Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums:
The Final Countdown

Last day of the year. The wrapping paper's all gone into the trash compactor, the needles are already dropping from the tree, and even the dog doesn't want what's left of the turkey carcass. You're grudgingly facing the forced hilarity of the evening ahead, and the hangover that may come with it.  The holiday spirit tank has almost run out of gas.

But damn it, you didn't get enough new CDs this year, and maybe you're thinking about going into a record shop -- or failing that, on line -- to treat yourself to the tunes YOU want.  So here's a little shopping guide.

A few things to note: This list is in no particular order, other than the order I wrote these posts in. (Click on the titles to go to my reviews.)  Having culled these 10 albums from the barrage of new releases, I couldn't discriminate any further.  I apologize in advance to Kasey Kasem (I almost wrote, "the ghost of Kasey Kasem," but I see he's still alive), who always delivered a definitive #1 song on the New Year's Eve "Kasey's Coast-to-Coast" countdown I listened to so ardently as a pre-teen.

Looking back on my choices, I notice a significant tilt towards twang. (Say that three times, fast.) I used to declare, growing up in Indianapolis, how much I hated country music. Well, I still don't like mainstream commercial country music, but I can't deny my fondness for Americana, roots, whatever you like to call it. So be it.

As for the rest -- I think you'll find almost no overlap between this and Amazon Top 100 albums of 2013, or iTunes's Top 100 album picks of the year, or the New York Times' Best of 2013 list. But then, that's why you need this list instead.

The Wood Brothers -- Muse
Listen to Muse

The Avett Brothers -- Magpie and the Dandelion
Listen to Magpie and the Dandelion

Amos Lee -- Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song
Listen to Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song

Robyn Hitchcock -- Love From London
Listen to Love from London

Chris Stamey -- Lovesick Blues
Listen to Lovesick Blues

Greg Trooper -- Incident on Willow Street
Listen to Incident on Willow Street

Arcade Fire -- Reflektor
Listen to Reflektor

The Mavericks -- In Time
Listen to In Time

Willie Nile -- American Ride
Listen to American Ride

Billy Bragg -- Tooth & Nail
Listen to Tooth & Nail


Monday, December 30, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Billy Bragg -- Tooth & Nail

"Chasing Rainbows"

Here are some things I know about Billy Bragg:
  • His first band, Riff Raff, skidded into the early British punk scene inspired by the Clash.
  • He's such a folkie that Woody Guthrie's daughter invited him to join Wilco on the Guthrie homage album Mermaid Avenue.
  • His politics are to the left of mine -- way to the left -- and he often puts that to music.
  • His broad Essex accent reminds me of Ian Dury. (I love being reminded of Ian Dury.)
  • His 1996 album William Bloke is one of my favorite album titles of all time.
  • His song "Northern Industrial Town" is haunting political commentary. (Listen to it, Nick.)
  • His song "Must I Paint You a Picture?" is one of the tenderest love songs ever written.
  • He cusses in songs almost as much as Ben Folds does.
In other words, you don't know exactly what you're getting with a new Billy Bragg album -- but you do know that it'll be interesting. As I've said before, here and here...

So I ordered up Tooth & Nail without even listening to any of the tracks -- and man, am I pleased.

We find Billy in full lonesome Americana mode here, dubbing himself  "The Sherpa of Heartbreak" (okay, a little irony there), and throwing in slide guitar, mandolins, Dobro (thank the Lord for Greg Leisz), honkytonk piano, even some Ramblin' Jack-style whistling. He was serious enough to hire the estimable producer Joe Henry to get the roots sound right, and to co-write a couple songs. Oh, and throw in a Woody Guthrie cover ("I Ain't Got No Home) while they were at it. Yes, there's a package.

Did I say "Americana"?  How about full-on country?

