Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Ten ELEVEN Albums of 2012
Can't believe I left this one out!

M. Ward:
A Wasteland Companion
"Clean Slate"

One of the things I love about Matt Ward is his self-effacing modesty -- he's reduced his name to a bare intial, he avoids putting his own photo on his album covers, he doesn't even have a bio on his own website. He's so eager to collaborate with other artists like Jim James, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis (Monsters of Folk) and Zooey Deschanel (She & Him), he hasn't put out an album of his own since 2009's Hold Time. He may have come up through the hipster music scene of Portland OR, but there doesn't seem to be any Portlandia-style fatuousness about this guy.

M. Ward has slipped so gradually into my musical consciousness -- a track here, a track there -- that this is the first entire album of his I've bought, and I have to say, I adore it. Since it came out in April, I've been listening to it so regularly that it no longer seems to me like a new record. Why else would I have forgotten to put it on my 2012 top ten list?

I keep wanting to call this album Heartland Companion instead of Wasteland Companion, because there's something so agreeably handmade about it -- acoustic guitars, piano, whispery reverbed vocals -- Ward definitely comes from a retro, less-is-more school of production values. One of my favorite tracks on here is a sprightly cover of the old Peggy Lee classic "I Get Ideas," as well as Daniel Johnston's "Sweetheart." But there's plenty of darkness as well, to live up to that wasteland in the title -- haunting minor-key tracks like "Me and My Shadow" and "Watch the Show," before he segues into the uplifting sweetness of "Crawl After You," "Wild Goose," and the aptly-titled "Pure Joy." 

The arc of the album is sketched out in this opening track, "Clean Slate."

Over the gentle chug of an acoustic strum, he muses philosophically:  "When I was a younger man I thought the / Pain of defeat would last forever." I have no idea how old M. Ward is, but I am sure he isn't as middle-aged as this suspender-snapping declaration suggests. The way he sees it, though, he's already moved further down the road: "But now I don't know what it would take / To make my heart back down." I love this note of resilience and optimism -- how refreshingly non-indie.

Don't be entirely deceived by the simple folk-ish arrangement -- the plaintive, lonesome quality of it should keep you on your guard. The lyrics aren't traditional rhyming stanzas but long overlapping lines of blank verse, and everything is vague and non-specific, as the second verse admits: "Somewhere in another place, who knows / Could be another lifetime / Everything we gave away returns / Like a scene from a fugitive dream." Whah?  He's still stumbling through things, still a little lost.

But still he plows forward. Notice how charmingly his voice squeaks on the higher notes as he stakes his faith on new beginnings: "Cause I only have to wait a little while / Before I get my clean slate." He's not there yet -- he's still waiting -- but dagnabbit, he knows it will come. And this album is his companion, his guide to help him find that new start.

Well, here we are on the brink of a new year, and I'm hankering myself for a clean slate. This song is like my new mantra, helping me to draw a deep breath and be patient. You only have to wait a little while....

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Soul Christmas" /
Graham Parker

Okay, okay, so the Big Official Day has already passed. But we're still in the Christmas season, and I'm happy to indulge in a bit more holiday cheer, good up through New Year's Day. This comes to us from a 1994 EP titled Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker -- only three tracks but they are choice indeed. You get the snarky satire "Christmas for Mugs," the sweetly yearning "New Year's Revolution," and this marvelous track, a sort of holiday version of "Sweet Soul Music" with shout-outs to all of GP's many soul heroes:


Here's a list of all the artists Graham name-checks in this song, with the able assistance of soul sister Nona Hendryx. It's like a primer of classic R&B history; click on the links below for samples of their artistry:
Naturally you've got to start with the original Soul Men, Stax duo Sam and Dave, along with the Godfather of Soul James Brown and the Queen of Motown Mary Wells. Stax songwriter-turned-solo artist Eddie Floyd also gets a nod for his classic "Knock on Wood."
The next verse gives us Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, Steve Cropper, and Booker T, that bedrock Stax backing line-up otherwise known as Booker T and the MGs. And if you're having a party, who else should tend bar but the King of Soul, Sam Cooke? As royal titles seem to be in plentiful supply, add in the Queen of Memphis Soul Carla Thomas and the other King of Soul Otis Redding, whose duet album King & Queen featured the hit single "Tramp."
Composer-singer Don Covay ("Chain of Fools," "Mercy Mercy") and Chess Records stalwart Little Milton get their mentions, as do the Reverend Al Green, Motown saxophonist Junior Walker, and of course the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. (Check out what Graham has to say about her in this song as well.)
The idea may not be original, but I'm so busy loving the music he references, I don't even notice. And it's good to be reminded that Graham Parker is not just a pub rocker/New Waver/British angry young man, but first and foremost a connoisseur of the purest traditions of American R&B. Thanks for the present, Graham!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Atheist Christmas" / Robert Crenshaw

Full disclosure: I am not an atheist. I sing in a church choir, in fact. And I love the holiday season, not only because of the glorious traditional music and the gift-giving and the decorations, but also because the story of Jesus laid in a manger means something to me.

