Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Lights Out / Bishop Allen

Just when I was starting to feel sad that there hasn't been a new Bishop Allen album since 2009's Grrr -- lo and behold, the guys have come out with a new one, Lights Out.  Memo to self:  Do everything you can do to help promote under-the-radar bands like these, the antidote to the Justin-Bieberized mass-market conglomerate that is slowly strangling modern music.

But I digress.

Besides my well-documented penchant for pop singers with glasses, there's a lot to love here. Bishop Allen may have started out documenting the neuroses of first-date jitters, but on this album they've moved into fruitful new territory:  the neuroses of keeping a long-term relationship going. If it's not quite yet #Music for Grown-ups, it's getting close.

Justin Rice's flat-tish vocals convey such a weariness with modern life, played against the uptempo jangle of the background.  (Dig how back in the mix they keep those baffled vocals.)  Those repeated "if's" tell us what a crossroads he's reached.  She's misunderstood, he's sorry, but at some point he has to stop apologizing.  "If I could give you the keys to the kingdom, I would," he offers, but she seems to have moved past that. "Start again" doesn't mean a fresh start for these two, it means her veering off to begin a new life -- and at some point, that begins to sound like a relief for him.

Smart as they are, these guys don't go overboard with the poetic lyrics, but there's still some deft songcraft, as in the sustained film imagery of "Play the song, roll the credits / Let it fade to black / Out of script, out of time, / And the scene is done." Sometimes all it takes is a repeated word:  "Call a car, call a friend / If you can, call anyone." (Reminds me of John Hiatt's wrenching "What Do We Do Now?" -- "should we call the kids or call the cops?")

Subtlety like this is in short supply these days, and yet these guys produce it track after track. Nuanced songs like "Black Hole" ("all those years collapse in the tiniest of shrugs"), "Skeleton Key" ("Let the gates from their hinges swing with your skeleton key"), and the deceptively simple "Breadcrumbs" ("The only thing you ever leave me is breadcrumbs / The only place they never lead me is home") -- the finely calibrated wit goes on and on.

Musically, it's agreeably straightforward, which I also dig -- who says you have to wow everybody with your multi-world-hyper-sophisticated musicality?  (Vampire Weekend, I'm watching you.)  Sometimes all you need is a cool smart friend to lament your life woes with. Bishop Allen provides that service. I'm so happy they're still here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Dottie's Charms /
Jill Sobule

What?!  I haven't written yet about Dottie's Charms?  Man, I really can't believe I missed posting this, because this totally endearing concept album by Jill Sobule floated me through several dreary months this year.

Here's the concept, in a nutshell:  Jill bought this charm bracelet on eBay and began to muse about what each charm symbolized in the life of its anonymous owner.  She asked several writers and poets each to write lyrics about one of the bracelet's charms, which Jill then set to music. (When I saw her this summer at the City Winery, she actually passed that precious bracelet around the audience -- gotta love it.) 

It's a life in miniature, and in other hands it could have turned out hokey. But Jill's genuine curiosity about what makes people tick is one of her defining traits. She's one of the special ones, the artists whose work plumbs to the heart of what makes us human.

A sample track, for your delectation:

As a child of the Midwest, this one goes deep.  I remember my (possibly all-time closest) friend Beth Wood doing her term talk on Mackinac Island, making it sound so alluring. It's still on my travel bucket list.  

Jill's lyricist on this one was music journalist David Hadju -- a New Jersey guy, granted, not a Midwesterner. Still, he gets a lot of things right -- not just the fine points of Mackinac/Mackinaw pronunciation, but its essence ("quaint as crochet," "it's like Bermuda in Michigan," and -- spot on, here -- "No glitz, no buzz / Preserving a history that never quite was.")  Of course he can't resist mentioning the 1980 time-travel fantasy Somewhere in Time, filmed on Mackinac, and its male lead, the late great Christopher Reeve. (Moment of silence.)  Yeah, yeah, I know the original novel Somewhere in Time was set in New York City -- I'm a huge fan of that book, I even once snagged a signed letter from its reclusive author Jack Finney. But I'll give the moviemakers a pass for changing the location, because who could resist filming on Mackinac Island?