Like a lot of classic country songs, this song is built around upending a cliché: "If you go chasing rainbows," he warns his woman, "You're bound to end up getting wet." Chasing a rainbow is an exercise in futility; she ought to know better. But what are those rainbows she's chasing?  
"The wheels have come off again," he says with a rumpled shrug, "And the fault is all mine." At least he's honest enough to admit it. Honest...and maybe a little obtuse. "And there was I thinking / We were doing just fine."  But he's committed to the relationship, and begging for a second chance: "Please don't let my complacent mind / Belie my loving heart."  "Complacent" isn't a word you'll often hear in country music; there's the wordsmith Brit glinting through. But in such a matter, these finely graded shades of emotion are necessary. Surely complacency is a minor sin, for which he should be forgiven.
In verse 2, he shifts the ground, but only ever so slightly. "You've shot me down again / From out of the blue" (tiny jab there -- will she notice?)  "Guess there was something / that I was supposed to do." This reminds me of Nick Lowe's "Sensitive Man," the guy pleading ignorance as a way of subtly shifting blame, and Billy spells it out even further: "Well there's just no way that every day / I'll reach your high bench mark." Is that "high benchmark," or the mark of a "high bench," as in a courtroom? Either way, he's undermining her standards.   
It's surprising that  more songs haven't been written about this particular battleground in the eternal war of the sexes. All too often we ladies do expect you guys to be mind-readers, effortlessly intuiting our needs, and some of you -- notice I didn't say "all of you," though I'm tempted to -- are simply retarded in that respect. Thanks for reminding us, Billy.
Because love isn't that easy. "I know you think if I just tried / We would never fight at all," he tells us in the bridge, sketching the perfect storybook version of love that we girls long for.  (Are we wrong?) Billy's more of a realist: "But I know there will still be days / Into which some rain must fall." And after getting wet in the rain, what do you get? Rainbows, as that pay-off refrain reminds us.
Without that easygoing country lope, the plangent Dobro, Billy wouldn't sound quite as earnestly contrite -- the masculine pushback of this song would have more of a bite. But durn it all, he does feel sorry, and woeful about the way she's freezing him out.  The complacent mind may have written the song, but it's the loving heart singing it -- and it's a pretty winning apology. I'd take him back -- what about you, girls? 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Willie Nile -- American Ride

"American Ride"

I just went to see the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and I kept thinking of Willie Nile. The Greenwich Village hootenanny clubs pictured in that movie were Willie Nile's first musical home, when he landed in NYC with a freshly-minted degree in philosophy from Buffalo and a Dylanesque nasal rasp to his voice. But this wasn't 1964 -- it was the 70s, when punk and New Wave were busy driving the last nails in folk's coffin. It was Willie Nile's genius to blend all these elements -- folk's melancholy tenderness, punk's immediacy, New Wave's snarky humor -- into a fresh cocktail. We should all have been listening.

But we weren't. I certainly never heard of him back then. Willie Nile somehow fell through the cracks, despite enthusiastic endorsements by such tastemakers as Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Bono, the late great Lou Reed, and kindred spirit Graham Parker.  It didn't help that bitter label disputes in the early 80s made him walk away from the biz for nearly a decade. (The 80s being the decade that nearly killed rock music, that was probably a good thing.)  When he returned, he stayed just below the radar, an indie artist before the term was coined -- a status that gave him the freedom to ignore ephemeral trends and stay true to his own sound.

His 2006 album Streets of New York was the first I heard of him, an arresting collection of gimlet-eyed urban character sketches, sung in that slightly gritty rasp. In that go-go, pre-crash, early Bloomberg era, it offered up a surprisingly endearing romantic vision of New York City as proletarian refuge. (Nile definitely belongs in that pantheon of rock bards of Manhattan, along with Dylan, Lou Reed, David Johanssen, and Larry Kirwan.) 

But even that record didn't prepare me for how much fun Willie Nile can be live.  I caught a show of his out in New Jersey a couple years ago, sharing the bill with Marshall Crenshaw. He simply rocked out, with mischievous high spirits and humor.  

So I'm thrilled to find that his newest album keeps rocking out.

The troubadour strum of this song's beginning -- "got my bag and my guitar / I gotta get out fast" -- makes it seem folkier than it is. Why does he need to leave town fast?  Doesn't matter, and we never find out. Because this is basically your classic road-trip song, tracing the musical geography of the United States (love the map graphics on the video). Even as he begs his "baby" to take this American ride with him, it's not really a love song; he doesn't focus on the girl, he just wants to share this great experience with her.
Maybe it's because Willie has been touring a lot more in the past couple of years, but the tempo of this song ticks along exactly at 55mph.  The lyrics whip past like half-glimpsed road signs and billboards -- "goin' down to Memphis on the 419," "we're taking 95 down to FLA" -- rapid-fire lyrics being a familiar Willie Nile trait. It can take a couple of listens to catch them all -- thank goodness for this lyrics video.
Notice how he adds musical elements as the song moves coast to coast -- gospel singers, a plucked banjo, steel guitar. He's not only seeing the American landscape slide past the car windows, he's hearing the American soundscape reveal itself.  And he's got such an appetite for it all, it's infectious.
Besides name checking cities and states, he throws in a few musical references -- Elvis Presley, Al Green, Delta blues, the "brothers on the radio" (Everlys?), rock and roll music, bebop jazz. But it evolves into a grab-bag of other cultural associations as well -- spaghetti westerns ("the good, the bad, and the in-between"), the "redwood forests" of "This Land Is Your Land," Custer's Last Stand in Sioux country, the "dream" of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. He's like a kid in a candy shop, marveling at everything.
It's interesting to see such a quintessential New Yorker taking to the road. He could have gone into full fish-out-of-water crankiness, but Willie's nature is more upbeat than that. He actually co-wrote this with a non-American, Mike Peters of the Welsh punk band the Alarm, and maybe that helps account for the sense of wonder at seeing this great country unspool beneath their tires. When he sings, "Your untamed beauty got me on my knees," I don't even think he's thinking of his girl -- it's American's beauty that has him awestruck.
I can see Bruce Springsteen covering this song, except he'd probably make it bombastic, pushing for iconic status. I prefer Willie's easygoing original, rambling around the country (this is any thing but a direct route he maps), taking things as they come. He sure makes a fine road-trip companion.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

