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.

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Playlist: July 28 – Aug 3

07.27.14 PLAYLIST : Favorite songs of 2014

This week’s playlist:

My computer is on the fritz this week, which means a majority of my music library is inaccessible, so this week’s playlist is my favorite songs of 2014 so far.  I only used one song per artist – a difficult task, as some of this year’s best albums are overloaded with great songs.

Much has already been made about the rebirth of the 1980s in the music of this year, so I won’t say much more about it. I tend to agree, and I like that the current sound is causing people to re-think their opinion of the 80s.  Remember, we loved that music at the time; it wasn’t until the 90s that, with a bit of perspective, we frowned upon it. All Songs Considered dedicated an entire podcast in 2010 to the question of whether there was any good music in the 80s.  A musical epoch, like a presidency, creates a certain legacy for one generation and a revised one when another generation gets a hold of it.  This current generation of singers, bands, and songwriters has embraced the synth and guitar sounds of the 80s and made us all take another look at the 80s. I will, say, though, with a few notable exceptions, this current crop of music is much more dynamic than most of what was getting airplay in the 80s.

“Heart is a Drum”

Of course, I start with a song that doesn’t fit into the 80s musical revival.  Instead, it’s a meta-revival, revolving exclusively in Beck’s history.  The similarities between this newest album, Morning Phase, and his 2002 album Sea Change are obvious – even to Beck himself – and each review of Morning Phase tends to fall somewhere on the spectrum of “it’s-not-as-good-as-Sea Change” and “it- demonstrates-a-more-mature-working-of-Sea Change.” Which just points out that most reviewers tend to fall back on comparison with previous music in order to gauge a music’s worth.  Look, Sea Change is a remarkable album and, as the title suggests, revolutionary for Beck.  Morning Phase is not a revolution, or even a revelation.  The first few tracks are great, and then the album loses momentum, stays too much in the morning phase and doesn’t distinguish itself.  As the second vocal track, “Heart is a Drum” is one that does distinguish itself.

“Shriek”

Sea change is apropos to Wye Oak’s new album Shriek.  Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have forgone the wall of guitar noise of their previous three albums to craft a gorgeous record.  Composed mostly of bass, drums, and synth/keyboards, the songs float on crafty hooks and lush chords, the perfect vehicle for Wasner’s dreamy voice.  While some critics have bemoaned the band’s change in instrumental direction, I love this sound; to me it feels perfectly natural that Wye Oak have moved in this direction, melodic as always, buoyant in a way I have never heard before.

“Stranger to my Happiness” & “Jerk Ribs”

Sharon Jones triumphantly beat pancreatic cancer.  She was diagnosed shortly after she finished recording her latest record Give the People What they Want, which had to be shelved for a year as she underwent chemo therapy; so while this album isn’t necessarily a comeback for her, there’s an urgency and a triumph to the songs on GTPWTW that – though the energy is no more intense than on any other record she and The Dap Kings have made – feels like a comeback.  Kelis’ new album Food, on the other hand, feels like a comeback and a sea change: her first album in four years is full of modern R&B grooves that feel light years from “Milkshake” – we’re happily a decade removed from that shallow hit, and Kelis’ work now feels like that of a Diva, Donna Summer reborn.  OK, maybe that’s taking it a bit far, but Kelis’ music is now fun and worthwhile, and if you were to follow the career arc of pop singers of the past two decades, then a statement like that is a bit of a surprise.

“Fuckmylife666”

Against Me!’s transcendent album Transgender Dysphoria Blues deserves a blog post of its own (and it’ll get one from me eventually), but in brief: Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the band’s first record since lead singer Tom Gabel came out in 2012 as a woman. A band shamefully relegated to the hyper-political punk bin, Against Me! has taken their leader’s experience and built a bracingly direct album that far outstrips any punk stereotypes.  Laura Jane Grace (as she’s now known) sings of suicide, isolation, and confusion in the face of gender dysphoria; but she also sings of hope, grace, rebirth, and faith and pride (“I don’t have the heart to match the one pricked into your finger / no more troubled sleep, there’s a brave new world that’s raging inside of me” she sings in the chorus of “Fuckmylife666”)  – all against a backdrop of refreshingly bright guitar licks and harmonies.  Sure the pace is brisk, but it needs to be.  “Fuckmylife666” is a perfect macrocosm showing why.

 “California (Cast Iron Soul)” & “High & Wild”

Two quasi-country songs that blur the lines of genre, “California” and “High & Wild” achieve their energies through very different means.  Jamestown Revival open up the rock-song how-to book in order to make a song that hits all the high points of rock music: slow acoustic build-up, perfect harmony, snapping snare drum, crescendoing chorus, and the dramatic pause.  Some might consider it trite, and it’s very possible that months from now I will have become bored with it – as I do with most shallow songs that epitomize rock – but “California” feels a bit deeper than those.  “High & Wild” on the other hand is all depth.  Angel Olsen’s languid voice should relegate her to the indie scrap-heap, but her songwriting is crisp enough to avoid that fate. And whereas Jamestown Revival’s passion is up in your face, Olsen’s passion is apparent at odd angles – never directly.  A bit Leonard Cohen, a bit Patti Smith, and a touch of new wave, Olsen is a unique voice, and her album Burn Your Fire for No Witness is appearing on many Best-of (So Far) lists.

 “Water Fountain”

The first single from tUnE-yArDs’ latest album, “Water Fountain” takes off where W H O K I L L finished: high in intensity, danceable, pseudo-African in rhythm, and politically-minded.  It’s not anything remarkably new from Merrill Garbus and her outfit, but it works, because she has created in pop music a niche over which she unquestionably rules.

“Don’t Mean a Thing”

I could have chosen almost any song from St Paul and the Broken Bones’ debut album as the entire record is a soul and R&B barnburner.  I’ll just say this: it’s great to have Otis Redding back.

 “I Prefer Your Love”

As exploratory as St Vincent (the stage name for guitarist and songwriter Annie Clark) can be, as much as that exploration and invention define her place among the musical literati and has made her such a darling of music critics, it’s refreshing that she can ease her foot off the pedal with that same genius. “I Prefer Your Love” is an exquisite ode to Clark’s mother; a line like “all the good in me’s because of you” cuts to the quick, daringly (like we all know Clark to be) and poignantly (which we might not have expected her to be).

“Fuck Fame”

Of all the songs on this playlist, Bart Davenport’s might be the one most clearly indebted to 80s rock and pop.  There is in Davenport’s guitar-work more than a hint of the great pop bands of the 80s – The Cars, A-ha, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears.  I close my eyes and I’m back in my bedroom in 1986, my jeans rolled at the ankle and – except for the F-bomb – “Fuck Fame” could follow “Drive” or “Take on Me”on the FM station.

“The Body Electric” & “Wine Lips”

Alynda Lee (the musician behind Hurray for the Riff Raff) and Lydia Loveless are two of my vocal discoveries of this year.  Lee’s husky soprano has its obvious influence in the likes of Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest album Small Town Heroes is a comprehensive walk through all things folk, and the meandering path being a folk artist entails.  “The Body Electric” is the most striking (though certainly not the only song worth listening to in depth) as Lee’s acoustic guitar and the string accompaniment are her perfect complement.  I hear a bit of Lucinda Williams’ influence on Lydia Loveless’ voice as well, because Loveless doesn’t curtail her country twang, instead accentuating it, embracing her harder edge honky tonk sound like Loretta Lynn did when she teamed up with Jack White.  “Wine Lips,” with it’s heavy back beat, bass run and hooky guitar lick, is what country should be if country music weren’t run by the corporations that make it so stale.  Stale is a term that never would be applied to Lydia Loveless.

“Silver Timothy”

I’ll be honest and say that I thought I was going to fall in love with Damien Jurado’s new album Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun. And there’s no doubting Jurado’s songwriting mastery, as songs like “Silver Timothy” attest to. But even now, six months after its release, I still can’t bring myself to fawn over it.  What at first troubled me so much is that I couldn’t t even begin to put my finger on why; I’ve made my peace with it now.  The album won’t remain on my turntable for weeks on end (like many of the other albums from which this playlist was drawn), but I’ll keep playing some of Jurado’s songs whenever I need to space out, or trip out, or whatever else Jurado was attempting to accomplish.

