Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oscar and Alice in a weird afternoon snowstorm.

Really small, dry snow, but in the middle of a vicious wind storm so it was like a white hazy wall of pure cold. The dogs wanted to go outside and run around in it, so I decided to snap a few shots.

Alice was ready to come inside after a few minutes.
Ever the ball fiend, Oscar wasn't quite ready.
But I made him come in, so now he's pouting.~Austin

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Favorites of 2010

Returning to my old format of year-end listings; here we go for 2010....

My top albums of the year (no ordering, just stuff that I liked)
(as always when in lo-fi mode, if you want cover art, just google the titles)

Trembling Blue Stars — Fast Trains and Telegraph Wires/Cicely Tonight_Vol. 1
Album of the year, without question. I initially felt like Bob was maybe just going for that crowd pleasing 'hit it out of the park right after pointing at the stands' sort of thing and it turned me off. But, then it occurred to me: why shouldn't the indie pop Big Bambino knock one out for old time's sake? I swear to god, I feel like it's 1989 and I'm sitting in my bedroom doodling on spiral notebook lined paper when I'm listening to this album. While most people want to recreate a hipster pseudo-80's sound, Bob just writes songs in that mode all the time. The ancient drum machines, the melodramatic guitar effects; that's what he's done all along. And there's even a total bummer breakup dance anthem with 'Cold Colours'; vintage 80's, pure class. Even after the combination of Last Holy Writer/Exploring the Shadows EP three years ago, this is quite a shock. Rumors say that tBS only have an EP left in them. I mourn the loss, if so. But, holy sweet mother, what a magnificent swan song. Again: album of the year(s). Godlike.

The Durutti Column — A Paean to Wilson
Speaking of godlike... Never has such a beautiful album been so painful to listen to. Vini Reilly's proper tribute to Tony Wilson is nothing short of a 70 minute masterpiece. A bit heavy on the emotional end, sure, but such quality music is nearly impossible to underrate in the bigger picture. It was pretty clear from initial listens that Vini poured his entire soul in this album and that he suffered a stroke later in the year only enhanced its feeling of finality. Truly, if it is to be his last full studio album, consider it his final magnum opus (in a career of many).

Trashcan Sinatras — In the Music
Scottish jangle goes soft rock, amazing results. While their step in this direction was definitely hinted at with the mature jangle tones of Weightlifting, to have the music so successfully take on a breezy lite funk/jangle hybrid sound so convincingly was the real surprise. For a veteran act to venture so far from their initial sound and sound just as good as ever is truly a rare thing. Throw in ‘Oranges and Apples’ —arguably the band’s best song… well, ever— and you got one of the finest pure pop albums of the year.

Crowded House — Intriguer
Containing three of Neil Finn’s best songs ever, Intriguer was enough to convince me that the Crowded House reunion may just be one of the best ideas the guy has ever had. Sure, the band is arguably a Neil Finn solo project in all but name these days, but it’s not like he’s disrespecting the band’s legacy by releasing records this good.

Tracey Thorn — Love and its Opposite
Ditching the club-inclined beats of Out of the Woods and sounding more like an Everything But the Girl album (I’m thinking Love Not Money meets Idlewild meets Amplified Heart — i.e. a summary of the best of their best work), Love and its Opposite is a fantastic installment into an artist’s later work that adds even more depth to an already long-productive career. Saying an album like this is ‘mature’ is about as clichéd as it gets, so instead I’ll just say that it’s got a very pleasant, albeit a tad melancholy, ‘lived-in’ quality to it and mention that ‘Swimming’ is one of the year’s best songs.

Natalie Merchant — Leave Your Sleep
Listening to its warm production and taking in its obviously laboured-over everything (seriously, the thing came with a friggin’ book), it’s hard not to think that Natalie Merchant designed Leave Your Sleep as her bid for super serious high art that would endure past her alt-rock beginnings and propel her into the sphere of ‘seriously respected artist.’ And while it is without question a pretentious and sometimes failed affair, when it’s good, it’s good enough to overshadow the missteppings without much effort. I have my reservations about her turn away from more introspective-toned music —and subsequently towards what are essentially musical research projects— I have to admit that there is an undeniable warmth to the best songs offered here. It does feel less like ‘listening for pleasure’ and more like a project to actually sit through the whole thing (which runs in excess of two hours from front to back) but the highlights are high enough to merit repeat listens (too bad the summarized single disc version of the album missed some of the key moments, making the two disc version of the album the proper way to go). This presents an interesting quandary though: what could she possibly do next?

Gil Scott-Heron — I'm New Here
Although I did initially give this one five stars, and it certainly is extremely good, I have to back track on my perfect rating. There are five or so tracks here that are completely awesome in the way that they portray a musical visionary —who, by the most common of senses, should have died years ago because of his indulgences and addictions— in the most venerable stance of his entire career (which is quite a statement, as this is the same guy who did ‘Home is Where the Hatred Is’). There is definitely a sense of finality to the whole thing and Gil’s voice is not his best. But those things —a fragile voice realizing its own poignancy— combine for an affecting performance by one of the best that ever did it. It’s just that, the heavy beats, the cover songs… I’m not sure how those things really contribute to the best material on the album. The deluxe digital edition featured Gil playing some of his old classics accompanying himself on piano in between some interview bits (further evidence of Gil’s place as one of the true masters of the English language) and a mindblowingly good outtake (presumably from 1977’s Bridges album), so that was a nice little bonus. Overall, very good; not perfect though.

Ahmad Jamal — A Quiet Time
A bit of a change this go 'round for Ahmad, as there was no Idris Muhammad and the trio was expanded to a quartet with a percussionist. This seemingly would have changed the dynamic of the group considerably, but Ahmad's playing is as distinct as ever here, so, even with the changes, it's undeniably an Ahmad Jamal album. Things were a little more heated and swingin' on this album, shying away from the introspective tone of his last few albums. Because of this, the few ballads that are played really stick out. Maybe a slight dip in quality in comparison to his last two, but still up to his usual high standards.

Sade — Soldier of Love
Basically a continuation of the stripped down, strummy lite funk sound the band started on Lovers Rock. It holds together incredibly well as an album, but that's also a bit of a con, as —besides the amazing title track— this makes for a very samey album with only one real highlight. Still, it's better for an album to be samey and decent than samey and bad. And this one certainly falls into the former. I wouldn't care if she just turned in one of these sorts of albums every ten or so years because nobody else does what she does as consistently and as good.

Miles Kurosky — The Desert of Shallow Effects
I never thought I'd hear any new Beulah-related music ever again, honestly. Knowing that Miles had major reconstructive shoulder surgery and tons of rehabilitation, it explained why this album took so long to finally get recorded and released (he basically had to learn how to play guitar all over again). So, it's not like he spent seven years on this ten song, barely 40 minute long album. But, anticipation being what it is, it certainly felt like that was the case. So, is it any good? Well, for Beulah fans, hell yes it is. It sounds like When Your Heartstrings Break, but with completely poignant lyrics. The songs are full of big horn charts, string and woodwind blasts, shifting tempos, Beatles style harmonies, acoustic bass and just a ton of heartfelt pop. It's totally good, and yet. . . I can't help but feel it's a bit of an exercise in redundancy for Miles. Like he took all those reviews of Yoko that said, 'It's good, but it doesn't sound like Beulah' too much to heart and decided to give the world a crowd pleaser of an album. All cynicism aside, it is rather good. Just not great.