The Mavericks -- In Time

"Come Unto Me"

They're ba-a-ack.

Oh, sure, various members of the Mavericks have been working here and there since they split in 2004; front man/vocalist Raul Malo alone released five solo albums in that time. But since I myself didn't discover them until 2008, I've been frustrated to think there'd be no new music coming from this rootsy Miami Tex-Mex quintet.

And then, late in 2011, the reunion buzz started, with the band -- or at least the most recent iteration of the band, with Eddie Perez on guitar -- slated to appear at a couple of festivals, including a September 2012 performance at the Americana Music Awards that nearly blew the roof off of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. The fruit of this re-collaboration, In Time was released in February 2013, and I'm here to tell you it does not disappoint.

Everybody talks about Raul Malo's incredible voice, a dead ringer for Roy Orbison's, and yes, it's still in fine lonesome heart-melting form. (Whew!) Tracks like "In Another's Arms," "Call Me When You Get To Heaven"and the ultra-torchy "Forgive Me" definitely give the people what they want.

But this is no whine fest -- far from it. (Am I wrong in thinking that the track "That's Not My Name" is at least partly inspired by Malo's desire to get away from that Orbison image?) There's a taste of rockabilly ("Lies"), polka ("Fall Apart"), boogie-woogie ("As Long As There's Loving Tonight"), mariachi ("All Over Again"), and of course the alt-country crowd-pleasers "Back In Your Arms Again" and "Born To Be Blue."

And then this haunting beauty:

Like the soundtrack from a spaghetti western, this minor-key tango hints of danger, of sinister forces at work. But Malo's earnest vocals set him up as a champion against the forces of night: "If your world has only done you wrong /  And all you find yourself is all alone /  And if there's no one there to see you through /  I'll be there for you." That pulsating tango beat makes me see the white knight riding out to do battle, or perhaps a bullfighter stepping confidently into the arena.

The bridge is even more passionate, adding syncopation and vocal trills as the bravura emotion ratchets higher: "There is nothing that anyone can say to me /  To persuade me to change my mind needlessly / For here I am and I will stay /  To long for you in every way." He's flinging his heart into the ring, and right behind him are the other Mavericks, repeating his vows, Sancho Panzas to his Don Quixote.

That archaic wording in the title/refrain, "Come Unto Me"?  Somehow it seems just right, old-fashioned in a good way, a noble way. And -- dare I say it, ladies? -- it's sexy as hell. Not that we need a man to take care of us; far from it. But it sure would be nice to have a partner you never have to explain yourself to.

Dig that snaky surf guitar by Eddie Perez, Jerry Dale McFadden's Tejano-flavored accordion, the way Paul Deakins' drum kit sounds like super-sized maracas. That crusader trumpet at the end -- oh, my my my.

These guys seem so on the same page, instinctually playing together, getting into the full-blooded spirit of this track. I hate reunions that seem half-hearted, grudging, as if old hatchets hadn't really been buried.  I get no sense of that here. Even Malo, who had forged himself a decent solo career in the meantime, seems to be having a gas playing with his old mates again. And me, I'm having a gas listening to them do it.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Arcade Fire -- Reflektor

"Here Comes the Night Time"

Let's change things up.

It's probably true that I wouldn't even know about Arcade Fire if I didn't have a 20-something in my household, but I have to say, I dig these guys. With this new album they push their textural indie-rock into new jam-band and electronica territory and you know what? I like it.

So why not let your dance groove loose? I defy you to resist the rhythmic pull of this track.