Just because I believe the Christmas story, though, doesn't mean I buy everything that Christmas has morphed into in our secular and materialist society. I'm just as annoyed as anybody else by the rampant commercialization of this holiday -- perhaps even more annoyed, because real Christmas matters so much to me. I hate it when self-professed atheists sneer at Christmas because of those abuses.  

So I was wary of this "holiday" song by Robert Crenshaw. (Yes, Marshall Crenshaw's brother, also the drummer on his brother's debut album.) As the title track of his new EP, it's kind of an in-your-face declaration. But Robert is a fine songwriter and musician in his own right, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I'm so glad I did . . .

The point is, even if you don't officially "believe" in Jesus, there is much about this holiday to love. This song is about resurrecting all of that.  "The holidays are complicated," he acknowledges right off the bat, noting that the winter solstice -- the original pagan holiday -- "doesn't have Santa Claus." I get where he's coming from. The liner notes include a circa 1960 snapshot of the Crenshaw boys with a department store Santa, an event Marshall too has referenced in his song "Live and Learn" from Jaggedland. I get a warm feeling just thinking about the Crenshaw family Christmas.
Because Christmas can fill some holes in the soul. In the second verse, Robert elaborates: "This year I really needed Christmas / We put up lights and got a tree / We got presents for family and friends / Some dogs and cats got some treats." It sounds so simple, but take it away, and what are you left with?
It's being with family that matters, of course, but also honoring traditions. (Love the line in verse three, "We loved the Christmas songs, many written by Jews.") Yearning for tried-and-true comforts himself, he gives us a charmingly retro arrangement, with all the cheesy details we fall for this time of year -- a wintry flute, snowflake spangles of percussion, caroling harmonies from the back-up singers. 
In the chorus, he surrenders happily to the whole shebang: "So I'm having an atheist Christmas / I know it's crazy, but so? Ho Ho Ho. / And I hope you find yourself in a moment of pure bliss / Under the mistletoe / With beautiful lights and snow." There it is, wrapped up in shiny paper and tied with a bow. Even if you don't believe in Christ, here's something heart-warming you can believe in.  It's so, so, SO much better than nothing.   

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Top Ten Eleven Albums of 2012

All in one place . . . like a  Christmas list. I'm not numbering them 1 to 10 because they're too good -- and too different -- to rank absolutely. Click on each title for a link to my original post.

Graham Parker & The Rumour:
Three Chords Good
Even I, a confirmed Graham Parker fanatic, didn't predict just HOW good this reunion album would be. I'm gobsmacked by its brilliance.

The Shins: Port of Morrow
A combination of gorgeous melody, striking lyrics, and a sweetly melancholy worldview -- it's almost drunkenly beautiful.

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever
Ranging from honky-tonk to rockabilly to bluegrass to Western swing, Lund doesn't approach country music like an artifact or an ironic affectation; he approaches it like a cowboy..

Rhett Miller: Dreamer
From the Old 97s front man, an entire alt-country album about love, lost and found, sour and sweet.

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks
Ever the restless risk-taker, Weller loads up this album with studio effects and sonic experiments, while his insane commitment to melody and to syncopation shines gloriously through.

The Ben Folds Five:
The Sound of the Life of the Mind
I adore Ben Folds' solo work as well, but the driving energy and impish wit of the Ben Folds Five is something else.

The dBs: Falling Off the Sky
Reuniting this beloved late 70s band so many years down the road seems like a joyful and natural thing, judging from the copasetic energy of Falling Off the Sky.

John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball
Start to finish, that raspy voice, the visceral rhythms, the crunchy guitarwork, all come together to craft a sound so authentic and idiosyncratic, it fits like a glove.

The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
Scott and Seth Avett have never shed the upbeat sweetness of their southern folk roots, even as they steer it into rock territory.

Mumford & Sons: Babel
Hipster indie Brits forge their own peculiar Americana sound, like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Martin Amis, full of post-modern angst and old-time religion.