Belle and Sebastian — Write About Love
I said it before, but I’ll say it again here: easily their best album since Isobel left. ‘Come On Sister’ is pretty much my song of the year, but there’s at least four others on the album that are no-brainer highlights (and among the band’s best songs). The thing that everybody seemed to be talking about with this album was that Stuart was back into the role of ‘taking charge’ in the band, like that was what the band should have been about the entire time. But I don’t know, there are just as many duets, guests and non-Stuart moments as on previous albums, so I think this album’s quality has more to do with the sound. I mean, the keyboards and less-whispery vocals of recent albums are still there, but the songs all look back to the self-aware esoteric whimsy of the band’s glory years. So, this one got over strictly on vibe. Vibe and some undeniably genuine and downright great pop songs. Which is what made Belle and Sebastian so great in the first place, right?

Sam Prekop — Old Punch Card
Sam Prekop has never been shy about being kind of an eccentric artsy guy at heart. Sure, he writes gorgeous pop songs in the Sea and Cake, but every once in a while, a weird moment arose —an inexplicably noisy solo, a frantic and chaotic vocal outburst— either on his band’s or his own records and it never really seemed out of place. Because of his long-standing potential to just go off into left field, Old Punch Card was not quite as much of a shock as it probably should have been. Make no mistakes: this is an experimental electronic glitch album. There is almost no guitar to be found and absolutely no vocals whatsoever. The songs are split into schizophrenic fragments that bounce back and forth between blaring static, ambient keyboard interludes and what seems like found sound unfamiliarities. Not really my thing normally and I definitely would not have listened to it at all were Sam’s name not on the cover. In a cool move, Thrill Jockey made the album available in a limited edition that featured hand painted covers (each one consequently bearing it’s own unique cover image) and a select few that were signed by Sam himself (admittedly, this is what I was buying the album for). Very challenging music, but I did find some rewarding aspects to it upon repeated listens. Certainly not among my favorites of the year, but an interesting curiosity nonetheless. As it stands in the Sam Prekop chronology, a weird move for sure. Just watch: the next Sea and Cake album is the one where they finally go death metal.

Monster Movie — Everyone is a Ghost
Released on the irreproachable Grave Face label, this is actually the first album by Christian Savill’s post-Slowdive musical endeavor that I’ve checked out and, I have to say, I was unsure of what to make of the somewhat run of the mill indie pop sound initially. But, after a few listens, it occurred to me: the songs are fantastically written and played. There’s a sense of just good old classic indie attitude to the whole thing and that keeps the mood fun and thoughtful. There's just about every sub-style tackled here: jangle, synth pop, acoustic strummny numbers and even a vintage-sounding shoegaze track. Certainly not life changing, but executed darn well.

Jónsi — Go
There's a lot here for Sigur Rós fans to latch onto, as this album basically sounds like the awesome, uber-poppy first half of Með suð completely perfected and with a few gorgeous ballads thrown in for diversity. 'Animal Arithmetic' is in my songs of the year, for sure. And the overall album is definitely not just a stopgap Sigur Rós affair. There's a bright, almost giggly feeling to the material that I just don't ever get from Sigur Rós. So that counts for something. Sidebar: I love the cover art for the album, as well because it is such a fantastic representation of the music. At times throughout the album, it just seems to make sense that Jónsi would have ramshackle rainbows spewing from his brain. Because he certainly writes songs that sound like it.

And now, for my biggest disappointments…
None, really; besides all those dollar records I took a chance on. But that's a given when indulging in that sort of thing. I don't know. I guess I'm just not really into looking into things I know that I won't like anymore. I mean, yeah, all those stupid Kanye Wack/Vampire Weekend hipster bullshit Pitchfork approved atrocities sucked, but I didn't really expect anything else, so you can't legitimately call those disappointments, can you?

The albums that I wanted to check out, but never did, based on whatever variables…
Too many to get into. Most of them reissues on the unimpeachable LTM label. I'll see you soon, Low Life.

I hesitate to call this the ‘rediscoveries’ section because I never discovered these records until this year, but a lot of people call it that. Anyway, here’s a bunch of older things that I just caught up to in 2010…
Kate Bush
Don't believe me? Check out the most played artists in my library. Yes, I just started listening to her six months ago. I feel stupid.

Slowdive — Pygmalion deluxe edition
When Creation reissued the band's catalogue in 2005, Pygmalion stuck out big time because it was the only album that did not receive a fantastic expanded second disc. I don't know why the wealth of material that now appears on this new Cherry Red reissue was held back for so long, but I'm elated to finally have it. The bonus material on disc two eclipses the running time of the proper album and most of it consists of otherwise unheard songs. So, yeah, basically the great lost fourth Slowdive album. I already considered Pygmalion a musical milestone, but these newly released vault recordings just enhance its prestige for me.

Sigur Rós
This actually is rediscovery in the traditional form. I once had everything of theirs up to the parentheses album (even the sweet ten inch record!). But, I don't know. I just ditched it all one day in favor of Frank Zappa albums (I know — can it get any dorkier?). But I just picked them up again this year. Sparked by the random pick up of the Hvarf/Heim set, I was off. The parentheses album and Takk have become my favorites, but sweet googly moogly, that first half of Með Suð is something I regret disregarding two years ago. Quickly becoming one of my favorite bands.

Orange Juice
Mostly based around the release of the fantastic ...coals to newcastle box set. It's six discs and was just released about a month ago, so I've yet to really soak all of it in. But I have focused on the Glasgow School and Rip it Up discs (the title track on the latter is a classic for the ages) and those are both perfect examples of super polishy, exquisitely jangly new wave at its absolute best. Highlights from other discs: 'What Presence?!', 'Consolation Prize', 'Salmon Fishing in New York' and 'Bridge.' Wonderful stuff and I look forward to really digesting it all in the coming months.

The Wake
One band that the LTM label has reissued I did get to check out this year. They started out on Factory in the early 80's and moved over the Sarah label in the early 90's. One of the most unfairly overlooked jangle bands of the 80's.

Mixed media? Why mix media when I'm essentially not interested in anything but music?
Yes, I've officially become a buzzkill unless you want to talk about new wave or Stereolab. I'm lame. Deal with it.

And because I love you all, here's a new feature this year: a streamable 63 minute mix of my favorite songs of the year...

If you're not keen on streaming, click here to download the mix in an MP3 file that you can take with you.

A pretty good year, I'd say.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Trembling Blue Stars — Fast Trains and Telegraph Wires/Cicely Tonight_Volume One

Call me lazy, if you will. But here's another very short review.

I had a late night conversation with my wife a person years ago about how certain people we knew personified what certain bands came across like on records. 

I arrived at the realization that I am the Field Mice.

And being that Trembling Blue Stars is basically the revamped Field Mice, I will wholly acknowledge that I cannot judge this band objectively; as, even though I have absolutely nothing to do with them, they speak to me in a very personal way every single time out.

The new album is nothing different. Another round of songs for me to learn, sing and inject into my everyday interactions with everyone I know.

Hell, I've already started quoting the phrase 'The Imperfection of Memory' to coworkers.

And it's rumored that this will be the band's last album. So be it, if so. Bob will never stop being one of the best songwriters ever.

As far as how this new album sounds, well, I guess I'd call it a good combination of 'The Sea is So Quiet' and 'A Statue to Wilde' throwing in a sense of reserved and satisfied calm that Bob's music has never really possessed before now.

In other words, he's as close to perfection as expected, considering his run since Seven Autumn Flowers.

Five fucking stars. No hesitation.

Unbelievably good.


PS — Sorry for the short reviews. Emotional weight of life has been getting to me recently. Expect more fleshed out thoughts in my year end wrap up.

PSS — Rest in Peace, Mum. And others.

Monday, November 1, 2010

On: being a Nevada resident.