“Lost in the Dream”

I’ve yet to read a mid-year review of the music of 2014 without seeing Lost in the Dream, the stunning album from The War on Drugs.  At the end of the year, it should still be on most best-of lists.  Like the landscape during a long drive, the album reveals itself at different angles and in different ways.  Heartbreakingly beautiful at times, powerfully motivational at others, it is that rare creation most artists only dream of – something crafted at just the right moment.  The title track is the shortest vocal track and is evocative of the album as a whole: gently pacing, propelling forward, though not always apparently – much in the way one recovers from lost love (the major theme of the album) – there are hidden moments, gems to discover, small instances of evocation.  Lead man Adam Granduciel’s plea in the heart of the song is one we should heed, both vis a vis this album and in our own lives: “Leave the light on in the yard for me.”

Playlist: July 20 – July 27

07.20.14 PLAYLIST : Summer

This week’s playlist:

The inclusion of “Born at the Right Time” in last week’s playlist put me in mind of Paul Simon’s album The Rhythm of the Saints, which has forever been a soundtrack of summer for me.  So it got me thinking of some other songs that have accompanied me through summers past, through this summer, and will probably accompany me through summers future.  I tried to avoid obvious summer songs (like “Summertime,” for example – though maybe that belongs to a playlist for a different day).

“Empty Threat” & “Swim Club” & “Down by the Seaside”

Sometimes a song reminds you of summer lyrically and sometimes sonically.  For these three songs, it’s both (actually, that might be true of all these songs). “Empty Threat” and “Swim Club” both feel like they’re dripping with humidity, except when a surprise breeze or the cool shade of a grove of trees offers some respite.  “Down by the Seaside” (not a whole lot of Led Zeppelin’s music feels summery) is the best example of this, with the extended bridge offering a very different feel from the rest of the song – which to me feels almost blindingly sunshine bright.  The bridge, on the other hand, is the rapid massing of thunderheads and the late afternoon storm that eventually clears the day away.

“Buzzcut Season”

Probably every song on Lorde’s remarkable debut could be a summer song.  But this one, particularly, proves that Summer, structurally not that different from the rest of the year for most working adults, is really for the kids/teens and their blissful ignorance.  It’s impressive that a sixteen year-old (Lorde’s age when she released Pure Heroin) is self-aware enough to realize this.

“Words in the Fire” & “Where it Begins”

These two tunes are deserving of a summer evening.  “Words in the Fire,” especially, is a rare beauty of a song.

“Carey”

If there’s a song on this list that evokes the breeziness of summer – not the stifling heat of the South or the Midwest, but the warmth and ease of California, or the New England Coast, or the perpetual summer of the Caribbean – it’s Joni Mitchell’s.  From the opening line, “The wind is in from Africa,” you’re transported to a seaside locale and remain there.

“Walcott”

I once posed the question on Facebook (in spring, by the way)  “What are some of your favorite summer albums?” A friend of mine replied with Vampire Weekend’s debut album – which had been released a few months before, in January.  But she was right.  From the get-go, that entire album feels summery.  Once again, a record made by kids (relatively); Vampire Weekend were in their early twenties when this first came out – do they know something that we don’t; or do we adults know too much, which prevents us from making music like this?

“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” & “Blowing Down”

There are plenty of songs off Digable Planet’s album Blowout Comb that evoke summer in the city.  “Graffiti,” “The Art of Easing” and “For Corners” – especially “For Corners” – all come to mind.  But the line, “This is the place to be/I see baseball caps hear bass by Warren G” from “Blowing Down” just feels like a warm summer night on a city street-corner.  And there might be no better feeling than lowering the windows, opening the sunroof or dropping the top, and belting “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing” along with Stevie. This is how you rediscover that feeling of summer as a kid/teenager, when the sun is warm, the pool water is cool, and there really isn’t a worry in the world.

Playlist : July 13 – July 19

07.13.14 PLAYLIST

This week’s playlist:

“Reflektor” & “Born at the Right Time” & “Radiohead”

The epic title track to Arcade Fire’s epic, career-shifting album closes with bongos, congas and other drums, which reminded me of many of the tracks from Paul Simon’s 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints (in my mind, a better album than its companion and predecessor Graceland).  The squeeze-box in “Born at the Right at the Time” hinted toward the accordion in “Radiohead,” from Talking Head’s under-appreciated True Stories, from David Byrne’s movie (starring John Goodman) of the same name.

“Idioteque” & “After the Disco”

I kid myself that the band Radiohead named themselves after the Talking Heads song – it’s a fun delusion, so I’m going to keep believing it.  “After the Disco” seemed apropos as a follow-up to “Idioteque” – even if they’re similar only in song title association.  (Incidentally, I was a bit disappointed in this, Broken Bells’ sophomore effort, although I suppose it would have been tough for anything to adequately follow-up that excellent 2010 debut.)

“I Wasn’t Born to Follow”

At this point, a beautiful, pared-down Beth Orton tune seemed the perfect complement to all these men and their layers of instruments and synthesizers.

“Growin’ Up” & “An Ocean in Between the Waves” & “Reptile”

More than one review of The War on Drugs’ new album Lost in the Dream (my favorite album of 2014 so far) compares it to early ’80s Bruce Springsteen, and I supposed I can see the connection, but I also hear more obscure ’80s acts in the production – like The Church. I’m not a huge fan of that Springsteen era, so I chose something from his first album, still one of his best, in my opinion.  And “Reptile” is one of the hits from Starfish, but most of the songs on that album these days could qualify as hits – it’s an album that has held up well after all these years.

“Rattlesnake” & “Logic of Color”

“Rattlesnake” seemed like the obvious follow-up to “Reptile.”  And since I played a track from my favorite album of this year, I thought I should play the final track from my second-favorite album of this year.  Wye Oak’s Shriek is a stellar album, and all those curmudgeons who are bemoaning the loss of Jenn Wasner’s guitar-heavy sound need to take a better listen to how deftly the synth and keyboard complement her voice and Wye Oak’s sound in general.  Artists must grow: the weight of stagnation is too great.

Year in reivew: the Albums of 2013

2013 proved for me that the album format is alive and well.  While there are plenty of pop superstars releasing a collection of singles and calling it an album (Beyonce’s self-titled surprise album – and the videos accompanying every single song – is the obvious example of this), there are many more artists carefully crafting songs that collected together hold a certain ethos and are held to a certain light.  These albums, conceived around a certain aesthetic, are not necessarily concept albums, but a narrative arc or personality propels them along.  The result is a fully realized work, like a feature film or a novel.  In almost every circumstance, my favorite albums of 2013 are albums of that aesthetic scope.  There were albums of deep reflection and emotional weight; there were albums of pure joy and exuberance.  They all worked as complete pieces of work.

My hope is that if you have not heard the albums listed here, you will go out and support these musicians and help encourage their further artistic growth – and that you’ll spread the word about these albums and those that you loved in 2013.  I wait until after the new year to reflect on the previous year in music because there are always groups or artists or albums or songs that I overlooked.  Even though there’s plenty to look forward to in 2014 (I’m looking at you, St Vincent, Wye Oak, and Sharon van Etten), there’s plenty left in 2013 to discover.  Let’s keep the conversation going.

So here, in no particular order, are 9 of my favorite albums of 2013, followed by the album of the year (those of you who frequent this space might have already guessed what it is).  Thanks to all the artists who made 2013 a phenomenal year in music.  Here’s to more in the new year.