Cacophonous, yes. Dissonant, yes. But it's all for a reason. "Here Comes The Night Time" is a cry of defiance, a big push-back against the "missionaries" and "preachers," the disapproving gatekeepers and door lockers and scolds who would like to dictate what is righteous and what is not. Arcade Fire front man Win Butler and his band (which includes his wife Regine Chassagne and brother Will Butler) are standing up for the free spirits, the questioners, the envelope-pushers.
So what is this "night time" that they embrace? It could be many things -- the darker side of human nature, countercultural lifestyles, or even, literally, nightlife and carousing -- but clearly they're welcoming it with joyous abandon. This isn't an angry song or a downer -- not with that beguiling slouchy beat -- and the verses are in a major key. That is, until the refrain, repeating "Here comes the night time" over and over, cycles through several different tonal moods, as if fighting through the preachers' locked gates and doors, busting at last into freedom.    
Arcade Fire is a big band -- six regular members,  all playing instruments -- and when they're supplemented by extra strings, horns, and percussion, they create a dense wall of sound. The sound is even further compressed in the studio, while electronic effects distance Win Butler's voice and lend shivery echoes to the backing vocals. But here and there, you hear various instruments break through the aural curtain -- a plinky piano riff here, a space-agey synthesizer there, a blurping tuba.  I feel like I'm listening to the future and past, locked in a duel. And the future's winning.
Religion generally gets a bad rap in rock music; when Win Butler sings, "If there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for?" he seems to forget centuries of theology in which angels are supposed to do nothing else but make celestial music. The heaven I plan to go to has tons of music. But then, the preachers who bug him are a particular joyless, censorious breed, as well as their non-ordained cronies in politics and the media. You can fill their names in the blank.
Win does have a point. "If there's no music in heaven, then what's it for? / When I hear the beat, the spirit's on me like a live wire / A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire / But it starts in your feet, then it goes to your head / And if you can't feel it, then the roots are dead." Amen to that! 

Friday, December 20, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Greg Trooper -- Incident on Willow Street

"Everything's a Miracle"

Chalk up another winner for Troop.

At first I didn't like the pulp fiction-y cover art (see video below), but the more I listened to this album, the more I realized why it fits: because Greg Trooper is himself a storyteller par excellence.  I mean way more than the hackneyed "country music is all about telling stories" cliché. (And don't let the pedal steel and mandolin and fiddle fool you -- Greg Trooper is more of a folk singer or an indie singer-songwriter than he is your typical country artist.). Most every song on this album could be expanded into a novel.

Trooper is such a perceptive reader of the twists and turns of the human heart, he explores a spectrum of romantic relationships on this album -- but let's put "romantic" in quotes, because these are thorny relationships, lovelorn relationships, mismatched relationships, out-of-sync relationships. In other words, real-world relationships. (Definitely Music for Grown-Ups.)

In the old men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus battle of the sexes, I'm warning you guys -- Greg Trooper is a double agent. He actually seems to understand how women think; not only that, he likes the way women think. Exhibit A:

"Here I am, here I am alone again" he starts out -- an opener we've certainly heard before, but usually in a tone of woe. Not this guy; he tells us "and that's precisely how I want it to be." Our hero (and I use the term loosely) thinks he's got life all figured out. "Up at the crack of dawn, / Yeah I got so much going on / There's no room for anyone but me." (That's our first clue.) "I'm never late, / I make no one wait / Got a job / I'll do it the best that I can." The short phrases, the strolling tempo, everything tells us he's a satisfied customer.

But Troop is using a technique that we in lit crit call "the unreliable narrator"; don't take what he says at face value. An impatient smug jerk who can't make room in his life for other people is not to be trusted. And sooner or later -- cherchez la femme -- we get to what's really still bugging him. "She was different from me, / A different philosophy / Now I'm free to be the man I'm so sure I am." I love that "I'm so sure" line -- how deftly Trooper sketches this guy's self-centeredness.

I detect an unexamined undertow of yearning, upward chord modulation and all, as he recalls: "We once walked in thunder and lightning / And we once sang a simple harmony / And I said, "Babe oh my child, those are not miracles' / But she said, 'Everything's a miracle to me.'" All of his self-justifying blather simply dissolves with her one gorgeously joy-affirming remark. (Note how the chords resolve, too, when we hit this payoff line.) Given these two opposing outlooks on life, which would you choose?

Verse two, and it's all about him again, the well-oiled machines of his car and his body. He reminds me of Joseph Gordon-Leavitt's character in Don John, reciting like a mantra the things he loves (my body, my ride, my boys, my girls, my porn). "I've got a point of view,," he declares, only grudgingly adding, "Yeah I know she does too." But he's not interested in other people's points of view, is he? And when he says, "We couldn't be more out of sync," that just doesn't fit his well-oiled machine.