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion
OOF!! Released way back last April, I forgot at first to put this on my 2012 top ten list. But I adore its acoustic reverbed charm, a retro-flavored meditation on love, loss, and resilience.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
I'm still in awe of this album -- the best reunion yet.

Graham Parker & The Rumour:
Three Chords Good
"Old Soul"

So here we come to the tenth day of my Top Ten Albums countdown -- and even though I said it was in no particular order, I saved this one for last because it IS my favorite album of the year.

I'll admit I'm a bit biased when it comes to Graham Parker. Okay, more than a bit. But I have to say, this reunion with his original backing band The Rumour has exceeded all my expectations. Live, they are absolutely smoking, as anybody can attest who's seen them on their current tour. And the thing I really love is that they are not just trotting out the old Squeezing Out Sparks hits -- nearly half their set has been drawn from this brand-new album of Parker-penned winners.

So even if you've missed the tour, you don't have to miss all the fun.  If you aren't already on the bandwagon, this album could make a believer of you. These songs are soulful, they're wicked smart, they're funny, they break your heart (but in a good way). They're vintage Graham Parker, in other words.

Here's my original post about my favorite track on the album. Since writing this post, I've been told it's Graham's current favorite song, too. I hope you'll see why.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
You must have know this one was coming...

The Shins: Port of Morrow
"For A Fool"

I didn't even remember which track from this album I'd previously blogged about before -- was it "A Simple Song," or "40 Mark Strasse," or "September"?  There were so many I wanted to write about, I wasted half a day trying to decide, I know that. That's how strong this album is.

And much as I loved it the first week I immersed myself in it, back in May, it has actually grown on me even more in the months since. It's got a peculiar magic I can't quite define, a combination of gorgeous melody, striking lyrics, and a sweetly melancholy worldview. It's almost drunkenly beautiful.

So in case you've forgotten it, or missed it the first time round, here's my rapturous review of Track Seven from Port of Morrow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Why it pays to take a chance sometimes.

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever
"You Ain't a Cowboy (If You Ain't Been Bucked Off)"

I try not to be a music snob, I really do. I know I've got a blind spot when it comes to country music -- the inevitable result of watching too many cornball TV shows like Hee Haw and Midwestern Hayride as a kid. But label it "Americana" or "Texas outlaw" or "alt-country" and I'll come runnin'.

So now I've got to figure how Corb Lund fits in. I recognized his name from some New West Records sampler a couple of years ago, but he's hardly a household name, at least not in the States. Far from a Nashville insider, he hails from the high plains of Canada -- his backing band is even called The Hurtin' Albertans. (Gotta love that name.)

So it was purely on a whim that I starting clicking on Corb Lund's sample tracks while nosing around Amazon a few weeks ago.  With every click, though, I became more and more intrigued. I was astonished by this album's range, from honky-tonk to rockabilly to bluegrass to Western swing. It's got nimble guitar picking, it's got mournful pedal steel, it's got Dobro, it's got mouth-harp, it's got yodeling (no fiddles or banjos, though -- leave those to the indie boys). Best of all, it's got -- oh, my, has it got -- melody.

Only after I bought it, though, did I discover the depth of this record. The musicianship is crazy good, and the bracing intelligence of the songwriting knocks my socks off. Like John Hiatt or Guy Clark or Fred Eaglesmith, Corb Lund actually has something to say about life, and he says it memorably. He doesn't approach country music like an artifact or an ironic affection; he approaches it like a -- well, like a cowboy. Like a cowboy who's prone to some deep pondering while he's riding the range.

Probably the most accessible track is the wistful cowboy ballad "September," but that alone is no indication of the spunk, hustle, and mordant humor of this record. Just listen to some of these titles: "Bible on the Dash," "Pour 'Em Kinda Strong," "One Left in the Chamber," "The Gothest Girl I Can," and the delightful "Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner."