FAVORITE ALBUMS

arcadefireArcade Fire

Reflektor

I never was a fan of Arcade Fire.  Even with the all the accolades that surrounded The Suburbs and Funeral, I never got it.  Their sound seemed a little too typical for me, nothing to distinguish them from the rest of the neo-rock of the twenty-first century, and I’ll admit that prevented me from giving those previous albums more than just a couple listens.  With Reflektor, I now get it.  Or, rather, I now get this new manifestation of Arcade Fire.  Because apparently the sound and ethos of this album represents a transformation in the band.  Most of the talk in 2013 about a band growing up and exploring new ground has been focused on Vampire Weekend, but Arcade Fire with Reflektor are announcing a sea change in their music, not unlike Radiohead on Kid A or U2 with Achtung Baby.

The album uses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a reference point for poignant explorations of spirituality and resurrection, love and the loss of self, and sexuality – that last one on the powerful rocker “We Exist” about a homosexual man seeking recognition from his straight father: “Let them stare / If that’s all they can do / But I’d lose my heart / If I turn away from you / Oh Daddy don’t turn away / You know I’m so scared.”  (How’s that for a poignant use of the Eurydice myth?)  But the theme of self-reflection pervades the majority of these tunes; there is so much looking inward in the songs’ characters (in fact, when the songs lyrically stop looking inward, like “You Already Know,” the banal sound of the old Arcade Fire comes back) that the title provides the arc of the entire album.

One of the artistic statements of Reflektor is preserving the self and the other in the face of urgent love, and the songs themselves reflect that urgency.  Practically every one is a mini opus: the opening “Reflektor” fills seven and a half minutes and doesn’t reach its second bridge (featuring David Bowie on vocals) until the 5 minute mark.  The glorious chorus of “Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)” comes after three minutes of Unforgettable Fire-era U2 dirge.  The album is filled with moment of such transcendent surprise, urgency, and triumph that it’s impossible not to feel chills throughout its long course.  This is a double album, but (except for the final in-aural five minutes of “Supersymmetry”) it doesn’t feel long or drawn out.  At the album’s close, you feel a little out of breath from the momentum of the music; that’s rare, particularly on a double album.  I wasn’t a fan of Arcade Fire before this; I’m hooked now.

blitzentrapperBlitzen Trapper

VII

This album is the reason that I wait until I’m well across the finish line of the year to discuss my favorite albums of the previous year.  At VII’s release, I was sorely disappointed.  Blitzen Trapper to me have always been the heir apparent of the great roots rock of the 70s (like Neil Young and even some of Led Zeppelin’s middle years repertoire).  Their previous album American Goldwing was an exemplar of that sound.  So when I first heard VII I was really confused; what was this hillbilly sound mixed with DJ beats, vamps, and scratches (which, in all honesty, Blitzen Trapper have been playing with for years)?  This manifestation was jarring to me, and I couldn’t get into it.  Not until I heard the band on World Café discussing the role of hip-hop in their music did I realize why their sound had been unique to my ears for a long time.  Blitzen Trapper have always had a touch of the urban in their songs of backwoods stills and highway drives:  “Feel the Chill”, the album’s first track, begins with a mélange of sampled drum beats, horn blasts, DJ scratching, and radio noise.  Then over a simple country guitar lick Eric Early’s twangy voice sings “I used to stay down south of town where the road runs crooked and the lines are down / where the sun is hid by the hills and the trees and the moon runs full whenever it pleases.”  Early admits that his love of hip hop records influences his lyrics and their cadence.  With that World Café interview, I began to understand: Blitzen Trapper are indeed the successors of that great 70s sound, but as successors in this new decade they are going to fit into the language of the times.  In the 70s, blues and country were the roots of most music.  In these teens, hip hop is the backbone of most music; Early and his bandmates understand this.  Had I been more astute, I might have gotten that concept by looking at the album cover.  The graffiti’d rail cars, an evocation of a more urban sound, are surrounded by a black and white rural landscape, an evocation of the old-time sound prevalent on the album.  Genres in music seem to be disappearing, or at least subsuming each other, and Blitzen Trapper are well aware of this.

har-mar-superstarHar Mar Superstar

Bye Bye 17

Just look at the album cover.  Look carefully.  Now tell me what musical genre Har Mar Superstar falls into.  Did you say soul or funk?  Of course you didn’t.  But that’s what you get from start to finish with Bye Bye 17, a gritty R&B record, featuring Motown-style horns and guitar work, Memphis-style keys, and a voice that will knock your socks off – or, if you’re Har Mar Superstar (nee Sean Tillman) himself, more than your socks.  Every song makes you want to get up and move, maybe not in the way that he moves, but move regardless.  Songs like “We Don’t Sleep” with its discordant horns and changing rhythms shows just how talented and complex a songwriter Tillman is, despite his ribald stage presence.  A song like “Rhythm Bruises” shows he can write a lyric and play out a metaphor with the best of the great Stax and Motown writers.

Please, take it from me: find this record, open up the windows, turn up the volume, and smile widely when you hear Har Mar’s impressively soulful voice and his dynamic arrangements.  What a great pleasure it is to discover this guy.  Oh, and his Twitter feed, too.

HoundmouthHoundmouth

From the Hills Below the City

I get that there’s nothing exactly original about a four-piece band from the Midwest playing southern roots rock.  Any group with a guitar, bass, drums and keys can rock out.  So what is it about Houndmouth that is compelling to me?  After seeing them live last fall, I wrote about why they might distinguish themselves from every other band playing the bar scene on a Saturday night, but it’s not just Katie Toupin’s engaging looks and stage presence or Matt Myers’ gangly guitar-god strutting.  These guys (Toupin, Meyers, bassist Zak Appleby, and drummer Shane Cody) just know how to write melody and harmony.  Like Alabama Shakes (to whom they have a passing musical and energetic resemblance), Houndmouth have made an album that doesn’t really let up the whole way through.  There’s no torch song to give you room to breathe.  Where they find space is in letting their instruments fall silent for a bar or a verse and allowing their harmonies (all four of them can sing) to hold the music’s presence.  Then they blast you with drums and bass and guitar and you can’t help but sway to the tune.  That’s a mature skill for a band so young, and From the Hills Below the City is rife with examples of this – “Ludlow,” “Hey Rose,” “Come On, Illinois,” and “Comin’ Round Again.”

Songs like these need to be experienced live.  But get to know this album first, because when they stop playing and let their harmonies fill the hall, you’re going to want to join your voice with theirs.

LordeLorde

Pure Heroin

I’ve never responded to Pop music because I’ve always seen it is as shallow and removed from the realities of the human condition.  If I’m wrong in that assessment, then perhaps Lorde will push me to explore Pop more deeply.  If I’m right, then my hope is that Lorde is pushing back at Pop’s obliviousness.  I’m incredibly fascinated by Lorde’s lyric writing; it’s impressive that at her age she can so maturely grasp the ambiguity of reality and also be willing to show that vulnerability.  In “Ribs” she sings, “This dream isn’t feeling sweet, we’re reeling through the midnight streets.  And I’ve never felt more alone, it feels so scary getting old.”  How many teenagers willingly admit that kind vulnerability?  (Never mind that fact that at sixteen, she’s hardly getting old.)  With words like, “We may be hollow but we’re brave,” Lorde is taking the (stereo)typical invincibility of youth and using it to explore just how exposed all of us are.  It strikes me now as I’m listening to Pure Heroin again that this album is essentially a conversation between her and her peers and that people like me, from older generations, are listening in and are leaning what her reality is.  The song “Team” is a perfect example:  “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen / not very pretty but we sure now how to run free / living in ruins of a palace within my dreams / and you know, we’re on each other’s team / I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air.”  And we’re cheering on what she’s doing – probably because we might wish we had been willing to do so when we were her age.