Another memory, of a hot summer day in the city, "Till the sun finally set and let us be" (there's that impatience again) -- and once more, he's not buying her delight in this miracle. By this point, forget being annoyed with him, I'm mainly feeling sad for her, to have such a negative boyfriend always bringing her down.

By verse three, this girl blossoms into a vibrant character through his scraps of memory: "She loved holding hands, / She loved certain hard rock bands / She loved that mean old man who lived just across the street." It's a common song device, cataloging random loving details about a lover, but here's the catch -- though we may love these details about her, Trooper's narrator doesn't. (Holding hands? Too much PDA, too much human contact. Incorrect musical taste, kindness to a rude neighbor -- how dare she?) I can't think of many songwriters who can juggle two points of view this skillfully throughout a song.

"I had to cut her loose," he says carelessly, a man who always has to be in the driver's seat (but I have to wonder -- who cut whom loose?) And his reason? "Cause I was feeling seduced / Into thinking this world is full of magic and mystery." Oh, poor baby. What a terrible thing that would be, to think that way.

One last memory, in the plangent second half of verse three: "She once caught the eyes of a stranger / And they smiled as they passed in the street. / I said, 'Babe oh my child, that's not a miracle / But she said, 'Everything's a miracle to me.'" Am I wrong for hoping that that smiling stranger in the street is the man she's with now?  Because in the course of this song, I've become very invested in this woman's happiness -- she deserves so much better than our "hero."  And Greg Trooper knows that; he is so on her side. (And I suspect he's also in the everything's-a-miracle camp.) 

Twelve tracks of storytelling this good?  I'd say that's worth buying...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten albums

Chris Stamey -- Lovesick Blues

"Occasional Shivers"

 I only recently got up to speed on Chris Stamey's band the dBs, so you'll forgive me if I'm even behinder on Stamey's post-dBs solo work. This is like his third or fourth solo album (depends how you count) and I have no idea what they're like. I only bought this one in the middle of a YepRoc spending frenzy -- you know, Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Fountains of Wayne, the usual suspects -- and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart for the hell of it. And man, what a relevation it was.

When I first listened to it, on my car's 10-CD changer, I pulled the car off the road for moment and said to myself, "Whoever this guy is, he's an honest-to-god POET."  I scrabbled madly around the CD cases scattered all over the seat beside me. When I pulled out Lovesick Blues, it was a real eureka moment.

And this song -- track 9 -- absolutely demanded I hit replay, over and over again. 

 It's a waltz all right, but a laidback one -- a real slow dance. I imagine it set at a party, a chit-chatty sort of cocktail gathering, the sort we grown-ups find ourselves going to every once in a while. He looks up and sees someone -- "Occasional glances / Across the room" -- and catches his breath.

But this is no "Some Enchanted Evening" love-at-first-sighting. No, no, no. They're ex-lovers, and I'm betting there was a time when strenuous efforts were made NOT to be in the same room, EVER.  But time has passed, and all that has died down. Surely by now they can see each other casually without fireworks.

Or can they?

Clearly it's been a while. "Occasionally casually peck a cheek / to say you could still care / though that was long ago / years or days, I forget . . . " But there's the rub -- if he's vague, it's not because the memory is so distant, but because it still hurts like yesterday. And if the hurt is still there, so is the passion. Maybe they're here with other people -- but if so, you'd never know it, because those other people melt away, like everyone else in the room.

He still has no idea where they stand, and in verse two he desperately tries to read her, to get a clue. "Perhaps you remember the bitter taste," he muses, "Perhaps you recall with a smile." And it's not just her memory he's got to parse, it's her present intentions. "Perhaps you envision the rapt embrace," he dares to hope; but on the other hand, it could be "the tentative kiss of a child."

This is all playing out in real time, and I for one am hooked. That languid tempo is brilliant -- it's so wary, and yet so damn seductive. They're edging toward each other, circling around, testing the waters. The melody is part of the game, too, with its tender little chromatics and plunging octave jumps. It's a tough melody to sing, and Stamey's not a natural crooner. But I don't know -- there's a vulnerability to his nasal, tentative vocal that makes this even more poignant.

A million pop songs have been written about having your heart broken, but only a handful are about having to survive heartbreak for the rest of your life. It's about being a grown-up, living with your own past. It takes a true poet like Chris Stamey to help us out with that. 

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Robyn Hitchcock -- Love From London

"Strawberry Dress"

And now for something completely different.

If Robyn Hitchcock released an album of himself singing in the shower, I'd buy it, and probably would love it. Beneath the oddball lyrics, the wicked gleams of British wit, an innate melodic musicality always wins through in Robyn's music. He's a prolific fellow, but I never get the feeling (as I do with some musicians) that he's just cranking out music just for the money. No, I get the feeling that he's just blessed with a fertile imagination, unhindered by silly things like logic or public image or trying to be "relevant." He's never relevant; he's off in his own universe. But I'll take a voyage to Planet Robyn anytime I can.