There's no single track that will give you the whole picture. So I've picked one that shows how deeply, deeply country this record is:

Yeah, of course it's a metaphor. Country music enjoys a good metaphor, the more cliched the better. That tough-it-out philosophy -- "Get back up on the horse that threw you" -- is a well-worn concept, but it suits the country mindset.
Besides, it's what you do with the cliche that matters. First of all, the tempo of this song is just right, with its lurching roll, like a bow-legged rodeo rider limping out of the corral.  That emphatic drum slap makes me picture the bronc buster slapping his dusty hat on his legs as he exits the scene of his humiliation.  There's a weary resignation to this song's syncopation that I love. And look at how he matches melodic line to the logic of each verse, starting out with an upbeat assertion, then crunching with some chromatics as he admits the complications in his story. 
"Well I was minding my business / holding the fort," he recalls, adding with a sigh, "And I still remember how you sallied forth." I love that archaic "sallied forth," perfect for a rueful touch of irony. "And my mind it was busy awarning my heart" -- but too late, bucko. "Hell, you ain't a cowboy if you ain't been bucked off." I love the shrug of resignation there -- it still hurts, but he'll find a way to move on. Because he has to.
He hits the perfect country note of self-deprecation in verse two: "Well the story's familiar, the oldest tale in the west / I fell into love and the bird left the nest." He's making no excuses for himself, even though he regrets what he sees as a moment of weakness. "Well I guess that there's reasons / we let our hard hearts turn soft" -- you wouldn't find that line in a pop song. 
The metaphor comes into full flower in the bridge, as his voice sails yearningly into a higher key: "There's all kinds of horses / Leave you grabbin' the breeze / Busted up, broken up, scars you can't see / But if you ain't been bucked off and been throwed a few times / It don't count for nothing when you make that last ride." Last ride? Could mean finding the woman he's meant to spend the rest of his life with, but there's at least a hint there of the Judgment Day. Either way, learning how to mend your own soul and carry on is essential for redemption.    
Verse three catches us up to the present: "Well the years've passed quickly / And there ain't nothing the same / Only I don't feel different and you've hardly changed." Funny how that works. You run into an old love and you think you've grown, yet the old emotions still bubble up. But you can deal with it; it's the cowboy ethos. Not some pampered whiny Nashville approach, but a real western grit-and-spine outlook. Suck it up, cowboy. Life hurts.
The pain? It's still trembling beneath the surface, in the plaintive swoops of Lund's voice, in the growl of the bassline below the acoustic strum. That's how you know it matters. That's what brings this song home.  
My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Sometimes I just have to surrender to the country fan inside me.

Rhett Miller: Dreamer
"Swimmin' in Sunshine"

Over the years the Old 97s have brewed up such a tasty blend of rollicking Texas twang and indie-rock sensibility, they've made it easy for me to get my hoedown fix without going full-on Nashville. There's something about them that I instantly loved, an ineffable personal connection that landed them immediately on the list of My Guys.  Was it the lead singer's plangent, slightly goofy vocals?  Or was it the songwriter's ear-worm melodies and sly lyrics?

The answer is: Both. And considering that the lead singer and the songwriter are the same guy, Rhett Miller -- and considering that he also records as a solo artist -- I cannot explain why it took me this long to finally buy a Rhett Miller album. Especially now that I've listened to it.

 The Dreamer is Miller's fourth studio album, following The Believer (2006) and The Instigator (2011) and -- breaking the title pattern -- 2009's Rhett Miller. My musical Christmas list has just grown by three titles.

There's still twang-aplenty, with pedal steel all over this album, and lots of uptempo numbers -- don't expect mopey singer-songwriter angst, even if the title promises dreamy idealism.  It's an entire album about love, lost and found, sour and sweet. No Big Statements, no snarky satire, no sonic experiments. Just a lovely record full of instantly loveable tunes. Like this one . . .

I guess if I'd been clever enough to buy this album in June, when it was released, this sundrenched tune would have fit right in. On the other hand, it's even more welcome in the dreariness of pre-winter.
I suppose this isn't technically a love song as much as a wooing song. Over and over in the sweetly soaring refrain he promises, "We'll be swimmin' in sunshine," an image evoking warm glow on bare skin more than actual watersports.  Seductive as that image is, however, he balances it with a second refrain -- "What do I kno-o-ow about love / What do I know about love?"  That assertion of innocence, claiming his amateur status -- that's the final stroke to knock down her defenses, as the tempo ticks sweetly along, the melodic line bouncy and upbeat.
He's definitely courting like a gentleman: "I've got good intentions here today," he swears in the first verse, his voice high and earnest. "Sometimes intentions pave the way," he adds, confiding in a slightly husky, lower voice -- "You can ask my heart, / Put a lie detector on my heart." That lie detector line is a little absurd, and yet perfect -- how else to prove he's on the up-and-up? It almost makes her feel embarrassed to have doubted him.     
And he's not just out for sex, as verse two pleads: "I had a dream involving you and me / Talking on a train, and we'd agree / We got each others' back, / Right before it all goes black." There's a lovely ambiguity to that line everything going black -- perhaps it's just the end of the dream, or maybe a classic movie fade-out as the train goes into a tunnel (and we all know what that means). Or maybe he's saying he'll still have her back even when the world becomes dark and desperate, which of course it will do. I prefer the third meaning, and I'm a sucker for that kind of promise. 
So by verse three, he's wheedled us as far as the bedroom: "I've got good intentions here tonight, / I can see you wondering if it's all right / You can ask my heart, / Put a lie detector on my heart."  I can just picture him, all puppy-dog eyes and a hand across his chest like a Boy Scout. Who wouldn't give in?
Those twin refrains sail along dreamily through the final repeats, creating their own warm sunshine glow of sound.  Think the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" -- yeah, that kind of glow. It may be a seduction song, but it's a feel-good seduction song.  And what's so bad about feeling good? 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
And now for something completely different.

