight Vultures, and it’s better than any JT record as a whole.  The band Broken Bells (producer and dee-jay Brian Burton [nee Dangermouse] and The Shins’ James Mercer) this year put out their sophomore effort, After the Disco, whose title shows which trend they’re following.  It doesn’t come close to their self-titled debut, from which “The Mall & the Misery” is culled.  That album was easily my favorite album of 2010.  I love the isolated guitar brought to the fore in the middle of each verse.  The first time I heard it I thought of Gang of Four’s “At Home He’s a Tourist” – obviously a very different song musically from “The Mall & Misery,” but still the kind of guitar work that is inspired: it works, though it seems so out of left field.

“The First Taste”

After the jarring noise intrusion of the previous tracks, Fiona Apple’s “The First Taste” with its dripping sensuality and langorous pace is the perfect palate cleanser.  Though it’s not bad by any means, her later stuff was not as impressive as this, her debut.  It’s a shame that the songs on Tidal were used to create a rather libidinous picture of Apple – who has since proved what a intellectual artist she is and always has been.

“(I Feel Like An) Astronaut” & “Astronaut”

It’s time I got back into Fetchin’ Bones and the world discovers (or, for a small community, rediscovers) their mix of infectious punk, blues, and roots rock.  A band that was at least a decade ahead of its time, Fetchin’ Bones, fronted by singer Hope Nicholls, was a part of the vibrant North Carolina music scene of the 1980s, a scene that helped develop – most notably – R.E.M. but was really spearheaded by the likes of Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, who both played a part in Fetchin’ Bones’ and R.E.M.’s first few albums.   That Fetchin’ Bones didn’t find stratospheric success like R.E.M. probably speaks to a music that defied definition; though both bands saw airplay on college radio, R.E.M.’s sound was much friendlier for the mainstream.  With where music is now, maybe it’s time to reissue these Fetchin’ Bones records and create a new buzz.  Instead of taking the easy segue and following with R.E.M., “Astronaut” put me in mind of another “Astronaut,” this by the Portland band Blitzen Trapper.  Eric Early and his crew are the natural descendants of the great stadium rock of the 1970s, as “Astronaut” will attest.  The tempo changes in this song are impressive, and lyrically, Early shows off his mastery of the quick rhyme (taken from his love of Hip-Hop).  The line, “cause I’m an astronaut on the shores of this grand illusion” and the hum of the slide guitar and mellotron make for an evocative close to the song. (Also, see this band live, to watch them rip through a blazing rendition of “Good Times, Bad Times” or “Ramble On.”)

“Hang Loose” & “Moonlight Mile”

If Blitzen Trapper are the natural descendants of a band like Led Zeppelin (or the Kinks or [insert British Invasion band name here]), then I’ve always thought Alabama Shakes were the natural descendants not of The Rolling Stones in general but certainly of The Stones’ southern rock of the late 60s and early 70s – albums like Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers.  And to continue with the motif of journeying, “Hang Loose and “Moonlight Mile” were a worthy pair – thematically that is.  I recognize the risk (and perhaps ignorance) in naming such a young band as Alabama Shakes as the heir to what arguably was the most creatively superior four years of any band in the history of modern music: from Beggars Banquet in 1968 to Exile on Main Street in 1972, the Rolling Stones made four albums unrivaled in their brilliance (though an argument can be made for the Beatles from 1965 to 1969 or Stevie Wonder from Talking Book to Songs in the Key of Life).  But I hear in Brittany Howard’s voice the same drawling swagger that Mick Jagger had during those peak years, and I hear the same Keith Richards jangle in both Howard’s and Heath Fogg’s (the Shakes’ other guitarist) playing.  So while I acknowledge “Hang Loose” is not on a par with the best of the Stones, it’s certainly a song that gets you moving and drives itself headlong through a quick two and a half minutes.  Of course it doesn’t hold a candle to “Moonlight Mile,” but to be fair not much does.  I am enamored with the feel of Richard’s slide guitar woven between the plunked piano and the crescendo of strings.  “Moonlight Mile” achieves that rarefied air of being expertly crafted and the perfect album-ending song – which makes it the perfect song to end this playlist as well.

Playlist : Aug 4 – Aug 10

08.04.14 PLAYLIST

A piece of music news made ripples this week, particularly among the “Americana” crows, though it probably shouldn’t have.  The band The Civil Wars announced they are officially splitting up.  This really was no surprise, as the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White had been on hiatus for almost two years.  Williams alone did most of the publicity for the band’s eponymous 2013 album, while White apparently crawled back home to his family.

While I was never a huge fan of their work, I thought I’d begin the playlist with a Civil Wars song and see where it leads. And it inevitably – and maybe too obviously – took me down the folk/Americana rabbit hole.  Genre-wise, this is a fairly uniform playlist, but within the genre are so many permutations as to make it diverse.  Enjoy.