 Last I wrote about this album, back in April, I was hypnotized by track 3, "Stupefied." But even then, I think, I knew that my favorite song was going to wind up being the deliciously trippy "Strawberries Dress."

It's that insistently repeated guitar riff that draws me in, spangling verse after verse like fairy dust. Over it floats Robyn's reverbed vocal, sounding breathy and dazzled; the girl backup singers, too, fade in and out like gusts of breeze. Every once in a while a little prayer bell chimes, and a cello sighs. It's meticulously textured to seem graceful, whimsical, perhaps a little flower-child-y.  But it's got backbone, too, with an irresistible lungey beat and surging upward chord shifts.

This is a song that purposefully jogs you out of your lazy aural habits. That melodic line skips and circles around, flouting the usual tonal groove; it's unpredictable and mesmerizing. The lyrics are a riddling, teasing terza rima (what, no four-line verses?) that drift along on their own imagistic stream of consciousness. As I dive down into the song, trying to make sense of them, unable to guess where they're going, I am officially hooked.

For the record, here they are:

Telecom tower
the tree doesn't reach 
above your head

Elegant flower 
the scene doesn't change 
around your heart 

From the chimneys
to the pink horizon
(pink horizon)

Testing your power
I dream in the rain 
A fine young sprite
naked from the navel downwards

I see you kiss the sun
I see you walk the dog and turn away

You, I'm so weak with you
I'm scared that you'll explode
or walk away *

You in your strawberries dress 
You in your strawberries dress 
You in your strawberries dress ...

* Whatever this verse means, it is disconcertingly sexy...

"Strawberries Dress" is a bit like "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," but not as in-your-face psychedelic; this is a much more mellow trip (and with a way less draggy beat). Think of it as a tone poem -- a very very daffy tone poem. There's an offbeat grace about the whole enterprise, and it charms me to my toes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Amos Lee -- Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song
"The Man Who Wants You"

I just saw Amos Lee perform last week, as part of the WFUV Holiday Show -- which, yes, I went to because Nick Lowe was on the bill (knee-jerk fangirl that I am), but having Amos, Glen Hansard, and Calexico there too was icing on the cake. And when the assorted artists collected to sing together, whose voice rose above all the others, with a distinctive timbre like honey on toast? Man, can that cat Amos Lee sing.

I can say with pride that I've been a fan since his 2005 debut album, which is when I first saw Amos in concert (down at the borderline grubby Irving Plaza), and I've bought every record he's made since then. I like my soul music with a folky country twang, or perhaps I like my roots-rock drenched in soul -- whatever the equation, that's what Amos Lee consistently delivers. I buy Amos Lee records the minute they're released, without even listening to sample tracks.  I just know I'm going to like them, not only because of his heavenly voice but because he's also a solid songwriter and has pitch-perfect musical taste. And he hasn't let me down yet.

Truth to tell, I've been getting a little nervous, figuring that at some point Amos is going to either A) hit the big-time and get slick, or B) go spectacularly off track and try a new sound I can't stand. When I read that he'd gone to Nashville to record this new album, I began to worry that B) was going to happen. But never fear -- while Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song flirts a little more with a country sound, throwing in some pedal steel and dobro and gospel choruses, he still stays true to his core musical values. 

Which means adding a little Philly-style funk to the honky-tonk -- call it funky-tonk, if you will...

Now, is this song sexy or what? Normally Amos goes in more for the mournful break-up songs, the lost-soul plaints, the coolly detached free-spirit anthems, the political commentaries, but there is no question what this track is about: He's got a woman in his sights and he would like to close the deal.

She may be (probably is) married to someone else, or at least involved with someone else, and he's gentleman enough to bow to that. (Do we not love that, ladies?) "I don't want you to be untrue," he declares in the chorus -- knowing that we're always suckers for good manners. But clearly she can't be satisfied with that other guy, because he knows in his bones that she'd be happier with him, for one incontrovertible reason -- because "the truth is, I'm the man who wants you." I don't know about you, but I find that a devastating argument.

Okay, so he's already barged in on the other guy's territory ("I'm gonna keep you company until the morning light") -- that's a mere technicality. The point is, this girl still needs a bit of persuading. And in the currency of pop music, what better persuader is there than a silky-sweet syncopated tenor with just enough grit at the edges to give it raw power?