As Nevadan for twenty three years and an employee of both the Washoe County School District and the City of Reno, I am appalled that there is even a debatable choice in some of this year's mid-term elections. The fact that people like Sharon Angle and Brian Sandoval are even considered viable candidates (screw links, you can google the names for yourself and see their inherent evils) with our current economic status is statement enough to the overwhelming conservative bias that somehow reigns supreme in America.

On this election day eve, I can only say that I hope that enough people aren't brainwashed and have the good sense to realize just how much they are being fleeced.

I will be walking to the polls tomorrow and voting for anyone with the surname Reid.

I hope enough other people do as well.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Belle and Sebastian — Write About Love

Before we get started, I should just say that sometimes music is just good to the point that it cannot be articulated properly in text. Instead of sitting here talking all kinds of profanities and vague terms, I will instead make this one of my laziest reviews ever.

It kicks ass. Plain and simple. It's the band's best record since the Boy With the Arab Strap and their first album of all new material since that album that has come close to articulating why they are one of the groups that has earned their praise in the post-grunge music world. I love this band and this new album has just reiterated why permanently for me.

Pure, honest pop from one of the latter day gurus of the style.

Surely, if you're in tune to anything remotely "indie" on the internet, you've heard the album's title track —which is also one of the band's best songs in years— but I'm more concerned with "Come On Sister." Check out the lyrics:

Granted, that's just text on a screen. When Stuart sings it, it nearly aches it's so awesome.

Just... wow.

I guess it's left me speechless.

It's pretty dern good.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

My top five most underrated and overlooked Jangle masterpieces.

I find that, as a fan of primarily new wave based rock music, the jangle scene is the one that has become the most rewarding to me. Excellent, but sparse, guitar playing and singers who are more interested in the overall vibe of the song, as opposed to stealing the show with their vocal performance. The bottom line though is: all of these bands were inspired chiefly by good melodies and, when you get down to it, writing the best pop song they could.

From the late 80's, into the early 90's, the scene was huge. Bands were intermingling and somebody would be Madchester for a few things, trip hop the next and then just a plain old hard rock act in the long run (hi, Stones Roses), all the while retaining somewhat of a jangly backdrop. So, I guess what I should say right off the bat here is that to describe any music as 'jangle' proposes an undefined thing right away.

So, for my definition, I'd say that, to me, 'jangle' means very little distortion, if any. And, if there is some, it's in that My Bloody Valentine/Slowdive/Shoegaze way that, while noisy, it's still pretty. And, ultimately, there's nothing more to the music than to just write a classic resonating pop song. Just, pure, guitar based accessibility.

And, let's just say right now, I do not make this list with any pretense of being a guru. Although I do fancy myself somewhat of a jangle nerd, I also realize I have a lot to learn. I would love your own list or any recommendations.

And, one more bit: all of these albums are incredibly good. I would at least consider all of them for a spot in my favorites of all time. They're all five star albums, easily. It was genuinely hard for me to pick their ranking order (outside of my #1 pick, which was a no-brainer) and I still have a bit of an issue with the running order. But it's the best I could do with a tough decision.

Finally, one last prologue: the influence of the Smiths over all of this music cannot be overstated.

So, countdown style, let's get into it.

5. The Feelies — The Good Earth (1986)

A slow, meditative affair. Peter Buck produced and sounding downright stately on their seemingly never coming second album, the Feelies put together arguably the first non-R.E.M. album of American jangle that was truly about the album. No real big apparent singles to be found (in fact, the album's catchiest song —'Slipping (Into Something)'— was also its most radio-unfriendly at six minutes in length). If someone were to listen to Crazy Rhythms and then this album back to back, it would be a bit confusing. But then, look at the years of release and it would probably feel like the most logical and amazing progression ever. When 'On the Roof' begins, it just feels like the most natural, most awesome side/one track evolution on a second album. It just follows, nearly relentlessly, with nine tracks of acoustic based strum and, overall, what has to be the most unwilling pop albums ever created. The vocals are mixed in defiantly low and the songs avoid choruses like they'd never been invented yet, but underneath it all is a melodic urge. Like the pop in these songs had to be suppressed. Pete Buck is also to be commended for his time-defying production. Even on some R.E.M. stuff you can hear the dated drum EQ'ing. But not here. When Glen Mercer sings, "It's gonna rise and carry us home" on 'The High Road,' it sounds to me like pure propaganda to the listener, in an attempt to get the listener to take the album completely to heart and just let it burn from beginning to end and soak in every last bit until it touches your soul. If that is the case, that's some effective stuff that totally works on me. A shout for the recent reissue, as it adds some great covers (of the Beatles and Neil Young) from b-sides of the time period.

4. The Wake — Here Comes Everybody (1985)

A notorious whore for Factory and Northern bands in general, I owe it to the undeniably good LTM label for making me aware of the Wake. Admittedly, I'm a noob: I found out about the band through Caesar's involvement in the Occasional Keepers but if Bob Wratten can co-sign somebody's talent, surely they're worth delving into. And delve, I did. Indeed, the Wake was certainly a stock Factory band at the outset (in a good way), but they have slowly opened up and, thanks to LTM's downright awesome reissue campaign, I've discovered one of the greatest 'forgotten' bands of the post-punk era. Holy mother, is this album just about the biggest forgotten piece of proto-90's indie pop British greatness ever or what? This came out on freakin' Factory, too!! Sweet hey-zeus, I love this album! Ok, sorry for all of that... Now that I've calmed down, I have to say: it's awesome. It's like New Order, but without the baggage. Certainly, Barnie and the boys have an influence that looms large over this album, but it's not like Caesar and the band are just copying every move in their playbook. It feels less like sheer imitation and more like a band trying to outdo their inspirations. After 'Blue Monday', those other Factory boys surely had a big weight on their shoulders to deliver more dance-pop hits, but the Wake had next to no anticipation, so if they took the dreamy synth/jangle cue proposed on some of the second New Order album's tracks, can you really blame them? New Order released Low-Life the same year as this album and while that is definitely an album I love and admire greatly, I'd say Here Comes Everybody has it beat within the first half. By the time this thing hits 'Melancholy Man', you'll be wondering if it will ever dip in quality (the answer is no). The stark, tan-on-white color scheme of the cover art is perfectly suited to the music. It's a wash of dreamy mini epics, with synth patches taking the harmonies and awesomely understated jangly arpeggios taking the unassuming lead. Make no mistakes, there is a definite formula here, but it's so unique when you consider the context that it just doesn't matter. The big clue here that the band was not just a New Order ripoff —besides the actual coherence of the songs— is the bass. Low in the mix and simply playing the root, it's just another layer in the seemingly endless bands of dreaminess. All eight songs are pure pop greatness. Three minutes short or seven minutes long, nothing is ever squandered and not a single second is wasted. When an album kicks off with an absolute gem on the level of 'O Pamela,' you know something's up. The surprisingly dark title track really makes things clear on this album: it's completely soul-bearing in Caesar's lyrics (not that you would ever know it from the way they're mixed in so low). This album is simply godlike. Another shout for the deluxe edition being the definitive, if for nothing else than that it adds the band's essential single from 1984, 'Talk About the Past' (featuring Vini Reilly on piano, so get your copies of Another Setting out for reference).