Which isn’t to say that what Lorde has done is completely unique.  Elvis did it in the 50s; Punk did it in the late 70s.  In my youth bands like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins were willing to go to those places.  But I love that in this decade Lorde is willing to go there and that she’s been so overwhelmingly successful at it.  From the Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke farce of the year, Lorde managed to drive the conversation away from scandal and spectacle and into a deeper exploration of where her generation is (and therefore, where the social world) is and how we might get to where we all want to be.  It’s rare that a voice as defiant (or perhaps it’s better to say divergent) as hers isn’t shunted aside.  I hope she continues to help drive the Pop conversation.

rhyeRhye

Woman

Make-out music is alive and well with Rhye, the collaboration of Canadian-born singer Milosh and Danish instrumentalist Robin Hannibal.  The band choose to be obscure, wanting the focus to be on the music and not on the musicians behind it.  For this reason many people at first listen have mistaken Milosh’s high, husky voice as female; combine that with sultry basslines and soft horns and the many comparisons to Sade don’t seem so farfetched.  But Rhye to me feel more based in jazz sensibilities, which makes their compositions more vibrant, as evidenced by songs like “The Fall,” with its staccato violin work, and “3 Days,” propelled into a late chorus with its pulsing base line and multi-layered keybords.  Don’t get me wrong: this music is perfect for a sultry summer night with candlelight and massage oil – there’s nothing wrong with sex music.  But it’s also compelling enough to listen to with headphones in the early-morning fog or on the car stereo on a sunset drive.  All three options are romantic, and Rhye oozes with sensuality.

I wrote in an earlier post that Rhye was my rebound from my broken marriage in 2013.  Unlike a rebound, though, this album is coming with me into the new year.  I’m excited for warm summer nights with a cocktail in hand and this album spilling onto the patio.

valerie-juneValerie June

Pushin’ Against the Stone

Hear the opening track to Pushin’ Against a Stone – the R&B-tinged folky “Workin’ Woman Blues” – and tell me Valerie June isn’t destined for greatness.  To hear that clear, strong voice, the urgency of that bassline, and that exultant trumpet – that’s a songwriter and her cohorts taking great pleasure in their craft.  How many genres can one musician play with and be so comfortable in them all?  Unlike most of the albums on this list, Pushin’ Against the Stone doesn’t have an explicit or even evocative narrative arc; what the album is, then, is a showcase of June’s influences and her ability to match them to her personality and style.  Essentially a folk album (or is it essentially a pared down soul album?), June incorporates blues, R&B, old time, country, roots rock and any number of other genres to effortlessly create a genre all her own – one that feels simultaneously fresh and new and also like you’ve heard it all – comfortably – before.

Follow Valerie June on social media and you’ll always see a smile on her face; she is joyous about her music and the success she is experiencing because of it.  It’s such a pleasure to hear a woman in complete control of her music – and enjoying it so much.

VampireWeekendVampire Weekend

Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City landed on most year-end lists, taking #1 on many of them.  Most of the praise can be summed up as: “Vampire Weekend finally grew up and showed they can evolve.”  There’s no doubt that the sound of this album is an evolution of what the band did on its debut of 2008 (and especially was an improvement over the sophomore effort, which hardly advanced the sound at all).  But Vampire Weekend were hailed as a seminal band even before that 2008 release, so this more mature sound to me sounds perfectly in line with my expectations.  When I first heard Modern Vampires of the City it did not take me by surprise; in fact, quite the opposite: it sounded to me like the band had done just what it was supposed to have done.  The album slipped so easily into my subconscious not because Vampire Weekend were going off in some completely new, mind-blowing direction (like I feel Arcade Fire are doing with Reflektor) but because they were progressing and maturing in line with their ethos.  That it didn’t take me abruptly might sound like a pejorative but in fact I think it’s the highest of praise.  Vampire Weekend just made an album that (in light of all the accolades the band had received even before they ever released an album) they were supposed to make.

wayneshorterWayne Shorter

Without a Net

I am no jazz scholar, though I love the genre deeply, so I can’t discuss in detail what Wayne Shorter and his quartet are doing on this record theoretically; I don’t know if the tunes are modal or melodic, harmonic or discordant.  (Well, I certainly understand there’s some free jazz going on – after all, this is Wayne Shorter.)  What I do know is that at almost 80 years old, saxophonist Shorter is as daring and vibrant as he was in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with Miles Davis’ second quintet, and with The Weather Report.  Most of the tracks on this album were recorded live with the same quartet (Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums) that Shorter has been touring with for over a decade.  In this case, time does not make things stale; these tracks are dynamic, the improvisations compelling, and the group is the tightest you will ever hear a jazz combo in this day and age.  It occurs to me that Shorter is one of the last of the mid-century jazz giants standing.  With this record he proves why.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

Neko caseNeko Case

The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

I’ve written about Neko Case numerous times this year, so one might think there’s nothing left to say about this album.  But I’m still struck by the beautiful cacophony that Neko has created here.  In interviews, she has said that the title had to be what it was because of what it conveyed.  She’s also said that she doesn’t mind that people abridge the title in writing and talking about it, but she keeps it whole.  And The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is a perfect summation of the arc of the album itself.  The first two songs, “Wild Creatures” and “Night Still Comes” start with hard truths about where (and who) we come from and about depression, respectively.  Then with the third track, “Man,” Neko begins to fight.  And as she fights through the middle of the album with such beautiful songs as “Calling Cards” and “City Swans,” we hear her growing stronger.  When Neko sings, at the close of the album’s haunting middle pivot (“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”), “Kid, please have your say, because I still love you,” she’s singing not just to that little girl at the bus stop but to all of us who have been through betrayal, loss, and despair.  With that song, Neko wills you, the listener, to begin the fight for yourself.

Neko has said that The Worse Things Get is not an album about depression, and I’ll trust her in that.  But for me, it is a full-throated reckoning with grief and what grief does to the self.  (And it certainly ain’t a romance record.)  The title is not a note to a third-person lover: the “you” in that title is also the “I” – it is a love note to the self.  Not unsurprisingly, Neko’s gift for language hits that concept squarely on the head.  We descend to some very dark places in grief, but we are survivors, and how we survive is that we fight our way back, and in doing so we re-discover ourselves, or are reborn to ourselves, or are awakened to our full and true selves.  And whichever way you choose to phrase it, we gain traction against that grief by loving ourselves.  In this life that is, itself, a beautiful cacophony, we find ourselves and love ourselves.  In his song “Luly,” John Gorka wrote that “we are here to love each other, that is all.”  True though that is, the love of Self trumps it, and Neko understands this fully.  What a resounding statement of that self -love and the resilence of humanity in the final line of the album: “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”  Johnny Greenwood once said of the song “The Tourist” which closes Radiohead’s OK Computer that the song, as soon as it was written, had to be the final track of that album.  My sense is that Neko knew when she wrote “Ragtime” that it had to close out The Worse Things Get…  A triumphant end to a triumph of an album.

The Worse Things Get got plenty of high praise from the music press and wound up on many year-end lists.  But I still think it was grossly underappreciated.  It is a stunning work of artistic brilliance and of catharsis.  It is deeply vulnerable and revelatory, and I think many people missed the boat on it.  Or, perhaps, it hit so close to the bone that it was hard to sit with it.  I sat with it more than any other album in 2013, at times with tears running down my cheeks, at others in the throes of happiness, but always with that prickly sensation of the experience of grace.  And that’s it right there: this is an album that finds grace in resilience.  It will reside on my shelf as a go-to when I forget that I, above all others and all else, deserve to be graced by my own love.

(Since this is my blog and I can keep writing as long as I want, I’ll just throw out these lyrics from a few of the album’s songs as representatives of just how superior of a lyricist Neko is.  She is, as NPRMusic wrote at the album’s release, peerless.)

The white crowned sounds of possible

The sound that lures me

It says don’t you worry, don’t hurry kid

We’ll be seeing you

We’ll see you when you’re ready

              – From “Ragtime”

 

And I can’t look at you straight on

You’re made from something different than I know

And it breaks my heart just like the day that I looked down and I realized

I’d been sailing so long I’d become the shore

– From “City Swans”

Every dialtone, every truck stop, every heartbreak, I love you more

Looking like you just woke up from making songs

Shooting satellites that blew up the pay phones

Singing “we’ll all be together even when we’re not together”

With our arms around each other

And with our faith still in each other

              – From “Calling Cards”

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You can read previous posts in the 2013 Year in Music here (an overview of the year), here (my favorite moments), and here (my favorite songs, featuring some of these same artists and many others).