I love the fact that Amos Lee has stayed just under the radar (depending on where your radar is trained), working with the people he admires, not getting sucked into the celebrity star-making machine. He's got talent up the wazoo, but some instinct of tact and taste --- yes, and maybe of self-doubt, which could also be called self-preservation -- keeps him from cashing in big-time. I admire that. May you stay true forever, Amos.

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

The Avett Brothers -- Magpie and the Dandelion
"Morning Song"

Okay, I take it back. Even if the Avett Brothers do overshadow the Wood Brothers, I still love them, and I'm thrilled that they keep releasing albums at such a pace -- why, weren't they on this list just last year?

Now let's keep all the Americana kids straight -- Mumford & Sons feature a banjo, and the Lumineers have a cello, but the Avetts give us both, a yearning deep cello groove with the bluegrassy banjo chattering away on top. The Wood Brothers have Oliver Wood's distinctive vocals, but the Avetts double up with two brothers trading lead vocals, Seth's sweet and tender voice playing against Scott's earnest grit. They've got an impressively versatile sound, while always staying in the Americana wheelhouse; they rock things out when they want to, but it always feels authentic and handmade, which IMHO is a good thing.

If anything, 2013's Magpie and the Dandelion feels more personal than last year's The Carpenter, giving us a window onto lives lived, hurts weathered, and happiness found. Many of the songs are about relationships, which as you all know is a whole lot different than being generic love songs. There's the gobsmacked-by-love Never Been Alive and the hopeful new beginning of Bring Your Love To Me, counterbalanced by the feisty Another Is Waiting and the humble apology of "Good To You." But the one I can't get out of my head is "Morning Song":       

We're definitely in heartbreak territory, from the very first line's mournful yelp: "Hurts so bad / You don't come around here anymore." If this were a song about pain and rage, we'd stay there. But it isn't; it's about coping and moving on, finding the light at the end of the tunnel (the "morning" of the title). In other words, Music for Grownups.

The song doesn't downplay how rough his dark night of the soul has been -- "I've been thinking / About drinking again," he confesses; in the third verse, things dial down to bare acoustic to reprise that opening line with the ruefully rambling "Hurts so bad / More than I expected that it would / Worse than that, it seems be / Lasting just a little longer than it should." This thing has really knocked him off his pins.

But he's started to get some perspective on his infatuation, remembering in retrospect how "The magpie on the wire warned of love." (Always a good sign when you find the album title embedded in a lyric.) And as the song moves on, his focus is less on her and more on pulling himself back together, underscored on the album track with a determined drum kick and testifying organ. No trying to win her back, no rehashing the break-up itself; it's done, it's over, and he's accepted that. Now where does he go from here?  

There's still a sniping edge of blame in the refrain: "It's all right if you finally stop caring / Just don't go and tell someone that does." He's been left holding the bag of love, and that's painful; there'll be a scar there, making it harder to risk his emotions the next time.

But he knows that nobody else can fix this for him -- he's got to "do the work," as shrinks are fond of saying. "Even though I know there's hope in every morning song / You have to find that melody alone." That word "alone" is packed with double meaning -- alone as in "find it for yourself," yeah, but also alone as in "lonely." (Though the backing vocals signal that he's not as alone as he thinks.) Bottom line: it's hard to "do the work" when you're still wounded, but suck it up -- this is life.     

Like I said, Music for Grownups. Love it, love it, love it.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My 2013 Top Ten Albums

Whoa, it's end-of-year "best of" time again? Better scramble to get this together. I felt that I was spending tons of money on CDs this year, but in retrospect, a lot of it was devoted to filling holes in my library (my late summer Nilsson obsession), while most of the new-release  CDs I bought were disappointments. Okay, it was time for Vampire Weekend to let me down, but Elvis Costello?  And I don't blame the Roots for making Wise Up Ghost a bit of a noisy mess....

I should also note that I see no reason to put Paul McCartney's New CD on this list. A:  I don't have it yet because I'm expecting Santa to put it in my Christmas stocking; and B: Paul McCartney doesn't need my recommendation to boost his sales. But from the samples I've listened to on Amazon, it does sound as if Macca is back on form, after the cringe-worthy Kisses on the Bottom. (Don't get me wrong; I like standards, I just prefer if they are sung in tune.)

On the other hand, these artists do deserve a shout-out...

The Wood Brothers -- Muse
"Sing About It"

As I've said before, the Wood Brothers are one of my very favorite acts. Don't know why, exactly --  ever since I discovered them, purely by chance, in 2006, they just hit home with me, album after album. And feeling possessive and protective about them, as I always do with My Guys, I worry that they get overshadowed by the Avett Brothers (more on them soon), who have similar close brother harmonies and Americana twang. Dang, I love the Avetts too, but I really love the Wood Brothers. Please check them out.