3. The Railway Children — Reunion Wilderness (1987)

Also released on Factory, inexplicably in 1987, the Railway Children must have faced the worst NME reviews for being the biggest Smiths ripoff ever. And yeah, those first few listens into this album might find any self-respecting Morrissey/Marr fan very cynical of 'A Gentle Sound,' but just let the needle spin past that first track (which you may even like after getting to know the album) and it'll become immediately clear that there's something completely different about these Wigan boys. It's almost as if Gary Newby thinks he's Otis Redding at some points (fyi: re-contextualize that for a jangle setting and realize that he's not exactly a pseudo-soul grunting whiteboy, but he's actually got very real emotion in his timbre). After the immediate highlight of 'Another Town,' the majority of side one presents a group of downright appealing Smiths ripoffs. However, the last track on side one is 'History Burns.' A somewhat funky (??!!) and just plain old relatable pop song is an eyebrow-raiser, to say the least. Turn the record and you're greeted by a xylophone. No, seriously. It morphs into a bass-led thing that may not seem that impressive at first. But, wait. That middle eight arpeggio, what's he's hinting at? Then, the glorious chorus enters and good god DAMN. Can you say, 'highlight'? What matters? What really doesn't matter? Dude, does it matter when you write songs this good? It all becomes so vague. Quite. Another thing called 'Careful' follows it up with another similarly-misleadingly 'ok' verse and then 'OH SHIT!' amazing chorus and it doesn't even feel like a surprise at that point. Just like, 'Yeah... this album is that good.' Like you knew it all along. So much... but not enough: a telling lyric as the Children went Hollywood after this album and churned out albums of faceless, sub-Madchester corporate rock. But... whoo, is Reunion Wilderness amazing. Check that photo: somebody paid 89¢ for it. . .

2. The Ocean Blue — Beneath the Rhythm and Sound (1993)

My love of this album has already been well documented on this blog. If anything, writing that post rekindled my love of the album after a period of kind of forgetting about it. In the past year, it's only grown ever larger in stature for me. The uber-pop of 'Sublime' and the pièce de résistance 'Bliss is Unaware' (I'm now convinced this is one of the greatest songs ever written) melting in with the partly shoegazey elements of 'Either/Or' and 'Don't Believe Everything You Hear' and the sincerely great ballads 'Crash' and 'Emotions Ring' all makes for one of the most nostalgically awesome 90's albums ever recorded. Truly one of the best of the 90's decade and easily in my top albums of all time. If the Wake is godlike, then this has to be equated with time-traveling levels of unknown, omnipotent awesomeness. If not awesomer.

1. Riverside — One (1993)
And it's fitting that not only was this album produced by then Ocean Blue-ist Steve Lau, but it's title is actually One. I don't even know where to start. Being that this is a list of underrated and overlooked albums, I couldn't do anything except put this at the top spot. There was nothing at the time that sounded like it because everyone had gone grunge and the rock (and even indie) landscape was not concerned with Britain any longer. Also hailing from Pennsylvania (like the Ocean Blue), the band was fronted by brothers Glen and Keith Kochanowicz (now shortened to Kochan) and it should make sense that the band kicked ass because Glen was the bassist and lead singer (are any of them not awesome?). I guess a quick description of this album would be the Ocean Blue with a bit more of a shoegaze influence. I mean, listen to the screeching feedback and hushed vocals of 'General Nature' and that would seem just fine. But there's something else at play here. Look at those guys on the cover photo. Do they not look like a prototype Backstreet Boys? What the hell is going on here?! 'Cinnamon Eyes' sounds vaguely Happy Mondays-ish, no? But what's with all these incredible hooks? Are these guys serious? The answer is yes. They are that good and they are more than ready to create one of the best albums ever. Amidst every single killer track and unbelievable chord change is that reverby, echoey wonderful jangle. If Beneath the Rhythm and Sound is very nostalgically 90's sounding, then One is the quintessential early 90's non-grunge guitar album. It's like it takes everything great about American and British jangle and summarizes it all into one ten-song, fourty minute album that perfectly encapsulates and simultaneously trumps all of it, in one magnificently gorgeous swoop.


Friday, September 10, 2010

Deleted Pitchork Reviews

Pitchfork Media is an online music magazine that focuses primarily on indie rock and all things "hip." I guess by the sarcasm in that first sentence you can see that I'm not especially a fan of theirs. Most of my gripes mirror the general sentiment against them — i.e. too self-referential, too self-obsessed, not really judging the music by the music, taking themselves to heart as "tastemakers" and generally abusing the title and making a mockery out of the notion of being a "music journalist."

However, all of those things and the arguments to support them are subjective.

To truly illustrate why I don't think they're a reputable and respectable outlet for music criticism, we need to look at what's not in their archives.

Yes, there have been some documented instances of this, but let's really dig for a minute.

The most obvious examples are the two deleted John Coltrane reviews for Live at the Village Vanguard and Living Space. The Living Space review says all it needs within the very first sentence: "Impulse Records has been very good to old jazz albums." And then, the Village Vanguard review is just over-the-top silly enough to successfully fuel the "Is Pitchfork racist?" argument on its own. Besides fully articulating a perfect case of Pitchfork overstepping its bounds into music they clearly don't know dick about, it's reviews like that that also perpetuate the stereotype of jazz fans as snobs. It's almost as if Ryan Shreiber has moved so far past the point of parody, past the point of irony, past any sort of logical motivation in reviewing these albums that, unwillingly, he has himself become the thing he's presumably making fun of (and why is he making fun? — also deserving of an answer).

But those reviews are of jazz; a genre that most people would probably agree Pitchfork has no business discussing in the first place. Disastrous reviews like this are not embarrassments. Some may argue that they're an outright expectation when Pitchfork tackles such subjects.

But what about when Pitchfork goofs when reviewing something that's supposed be from their base? Something that they have portrayed themselves to be the authority of?

Save Ferris arguably falls under this umbrella because it's at least rock music, but we need concrete proof, don't we?

Something on an indie label. Something not widely known, but still likable. Something that was arguably spiraling out of "critically acclaimed" control at the time.

Well, here's one: a score of 0.8 for Belle and Sebastian's masterpiece album The Boy With the Arab Strap.

The review is dated as being from October of 1998, so that would've been right around the time Rolling Stone gave the album a fairly good review (coincidentally, Rolling Stone has deleted the review from their website archives, too; but anybody with an old print copy can confirm). So, if something is being co-signed by Rolling Stone, it has officially become uncool, indie label or no. It has officially become too popular to like at that point, right?

This is the only logic I can follow here, as the album is now a clearly acknowledged band classic and darn fine affair in general. Pitchfork's criticism is that the band has lowered themselves to self-parody on the album.

(which is silly to most B&S fans, as it's pretty much the band doing that one thing that they do best for 45 minutes straight; arguably creating their most consistent album — more a case of creative fertility, if you ask me)

Of course, I pick on this particular review because I don't especially like that they gave it a poor review. After all, they've also done away with their review of the Tigermilk reissue — which gives a positive score, amongst some sort of impenetrable 'concept' review that the site has become infamous for. But the point here is: the Arab Strap review was completely off base and unmerited. They must have known this. Why isn't it still on the proper site?

I suspect this was deemed an acceptable review after the band released a couple of so-so albums. But in recent years, after Dear Catastrophe and the Life Pursuit (a pair of unarguably strong albums — even according to Pitchfork, earning respective scores of 7.5 and 8.5), I suppose they thought that one of the lowest ratings they've ever given was too harsh for one of the band's best albums (if not their flat out best).

And furthermore, it's one of the albums that established the foundation of the sound and style that many of Pitchfork's most loved bands built upon.

(food for thought: just imagine if the album had been released on the Elephant 6 label. . .)

The fact that it's not there anymore leads me to believe the review was removed because they knew it was a great record all along. What other conclusions am I to arrive at?

If this is what it's come to, we can all just revise history whenever we please and shape scenes and opinions in retrospect, according to contemporary thoughts.

But is that really ok?


PS — I know there's more. Please leave links to other now-deleted reviews in the comments, if you feel so compelled.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why I love Neil Young.

A friend —who is not really of the classic rock mind, in even the most liberal sense— recently asked me what it is that draws me so much to Neil Young.