Year in Review: My 26 Favorite Songs of 2013

This year was the year I made peace with only listening to a song or two by an artist and abandoning the rest if, indeed, the rest didn’t move me.  This despite my starting Evening with an Album, a project dedicated in part to appreciating an artistically or/and culturally significant album in its entirety – the argument being that we neglect a certain part of ourselves when we are merely consumers of singles.  A finely wrought album is as much a work of art as a novel, a symphony, or a grand portrait.

Yet at the risk of hypocrisy, there is something unique about a single song and how it can transport someone both in time and space.  A finely crafted song (and far be it for me to define what makes a song finely wrought – there is no formula), in all its layers of instrumentation, voice, theme, and nuance, is infinitely dimensional.  That is, it fills the space and the time needed to be filled for the listener.  Someone hearing “Sonsick” for example, might not be placed immediately in a clear warm evening in fall, but that’s where that song takes me.  And the next time I hear it, regardless of the hour or the date, I will be brought back to that warm October evening, and the breeze will be blowing.  A different listener will find a different dimension in the song, and this is as it should be.

These 26 songs are all songs that stayed on repeat for extended portions of the year, or that I came back to continually throughout the year.  They come from both sides of the fence: there are plenty of songs here from this year’s favorite albums, but there are also plenty that I consumed singularly, found either on the radio or from a music blog or simply in the ether.

I suppose, this being my blog, I could have put as many songs as I wanted on this list, but that would have meant a list that went on and on (I might still be composing it), so the completely arbitrary number of 26 had to suffice.  It’s an unclean break (why not 25?), and it does mean very qualified songs by the Wood Brothers and the Black Lillies (to name only two) and additional songs by Neko Case or Rhye or Blitzen Trapper didn’t make the cut.  No disrespect intended, but other than the fact that I didn’t list more than one song by any artist (I really could have put every Rhye song on here, or half the tracks from Har Mar Superstar’s album), each of these songs deserves mention as I reflect on what was the year in music for me – a year when a varied collection of songs spoke to me at a time and in a place when and where I needed to listen.

That I allowed myself to find new dimensions in a single song this year speaks volumes about 2013 for me.  Were these songs meant to help me escape?  Or were they meant to help ground me?  I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of presence, and I know just how cliched it is to say that I’m being present to the moment.  Being present, though, is not a switch: it is not something I can tell myself to do or not do.  Being present, to me, is much more transformative.  So in answer to that question above: these songs were both to me – they helped me escape the grief I was in while they also grounded me to who I was at that moment, and to who I truly am – which is, I believe, a type of presence.

Plus, they’re just damned good songs.

(below the Spotify playlist is a description of each, in alphabetical order.)

“Angeline” by Bombadil (Metrics of Affection) : I like the seeming childish simplicity of this song, with its single-key piano in the background and the call and response of the chorus.  Even the drum beat seems juvenile.  The overall result is one of naivete, and there’s nothing wrong with that when the result is as endearing as this one.

“Buzzcut Season” by Lorde (Pure Heroin) : The hit (“Royals”) from Lorde’s debut album created quite a buzz, but “Buzzcut Season” is a better representation of the nuances of the entire album.  While most Pop is thematically flat, either a party grinder or a pity party, Lorde’s songs fit in the more natural muddle of the human condition, where confusion, vacillation, and striving for some kind of answer or meaning  are more common that pure joy or pure betrayal.  “I live in a hologram with you,” is a line I wish I had in my back pocket when I was Lorde’s age, searching for my place in the world.

“Cheater’s Game” by Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison (Cheater’s Game) : I discovered Cheater’s Game way too late in the year, but the title track stuck in my craw once I heard it.  A standard alt-country tune, complete with fiddle and lap steel – so what sets it apart from the rest?  Just call it a feel: I think it’s the perfect country song.  All those stereotypical aspects come together in a song fit for late-night loneliness.  Which is the definition of country, isn’t it?

“Come on, Illinois” by Houndmouth (From the Hills Below the City) : Any number of the tunes from Houndmouth’s debut could have made it onto the list.  A straight ahead roots-rock band, Houndmouth write catchy tunes and tightly knit harmonies.  “Come On, Illinois” has all this in spades, even an a capella moment to show off those harmonies.  A tight three and a half minute gem from an album full of them.

“Dark Knights” by Rapsody (She Got Game) : Of my many musical regrets of 2013, not spending enough time with Rapsody and the rest of the new hip-hop generation (like Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar) is at the top of that list.  I grew up with hip-hop of the early 90s (A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, etc) and Rapsody seems to me like the direct descendant of that era.  Her name dropping is impressive, wide and well-read: from Kevin Bacon to Idi Amin to Pope Benedict.  Her rhymes are tight yet expansive – instead of simple rhyming couplets, she’s carrying an idea across verses and the song entire.  It’s excellent songwriting.

“Don’t Be a Stranger” by Blitzen Trapper (VII) : To me, Blitzen Trapper have always been the heir apparent to the great roots rock bands of the 70s.  “Don’t Be a Stranger” has that roots rock sensibility (can’t you picture guys in corduroy jackets and long wavy hair?) with a touch of keyboards hinting that it is, indeed, the 2nd decade of the 21st century and not, in fact, 1973.

“Fall Winter Spring Summer” by Carolyn Malachi (GOLD) : I don’t typically listen to this type of smooth R&B, but something about this song makes me want to sink into a worn leather chair with some kind of brown liquor on the rocks.  And after this song plays, yes, I’ll probably put some Monk on the turntable and slowly finish that drink.

“Gallup, NM” by The Shouting Matches (Grownass Man) : The Shouting Matches are just one of Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s side projects and the haphazard, inconsistent Grownass Man proves just how inconsequential this project might be in Vernon’s future.  But “Gallup, NM” (which numerous reviews have referred to as Wilco-esque) is a great song. And, really, how many people who didn’t know would have said that the guy singing is the same guy in Bon Iver?

“Get Lucky” by Daft Punk (Random Access Memories) : Enough has been written about this band and this song that there’s no need for me to muddy the waters any more.  But, damn, I had a great time dancing to this song at a friend’s wedding last summer.

“Hollow” by Cloudeater (Purge) : I only know about Cloudeater and this song from NPRMusic’s Heavy Rotation blog.  Again, this is not music I usually seek out on my own, but something about the cadence of the vocals drew me in when I first heard it.  Apparently, Cloudeater have disbanded, so I’ll have to go back through the archive to discover more.

“Hunger” by Rhye (Woman) : Any number of Rhye songs could have made it on this list.  Why this one?  For one, it’s very indicative of Rhye’s sound, with the R&B rhythm section, Milosh’s vocal falsetto, the heavy bassline, and the brass and keyboard/synth punctuations.  All these work together to create a sound that to me is aural sex.  And that’s the second reason.

“Lady, You Shot Me” by Har Mar Superstar (Bye Bye 17) : If you tell me you expected such an amazing sound from this guy:

harmar

I would know you’re lying.

“Live Oak” by Jason Isbell (Southeastern) : Just a great song on a solid album by one of alt-country’s best songwriters.  You could put this on repeat and hear a new nuance each time.

“Love Letter” by Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes (Baby Caught the Bus) : This was the year I fell in love with a lot of white people showing their R&B chops.  How stomp-in-your-face badass is this song!?

“Morning Song” by the Avett Brothers (Magpie and the Dandelion) : The Avett Brothers era might be coming to an end (as many of their songs are beginning to sound the same ), but they still can write songs that go to the heart of the human condition, as I explained here.

“My Hands” by Grey Reverend (A Hero’s Lie) : Another song I discovered through NPRMusic’s Heavy Rotation.  When I first heard it, I thought I was back in college, first discovering Eliot Smith or Mark Eitzel.

“Night Still Comes” by Neko Case (The Worse Things Get…) : All of the songs on The Worse Things Get… could have ended up on this list, but “Night Still Comes” was the first that I put on repeat.  There’s something about the way Neko’s instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, and lyrics form the ambiance of a song that is unparalleled in music these days.  So to just write out the lyric “I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more, swallowed waist deep in the gore of the forest, a boreal feast let it finish me please” seems incomplete until you hear it in the context of the song and think, “Yes, Neko, exactly.”