Are they country? Are they folk? Are they blues? Are they jazz?  The answer is YES, and Muse shows them operating with equal fluency in every one of those genres. It was hard to pick just one track to play for you from this brilliant, soulful album, but this one's as good as any.

Unclassifiable as their music is, it's a true synthesis, not just a pair of music nerds showing off by switching styles. In all of their songs, they blend the raw emotion of the blues, the storytelling itch of country, the gentle honesty of folk, the wry wit of jazz. Plus, they don't do songs about getting the girl or about how tough it is to be a celebrity; they write about getting drunk and finding salvation and dying and searching for joy -- the real stuff of life.

I could listen to Oliver Wood's voice for hours, the skillful way he works the grit and rasp in his voice. This is a truly American voice, and a national treasure, in my book.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Christmas Shuffle

Where have I been for the past two months? Long story, with more doctors involved than I'd like to admit. But I'm back, and now that Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, I'm happy to plunge into my favorite musical season of the year. I've got 73 tunes in my fastidiously curated Christmas playlist -- which ten tunes will show up next on the random shuffle?

1. Santa Bring My Baby Back -- Marshall Crenshaw
Sorry I can't give you a link for this retro charmer -- I only have it only a bootlegged disc called MC Rarities, wheedled out of a fellow Crenshaw fanatic. As you'd expect, Marshall swings beautifully on this cover of this oft-covered 1957 Elvis Presley Christmas tune. Where it came from, I don't know, but Marshall does it more than justice. Love this guy.

2. Remember (Christmas) -- Harry Nilsson
Oh, I was hoping this one would cycle up. Over the summer I had a rather intense -- dare I say transformational -- Harry Nilsson period, and if you're a Nilsson fan you'll know that never wears off. I'm not sure this is really a Christmas song, but I'll take it. The upward surging key changes, the yearning vocals -- "Remember, life is never as it seems / Dreams...." Well, it's all about heartbreak and longing and disappointment and hope, and if that isn't Christmas I don't know what is.

3. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) -- Death Cab for Cutie
I don't care if he did break up with Zooey Deschanel -- I still love Ben Gibbard, our alt-indie troubadour of depression and loss. Here he moons all over the 1963 Darlene Love classic -- "I remember when you were here / And all the fun we had last year" -- oooh, what can I do to make it better, Ben?

4. Run Run Rudolph -- Chuck Berry
Enough with the covers -- here's the original version of a rock & roll Christmas classic, in which Chuck Berry repurposes "Johnny B. Goode" for the holiday market.  Dig that snaky guitar solo, which was probably the whole reason for this track's existence.

5. Waking On Christmas -- The Smithereens
Gotta love these guys, with their psychedelic garage-y crunch. Why should I be surprised that they released a 2007 Christmas album, Christmas With the Smithereens? They've always been about defying expectations and doing what they damn well please.   "Watching the snowmelt into the ground /  While the sun shines..." That's a Christmas morning scenario well observed.

6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) -- Darlene Love
Now here's the original that Ben Gibbard covered, a prime cut from Phil Spector's Christmas album, which under various titles has been a staple of my holiday listening since 1973. That famous Wall of Sound needed a brassy voice like Darlene's to cut through, and oh, how she sashays center stage to claim her due.

7. Ain't Nothing Like Christmas -- Shelby Lynne    
"I bring the nog, you put on the log / It's a Christmas party"-- Shelby's country-twanged paeon to the holidays gets me where I live. I love that Shelby released an entire album of Dusty Springfield covers; I love that she's Steve Earle's sister-in-law; but most of all I just love Shelby for bucking the Nashville norm and finding her own idiosyncratic C&W groove.

8. Christmas Time Is Here -- Diana Krall
Diana Krall -- who to me, I'm sorry I can't help it, will always be Mrs. Elvis Costello -- earns her stars by reimagining Vince Guaraldi's instant-classic theme song from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Breathy, evocative, and so on point. Sweet spot duly hit.

9. Lousiana Christmas Day -- Aaron Neville
Throw a little Cajun shuffle into the holiday cheer. I love it when Aaron Neville rocks out; even Jimmy Fallon parodies can't touch this exuberant celebration of the season.

10. Christmas at the Airport -- Nick Lowe
Seasonal serendipity indeed. A new holiday original from Nick Lowe, whom you all know I love to death. Check out the adorable animated video here. This year Nick actually released that most cliched of products, a Christmas album (Quality Street), and I was all prepared to cringe. Mea culpa, Nick. I should have known you'd pull it off with not one whiff of cheesy sleigh bells.