I admittedly had a bit of a tough time coming up with a solid and articulate reason why I like him so much. Sure, I do like him as a person and as a musician and I can tell you how much I appreciate him. But when trying to say why, I found myself stumbling over words and struggling to grasp at any solid description of what particularly it was that attracts me to his music.

After a bit of reflection the past few days, it finally hit me: the reason I can't articulate it very well is because it's a feeling. I'm sure somebody (who's much more knowledgeable about music theory) could pontificate and illustrate why I get the feeling from his music that I do because of the chords he plays and the progressions in which he arranges them in, but the bottom line here is: musically speaking, he is a master of 'less is more' philosophy.

I have a couple of guitar-playing friends that are not necessarily Neil fans, but through my efforts to turn them on to him, have remarked, "His playing is so simple, but so solid."

Those three or four simple chords he can bang out with seeming non-effort are arranged so perfectly to tug at your emotions. It's as if he's doing it that way on purpose to make anyone with a heart and two cents' worth of soul not really have a choice of whether or not to like it. You just hear it and it moves you. End of story.

Take "Long May You Run" for example. It's supposedly about a car. But listen to the words, that odd chord change in the bridge. Even the hardest nut to crack would have trouble not falling introspective after hearing the tune.

His performance of the tune on Conan O'Brien earlier this year illustrates this so well.

The song is thirty years old and he's probably played it so many times, he's sick of it. But he just puts it out there in his red and white Hawaiian shirt like it didn't matter if he sang it on the show or not. And the comment for Conan at the end is another reason why he's so great.

"Thank you for everything you've done for new music," he says to Conan.

Instead of dwelling on the fact that he's just presented what may very well be the single most heart-tugging, soul-warming and ultimately definitive version of the tune, he extends his gratitude to the court jester.

His influence is undeniable and equally incalculable. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any other musician who has been equally as influential to so many different sub-styles simultaneously. I don't know of anyone else that could be seen as a progenitor of the Appleseed Cast and Wilco. And yet, there he is. Strumming away. Warm, fuzzy, distorted tones over a loping Ralph Molina backbeat or with his giant acoustic guitar. He's there and he probably did it —in some sort of way— before your favorite band.

That one sentiment of thanks to Conan says much more about Neil's personality in one sentence than probably even he realized. His unabashedly personal music throughout his career and his willingness to challenge his audience have never been a secret. He saw his best friends become junkies and ultimately victims of hard drugs, experimented to the point of implosion himself, divorced, saw his own son born with serious handicaps and ultimately exorcised his personal demons — all through his music. The most wonderful thing about his music, tunefullness or no (thankfully, he just so happens to write catchy ones), is that, through all of the unpredictable phases and seemingly toss-off in-jokes being passed off as records, the audience knew the artist. Like his latest record or not, you felt like you could still be cordial and have a beer with him after the show.

And that is essentially what connects us to him. His songs are his life. And, just a little bit of ours, too. As die-hard Neil Young fans, we've all heard "Heart of Gold" and it has resonated so much that it moves us to tears at some point in our lives. The words are poignant, but just general enough, to really hit a nerve with anybody who's ever been at a point in their lives where current things are unsure, but the goal is cemented. And plus, the pedal steel totally rules.

But this brings us to a conclusion of sorts. Neil was never anything but himself to his audience. He made the mistake all along of presenting himself, unadulterated at all times. Ultimately, wearing the dorky leather fringe jacket, playing staccato one-note guitar solos, constantly singing off key on live recordings (and some studio ones, too), idiosyncratically releasing seeming crap while simultaneously holding back rumored masterpieces, giving his audience exactly what they wanted exactly when they didn't want it and finally his ability to challenge his audience and congruently not take himself seriously at all is what made him the living legend he is today.

Long live that skinny Canadian playing his classic Gretsch White Falcon.

He is one of my Jesusses.

(did I just make up a very blasphemous word?)

Thanks to Dave, for inspiring these thoughts. I understand this is a very general sentiment put across here, but I hope it's a bit more of an appropriate answer.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

In a bit of a bad way tonight.

But I just want to say: I haven't been away. I am still right here, where I always was. So one day, if you're bored, by all means call. Because you can do, but only if you want to.

Other musings:

Off to bed!


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tracey Thorn — Love and its Opposite

When Tracey Thorn released Out of the Woods in 2007, it was a bit of a shock because Everything But the Girl had been dormant for over half a decade and the last solo album that she released was twenty five years prior. Considering the wealth of music released between her first and second solo albums, it would be unfair to compare 1982's sparse and quietly revelatory A Distant Shore with what was basically a stopgap Everything But the Girl album. With still no action from Everything But the Girl in the new millennium, it was another shock that a third Tracey Thorn solo album was announced.

And it's even more of a shock when Love and its Opposite starts out with two songs that could only be described as melancholy ballads arranged in a classic vocal pop style. As surprising as they are, 'Oh, the Divorces' and 'Long White Dress' can't be accused of setting up a false expectation for the rest of the album. In stark contrast to Out of the Woods, which was heavy on the synths and sequencers, Love and its Opposite is a much more organic affair that, in a nearly unbelievably awesome move, prominently features Tracey's sparse, layered guitar playing and a live string section on a majority of the album.

And, much like A Distant Shore, it's a short album: ten songs, thirty five minutes. The topics covered are a lot like Tracey's subjects throughout her career: the desperate search for love in a world that she's become very cynical about. The running theme here, if there is one, is that of mid-life change. Specifically, the dissolution of a long time relationship. I have no idea what's going on with her and Ben, but it's hard to think there's not trouble in paradise when she's writing songs like 'Singles Bar.' Or perhaps their recent marriage after decades of being together has forced her to self-evaluate and explore alternate possibilities.

Whatever the case, there is a bit of feeling to the album of personal revelation. The stark, dissonantly gorgeous 'Kentish Town' is a sort of mini-autobiography that finds Tracey reminiscing "I stood where you stood" as if the 'you' she speaks of is long gone — emotionally, that is. Along with the near cinematic scope of the tune, it also —perhaps purposely— bares a striking resemblance to A Distant Shore. Elsewhere, on the equally as sparse 'Come On Home To Me,' we find Tracey declaring that "love can die and never know what it might have been." So, there's not a whole lot here to cheer about, but the tunes are so well done and the album covers so much musical ground in under fourty minutes that it will demand repeat listens for full reward. From traditional pop sounding ballads ('Oh, the Divorces!' and 'Long White Dress') to jumpy little pop ditties ('Hormones' and 'Why Does the Wind?') to slow, sparse, deep album cuts ('Kentish Town,' 'You Are A Lover' and 'Late in the Afternoon'), it's kind of astonishing how well this album explores as much as it does and the short amount of time is does so in doubles its ability to impress. And, not to mention, her voice sounds as good as ever. I guess the subject matter would draw me in regardless, but that fact that the voice conveying all of it is still amazingly captivating is what seals the deal.

There is one track here that is a bittersweet ode to lifting one's spirit in times of emotional hardship and it's easily the album's highlight. Indeed, the effects-heavy arpeggio and lush block piano chords of 'Swimming' is a slice of absolutely uplifting mini-epic brilliance. It has the boombast of the best power ballads, but the presentation is modest enough for the tune's refrain lyric of "Right now we're just keeping afloat, but soon we will be swimming" to sound like an amazingly effective and genuine statement. Coming last in the album's running order, it plays like a redemptive and ultimately triumphant turn for an album whose intentions and mood were previously undefined. With 'Swimming' it becomes clear that, whatever lessons Tracey Thorn has learned —autobiographic or not— she refuses to let the negativity consume her.