“Sonsick” by San Fermin (San Fermin) : Wow.  Wow.  Wow.  I’d like to invent a new music genre (even if genres themselves are a relic): Alternative Pop.  And I’m a convert.

“Suit & Tie [featuring JAY Z]” by Justin Timberlake (the 20/20 Experience) : The worst part about this song is JAY Z, and it still made my list of favorite songs.  That says something about how infectious Justin Timberlake’s music (hell, his whole personality) is.

“The World it Softly Lulls” by Haitus Kaiyote (Tawk Tomahawk) : I downloaded this song for free somewhere along the way in 2013 and it kept coming up when I’d hit shuffle.  As I listen to it more intentionally right now, it reminds me of something I’d hear in some high-end boutique in a hipster town – which probably does some disservice to the song.  It ended up in my collection and I never once thought of removing it.

“Turn it Around” by Lucius (Wildewoman) : Much about Lucius is a throwback, and I feel like I heard this band in 1983 – which isn’t a bad thing.  If you recognize in this song the same voices from “Sonsick,” you’d be one smart cookie.  Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe are Lucius’ two luscious voices, and they lent their talents to San Fermin.  So I’ll say it again: I’m a convert to Alt-Pop.  Lucius might be leading the charge.

“Unbelievers” by Vampire Weekend (Modern Vampires of the City) : I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out why Vampire Weekend is a great band.  I’m done trying to rationalize it; Vampire Weekend write really infectious songs.  Just enjoy it.

“Was it You” by Joy Kills Sorrow (Wide Awake) : “Was it You” is an example of a song that led me to a band that I just couldn’t, no matter how I tried, fall for.  I really like this song, a perfect embodiment of the new roots sound championed by Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers – neither of whom I can get into.  All the songs just start to sound the same to me.  So I’m keeping this one on the shelf as the archetype and discarding the rest.

“Wasted and Rollin’ ” by Amanda Shires (Down Fell the Doves) : Jason Isbell’s wife and fiddle player is an accomplished songwriter herself.  I have to admit that I don’t love Shires’ voice (like, say, I do Neko Case’s); it has a bit of that stereotypical non-definition that plagues a lot of female vocalists in the alt-country scene.  But I love what she does musically.  I’ll drive roads with Amanda Shires’ songs any day.

“We Exist” by Arcade Fire (Reflektor) : Practically every song on this album feels like an opus, and I had a hard time choosing between “We Exist,” “Reflektor,” and “Awful Sound.”  There’s just something about the songs on this album that sound simultaneously new and age-old.  For example, the final third of “We Exist,” when the new guitar part comes in: I love songs that surprise me, and that coda to the song is a surprise while also feeling completely organic to the song.  To me, that’s good songwriting, and it’s rare.

“Workin’ Woman Blues” by Valerie June (Pushin’ Against a Stone) : Was there any new voice more refreshing than Valerie June’s in 2013?  Her whole album is a mash-up of folk, blues, old-time, roots rock, R&B – you name it.  And it’s just a pleasure to listen to.  Again, I love a surprise in a song, and “Workin’ Woman Blues,” the album’s opening track, has a Donald Byrd-style trumpet piece that’s fresh and clear and vibrant.  I could listen to June’s voice and that trumpet all day.

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You can read previous posts in the 2013 Year in Music here (an overview of the year) and here (my favorite moments).  And check back in the coming days for the final post in this series – the albums of 2013.

2013 Year in Music: Favorite multi-media Moments

Or, rather, that which was not confined to a song or album.  These things all put a huge smile on my face, for many different reasons, and helped me connect more deeply to the music I love.

1) Rhye’s performance at Le Poisson Rouge:

2) Neko Case’s Halloween Tiny Desk Concert (“It can get stabby”):

3) Seeing Cody Chesnutt live at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC (note: the linked performance is NOT the Grey Eagle show)

4) Seeing Houndmouth live at the Grey Eagle in Asheville (which I wrote about here)

photo (2)

5) Annie Clark’s (St. Vincent’s) review of Arcade Fire‘s Reflektor

6) My new Sennheiser headphones (notice they stole my photo idea on their home page – cause I was the first one ever to think of putting headphones on a journal):

photo

7) Har Mar Superstar’s and Neko Case’s Twitter feeds

https://twitter.com/HarMarSuperstarhttps://twitter.com/NekoCase

8) This:

photo (1)

(yes, that’s my cheesy Roots Christmas sweater – and my cheesy pose – courtesy of OkayPlayer.  The sweater, that is, not the pose.)

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You can read the first post in the 2013 Year in Music here.  And check back in the coming days for my favorite songs and my favorite albums.

2013 Year in Music: Overview

At the close of 2012, I swear I said to someone that it had been the year of the women – musically, that is.  Actually, I swear that I said it to my then-wife.  That year had begun for me with the release of Kathleen Edward‘s Voyageur – admittedly not a great album, but with the opening track “Empty Threat”, Edwards promised some warmth was bound to return.  2012, unfortunately, ended with my marriage in near-collapse, and whatever warmth Edwards had promised had been clouded over, and I had survived in the shade with the likes of Sharon van Etten‘s Tramp and Beth Orton‘s comeback Sugaring Season.  So when NPRMusic in their 2013 year-in-review talked about last year (2013) being the year of the woman in music, I gloated a bit, thinking I was a year ahead of the curve.

I don’t disagree with their argument; 2013 saw some amazing creative work by women, and I admit that my favorite albums, songs, and discoveries are populated with music by women, while not a single musical disappointment or “meh” of 2013 (of which there were a few) involved a female artist.  From Lorde to Lucius, from Valerie June to Neko Case, women again defined the year for me.  But to say that this year was the “Year of the Woman” is just silly.  Does that mean 2012 was the “Year of the Man”?  Will 2014 be the “Year of the Transgender”?

And yet, those women I listed above (and plenty others, like Laura Veirs and Clairy Browne and even the feminine falsetto of Rhye) were my soundtrack for much of 2013, a year that saw my wife leave, the house get sold, me move into an apartment and begin reconciling with the life of the reluctant bachelor.  It was the year of the woman, for reasons both uplifting and deeply depressing.  I’ve written in this space before how Neko’s album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You came to me at just the right time – the day, in fact, that we closed on our house.  An album that pulled no metaphorical punches, The Worse Things Get took residence on the stereo for a solid three months in the late summer, and I felt Neko was speaking for me when she sang about being “swallowed waist deep in the gore of the forest” – if there was a more perfect way to describe depression, I didn’t know it.  When “Calling Cards” begins with that simple finger-picking and the haunting reverb off in the distance (it just dawns on me that there’s a touch of mid-80’s U2 in that sound – I hope Neko forgives me for making that comparison) and that muffled trumpet wail, the hairs that stood up on my arms and neck were symbolic of my grief, my isolation, and my desire to find myself again, a challenge I felt Neko understood completely.  And when, on “Ragtime,” she roared through the wall of trumpet blare and cymbal crash about being “one and the same” and about “wisdom” and “woe” and “madness,” I felt empowered.  Dealing with grief and loss is a whirlwind, a cacophony, but I trust Neko when she concludes, “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”

The Worse Things Get will always hold a special place in my heart as the album that accompanied me through a dark period in my life, a period of intense loneliness and isolation.  The album walked that path with me with no judgment, and in fact with empathy.  Neko sings so defiantly, so beautifully, so poetically about loss and resilience – I feel she pulled the themes and the musical evocations straight from my muddled brain and reconciled them for me in those twelve tracks.  I’m still surprised how The Worse Things Get did not appear on more Best Of lists at year’s end.  Mind you, it received plenty of attention, though usually it fell in the 20th to 30th best album range – criminally under-ranked, obviously.  But then, perhaps most other listeners and reviewers weren’t embraced by this album as I was, weren’t in the same place in their personal lives that I was.  Which is only more proof of how lonely 2013 was for me.