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks
"By the Waters"

Even I am surprised by this choice. I'm not a die-hard Paul Weller fan; I feel no close personal connection to him. Twice now I've bought tickets to see him in concert and ended up not going. And yet, curiously enough, I find I own most of his albums, from The Jam through Style Council and on into his often-baffling solo work. Sometimes they disappoint me (last year's Wake Up the Nation left me cold). But when I see there's a new one, I'm always tempted.

I sampled Sonik Kicks before buying it. My finger hovered over the Buy Now key for a minute or so. Did I really want an entire album of electronic experiments?  That title, with its cheesy misspelling of "sonic" and the freighted word "kicks," kept blinking at me like a red warning light.

But I clicked on Buy, and I'm glad I did.

It's clear that Weller's dabbling with a lot of studio tools, layering the music with weird effects, building a wall of sound that's not always pretty. He's fallen under the spell of some DJ named Simon Dine, and he's apparently been listening to loads of buzzy Krautrock. This is the sort of stuff that's usually anathema to me. Yet beneath it all, Weller's insane commitment to melody and to syncopation shines gloriously through.  I actually find myself humming these tunes in the shower; when they're playing, I feel compelled to get up and dance. It's an astonishing feat indeed.

And that's why I remain loyal to Paul Weller. He's one of the biggest risk-takers out there, restless for new musical ideas, completely bored by the idea of replicating his previous sound. There are of course fans who still feel betrayed that he left the Jam to form Style Council (personally I prefer Style Council) and who believe that his new stuff is self-indulgent crap. Yes, it is self-indulgent, but that's just another way of saying that he marches to his own drummer. When you're this innately talented, indulging yourself can be a good thing.

As strange as the sound may be to some ears, Weller actually finds a lot of range within it. I suggest you listen to more than one track: the aggressive punch of "Kling I Klang," the snappy hipster satire of "When Your Garden's Overgrown," the soulful pop sweetness of "Study in Blue."

But given the sorrow in my heart over the tragic news of yesterday's school shooting, I'm taking solace in this tender track:

The moral is simple -- we're all going at such a speed, working, racing around, hyped up with information, we need to grant ourselves the right to take a breather. Nothing more than that, nothing less. He offers nature as the source of renewal, water and sky and stars and sun -- an unexpected message on an album so full of speed, noise, and cryptic social commentary. (None of the lyrics on this album tell a conventional story.)

By the time this track drops -- it's #5 on the album -- it provides exactly what the lyrics promote: a place of refuge, healing, and rest.  I could feel my muscles relax, my pores open, my heartbeat slow back down. It was a totally unexpected experience from an album called Sonik Kicks.

That's when I knew this album was a keeper.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
While we're on the subject of reunions...

The Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind
"Do It Anyway"

Truly successful musical reunions are few and far between. When they click, it's because the band members discover that they still like playing together, after all these years. Recapturing that magic is never a given, though. Reuniting bands can't play it by the numbers -- they can't bank it all on reproducing their old sound, especially if the band members are at a different stage in life now (like yesterday's entry the dBs, or like the Zombies). This is where the Rolling Stones still struggle with reality, trying to pull off their trademark kick-ass image when they're all senior citizens. When you reunite just for the money, something isn't quite right.

It often requires a little serendipity, too. In the case of the Ben Folds Five, they reunited at first just to crank out a couple tracks for his career retrospective album The Best Imitation of Myself.  What they discovered, however, was not just that they enjoyed playing together, but even better, Folds re-discovered certain qualities in his music that emerged only when bandmates Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse joined him. When a front man goes solo, it's easy to think that he was the main talent, but a band really can be greater than the sum of its parts. Something special happened when they started working together, and they were excited to reconvene for this album.