 

“Forget me Not” & “Was it You”

The Civil Wars took home two Grammys from their 2011 debut, Barton Hollow (they won 4 total in their short life-span).  Their pared-down production, simplified instrumentation and intense duet-ing won over many fans.  “Forget me Not” is actually one of the least vocally intense of their tracks, but I still can’t overcome the feeling that Williams and White tend to shout instead of sing when the music crescendos.  “Was it You,” conversely, is an example of a singer – in this case Emma Beaton of the band Joy Kills Sorrow – fully in control of her voice during the crescendo.  I never feel that Beaton is shouting at me, even as the song intensifies.  I obviously prefer the latter song to the former; it’s certainly sad whenever a band breaks up, particularly on such rotten terms as seems the case with The Civil Wars (the irony of the name should be lost on no one), so it’s good to know there are plenty of bands that as of now are enjoying making stylistically similar (or even better) music together.

“Emmylou” & “A Song for You”

Both The Civil Wars and Joy Kills Sorrow put me in mind of another duo, in this case the Swedish sister tandem of Johanna and Klara Soderberg.  Their music and style are steeped in psychedelia (c.f. The Lion’s Roar album cover), but they owe much to country roots music, particularly the cosmic-America sound of Gram Parsons, as the song “Emmylou” attests to.  I’m smitten with the Soderbergs’ voices, which are so sparklingly clear as to be otherworldly – which might just be the point.  To jump from a song titled “Emmylou” to a Gram Parsons tune is no large stretch, as Parsons effectively “discovered” Emmylou Harris.  I could have chosen any number of GP songs, but “A Song for You” remains one of my favorites.  The line “I hope you know a lot more than you’re believing / just so the sun don’t hurt you when you cry,” just kills me.  Added bonus of Emmylou singing back-up.  (I could easily compose a playlist only of Emmylou-singing-back-up songs, and it would be a damn fine playlist.)

“Postcard”

Uncle Tupelo are the natural and obvious descendants of Parsons, and alt-country wouldn’t be a genre without them.  Hailing from St Louis, I discovered Uncle Tupelo (who were from across the river in the Belleville, Illinois) before I discovered Gram Parsons.  This sound of ear-drum pounding punk country infused with moments of grace (like the acoustic guitar picking after the electric solo and the country-swing ease of the final half-minute) was a revelation to me.  I played out “Postcard” when I first came across it, to the point that the music director at my college radio station had to talk to me about diversifying my musical selections.

“You Are My Face/Impossible Germany” & “Hard on Me”

“Postcard” is a Jay Farrar tune, and there’s little doubt that in the early days of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar was the better songwriter.  Sure, Jeff Tweedy had his moments, but he didn’t truly blossom as a songwriter until after the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo and his founding of the seminal band Wilco.  In the Tweedy/Farrar debate, most Uncle Tupelo fans fall on one side or the other.  I tend to straddle the fence. I love Farrar’s adherence to his country roots and his explorations of those.  And I have loved how Tweedy and Wilco have innovated Americana music, allowing it to move beyond its country roots and embrace other musical genres, most notably, in these two tracks, jazz-rock.  “Impossible Germany” is the lynchpin of Wilco’s album Sky Blue Sky, but I feel “You Are My Face” is the perfect microcosm of Wilco’s entire oeuvre: strong rhythm guitar, graceful harmonies, touches of piano and other instrumentation, and if not a time-signature change mid-way, then certainly a change of pace.  But I feel the two songs are a pair, “You Are My Face” feeding perfectly into “Impossible Germany.”  The latter is a showcase of guitarist Nels Cline’s chops (Sky Blue Sky was Cline’s first studio album with the band), with a solo that in its brilliance leaves your hairs standing on end.  Listen closely to how Cline lets the melody breathe beneath his solo; he is adept at not overcrowding.  As soon as I wrote that, I realized I probably have written myself into a corner vis a vis Richard Thompson’s “Hard on Me,” which leaves you very little room to breathe; perhaps Cline’s and Thompson’s respective solos are perfect counter-points.  Regardless, both are two of my favorite guitar solos of all time.

“Sugar Mountain” & “Carey”

Richard Thompson was born of the 60s folk scene in England, and while I know Neil Young is not British, if you’re going to use the word “candyfloss” in your lyrics, you’re going to be pegged as British. (I don’t care if “candyfloss” is also said in Canada.)  And what’s a Neil Young song if it’s not following by a Joni Mitchell song?  Not every Joni Mitchell song is perfection, but “Carey” comes pretty close to it – the lyrics and melody are on the same page, and they create a truly evocative song that just blows cooly on you like a breeze in from Africa. With “Carey” I hope the playlist has come full circle to folk music and a woman’s voice that doesn’t shout but instead just breathes.