Truly, I didn't even know what to think of this album when it first came out. It took me this long to even start to grasp what the tunes were trying to accomplish (also why this review took dang near three months for me write). Where in the past, her records have been great pop music that incorporated the technologies of their day, the subject has been lost because of the timeliness of the sounds, Love and its Opposite is the first record she's made in a long time —maybe even since A Distant Shore— that could be called timeless. Its mature, realistic tone only enhances its genuine quality. If Everything but the Girl is no longer active, I'm glad that the possibility of more albums from Tracey Thorn are not out of the question.

Truly mature and redemptive music.


Crowded House — Intriguer

Before I get fully into the latest Crowded House album Intriguer, I’d like to go back to their previous album Time On Earth and its significance. Although the band had reunited for the sporadic one off performance since their 1994 disbanding, Time On Earth yielded a proper new album of brand new material and dang near a world tour. Of the band’s first four proper albums in their initial run, one could split them down the middle in terms of what mood they evoked: Beatles style resonating pop for the new wave era (the self-titled debut and Woodface) and then a brand of lush introspective pop that bordered on an almost dark melancholy, all the while remembering a hook’s importance (Temple of Low Men and arguably the band’s unheralded masterpiece Together Alone).

When the news of founding member Paul Hester’s suicide hit the world in 2005, it seemed a sure sign that Crowded House would be done for good. But Neil Finn, perhaps feeling an allegiance to his departed friend, found a worthy replacement and decided to resurrect the band. In the shadow of Hester’s death, it seemed like an expectedly meditative album of heartfelt pop songs when it was released in 2007; a fitting sendoff for a friend whose exit was understandably difficult. It could have been seen as an album whose tone was pre-determined, and thus, could not really be considered a dependable indication of what the next Crowded House album would sound like when a forthcoming record was announced earlier this year.

Besides the fact that Time On Earth has aged fantastically over the last few years, Intriguer only proves that it was no fluke and that the melancholy-tinged introspective pop direction of Together Alone was the band’s true calling all along. The big difference with Intriguer is that the songs have a very content feeling to them. But Neil Finn still sounds relatively unsure of what his future holds. Where in the past this frightened him and perhaps caused him to put up a defensive wall, Intriguer finds him accepting mid-life gracefully and looking forward to what’s in store.

In some ways, Intriguer is the most rockin’ Crowded House album yet, but simultaneously, it could also be argued that it’s their prettiest. From the very first track, it becomes clear that this is without question the most straightforward, no nonsense presentation of any of their albums. ‘Saturday Sun’ presents a chunky, bass-driven backbone that one might easily mistake for an intro vamp to a song by a band with a much edgier reputation than Crowded House. The song, despite its raw and rockin’ foundation, morphs into something altogether bigger in scope. Through the initial verse, there’s a sense of calm restraint, but it all explodes into the chorus and despite the song’s minor tone, it’s a triumphant and rewarding release of energy.

Continuing the trend is the Fender Rhodes electric piano laden ‘Archer’s Arrows’ which also features quite possibly the group’s most anthemic chorus ever. Completing one of the most awesome one-two opening punches I can recall from recent times, ‘Archer’s Arrows’ is the kind of classic-sounding Crowded House composition filtered through a modest contemporary presentation that makes these newer Crowded House albums sound ultimately very timeless.

Although it’s not in the physical middle of the tracklist, the spiritual centerpiece and album highlight is the pulsing, nearly ethereal four to the floor stomp ‘Either Side of the World.’ Without that percussive stomp underneath it all, it would simply be a curiosity of effects pedals and pretty piano accents, but with that firm grounding, it turns the song inside out. What should be a meditative, soothing tone poem gets turned into a swelling, nearly dancefloor-friendly mini epic. The subject and mood of the song is something along the lines of ‘Private Universe, part two.’ And, as 'Private Universe' is probably my favorite song by the band because of its topic and mood, this is a sequel that does not better its predecessor, but takes a complete opposite (and rewarding) turn away from the original. This is the sort of song I listen to music for. Brilliant.

And, before we go any further, I know what you're thinking: "Four stars again? Does he dislike anything?" And let me answer that with the rest of the review...

Well, let's say that the second half of the album is good. But the three big highlights appear within the first four tracks of the album. After that, things settle down into the MOR mood that one may have expected all along from a later day Crowded House album. Things kick off strong enough with the Neil Young-ish 'Falling Dove,' which is awesome enough to blend from a hypnotic opening section into a much more rockin' middle section and then back again, building a tension for the rest of the tune leaving the listener wondering if the song will erupt again.

But after that, you have songs like 'Isolation,' 'Twice If You're Lucky' and 'Even If,' which are all pleasant enough on the ears and far from being bad songs, but they do seem a little safe in the shadow of the preceding highlights. Kind of telling about the strength of this album that a nice little rocker like 'Inside Out' could be considered second tier. Closing with 'Elephants' —one of Neil's best ballads in a long time— was a good move. It will remind longtime fans of the diversity of exquisite pop that made them love the band in the first place. And it's a just a good song.

Overall, Intriguer may just the most representative Crowded House album yet. It does have a bit of a mature, serious tone to it, but it's not out of self-obsession. It's a resonating piece of pure, honest and fun pop from a group whose reputation was built on the stuff. At this point, the Neil Finn that sang 'Don't Dream it's Over' is long gone, but a listen today reveals an even greater relevance than ever. Almost as if the guy channeled his future self and, now that enough time has passed, he can bang out one of those world-wise pieces of universal likability with surprisingly little effort, but simultaneously surprising quality.

As long as they keep making records this good, let the Crowded House reunion be permanent this time.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Crescent moon and pink clouds amidst a peaceful July sunset.

Looking west. It only lasted for about ten minutes (if that). This has been the first evening in weeks that wasn't completely windy.

I've been listening to Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album nonstop lately. It's in the process of changing the way I think. Stunning, magnificent and gorgeous music. I'd like to think these shots are a good accompaniment to that.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Old Reno: Eighth Street

If you look at any current street maps of Reno, you'll have a hard time locating West Eighth Street. That's because it currently only runs for one block between Virginia and Sierra streets just north of I-80.

Here is a Google Map of the current West Eighth Street:

View West Eighth Street in a larger map

However, it wasn't always like that, as I see every time I walk to the grocery store:

This is now the intersection of Washington Street and University Terrace (University being old West Eighth Street). This is a four-way stop intersection at the northwest corner of Whitaker Park, roughly six blocks west of the current West Eighth Street. There's only one set of street signs at the intersection, on the east side of Washington Street, across from where the pavement is marked:

Just a little piece of Reno history.

And a bit of food for thought: even things that are literally set in stone may not always be forever.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Trash Can Sinatras — In the Music

Because of their sporadic release schedule throughout their career, the Trash Can Sinatras are perhaps inherently relegated forever to cult status. Sure, the albums may not come on a regular schedule. But the band's ability to make thoroughly unified and consistent affairs every time out is what sets them apart. And this also explains why In the Music —only their fifth proper album in just under twenty years— is sure to delight longtime fans.

After A Happy Pocket, the band disappeared for eight years and returned triumphantly in 2004 with Weightlifting. Even though Weightlifting was mostly a very mellow, adult contempo affair, its title track was a superb update of their vintage jangly sound that managed to uplift and provide a breath of fresh air, establishing the band as a unique force that was able to endure past a venerable point in guitar rock. That's the funny thing, really: as much as they were lumped in with the post-Smiths jangle scene, they never really fit into any specific mold. Sure, their very first single 'Obscurity Knocks' (1989) is pretty much a jangle classic, but then songs from their gloriously diverse second album (1993's I've Seen Everything) like 'Hayfever' and 'Orange Fell' were played at nearly shoegazing levels. They've always been mostly a mellow band, but when Weightlifting came out, enough time had passed for the album to sound less like a complete jolt of slow pretty guitar AOR material and more like the natural progression of a band that had grown up and out of the scene in which it began.