I adore Ben Folds' solo work as well, but the driving energy and impish wit of the Ben Folds Five is something else, and was sorely missed. I hope they continue to get together periodically because . . . well, damn, this is fun music.

Here's my recent post on (still) my fave track on the album.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Is this the year of reunions or what?

The dBs: Falling Off the Sky
"The Wonder of Love"

I am frankly amazed that there hasn't been more buzz about this album. Oh, I'm sure there are internet message boards crackling with arguments about it -- after all, it's the dBs' first in 25 years (30 years if you want the original line-up, which of course you do). In the interim the dBs took on a sort of iconic status, much like their power pop progenitors Big Star, as runners-up for the Most Woefully Underappreciated In Their Time award. And die-hard fans who've been waiting for a reunion for 30 years tend to have very strong preconceived notions about what a reunion would sound like. I speak from experience, as a Kinks fan.

But hey, like a lot of Americans I never listened to the dBs before. Don't ask me why -- in 1978-1982 they played the same gritty New York City clubs I was frequenting. (Hell, for all I know I did see them back then, but they never pierced the haze of my brain.) And despite the hectoring of certain regular readers of this blog, I never listened to Peter Holsapple's and Chris Stamey's solo work, either. Mea culpa.

If nothing else, this gives me a unique advantage. I come to this album with fresh, unbiased ears, and I must say, I like what I hear. I love the crunchy guitars, the infectious pop melodies, the psychedelic pulses of organ, the jangly drumming, the rough-cast wall of sound. It sounds more Southern than I expected -- I didn't realize that the dBs all knew each other pre-NYC, down in Winston-Salem NC -- but you know me, I love that bit of twang.

Naturally the album had to lead off with "That Time Is Gone," which kisses off any notion that this reunion will be a mere rehash. But I'm listening more and more to this surprisingly jazzy Holsapple-penned track:

Instead of young-man angst, here's a loose-limbed anthem to relationships that work. Not that it's all smooth going -- "I didn't have to be the one to explain, but time and again I do," he points out, and later he puzzles, "It isn't rocket surgery, it's not as hard as you make it sound." (Love that rocket surgery line, conflating the two cliches, rocket science and brain surgery.)

But the loping rhythms of this song suggest that he's rolling with the punches, willing to accommodate when necessary. The line he keeps returning to is the heart of it all: "I only try to show the wonder of love, oooh, the wonder of love." Even that refrain is mutable, varying, willing to syncopate and change lyrics from verse to verse. Whatever fits.

He's like a preacher without a pulpit, standing on a street corner, cheerfully promoting his gospel. Organ and horns conspire to add some jazzier elements, but at heart it's just a good-old-boy ramble. You can almost see him scratch his head, puzzling, "Sometimes I wonder if the wonder of love is ever enough, is always too much / And then I figure that it all levels out, / Homeostasis, soft to the touch." (Enter this song in the dictionary of Odd Words to Use In a Rock Song.) You'd never get that sort of philosophical shrug from a band of youngsters.  It's Music for Grown-Ups, which doesn't mean it still doesn't rock.

Think about the bloated latter-day R.E.M. -- another Southern band born of this same era -- trying to keep it going past their sell-by date, finally calling it quits. Maybe it was a good thing that the dBs broke up so early, before they could be trapped in their own fame. Getting back together so many years down the road  seems like a joyful and natural thing, judging from the copasetic energy of Falling Off the Sky.

I love reunions that work.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Getting back to my roots...

John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball
"Wood Chipper"

The Hiatt thing runs in my blood, speaking to some deep middle-of-the-country blues-soul-rock nexus in my own heart. Beyond the musical quality and the raw intelligence of his lyrics, there is something flinty and uncompromising in his world view that really speaks to me. He is the real deal.

I'll admit that every album isn't equally good, and last year's Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns was such an astonishing achievement, I was ready to cut him some slack for this year's installment. But damn, he's done it again. Start to finish, that raspy voice, the visceral rhythms, the crunchy guitarwork, all come together to craft a sound so authentic and idiosyncratic, it fits like a glove. Like a work glove. Like a work glove with red clay soil caked into the creases.

I was tempted to write about "No Wicked Grin," but now I think I'll save that for my Week of Waltzes. Driving in my car the other day, this was the song that so riveted me, I nearly drove off the road.

