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.

 

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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.

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.