The production techniques of their first three albums firmly aligned them with the jangle and Brit pop scenes, but when the time came to record Weightlifting, the band wisely chose a more immediate, intimate and decidedly modest presentation for their songs. The jangly guitars, Frank Reader's undeniably expressive and strong vocals, the brief rushes of symphonic accompaniment, the downright relateable catchiness of the material, it all supposed an interesting thing that was previously hidden in their music but now made complete sense: they sounded an awful lot like a 70's soft-rock band (in a good way). And this sound is explored even further on their latest album, In the Music. The whole thing has a bit more a labored-over feeling to it, as there are more keyboards, a few more big symphonic crescendos, breezing distortion-free spacious guitar solos and an overall feeling of in the studio, organic perfection.

The Fender Rhodes twinkles on 'I Wish You'd Met Her', the blue-eyed soul leanings of the title track, and yes, even the Carly Simon feature (no, seriously!) on 'Should I Pray?' all conjure up images of the artfully constructed and emotionally genuine pop music that reached its apex in the early and mid 70's with things like America, Fleetwood Mac, the David Crosby and Graham Nash duo albums and Cat Stevens. In the Music doesn't really feel like a conscious revival of that sort of thing as much as it does a genuine point at which the band has arrived after years of honing their sound (indeed, 'Prisons' is as close as they come to their old sound here, and yet it fits right in with this material; fully illustrating the natural progression). Frank Reader sounds vocally as good as ever and his raspy croon lends itself well to this material and on songs like the title track or the epic 'Oranges and Apples,' he sounds so good, you'd swear that he's been waiting twenty years to sing this stuff.

Everything here jangles just as much as their old material, but it's always offset by some sort of keyboard or echo-heavy arpeggio that dips the music into a breezy sea of warmth. And that's one thing that really stands out here: despite all of the obvious production, this is just about the most personal the Sinatras have ever sounded. There is an undeniable warmth to the material that preempts any sort of distance that overproduction might have, under other circumstances, threatened to ruin the whole thing. On the contrary, the even lusher musical backing only enhances the resonance.

So, if they're willing to keep up this trend of five year breaks between albums only to release absolutely classic-sounding and indisputably strong pop music, I'm all for it. They've reached that point where the scene they spurted out of (perhaps on a fluke) is long dead so any allegiance to any sound is non-existent and, consequently, they've been provided that rare chance to pursue a self-satisfying and listener-rewarding sound on their own terms.

A welcome return.

And an addendum: In the Music was initially available dang near a year ago as a ludicrously priced import, so I held off. It finally saw domestic release about a month ago and the American version adds eight bonus tracks (almost doubling the album's running time!) from a 2009 acoustic live performance. The performances are great and include at least one song from all of their albums up to and including Weightlifting. It's not really a complimentary piece to In the Music, but it's better served as its own entity entirely. Not sure what the motive behind such a big helping of seemingly unrelated bonus material was, but I'm glad they included it!


Friday, May 14, 2010

Roddy Frame's solo albums.

Ok, so as a huge Aztec Camera fanatic, I have absolutely no excuse for not having every single Roddy Frame album within days of its respective release. But, being as the North Star and Western Skies are still import only, I was less than enthusiastic about paying those hefty import prices right away. I know, I know... my fandom should've overcome such seemingly irrelevant things as pricetag, but a budget is a budget, bottom line. Well, I recently completed my catalogue of his three solo albums, so here are some extended thoughts on each....

The North Star (1998)

After Frestonia's uncharacteristic and misguided attempts at adult contempo soft rock radio stardom, the North Star is like the next proper Aztec Camera album after Dreamland. It's the same sort of midtempo jangle rock, but the songs here are actually considered as full pieces of artistic representation. In other words, Roddy actually sounds like he cares about what the session players are doing with his songs this time around. And that's the weird thing here: the songs are pretty much in the same vein as Frestonia, but the band plays them here like they actually matter. Frestonia had some excellent tunes, but they were drown out by schlock and awful overplaying. On the North Star, the songs are noticeably toned down and played in the purposely low-key mode that Roddy seems to have finally come to the realization that his songs should be played in all the time. It's a genius move. The tunes are of the middle calibre of Roddy Frame's accuracy. Consistently good compared to anyone else, but sort of crowd-pleasing and unsurprisingly adequate for longtime fans. But, because of the newly rediscovered sparse 'as it is' presentation of the songs, it sounds like a mini-revelation. Like Roddy's just gotten over his entire bout with A&R people and producers for good and this album was the first thing he was able to do free of their (in hindsight) negative influence. The downplaying of everything here is an all around plus. For the first time in several albums, Roddy genuinely sounds like he's having fun and that makes for fun listens even on songs that aren't that interesting. This shines through in the pronounced optimism of the material, especially on the single 'Reason for Living.' As far as other highlights, the one-two combo of the album's opening tracks ('Back to the One' and the title track) is just about as good as it gets here. Jangly, catchy and completely sincere, both songs are exemplary of Roddy Frame at his best. It's just one of those undeniably strong albums that isn't an out-and-out masterpiece, but whose enduring melodies and modest spirit make the twentieth listen infinitely better than the first or second. Definitely a feel good album. And the sparse closing track ('Hymn to Grace') is a great preview for his next move.

Surf (2002)

Well, here it is. Easily his best work since Stray and Dreamland (and maybe even since Knife). It was Roddy's first true 'solo' album, as he performed everything you hear. He wrote the songs, he sang the words and he played the acoustic guitar. Isn't this what all those stuffy NME folks would've loved to have all of their readers believe he was capable of back in 1984? Make no mistake, friends, I friggin' love this album like few other things. The pronounced and consistent love of music that is addressed at several points throughout the album's lyrics is just awesome and I can completely relate because I internalize music to an unhealthy degree, so it's nice to hear my feelings vaguely mirrored in such an intimate, immediately resounding setting. But ignoring all that highfalutin heady hogwash, these are truly some of Roddy's best tunes ever. Stripped down to their barest of essentials, the melodies flourish and the performances feel like near perfection. His skills as a guitarist and captivating singer are finally given the spotlight they deserved all along and the record is all the better for it. A song like 'I Can't Start Now' is not only a beautifully aching ballad, but a true listen and consideration of the lyrics reveals Roddy at arguably his peak. There is an unmistakable sense to the whole thing of personal revelation. And I know it was completely cliche for the 'all acoustic' album to indicate some sort of (perhaps forced) poignancy by 2002, but Roddy actually pulls it off with Surf (even though I truly doubt his integrity would have let him subscribe to such a philosophy by this point; perhaps further enhancing the album's seemingly unending earnest appeal). I can't say enough good about it, honestly. It's just wonderful music from a musician that feels like he has fulfilled his complete potential for the first time in over a decade. Every song here is damn near perfect and fans of heartfelt music will have a hard time not loving it. The more I listen to it, the more I fall in love with it. Exceptional.