Funny that, at the start of his career, Hiatt was marketed as the American Elvis Costello. In some ways that was so wrong, but lately -- long after the fact -- it's been making perverse sense to me, as Elvis explores Americana and John lets his wicked wit loose. The song I'd immediately compare this to is "Watching the Detectives" (early Costello, granted), with that memorable line "She's filing her nails as they're dragging the lake." That ironic contrast is at the heart of "Wood Chipper." Throw in a little bit of the Coen brothers' brilliant film Fargo and you're in known territory. 
First line, out of the box, he's got me: "Well I'm from the Midwest / I know enough to cut a path around a wood chipper." I'm out in the yard, hands in my parka pockets, waiting to see what comes next. "And be careful of any conversation a man starts calling you skipper," he adds, which seems baffling until he elucidates: "Cause there ain't no ocean round here / Though a lot of little lakes where you can disappear." I've been to those lakes. I'm listening. And when he closes out the verse with this cliffhanger line -- "I wonder what the fish are biting on today now, Jimmy" -- I am taking the bait.
We're in Infidelity Land, clearly: "He told me not to bother her down here, said he was crazy about her / I guess I didn't know what that meant, / Just knew I couldn't do without her." It's an old, old tale, soap opera material, or even better, film noir stuff. Dig this cinematic scene set-up: "And I seen him through the window sash / He had a 44 pistol and a bag of cash / She was folding some kind of pretty note paper into her breast pocket."
Now this is Songwriting, my friends -- the language is colloquial, never flowery or pretentious, but man, he slips in such arresting details, and the storytelling is so assured. He breaks the flow briefly for his chorus, a mournful wolf howl in the night: "What some people won't do / To break up a happy home." As the song goes on, he repeats those lines more and more often, never resolving the question -- because it CAN'T be resolved.
But he's still outside, looking in, and as he retreats, "I went to the yard and banged my knee on his woodchipper." There's an old playwriting truism, that if you introduce a gun in the first act, you have to use it in the second act. And John uses every gun in this verse -- first mentioning the woodchipper (if you've seen Fargo, you know where this is going), and a little dialog: "And when I looked up he said 'Skipper what you doing here for?'" And remember, the guy's got a 44 pistol? "One bullet to the head / Before I hit the ground, well, I was dead." Wait -- the narrator of the song is DEAD? Shades of Sunset Boulevard. And with an ironic wink he adds, "I guess I'm telling you this before you go fishing now Jimmy." Ah, yes -- the lakes. Perfect corpse disposal.

If it ended here it would already be a brilliant song. But John's got one last masterstroke. After the fleeing lovers are killed in a shootout the lawmen pull that paper out of her breast pocket (Gun in the first act. Use in second act. No wasted details.) And here's the poignance that really turns this tawdry thriller into a morality tale: "It was part of a letter set I got her for Christmas ten years ago I bet / She  used to just use the paper for a grocery list / And it read:" 

With Doug Lancio's brilliant guitar work snarling in the background, John recites the heart-breakingly mundane list: "Eggs / hamburger meat / bread / Fun Yuns / orange drink / toilet paper / Tidy Bowl / pickles / Little Debbie Snack Cakes." There's a life encapsulated in all its smallness and sorrow. Devastating.

Can this guy write a song or what?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

 My Top Ten Albums of 2012
And while we're in banjo mode . . .

The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
"Through My Prayers"

It's easy to mix up the Mumfords and the Avetts -- both feature banjos and vocal harmonies, both had break-out albums in 2009 (the Avetts' was the spectacular I and Love and You), both have names that sound like family concerns. But there's definitely a difference, and it's worth keeping them straight. The Avetts are truly brothers (you know how I love brother acts!) and truly Americans, and they've never quite shed the upbeat sweetness of their southern folk roots, even as they steer it into rock territory. It's a toss-up for me between the Mumfords' fire-and-brimstone and the Avetts' buoyant spirit -- how lovely to live in a world where we can have both.

I went for a pensive track last time I featured the Avetts, so by all rights this time I should let you sample the fun of them rocking out. But you've probably already heard "Live and Die" on the radio, (if not, you're listening to the wrong radio station), and you could always check out live versions of "I Never Knew You" or the wicked dark samba of "Paul Newman Vs. the Demons" on YouTube. And who knows; I could come back and post about audience favorite "Down With the Shine" in the very near future -- I do feel a Week of Waltzes coming on....

Meanwhile, here's the track that has stolen my heart on the Avetts' new album The Carpenter.