Then, hidden inside the travelogue, we discover a wisp of a story about a fleeting affair. The details are few and tantalizing -- "The kiss in my vestibule, / The stain on my slip." I can't help imagining it was illicit, maybe even adulterous. But Dottie's sure not telling.

Jill's musical setting is perfect:  A little old-fashioned finger-picking, almost square-dance music, switching to a dreamy waltz in the chorus.  Sung in her winsome girlish voice, it's a tentative reverie, a page from a private memory book.  I can just picture sixty-year-old Dottie twirling the charm on her bracelet, lost in reminiscence.

Did she love the guy?  Was he the great love of her life?  Probably not -- but it meant enough to her that she bought that charm for her bracelet.  Along with ten other charms, all with tracks of their own, telling other pieces of Dottie's patchwork life.  

I highly recommend Dottie's Charms. In my humble opinion (okay, I can't resist), it's the year's most charming album. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Vanishing Act /
Edward O'Connell

I've been a fan of this guy's work ever since I happened across his 2010 album Our Little Secret. What a pleasure to find this new installment of his trademark wordsmithery and power-pop songcraft. Here's a taste:

I've always been a sucker for laid-back rock waltzes, a particularly apt choice for this regret-soaked song about a relationship that can't live up to its promise. O'Connell can work a metaphor like nobody's business, and he masterfully threads imagery of a magician act throughout -- the blindfold, the smoke and mirrors, a "trick to amaze and astound."  He wraps it all up in the chorus:

The years disappear
But is love hiding near
In a heart where it needs to be found
Let nobody see that we're bound
To burn the ropes, 
Break the chains and then kill the magician 
There's no point in wishing 
For a curtain to pull back 
If our love's a vanishing act.

Let's call the whole thing off, in other words, but he uses his own verbal prestidigitation to soften the blow. 

The thing is, it isn't just clever word play, it's intimately tied to hard-won wisdom about how love can slowly veer off the rails, racking up disappointment after disappointment, souring and curdling until there's nothing left. Yes, O'Connell's voice and singing style bear an eerie resemblance to Elvis Costello, and you know in my book that's a huge plus.  But whereas Costello's early deft word play was sometimes empty cleverness, O'Connell's always reflect some psychological acuity.  Music for Grown-Ups, to the nth degree.

Early Elvis was bitter and sometimes downright mean;  O'Connell instead has a gently weary persona of the sympathetic loser, the good guy who's been unlucky at love.  It's a bit of a magic trick to combine that wittiness with true-hearted yearning, but he masterfully pulls it off, track after track -- and it's immensely satisfying.  Engaging head and heart -- that's not so easy to do.  Kudos, Mr. O'C.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My 2014 Album Buying Guide



Well, uh, erm. . . .

Okay, so, for the past couple of years I've been happy to provide you all with a "best of" buying guide to the past year's best releases.  It was an exercise I enjoyed.  Helping discriminating music lovers to dig up pearls in a market full of pig sh** seemed a worthy endeavor.

Trouble is, this year I just couldn't find enough.

I am perfectly willing to blame my own wretched state of mind. It was a hard year. [A novel's worth of heartbreak and sorrow and life changing experiences here.]  I give myself a hall pass and am willing to call time out.  And no question that I let myself be distracted by my Musical Advent Calendar project just because I couldn't face the paucity of interesting new music.

But on the other hand, a lot of my old faithfuls let me down. John Hiatt, Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock -- I just couldn't get excited about their 2014 releases. Good in spots, of course, because they are wonderful artists, and I will go to my grave loving all three of them. But I just couldn't warm up to their stuff this year.  (Could be me, I'm always willing to admit.)

Still, there were a few.  Not enough to flesh out a Top Ten, but still, you should know about the ones that made the cut, regardless.  And a couple of them arrived as Christmas presents and I haven't had time yet to do them justice.

So stay tuned, my music loving friends.  It'll be off-the-radar stuff, I'm warning you right now. But then, that's what we need our friends for, isn't it?

And if you've got something burning your ears that you're afraid I haven't dug up*, please let me know -- I'm hungry for Stuff That Works.**

* Nick, I already have the Corb Lund, don't worry.
** Kinks fans, take note: I have listened to the Dave Davies new release.  Stop holding your breath.  When Ray releases something new, then maybe I'll stop filing my nails while they're dragging the lake. [Just to prove that I'll love Declan MacManus till the day I die.]