As fall deepened and chilled, and The Worse Things Get was worn out, I bit to all the chatter about the teenage pop sensation Lorde.  I don’t normally listen to chart-topping music; to me it seems grossly shallow, over-produced, and way over-hyped.  The pop icon is more important than the music, a concept I cannot normally abide.  Plus, listening to music in this decade has become a largely individualized, isolating experience, one in which we can pick and choose what we want to hear so exactingly that we cut ourselves off from the larger musical conversation.  (see the above paragraph for proof of this)  I recognize the paradox I’ve created: were I to listen only to Pop, I would probably be more connected, twittering with Rihanna and her million followers, blogging about the VMAs or sharing YouTube parodies of “Call Me Maybe.”  But that music doesn’t speak to me, so to discover Lorde – and to really like her – opens up the possibility of connecting again to the musical world.  And Lorde did that for me.  Ann Powers over at NPRMusic wrote a compelling piece comparing Lorde to Nirvana, a small part of the larger conversation surrounding Lorde’s hit single “Royals” and the debate it engendered about the excesses and false promises of the New Pop World.  Again, it’s a world I conscientiously try to avoid, for all the reasons that Lorde felt compelled to sing about it.  Her undermining of Pop’s piggishness and egotism (while rooted firmly within it) was a defiance I love to see, similar to the way Jane Austen used the novel form to subvert the culture.  These subversions – these revolutions – I want to see succeed, so I hope Lorde’s message doesn’t get lost in the larger discussion and that Lorde herself doesn’t get chewed up and cast off by the Pop Machine.

I honestly wouldn’t have considered Lorde as a listening choice if I hadn’t first heard San Fermin‘s “Sonsick.”  With soaring vocals by Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe (of the Brooklyn-based band Lucius), the song’s pop sensibilities were deepened by a powerful brass section and (again) an outsider’s feel.  It was a welcome reprieve from the Taylor Swift that my daughter had forced me to download.  (The last half of the year was my cajoling my kids into listening to the likes of Lorde and San Fermin in lieu of Swift, whom my daughter said had replaced Neko Case as her favorite singer, a revelation I found deeply depressing.)

And I wouldn’t have discovered San Fermin without NPRMusic’s Heavy Rotation, which opened me up to a wide variety of music that my beloved local station (WNCW) does not normally play:  to name a few:  Har Mar Superstar, Houndmouth, and Rhye.

Oh, Rhye – my goodness Rhye.  Rhye’s album Woman filled my nights in the first dozen weeks after my wife moved out on Easter Monday.  Can an album, can a musician, can a band, be a rebound?  If so, Rhye was mine.  As spring lengthened and night winds through the window became warm and my bed somehow larger and therefore emptier, the slow rhythms created by Robin Hannibal and the earnestness of Milosh’s voice were a companion in place of the woman with whom I had shared a life for 12 years.

So, yes, 2013 was the year of the woman, and all that represents – the grief and heartache, the confusion and madness, the resilience and defiance, the beauty and joy of womanhood.  The woman who had been with me for over a decade moved out, sent my life into the darkest of places, upended my world.  The women in music who filled that void walked with me through the darkness, upended my world as well, brought me into moments of intense brilliance and buoyed me in this new reality.  All of these women cannot understand how their music has supported me during a year of such loss, yet still I must thank them for all they have given me.

Houndmouth: The Next Great Rock and Roll Band?

houndmouth

When the four-piece country-roots-rock band Houndmouth struck up the opening bars of “Penitentiary” at the Grey Eagle Music Hall in Asheville, NC, last Sunday (Nov 10th), the middle-aged woman standing next to me turned and said, “I’m attracted to men; men are who I think about, but I’m ready to sleep with that keyboardist.”  She was talking about Houndmouth’s Katie Toupin.

I completely understood, because here’s the thing: Toupin is gorgeous.  On this night, her silver-studded shorts and black shirt knotted above her navel showed off her long legs and a flat belly and a cascade of brown hair that could star in its own shampoo commercial.  She is animated on stage, moving to the downbeat or musical crescendo, and her hair whips around her, strands splay across her face, and she beams a bright white smile at her bandmates as the songs move along.  No doubt it’s alluring.  Toward the end of their set, Toupin slid behind drummer Shane Cody’s kit to play one of the band’s new songs and then picked up Zak Appleby’s bass to cover Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”  That same woman standing next to me was about to speak, but she didn’t need to.  Katie Toupin is not a sex symbol, but as a symbol of allure and feminine sensuality, as a woman who tosses her hair in pleasure at the keyboard and who sits comfortably behind the drum kit and pulls the bass guitar strap over her head easily, she is every Rock and Roll fanboy’s wet dream.

Lest one think that Toupin’s three bandmates formed a band, felt the need for a keyboard player, posted an ad on Craigslist, then licked their chops when they saw her walk through the door, it was Toupin and guitarist Matt Myers who started out playing acoustically at local restaurants.  Myers had also teamed up with Appleby to busk on the streets of New Albany, Indiana, but they were busted a few times for lacking a permit.  All four have known each other since their childhood in southern Indiana, but Cody had been in New York interning in sound engineering.  When he heeded Myers’ request to return home, the four friends worked out the song “Penitentiary” (which Myers and Toupin had begun in their restaurant days).  Recording one night in Cody’s basement, the band were unable to remove the sound of the neighbor’s barking dogs from the track.  Cody said the recording was useless because it contained too much Houndmouth.  The band name was born, as was the descriptor of their sound.  Cody put a cleaner version of Penitentiary on SoundCloud, and Houndmouth were picked up quickly by Rough Trade records, home of Alabama Shakes, the Decemberists, and Yim Yames.  Restaurant work and busking gave way to a full-time gig, and Houndmouth, after honing their sound on the summer festival circuit, have been headlining their own tour across the Midwest, the Southeast, and New England this fall.

As the foursome, they have become a compelling live act.  Houndmouth are four people who balance each other really well on stage.  Their collaboration seems effortless, their banter is natural – they genuinely seem to like each other and like being in front of an audience.  Toupin is set up parallel with Myers and Appleby on stage.  Credit must be given to the band for not exploiting Toupin’s allure, putting her at center stage or renaming themselves Katie and the Houndmouths.  She is one member of a band that plays together as a band, sharing roles equally.  All four members are mic-ed for interstitial banter and song introductions.  Toupin takes lead vocals on a few songs, duets with Myers on a few others, sings harmonies and backing vocals on the rest.  As a vocalist, she does not blow anyone away; she is no Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes), for example.  But she’s got just a touch of Emmylou Harris’ southern twang in her, so when she sings that she’s “got my gin tucked in my purse/I keep my heart locked in gold/So I won’t ever get hurt,” you tend to believe her.  When she’s placing backing harmonies sporadically through a tune, she complements lead singer Matt Myers’ squeaky tenor well.  Her keyboard chords do the same.  All four members, in fact – none necessarily masters of their instruments – are integral to the band’s sound without being dominating.  Matt Myers is able, as the only guitar in the band, to fill the speakers with that Stratocaster sound; Appleby and Cody use their bass and drums respectively to keep the songs on track; Toupin uses her keyboard as a tonal instruments that helps anchor the songs.  Added together, these components make for some really catchy tunes – impressive for such a young band – as evidenced on such crowd pleasers as “Come on, Illinois” and “Ludlow.”

Look, Rock and Roll is sexy (thank you very much, Rolling Stones).  Women have been swooning over preening men for decades.  But in the twenty-first century rock has become more introverted, more intellectual, and, quite frankly, less sexy.  It is not a common present-day occurrence to be turned on by an alluring presence on stage – particularly a compelling female one.  Sure, there are plenty of beautiful women making music these days, but they are usually the face of the band (Sharon Jones) or they are an entity unto themselves (Neko Case) or they are entrapped in the very unsexy folk world (c.f. The Civil Wars) – or, worse, they are part of the Pop Machine (whose examples are too numerous to count), which is not sexy but instead sexist, voyeuristic, and exploitative.  An attractive and talented female who is just one of the guys is, in the Rock and Roll world, extremely rare.