Couldn't be simpler or more straightforward: Someone he loved has died, and their last words together were angry, so he's miserable that he can never make things right again -- except in his prayers. You could call it a case of survivor's guilt, yet he genuinely seems comforted by the belief  that his prayers will somehow get through. There's no histrionics here, as he remarks, "Sometimes it knocks me down, and sometimes I can just / Put it away." This is real world emotion, not some faked up drama, and that makes it even more poignant.
There's even a gentle moral -- how wonderfully old school! "Down in my mind where I don't care to go / The pain of a lesson is letting me know / If you have love in your heart, let it show / While you can." They slip that in so casually, the careless listener could overlook it, but surely that's the whole point of this song, and the justification for its emotional throb. (Remember, the Avett Brother's 2007 was even titled Emotionalism --- feelings do not scare these guys.)
This time it's brother Seth, the guitarist, on lead vocals. I love banjo-pickin' Scott's voice too, with its edge of raggedy country grit, but Seth's sweeter voice is perfect for this mellifluous melody. I love how he plays with the lilting waltz tempo, syncopating it here and there, scatting in some high notes on verse three -- keeping it fresh, keeping it real. 
Jason Kwon's luminous cello is the other essential ingredient -- it makes me wonder, why don't more bands have cellos? The short answer is, most bands don't have the musical imagination that the Avett Brothers do, or the deep and abiding faith in melody.
All in all, it's just a lovely track. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Bone-shiveringly lovely. Thank God for the Avett Brothers.   

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012

Ten days, ten albums. No particular order -- hey, it was hard enough whittling it down to ten!

Mumford & Sons: Babel
"Hopeless Wanderer"

I loved it when Ray Davies started doing bluegrass and country music on Muswell Hillbillies, so I'm naturally a sucker for the Mumfords. What's not to love when hipster indie Brits forge their own peculiar Americana sound, full of banjo and acoustic guitars and Salvation Army brass? They're like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Martin Amis, full of post-modern angst and old-time religion.

Just to prove that 2009's Sigh No More wasn't a fluke, here comes their wonderful new album Babel. And -- because this is what I do -- here's one track to hook you in.

Remember that old song"The Happy Wanderer"? (Fal-de-ree, fal-da-ra, fal-de-ree, fal-da-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha). This tune is its flip side, trading in jaunty optimism for desperate passion.

It's a sort of love song, I guess, as  the singer clings wildly to the person who has redeemed his sorry soul: "You heard my voice / I came out of the woods by choice" and, later, "you brought me out from the cold." "Now, how I long to grow old" he adds, giddy with the idea that he actually has something worth growing old for. 

But we've left Simplistic Pop Love Songs soooooo far behind. He's not looking for easy answers -- in fact, he wants the complexities to remain. "So leave that click in my head," he begs in the tentatively loping first verse. "The  words that you said / Left a clouded mind and a heavy heart," he says, adding, "But I was sure we could see a new start." Ah, new starts -- the eternal promise of pop music. But the lyrics are barely out of his mouth before he's dragged down again. In the second verse, he admits, "I wrestled long with my youth" and "When I lose my head, I lose my spine." This is one conflicted guy -- you gotta admire the chick who can solve his head games.

The Indie Songwriter's Handbook requires this kind of anti-hero angst, but I have to say, Marcus Mumford pulls it off convincingly. As he charges into the fiercer energy of the chorus, he pleads with real conviction, "Hold me fast, / Hold me fast / Cause I'm a hopeless wanderer."The little ragged edge to his lead vocal makes it even more poignant, as he flails against the mounting scrum of acoustic guitar and banjo. (Who said that acoustic instruments couldn't rise to the grandeur of rock?) Of course the Anglophile fangirl in me adores the broad A of that oft-repeated "hold me fast." It's the sexiest thing in this song, kinda like the "I really fooked it up this time" line in "Little Lion Man" from the Mumfords first album. Those are the peculiarly Mumfordian touches that endear this song to me.

There's a reckless romanticism to this chorus, the tempo veering almost out of control, the acoustic instruments scrabbling wildly to keep up. He knows he's a guy who sometimes flies off the deep end. That's why he needs a lover who will keep him grounded, a steadfast lover who's just as intrigued by the clicks in his head as by his more obvious attributes. Isn't that what "for better, for worse" is all about?  

In the final chorus, he vows "I will learn, /  I will learn / To love the skies I'm under." I'm not one-hundred-percent buying that. Listen to the weary flogging beat of "skies I'm un-der" -- this guy still isn't sure he can do it. But with her help, he's gonna try. And if that ain't love . . .