Western Skies (2006)

That subtle, but unmistakable, grin that graces the cover art is actually very representative of this album and, in the bigger picture, where Roddy Frame has arrived at as a singer and songwriter. He was 42 when Western Skies was released and, despite his voice still awesomely sounding like 22, with the pronounced wrinkles and slight shades of grey hair, he finally looks like something: a wise elder statesman that can just bang out some modest little genuine tunes for his modest little genuine fanbase every two or three years. Make no mistakes, Western Skies is a no nonsense affair. Great tunes, humbly presented and no real surprises, but good lord, is it satisfying as hell for a longtime fan. Sparse, three or four piece arrangements are par for the course here and the tunes overall may not even be his best, but damned if they don't all sound great right away. The presentation is perhaps the most appropriate ever for a Roddy Frame-performed album. There is one downright surprise here: 'Marble Arch' is a straight bossa nova tune. And it's awesome. Completely unexpected and surprisingly on the mark, I love it wholly. Elsewhere, the title track is the sort of yearning minor key alt-pop tune that sounds exactly like the sort of thing Roddy should be doing at this point, while the mini-epic 'Rock God' is probably the most ambitious he's been in quite some time. Truly, there's not a bad song in the bunch and even though it may not be his most diverse material, it's the sort of jangly modern update of the classic Aztec Camera sound that transcends expectations and feels like the midlife revelation that it probably is. It often sounds like the most content album he's ever made. Flippin' satisfying as all get-out.
EDIT: Free outtakes from the album! Holy piss, he loves me as much as I love him!

And there it is. Probably infamous for his inconsistency by the time he released the North Star, I find it more than a little ironic that he waited until he was releasing albums under his own name to get completely and truly dependable. Aztec Camera's catalogue is notoriously up and down, to the point that, by the time he released the North Star, nobody but the hardest of hardcore were paying any attention. And that's a shame because the (so far) three albums he's released under his own name have been —maybe a bit surprisingly— undeniably good and consistent. By this point, after hearing and truly assessing these albums in the grand scheme of Roddy Frame, the same guy that did all those Aztec Camera albums, they are nothing like a musician simply going through the motions. On the contrary, these albums are the work of a musician that has truly found inner happiness and peace as a person.

Of course, if your name is Roddy Frame, that translates to mean that, to your small and loyal fanbase, you're seemingly getting better.

Wonderful stuff.

Here's to a new album sometime soon.

(which is to say: new album soon, please?)


Monday, May 10, 2010


Comment moderation has now been turned on.

In the future, new comments will need to be cleared by me before they appear.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Old Music: Natalie Merchant's Ophelia (1998)

Ok, let's just get this out of the way right now: I love Natalie Merchant. And if you had guessed that I'm on a NatMer (the nickname I've lovingly given her — only because she's earned it!) kick lately, you'd be absolutely correct.

Leave Your Sleep has left me completely mesmerized.

And because of that, I'm (perhaps a bit obsessively) going back through her catalogue and reassessing why I loved her in the first place.

Well, let's get to the heart of the matter here: way back in high school, I had girl friend (note: not "my" "girlfriend" — though I'm sure I would have liked for that to have happened at the time; and undoubtedly it has more than a little to do with my involvement with this album in the first place) who was rather keen on this album. I liked and respected her enough to the point that I would ditch everything else I was into at the time —that would be OutKast and Blackstar, in case you were wondering— to check an album that not only wasn't even on my radar; it was the sort of thing I actively avoided.

And, yeah, I hated it.

But why?

I had fallen neither in nor out of love... yet.

Besides the fact that it was nothing musically like anything else I was into at the time, there was nothing in the subject matter for me to grasp onto.

Why all the gloom? Why all the downtrodden, sadbastard moods? Why the general Eeyore-like nature of the whole thing?

It depressed the hell out of me, honestly.

I traded it in when that particular acquaintance exited my sphere of association, bought up all the latest indie hip hop 12" singles and I never looked back.

Of course.

When you're 17, this just isn't the sort of music that's rewarding; not to mention, sounds 'cool' coming out of your car in the parking lot before first period.

So, a year or so back when I was in the middle of a serious jangle pop kick, 10,000 Maniacs fell onto my radar. They made some seriously great music, but even through my re-evaluation of a band that I skipped over, one thing stood out to me above everything else, regardless of how much I enjoyed the music: that voice.

Yes, she was —and still is— awesome. Right up there with Morrissey, Otis Redding and Maxwell.

Truly, Natalie Merchant is one of my favorite vocalists ever.

And her performance on Ophelia is what I base a lot of that on.

But let's just get this out there right now: Ophelia is a bummer of an album. If you actually sit and listen to the words, it's downright gloomy. In retrospect, I find it a bit odd that the album is Natalie's most introspective and confrontationally personal that preceded a group of no less heartfelt works that were noticeably more about genre exercising than they were about the songwriter's experience.

She dodges the issue right away with the title track, supposing that the group of personal recollections that follows is nothing more than the memories of characters, but the performances are too specific, too passionate for any astute listener to fall for it.

No, I think, indeed, these are, for better or for worse, the pages of Natalie Merchant's diary being put into song form.

And I say 'for better or for worse' because not everything here is a wonderfully pretty little jangle floatabout; like she's just a Maniac forever. Nope. If Tigerlily implied a bit more of a serious slant and a matured melancholy approach to her music, Ophelia is that approach and philosophy taken to its absolute extreme.

Sure, 'Kind and Generous' was a huge hit. And it's definitely a rather jumpy little pop tune that supposes a lighthearted mood, but one listen to the lyrics and it's obviously that it's about a very intense breakup.

For all its minor keys and dissonant, sad turns, Ophelia has a quality of triumph to it. An aspect of jubilation amongst the emotional chaos. To put it simply: Ophelia is the ultimate breakup album.

Just have a look at the lyrics from 'My Skin':
"O, I need
The darkness
The sweetness
The sadness
The weakness
I need this

I need
A lullaby
A kiss goodnight
Angel sweet
Love of my life
O, I need this

Do you remember the way
That you touched me before
All the trembling sweetness
I loved and adored?

All of that hindsight 'I know I shouldn't but I want it so badly' is gorgeously sung atop a piano and brushstroke drumbeat of the type that has become the ultimate cliche on adult contempo radio by this point. But back then, it wasn't anything more than a really great revival of Carole King's best moments. But it's a bit deeper than that even.

'Frozen Charlotte,' —worthy of its own analytical post on its own— to me, is one of the most amazingly poignant and beautifully heartbroken songs ever written. It's the sort of song where you can just feel the emotional weight pulling down on the musicians as they play it. It's completely unclear to me what it's about. An indefinite departure or perhaps even death itself; it doesn't really matter. It's the sort of deeply meaningful and perfectly articulated song you hear and just know that it will only get better and more beautiful and profound with each passing listen. Probably Natalie's best song, Maniacs or otherwise.

Of its eleven tracks, not one rises above the seeming super fast tempo of 'Kind and Generous' (which can now perhaps be viewed as one of the most misleading singles in pop music history). Indeed, nothing here is as it appears, as on one track in the latter half of the album, Natalie declares herself to be "an effigy, a parody of who I appear to be." Only to conclude, "Put your flaming torches under me."

But, on the very next tune: "I don't care to stay with the living. No, I don't care to stay."

What in the world is going here?

A rootsy little tune that can now be looked at as her first proper foray into folksiness ('When They Ring the Golden Bells') and a passionate symphonic reprise of the title track (as a hidden track) and then it's all over.

So, here's some images from the album liners (make of them what you will):

Speaking through characters or not, Ophelia is NatMer's big artistic difficult second album triumph. The sort of which I seem to love. She was so bummed on this material, the live album documenting its tour only featured one song from the proper album (and not even the hit!).

Of course, I've grown to love this album and it has become easily my favorite NatMer album. Considering her direction into what has been a glorified research into perceived 'simpler' musical times ever since this album, I can't help but think it was the document of a personal experience so painful and personal that she has avoided anything of the sort ever since then, in an attempt at recapturing emotional innocence.

Hard to conjure a smile even this big for a seal of approval for an album that is so perpetually heart wrenching, but the appreciation comes with age.

Here's to hoping we get a sequel to the best one day.

Because it is her best.