Which is why Houndmouth could be the next great rock band.  But without Toupin at the keys, Houndmouth are just another band, and bearded musicians and young guys with skinny arms and a Fender Strat are playing clubs and bars in every town in America on every night of the year.  Look, it’s not lost on me that Houndmouth’s unique make-up is an indictment of the music industry’s phallocentrism, and so I understand I’m being hypocritical in promoting Houndmouth as possibly the next great rock band partly because of Toupin’s holding her own with the guys.  And I know that even saying “holding her own” is confirmation of my chauvinism and my implication that it’s a surprise a woman can hold her own.  I agree that it says a lot about the state of women in rock music and the state of the larger culture that Toupin’s presence in the band is an anomaly and not the norm.  If it were more common, though, I don’t think I’d be so fast to anoint them.  It’s true, these guys (all four of them) have songwriting chops and a great presence live; but unlike most of their contemporaries, they also have on stage someone who is going to draw the ear – and the eye – of the casual listener.

As Houndmouth’s set at the Grey Eagle was coming to a close, that woman in her forties stood swaying to their music.  As a casual fan of music who had never heard of Houndmouth before that night, she had been pulled in from the opening song and her attention to the music – though she didn’t know a single song – had not wavered through their set.  This is the mark of a great live band – that they can engage a casual listener so fully in their music.  If Houndmouth make it big (and I hope for all the right reasons that they do) they might be able to pull rock back from its present brooding state.  Because Rock and Roll is sexy, and even sexier when a band like Houndmouth – and someone like Toupin – is a part of it.

Neko Case’s The worse things get, the harder I fight, the harder I fight, the more I love you: a response

Sometimes we hear a piece of music, or read a certain novel, or watch a movie, that, given the state of our lives at the moment, hits us in just the right way.  Neko Case’s new album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is that album for me right now.  Neko (do you think she’d mind that I just call her Neko?  Her music has been so close to me for so long, I feel like we’re on a first name basis) wrote this album in reaction to the death of her parents (to whom she was not that close) and her grandmother and to her subsequent depression.  With what I have been going through personally and professionally over the past year, The Worse Things Get is hitting me squarely in the chest; it is, for me, a profound, poignant, and powerful expression of how we move in and through depression.

In the interest of full disclosure, Neko Case was one of my favorite artists before her new album came out.  I can pinpoint the three moments that comprised my falling in love her as a musician and artist:

1) the first time I heard this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0vk5SGmw3w

2) when I heard the lyrics to her song “The Next time you say Forever.”  The next lyric is “I will punch you in your face.”

3) and when she appeared on NPRs Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (http://www.npr.org/2009/07/11/106504004/not-my-job-neko-case)

So I have been anticipating the release of this album, which comes four years after her previous one, the fantastic Middle Cyclone.  I am not alone in this anticipation; the music press has been eagerly awaiting this release.  I think it’s safe to say that there was some pressure on Middle Cyclone‘s follow-up.  True to form, Neko didn’t bow to pressure; she has made an album that does justice to her entire oeuvre both by augmenting it and expanding it, but this is a record that cuts much closer to the bone than anything else she’s ever written.  It pulls no punches.  (And dammit, don’t we love when artists [I’m looking at you, Wilco] eschew what should be and produce what is their truth, regardless of how it will play – even though it usually plays better than cow-towing to the establishment ever did?)

Whether or not I had ever heard Neko’s music before, I think I would have embraced this album upon hearing it, for three reasons: firstly, lyrically, Neko Case is writing on a different plane than most other contemporary pop/rock musicians. Secondly, her music defies definitions; while she cut her chops in the country/alt-country vein, she is drawing from a variety of influences in her music.  Thirdly, she has constructed the album as an artist would, so that it is in essence a concept album, though I don’t know if she would call it so.

The Worse Things Get is a compelling listen – and makes her previous albums more compelling – as it stays true to her talents in crafting hooky songs and lyrics that turn your head.  But unlike on previous albums, where Neko has enjoyed the craft of character study – people she obviously finds interesting, though they are not necessarily her – she has flipped the coin over for The Worse Things Get.  The album is riddled with interesting characters, no doubt, but one can tell those characters are rooted in Neko’s experience, as opposed to her imagination.  Take the first three tracks, songs that grow respectively and incrementally more intense:  In “Wild Creatures” Neko wrestles with her mother’s memory/shadow with lines like: “Hey little girl would you like to be the king’s pet or the king? I’d choose odorless and invisible but otherwise I would choose the king, even though it sounds melodious; there’s no mother’s hand to quiet me.”  Neko’s lyrical skill is on full display here, with what is unsaid being equally important to what is said:  a girl choosing to be odorless and invisible, presumably so she won’t be found out by an abusive hand – an interpretation bolstered by that final line.  Exorcising some demons, I’d say, which she is doing as well in the album’s second track, “Night Still Comes,” – though these demons are her depression.  Look at the imagery she creates in the middle section of the song, when she holds the tension of the music and lyrics together:

Did they poison my food? Is it cause I’m a girl? If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle? I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more. Swallowed, waist-deep, in the gore of the forest A boreal feast, let it finish me, please. Cause I revenge myself all over myself. There’s nothing you can do to me.

I’m still mulling over that one (“I revenge myself all over myself”), but for those of us who have been through depression, that forest imagery is spot-on.  She follows “Night Still Comes” with the album’s hardest rocker, “Man,” with the lyric “I’m a man, you’ll have to deal with me.  And my proxy is mine; you’ll deal with me directly.”

My eight year-old daughter and five year-old son can pick out lyrics from a Neko Case song and it resonates with them for days.  “Never turn your back on Mother Earth” (from Middle Cyclone) was a refrain we heard for weeks on end.  Phrases that have stuck around with this new release:  “If you only knew/what my candied fists could do.”  “I see your gun is drawn with the safety on.  You can walk me back to my hotel like it was home.” “I’ve been sailing so long I’ve become the shore.” “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready.”

I’ve often thought that the book group of which I’m a member should do Neko Case lyrics one month.  She deserves to be in print, and it will be criminal if one day she is not in the Norton Anthology next to Dylan and Springsteen – she blows them both out of the water.  But it might be a disservice to her as an artist to only concentrate on her lyrics.  She is a gifted crafter of song, winding them tightly around carefully placed layers of sound.  Because of her lyrical gifts, it’s hard to always distinguish verse/chorus in her songs, and musical interludes and guitar solos seem a pleasant surprise in these songs, coming when and where they do.  She isn’t afraid to extend a measure if it’s going to create the proper mood (refer back to “Night Still Comes” and the tension she creates with that extended boreal verse), but as with her lyrics, she knows that the beauty of the song lies is what’s unsaid – or unplayed: Neko is gifted at economy and precision – six of the twelve songs on The Worse Things Get clock in at under three minutes – and nowhere on this record does she extend a song past its usefulness.

Credit too must be given to Kelly Hogan, who has been Neko’s backing vocalist for years now and who knows where to fill in.  Her harmonies fit Neko’s melodies, and those two voices together create some wonderful moments of – depending on the song – passion, awareness, joy, clarity.  But instead of droning on and butchering the use of musical terminology, I should just let a couple songs speak for themselves:

Beyond all this is the sense of the record as a whole being a revelation of coming through depression, and I sit here waist deep in my boreal night and tears well in my eyes as she puts words to what I have felt, from “Calling Cards (“…Singing we’ll all be together, even when we’re not together with our arms around each other, with our faith still in each other”) and “Night Still Comes,” with a voice that is so resonant and focused and clear and powerful (I won’t stoop to even compare her voice to another singer).  And of course the title of the album: “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.”  Isn’t that what those of us who have trudged through that forest are searching for: that love of self that, perhaps, is only possible after having gone through what Neko is singing about through the course of the album?  I feel the tears in my eyes as I write that, and then “Ragtime” comes on, tying up that journey, and I smile as she says – and dammit I know she’s speaking only to me, holding me in my grief and telling me there is a way through – “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready; I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”  Thank you, Neko; I will too.